Over the years, I’ve developed a kind of personal jargon for grading papers. They are little metaphors or turns of phrase that I use in an attempt to get at common failings of student writing in an economical and somewhat humorous way — not to make fun of them, but hopefully to get their attention more effectively. Here are three of the main ones:
- Paper in search of a thesis — this describes a paper that starts with a vague or tautologous thesis (e.g., “the authors are similar in some ways, but there are also important differences”) and only comes to a more concrete position in the conclusion, after working through the material. While an inductive approach has its virtues, it seems to me that this type of paper is a second-to-last draft handed in as a final draft — once they’ve found their thesis, they need to put it at the beginning and then focus their exposition on it.
- The silo effect — this is a typical feature of a “paper in search of a thesis.” It describes a tendency in comparison-contrast papers for students to summarize one topic, then summarize the other, without any immediately apparent connection between the two (e.g., each exposition has a parallel structure, each refers to the other).
- The “and another thing!” style of organization — papers suffering from this affliction have no real flow or overall organizational scheme, abruptly moving from one topic to the next. Often the word “another” will literally be present in most or all of their transitions. While it can’t always be avoided, a transition that can do no better than “another” in order to make a connection is basically an open seam.
How about you, dear readers? Do you have any similar shorthand phrases for common pitfalls?