Archive for May, 2011
This comment is my favorite. I have learned much about the act of trying to accomplish the world in one paper. I have this bad. I believe I can cover the whole world of English in a five-page to seven-page paper. It took some time for me to understand the valuable lessons I’m going to share with you below, but I have learned that providing quality writing is better than doing a whole bunch of things in one sitting.
Of course, I’m still a work in progress, but I digress.
The objective of writing and revising a paper is always be effective. For example, develop a thesis that you can execute. Add topic sentences that actually support the thesis. Include supporting evidence that is verifiable. Be realistic in your assessment of future implications. This is simple to understand if you are evaluating another person’s paper, but hard to execute within your own.
Let’s explore this comment and how a professor uses it to help you restructure your thesis and your paper.
Note: Don’t take the comment too literally in terms of thinking that your professor is criticizing your professional and/or academic potential. There is never anything wrong with having and pursuing ambition, but you can’t do 50 different things in one year and expect to develop each thing with great quality. I have to remind myself of this fact everyday, so I don’t get off into a race to accomplish more than I am realistically able to chew in one sitting.
The reference source for this discussion is Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Since it is too long to include within this post, you can find a copy of the letter here. You don’t have to read the text in order to understand the discussion below.
Area of Paper: thesis sentence
Type of Paper: statement of purpose
You will often find this comment from your professor written as feedback for a statement of purpose. A professor will require you to provide a statement concerning what you will write for the final paper. You must outline a method for how you will choose to complete the task, bearing in mind the page count and other limits the professor will place on the assignment.
A final paper for most English undergraduate classes is typically under 10 pages, no more than 12 total. In some classes, professors allow the page count to extend to 15, but it is rare that you will be able to perform this feat at both freshman and sophomore levels. Baby steps are always important.
The professor always provides some kind of indication of what your final paper will be at the beginning of the semester. She may require you to come up with the idea yourself. Just know that when you get the assignment, the clock starts. Therefore, you must decide earlier on in the semester what you will write about and simultaneously winnow unnecessary goals and information.
The most important goal to remember is to structure your purpose statement so that you don’t develop a generalized view of the topic. This will require you to examine your thesis, since it is the guide post for everything else you will do within the paper.
Here are a few broad theses for you to review to prepare for the discussion that follows.
A thesis that centers on the differences and similarities between King’s assumptions and the facts and the clergymen beliefs in Letter from Birmingham Jail is borderline ambitious.
A thesis that centers on This paper will examine the thoughts and plans of King, and the biblical and secular implications of the Letter from Birmingham Jail is overly ambitious.
A thesis that centers on the differences between King’s assumptions and how he structures the text in Letter from Birmingham Jail is a specific topic.
Although the third thesis still needs work, it is functional. A student could easily locate all of King’s assumptions and analyze them within the context he writes. In addition, the same student can then use those sentences as tools for analyzing the structure of the text. Consider the following questions:
- Where does King place each assumption within the text?
- How does that assumption affect the structure of the work?
Therefore, Thesis #3 is workable. You can take it and expand, reduce, and qualify each idea without compromising the integrity of the author’s work or your paper.
In what follows, I address only Thesis #1. The assessment I provide below will give you enough insight into understanding the comment “Ambitious.”
Understanding Thesis #1
The student wants to accomplish multiple goals with this thesis:
Goal #1: Identify assumptions, facts, and beliefs.
In this case, the student refers to King’s views as assumptions and facts, but refers to the clergymen perspectives as beliefs. In the letter, King uses his assumptions and refers to the clergymen words to address the social and political environment of the day, which represents a conflict between civil disobedience and the adherence to current law.
Goal #2: Identify the differences between assumptions, facts, and beliefs.
Outlining “difference” is no easy task, because you must provide a paralleled view of each character’s perspective.
For example, King believes that all dogs are nice. The clergymen believe that all women are pretty. This is not a difference. This is one person believing something about animals and another person believing something about people. No comparison.
However, if King believes all dogs are nice and the clergymen believe all dogs are nice if they lick your face, then you can reasonably conclude that there is a difference between each statement. Both characters have a view about dogs: King offers a straightforward assessment, but the clergymen add a condition.
