Your Papers: Process and Scoring Methodology
The Horror, the Horror
I have gone on record here and elsewhere as being, in general, opposed to grades, especially as part of the educational process, on the grounds that any very serious preoccupation with them is downright destructive of a serious learning environment. I still feel that way, but since it is apparently necessary to provide grades, and since many parents and most students seem to consider them important, we might as well make the process as clear as possible. None of this should be seen to attach to them an importance beyond their due.
First, a preliminary word of encouragement: I can say that, while there have been people who have failed this course outright in the past, and probably there will be others in the future, the only way anyone has ever found to do so has been to skip a number of assignments. Nobody who has completed all or even most of them has ever failed; those who complete the work come out with very palatable scores — usually in high 80s or 90s; and, due to the way I calculate those scores, the exceptional students can come out with scores well in excess of 100.
Keep that in mind as we begin, for, when you get the first few of your papers back for this course, you will probably be shocked. Many of you will never in your lives have received such low scores for anything. Consider it a bit of a wakeup call: you’re now in the big leagues. This is a college-level course, and you’re going to be expected to perform to fairly exacting standards. The good news is that you can learn to do so. And if you learn to write to my specifications here, I can fairly well guarantee that you will be able to deal with the writing assignments you encounter in college. I should also add that initial low scores are not really a cause for serious alarm, for two reasons: first of all, they should improve, if you’re not just going through the course like a zombie, paying no attention and learning nothing; second, I scale these scores severely. Your final score is not a simple average of your accumulated paper scores. I’m not going to be overly specific about that, because it tends to encourage people to “game” the system, rather than mastering the material at hand.
I have somewhat revised my scoring procedure for this year, and we’ll be trying the new one out to see how it works. I have in the past struggled to provide timely feedback, because I really believe that at this level it’s important to provide thorough feedback, and producing it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. The system I have set up here should facilitate it. You will of course have to play along to make it work — I’ll get to how you do that in a bit, too.
How I Compute the Scores
My scoring rationale here is fairly simple: it’s based on two assumptions:
- First, in order for what you have written to be worth anything, it has to say something to the point. An adequate paper has to address the question thoroughly. What you have has to be relevant to the question. Irrelevant material, no matter how brilliant, is wasted, and positively obstructive.
- Second, any technical failures in your writing erode your ability to communicate what you’re trying to say. Enough of them can clog the pathways entirely. Fortunately these are all things that can be learned mechanically.
Accordingly, your score on a paper will be composed of two parts: the content score, which is a measure of how well your answer addresses the question, and an error score, which is a tally of the errors you’ve made in a technical sense. The second score will be subtracted from the first. You need not be very mathematically gifted to divine the fact that the ideal here is to get that first number (the content score) up to 100, and the second (the error score) down to zero. You can also probably see that it’s possible, if you don’t say much to the point, but say it very badly, for you to come out with a score below zero. Just for the record, I’ll let that stand on the paper, but it will go into the gradebook as a zero. You shouldn’t have a lower score for having done the paper than the zero you’d get for not doing it. I don’t anticipate that happening very often, though.
The content score is made up of five parts, weighted unevenly:
- Completeness. Does the essay answer the question thoroughly? Here I’m not just looking for length. In point of fact, longer papers are often the ones that never quite come to terms with the question: the writer has wandered around for some time looking for the question but never really finding it; after thoroughly obscuring what it was supposed to be about, the essay comes to an uncertain (if often unrealistically triumphant) end. This won’t do. I’m looking rather for demonstrable engagement with the terms of the question, and a categorically exhaustive answer on whatever terms you’ve set yourself. 30%.
- Relevance. Does the answer restrict itself to the question at hand, or does it contain other material it need not? Garbage clogs up everything. I really have fairly little patience for it, and you should not have any either.
- Argument Integrity. Does the whole paper hang together logically? Do the things you are trying to prove follow from what you’re using to prove them?
- Examples and Support: Do you support your arguments with facts? Mere unsupported assertions are airy things, and of little value.
- Special Penetration and Insight: This is only ten percent of the whole, but it gives me a way to recognize the fact that you’ve thought past the obvious mechanical terms of the question, and really engaged with what it means. Inspiration doesn’t always strike, and if it doesn’t, but everything else is fine, you’ll get a 90, which is still a very creditable score. But you can cultivate a habit of inquiry that will greatly enhance the likelihood that it will strike.
