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Ron Cooley, English Faculty

A-worthy Essays

When you mark essays, what makes those few essays stand out as being worthy of an 'A'?

When I'm marking papers, my dart-board target is 68%. ...A paper that has met the basic requirements of university-level work is a 67% or 68% more often than not, and what that means is there will probably be some errors in grammar and spelling, but there won't be a habitual pattern of errors that suggest the student hasn't mastered some elementary skill. There will be a good grasp of the topic and a good grasp of the assigned reading, whether it's a poem, ...story, or the essay is in another subject, and it's on different assigned texts or materials. A 60's paper generally demonstrates that the student has done the work in a reasonably responsible and capable manner. When you start to get up into the 70's, then you are getting into papers that impress rather than just satisfy the requirements of the assignment. Probably the errors get rarer, the organization gets more subtle, the thesis gets more daring, and, of course, A papers...really teach us something. You know, papers in the 80% and above range have very few mechanical errors, and the writers are able to defend a thesis that might not be the one that I would have chosen, and [they] are able to make a persuasive argument for it. It's riskier; the best papers take a few more risks, but students can take some of those risks because they are confident that rudimentary skills like selection of evidence [and] organization of the paper are things they have well in hand, and that's what makes an A paper: a mastery of the basic skills and a flare. Yeah...it's not as if you are going to say something that's never been said before about Hamlet or King Lear or a play that's been written about for 400 years, but there's a freshness to an A paper. There's usually some moment in the paper, or series of moments, where you think, "yeah, I've never really thought of it that way before," and that's what makes a first-class paper.