Goal #3: Identify the similarities between assumptions, facts, and beliefs.
Identifying the similarities between King’s assumptions and facts and the clergymen beliefs will expand the paper to thesis/dissertation level. To determine “similarity” you must first understand the definition for the word “similar,” which means “almost the same but not exactly the same” (Longman Dictionary).
Within the letter, King addresses the criticisms of his fellow clergymen. One of the criticisms refers to purpose. The clergymen call his presence in Birmingham “unwise and untimely.”
Here’s a little background: An affiliate organization of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference initially asked King and his associates to come to Birmingham to support a nonviolent, direct-action program. Therefore, King is in Birmingham, Alabama on the authority of the affiliate organization, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Essentially, King’s purpose for writing the letter is to highlight this fact and explore the problem of racial injustice.
However, the purpose of the clergymen, as King defines it, is different. King outlines within the letter the beliefs of the clergymen as he understands them. He writes the following to refer to the clergymen statements. I have applied italics to distinguish the text from the main text.
- “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham.”
- “You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?'”
- “You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws.”
- “In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence.”
- “You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme.”
- “You warmly commended the Birmingham police for keeping ‘order’ and ‘preventing violence.'”
- “I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation.”
After each statement, King proceeds to offer an assessment of the clergymen views in light of his purpose for being in Birmingham and what this purpose means in comparison to the need for implementing a social justice program to combat racial prejudice. He provides an in-depth assessment of current attitudes.
In considering the statements above, what can we conclude? What I understand these lines to mean is this:
- King addresses the statements of the clergymen. We assume that they send King a letter while he is in jail.
- King uses each statement to start a discussion about the nonviolence direct action program.
- King explains the purpose of the program.
- King employs “you” to break up long passages of text. The “you sentences” function similarly to topic sentences.
Now we get to the problem. Nowhere in the passage do we, as the readers, actually “hear” the clergymen voice nor can we conclude for certain that the words King uses to refer to the clergymen are accurate, because they are not set off in quotation marks.
What’s the point?
It is hard to outline “similarities” between assumptions, facts, and beliefs if one person is the only one outlining the assumptions, facts, and beliefs. It is difficult to achieve certainty in determining what the clergymen believe in light of King’s letter. We only have King’s sentences and not those of the clergymen.
Returning to our definition, is anything that King writes concerning what the clergymen believe and the words he uses to refer to the clergymen statements “almost the same but not exactly the same?”
First, we can’t determine if their statements are the same, or similar. There might be a possibility if King had set off with quotation marks the words of the clergymen. Then we would be certain what King says and what they say.
Therefore, we can’t explore the option of outlining similarities.
. . . . . .
This has been an interesting exercise. We could go on, but I think you get the picture. Now here are some steps to consider when revising a thesis that is ambitious.
How do you begin to approach revising the thesis of a statement of purpose where the ideas you express, according to your professor, are ambitious? What steps should you consider?
It’s simple. The goals we have outlined above represent the steps you need to take before writing the actual paper.
Step #1: Identify assumptions, facts, and beliefs.
Highlight the main text. Develop a color coding system. Yellow is for “assumptions.” Red is for “facts.” Blue is for “beliefs.” You might have to use another color for “other.” Consider “green.”
- Yellow: I think of yellow as similar to the phrase “yellow-belly,” a term that refers to coward. It is somewhat cowardly to assume when it takes more courage to get to the truth.
- Red: I think of red as similar to the stop sign. You can’t run past a stop sign without actually stopping. It is the most exact symbol of authority. If you run it, you suffer the consequences. The same is true about facts. You can’t change a fact into an assumption. A fact should stop you so you can consider its potential within your paper.
- Blue: I think of blue as an equalizer. Everyone has beliefs.
- Green: Last, I think of green as referring to a person lacking experience. There are some quotes that you will consider using within your paper that will not have enough substance to be effective. In other words, you might struggle to make a point with a certain quote. Don’t use any quote as a filler if it will not help to convey your ideas effectively.
Step #2: Identify the differences between assumptions, facts, and beliefs.
