Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Two Page Problem Paper

by J J Cohen

[First read and comment upon these two excellent post by Karl, on his splendiferous Animals graduate seminar and on scarcity in the sagas]

Every semester I build into my undergraduate courses at least two short writing assignments that I call Problem Papers. These essays are brief for several reasons: so that I can quickly assess where my students' writing is early in the term; so that I can give them substantial feedback that encompasses the whole essay; so that the usual 2-3 pages of generalities and other dreck that most students need to purge from their systems before they get to the heart of their paper are eliminated (when the assignment is this short, a writer cannot just sit and type away; it needs to be planned); so that students feel tortured by having to contain their big ideas in small spaces, and come to realize that writing is a form of architecture; so that several of these papers can follow each other and each one will get a bit better (in an upper division class we do two in the space of a month; in a lower division class, three over five to six weeks); so that students are then prepared to write filler-free longer papers later in the term; so that argument over observation is foregrounded from the start.

I've had a great deal of success with these essays. They are also not an agony to grade. I'm sharing the rubric for the exercise below, and would welcome your feedback. I've been doing these for so long that I suspect I can't really see any part of the instructions that aren't lucid enough.

How to Write a Very Good Problem Paper 

A problem paper is a succinct essay that asks a question of a text and then resolves that question through a persuasive argument. The question identifies a problem, something that is clearly full of significance but not directly explained: Why is the whale in Moby Dick white? Why does the werewolf in Bisclavret bite the nose from his betraying wife so that she passes the deformity to her daughters? Why do weapons always fail Beowulf? Why should giants be the first inhabitants of Britain in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain? Why is a teardrop the mechanism through which Erkenwald accidentally baptizes the pagan cadaver? The argument proceeds by using evidence within the text to contextualize the problem and answer the question posed.

1.     Think small. Think interesting. Think enjoyable to argue.

2.     Ensure that you are finding a PROBLEM in the text rather than making an observation. Structure your paper as an articulation and resolution of the problem.  For example, it's not enough to assert that Beowulf and Grendel have many traits in common and that makes the world complicated; everyone knows that already.  What is valuable, though, is to formulate an argument that accounts for this intertwining.  What does the author accomplish in making monstrousness a shared category? Why might he do so?

3.     Always bear in mind that you are presenting a convincing ARGUMENT, not simply making remarks about things that are interesting.  The text should be used to supply evidence. Quote from it in moderation to back up your assertions. If it helps, think of your paper as a court case: you want to persuade your audience. Don't hide contradictory evidence -- react to it, show how your argument explains it.

4.     Remember that you have no more than two TYPED, DOUBLE SPACED pages to make your argument. Every word is precious. Omit anything that is too general, and say as much as possible with as few words as possible. A thesis sentence like "Chaucer employs many themes to make interesting points" says nothing at all. A sentence like "Chaucer embodies in the Wife of Bath the contradictory voices of perfect lover and perfect fiend" will make your reader want to know more.

5.     ANALYZE, DO NOT SUMMARIZE. If you are simply retelling the story, you are not writing a critical paper. Your reader knows the plot already and does not require a rehash.

6.     Keep a formal tone. Take your writing seriously. Proofread assiduously. What you have to say about the text is important, and will be graded seriously.

7.     Be brave. Take risks. As long as you are making a thoughtful, text-based argument and are attentive to the quality of your writing, it is difficult to go wrong. Exercise your intellect and imagination in this short essay. Grant yourself the luxury of having enough time to think your argument through, and build in time to revise.


Liza Blake said...

Thanks for this, Jeffrey. I might use a version of this for my own class, with your permission. It seems to me that it will do an excellent job of getting them to think about questions to be answered rather than arguments to be proven. I'll let you know how it pans out!

Heide Estes said...

Jeffrey, I think this is a fantastic way to frame a paper. Like Liza, I'd like to ask permission to use a version of this assignment in my own classes.

Letame said...

Like Liza and Heide, I'd love to use this in my own Medieval Literature class, with your permission. The problems it circumvents are even more prevalent here in Turkey. I especially like the way the problem encourages students to develop and follow their own queries. One variation I'm considering is breaking this down into two parts, by asking students to submit their short account of the problem first (this will give me a chance to spot any faux-problems early), and then, once that has been approved and, if necessary, revised, asking them to submit their resolutions.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

This exercise is offered in the hope that it will be helpful to others, so please: no permission is necessary. Use it! Run with it! And please let me know if you tinker or redo the instructions I've posted because it's a living document and I am always open to having it refashioned.