Commencement 2016

To all of my students and colleagues, past and present, at Truckee Meadows CC, Barrett Honors College at ASU, the University of Kentucky, and elsewhere now flung far around the globe…


It is another season where many of us teachers look fondly back at our students’ achievements and forward to the fruits of their education blossoming in due course. It is also a season of platitudes and well-intentioned lies woven by commencement speakers paid to give you one last blast of praise before you leave the paternalistic confines of your schooling. I can tell you, my dear students, that every one of us faculty have sat through a two-hour-plus commencement ceremony and thought to ourselves, “Wow. I could give a much better talk and I’d do it for free.” Okay, not that part about for free, but definitely the better speech part. I have decided this year to not wait for an invitation to address you. I am writing it down here, and if Fate or luck brings it to your attention, then I hope you will find some nugget or two worth remembering.

If you’ve been in one of my philosophy courses or Honors seminars, you’ve heard me prattle on about “the human predicament.” (I prefer ‘predicament’ to the noncommittal ‘condition’ or ‘situation’, which seem to me embarrassed euphemisms for the Real Thing.) If you are blissfully unaware of the human predicament’s existential grip on you, then what follows may sound like the ravings of an extraterrestrial. Nevertheless, I have about a half century of life behind me and have felt its ever-tightening and omnipresent hold on me and on all those whom I love and know. So if you are a student, I can think of no better way to encourage you on your way beyond these first few years of your adulthood to those that follow than to describe this predicament as I have experienced it and give you what paltry advice I possess to help you navigate it. Because what I would never say in class I say now: the human predicament is very real, and at times very painful, but with some perspective such as that offered by the great wisdom traditions, it isn’t to be taken too seriously.

My philosopher friend Bill Vallicella wrote a short post in 2009 on his blog that perfectly captures my own difficult experience coming to terms with this. It is the heart of this post—I quote it below in full. It is my favorite thing that he has written and I hope you will find it, as I have, as honest, enlightening, and encouraging as it is challenging. It is a great Mirror. mirror-lakeIt can show you your own heart, that seat of will and desire, as well as the hearts of others. This Mirror will show you the truth about yourself. It is therefore no easy matter to stand before it and take in its revelations without the cover of our well-worn robes of self-delusion and bad faith. It will confirm the presence of real wounds you have suffered, those scars you carry, even from youngest childhood, while those fabrications of your own design dissolve. It will reveal to you, like Nietzsche’s greatest weight, in “your loneliest loneliness,” that which we take extraordinary pains almost every hour of every day to conceal about ourselves from ourselves and others. Bill’s text is quoted in blue; my edits and commentary are in black:


I’ve been loved, hated, honored, loathed, respected, scorned, justly penalized, unjustly maligned, praised for what I should not have been praised for, lionized, demonized, put on a pedestal, dragged through the mud, understood, misunderstood, ill-understood, well-understood, ignored, admired, envied, tolerated, and found intolerable. And the same most likely goes for you.


Can you control what others say and think about you? Nope, not one bit. Reputation is a fickle and cruel master. And the gossip train is always on time (gossip is the currency of the small-souled, bitter, and envious—for your own sake renounce it and all of its ways). Far better than managing your reputation (what a depressing phrase!) is the life’s work of developing your character. John Wooden, the great basketball coach, said it well: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” And if you really are, on balance, a decent character, this, like truth, will out in the end. But how do you know if you really possess good character? You can know by the quality of your friends—what does the Mirror reveal about them? The true friend, like my dearest friend Jack, knows your character. He will celebrate with you your joys and praise your victories—but not overmuch!—and will not forsake you when you do wrong because he knows doing wrong is not in character for you. The true friend always accepts you but doesn’t always approve—and because he’s a friend he will tell you when he doesn’t approve. You can endure and overcome any abuses to your reputation with such friends. Dare to be transparent and vulnerable to them.


I’ve been the object of Schadenfreude, of glacial indifference, of jealousy. I’ve been the object of every emotional attitude by someone or other, at some time or other, for some reason or other, or for no reason at all. I’ve been loved and then hated by the same person, and the other way around. I’ve been liked by people who do not now love me, and loved by people who do not now like me. I attract and I repel, sometimes different people, sometimes the same people at different times. I have been different people to different people and different people to myself. And the same most likely goes for you.


That first sentence is ordinary professional life in a nutshell! The rewards of most of the work available to professionals of all kinds in these days, in tandem with the penalties, are delivered by aggressive forces of dehumanization. We easily become its agents and inevitably suffer as its patients. Your well-being will oscillate, sometimes wildly, under the force of these vicissitudes if your own sense of worth and importance is attached to the judgment and approval of those around you.

Institutions exist in part to evaluate individuals because people love to evaluate each other. It is up to you how much stock you will place in their measures, both favorable and unfavorable. I have been the recipient of many gifts, honors, and kindnesses, the genuine outweighing the treacherous many, many times over. These validate the good and true things I know about my work as a teacher and scholar. Even as they fill me with gratitude, I release them and their hold on my ego, just as I brush away arrows of spite and malice intended to poison me. If you were a student of mine, I probably had you read a Stoic–Seneca, Cicero, or Epictetus–and probably Boethius. Their works can be of consolation to you as your years accumulate and you endure the progress of Rota Fortunae. It’s good soil and the harvest will sustain you.

