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Teaching in the Department of Social Sciences

CONTENTS
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
How can we best teach our course concepts to cadets? How can we best cultivate in cadets the intellectual skills of reading, thinking, and writing? One key aspect of the answer to both challenges lies in emphasizing writing in our teaching. We sharpen the effectiveness of our teaching by carefully integrating clearly focused writing requirements into our courses. Writing forces the cadet to carry the ball intellectually: to learn and to discriminate among ideas and facts, to take a stand, to reason independently, to craft and support an argument. The cutting edge of good writing --and of learning --is independent reasoning. To write well, a cadet must think clearly, must focus the question, must sharpen the argument, and must support it with logical reasoning.
 
How do we promote good writing and, in the process, sharpen the intellectual vitality of our courses? Many obstacles impede this approach. Writing is as difficult as it is fruitful. Good writing is painfully hard work --requiring a concentrated mind, persistence, and patience. Good writing is time consuming –requiring brainstorming, analysis, craftsmanship, and repeated editing. Good writing is engaging, even consuming; therefore, writing is egoistic. As the saying goes, "You can call someone fat, describe their child as ugly, evl3n insult their spouse, but you can't criticize their writing without risking a fight" As a result, we tend to write for ourselves (rather than to sell our argument to "the reader"), and we resent others' criticisms of our writing. How can we overcome these obstacles to the potent role of developing good writing as a key teaching vehicle (and as an objective in itself)?
 
Keys to developing cadets' intellectual skills are integration of writing into course design, analytical focus, cadet engagement, documentation, production skills, and evaluation and feedback. This chapter discusses the nature of each of these keys in order to help you figure out your approach to effective teaching in the Department of Social Sciences. Before we discuss these issues in detail, we need to consider the nature of our teaching and writing environment?
 
 
 
You will discover many barriers to your development of cadets as effective readers, thinkers, and writers. For example, cadets typically are stronger in quantitative than in verbal skills. Over half the USMA academic curriculum focuses on math, science, and engineering. Although some academic departments, such as the Department of Mathematical Sciences, emphasize writing in their courses to some extent, cadet development in "the writing thread" continues to be nurtured principally by the Departments of English, History, Social Sciences, and Law, as well as by the Department of Military Instruction and USCC.
 
Cadets typically are inattentive and impatient in their writing. First, they write most often, in "mad-dash dump" fashion, for grade in time-constrained, in-class exams. Second, cadets perceive that different academic departments (or USCC) want qualitatively different writing. For example, cadets believe that the Department of English demands persuasive writing, the Department of History values descriptive writing, and the Department of Social Sciences emphasizes analytical writing.
 
Cadets often misunderstand that good writing is good writing, and that the good writer always works to persuade the reader of the veracity of his or her argument through explicit focus, lucid analysis, and strong, concise prose. Too often, cadets miss the point that good writing is all about clear communication of an argument, whatever the specific nature of the requirement and the target audience.
 
Finally, because cadets are busy, they typically under-invest in their writing. For instance, cadets generally procrastinate before undertaking the creative design of their architecture, then hammer out a draft paper on the eve of the due date. Cadets spend too little time sculpting the ideas, reasoning, and words in their initial draft, and submit their final paper at the last minute. A survey of cadets in SS307, International Relations, revealed that, on average, cadets seriously engaged themselves in their paper only in the last three weeks of a 14-week research and writing milestone process. In fact, most cadets printed their final paper within a few hours of the submission deadline.
 
 
On the other hand, we are aided in our efforts to develop cadet reading, thinking, and writing skills by many significant advantages. We, on the faculty, are successful leaders and teachers who have attended superb universities. In that our primary duty is to teach and develop cadets in their reading, thinking, and writing skills, we enjoy unprecedented mission focus and freedom from distractions.
 
The quality of our clientele --cadets --and resource support are unparalleled in the Army. Cadets are bright and want to do well in your course. Cadets are hard-working, but terrifically pragmatic; correspondingly, they are impatient with ill-defined requirements and standards. Because they are personally over-achieving and operationally over-scheduled, they want you to show them a clear path to excellence. You will be amazed at how cadets will work for you when they understand what you want from them, and you have shown them how to get there.
 