On a sheet of paper, draw a standard multiplications table. Consider the one below.
Constructing this table will help you understand the text. You need to know which words/sentences/ideas belong to the author of the text, and which words/sentences/ideas belong to other characters. If the author is making an assumption, then place that sentence in the box up under this category. Use the word “assume” as you write the sentence. Do the same for the other characters.
For any wording set off in direct quotation marks, don’t interpret the sentence. Place the full sentence in the box. This way you won’t get confused about 1) who says what and 2) what that person actually says and 3) to whom.
Step #3: Identify the similarities between assumptions, facts, and beliefs.
The same exercise for Step #2 is useful here. Instead of focusing on multiple characters, consider only structuring your purpose statement around two. This will “focus” your paper, removing general statements. This will allow you to add more details within your analysis.
In addition, if you are suggesting two things are similar, make sure that they are actually similar and on the same level. When you suggest anything within the context of English writing and analyzing, you are actually “assuming.” Think about it. You were not there during the time of composition. Therefore, do you know for certain the author’s intention for the work?
For example, when you write “Both King and the clergymen have similar views on the problem of racial injustice,” you are now suggesting that their views are similar. This becomes problematic because unless the author points out that his views are similar to another, then how can you make the connection accurately? Unless their ideas are actually similar, you can’t make this assumption within your paper.
To make connections without compromising the author’s views and the integrity of your own paper, you must use the words “assume” and “suggest” in your analysis.
- King’s views on . . . and the clergymen’s views on . . . suggest that their perspectives about . . . might be similar.
Phrase the sentence as a conditional statement by using the modals “might” and “may.”
Remember, when the text is one-sided, it is hard to determine each character’s perspective. Therefore, read each sentence thoroughly and ask yourself this question: “Who is saying this?”
It is no easy task to edit the thesis of your statement of purpose.
Don’t take offense after receiving this comment. When your professor writes “Ambitious” within the margins of your paper or at the end, she is not referring to your long-term aspirations or to your professional potential.
The purpose of this type of comment is to help you develop an approach for revising a thesis that your professor knows you cannot reasonably and fully explore within a 10-page paper.
Your teacher is there to help you structure your material so that it is readable and effective. Too many ideas within one paper often contribute to a teacher’s frustration in ultimately understanding your purpose.
Reread sections of this post that apply to you directly. As you begin to revise your purpose statement, go through the process of winnowing unnecessary assumptions, including your own.
For an extended explanation, see also the comment “Winnow, Winnow, Winnow.”
Copyright 2011 Regina Y. Favors. All Rights Reserved.
Alright, here’s the first comment. I’m quite sure that somewhere in your academic development you have received this comment. The word “ambiguous” is an interesting term because it means something that is not clear because the something could have more than one meaning. In other words, whatever the something is, we can understand it in more than one way. This type of comment further adds to the student’s dilemma of trying to understand the teacher’s perspective and then applying this understanding to the paper.
Area of Paper: near the thesis sentence, topic sentence
Type of Paper: revision plan
In researching some of my old academic papers and reviewing past papers I have graded, I conclude that you can typically find this comment near the thesis sentence, near a few sentences that supposed to support the topic sentence, and anywhere or paper you indicate plans for confronting the task of revising the work.
If your professor asks you to develop a plan for revising the work, and you hash out one that appears on the surface to have a dual thesis or imply multiple themes, then you will definitely receive this type of comment.
If you write you are going to do one thing with the paper, but don’t adopt a specific plan of action regarding how you will accomplish the goal, then rest assured that your professor will believe you don’t fully understand the topic and that you plan to accomplish the goal of writing the paper without a clear plan, ironically.
In my English classes, I typically assign a “Revision Plan” requirement where I simply get the students to develop a plan for revising their essays. They can’t tell me that they will check for grammar and then turn in the paper. No, they have to create a schedule. They have to walk me through each paragraph, explaining the problems/issues/questions about the paragraph, detailing what steps they will take to revise/change/improve it.
They have to identify which topic sentence doesn’t support the thesis. That’s the only specific job of a “topic sentence” anyway, which is to support the thesis. The topic sentence doesn’t support the quotes or any other supporting information, so remember this as you revise your papers.