What is there of value to glean from these musings? I have added some of my own thoughts in the commentary above, some of which coincides with the points distilled by Bill in his post:


The human heart is fickle, and there is no call to care too much about what anyone thinks of you, whether good or bad — even yourself.


Easy to believe, hard to practice. Which reminds me of a related point that my friend George taught me a few years ago. Moral rules, guidelines, and policies have no power to guard or change your behavior.

Just above, I told you “Don’t be a gossip!” What good is that command if you haven’t the power to prevent yourself from gossiping? The answer to that question is the real purpose of such rules: to judge and condemn. That is their real power. And we humans love to exercise that power. And to turn the screw another perverse notch, we can condemn you for lacking the power to obey the rule.

But why isn’t knowledge of the rule enough? Why can’t you “just do it” (or don’t do it)? Often, the rule, or the fear of failing to do it, or the fear of breaking it, is enough to goad or restrain you. But sometimes behavior originates from our wounds. And wounded people wound others. Wounds—those of the heart as well as the body—have to be tended to and healed. Can you heal yourself? Maybe. But many of us need assistance outside of ourselves. The great wisdom traditions speak to this need for transformation. A good counselor or therapist can be a lifesaver. Don’t spurn these aids. That pretty much includes all of us.

wreckage-fuselageHave you broken a moral or institutional rule and been subsequently judged or condemned for doing so? Then you have learned the point of such rules the hard way. Now comes the test: you have the option to own it or evade it. I recommend owning it, and let others think what they will of you. It may chasten you when you are tempted to stand as judge over a fellow rulebreaker. Such are the tests of character that actually count when owning your failures, mistakes, or transgressions: remorse and empathy. All of your deeds, good and bad, are part of your story, for better and for worse. And the same goes for all of us.


Human reality is an ever-shifting play of perspectives and evaluations and, insofar forth, bare of ultimate reality and so not to be taken with utmost seriousness. All of the great wisdom traditions teach the need of detachment or non-attachment. You are grasping at straws and chasing after shadows if you seek your worth or ultimate reality in the broken mirrors of others’ subjectivity. My mirror and your mirror are broken, too.


In the clear Mirror of Bill’s wisdom, a wisdom that springs from the likes of the Stoics, Boethius, and the teachers, ascetics, and monastics of the great religions of the world, the deformities and blemishes of our own hearts are laid bare. You may thunder “I!” as loud and as long as you please. Duly consider all that your hands have done and the toil you have spent in doing it. Is it worth anything? Of course! Is it where your worth is to be found? You might as well chase after the wind. Fix your gaze above the vanities, schemes, and petty vengeances in which your ego longs to embroil you, and with which others would brutalize you.


If you have been done wrong, think of the times you have done others wrong. If on occasion you have not gotten what you deserve, recall the times when you got more than you deserved — and perhaps at the expense of the more deserving. If you judge that you have been unfairly treated, bear in mind that it is just someone’s judgment that you have been unfairly treated, and that the mere fact that this someone is you is not all that significant.


“I have been done wrong!” I have shouted, mostly to myself. And it was true. But that first sentence of Bill’s does not let me play the victim. Self-righteous indignation is not an option on the table because I have done others wrong, too. Will you be treated unfairly tomorrow? Almost certainly. And who judges this treatment unfair? You? That’s just another human judgment, yes? So don’t make too much of this shadow play of fairness while we tarry in the Cave.

You are not alone in the barbed net of the human predicament. Share in each others’ trials and joys as fellow sojourners through the heights and depths of this too transient life. You will know your true friends and you will be known by them. I am grateful always to those who have seen me in the Mirror and not turned away: Jack and Jack, Jack, Jeff, and Chris, and my family. My fondest wish for all of you is not that you will live a morally spotless life, or that you will know only pleasure and happiness and never pain, or that you will achieve an unbroken string of worldly success unblemished by failure. No, none of these patronizing fictions will do for this event. I give you instead this Mirror and trust that you will dust it off from time to time, heed its lessons, and persevere in the hard work of building your character and your life.

Five Keys to Socratic Seminar Discussion

It’s January. The beginning of another semester. It’s cold and your commitment to attend class is being tested.


Winter isn’t coming. It’s HERE. It’s time to buckle down and get stuff done.

I’ve updated a series of posts I published last year on how to do discussion in a Socratic seminar. I’m calling this the “Five Keys to Socratic Seminar Discussion” series. In today’s post, I’m going to list the five keys (I don’t want to keep you waiting!) and then over the next week I’ll dedicate a WHOLE post to EACH key. So stay tuned for my inside tips to crushing it in your seminar discussion.

