What I look for in a paper
Jens-Erik Mai*Generally speaking I want papers that are challenging, creative, and provocative. I know it’s difficult to be challenging, creative, and provocative on command, and if you’re like most graduate students, you’re too consumed with self-doubt (and too blind to your own achievements) to recognize just how challenging, creative, and provocative you actually are - and you need something you can actually aim at. So, what does make for successful papers/assignments? Well, they:
1. Possess the usual virtues of good prose--they're clear, cohesive, and coherent
In brief: Clear prose enables me to figure out “who’s doing what” in your paper, regardless of whether you’re talking about human agents or concepts. Cohesive prose leads me from sentence to sentence without giving me a sense that you’re jumping from topic to topic or that you’re dropping me into the middle of an ongoing story or discussion. Lastly, coherent prose allows me to see how each moment in your paper fits into its overall purpose and/or developing argument. To use a metaphor: a well-written paper is a useful set of directions to a place I’ve never been (or haven't been in a long while) that makes me feel certain, from moment to moment, that I’m heading in the right direction, whatever that might be.
2. Are written with an economy of language and structure
It can be very counterproductive to agonize over every word you write as you write it: in fact, I know of no better way to give yourself an intractable case of writer’s block. However, at some point in the process of composing and revising your paper, you should ask yourself whether every part of the paper, from the sentence level on down, fits into its overall argument and purpose. If it doesn’t, does it belong there? If not, perhaps you should cut it out or revise it. And if it does, perhaps you should reread your paper to make sure that you’re not trying to write two (or more) papers at once. Also, think about what kind of introduction you need to write to your paper. That will vary from instructor to instructor, from assignment to assignment. In general, however, it’s always good to assume that even though your reader may be intimately familiar with the topic you’re addressing, s/he might not be familiar with it from the same angle that you are (and certainly doesn’t have the assignment prompt memorized!) and may need to be brought up to speed, if only in a sentence or two, on what they’re about to read.
3. Demonstrate that the writer knows how to use the terms of art deployed in the paper and developed in the class, and
4. Demonstrate, as part of development of the paper’s analysis, that the writer understands what those terms mean and can explain them to others
As you quickly learned in the iSchool (if you didn’t know it already), our discipline, like all disciplines, has a rich vocabulary of “terms of art” which, as a new student and budding professional, you need to learn, use, and use well in order to perform your professional duties (serving your public(s) and making the world a better place) and communicate with your fellow professionals and colleagues. But that’s not enough. As information professionals, we’re frequently called upon to work with and mediate between different constituencies and stakeholders who use and work with and in our information systems. If we’re going to fulfill this obligation, we need to be able to explain ourselves to audiences who might be sympathetic to our work, interested in our insights, but unfamiliar with the “whats,” “hows,” and “whys” of what we do. (And, occasionally, we’ll have to explain ourselves to audiences that are indifferent if not hostile.) Your paper should show me that you’re on your way to becoming a competent, aware professional, educator, and contributor to our discipline.
5. If there's a debate or discussion, recognize that there is one, give evidence of understanding the debate and explains the writer’s reasoning if s/he takes a side
Once you leave the iSchool--and perhaps even before--you will have the opportunity to contribute not only to the profession through your practice, but to the scholarly discipline as well. The perspectives and positions you learn about in your classes here aren’t received knowledge or wisdom, but are the fruits of research, ongoing discussion, and at times passionate debate, some of which you’ve read and some of which you’ve (re)enacted in class. A truly successful paper, regardless of the topic, will make me feel confident that you not only understand the material, but that you’ve mastered these debates to the best of your current abilities—which are, contrary to some of your self-assessments, already pretty good.
Lastly, as a corollary to the above,
6. Demonstrate a constructive and critical engagement with the material
When you write a paper, you shouldn't seek just to redact the arguments, positions, and/or theorists we've discussed in class, but rather you should strive to enter into some meaningful dialogue with them. What shape that dialogue takes is up to you: you can argue with them, point out oversights, extend their logic or their implications. But regardless of how you wish to engage in that dialogue, remember that true dialogue requires that, if only for a little while — three to five pages, most of the time — you think along with your discussants/disputants, and in so doing enter into the universe of discourse in which the issues we share in common are meaningful and have stakes.
* Much of this text comes from Trent Hill. Thanks :-)