Tips on Writing a Weekly Reflection
in One of Carroll's Classes


Many Rensselaer students find it nonsensical to devote any serious attention to a writing assignment that will not be graded for content. The educational system in the United States conditions people to think that all submissions are supposed to be "proofs" to the teacher that the student knows the "answers", and that the teacher's job is to declare the submission "right" or "wrong" and hand it back with a grade.

Obviously, the reflection assignments in Carroll's courses depart from this tradition. Instead, they are meant to be a study aid, a vehicle for encouraging students who are used to "problem sets" and "objective tests" and "pop quizzes" to learn in a very different, discourse-based, contemplative way. The idea here is for you to use each reflection as a way of deducing the main themes in the week's readings, of rendering articulate your reactions to them, and of situating them in the larger subject matter of the course and in relation to your own larger perspective on things.

The idea behind the reflection has a distinguished heritage. Almost every successful writer and thinker in history has kept a personal journal or notebook of one sort or another. For example, Charles Darwin used a whole series of notebooks to develop his thinking about his theory of evolution by natural selection, and he kept a few of them very much to himself for fear of criticism from those who disagreed with him. Thomas Edison kept his notes in marble composition tablets, filling thousands of them over his lifetime. (They're now on deposit at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey.) The same is true of political giants like Thomas Jefferson, of novelists like Virginia Woolf, of poets like Emily Dickinson, and even of popular songwriters like John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the celebrated Beatles. The basic premise of this mode of writing is that, if you don't write it down in a roughly coherent form, how do you know you have a coherent understanding of it? Also, if you don't write it down in, say, week 2 of the semester, how are you going to remember it during the midterm or the final?

Just because the text of the reflection isn't graded, don't assume that anything you write in it is equally valuable. It's not. One big mistake most students make is that they use the reflection to assess how much fun the reading is. That is, they either write that they "enjoyed" the reading, that it moved along and was funny, etcetera, or that they found it "boring" and "repetitive". Yes, all other things being equal, education should be fun, but that's not our main concern. We're here to explain why human events happened and are happening the way they do, and sometimes that doesn't have a lot of entertainment value. Remember, we are not at the movies or in a video arcade.

A lesser mistake, but still one that is common, is for students to use a reflection merely to outline the readings (i.e., first they said this, then they said that, then they said the next thing). Doing this at least gets off of issues of style and onto issues of content, but it's pretty mundane, and it's so time-consuming that you probably can't afford to do it. It would be different if you were going to be grilled extensively on the details of the readings, but for the most part, that's not the kind of reading assignment you get in a history course (at least not in Carroll's history courses, or any history courses Carroll respects). If you simply must outline, do it on your own time, and do it from the gross level (e.g., chapter headings) down to the particulars (e.g., through section headings, subsection headings, and ultimately to the paragraph level). Do not start on page one and proceed serially through the assignment. Doing that is too distracting; that is, you'd be likely to miss the forest for the trees if you do that.

The best thing to do with each reflection is to keep it focused on the main contentions of the assignment. Writing a published piece of work is difficult, so you can be sure that each author you're reading has some ax to grind, something he or she rather passionately wants to bring you around to believing, and to convince you further that the alternative ways of seeing things are inferior. If not, said author would never have worked up the energy to guide the piece into print. Focus on identifying what each reading contends, and then use the rest of the reflection to decide whether you buy the contention or not, and why. Doing that on a regular basis, in writing, will make you into a discerning intellectual. Trust me. It's the very essence of a college education.