The Five Keys to Socratic Seminar Discussion

1. Focused Preparation

The key word there is focused. Well, preparation is pretty much a key word, too. But the problem with just telling you to “Have good preparation!” – duh – is that it’s too vague. You want to use your time wisely. So when you buckle down to prep for your seminar session, you want to make the most of your time. After all, you’ve got other classes to study for, too. This Key will be my next post.

2. Full Engagement

You may think you’re paying attention and ready to jump into a discussion. But your behaviors might be tells that something else is occupying your attention. I’m going to discuss the behaviors to avoid and the behaviors to adopt so that not only YOU know you’re engaged, but your INSTRUCTOR and CLASSMATES know you are, too.

3. Dialogue, not Diatribe

Seminar-Table-DiscussionWhen you open your mouth to speak, what’s your goal? What kind of discussion are you actually engaging in? Are you debating? Pontificating? Showing off? Defensive? Frustrated? What kind of discussion leads to the Course goal: understanding amazing ideas and great books and becoming a better thinker? This is one of my favorite topics to teach because it makes such a big difference in how much you learn and take away from the class.

4. Go to the Source

You’re prepared…check. You’re engaged…check. You’re developing those dialogue skills…check. Now what are you going to talk about? Content is king, they say. And your content came from the bookstore or Amazon. So this Key is all about how to make the text the star of your discussion.

5. Repurpose the Discussion

Overheard – 1: “That was a great class!” 2: “Iknowright?” And like a ship silently gliding away on the calm night waters, the content of the discussion is lost forever… When this happens it’s like your team winning a tough game after a lot of practice and preparation, and then quitting rather than going on to play for the championship. But a great discussion should be #winning beyond the bell for that class. In the final post I’ll show you what to do after the class is over and how to take the best material from the discussion and reuse it in the course … or even in other courses.

So these are the Five Keys to successful Socratic Seminar Discussion. Next we’re going to unpack each one in the next five posts. So stay tuned for loads more practical advice on succeeding in your seminar.

Honors Education: A Parallel College?

In my response to “The Neoliberal Arts” by William Dereciewicz last week, I took issue with his characterization of “real” education as it applies to the experience of first-generation college students.

The Neoliberal arts by William DeresiewiczAmong the disputed points, Dereciewicz argues that the development of a “parallel curriculum” and “parallel college” is symptomatic of higher education’s abandoning its traditional mission to develop in its students “the ability to think and live” for both personal and public enrichment, and instead reorganizing the function of education around neoliberal aims and purposes. I described in my earlier post why I think this analysis is flawed. In this addendum, I will focus on one example of why we should be hopeful rather than alarmed about some of these “parallel” initiatives: the growth in numbers of and accessibility to public Honors programs and colleges.

Honors programs arose in the 1920s and 30s as “Great Books” programs in private colleges. These programs were developed by a group of academics who sought to (re)introduce the liberal arts tradition as the center of American higher education, thus broadening what they viewed as a too-narrow specialization that had emerged in response to the growing economy and culture of industrial scale manufacturing in the late nineteenth century. The growth of the early Honors programs stalled during World War II, the immediate post-war period, and during the Korean War. The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union spurred unprecedented federal investment in higher education and reinvigorated the growth of Honors programs.

Honors colleges are an even more recent phenomenon. According to the NCHC, a survey of their member institutions showed that of those responding, 60 percent of Honors colleges had been established since 1994. And 80 percent of those had evolved from an earlier Honors program. As of May 2015, there were nearly 200 Honors programs and colleges in the U.S. (NCHC guide). The period of this historical development coincides with the very period Deresiewicz claims that neoliberal values appear triumphant. If he were right that higher education has been debased to a mere instrumental good since the 1960s, the rise and growth of these humanistic, interdisciplinary, “Great Ideas” and “Great Books” programs should not have occurred over that same period. Honors programs and colleges express their mission in the very terms that Deresiewicz thinks has all but disappeared in the age of Reagan, Walker, “Third Way” DLC Democrats, and Obama: learning how to think critically and independently, developing an individual’s personal and intellectual welfare, and creating self-governing citizens with a sense of social responsibility, capable of pursuing the common good and sustaining a democratic society.

Thriving Honors education at public institutions all over the country – Macaulay at City University of New York, Western Kentucky University, the University of Alabama, the University of Florida, Michigan State University, the University of Cincinnati, UCLA, the University of Arizona to name just a few – constitutes a substantial counterexample to Deresiewicz’s dire view of the current and future states of liberal arts education.

The largest residential Honors college in the U.S. is Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University – as of 2014, Barrett had over 5,400 students enrolled. Barrett developed from an earlier Honors program under the direction of its founding Dean, Ted Humphrey. He wrote a contribution to The Honors College Phenomenon (2008, ed. Peter C. Sederberg) called “The Genesis of an Idea,” (pdf) that describes the background to Barrett’s founding and his reflection on its mission. After reviewing the history of the “Great Books” movement that drove the early Honors programs and finding “Great Books,” understood as a classical curriculum oriented around a Western canon, inadequate for the task of a public Honors college, he asks what honors education is if it is not a distinct subject matter.