The error score is (for obvious reasons) more diffuse. You will lose a point for each error (with a handful of exceptions). One (negative) point is awarded per instance, so if you manage, for example — and yes, I’ve seen it happen — to misspell an author’s name thirteen times in the course of a single paper, you’ll lose thirteen points for that. It behooves you to be careful. The following are the main labeled errors clustered into categories, and how they show up in your papers:
- AS: argument structure
- CIR: circular reasoning. This includes large-scale issues such as “begging the question” (petitio principii) and little ones. If you see it noted, you should consider how it came about. Usually you haven’t thought about the implications of something nearly well enough.
- DEV: inadequately developed. Usually something that’s truncated brutally in your prose so that it shows up as a prose error. A broader deficiency will be taken into account in the content section, but not here.
- IRR: irrelevant. Anything that does not contribute to answering the question along the terms you have set out for it is irrelevant. This is mostly for the small-scale instances of irrelevant material: the larger ones are handled in the content score. There’s a large grey area in the middle.
- NSQ: non sequitur. This is also at the fairly small-scale level. Larger deficiencies show up in the content score. Non sequitur merely means “it does not follow”, and refers to almost anything where a piece of sentence comes from nowhere, with no apparent connection to what has come before.
- RED: redundant. Strictly, a kind of irrelevance, I suppose — since repeating something unnecessarily does not really contribute to the answering of the question.
- UNS: unsupported. Arguments or assertions presented without being backed up. The mere fact that I mark something as unsupported doesn’t mean that I disagree with the assertion itself: it just means that you can’t make a claim of this sort without providing it with some legs to stand on.
- ERR: just plain wrong. If you tell me that Shakespeare died in 1750 or that Horace was a great Greek playwright, you’ll get this special award.
- PS: paragraph structure
- GRB: garbled structure. A paragraph should unfold from its topic sentence in an orderly way. There are a number of ways for that to happen, but you have to be able to show where you’re going.
- LTS: lack of topic sentence. I’m not overly fussy here, but if I find myself in the middle of a paragraph and wonder, “So what is this supposed to be about anyway?” this is how I’ll flag that.
- SS: sentence structure
- RUN: runon (often comma splice). A sentence may not have two or more independent clauses unless they are articulated by a coordinating conjunction (“but” or “and”), a semicolon, or a colon. A comma does not legitimately accomplish the connection. You will find in fiction writers sentences like, “I knew him, he wasn’t like that.” You won’t get away with them here. Don’t try.
- FRG: fragment. Every complete sentence must be made of a finite number of complete clauses, with at least one independent clause containing a subject and a predicate. All lapses from this standard are fragments, and in formal prose they aren’t tolerated. Conversational discourse has different rules, but this is a very specific kind of writing we’re doing.
- SUB: inappropriate subordination. There are too many ways for this to happen for it to be useful to explore. You’ll know what the problem is if it happens.
- SQT: sequence of tenses. Usually this occurs in subordinate clauses. I’ll explain the issue if it arises.
- MOD: mood error. Again very specific to the situation. These occur very seldom.
- SY: syntax
- DNG: dangling modifier. This covers the ever-popular dangling participle as well as any number of less colorful modifiers (adjectives or conceivably adverbs or adjectival or adverbial phrases or clauses) that are not really attached to the thing they need to be modifying.
- PRF: pronoun reference. Make sure that every pronoun points back unambiguously to an antecedent. If you can’t show it in the preceding sentence or earlier in the same one, you probably don’t want to be using a pronoun at all. There are exceptions, such as cases when you have a run of sentences building on a single repeated pronoun, but they’re relatively rare.
- PAA: pronoun-antecedent agreement. It’s increasingly popular these days to say something like, “If someone just goes to the store, they usually come home the same day.” I will mark it wrong. If you find the older usage (“...he usually comes home”) sexist, that’s your issue; there are other ways to finesse the construction. But “someone” (sg.) is never a proper antecedent for a plural pronoun (“they”).
- SVA: subject-verb agreement. With English we have fairly few ways for subjects not to agree with their verbs; don’t run afoul of them. Mostly they’re a matter of number.
