Creative Intellectual Activity Always Write An Es

The first thing you need to understand is that we are not providing prompt questions. You
have to write your own prompt. Once you have done so, you will use it to develop a thesis
statement—a point you will try to prove—that will form the core of your paper. From there,
you will marshal convincing and well-organized evidence in defense of your thesis.

1. Approaching the paper
Avoid two common ways to botch the paper assignments.
The first is to mistake the paper for a book summary—you must advance an argument and
provide critical evaluation, rather than merely describe contents of the book.
The second is to express only personal feelings—you have to have more than just an opinion.
Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate for his work in behavioral economics, notes in his
book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) that the human mind is primed to make judgments
driven by emotion: “Do I like it? Do I hate it? How strongly do I feel about it?” Because
we can tap immediately into our likes and dislikes, all of us find it easy to reach conclusions
that merely rationalize our emotional responses. When asked a hard question (“what do I
think about it?”) all of us have a strong natural tendency to answer an easy one instead
(“what do I feel about it?”) without even being aware of it.
Perhaps you’ve adopted Craig Venter, the scientist at the heart of The Genome War, as
your new personal hero. Maybe you find him to be a dishonest blowhard. Neither response,
by itself, provides a solid basis for a successful paper. You need to explain clearly and in
detail why his dishonesty or his heroism matter. Your goal is not to tell your readers what
you feel but to influence how they think about the crucial issues raised by Shreeve, Zimmer,
or Atwood.

2. Crafting an effective prompt
You will devise your own prompts. Good ones do not ask for simple factual answers or
emotional responses.
At the top of the handout you will find a quotation from Steven Brill stressing the importance
of “curiosity” in journalism. The sentiment holds equally true for all forms of
intellectual inquiry. Mary Lynn Rampolla reaches a similar conclusion in her Pocket Guide
to Writing in History. Historians, she observes, “come to their work with a deep curiosity
about the past; to satisfy that curiosity, they ask some of the same questions detectives ask:
Who? What? When? And Why?”
Curiosity should drive the questions you will ask of the assigned sources. Design your
prompts around something you want to know.
Rampolla’s Pocket Guide provides invaluable guidance on fashioning a workable prompt.
She stresses the importance of context in her introduction. We need to understand how
facts fit together:
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For instance, a historian interested in nineteenth-century science would not examine events
such a Charles Darwin’s publication of his theory of evolution by means of natural selection
in terms of its impact on science alone. As we know from the heated debate of our
own time, science takes place within a social and cultural context, and scientific ideas can
have a deep impact on politics, religion, education, and a host of her social institutions.
Therefore, the historian would also consider questions about historical context: What role
did political issues play in the acceptance, or rejection of Darwin’s theory? What other
theories were current at the time, and how did they influence Darwin’s thinking? Why did
some theologians find his ideas threatening to religion, while others did not? What impact
did larger social, political, and intellectual movements and institutions have on the study
of biology in this period? In other words, historians do not examine events in isolation;
rather, they try to understand the people and events of the past in terms of the unique historical
context that helped shape them. (8th ed., pp. 4-5).
She’s writing about historical research but the point holds generally for all scholarship in
the arts and humanities. An effective prompt creates the framework for fitting people,
ideas, economic interests, laws, public policies, and events into a larger historical web of
relationships. Just as Rampolla identified key questions about the Darwinian revolution,
you should formulate similar questions about the role of the public and private sectors in
biomedical and biotechnological research, recent scientific breakthroughs in understanding
and modifying heredity, the role of fiction in shaping our hopes and fears for the present
and the future, and so forth.
Your Notebook entries will provide essential material for creating a suitable prompt and
then building an effective argument around it. In addition, there will be Notebook entries
that explicitly require you to draft potential prompts for each of the three books.
With a little work and imagination, you will find something in the books that will not only
fulfill the requirements of the assignment but allow you to interpret the world in a way
that’s meaningful to you.

3. Moving from prompt to provisional thesis
A stimulating prompt is where you start. It’s not where you can end. The prompt asks a
question. A thesis answers it.
Your formal Notebook entries and your informal notes on the books will resemble a tangled
wad of string: all sorts of ideas, issues, and perceptions jumbled loosely together. The job
of your prompt is to help you to untangle this muddle and pull out relevant threads.
The thesis weaves your threads together into a general proposition you’ll advance over the
course of the paper. You do not want your paper to be a bland recitation of facts. A thesis
statement must make a definite argument, one which answers a disputable question. Avoid
a patently obvious thesis; papers which illustrate only an incredible grasp of the obvious
tend not to be particularly successful. A good thesis is precise, focused, and creative, something
that demonstrates insight rather than merely regurgitates what you’ve read.
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You also will want to define your argument as narrowly as practicable. Inevitably, the
broader your thesis, the vaguer your paper. There are several advantages to narrowing your
focus. It will make the process of selecting what to include in your paper easier, and the
writing more manageable. You will have a better opportunity to express your insights instead
of falling back on generic arguments in order to cover impossibly broad terrain. The
sharper the argument, the better. Reading an ill-defined paper is like ordering a beer and
getting a pint glass full of foam.
As you move from prompt to thesis—from question to answer—keep the following advice
in mind.

