English233:  Introduction to Western Humanities -- Baroque & Enlightenment

Criteria for evaluating essays.

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There is a more succinct version of these remarks.  You may prefer it as a handy checklist for printing off.

These criteria apply to both the essays for the short-essay questions on the in-class portion of the exam and to the essay written out of class.  Some of them present more of a challenge in doing the latter.  Organizational strategy and quality transitions, for example, are especially important indices of insight in out-of-class essays.

You will notice that some of the following remarks approach the same criteria from different angles.


As to the question you choose to answer:

C-1.  Do you insightfully detect the issues it raises?

Sometimes these issues will be embedded a particular literary critical concept.  Detecting these issues presupposes you have an adequate grasp of the concept in question.  But it also presupposes you bring that concept to bear in an appropriate fashion.

Sometimes the issues will be "thematic" -- ethical, political, or religious, or even psychological or sociological.

Dealing adequately with these will often involve showing how the story gets us to consider them from more than one point of view, or how it acts to prompt or inhibit certain potential responses on the part of the reader.

C-2.  Do you address those issues in a forthright way?

Did you stick to the question as written?

"Re-writing the question" can sometimes be a brilliant tactic.  But if you are going to do it, be prepared to be brilliant!

In general, though, it's a bad idea.  There's a purpose (often more than one) in formulating a question in a particular way.  If a question is especially good, it may even lead you to an insight you didn't have before, or to the consolidation of an important skill you weren't sure of up to then.  Even if it isn't particularly exhilarating, a decent question will let you demonstrate that you can do something it is the business of the course to equip you to do.  You depart from the question at your own risk.

As to the facts of the story that you mention:

C-3.  Do you formulate them in a definite and clear way?

Or is the way you put them too vague and general to enable the reader to get a clear answer to the next two questions?

C-4.  Do you get the facts straight?  I.e., is your representation of them accurate?

When we read a story, we are putting ourselves forward to undergo an experience defined for us by the author, on the assumption that the experience the author has made available for us is somehow worthwhile.  The way the author defines that experience is by controlling the specific details that make up the story's explicit facts.  Potential details belong or don't belong according to whether they help raise sort of situation the author evidently has in mind for us to think and feel our way through.  And the author homes in on a particular sort of situation by recognizing whether it raises or fails to raise (or even distracts one from) the particular thematic issues he or she wants to get us to feel and think our way through.

Seeing the facts clearly is thus crucially important.  Whatever inferences and feelings we build upon a mistaken picture of the facts are going to go astray from whatever feelings and inferences the story is designed to make available for our reflection.

C-5.  Are the facts you introduce relevant to the issues that the question you're addressing requires you to engage?  Or is their presence in this particular answer a case of wandering from the point?

It can happen that facts are indeed somehow relevant to a given issue, but that this relevance doesn't isn't clear merely from the facts themselves.  The question then becomes:  have you adduced to your account of the facts whatever explanation is necessary for that relevance to be clear? And this brings takes us into the next set of criteria -->

As to the interpretive inferences you bring forward in the course of your answer:

C-6.  First of all, of course, there have to actually be some!  Are there any?

Merely stating the facts of the story is not enough.  You have to do some appropriate things with them.  Remember:  I am looking to see you demonstrate some called-for moves.

C-7.  Are the interpretive inferences you make relevant to the question you are addressing?  (Is their relevance clear?)

C-8.  Do you unify your interpretive inferences - that is, do you integrate them within some overall focus? And is what you say coherent?

Do you proceed by an intelligible (logical and relevant) organizational strategy?

Do we consistently see logical and insightful transitions?

Or do you sometimes jump here and there among separate points, helter skelter?

A series of short (1-3 sentence) paragraphs is almost invariably a symptom of this, in extended essay.  They may appear to be "pointed" and "emphatic." They almost always end up making the overall analysis choppy and incoherent.  Or rather:  their "emphatic" nature works to disguise from the writer the fact that overall coherence has not yet been achieved, and that some of the most essential thinking-through remains to be done.

Or are some of your transitions vague or too general for the juncture at hand?  Are they even inaccurate?

Such a transition is like a band-aid over a cut that needs to be attended to, or a mere thatching over of a real gap that needs to be bridged by analysis.

Does a transition misstate the logical nature of a subordination (by, for example, treating as part/whole what is really species/genus or cause/effect)?

Does a transition indicate that one point is subordinate to another when in fact the two cooperate in accomplishing the same task?

Does a transition declare that points are parallel, when in fact one serves or helps to constitute the other?

Something to be especially wary of is the habit of hitching things together with the most all-purpose logical rope imaginable:  and, and its various disguises:  also, moreover, furthermore, Another...; First...second...etc.  These are appropriate ONLY when the points you are connecting genuinely do stand to each other in a logically parallel relation.  Most of the relations that go to make up a coherent analysis of any real situation are something else  

A parts inventory in a warehouse is an instance of a "system" that consists of a single huge list.  How different that is from any functioning machine actually made out of the parts that it lists!  Any insightful analysis of a functioning machine or organism is going to display, by its organization and transitions, the relationships that make it different from a scatter or heap of individual parts or organs.

These sorts of "glitches" make logical hash out of what we are saying.  We all make them from time to time.  (Indeed, the more actively we are thinking and rethinking while we are writing, the more likely we are likely to change logical horses in midstream.) The only solution is to get in the habit of re-reading with a critical eye so that we catch and repair them.

The most radical kind of incoherence inconsistency.  Often, however, it is the least flagrant.  This is because the sorts mentioned so far are brands of local incoherence, and inconsistencies tend to slip by our attention because they are often more global.  That is, they tend to involve the implications -- often rather extended -- of propositions that, in their placement within the essay as a whole, are relatively remote from one another.

Still they are vitally important.  An analysis that incorporates inconsistencies is necessarily unsound, because the overall position it adopts is logically impossible.  Indeed, it amounts to an idea that, strictly speaking, is impossible.  Like the "idea" of a square circle or a man who is his own father or the recently deceased present King of France, it can be put into words but not thought!  Its parts can be conceived serially, separately, but not together, simultaneously.  The ability to "scope" an analysis globally is crucial for any serious thinker to cultivate.  Without it, we can't detect contradictions.  And the ability to spot contradiction is not just a crap-detector that protects us from bad ideas that we are constantly sold by others.  It is the most fundamental trouble-shooting resource we have for developing our own ideas.  It is the only "sense" we have that enables us to be self-correcting in our thinking.  In other words, it is a foundation for all good writing, which proceeds by the tinkering with successive drafts.

We've said all along that the basic business of the course is learning to make the appropriate moves.  These moves are the ones necessary for tuning in to various sorts of implications of what the work lays out as explicit.  But this just means making the called-for connections.  But that's what analysis consists in any field of intellectual endeavor:  making pertinent connections.  Since that's the case, local and global coherence, and the governing logical framework, are the heart of any analysis.  It is a grave misconception to imagine that they are just "aesthetic" -- matters of packaging, external to the content.  They are the very essence of the content of the analysis.

For more on these essential matters, pick up the handout "On Thinking" at the Arts and Sciences Copy Center (Eisenhower 11).  It contains two witty and insightful essays.  William G. Perry uses an "amoral fabiau" as an occasion for talking about the ways in which point of view and framework of assumptions are "internal" to anything that counts as knowledge.  William Golding exploits some autobiographical anecdotes to talk about what it means to have (or never to develop) a nose for contradiction.


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      Contents copyright 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

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      This page last updated 25 August 1998.