What kind of paper do you want your students to produce?

It often helps students if you are explicit about the features and rhetorical situation of the papers you want them to write. Remember that, in some entering students’ experience, “academic essay” may call to mind a five-paragraph paper giving a summary or opinion. How can you bridge from their previous understanding of formal writing to the understanding they need to develop in your R&C course?

One strategy is to work with the idea of genres. The five-paragraph essay is useful in some contexts, but in college work students are expected to write in multiple academic genres. What are the expectations of the genre you are assigning? You can make your expectations explicit by working through a handout such as the one reproduced below and analyzing an example paper as a class, using the description on the handout. This one emphasizes developing an intellectual voice and framework.

The Genre of Academic Interpretive Argumentation

Purpose

The task of an academic interpretive argument is to articulate a good case for seeing a text, or an event, or an artifact, in a particular way, using best available evidence and valid reasoning.

Although in the school context it may sometimes seem that students write papers merely for an instructor to grade, really good essays explore an interesting or puzzling question or idea that you can share with others.

Audience

Assume your audience is as well educated as you are, may take a different perspective, and wants to challenge their understanding by reading your essay. In other words, you are an intelligent person in conversation with another intelligent person through your writing, and the topic interests you both.

Assume that your audience has read the same primary text you have. You do not need to summarize the plot for your reader. Instead, refer to passages briefly — just enough to let the reader know what passage you are analyzing — and focus on what you have to say about the passage.

Interpretive Argumentation

Most really interesting questions or problems are complex and can be approached in a variety of ways. Multiple approaches are possible and yield multiple ways to pose and answer questions. Good interpretive arguments explain why a topic represents a problem from a certain point of view. Identify your argument and from what perspective it makes sense of the problem or question you have chosen.

While there may be many ways to approach a question, all possible answers are not equally good. Some arguments are more plausible and validly presented than others, and some arguments may ignore important, relevant evidence. In developing your question or issue around a topic, you discipline yourself to select the most relevant evidence and to use valid logic, and you anticipate questions your readers might raise and address them as part of your presentation.

Any given essay in this genre does not necessarily reflect its author’s permanent opinion on the topic; the essay is usually more like a snapshot of the author’s best thinking at the time of the writing.

How would you describe the elements of an essay that make sense in your field?

It is also important to show students examples of essays or articles and analyze them closely for the traits you want (and don’t want) to see in students’ work. The full-class discussion and analysis can be followed up with a small-group activity analyzing another short paper, or with a homework assignment in which students compare their own paper or draft with the description of the genre.