[adapted from a page by Harvey Quamen, with thanks]

Over the course of the term, you'll each be responsible for writing two 1500 word commentaries. You'll post these to your website or to mine, so that the rest of the class can read them and perhaps respond to them.

The idea behind the commentaries is to encourage you to engage with the course reading and discussion in a more formal manner. Some of our readings will be quite challenging -- and knowing that you need to respond in writing to a text is a great way to help put an extra edge on your critical interpretation skills. Moreover, you'll find that you're better prepared for class discussion and will have more to say.

The short comment is a terrific writing exercise because it focuses on the two most important facets of writing: invention and editing. You must invent a good theme, expand upon it with solid claims and persuasive evidence, and then you must cut out the wordiness, the meandering prose, the weaker ideas. These two skills will serve you well no matter what kind of future writing you plan to do -- letters of application, term papers, resumes, journalism, graduate work, etc.

But these commentaries are tricky for a number of reasons -- they're long enough that you have to plan your argumentative strategy, and yet they're short enough that you must be concise and economical. I believe the cliche that you know you have found a good paper topic when you can express it in one page, ten pages, or a hundred pages. The only difference between them is the level of detail.

Some Tips to Writing a Good Commentary

If you are commenting on a text, don't summarize it. After all, I've read the text too -- maybe even more than once.

Take a position. Maybe you either approve or disapprove strongly of a text. That's a great start. Maybe you had an "insightful moment" during your reading when something about the text suddenly became clear to you; if so, explain what changed at that moment. Maybe there's a passage that caught your eye or that was particularly unusual. Use this opportunity to explore it.

Cite from the reading. Long passages won't work to your advantage, but citing smaller passages will add solid evidence to the argument that you're making. Cite the page number or line number, too, please.

Bring in outside material if it's relevant. Be brief about it, though. A website elsewhere might have a good link; another student's commentary might provide a contrasting idea; a critic might have said something you want to agree with. Oh, and did I mention that you should be brief?

Find something in the text that you'd like to discuss in class. It might be something interesting you've noticed (a developing pattern, for example, or a great point that you hadn't considered before) or a difficult passage that makes no sense. But don't wait for class to solve your problems; try to wrestle with them in the commentary.

Confusion is OK. You need not convey yourself as an expert; you need not have solved all the dilemmas that a particular issue presents. Saying "I don't know" is all right as long as you make a legitimate effort to survey the issue's boundaries and/or formulate the questions that are stumping you.

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Document created November 16th 2002