Part 4 of the series on appreciate responses to student writing. Nothing shows the concept better than actual responses to student writing. Here I have selected a small number of examples with added highlighting of the structural components.
In the following sample responses, which I have written for undergraduate papers, I have added the structural numbering of sections as outlined in section 2) Structure and rhetoric and have formatted some rhetorical markers in bold.
The responses are only slightly edited for length – I am fully aware that they contain mistakes and unfelicitous phrasings, or are sometimes not as precise as would be ideal: This is the cost of writing them swiftly in the very limited amount of time that I can afford (see the next section for notes on time management).
Response to undergraduate module paper draft “Gendering of Female Robots in Science Fiction Film: Her and Ex Machina” (3.600 words)
(1) [Name], in your paper you provide an overview of current research in the gendering of robots and AIs to then analyse the two movies with respect to how Ava and Samantha are not only gendered but engineered to be ‘perfect women’ by their male owners/creators. (2) I like your initial discussion of the socio-robotic research, you use good literature and you put it together well to establish the fundamental problem that goes along with the creation of machine agents who engage in kinds of interactions that have human-like attributes. In terms of scholarship, this is a well-crafted section.
(3) But then I see a disconnect between your chapters 2 and 3 (which is really just one chapter, I think) and the rest of the paper: You claim to investigate the AI gendering in SF films with focus on Her and Ex Machina, but in these first chapters, you don’t look at popular culture at all so that your research question doesn’t quite match what you do in the paper. Instead, you look at socio-robotic research and then you go on to treat the films as if they were real-world experiments. This a categorical error with regard to our discipline: we don’t look at cultural products in ‘mimetic’ terms, i.e. how well or how realistically they depict certain real-life circumstances; we read those cultural products as representation, i.e. how they make meaning by means of signification. What socio-robotics has to say about real-world gendered robots is interesting to point out the relevance of popcultural representation of gendered robots: the film-fantasizing about female robots is all the more significant when we notice that real-world interlocutors of robots are obsessed with the robots’ gender. In that sense, your introductory chapters are not wasted. But the representation cannot be treated as direct extension of the engineering; it can only be treated as meaning-making, as philosophising about social implications of engineering, as allegorising power relationships, as commentary on society. To satisfy the demands of cultural analysis, you would have to add a chapter before your movie analyses in which you create the link between socio-robotics and a framework of feminist cultural analysis: You cite tiny snippets of Talbot with regard to gender roles, but that is a specialist source which doesn’t serve you so well; Storey on popular culture would have worked better, for example.
I think your non-literary theoretical intro also hampers your analysis parts: They remain superficial in their descriptiveness and don’t provide much interpretation of what these films, in their dimension as cultural commentary, want to say. You elaborate on their reproduction of male power-fantasies and female stereotypes, but not on the function of this reproduction. You could have used the great last two sentences of chapter 6 as the first two sentences of the chapter which you then develop into a discussion of what kind of final statement the films make with respect to gender and power.
(4) In terms of language, your paper is very good: You know how to write cohesive paragraphs and how to structure your ideas; mistakes are rare and small (missing words, wrong punctuation). Your use of secondary literature is good (avoid ‘dangling quotes’ in the future; google it) and your sources are appropriate. MLA style is fine with some minor issues in the bibliography.
(5) Overall, I would grade your draft somewhere around 3,0 because the argumentative disconnect on the content level weighs heavier than the formal qualities of your paper. If you want to revise your work, the focus should be on improving this connection. This can be done in different ways: You could adapt your research question more closely to what you actually do in your paper and accept that it is a fairly descriptive project; this would achieve greater overall coherence and will already improve the grade without too much work for you. To achieve a really good grade, though, I think you’ll have to shift the focus of the paper toward issues of representation, using the terminology from cultural studies to motivate the use of your two films, and developing your own positionality toward the films. Let me know how you want to proceed.
(6) Thanks for your hard work!
Response to undergraduate module paper draft “Manipulating Men for the First World War: Contradictory Depictions of Men and Masculinities in Rupert Brooke’s Poetry” (4.000 words)
(1) [Name], in your paper you read Brooke’s poems both as troubled contestation of hegemonic masculinity and as a representation of the contradictoriness inherent to masculinity. WWI is the historical foil against which Brooke wrote and you explore the relationship of masculinity and war, both in a historical and a metaphorical sense.
(2) What I like about your paper is its complexity of approach: You are very thorough in how you treat masculinity as a social construct with reference to Whitehead and Phillips, and you manage well to use this theoretical tool to connect both to war on the one hand and to Brooke as poet on the other. The way you read Brooke through his poetry is sensitive and observant, although – as I told you in our first meetings – this biographical reading of poetry is quite old-fashioned.
(3) However, the complexity of your approach is also a problem: there is so much going on in your paper which operates on various different levels that it doesn’t quite come together into a cohesive argument. Let me try to disentangle this:
Your thesis statement is not quite precise because you claim to connect a) an ideology of masculinity and its function in WWI to b) the contradictory notions of masculinity in Brooke’s poems. You don’t explain how they will be connected in your argument, and in the rest of the paper this two-fold approach is not executed concisely.
I think part of this impression lies in structural issues: To me, it would have made more sense to discuss “Sonnet Reversed” first, to illustrate Brooke’s disillusionment with a certain kind of masculinity and with societal expectations; then go on to “Peace” and then to “The Soldier”. As it is, your part on “Sonnet Reversed” backtracks on the war theme that you have firmly established before, so that the transition to the short section on “The Soldier” at the end is forced, leading over to a conclusion that is too general and lacks focus.