For a number of complex reasons, I came to think of it in terms of the habits of mind we were engendering by emphasizing the importance of the Great Books tradition. This perspective makes the reason for focusing on the Great Books the development of specific intellectual dispositions, most importantly, the abilities to read, think, and discuss core issues of human experience analytically and disinterestedly. Further, the Great Books are models of good and effective writing. Although the Great Books provide invaluable insight into human nature and values, into the reasons for and goals of social existence, they are yet more valuable as examples of those habits of mind that give rise to humanity’s self-understanding and attempts to progress to a more fulfilled state. Thus, it seems to me, honors education is better served by taking the Great Books as paradigms of certain habits of mind than as the particular repositories of human wisdom that all must master.

If a public institution of higher education is committed to serving highly qualified students able to undertake rigorous course work, then the challenge becomes organizing the college under an inclusive conception of honors education.

This task consists of three parts: first, to attract and bring together identifiable cohorts of able and ambitious students who commit themselves to the project of becoming educated members of a democratic society; second, to help them understand that they are pursuing an education for life, citizenship, and career, in that order; and third, to create a set of curricular and co-curricular opportunities that can provide such an education, that is, to organize the resources of the university for those students’ benefit. In sum, the honors dean’s job is to provide the campus with cohorts of superb students and to make sure the campus opens its resources to them.

Given that this precise effort has been duplicated in dozens and now hundreds of public colleges and universities, a handful of which I listed above, we may well ask how Deresiewicz overlooked the phenomenon of Honors education in his article. For it seems to embody the very values he applauds as a “real” education, a vanguard against neoliberal values and ideology. Perhaps Honors education is insufficiently committed to inclusiveness or egalitarian values insofar as it is confined to a particular population in the university, and for whom the university establishes a “parallel college.” Is Honors education elitist?

The answer is, “Could be.” Honors programs and colleges are, by their very nature, selective. They exist in part to enable academically bright young adults to flourish in a curriculum that often includes Socratic seminars, enrichment opportunities in their disciplinary courses, and access to independent study and projects with faculty eager to engage in “the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds.” My experience has been that many Honors students “will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way” and “care deeply about thinking and learning,” just like their most dedicated faculty.

Does the selective admissions process for Honors programs and colleges institutionalize systemic elitism? Do such programs create an academic upper class, diverting resources and opportunities away from the lower tier underclass, a 99% left outside the gates of the Honors community? This is a serious concern, especially for public institutions of higher education, who are commissioned to serve all of the citizens of a state and contribute to the commonweal. Can the danger of elitism and exclusivity be avoided or overcome? Let’s consider this objection.

An elite enjoys privileges difficult or impossible to obtain by the general population. Having different access to advantages and resources than the masses, elites live and work on an uneven playing field. At a public college or university, if funding and resources are unequally transferred to special cohorts or schools, that appears to be fundamentally at odds with the mission of public institution that exists to serve the public good rather than the private good of particular individuals. The benefits of an education underwritten by the citizens of a state are not (or should not be) prioritized by the good that is served to individuals, but to the common good. Since Honors education is organized in such a way as seems to benefit a small percentage of the student population, it seems to follow that such programs are illegitimate and inconsistent with public supported higher education.

This objection demands an answer. Is it legitimate to divert revenue obtained from the whole population of students to benefit a smaller group of students? Yes, sometimes this disproportionate allocation is a legitimate response to serve the overall public good. Funding diversions are recognized and routinely practiced for students with documented disabilities and students for whom English is not their first language. Disability resource centers and intensive English language programs exist to make a college education attainable for all citizens, including those with special needs. Additional services, such as tutoring and accommodations for attending and participating in amateur sports, are provided for athletes. If institutions of public education are obligated to support each individual’s need to fully realize their potential, then differential support from the public treasury is necessary. Are Honors students one of those populations with special needs? Yes, I believe so, and for two reasons.

Honors students are comparable to athletes. Competitive amateur sports in college have been recognized for over one hundred years as a means for enabling able and ambitious students to pursue their physical development, which, unless we take a disembodied view of the student, is a legitimate component of their full potential. Students admitted into Honors programs are the academic athletes of the college or university. If sport athletes are a population of students who require support to meet their special needs, then Honors students are as well. It is clearly a legitimate special allocation of resources to develop “appropriately conceived and rigorous course work for able and ambitious students.” If the analogy with athletes holds, then able and ambitious students are one of the university’s diverse, special needs populations.

The second reason Honors students are a group with special needs in a public institution of higher education is related to the first. The reason institutions of public education are obligated by charter or institutional values to support each individual’s need to fully realize their potential is bound up with the point of education itself. Education refines the individual, nurtures creativity, and contributes to the overall commonweal of the state by the general effect of conviviality encouraged within the institution’s society. By these means public education equips students to contribute more fully and richly to the economic and cultural welfare of civil society. If Honors students are not provided with an appropriate level of course work and academic challenge, the public would be impeding its own economic and cultural development by handicapping some of its brightest citizens from achieving their full potential. Of course private benefits accrue to students provided with accommodations – the student with a documented disability, the athlete, and the Honors student among many others – but states have long recognized the legitimate justification for reallocating resources to meet these students’ special needs is the important contribution they make to the public good.

