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Gordon DesBrisay, History Faculty

Upper Year Papers

What are the most common problems you see in essays produced by students in upper year classes?

I see issues with developing a logical line of argument. By that point, they usually can do thorough research, footnotes [are] in line, and so on. They might have a strong enough opening, but sometimes the through line, the argument itself, is kind of unpolished or unfocused or incoherent and it needed just a little more thought and attention and a sense of 'does this piece of evidence really say what you said it means', and even if it does is that the only way to interpret it. One of the traps is [that] you provide a really rich quotation and then the reader sees it and suddenly it naturally signals all kinds of other things to the reader that you then don't deal with. That's tricky, because then it's important for the writer to be fully in control and being able to anticipate what other things one might do with those words. Those are some of the things: to not be quite in full control of the shape of the argument and the evidence, trying to ram it into too tight a space, trying to make too little of it, or making more of it than it really can bear.