On the other hand, you will be dismayed at how cadets will turn you off and satisfice in your course when they perceive that your requirements and standards are unclear or inconsistent.
 
Finally, we are aided by a top-quality infrastructure of academic programs, research and word processing facilities, and claims on cadet time. Today many academic departments emphasize the development of good writing skills throughout a cadet's career. In addition to a solid library facility, cadets have unparalleled access to state of the art PCs, software, network capabilities, and printing hardware.
 
 
What writing do we typically require of cadets in our courses? Cadets write chiefly for grades. The purpose of these graded writing requirements ranges from "write for your life dumping" on quizzes to research-based papers requiring thoughtful analysis. Specifically, cadets write for: (1) in-class quizzes or writs, (2) more comprehensive and analytical in-class exams (the WPR, Written Partial Review; ICE, In-Class Essay; or TEE, Term End Exam), (3) out-of-class short papers (book reports, book reviews, case studies, analytical "think pieces"), (4) research designs, and (5) research term papers. The latter typically involve separate graded incremental efforts on outlines, research plans, bibliographies, and opening paragraphs.
 
Core courses rely more on in-class graded writing requirements, plus a major paper. In SS201, Economics, cadets write a paper to interpret and analyze a spreadsheet simulation of macroeconomic policy. Cadets write a 10-page research paper in SS202, American Politics, in order to analyze the politics of a particular issue or institution. In SS307, International Relations, cadets write a 15- page research paper to explain the foreign policy of a particular state. Thus every cadet is required to write a major analytical paper (weighted, typically, 20 to 35 percent of the course grade) in each of our core courses.
 
Electives feature fewer in-class writing requirements, and tend more toward a series of short analysis papers, book reviews, or mini- research papers. Cadets majoring in Economics or Political Science must take the appropriate "tool box-course": SS368, Econometrics, or SS360, Research Methods in Political Science. In addition to providing a foundation in the philosophy of science and techniques of research design, these courses expose cadets to alternative research approaches (for example, case study and statistical analysis). Cadets write a research design in addition to critiquing the designs and studies of a variety of scholars.
 
The Department has long wrestled with the debate over how much and how rigorously cadets should write in our programs. One charge is that we improperly require all cadets to write a major research paper in our core courses, but require cadets who major in our programs to write only shorter, more analytical "think piece" papers. Do we have our priorities backwards? One school, endorsing the current regime, contends that all cadets must grapple with a major research paper. Electives, this school argues, properly rely on short analytical papers to punctuate cadets' skills in political analysis. The other school argues we should reverse these schemes: use short, analytical papers to reinforce concepts in core courses, and require major research papers only in our electives. This question remains open. What do you think? You should discuss this question with other instructors and with the tenured faculty.
 
This debate flared again in the 1980s when academic majors were instituted. Should cadets be required to complete a full-blown research paper (and oral defense), equivalent to an honors or senior thesis, in order to receive credit for a major in Political Science or Economics? Conversely, should cadets simply take another 40Q-Ievel elective in the field? SS489, Advanced Individual Study in the Social Sciences, had long offered a venue for select cadets to study and conduct research, on a tutorial basis, on a specific topic. The final product of this course was a major research paper and an oral defense.
 
Opinions were divided. Accordingly, the Department designed the current majors program –tool box courses (to include a methods course, and a theory course), a distribution requirement for electives, and a capstone series of electives (requiring more demanding writing) -- and decided to experiment. Cadets were initially encouraged to take the "high road" to the major: a one-year, two-course sequence, SS488 and SS489, in which they would read the literature and write a major paper on a topic of their interest. However, this program failed because faculty costs were substantial and cadets proved unable to sustain the high level of independent work across the year. Today few cadets subscribe to this more ambitious track that remains in our program, and instead complete the additional elective courses. The failure of the SS488-SS489 experiment suggests that independent research and writing are too difficult for all but the exceptional cadet. The wisdom of the Department's decision to take the "low road" --taking additional elective courses --is substantiated by the fact that most colleges and universities also do not require such efforts at the undergraduate level.
 
