Instructions for the Short Response Paper


Your assignment is to write a short essay (500-1000 words, or approximately 2-4 pages, double-spaced). Papers should be typed, in 12 point font, double-spaced, and with one inch margins. All texts you use need to be cited properly, though there is no requirement to use any specific style sheet (so use one you are familiar with). The paper is due Friday, October 26, at the beginning of class. Improperly cited ideas, particularly if they come from texts not assigned for class, can count as plagiarism and can lead to a zero for the assignment, along with other disciplinary action. Deviations from this formatting may be penalized (particularly if it appears that your deviation is designed to hide the fact that you didn’t meet length requirements). This paper is optional, but it is a good idea to write it, particularly if you intend to choose essay-writing as one of your optional components.

This paper is to be a “response paper.” It is somewhat less formal than a full blown college essay. The goal, rather, is to think about, comment, and/or elaborate on the ideas, themes, or issues that the text raises. When commenting on something, we usually defend, challenge, qualify an argument, or we elaborate on a position or an idea. So one takes something that the author says or argues, and then defends that claim, challenges that claim, or qualifies it (that is, defends some version of the claim but not another, or defends the claim in some context but not another). Elaborating on a an idea is a bit different. Here the goal is to develop one of the positions or ideas one finds in a text, perhaps showing implications of it that might not be immediately obvious (for instance, explaining about how Steinbeck and Marx think about human freedom would be to elaborate on issues that their texts hint at but do not develop).

Like all college papers, you need an introductory paragraph that explains the problem or puzzle you are addressing (e.g., “The problem I want to explore is why Marx thinks that what he calls political emancipation is incomplete”), and also presents your main claim or thesis (“I argue that Marx’s critique does make sense, but that there are potentially insurmountable obstacles to realizing the sort of ‘genuine human emancipation’ he hopes for”).

The following questions are designed to get you thinking about the kinds of responses you might have to the texts we have read so far. You can write your response guided by one of these questions, or you develop your own.

  • Chapter 5 of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath describes a process in which farming family is evicted from their land. In your essay, analyze this story from the perspective of two of the theorists we have discussed so far (Hobbes, the writers of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” or Marx). That is, pick two theorists and discuss how they might interpret the chapter. Consider the following questions in developing your analysis: how would the theorist in question account for the events of this chapter? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this interpretation? Or another variation on this idea: What part of the story does each theorist help us understand? What does each theorist’s approach ignore? And which theorist gives us greater insight into the events Steinbeck describes?
  • Are the characters in Steinbeck’s story “free”? Analyze this question from Marx’s point of view and from the point of view of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.”
  • According to Marx’s sketch in the “Communist Manifesto,” what dynamics will lead to the transition from capitalism to communism? What sort of power is operative in that transition, and is anyone “responsible” for the transition?
  • Consider the following statement: Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” presents a devastating critique of conception of political power that is in “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” Defend, challenge, or qualify this statement.
  • What is the role of ideas in Marx’s theory of social change? (Examine, for instance, the role of ideas in the transition from feudalism to capitalism or from capitalism to communism; you might also look at what Marx and Engels have to say about other socialist parties in the third part of the essay). Do people’s conscious ideas and intentions play any significant role in social change or social dynamics?

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