- ???: train-wreck:. incomprehensible. This one is going to cost you three points. There’s no excuse for something that simply doesn’t make any sense.
- US: usage and morphology
- CON: confusion of standard forms. This covers a range of possibilities, including inappropriate inflection (“runned” rather than “ran”, etc.).
- MOD: inappropriate modifier. A subcategory of usage that doesn’t emerge very often, but having to do with making things
- TWH: that/which. While I realize that it is far from universal, I have for purposes of this class adopted the Strunk and White distinction between “that” and “which”, reserving “which” for parenthetical relative clauses, and “that” for restrictive ones. This correlates interestingly with punctuation, so that in general if you have the word “which” it should be preceded by a comma or a parenthesis. If it’s not, you probably want “that”. This is one of those marginally necessary things, but I think it adds substantially to clarity and to the rigor of your own thought, and that’s what we’re here to develop.
- WAW: wrong associated words. Phrases that have normal accompanying terms should not be mangled with others without clearly pressing need. This category isn’t invoked very often, but it’s about idiom.
- WRW: wrong word. This is the usage catchall term — it covers a multitude of lapses.
- SP: spelling
- BRI: British. If you are a subject of Her Majesty Elizabeth II or a citizen of a Crown Colony or the British Commonwealth, I won’t mark this wrong. For residents of the United States, though, using British spellings is a distracting affectation. Remember that this is not about you, and therefore it’s not a place for you to flaunt your BBC-watcher credentials. I’m not picky on marginal cases — “grey” I actually prefer to “gray”; “theatre” seems a bit fatuous but is well-established on this side of the water; but “colour” and “labour” are right out.
- MSP: misspelled. Simple enough, I think. You may use a spelling checker, but remember that the responsibility stops with you, not with it. “Microsoft Word suggested it,” is not a good reason for doing anything.
- MSW: misspelled or wrong word. Sometimes I can’t tell whether you misspelled the word or simply used the wrong one. This covers that case.
- MX: mechanics
- CAP: capitalization. This will apply to capitalization used where it shouldn’t be, or not used where it should be. There are standard rules about this: capitals are used for beginnings of sentences (complete or quoted) and proper names. They do not appear after colons unless the colon follows a salutation, and what appears after it is in reality a new sentence. Capitalization for Clever Emphasis is occasionally amusing in informal prose; it’s not admissible here.
- ITU: italics/underlining. The rules here are simple, too. I’ve had students lose dozens or more points over the course of the year through sheer indifference here. I’m not sure why. Titles of books and book-length works (e.g., poems like the Iliad) are treated with italics or underlining. Titles of shorter works, or subdivisions of those larger works, are rendered in quotation marks. There’s a certain amount of flexibility about plays, so I let it go either way (though I will expect you to be consistent about it in a given paper). Names of ships are also normally italicized, but we probably won’t be talking about nearly as many ships as books.
- PCT: punctuation. The variety of punctuation errors that are possible staggers the imagination, but the ones that catch students routinely are relatively few.
- Misused apostrophes are big ones. Remember that “it’s” means “it is”, and never the possessive of “it”. Remember that an apostrophe is never properly used to form a plural of anything. No, not that either, whatever you’re thinking of. Really.
- Commas are a constant source of grief. They aren’t really that hard. Any phrase that is set off with commas, unless it’s at the beginning or the end of the sentence, needs a comma at each end.
- I will insist on the serial comma. You may have your own opinions about this, and do what you like elsewhere, but if you omit the comma before the “and” or “or” in a list of the form, “A, B, and C”, I will mark it wrong, every time. There’s a lot of discussion about this out there, but one thing is certain: including it never generates confusion, whereas omitting it does, at least some of the time.
- Against the advice of Strunk and White and some others, I will accept a final apostrophe as a possessive after any word ending in “s” — e.g., “Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia”. I will also accept their solution, which is “Lewis’s”. Never say I don’t allow you some freedom.
- Never double up punctuation in formal prose. One exclamation point is seldom needed, but two are completely intolerable. Do not combine exclamation points with question marks, ever. Two question marks are not twice as interrogative as one.