Thus we are left with the conclusion that we should integrate writing into all our courses, and into all your teaching. How? You are in an ideal situation to teach your favorite concepts and skills. You are joining a select faculty to teach topnotch students, in a nationally-recognized academic curriculum, supported by superb facilities. You will teach your cadets to excel in your course --just as you will develop in them lifetime skills in reading, thinking, and writing --to the degree that you effectively engage them in good writing. Stretch them. Make them work! How do you do it? What keys will help you engage them in good writing?
 
 
 
Course design is crucially important. In addition to crafting course purpose and objectives, scope, readings, lecturers, and lesson schedule, the course director decides how to integrate writing requirements into the course. This creative process reflects guidance from the Academy Professors and senior civilian professors, previous course-end reports, and input from visiting professors, as well as the course director's own intellectual architecture. The course director makes the fundamental decisions about the nature and roles of writing in the course during this design process.
 
We can improve our teaching by investing careful thought in how we use writing requirements to concentrate cadets' intellectual efforts, and to develop in them skill in the intellectual discipline of crafting and selling an argument as the key to their good writing. We can improve. In general, we tend to give greater thought in our course designs to ideas and readings than to the specific thrust of writing requirements as vehicles for forcing cadets to grapple creatively and rigorously with our ideas and readings.
 
A major consideration in deciding on the specific nature of a particular writing requirement is the demand imposed on cadet time. Cadets are busy, and cannot fence large chunks of time for sustained research and writing. You must estimate carefully the time demands of your course. For example, you can legitimately claim no more than 120 hours of cadet time for your elective: 40 hours for class, and 80 hours for outside work. Compute the aggregate cost of your reading load, and trade that cost against that of outside writing requirements you envision. Balance proportionally the cost of your writing requirements in total cadet time and the grade weight of these requirements. For example, our incentives in SS307 fairly weight the research paper as one-third of the course grade because cadets average around fifty hours (of a total course claim of 141 hours) on their research paper. Think through whether and how you allocate compensatory class drops for writing. You want to be fair, and you want to be realistic. However, you want to avoid subsidizing last-minute paper preparation.
 
 
The most important key to good thinking and writing is analytical focus. This key involves two simple questions.
What is your purpose?

How do you advance your purpose?
These questions highlight a number of imperatives to good thinking and writing. First, the writer (not the reader) carries the burden of action. "How do you advance your purpose? Effective writing follows the rule that "hard writing makes for easy reading." Second, good writing requires a clear sense of purpose. What are you trying to do? What do you want to communicate? What message do you want to sell to the reader? Third, what must you do to persuade the reader of your purpose? No matter how vivid or interesting, good writing is more than a bulletin board to which bits of thought and language are posted. Good writing is purposive --it argues the merits of a purpose. The good writer never loses sight of the task of selling that purpose. The good writer ruthlessly omits interesting tidbits of fact or analysis that fail to advance the argument.
 
We easily translate these keys into our course writing requirements by (1 ) making explicit the purpose of the writing requirement, and (2) by holding cadets' feet to the fire. We must ensure cadets clearly understand our purpose (and how it is embedded in the course), just as we must relentlessly guide them to chase their argument unerringly.
 
 
Make writing requirements explicit. What is the question? What do you want your cadets to do? Why? How does this requirement fit in the course? How are you constraining their topic selection? Where do they find guidelines on how to do this requirement? How do they assess their progress? Be precise. Cadets will work harder and develop further to the degree they have a clear conception of the requirement confronting them. This approach does not mean at all that we should present "cook book" problems, or avoid asking cadets to analyze ambiguous problems and the interesting questions that have no answer. Rather, we should be explicit about what you want them to do, whatever it is. The following are examples of poorly constructed writing requirements:
 
Select any topic involving international affairs that you find interesting. Write an analysis of this topic. See me if you have questions, or want further guidance.
 
Your paper should be a case study involving the interaction of public organizations and/or political executives on some issue. The key is political interaction. Look hard for a good topic and look everywhere you can. You have a lot of latitude in choosing a topic. You must ensure your paper is analytical --you should compare or contrast your topic with the literature of political science, explain some facet of bureaucratic or organizational behavior, and suggest the implications of your conclusions.
 
The following are examples of properly constructed writing requirements:
Why did state A do ...to state B? Use one of the theories we have studied in this course to guide your explanation of this case.

