Common sets of comments to the class on a given assignment
Instructors in Expos often provide a common set of comments to all students on a writing assignment,
and they suggest we try doing the same. This leaves us only the task of writing to individual students
about issues that occurred in their papers but not in others, streamlining the work of writing comments.
Here's an example of a Common Note by former Expos Head Preceptor Laura Saltz.
As I was reading your drafts, I found myself noting some recurrent problems. I thought I'd summarize them for you
below, so you can take care to watch for them as you revise.
1 Thick description. Many of you were writing about the memorial itself in very vague or general terms. When
you write about the monument, you must describe it--the details of your description are all you've got for evi-
dence. So details are really key. A corollary is that when you describe the monument, you need to give a rea-
son for your description--don't describe just for description's sake. Your description should be providing evi-
dence for a claim that's tied to your larger argument.
2 Historical cause/effect. Some of you are going overboard with the claims you're making about the historical
context of 1897. Here's an example: you've written that BECAUSE there's a climate of radical prejudice,
Higginson denies the role of black soldiers in the 54th. But the relationship between Higginson and his context
is more complicated than this; you can't really prove any causal relationship between him, say, and Plessy v.
Ferguson. What you CAN do is claim that Higginson's denial REFLECTS a larger climate of opinion, or that his
implicit denial of blacks' roles would most likely have gone unnoticed in such a climate, etc. It's a subtle but
3 Agents/actions. I noticed on this draft in particular that many of you are using more nominalizations than usual
and also that the references of "this" and "it" are extremely vague. I think the reason is that, when writing about
historical phenomena, it's sometimes hard to figure out exactly who did exactly what to whom. But you need
to try to be really specific. Don't say "people" if you really mean Higginson, or Washington; if one of these
speakers truly represents a segment of the population, you need to show that explicitly (see #2 above). By mak-
ing sure that all of your referents are clear and specific, and that all of your characters are named, you will pre-
vent yourself from making sweeping historical claims that turn out not to be true.
Good luck on your revisions.
A TF's GUIDE TO TEACHING WRITING FOR PSYCHOLOGY