The Basics of Writing a Paper for an International Studies Class
(printable version here)
International Studies is a highly unique field defined by its interdisciplinary focus. Classes in the major are housed across a variety of areas of study including history, modern literatures and cultures, political science, and sociology. The broad spectrum of classes that fall under the heading of International Studies means that there is not a narrow set of guidelines for writing in the field, as there are in other majors. Rather, students follow a generalized set of principles that hold true across the discipline and adjust their writing as necessary based on the preferences and expectations of various professors and the assignment at hand. On the whole, strong IS papers tend to...
I. Be argument-driven. As typical of the humanities and social sciences, IS papers rely heavily on strong arguments. Professors typically look for arguments to:
- Balance evidence and analysis equally. Strive for a medium between a paper dominated by sources and one overly heavy with personal analysis. Neither extreme end of the spectrum will read impressively.
- Show a clear structure. Aim for a well outlined paper in which it is explicitly clear to the reader where your argument has been and in what direction it's headed. Essentially, think of your paper as a roadmap detailing a specific route to an end goal.
- Not simply summarize readings. Professors have studied the readings, too-- ask yourself why they should be interested in reading your work. What unique viewpoint do you have to offer that might not have been considered before?
- Flow naturally. Dr. L. Carol Summers, professor of History and International Studies, writes "Do not force arguments on your cases. People do sometimes disagree. Make sure you read such disagreement honestly." Papers are also clogged down when they are built around sources rather than the argument itself (see sources section).
- Focus on the material. Professors assign papers as exercises in analysis, not as opportunities for self-reflection. Do not make your essay about you.
II. Use specific examples. As discussed above, evidence is an essential component of IS papers. When integrating evidence into papers, students should keep the following in mind:
- Do not let sources dominate the paper. While evidence is vital to any good paper, do not overdo it; you run the risk of others' ideas taking over your paper. The backbone of a good paper is the argument, not the sources.
- In utilizing examples, be specific and varied. Specific examples demonstrate that you've read the material, and know more about the topic(s) at hand than simply what you garnered in class discussion. Try and vary not only the types of sources that you draw from, but how you integrate the material into your paper (both quotations and paraphrasing).
- Fully understand your sources. It may seem like common sense, but students do not always completely understand the material they cite in their papers, or at least do not make their knowledge clear in their writing. Dr. L. Carol Summers writes, "Be very conscious of who said what, and who did what. Don't simply note that things happened. Be clear on who did what to whom, and how you know about it."
III. Take a strong position. Papers can be weakened when their arguments are:
- Insufficiently opinionated. Students will often waver between arguments in hopes of gaining credit for acknowledging the strong points of multiple positions. Be wary of splitting the difference between Argument A and Argument B and making a flimsy case championing the validity of both viewpoints. It is better to be outspoken and firmly defend one position, even if you are playing devil's advocate. If you are having a difficult time deciding which side of the argument to adopt, rehearse possible arguments for both A and B and then make your decision-- it will help you out in the long run.
- Overly opinionated. At the same time, do not become so opinionated that it makes the reader uncomfortable. Generally, professors are open to any argument so long as its claims are supported fairly. However, even a paper with a radical but supported position can come across too strongly if the writer adopts a tone and uses language that is combative. Be opinionated, but not notably aggressive.
- Written to appeal to professor's personal beliefs. Students may be tempted to make arguments that align with their professor's viewpoints, but this should be avoided as professors want you to explore your own interpretation of the assignment. Writing against your personal viewpoints often results in stilted arguments.
IV. Have clear, succinct writing. Clear writing avoids:
- Big generalities. See "Professor Pet Peeves."
- The passive voice. Dr. L. Carol Summers explains, "Grammatically, the best way to demonstrate your understanding of what historians, anthropologists, and others call 'agency' (the ability to act) is to avoid the grammatical passive voice."
- Flowery language. IS papers don't typically call for usage of creative writing techniques; keep your argument succinct both in the larger sense and at sentence level. How to make sentences clear and concise.
- Sloppy mistakes. Make sure that you proofread your grammar, and take a step back and examine the clarity of your argument as a whole.
V. Follow general standards of college-level writing.
- Overall, IS writing aligns with typical guidelines for writing at the college level. The University of Richmond Writer's Web, which is referenced throughout this page, is an excellent resource for university students. The website breaks down every stage of the writing process-- tips for brainstorming ideas, how to form a thesis statement, how to make effective analysis, editing tips, how best to use sources, exercises to clear up grammatical confusion, and more.
- For UR students, another excellent resource for help with papers is the University of Richmond Writing Center. Students can make an appointment for a one-on-one session with a writing consultant.
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