Select a foreign policy decision from the menu below. Use at least one of the theories we have studied to guide your explanation of "Why did A do xxx?" Do not tell a story; this is not a history paper. Use your theoretical perspective to organize and guide your efforts: what is important, what questions do you ask, how do you sort out and interpret facts, how do you discover relationships, how do you reason in order to explain the policy decision? Support your assertions.

You will write two comparative politics papers. In the first paper, apply two different theories we have studied to analyze an important political variable in one country. In the second paper, apply (at least) one theory we have studied to compare a significant political variable in two different countries.

The key to this paper is analysis, not description. By analysis, we mean the use of political science theory to explain why your case turned out the way it did, why the actors behaved as they did, and what implications followed.

You may choose as your topic any post-1945 political or policy decision, question, or event within the purview of the American federal government. Your analysis paper presents an analytical perspective, describes the facts of the case as they are relevant to that analytical perspective, and evaluates the fit of those facts to the expectations of the analytical framework. Use the perspective to guide your focus and analysis of "the why?" and "the so what?" of your case.
 
Effective writing starts with a clear sense of argument. The argument anchors the writer's purpose and provides the writer with the story-line. Your first challenge is to help each cadet identify an argument. This step is the most difficult and important one in writing. Although time-consuming, your investment during this front-end architectural stage is critical. You must walk each cadet over all the normal hurdles: course context, purpose, topic selection, scope, interest, resources, and feasibility. Second, you must help each cadet think through how they sell their argument. What methodological steps are necessary? What ideas or theories in the course will help carry the argument? What materials are available for elaborating on these theories or for providing evidence highlighted by these theories?
 
Third, you must make cadets stick to their argument. This task is impossible if they have no argument, or if they have not thought it through sufficiently. Cadets are easily sidetracked onto interesting tangents and stray from their argument. Talk with cadets constantly as they struggle with their writing requirement. "What is your argument? Does this advance your argument?" Insist they explicitly state their argument at the outset of their paper. For example, require them to state, in their opening paragraph or first page, their question, their argument, their premises, counters to their argument, and their conclusion.
 
 
Teach cadets to anchor their writing on a clearly-thought through argument. Focusing the scope, defining a purpose, and charting a methodological path to support this purpose are the most difficult and important tasks in good writing. Consistently force cadets to define and refine their argument. "So what? ...What's your point?" are as constructive as they are infuriating guides to disciplining analytically focused writing. Here are some useful suggestions for coaching cadets to sharpen the focus of their writing:
  1. Write to make your paper easy to read and comprehend. Preview your writing in your introduction to answer the following questions.
    • What is the question?
    • Why is this question significant and interesting?
    • What is the answer?
    • What competing answers are rejected?
    • How is the answer supported?
    • How is this answer significant? What are its implications?
    • How is the paper organized to make this argument?

  2. State your argument explicitly at the very outset in the introduction (perhaps in the opening paragraph; usually on the first page). A taut argument answers many of the questions posed above. The following passages are examples of how to make a potent argument:
    • John Mearsheimer: "The distribution and character of military power among states are the root causes of war and peace. The peace in Europe flowed from the bipolar distribution of military power on the Continent; the rough equality between the polar powers, and the nuclear arsenal of the superpowers. The prospect of major crises, even wars, in Europe is likely to increase dramatically now that the Cold War is receding into history."
    • John Gaddis: "Containment was the product, not so much of what the
    • Russians did, or of what happened elsewhere in the world, but ofinternal forces operating within the United States."

  3. Write the body of the paper with a ruthless eye to pushing your argument.
    • Every section, paragraph, sentence, and word should sell the argument. Avoid distractions, no matter how interesting. Delete all ideas and words that do not directly advance your argument. Streamline the smooth logic flow of the story line in advancing the argument. Each section and paragraph should fit into the larger context, and should maintain its own internal logic of (sub)argument, evidence, counter-arguments, conclusion, and transition.

  4. Write to be "user-friendly".
    • Preview your argument in the introduction, and stake each paragraph to a main point that advances the argument. Close your argument in the conclusion. Restate your argument, and assess its implications and significance. In this way, the reader can easily consume the paper by reading your introduction, the first sentence of each paragraph, and your conclusion.