Below is a sample essay prompt and my assessment of the ideas the student expresses within the response to the prompt. I instructed my students to develop a revision plan for a homework essay assignment written on the topic of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The follow-up response is a sample revision plan.
In my class, revision plans are much longer, close to five or more pages.
Develop an essay that illustrates how you will achieve revising Homework #2. Include the following subheadings to structure your essay.
- Introduction: Identify your problem. Describe your thesis.
- Research Goals/Methodology: Describe your goals. Outline your method for completing the project.
- Writing Schedule: Provide a timetable for accomplishing the rewriting of Homework #2.
- Literature Review: Provide a description of two works you will use in the essay.
- Professional Statement on MLA: Write a statement on how you will incorporate MLA in your essay.
- Conclusion: Describe how your paper might have an impact on students reading King’s letter for the first time.
I use this structure to keep it simple for students and to help them organize their thoughts. It’s effective in terms of helping them develop a structure for the plan.
Here’s a response to the prompt.
|My thesis is King discusses segregation and the direct-action program. In my paper, I did not construct a clear thesis. My topic sentences did not support my thesis. I should have added more supporting evidence. A quote I used didn’t make much sense. I should have checked to see if my quotes matched my topic sentence. Therefore, my goal is to create a better thesis. I will devote whatever free time I can to scanning my paper so I can make sure my paper is done and done right. I will spend time looking through my books and looking for good quotes. The reason why I didn’t get a good grade on the last paper was because of my bad scheduling. I should have devoted more time. So, this time I will go over my paper for any mistakes. My paper will be ready by Monday to turn it in on Wednesday.|
Given the idea of developing a revision plan and given the idea that the person reading this blog is definitely a teacher, it is clear that there are some issues with the paragraph. There are some sentences you could gloss over and just excuse the student for not being more specific in developing a clear plan. For example, the statement, “My topic sentences did not support my thesis,” is a perfect example. At least the student is aware that this can pose as a problem to the rest of the essay.
However, there are other sentences that definitely need more attention. The sentence, “I will spend time looking through my books and looking for good quotes,” doesn’t really provide an indication of what the student will do with the chapters or with the book for that matter. Herein lies the dilemma.
How do you understand the revision process enough to convey how you will accomplish revising the essay?
Let’s analyze the paragraph. There are some ambiguities with the plan.
Ambiguity #1: I did not construct a clear thesis.
The student doesn’t outline the problem or issue with the original thesis. What was unclear about it?
Ambiguity #2: My topic sentence did not support my thesis.
The student doesn’t outline which topic sentence is a problem or has an issue. Because the student doesn’t provide the thesis so we, as readers, can assess the problem, we are left wondering if the topic sentence does or doesn’t support the thesis. If we knew which topic sentence had the problem and how it affected the thesis or other sentences, then we could better determine which parts of the topic sentence did not support the parts of the thesis.
For example, you can’t say Jane is nice, pretty, and outgoing without addressing each “part” of Jane. Whether this type of sentence represents the thesis for the essay or a topic sentence, you have to address each quality of Jane.
Ambiguity #3: I should have added more supporting evidence.
1) For what part of your paper would you need supporting evidence?
2) What part of the paper already lacks supporting evidence?
3) Will the supporting evidence you use support your ideas or the author’s?
Ambiguity #4: Therefore, my goal is to create a better thesis.
1) How do you define “better”?
2) What does the word mean within the context of your revision plan?
Changing a few words doesn’t make a sentence “better.” However, changing the structure of a sentence and/or paragraph so that it becomes logical for the whole paper is a step in the right direction toward “better.”
Ambiguity #5: I will devote whatever free time I can to scanning my paper so I can make sure my paper is done and done right.
This is a very interesting sentence. There’s much ambiguity here. Let’s analyze the student’s use of wording.
The word “scan” has two definitions:
- To examine something in detail
- To look through something quickly
Therefore, in considering your revision plan, how will you “scan?” Which of the two definitions will you use to apply to the plan?
- Will you do both: scan in detail and look through quickly?
