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FW 1002 Syllabus Justification

You’ll note that there are no exams in this course. I want you to engage in an ongoing intellectual dialog with the course material, not try to cram a lot of “facts? into your head the night before a test and then vomit them out on the exam. Instead, we will make extensive use of both formal and informal writing to gauge your mastery of the subject matter. When you write, you have the opportunity to engage critically with authors, fellow students, and your instructor, but most importantly, with yourself.

The extended entry gives my holistic grading guidelines, which are intended for the syllabus. Individual assignments will also include a specific grading rubric.

A: This paper is outstanding. It demonstrates original insight, rational thought processes, and clear organization. The writing displays more than just technical competence with English; it is concise, elegant, distinctive, and engaging. It has pizzazz.
B: This paper is significantly above expectations. The arguments are good and insightful, and demonstrate an ability to read between the lines, making insights others would easily miss. The paper is well organized, rational, and carefully written. The shortcomings are few in number and minor in scope: a slight misinterpretation or inadequate development of an argument, or minor stylistic concerns in an otherwise technically competent essay. Excessive grammatical errors could land an otherwise A-quality paper in this category. B’s are good papers, they’re just not excellent.
C: This paper meets the course requirements in every respect. If you ever come to me and ask, “Why did you give me a B? I did everything you asked?? I should reply “You’re right. Here, I’ll give you a C instead.? A C-paper does everything that was asked for, but no more. It hits all the bases, but provides no deeper level of analysis. It comprehends the logical argument, but does not challenge or expand upon it. It displays competence in writing, but not mastery or artistry.

The A and B descriptions borrow heavily from the "Grading Guide" on page 198 of Pamela's handbook; the C description I crafted myself. I also drafted explanations of D and F quality work, but have deleted them for the weblog.


Todd--I like how you explain in your syllabus why you use writing in your course. Could you expand this to explain why such writing is important in your discipline? (Maybe just a sentence). As a fisheries and wildlife student, I might want to know how writing an essay will benefit me more than memorizing facts. Also, I would like to know something about how you, the instructor, and other students will "engage critically" with my writing.

I also enjoyed reading your holistic grading scheme -- I could see you saying this out loud in front of your class in a quite animated manner. I do have two concerns, however. First, the A seemed unattainable -- I would have to write like E.O. Wilson to earn it. Second, the description of a C sounds a bit defensive -- like you are trying to preempt any grade grubbing.

Gina--My course is a survey course for non-majors (and mostly non-scientists), so the writing we do is unlike the writing I do professionally. I try to showcase scientists like Carson, Gould and Wilson who can write effectively to lay audiences, or else popular writers who can demonstrate understanding of the underlying ecology.

You're right about the descriptions of A and C level work, but to a big extent that was exactly my intent, so at least I'm communicating effectively. I grade on a straight percentage, so 10/10 on a writing assignment signifies A+ level work, and I got tired last semester of having to justify why I gave students a 9.5 instead of a 10 (because you DON'T write like E.O. Wilson yet). I see this syllabus language as pre-emptive justification for not having to explain everytime I'm dinging someone half a point. In actuality, students get lots of A's and B's (probably too many), so I'm also setting myself up here to be a more rigorous grader.

Todd---I'm FINALLY getting to some of these entries....alas and alack!

I really like the way you frame writing as a stage for engagement---with material, peers, and self.

I shared Gina's questions about the applications to your field...if not specific to Fisheries and Wildlife, then at least to scientific fields. One of the misunderstandings I find myself working with quite a bit is the idea that writing = essays (which also seem to = English).

You know my feeling about holistic scales...they're good only at providing a very general sense of the range. By now, you've probably gotten some reaction to this one. I must tell you that terms like "pizazz" make me squirm; some assignments will ask for that kind of writing and some won't. Usually expressive or persuasive pieces rather than informational pieces, for example. I'd make sure to include some language in all of these categories about the writing's address of the assignment purpose and audience.

Thanks for posting this!