Contrary to Deresiewicz’s claim, public Honors education is not a parallel curriculum developed by students for careerist aims or institutions for neoliberal aims. The values underpinning Honors programs are not “encased in neoliberal assumptions,” based on meritocracy, or “generating a caste system.” On the contrary, my own experience, and the experience of thousands of faculty members who teach Honors students speak to the very principle that Deresiewicz thinks has all but disappeared: the “counterbalancing institutions” that advance a set of values in deep tension with, and at important points in opposition to, neoliberalism. He asks “What is to be done?” For starters:

  1. Develop and encourage Honors education at all public colleges and universities, including community colleges.
  2. Establish broad-based faculty support for Honors education, particularly in institutions with strong professional and technical colleges.
  3. Ensure equal access to Honors education by not levying fees or required student expenses over and above those already assessed by the broader institution.

Deresiewicz says that the fundamental problem with efforts to push back against neoliberal education “is that we no longer believe in public solutions.” He says “[w]e only believe in market solutions, or at least private-sector solutions.” I do not know who this “we” is, because when I consider the growing movement of public Honors education, I see a strong commitment to a public solution. It may not solve the problems in private higher education, but the residential Honors college developed in public universities has been exported and adapted to some of the most prestigious of private institutions as well. “Real” education, contrary to Deresiesicz’s false alarm, is readily available to all students in this country, in spite of social and political forces that may wish to suppress it.

Barrett Honors College Recognition

Very proud to see my teaching alma mater, Barrett Honors College, getting national recognition yet again. In “A Prudent College Path,” Frank Bruni quotes John Willingham at length in the article, who refers to Barrett as the gold standard in public Honors education. Bruni discusses in particular the benefits of a public Honors education.

The public nature of the institution is critical, in my view, to avoid the worst effects of the unavoidable elitism in an Honors program. As I’ve written in my Honors tutorial, Barrett’s founding Dean, Ted Humphrey, reflected carefully on this core principle in his essay, “The Genesis of an Idea” (pdf). Barrett Honors College main entrance

Willingham’s excellent site includes loads of good material on the subject, and, if you’re an entering student, is worth a visit to get a great view of the enormous opportunities that are going to be available to you at Barrett and other Honors programs and colleges. Willingham regularly ranks Honors programs and publishes his research in A Review of Fifty Public University Programs. In the first edition (2012) of the Review, Willingham calls Barrett the “Best Value-Added Impact in the Nation.” And in his 2014 edition, only Barrett receives a perfect 5 out 5 points in the same category. This shows a consistently excellent program that is improving in order to compete with the other excellent Honors programs and colleges in the country.

So a big high-five to the Deans, Faculty, Staff, and Students of Barrett Honors College.

As for the busyness around these parts, I’m looking forward to delivering lots of new material in conjunction with the new academic year. I’ll be teaching a handful of courses this year and plan to continue to share my experiences, tips, and other goodies as the Fall unfolds. Barrett Honors College Refectory aka Hogwarts Great Hall

New Editing Tool

The Hemingway app is an editing tool that can help you with your essay writing. It checks for problems common to the kind of writing your argumentative essays require and which I’ve discussed in my Honors Seminar Tutorial (lessons 15, 16, and 17). Check it out!

Technology and Education

A happy graduation to the class of 2015, and to all other students and teachers, congratulations on completing another academic year!

Summer will be busy around here as I have lots of new content to post and some important revisions to old content that I’ll make available in shiny new packaging. So you can expect regular posts for a change. I’m aiming for no less than two per week. If you have specific requests, please do dash off a note to me.


To whet your appetite, I bring to your attention an article that appeared in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, “Why Technology Will Never Fix Education,” by Kentaro Toyama. In a subsequent post, I’ll take a closer look at his argument, so for now I’ll highlight one of his key claims and leave you to cogitate upon it:

The real obstacle in education remains student motivation. Especially in an age of informational abundance, getting access to knowledge isn’t the bottleneck, mustering the will to master it is.

In my first-year Honors Seminar, The Human Event, the assignment my students had the strongest reaction to, both positive and negative, was the E-Medium Fast (download pdf). In my next post, I’ll connect the goals that I had in this assignment with Dr. Toyama’s article.

The Graded Essay: 5 Steps to Improve Your Next Essay

In this post I will guide you in the process of interpreting the feedback on your essay and how to prioritize and incorporate it into your next, much improved, essay. This topic is a natural extension of the posts I’ve written on how to write your argumentative essays (see my “Mastering the Human Event” tutorial).