- What areas of your paper will you devote to “looking through” something quickly?
It is no easy task to revise your paper, but it is equally no easy task to execute a plan without specifics.
In addition, the phrase “done and done right” has more than one meaning. When something is “done,” this means the something represents a conclusion, a finished product.
However, “done right” could mean that you have finished your paper or it could mean that you have finished your paper and have made sure that the paper conforms to the requirements of the assignment.
What does “done” mean to you in terms of both developing a revision plan and completing the assignment? This is a question you have to ask yourself as you develop a plan for revising your paper.
There’s much more ambiguity within the passage, but it’s important to provide you with quality versus quantity. I could continue but I believe that I have outlined the meaning of this comment within the context of revision planning.
Here are some steps to consider as you think about sketching a plan for revising your paper:
Construct a thesis that is attainable, measurable, and clear from ambiguity. Remember the basic math problem? The numbers always check out. You should do the same with an essay. You should evaluate your topic sentences against the thesis to see if they “check out.” If you see that Jane has three qualities and you have only addressed two within the body of your paper, then this is your problem. In your revision plan, outline this as a problem.
Since the author is not ambiguous, your thesis shouldn’t be ambiguous. Do what the author does.
What does this mean?
Well, you have this author whose primary purpose for writing is to outline how grading standards do not add to learning. This is the author’s thesis. In your thesis, your job is to either refute the author’s claim or support it. Instead, you try to do both. However, the author doesn’t do both. His thesis is clear: grading standards do not add to learning.
Therefore, do what the author does, in principle. Analyze not only the purpose of the author for writing the article/book, but also the structure of the work. If the author assesses his claim from two perspectives, then you must do the same. As you construct your thesis, don’t forget to pick a side. You are either for his claim or not.
Preserve the intent of the author. Accurately convey the author’s viewpoints. Don’t project your opinions onto the author’s work.
When an author initially writes, he doesn’t write with the reader in mind. He doesn’t say to himself, “If I include this character within the work, the reader will like it and want to continue reading.” No. He writes for his own pleasure. He writes out of necessity. He writes because the act of writing is cathartic.
Therefore, challenge the author’s beliefs, but make sure to outline accurately what the author believes. Use wording such as “He states.” If the author includes words such as “believe” and “assume,” then you use those same words within your analysis.
“The author believes that grading standards do not add learning. He further states. . . .”
Always keep the author in mind as you write. Keep in mind particularly what he actually accomplished within the work.
Make sharper distinctions between what happens first, second, third, and last by using these words.
For example, when the author doesn’t provide wording that indicates chronology, within your essay you must provide time-specific words to guide the reader. In essence, it is your responsibility to convey logic, structure, and cohesion in reference to the author’s work by the words you use within your essay.
How do you do this?
Well, what happens first in the story? What happens after this? The only thing you have is the story as a reference, not necessarily the author’s words. Therefore, you must convey the right meanings. You make the distinction, so the reader of your paper doesn’t develop a wrong perspective of the author’s work.
Leave no room for uncertainty. As you develop a revision plan, think about the words you use to convey to your professor how you will approach revising a paper. Refer to a dictionary for each verb you use to convey your plan. As you can see above, even small words such as “scan” and “look” and “done” can have two or more different meanings.
All for now. Think about this comment as you develop your revision plan and revise your academic essay. In addition, consider this comment even before you receive it on your paper. You should check for ambiguity before submitting your paper.
For an extended explanation, see also the comment “Ambiguous (Thesis and Author’s Ideas).”
Copyright 2011 Regina Y. Favors. All Rights Reserved.
Hello everyone! This is the first post for The Favors Glossary. Below I will discuss how I arrived at this idea. I will explain my process for the book from 2006 to present-day. I will offer also some kind of direction for what I hope to accomplish for the blog.
Drop-in Writing Tutor
During both my undergraduate and graduate studies at San Diego State University, I served as a drop-in writing tutor. Students would sign up to see a tutor and I would be there to help them through the woes of writing and revising the academic paper. As I continued to serve in this role, first as a classroom tutor and then later on as a drop-in, I became frustrated with the notion that the writing tutor was (and is) supposed to be some kind of doctor. “Fix my paper so I can turn it in and get an A,” a sentiment I believed many students had of teachers and tutors alike.