  5. Assist the reader by sign-posting the major elements of your argument with subtitles that themselves state a piece of the argument.
    • For example, John Mearsheimer's provocative interpretation of post-Cold War European stability pulls the reader through his argument by using evocative subtitles such as "Back to the Future" and "the Cold War --Why We Will Miss It". Use graphics and data tables to punctuate your argument or to present evidence.
 
Cadets write good papers to the degree you get them engaged --in terms of pure sweat, as well as intellectually --in your requirement. Just as the strongest cadets do not necessarily write the best papers, the weakest cadets do not write the weakest papers. The discriminator is personal investment. There is no substitute for pride, craftsmanship, and persistence in good writing. Thus the core courses typically lead cadets through a highly structured regime of milestone requirements that leads to submission of a final paper. For example, we require cadets to read, conduct directed library research, and participate in methodology labs in lab periods. In addition, cadets submit incremental pieces of their paper over the first twelve weeks of the term. In addition to requiring cadets to pull their writing work forward in the course, these milestones punctuate the point that the course readings and writing requirement are organic complements in the overall course.
 
It is amazing that, despite the milestone schedule, cadets backload their writing work. Although they satisfy the incremental requirements, cadets begin work in earnest, on average, only in the last three weeks of a 14-week process. For example, cadets have long perceived the research paper in SS307, International Relations, as an intimidating minefield in the path of each cadet toward graduation. Yet this long and storied reputation apparently fails to override the cadet "just-in- time" management approach. Cadets typically write this paper in the last two weeks before submission.
 
Therefore, the burden to get cadets seriously engaged in their writing falls on you. You earn your money by coaching, counseling, and coercing cadets to invest themselves in their writing. In addition to offering general writing tips in class, talk to cadets individually about their writing. Use e-mail to point out good materials or to critique their work. Spend the time to mark-up their writing with your feedback. Teach them to write iteratively. Return marked-up drafts, exams, or papers quickly. Give cadets strong feedback --what did they do well and poorly? No one respects an instructor who delays returning graded papers, or who returns a paper with a grade, but no mark-ups.
 
 
Reinforce the importance and many values of documentation: e.g., to credit the ideas or words of others, to signpost excellent sources for the reader, to add credence to claims and arguments. Hold up the standard references {their McGraw-Hill College Handbook, the Dean's Documentation of Written Work) as well as guidelines unique to your course. Be explicit. It is inexcusable that a few cadets get themselves in trouble every year because of improper documentation.
 
 
Cadets have access to great writing production support: PCs, networks, laser printers, and software. However, cadets under-use this support. For example, some cadets have learned only the rudimentary word-processing features of MS Word. Too often they submit a paper without having run a spell-check, or without having proofread their paper. Add to their writing power by helping them exploit their support assets. Show them tips such as page formatting or how to use footnote, subtitle, and running head default formats. Make them exploit the power of editing and iterative writing.
 
 
Grading standards for written work, especially graded homework of various types, obviously will vary by course, the nature of the requirement, and the time allowed. In any case, demand hard work and high standards. Mark up and grade cadets' writing accordingly: English errors in grammar, spelling, and general expression --as well as substantive content. They are surprised and impressed when you write for them as you demand they write for you. Cadets are impressed by extensive markups, tough (but fair) grading, and fast turn- around of their written work. Cadets will adjust their writing standards to the level you demand.
 
 
Stretch cadets intellectually. Good writing is both our goal and our most effective means for enhancing our teaching effectiveness. Our goal is to develop in each cadet the ability to synthesize ideas and facts logically, make a cogent argument, and persuade a reader of the validity of the conclusions. Good writing is the natural product of skillful reading and thinking. By the same token, we teach our course concepts more effectively by requiring cadets to integrate and employ these ideas in well-designed writing requirements in our courses.
 
There are two keys to success on these counts. First, we must teach cadets to focus analytically on an argument. What is their purpose? What must they do to sell this purpose to the reader? Second, we must inspire and cajole cadets to labor and sweat when they write. Good writing requires hard work in reading, thinking, and writing.
 
Effective writing provides the best tool for, as well as the best test of, effective teaching. We raise the quality of cadets' reading, thinking, and writing skills by emphasizing these two keys of analytical focus and hard work. The measure of successful teachers is the degree to which they stretch cadets intellectually. The path to such success lies in integrating demanding writing requirements into our courses.