(Honors Scholars Program/Carroll College)
Cf: Handbook, page B.VII.1. This is meant to support and emphasize the suggestions and instructions in the Handbook, but not supplant them. You should read and study those pages carefully.
Like our class discussions, the purpose of written essays in HSP is to explicate and explain the "thought" of the particular period we are studying (Greco-Roman, Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, etc. Thought). In other words, we are not primarily interested in "our" thoughts, but in what our authors think; or, to speak more exactly, what we think our authors are thinking. Don't be fooled into thinking that this is an easy task: as good discussions illustrate, understanding and evaluating what we read in the Great Books requires careful and patient reading and thinking. Grappling with some of the best thoughts about these topics not only improves our skills in thinking and reasoning about these issues, but the process gives us more insight into our (and our age's) thoughts about these topics than directly looking at ourselves!
HSP essays are "critical analysis" or argumentative essays--the essay's purpose is to examine and reflect critically on the ideas presented in our readings by taking some position about those thoughts, and adequately defending that position. HSP essays are therefore not research papers, nor historical/biographical investigations, nor "reflective" essays, nor statements of the student's personal or philosophical views of an issue.
What does one do in HSP essays? What kinds of positions does one take in these essays? What do these essays look like? These are good and reasonable questions. As we just mentioned, HSP essays must take some position about the "thought" of the period that the particular seminar studies. They do this by taking some position on what a particular author (or sometimes authors) is saying in his (their) writing. One wouldn't spend an essay merely trying to show that a particular author is talking about some particular issue, but rather trying to establish a particular position about that issue as the position an author is taking. For example, it does little good to try to show that, say, Machiavelli is talking about power (that should be obvious), but it is useful to try to show something about Machiavelli's view about power, say, that his view is that its goodness is in its use; or that his view is not particularly consistent; or not all that clear, especially given some objections to it. Such an essay will naturally lead one to draw conclusions about how power was viewed in the Renaissance.
Another useful and suitable topic for an essay is to consider the author's presentation of an issue: is it entirely consistent? Is it adequate, or a weak and superficial position? Is it still a viable way of looking at a particular issue? Another suitable topic is to investigate the implications of an author's position: to read the "subtext" of the text.
The essay's audience is the other members of the seminar. Your critical analysis aims in general to help a reader of the text(s) in question make better sense of what he/she has read, and so understand better the thought of the period being studied that semester. You should assume that your audience are well informed readers, not the ignorant world; that your audience is fairly familiar with the text and will be bored by common place perceptions; and that your audience is astute and prefers reading arguments to mere chat. This might be a significant departure from high school papers which often require extensive plot summaries, asking you to assume that the person you are writing to "knows nothing" about what you are writing about.
Starting in sophomore year, you chose your topic, you define your (critical) thesis, and you determine how to examine, discuss, and establish your thesis. Your thesis must be the answer to a particular problem or question from our readings, one that would arise from reading these books. That is how you should present the problem in the opening of your essay; that is how you are to "hook" your audience (see above) into being interested in what you have to say. It is not sufficient to seize on a topic that one of texts brings up, and then forge ahead with your own answer to the problem, make minimal or no reference to our texts. That would be a "reflective" essay or a statement of your personal view. Remember, the skills HSP seminars are trying to develop are your skills at reading books and learning about the books and the view of their authoris from your reading. These skills are what's being judged in your essays, and so your essay needs to display them. Consequently, the essay must be focused on trying to better determine the author's own thought about issue, and to resolve the problem in terms of the seminar text itself (or texts themselves).1
Your papers can be the further examination of one of our texts; they can show how a couple texts exhibit a common theme, which seems integral to the thought of the period; they can show how one text answers, advances, or refutes a previous text in the program ("the great conversation"); they can apply a classical idea to a current issue (as long as it remains firmly rooted in the text(s) that give rise to the consideration!)
Therefore, I will hold you to these requirements in your papers:
(a) the essays must be about the readings/works of the seminar
The biggest need for a Critical Analysis paper is a genuinely interesting and gutty thesis. Putting yourself on the line, so to speak, will oblige you to do a critical analysis, since you need to offer careful argumentation to make your point convincing. A gutty thesis will make your paper exciting to write, and enjoyable to read. They are also what make discussions exciting and worthwhile: practice for your essays by advancing gutty theses in class discussions. Without being obstinate or irresponsible, we should be taking turns defending interpretations of the text in class, modifying it in reaction to what others say of course, but pushing your view as far as it will go.
Do not fool yourself into believing that your first articulation of a thesis will be your final one, or that it will be an adequate representation of what you want to say, or of what you have to say. These things take time and practice! Often thesis statements need to be reformulated several times until they become strong. Often this comes out in the writing: you discover what you think about a particular topic fully when you are engaged in the process of writing. This is natural for many us. Go back after writing and revise the introduction to convey what the paper is really about.
The key to a great thesis and to fulfilling the requirements of the essay is good question. The question is the hook that will interest the reader, making reading your essay something that the reader would choose to do on his/her own. There is nothing worse than having to read papers that are written merely to fulfill the assignment of writing a paper! There is nothing worse than writing such a paper! Life is too short to waste time doing such things. Find your voice, your questions, and use your writing to learn more about what you what to know.
Your question must arise out of your reading: this is where your journalling will either help you or fail you! If, come paper time, you really have "nothing" to write about, then your journalling (as well as your participation in the seminars) is probably the culprit.
As with the thesis, don't fool yourself into believing the very first question you ask is the best question. These too require thinking and rethinking, articulating and re-articulating, before they are strong and successful.
Good writers know that good writing requires re-writing, and always more than one rewrite. Give yourself enough time to do the writing. Essays writing at 2:00 am the night before always read like essays written at 2:00 am in the morning! Plus they have little value to you as learning tools, either about the books or about writing itself. I guess as far as grades go, handing something in is better than handing nothing in; but again, life is too short to be wasting our time in school.
Keep trying to go beyond the surface. If things are working out too "pat" then you are probably only skimming the surface.
More help? Here's a very interesting
11. This is much more than merely restating what an author has said. An author's thought about an issue, if we pick the right sorts of issues, will be much more complicated and involved than being able to point to a passage or chapter and say, "here it is." The task is much more involved than citing a passage.
Mark Smillie, December, 1997; revised March, 1999.