What a thesis is
1. A thesis should answer a question.
2. A thesis should make a specific claim, not general one
3. A thesis should advance a debatable point—something that might be
false but the author will demonstrate is valid.

4. Use of sources
You are not required to use sources additional to the assigned book. If you do, chose and
use them appropriately.
The paper to be successful has to remain grounded in the assigned book. Any supplemental
source must enrich rather than distract from your analysis of the assigned book—the paper’s
core source of information. Students sometimes succumb to the temptation to exploit
book reviews or online summaries of the assigned book to avoid developing their own
judgments. Doing so produces an unsatisfying paper—and a low grade.
If you use an additional source, you need to annotate its entry in the bibliography to answer
the following two questions: what service to your argument did the source provide? and,
why couldn’t you use the assigned book to acquire the necessary information or perspective?
See the section on “Formatting your paper” below for instructions on including the annotation.

5. Moving from provisional thesis to rough draft
Once you have a provisional thesis you can start drafting the paper.
Introduction and organization
Think of the organization of your paper as a journey from point A (your thesis) to point B
(convincing the reader of your thesis). Make the trip with as little meandering as possible.
You must determine which arguments you need to support your thesis, and what evidence
you have to bolster those arguments. Include nothing that does not help prove your thesis.
Some general points: state your thesis explicitly in the introduction. You want to lead the
reader to your thesis; readers tend to follow more readily when they know from the start
where they’re going. All paragraphs must support the thesis, be internally consistent, and
flow logically one to another.
Evidence
A perceptive thesis is necessary, but not sufficient. Even the most compelling ideas disintegrate
if not solidified by convincing evidence. Your thesis is nothing unless fortified by
good arguments, and your arguments are terminally frail unless supported by solid facts
taken directly from your reading.
Once you start writing, you will need to do patch-up research by returning to the book.
You won’t get a full sense of what evidence you need to make your argument, or what
argument your evidence can support, until you begin the writing process. The earlier you
begin writing, the more time you’ll have to make necessary midstream changes.
Style
All writers, no matter how accomplished and talented, can benefit from George Orwell’s
perceptive essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell’s following suggestions
deserve especial emphasis:

6. Moving from rough draft to final draft
You must not think of a paper as a longer Notebook entry. The Notebook entries ask for
quick and lightly-corrected reflections. This assignment, on the contrary, requires you to
develop your ideas through multiple drafts.
Your paper will not succeed if you merely start typing until you hit the word requirements,
stop, and then dump the result into the D2L Assignment folder.
Student papers with a poor or nonexistent thesis statement are unfortunately common. It’s
also common in such cases to find that the conclusion contains what would have been a
fantastic thesis statement, if it had appeared in the introduction. What happened is clear.
The writer began with only a general idea of what they wanted to argue—that’s normal.
By the time that they arrived at the conclusion, the process of writing allowed them to
conceive a crystal-clear argument. Unfortunately, they didn’t then revise the paper in light
of their hard-won insight. They handed in what was in essence only a rough draft and what
could have been a fantastic piece of work fell flat.
Once you have a well-structured draft, your next responsibility is to proofread. At the top
of this handout we quoted Nathan Heller’s observation in the New Yorker that “the true
wellspring of civilization isn’t writing; it is editing.” In order to create ideas worth lasting,
you need to refine them carefully and not pass off the first thing you jot down on paper or
tap into a computer as the final product.
Brilliant writing might require rare aptitude, but competent writing demands only practice,
attention to detail, and effort. Everyone makes mistakes. (I’ll bet that you can find some in
this handout!) Conscientious writers reread their work several times to eliminate as many
of the inevitable gaffs as possible. Stylistic and grammatical errors will injure your paper
just as cigarettes hurt your body: an occasional one probably won’t do too much harm, but
one after another deteriorates health and frequently proves fatal. And sloppiness, like nicotine,
is additive.

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Later in this handout you will find a photo of President Barack Obama editing the text of
a speech. Notice the wide extent of his revision. Perhaps you’re a better writer than President
Obama. But probably not, which means that your prose will require at least as much
improvement and correction as you see in the photo.
While these papers are individual projects, this does not mean you will complete them in
isolation. In the professional world, creative intellectual activity always require collaboration
with colleagues and friends. You will work through your ideas and discuss methods
of writing in the discussion sections. We encourage students to share their ideas and read
each other’s work informally.
The assigned word lengths are general guidelines, not strict requirements. The TAs will
look for a certain scope of analysis and density of supporting detail that is appropriate to
1,200 to 1,500 words. When grading they will rarely notice the exact length of a paper—
unless it is factually thin or analytically underdeveloped. But the problem is its thinness
and lack of development, not the fact that it fell short of the assigned length. Your overriding
goal is to write the best paper you can; if you do, inevitably the length will take care of
itself. If your draft does fall under 1,200 words, ask yourself where you can add genuine
substance to fortify your thesis. You don’t want to pad the paper with argle bargle to puff
it up to the minimum length—this will make the paper worse (and therefore the grade
lower).

 
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