Essay advice for my students

December 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s that time of year, and as I teach on three courses and will be marking essays for all three, I thought I should share some tips with my students about what I’m looking for. I do so firstly by drawing the attention of my students to a document titled “Good Assignment Guidelines 10/11” which can be downloaded from the right-hand side of the SOAS Development Studies website and, secondly, in the form of responding to some of my students’ questions (because this enables me to adopt the literary form of an agony aunt, which is always fun). All names have been changed, obviously.

Dear Brendan,

I can answer the question, as the course convenor seems to want, but I don’t know what you want. The course convenor said explicitly not to go off-topic, but tutors for other classes also said explicitly that simply answering the question isn’t enough and doing so would result in a deduction. I don’t want to sound like a fussy student; I just want to know what’s expected of me. – Steve, Nottinghamshire

Dear Steve,

You don’t sound like a fussy student. But I’m not clear what the other tutors mean by saying answering the question is not enough. Of course answering the question is enough. The point is how you answer the question. The course convenor is right to say don’t go off-topic. To answer the question you have picked, I would expect you to start by explaining what the question means – for example, do not assume that the definition of what is an FBO or NGO is a straightforward business, and you will probably need to say “In this essay I am following [author 1] and [author 2] in adopting the following definition of what an FBO is, but I recognise that many scholars, including [author 3] and [author 4] have pointed out that there are problems with this definition.”

After this, go ahead and answer the question – what this means is that the essay is not only a description or discussion of the topic; the essay must take a position on what the right answer to the question is. The essay should present an argument for why you consider that position to be an appropriate position to take. Use academic readings and concrete examples to support your case. Acknowledge potential counter-arguments, and explain why they do not make your chosen position impossible to defend, for example by arguing “This counter-argument is important, but it fails to take into account x, y and z”. The essay should be structured so that when I read it I know what you are arguing and where you are going. This means the essay must have an introduction (where you tell me what you are going to say), a main body (where you say it), and a conclusion (where you summarise what has been said).

Dear Brendan,

I have heard from a friend on the course that you cannot submit essays where there is an overlapping theme. I looked through the Course Handbook but I can’t find any specific material saying that this isn’t allowed. I was hoping I could just double-check with you that this is ok – I won’t be using any of the same material or sources and was more thinking of it as a way to delve deeper into the topic, but if it’s going to change my final mark I will switch topics. Sorry for the odd question!

-Laney, Mexico City

Dear Laney,

It’s not an odd question at all. I checked with the course convenor and he said “Provided she isn’t just cutting and pasting (i.e. the work is original) then there is no problem in covering a similar topic in two essays.” So go for it.
 
Best wishes,
Brendan

Dear Brendan,
 
I have been looking for one of the books on the reading list insanely! There are no copies left at SOAS library. I tried the LSE library this morning but their only copy is missing and apparently none of UK’s Waterstones stores have it (I checked). Therefore I was wondering whether you owned a copy I could borrow for a few days. It would really help me out in the development of my argument, I’d really appreciate it.
-Tracey, Edinburgh
 
Try the British Library (you will have to read the book in the library, or photocopy some of it), or look at https://dropitintheocean.wordpress.com/2011/09/28/how-to-access-academic-readings-for-free-online/
 
Good luck!
 
Best wishes,
Brendan
 
Dear Brendan,
 
I have a quick question about how to write ‘case study’ questions; I’ve never written an essay which specifically says answer ‘in reference to case study material’ and i’m not sure how to structure it. Is there a ‘better’ way to stucture it?! For example, use separate paragraphs for each study or is it okay to make a point and use the relevant part of the case study/studies as evidence (as there is soem overlap)? Probably a stupid question, sorry!
-Sandra, Canterbury
 
Dear Sandra,
 
Not a stupid question at all. I think the key is to structure the essay around your answer to the question rather than around the case study material: the case studies should support your argument, and so they should be brought in as evidence to support particular points you want to make. Using separate paragraphs for each study sounds like a bad idea – unless each case study allows you to make a single point, and then you move on to the next paragraph/case study to make your next point. Does that make sense?
 
Best wishes,
Brendan
 
Yo Brendan,
 
Can I just ask you a question, since you are marking our papers, are you opposed to the use of first person in an essay? I know different tutors/lecturers have different styles so I just wanted to check…. Also, as an approximate guide, how many texts are you expecting in the bibliography? 10? 20?

– Dominique, Paris
 
Dear Dominique,
 
First person i fine. it’s not about the number of texts, it’s about how well you use them – i.e. whether you engage with them in a meaningful way. Hope that helps.
 
Best wishes
Brendan
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