You’ve gotten your graded essay back. Your Instructor wrote a lot of comments on it. Your first instinct, because several years of schooling have trained you to practice grade-grubbing, is to look for the letter grade or numerical score, to find out what you “got” on your paper. My first piece of advice is to develop the discipline to disregard the grade, or at least not to imbue it with so much value. The real value of your graded essay is the criticism you’ve received on your writing by an Instructor who knows how to write well and is eager to share her knowledge with you. If you value this feedback for the gold that it is, you can incorporate the criticisms into your next writing assignment and the grade will take care of itself. I’m going to give you 5 steps to help you take the information your Instructor gives you and apply it to all of your future writing.

1.  Find where your Instructor has written a summary narrative comment and read that carefully.

This is often at the end of your paper, or sometimes a separate page is attached to your original paper or file. Here the Instructor will often summarize the most important shortcomings in your essay (as well as praise you for what you did well). In my experience, the top 4 shortcomings in an argumentative essay are:

  1. the thesis statement is not a well-formulated argument;
  2. the evidence adduced in the body of the essay is not expounded or effectively analyzed;
  3. the conceptualization of the argument, the conceptual framework of the essay, is inadequate or uninteresting;
  4. the prose is unsatisfactory to the point where your diction and linguistic errors interfere with your meaning.

NB: Nos. 2 and 3 may be the result of an inadequate reading and grasp of the primary text(s) that you are writing about. No. 4, if it is bad enough, may cause your Instructor to give up before completing your essay; I’ve given up after one page in the worst cases. If you had a chance to rewrite this essay, how would you address these shortcomings? Whatever your Instructor has identified as an important shortcoming in the summary narrative comment on your essay, you need to review the instructional materials for performing that task correctly.

2. Read the key marginal and in-line comments written by the Instructor.

Go back to tgraded-essayhe beginning of your essay and identify the key marginal and in-line comments. These are the comments that correspond to the most important shortcomings identified in Step 1. Your Instructor provides more details in these comments to help you understand what the specific problem(s) is (are).

Example 1. Suppose the Instructor has commented in his or her summary narrative at the end of your paper that your thesis is weak or even nonexistent. So now that you know you have a major shortcoming with your thesis statement, you should jump to your thesis statement on the first page of your essay to read any additional discussion of the problems in the Instructor’s marginal comments. You reread your thesis statement and sure enough, it’s a hamburger thesis – simply a list of claims, disconnected from each other and with no logical inference to a definite proposition. If there was a problem with the thesis statement in my students’ essays, these would receive my longest marginal or inline comments. The details you get from the Instructor in these comments are important because they will tell you not only that you do not have a well-formulated argument, but why specifically it isn’t. Often the Instructor will give you editorial suggestions about how to improve or fix the issue. You can thank them for that later (Step 4).

Example 2. The Instructor has commented in the summary narrative that your paper lacks sufficient evidence. Go to each paragraph in the body of the essay and check each of your quotes to see what your Instructor has said about them. It could be that the quotations aren’t relevant to your argument. Or that your discussion of the quotes lacks adequate analysis or explanation. (Analysis is an element of textual evidence.)

Now compare what the Instructor has written in the marginal comments with the instructional materials that pertain to that issue, just like you did in Step 1. Incorporate any specific editorial suggestions the Instructor included in his or her comments. Now it is time to practice applying those instructional materials so that you can break bad writing habits and replace them with good habits. Review your previous short writing assignments, earlier drafts, and papers. See if you can find problems on those that are similar to the shortcomings your Instructor identified in your current essay.

3. Revise the parts of your essay that have the most serious flaws in reasoning.

You’re not in this for the grade, remember? There’s no way around this step if you are serious about improving your writing skills. To write well you must write more and write smarter. Your Instructor is guiding you in the latter; the former is up to you!

Steps 3 – 5 are the key for you to advance from understanding what you did wrong or poorly on the essay to being able to avoid repeating those errors on future essays. Focus especially on any shortcomings in your thesis, conceptualization, analysis of evidence, and map or structure of the essay. Don’t rewrite the whole essay. Take no more than two hours to revise sections of your graded essay by focusing on the parts that have the most serious problems. Print out a copy of these revisions, which should be no more than a page or two, and…

4. Request a meeting with your Instructor to discuss your paper.

See my guidelines about communicating with your Instructor. Even if this is the last essay you write for the course, the real-time feedback from your Instructor that is available to you is extraordinarily valuable for all of your future writing. Here are five key points about this step:

  1. In your email contact with the Instructor, make it clear that you have specific items from the last essay you’d like to get further feedback on. You don’t have to list them in the email; the point is to let the Instructor know in advance that you have a specific reason and agenda for meeting with him or her, and you’re not coming to grade-grub, argue about his or her comments or evaluation of your work, or otherwise pitch a fit. You’re going because you believe that a brief autopsy on your recently deceased essay will improve your writing.
  2. Go to the meeting prepared. Make sure you’ve done the first three steps I’ve outlined in this post.
  3. Bring your revised material from Step 3 as well as a printed copy of the graded essay. Explain that this is your attempt to understand and incorporate the Instructor’s feedback and ask him or her to evaluate how well you’ve understood the main problem(s) with your essay. Ask for further guidance if your revised work still hasn’t significantly improved your problem areas in the essay. Only if you show your initiative in trying to improve your writing by bringing in brief, revised material for your Instructor to review is it then appropriate to ask for further editorial suggestions if they were not provided by the Instructor in the graded essay.
  4. Keep the meeting concise and on point. Your Instructor should do most of the talking. It’s an autopsy and she is the medical examiner. You’re there to assist, listen, and learn. Certainly ask for further clarification if you don’t understand something your Instructor says. But don’t get bogged down in too much detail like word choice or get defensive about either your original essay or the revised material. Your graded essay is a corpse and you’re looking for the cause of death. You’re there to show you’re serious about improving your thinking and writing, to show that you’ve grasped what the problems in your essay were, and reflected on how you would correct or improve them were the graded essay a first draft.
  5. Take written notes of any new suggestions or information your Instructor gives you. This is more grist for your mill.

5. On your next essay, build in a reasonable period of time to develop your first draft and analyze the areas of the draft that were shortcomings in your previous essay.

You’ve put some real work into incorporating your Instructor’s feedback, and the last thing you want to do is repeat the same mistakes.

Apply these 5 steps and you’re sure to improve your next essay. And make your Instructor much happier as he contemplates the task of grading your work and that of your classmates again.


Essay Writing – Post Upcoming

New work and business opportunities have thrown my best laid plans for regular posting on Core Texts into disarray. We’re regrouping over here, having to do the heretofore unthinkable: long-range planning. Nevertheless, we are gratified that the site has unexpectedly garnered so many readers. It’s all very encouraging and motivates us to provide meaningful and helpful content more regularly.

The next post will concern an important skill you’ll need to succeed on your essay writing: assimilating and integrating feedback on earlier drafts and essays into your next essay. I’ve covered the basics of argumentative essay writing in the “Mastering the Human Event” Honors Seminar Tutorial, but knowing what to do with feedback from your instructor is a critical skill for you to learn if you want to improve your writing performance.


Engaged students “taking notes”

While I’m finalizing that post, I recommend this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education to you about one professor’s experiment banning laptops in class for a year. There is a connection to the forthcoming post.

Core Texts: Martin Luther King Jr

In honor of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, today’s core texts post will focus on his work. In 2012, I decided to interrupt the regular chronological flow of the Human Event readings to jump to the 1950s – 60s and examine selections of King’s thought and work. This was always one of my favorite discussion days and almost everyone encountered King in an entirely new light.

king-knockI chose one of his early sermons, one he preached frequently for over 10 years, as the starting point for understanding the basic convictions and commitments underlying his thought and work. “A Knock at Midnight” often surprises students with its forthright declarations of good and evil in society, commitment to absolute truth, and other presumptions they hold about the vocabulary of “progressive” social thought. This is useful as a self-reflective moment, if embraced, to examine why one responds to King the Baptist preacher with surprise, discomfort, or confusion. After all, as one of the preeminent civil rights leaders in world history, he might simplistically be regarded as a “progressive,” in contemporary terms. Which he was! So how do his convictions about civil rights and the secular sphere stand in relation to his ethical and religious convictions?

A second reason I enjoy teaching this text is that its form, the sermon, does not cooperate as readily with social-theoretical grids that some academics apply whose priority in the encounter with the text is to ferret out class and race consciousness. Such approaches like to dispose of the messy, real and uncomfortable material, like King’s religious arguments, as so much embroidery that doesn’t impinge on the “important” content, the abstracted “social justice” core. It takes no small chutzpah to dismiss King’s religious self-understanding and vocabulary as nothing more than self-estrangement, “flowers on the chain” that enslave, or as impediments to social progress, yet that is the contradiction some instructors entertain. Such ideological impositions are more readily exposed when dealing with a cultural and social icon like King. This predisposition to abstract content is one of the limitations of reading every text like it’s a book. Though his sermons are compiled and can be read as essays or other written forms, you are less likely to engage in fundamental distortions of the text if you encounter it in its native form: as an oral text, as a proclamation heard, as a spoken exhortation. Listen to these texts if you want to engage them authentically.

The texts I recommend for a quick but somewhat complete picture of the breadth and depth of King’s thought and work are “A Knock at Midnight,” Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” his final speech, delivered in Memphis at the Sanitation Workers strike (pdf available in the sidebar). Be sure to check out the numerous materials digitally archived by the King Center. You may also want to check out one of the most important contemporary scholars on King, Dr Cornel West of Union Theological.

[Edit] My friend Jack Heald has helpfully summarized King’s six observations regarding non-violent social change as described in Stride Toward Freedom:

  1. Nonviolence is not passive, but requires courage.
  2. Nonviolence seeks reconciliation, not defeat of an adversary.
  3. Nonviolent action is directed at eliminating evil, not destroying an evil-doer.
  4. A willingness to accept suffering for the cause, if necessary, but never to inflict it.
  5. A rejection of hatred, animosity or violence of the spirit, as well as refusal to commit physical violence.
  6. Faith that justice will prevail.

