Jocelyn Johnson (Philosophy)
Poor OK Good Very Good Outstanding
- Well-Defined Thesis
- Logic and Development of
- Originality of Ideas
- Serious Consideration
- Well-Informed (incorporates
relevant readings and
- Reflects Solid Understanding
- Writing Style (clarity, flow,
- Grammar, Paragraph and
Notes on Grading Criteria for Essays
What follows is a clarification of some of the criteria for essays that are listed on the previous page. Not all the criteria are addressed. If you have questions about those that aren’t discussed or about the following, please ask.
Well-Defined Thesis. The thesis of your essay is the conclusion of the argument that you will develop. Not formulating the thesis statement precisely is one of the most common mistakes of an essay. Although it is not necessary, I strongly advise you to place the thesis statement in the first paragraph of your essay; I will also ask you to indicate the thesis of your essay by underlining or italicizing it. After writing a draft of your essay, go back to your thesis statement to check whether what you intended to argue is what you did in fact argue.
Examples of unacceptably vague—but all-too-common—thesis statements are as follows:
“In this paper I will discuss and criticize X’s article.”
“I will argue that euthanasia is morally permissible in some situations.”
Neither of these tells the reader what your essay is about except, in the first example, that you will discuss X’s article, and, in the second, that you will discuss euthanasia. Better thesis statements are:
“I will show that X’s argument is invalid because s/he fails to make the distinction between doing something and allowing it to happen.”
“I will argue that neither active nor passive euthanasia is acceptable because both violate human dignity.”
For an example of an introduction which I think is especially good, see Martin Perlmutter’s introduction to “Desert and Capital Punishment” in Morality and Moral Controversies, pp. 390-1. His introduction is much longer than one for a five page essay, but I think the last paragraph of his introductory section is a good model for a shorter introduction.
Originality of Ideas. It is not expected that your essay will involve insights that no philosopher has ever had (nor is it expected that this is an impossibility). However, you are expected to think about these issues for yourself and not merely summarize points that have been made in the readings or class. It is fine to mention the arguments that have been made, and sometimes important to do so, but your essay should go beyond this. This is usually easiest if you disagree with the argument that someone has made. However, even if you think some author got things exactly right, there are ways to make your essay original. For example you could discuss good objections (perhaps from other readings or lectures) that the author hadn’t considered and argue that those objections don’t work. Or you could apply the style of argument that you find correct to an aspect of an issue that the author didn’t discuss. For example, if someone argued that marijuana should be legalized for reason X, you could argue that the same reason does (or doesn’t) work when considering other drugs.
Well-Informed. As mentioned above, your essay should not be a mere summary of readings or lectures. However, if there are arguments, distinctions, etc., which are relevant to your argument but your essay demonstrates no awareness of this, the essay will be marked down.
Serious Consideration of Counterarguments. This is a fairly basic requirement of any philosophical writing, and you will surely see it often in the course readings. Many who are new to philosophy find this confusing because it seems that the author is arguing both for and against the same position. However, it is considered a virtue of philosophical writing if you can anticipate objections to your view, present them as strong counterarguments, and provide convincing responses. You won’t be expected to come up with obscure counter-arguments, but you are expected to address convictions against your position that have been raised in readings or lectures that are fairly obvious. An essay shows more intellectual integrity, and will receive a higher grade, if it raises a serious objection which cannot be answered than if it ignores serious objections altogether.