You also made it harder for yourself by not adding chapter divisions with proper headings: Doing that would have made you think more about the function of each section within the progression of argument, which would (hopefully) have made it easier to balance the respective parts. Right now, you have two sections which are a bit bloated (your synopsis of Phillips on pp. 2–3 and the biographical information on Brooke’s sexuality on pp. 5–6) and one which is too slim in comparison (your treatment of “The Soldier” on p. 7).
(4) Your scholarly sources are excellent and your use of citation and paraphrase is effective; your application of the theoretical concepts from gender studies is confident and precise.
Your academic English is good in terms of lexis and correctness, with occasional mistakes (commas, typos, broken sentences – a thorough proof-reading will be necessary). But you don’t use many rhetorical means to guide your reader, i.e. to explain where you are currently at in the argument and to give meta-information on the function of a given section. Adding a chapter structure would also have forced you to add these kinds of transitions, which would have improved the structural cohesion of the paper.
(5) In sum: For a basic module paper, your paper is quite a bit above expectations in terms of your argumentative aspiration and the conceptual level of how you deal with theory. The fact that your argument doesn’t quite convince would weigh much heavier in a profile module or advanced module paper. So, your paper already warrants a good grade while still having a lot of potential for revision (as indicated above). Of course, revision is optional, let me know how you would like to proceed.
(6) Thanks for your hard work!
Response to undergraduate module paper draft “The Influence of Mechanization on Human Defining Aspects on the Example of Ghost in the Shell” (sic!) (3.600 words)
(1) [Name], in your paper you explore the question of how the movie Ghost in the Shell engages with the problem of what makes humans human. (2) I especially like how you pick out different angles to the problem and investigate them one by one: This breaks down your project into nice little subchapters and makes it more managable – because it is quite a complex topic. I thought it was really interesting how you always come back to the question of whether humanity is external/social or internal/‘identitary’: the attribute ‘human’ can be bestowed from the outside to include or exclude someone in the club of humanity; but it can also be used to describe someone’s self-identification as a human being, and this cannot simply be taken away by others. Here, you put your finger on philosophical questions that are millennia old, and in your future studies I’m sure you will get in contact with many more theoretical approaches to exactly this question, because ultimately they revolve around power, truth, identity, and who is in charge of our collective and individual reality. The underlying question is: If reality is socially constructed, do we as individuals have agency to re-construct our reality?
(4) Your academic register is mostly quite good for a first paper. For example, in each subchapter you cite secondary literature that fits to the specific topic and you cite scenes from the movie to explain what the movie seems to say about the topic. Your use of the secondary sources is often quite professional: “Komel (2016) explains ...”, “Balsamo (1995) explains ...”, “Gibbs sums up ...” – this is exactly the rhetoric that we use in academic register to refer to other scholars’ contributions and positions.
(3) This brings me to the biggest problem I see with your paper: I don’t really get to see your own scholarly position to the topic. In your introduction, you avoid making a strong thesis statement by stating that you will “examine”, “explore”, and “investigate” – but you don’t make a claim, introduce an argument, prove a point, or provide a critique, which are things that I would expect in a term paper. What you write about the four aspects is interesting – but it is not controversial: you survey ways of looking at the movie without telling your readers what your own view is. I assume that, at the end of the day, your research question was maybe a bit too complex and a bit too far outside your scholarly comfort zone.
In your conclusion, on the other hand, you point out that memory is the decisive aspect through the discussion of which the movie answers the question of what makes Kusanagi/puppet master human – but the subchapter on memory stands side-by-side with equal weight compared to the three other subchapters, without a clear precedence: You could have used this last insight of your conclusion to structure your whole paper around memory. This would also have enabled you to make a strong thesis statement centering on this topic.
This lack of focus of your paper is a fairly big issue for me; I do admire how many different issues you incorporated, but how well you have covered them varies (for instance, the long subchapter on DNA doesn’t really work, I think – and judging from the last sentence in that chapter, you felt a bit lost yourself), so that a clearer focus would have helped you.
(4) Some other, minor points of criticism:
Your use of quotation marks is like “this“, while the correct use is like “this”. (This is not relevant for my grading.)
Although you write good paragraphs usually, sometimes you have a series of very short paragraphs (sometimes just one sentence) which are not well connected. Look up again what a paragraph is and how they are supposed to work. (This is.)
(5) In sum, as is, I would grade this final draft 2,7 – but this can be improved in increments. These are the steps you could take to improve the grade in a revision:
Easy: Come up with a strong thesis statement, revise the introduction and the conclusion with regard to that thesis statement; and change your paper’s title accordingly to be more specific.
Easy: Clean up the subchapters on the paragraph level for better coherence.
Advanced: Revise the structure of your subchapters to reflect the focus of your thesis statement. If you have a thesis statement, you will already know which sections of your text are more important than others – and rewriting to reflect this importance will not be too difficult. Every bit of revision in this way can improve the grade because you currently have only a weak line of argument – so already adopting an argumentative stance is a small improvement. The more focussed and streamlined the argument, the higher the impact on the grade; but this obviously can turn out to be a lot of work.
Of course, revision is optional – if you don’t have resources for revision right now and the grade is okay for you, I can enter it right away and you can put your energy into new projects. If you do want to revise, let’s make a plan for next steps. Let me know how you want to proceed.
(6) All best,
Grades: The German university grading system ranges from 1.0 to 5.0, with varying systems for intermediate decimal steps. Compared to the US system: 1.0–2.5 (very good to good) = A / 2.6–3.5 (satisfactory) = B / 3.6–4.0 (sufficient) = C / 5.0 (not sufficient) = F.