The Obvious

He’s a Christian minister. Specifically, a Baptist. He’s also from the Southern United States. These biographical details should inform your analysis.

He addresses his “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” to the white, “liberal” and “moderate” Christian clergy, and singles them out for criticism. But they’re on his political and religious “side,” right? Why is he criticizing some of his co-belligerents?

What do you notice in the 10-year progression of his thought and work starting from “Knock” and ending with “Mountaintop?” Substantively what changes and what remains the same?

The Not-so-Obvious

In a recent book on “The Lord’s Prayer,” N.T. Wright recently referred to the phrase “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” as a “manifesto of revolution.” King understands the struggle for civil rights as a duty for the disciple of Jesus. In theological terms, this is because King sees himself, his society, and the world, as living in God’s history, and the future component of that history, the eschatological, is supposed to shape what we do in the present. Further, this living into an eschatological “not-yet” shapes King’s self-understanding of his life and work in prophetic terms. For example, in his final speech, he concludes with an eerily prescient vision of himself as Moses. The “mountaintop” that King says he’s been to is Mount Nebo, a height from which Moses was allowed to see the Promised Land in which his people would one day dwell. The more you unpack such allusions in King’s work, the richer your understanding of his thought will be.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

— from Dr King’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Address, 1964

The Civil Rights movement of the twentieth century was by no means ideologically monolithic. In 1964, just before the the passage and approval of the landmark Civil Rights Act, King and Malcolm X met briefly in Washington, DC (this page excerpts King’s autobiography about his recollection of this meeting). One of the key fault lines concerned the moral legitimacy of using violence in the struggle for civil rights. King, in the tradition of Tolstoy and Gandhi, was committed to direct, but non-violent action. Malcolm X publicly referred to King as a “religious Uncle Tom” who was in the pocket of the white man. He thought that King’s message of non-violence amounted to defenselessness in the face of the white man’s violence, and served only the interests of white power. King, obviously, disagreed. (See James H. Cone’s Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare? for an in-depth look at this debate.) So what do you think King means by “unarmed truth” in the quote above, what does “fighting back” look like from King’s perspective, and which methods do you think are more effectual for combating injustice?

Another opposition opened up by the quote above appears throughout King’s work: that between “unconditional love” and coercive power. Is love really an effectual force for social change and transformation? Can institutions permeated by racism be reformed by unconditional love? Why does King think so, and what does that look like? Pride (In the Name of Love).

AckbarThe Traps

As a minister with a formal seminary education from Crozer Theological and an academic theological PhD at Boston University School of Theology, the images, rhetoric, and theology in the Christian Bible (aka “Old Testament” and “New Testament”) are woven so tightly into his thought that without some familiarity with those images, rhetoric, and theology, your grasp of his words’ meaning and import to his audiences will be desultory, superficial, and at worst, plain wrong.

Example: non-violence = passivity, weakness, cowardice.

“No justice, no peace” the popular slogan goes. Would Dr King agree that? Well, what about justice? How do you get that? Can you have justice without truth, without telling and facing the truth? But do you value truth only if it fits your worldview or social aims–will a lie do just as well? Are truths relative? Is there “your” truth and “my” truth? If one thinks truth is non-absolute, then on what grounds can you demand justice from another since they can simply wave aside your claims about what has and has not happened?


Some linguistic background

King adopts many of the forms and cadences of biblical Hebrew poetry. These poetic forms were refined as musical, specifically within the context of singing in a liturgical setting, hence their suitability for King’s oratory style. Some of the key elements are:

Anadiplosis: Repetition of the final word or phrase in the beginning of the next line. “I have a dream,” “Now is the time.”


  • Antithesis: “the x, not the y”
  • Synonymous: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

Chiasm: A B B A

Chiastic structure provides emphasis to two (or more) ideas in a pattern that is easily remembered.

Every valley shall be exalted

And every mountain and hill shall be made low;

And the crooked shall be made straight

And the rough places plain.

The chiasm of this passage is:

A   B   –A   –B

A   –A   B   –B

Two Views of Space

First image: the Earth, the “pale blue dot” taken by the Voyager I spacecraft from 3.7 billion miles away (a distance equivalent to a point between the orbits of Neptune and Pluto).


Source: Scientific American, 19 Jun 2013

Second image: the “Pillars of Creation” (a portion of the Eagle Nebula 7,000 light-years away) taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.


Source: ABC News, 6 Jan 2015

Before I upload my next post on Galileo, sometimes wrongly credited as the inventor of the telescope, I wanted to whet your appetite for thinking about the profound change in not only our knowledge of the universe since the time of Galileo, but our view of ourselves in light of that knowledge, a view which has been opened up by image-making instruments.

Does one affect you more profoundly than the other: the one that looks back at us from afar, or the one that looks out from our position within the universe?

When you look attentively at each image, what do you feel and think?

Wonder? Fear? Delight? Dread? Gratitude? Indifference? Hope? Doom? Pride? Humility?

Be sure to have a listen to Sagan’s famous description of the pale blue dot I linked to above.