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Gordon DesBrisay, History Faculty

'A' Paper

What makes an 'A' paper in History?

I think that the big things are the same things that apply to excellent essays through the ranks. I guess I like to be surprised. I like there to be some sort of spark. By surprised I mean I learn from my students all the time. I find out stuff I didn't know. I steal it, use it myself... shamelessly. But that doesn't always have to be the case. It might be some topic that I do happen to know a fair bit about and they don't necessarily have to tell me something I didn't know but something that I didn't know they could know, that demonstrates... that I am in a position to know [but] they had to go the extra mile to figure that out. Or they put it in a particularly compelling or creative way, that grabs my attention, jumps out, a piece of craftsmanship that I really admire. Those are kind of intangibles, but I think more substantively and something that's maybe more helpful, and I stole this too from friends at the University of Edinburgh... the idea is that what distinguishes an 'A' from a 'B' is in an 'A' paper, all things being equal, the difference is that in an A paper, the student has managed to convey different possible answers to the question and to have evaluated and juggled them and engaged with them, because quite often a limiting factor especially in first year papers is people will put tremendous passion and firepower and energy into arguing a case as if anybody who believed otherwise was a complete idiot or to be shunned. You can't. It's like dancing alone. It just sort of doesn't work. You've got to engage with the other side. You can't just disparage them. You can't just rely on sources that are opposed. What you look for then is a kind of academic maturity, somebody who can consider both sides fairly and then by all means come down strongly on one side or the other, but if the whole paper is about that pounding away at that same answer, that gets tedious and is limited.