- Quotation marks should be used for direct quotation and may be used for doubtful assertion (i.e., the equivalent of a “so-called” in front of a word — something for which you are not providing authorial validation or agreement). They should also be used on any occasion where you are talking about a word as a word, rather than its referent (e.g.: “towel” is a word of two syllables, whereas a towel is an absorbent cloth for drying things). The use of quotation marks for emphasis, however, is wrong, and usually suggests some fairly scathing ridicule.
- I am not particularly fussy about the positioning of punctuation inside or outside quotation marks. The standard is to put all such marks inside; there is a serious movement among creditable academics to solve the problem rationally — that is, putting the period or semicolon inside if it pertains to the quoted material, and outside if it does not. I personally support that movement, but I leave it up to you.
- ST: style
- AWK: awkward. This is something of a catch-all category for things that just don’t work very well. Often it’s just a kind of extreme clunkiness, and is best solved by rethinking the phrasing from a higher perspective.
- COL: colloquial/slang. Formal expository prose, which is what we’re working on here (exclusively) is not the place to groom the presentation of your narrative persona. The writer should be as transparent as possible: the star is not you, but the material. Being hip and with-it is not to the point.
- COM: unnecessarily complex. You may have been taught to write elaborately, but now it’s time to unlearn it. Simplicity is the ally of clarity.
- DAD: direct address. Refraining from talking about yourself entirely with the pronoun “I” is now generally considered a pointless affectation. If you need to refer to yourself, “I” is vastly to be preferred to such arch formulations as “the present author” or the like. On the other hand, addressing the reader is out of bounds for the kind of prose we’re cultivating here. There’s no occasion to give instructions to or exhort the reader, or to take him or her as an example of anything. Remember that this kind of writing is not about forming a personal connection with the reader, but about expounding something objectively.
- FLO: unduly florid. We are not at all interested in pretty writing here. (The more you do with this kind of thing, the less you will probably prize it too.) Write clearly. Write simply. That’s all. Anything else is showing off, and is an attempt to shine the light on you, rather than on what you’re talking about. As a rule of thumb, despite what you may have been taught, keep adverbs and adjectives to a minimum. If they need to be there, of course, use them. But if you can leave them out without substantially changing the meaning, they don’t need to be there. Get rid of them.
- PAS: unnecessary passive. In some college composition courses, you will be taught (if you are unfortunate enough to take them) that the passive voice is an error in English usage. This is nonsense. But this position has emerged in reaction to a very valid objection to its overuse, which is deadening to your writing. The passive voice is more convoluted than the active voice in English, and every time you use it you add a lot of syllables to your prose. Any time you use it without a compelling reason, you are adding a lot of syllables unnecessarily. Don’t do it.
- SPL: split infinitive. The jury is still out on whether splitting an infinitive (i.e., separating the “to” from the verb itself) is really wrong or not. Good writers throughout the generations have split them with relative abandon, and nobody seems to be the worse for it; it has also been objected that the prohibition of split infinitives is a holdover from Latin, since the Latin infinitive (which is one word) cannot possibly be split. (This entails a logical conundrum that probably would be out of place to explore here.) For all that, however, I discourage you from splitting infinitives here, since, at least nine times out of ten, they tend to fragment your material, and break your sentences up into choppy little bits. They cause a problem for people who object to them on principle, and it must be admitted that sometimes the results are positively gruesome.
- WDY: wordy. Any time you use more words than you need to say something, you’re working against the clarity of your expression. Economize. Pare things back. Try to see how short you can make your paper without sacrificing content. It’s fun to write that way, and a lot more fun to read.
You will find these errors (and perhaps others, if I choose to expand the categories as we go) summarized at the bottom of the paper, after the content score summary. After that you’ll find the difference, which is the score for the paper. If your first few are very low (or even in negative territory), don’t despair. It just shows you where you can make improvements, and I think the level of detail you have here will allow you to zero in on your problem areas with some real efficiency. If you dedicate yourself to making this work, you’ll find it pretty effective.
When you get a paper back in the forum for paper feedback, it will be a fairly complex document, which I have assembled by means of some HTML tricks, CSS, and PHP. Some of that you can see and tweak if you like; some of it you can’t. But you will find that I have marked up text inline where it’s possible to do that, and that they are displayed with the three-letter codes you find in the long list above. In addition, you will probably find that many or most paragraphs are accompanied by a floating white-background box in which I’ve offered more elaborate comments or criticisms, responses, or just about anything else that seems relevant. Not all of it need be bad — we’re ultimately less about getting to a grade than about finding a solid ground of serious literary discourse.