What I wanted for the drop-in tutor position and the teaching profession was to provide tools for students to use to help them assess, analyze, and revise their own papers. Why can’t the student sit down and look at their own paper? Why can’t the student take the professor’s comments and apply them to their paper? You know why the student can’t do this?
The number one reason is this: all of us have never been taught “how” to revise our own papers.
Now here comes the debate. I can hear an English teacher at this point in the blog say, “I do my best to help my students. It is up to the student to buckle down and just learn the material. I can’t learn the material too.”
That’s not what I’m writing here. What I mean is this: When we first learned grammar and writing and other subjects, we learned the material enough to know it in order to pass a test. We didn’t take the time necessary to understand what a “dangling modifier” was or what a “comma splice” looked like on paper. We learned the material, took the test, and went on to the next subject.
In addition, and this is a big “In addition,” when we approached our teachers about comments they wrote on our papers, just basically asking for minor clarification, the teacher wouldn’t offer much guidance on how to revise the paper. Here’s a typical dialogue.
“You gave me a D? I don’t understand,” the student asks, puzzled.
“You didn’t explain here. You need to give me more explanation. How am I supposed to know what you mean?” replied the teacher.
“Well, I explained it here. You told me to add a few sentences and I did. I don’t understand,” said the student.
“Look, I told you to add the sentences. But you still have to analyze. You have to offer specifics about the theme and the work as a whole. Ms. Jones, I can’t write the assignment for you. It’s up to you to write your own essay,” said the frustrated teacher.
“Professor, I understand that. But you are giving me a D and I don’t know what you want. Can you help me understand what you mean by ‘be specific’?”
“I want you to offer specifics, more detail about this. Add some more explanation,” said the teacher.
“But that doesn’t make sense. If I do that, then the whole paragraph would suffer,” replied the student.
“Look, this is the way I’ve been taught and my teacher before me. You have to learn how to write your own paper. Refer to the book for more help.”
“This is the way I have been taught.” These are the famous words many teachers and professors use to justify their grading styles. Of course, this statement doesn’t help the student at all.
The student leaves frustrated unable to figure out exactly what he or she needs to do and the teacher is frustrated because she can’t explain what she means in terms of applying her own comments to the student’s paper. Both the student and the teacher leave the semester still ignorant, and I mean this respectfully, about the writing and the revision processes. Yes, there are two. The revision process deserves more attention.
In answer to this problem, this frustration that each student has with a professor who doesn’t know how to offer an explanation of “be specific,” I created and wrote the Favors Glossary of Commonly Annotated Professor’s Comments (unpublished) in 2006. When I wrote the book, I initially wanted it to be a reference source, a handy tool for students to refer to when they received a particular comment on their English papers such as “add more detail here” or “this is not fully expressed.” Then I realized that I could transform the book into a full-scale academic textbook that covered the revision process.
There are so many textbooks on the market today that cover the writing process, from brainstorming to proofreading. They basically gloss over the revision process, which is actually a longer process, more labor-intensive to the point of tedious. Just because you finish a paper doesn’t mean the paper is finished.
There’s more to the revision process than just checking for grammar.
I can’t seem to get this book published, as either a self-help, a reference tool, or as an academic textbook. For one, I believe that I have a great foundation, but there are some issues with the book that need work. You know how it is. You have this great idea and you know what you want to say, but you are having trouble conveying the meaning and structuring a sentence that will meet your needs.
Therefore, I have decided to post my glossary on WordPress.com.
My purpose is four-fold:
- To start a dialogue about understanding professor’s comments and applying them within the English paper
- To get feedback from students and teachers alike on the frustrations that plague and prevent them from moving forward
- To offer students an online resource that helps them understand and confront the ideas within their papers
- To get published
Yes, I had to throw that last sentence in to the mix. I would be lying if I didn’t have a strategy here.
Now that I have provided you with a background for this book, I hope you will subscribe to the blog and gain some kind of insight into your own revision process.
Let the journey begin!