What I’m Looking For in a Short Paper: Hacking Class 2013-2014

I am teaching a winter-term seminar course at Phillips Academy to ten seniors entitled “Hacking: A Course in Experiments.”  I had a great time teaching it last year as well with ten students (I miss them!), and now have the privilege of repeating it for a new group of students.  We are starting today.  The class takes place in our home on campus, called Phelps House.  As I write this draft, the students are arriving at our home momentarily.

One of the several purposes of this course is to give our high school seniors an opportunity to think and to write about topics that cross disciplinary boundaries.  For some, this course is the first interdisciplinary seminar, of the style that is customary in universities, that they will take.  For those who have already taken an interdisciplinary course — and there are several wonderful ones at PA — I intend for this course to include extra doses of creativity, case-based work, digital literacy skill development, and problem-solving.  We explore themes of ethics and computer science through the lens of cases such as WikiLeaks and Khan Academy, among others.

One strength of the education at Phillips Academy is the number of times and ways that students are required to write, especially if they spend three or four years here.  Students are asked to write short, analytical essays; creative works; lab reports; long research papers; and other types of assignment.  I am a big believer in many chances to write and lots of specific, detailed feedback.  (To be clear, I agree with those who think our students need to write more in form of longer, research-based papers than they tend to do.  A long paper is an option for the final project in this course, and there are other chances at PA to write longer pieces.)  With students in this seminar in mind, I am writing to them about what I am expect in a fine, short essay.  Guidelines follow.  I’d be interested in seeing what other high school teachers share with their seniors in terms of expectations for similar writing assignments.

* * *

The length I expect for the short papers in the Hacking seminar is roughly a page or two.  The sweet-spot is 750 words, give-or-take a few hundred.  I have in mind pieces of the scope of a New York Times op-ed or a briefing paper to a high-level public or corporate official who has limited time to read in advance of a crucial meeting.  Here are some things I expect in a strong essay of this length:

Frame a great question.  I don’t expect you to find a “right answer” in these short essays you are writing.  It is, however, essential that you frame a great question.  A big part of your job is to find a hard problem lurking in the topic for the day; expose it for me and for your fellow students, who ideally will have a chance to read your essay before class (or at least to hear about it from you when we meet).

Make an argument.  Please say something in your essay.  Answer your own great question in a way that is thought-provoking.  I am much more interested in seeing that you’ve engaged deeply with the material than that you’ve gotten the answer “right.”  I am interested in what you think, not so much what you read about the thoughts of others.

Marshal facts to make your case.  It’s necessary, but not sufficient, to present a novel, provocative argument.  You need to employ persuasive evidence to support your claim.  Yes, the essays are short, but they can’t be vapid; bring a few compelling facts or theories into play that convince your reader of your point of view.

Be honest.  These essays are not meant to be group projects; they must be your own work.  When in doubt, drop a footnote.  If you have any questions as to whether to cite to something, please refer to the academic honesty policy in the syllabus or write to me directly.

Be concise.  Part of the reason I want you to write short pieces is so that you’ll get multiple “reps” over the course of the term and we can work together on your writing.  But another reason for short pieces is to require you to be concise.  (I am fan of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.  Their principle of composition #17: “Omit Needless Words.”  One wit improved on the principle: “eschew superfluage.”  Students: if you’d promise to read and consider it, I’d be glad to give you a copy of Strunk and White as a gift.)

There’s much more I could say, but that would violate my own advice, so I won’t.  I know we as teachers don’t always have time to provide as much detailed feedback as we’d like — I can recall times when I’ve fallen down on that score — but it’s such an important part of the teaching and learning process, often best carried out in the context of a course not explicitly about writing, and I’m going to do my part.  If my feedback on your work doesn’t make sense or if I can help you figure out how to improve a subsequent essay, let’s talk about it.  I much look forward to receiving your papers and to being inspired by what you have to say.

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