What should be clear from what I’ve said so far is that what we’re striving for in this course is not a general approach to writing of all sorts, but specifically it’s about expository writing. The point of expository writing is to expose — not one’s own personality, but the thing itself that you’re writing about. It’s not about you — and it’s not about me either. It’s about it — whatever you’re writing about. Anything that helps clarify that is good. Anything that gets in the way of it is pernicious and destructive of your goals.
Submitting Your Paper
I’m really reluctant to put these strictures in place, because I hate to make you jump through hoops that have nothing to do with the actual academic matter at hand, but I don’t think I really have any practical alternative, if I’m going to get feedback to you in a timely way. I have found in the past that in order to get student papers into a shape in which I can deal with them according to the foregoing scheme can take me upwards of three hours for a single assignment (all students’ papers), especially if there are a number of people who have used Microsoft Word to prepare their papers. That’s all before I get down to the actual work of reading and correcting the papers. It’s just not time well spent, and it’s very vulnerable to error. Accordingly, here’s what I will expect you to put into the forum. It may require you to learn a little something new, but that won’t hurt. You can then claim to know some HTML. It really isn’t that much.
You may prepare your paper using Word — that’s fine — but you must save it as pure text before putting it into the forum. You may also use Notepad or whatever other text editor you have (I use BBEdit on the Macintosh). If you don't know how to do that, don't use Word in the first place. If you have problems with any of this, let me know before the deadline. I’m a lot more likely to be sympathetic if it’s not something you just didn’t bother worrying about until the very end. If I encounter a paper with residual Microsoft markup, I reserve the right to give it a zero and be done with it. You can take the trouble to get this right.
Here are the format constraints:
- Paragraphs should be separated by two lines. No exceptions.
- You may use the following HTML tags to format text. At least in the case of underlining or italics, I will expect it. Just type what’s shown here, just as you see it. (When you put it on the system, you won’t any longer see the tags as such, but rather their effect. In order to show you these I had to resort to low trickery...but don’t worry about that.):
- Italic characters are framed with <i> and </i>.
- Underlined characters are framed with <u> and </u>. From a typesetter’s point of view, italics and underlining are interchangeable. I don’t care which you use, but please be consistent.
- Bold characters are framed with <b> and </b>. You may use this, though strictly you probably won’t have a compelling need for it.
- Superscript characters are framed with <sup> and </sup>. We aren’t doing anything that really should require these, but I’ll allow them if you are pathologically attached to footnotes.
- Subscript characters are framed with <sub> and </sub>. Again, I consider it fairly unlikely that you’ll need this unless you are spelling out chemical formulae, but to leave that option open I’m telling you about it.
- In all these cases, note that the second one of the pair has the slash in it, and it’s the instruction to turn the relevant feature off. If you leave the pair unclosed, you’ll mark up the rest of your document. One expects to make mistakes here occasionally, but they’re easy to identify and to fix: just take a look at your document when you’ve posted it, and verify that it looks right. If not, go in and fix it. You’ll get used to it before too long. The only pairs of tags you really need to know are the italic set (or the underline one, if you prefer), and the paragraph set.
- In work of this sort, you have no real need to indulge in any more elaborate forms of HTML or CSS. The goal of the exercise here is not the decoration of text, but clear writing. You’ll see what happens to it when you get it back, anyway — it will be decorated enough for you, I suspect.
- Don’t use other HTML tags, and if you see them in your file, you probably haven’t saved it as raw text after all. If it’s not a save option, it will probably be an export option. Anything including “<span>”, for example, is highly suspect at this stage of the process, and “msonormal” is a sure sign that Word has left its smudgy fingerprints all over everything. Remember to save the file as plain text, or to cut and paste from the screen as text, rather than as formatted text, and all that kind of stuff should go away.
Again, I apologize to you for making you jump through these hoops — I’d rather not, but it’s a skill that will be valuable enough for you to have learned in the long run, and the net improvement in my feedback time to you should make it worthwhile.
Doubtless other questions will arise, but I think if you master what’s here, you’ll do very well indeed. I’m fairly rigorous about most of these things, but I actually am on your side.