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Interpreting Assignments

Not all of your instructors will be equally clear about what they expect of your paper. Some will tell you in detail what to read, how to think about it, and how to organize your paper, but others will ask a general question just to see what you can do with it. Some instructors will expect you to stay close to the assignment, penalizing you if you depart from it; others will encourage you to strike out on your own. Some few instructors may want you to demonstrate only that you have read and understood a reading, but most will want you to use your understanding of the reading as a jumping-off point for an analysis or an argument.

Typical Assignments: What is Asked of You as a Thinker?

So your first step in writing an assignment’s paper occurs well before you being writing: you must know what your instructor expects. Start by assuming that, unless you see the words “Summarize or paraphrase what X says about. . .” your instructor is unlikely to want just a summary. Beyond this point, however, you have to become a kind of anthropologist, reading the culture of your particular class to understand what is said, what is not, and what is intended.

Start by looking carefully at the words of the assignment. If it is phrased in any of these ways, one crucial part of your task has been done for you:

  • “Agree or disagree: ‘Freud misunderstood the feminine mind when he wrote. . . ‘”
  • “Was Lear justified in castigating Cordelia when she refused to. . . ?”
  • “Discuss whether Socrates adequately answered the charge that he corrupted the youth of Athens.”

For questions like these, you start by considering two opposing claims:

  • Freud understood the feminine (or did not).
  • Lear was (or was not) justified.
  • Socrates did (or did not) answer the charges against him.

For reasons discussed below, you will not want the claim of your paper to be merely yes or no, he did or he didn’t. But an assignment like this can make it easier to get started because you can immediately begin to find and assess data from your readings. You can look at passages from the reading and consider how they would support one of the claims. [Remember: this is only a start. You do not want to end up with a claim that says nothing more than “Freud did (or did not) understand the feminine mind.” Lear was (or was not) justified in castigating Cordelia.” “Socrates did (or did not) adequately answer the charge.”]

More likely, however, your assignments will be less specific. They won’t suggest opposite claims. Instead, they’ll give you a reasonably specific sense of subject matter and a reasonably specific sense of your task:

“Illustrate,” “explain,” “analyze,” “evaluate,” “compare”

“Discuss the role that honor plays in The Odyssey.”

“Show how Moliére exploits comic patterns in a scene from Tartuffe.”

None of these assignments implies a main point or claim that you can directly import into you paper. You can’t just claim that “honor does play a role in The Odyssey” or that “Moliére does exploit comic patterns in Tartuffe.” After all, if the instructor has asked you to discuss how Moliére used comic patterns, she presumably already believes  that he did use them. You get no credit for asserting the existence of something we already know exists.

Instead, these assignments ask you to spend four or five pages explaining the results of an analysis. Words such as show how and explain and illustrate do not ask you to summarize reading. They ask you to show how the reading is put together, how it works. If you asked someone to show you how your laptop worked, you wouldn’t be satisfied if they simply summarized: “This is the keyboard, this is the monitor, and this is the printer.” You already know the summary—now you want to know how the thing does what it does. These assignments are similar. They ask you to identify parts of things—parts of an argument, parts of a narrative, parts of a play; then show how those parts fit together (or work against one another) to create some larger effect.

But in the course of doing so, you can’t just grind out five pages of discussion, explanation, or analysis. It may seem strange, but even when you’re asked to “show how” or “illustrate,” you’re still being asked to make an argument. You must shape and focus that discussion or analysis so that it supports a claim that you discovered and formulated and that all of your discussion and explanation develops and supports.

A third kind of assignment is simultaneously least restrictive and most intimidating. These assignments leave it up to you to decide not only what you will claim but what you will write about and even what kind of analysis you will do. “Analyze the role of a character in The Odyssey.” That is the kind of assignment that causes many students anxiety because they must motivate their research and critical reflections almost entirely on their own. To meet this kind of assignment, the best advice we can give is to read with your mind open to things that puzzle you, that make you wish you understood something better.

Now, that advice may seem counterproductive; you may even think that being puzzled or not understanding something testifies to your intellectual failure. Yet almost everything we do in the academy starts with someone being puzzled about something, someone with a vague—or specific—dissatisfaction caused by not knowing something that seems important or by wanting to understand something better. The best place to begin thinking about any assignment is with what you don’t understand but wish you did.

If, after all of this analysis of the assignment, you are still uncertain about what is expected of you, ask your instructor. If you prefer, ask a tutor in the Writing Center (which is located on the first floor of Little Library). You’re not likely to succeed on an assignment if you don’t have a clear sense of what will count as success. You don’t want to spend time doing something different than what you’re being asked to do.