Arguments are composed of two elements:  (i) a logical structure and (ii) actual judgments about the world and morality.  I accept that a student and I have different life experiences and moral perspectives, and I accept that these differences may yield different conclusions.  (I know certain things about the military from being born to a military family;  you know different things about the military from having served in it.  More generally, I have seen more of the world than most of my students, but my students look at it with fresher eyes.)  This is not a justification for relativism, because we can always discuss our respective judgments;  it's just a recognition that until we've had a chance to have such a discussion, we can't really say who is right.  However, the logic of an argument is a different matter, it seems to me.  If you argue that a strong military is necessary because cheeseburgers are yummy, I will question the logical connection;  I'm not disputing that you like cheeseburgers (or that a strong military is necessary).  If you say that dwarf-tossing is o.k. because we allow stripping, I will say that you're committing the naturalistic fallacy;  I'm not questioning the fact that stripping is legal.

My basic concern in grading is your logic.  If you are reporting on someone else's work, I look to see whether you have grasped the logic of that person's argument.  If you are presenting your own argument, I look to see whether it is logical.  It is important that you get the content correct, of course;  I won't be happy if you state (without further explanation) that Hobbes told us to follow the Golden Rule or that Gandhi preached, "Never give a sucker an even break."  But my basic concern is whether you have constructed a logical argument.

The Advantages and Perils of Studying Together

I encourage you to study together, period.  There are, however, two perils you should be aware of:  "groupthink" and plagiarism.


I have found that when students study together they frequently reach a consensus answer ... an incorrect consensus answer.  (Well, the usual problem isn't so much that the answer is wrong per se but more that it doesn't go far enough, it doesn't answer the question fully.)  I can understand the dynamics of the situation that leads to this:  students have limited time and enthusiasm for studying, and so once a consensus answer is reached, they don't appreciate being pushed beyond it.  So even if one is wondering about the adequacy of the answer, there is a real pressure—both internal and social—to stay quiet.  Unfortunately, it is me you have to satisfy in the end, not each other.  Your agreement among yourselves will not count when I'm grading the test.  So while I do suggest you study together, you need to be aware of this group dynamic.  I suggest that you agree with each other ahead of time that questions and doubts and probes are encouraged—and then leave time at the end for them.


When you study together, you will of course come up with similar answers, similar examples, and so on.  That's o.k.  However, if you simply copy the mutually-agreed-upon answer, I can't be sure whether you really understand it.  So what I ask is that your answers be in your own words—not just a paraphrased version of someone else's answer, but your own expression of what you understand.  Anything less than that counts as plagiarism, as far as I'm concerned.


Approximate numeric grade equivalents

Max possible 100
A+ 98
A 95
A- 92
A/B 90
B+ 88
B 85
B- 82
B/C 80
C+ 78
C 75
C- 72
C/D 70
D+ 68
D 65
D- 62
D/F 60
F 55

The basic division in my grading system is between B and C, based on whether the answer (or essay or paper) captures the essential logic of the topic.  "B" means that the answer does have the parts all connected up in basically the right way;  "A" means that the presentation of the argument is clear, moving smoothly from logical step to logical step and having a good command of the overall logic.  At the other end of the scale, "C" means that the answer has all or most of the parts there, but that the logic has not yet gelled;  "D" means that the answer is missing significant parts and/or that the parts are swirling about in a very confused state.  I give Fs only when the answer isn't in the ballpark, so to speak—or, in more formal language, does not really connect with the basic thrust of the question / topic.  Please remember that you may get a bad grade on a question even if you have made no mistakes, either because your answer was not relevant to the question or because it failed to answer the question fully.

These considerations give me a baseline grade to work from, and I adjust upward or downward from there depending on the specifics of the question and the answer.

After I have judged the answer in these terms, I consider the issues of the writing itself.  I expect college students to turn in papers that reflect care in their production (printing & proofreading), clean prose, good overall organization (paragraphing, transitions), and writing mechanics (following the sometimes arbitrary but still important conventions of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, possessives).  I allow for a few weaknesses in these (as if I never made mistakes!), but pretty quickly I start taking off points, up to a full letter grade if there are definite weaknesses in many categories.  Good writing does not bring additional points, because I expect it;  nevertheless, you will find that clear writing makes it easier for me to understand what you're saying, and this produces better grades.

Some students come to college with writing difficulties.  I therefore offer any student the following bargain:  I will exempt you from all grade deductions for mechanics if you will (i) let me go over your work with you (probably broken up into more than one session) with a view to seeing what the major problems are and talking about how to correct them and (ii) show a good-faith effort in subsequent writing to improve your mechanics.

But this isn't an English class!

Yes, that's right—this isn't an English class.  But your bad writing affects both me and you anyway:  I have to work extra hard to understand what you're saying, and your writing mechanics should not be getting in the way of your answers.  When you graduate, you will be required to write reports, legal briefs, technical manuals, etc., and your work will be judged in part on your writing.  I'm a creampuff compared to a boss angry about the five or six bone-headed mistakes in your report that he submitted to the Board of Directors.  In my class, the worst penalty is that you lose some points on a paper, but what happens in your job is that you get a lower raise (costing you big bucks in the long run, not to mention a loss of respect), or get no raise at all (ditto), or get fired (even more ditto).

But you knew what I meant!  If communication is the point, didn't I communicate?

First, please note that you would never, never, never say that to your boss about a report you've drafted for the Board of Directors;  why do I deserve less?  Yes, I can struggle through your work to deduce what you meant to say.  But multiply that extra effort by the total number of students I teach, and it adds up to a significant cost to me in time and intellectual energy.  However, the central point is that students need to cultivate a habit of writing well, and I do you no favors by putting up with less.

Well, silly, why don't you just let the Composition and English departments worry about my writing?!

Students frequently tell me that they can already write well enough when they are required to.  But good writing isn't something you turn on and off;  it isn't just a matter of intention.  Good writing takes practice and sweat.  Let me pose the following thought experiment:  if I challenged you to write a good paper (I mean judged primarily on good writing, not content) and you decided to accept the challenge, would you actually be able to?  Some of my students can legitimately say, "Yes."  Most of my students, however, cannot say this with any certainty.  About half of those know that they need help;  about half think they don't need help but actually do.

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Author:  Stephen Chilton [email]  |  Last Modified:  2004-09-06
Honor Roll  |  UMD  |  Pol Sci Department

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