Faculty on Writing
Professor: Jonathan Allen
Interviewed By: Matt Mallum
Department: Political Science
Date: September 26, 2008
Assistant Professor Jonathan Allen may be new to Northern Michigan University’s Department of Political Science – this being his first year – but he certainly is no stranger to writing, which is essential in his professional field. For example, he has contributed analytic essays to collections such as The One and the Many: Reading Isaiah Berlin. This familiarity with critical writing informs Professor Allen’s well-developed expectations for the student writing that he assigns in all of his current classes, which are: two sections of Introduction to Political Science (PS 101), History of Political Thought (PS 207), and American Political Thought (PS 411).
The broad scope of an introductory course such as PS 101, or a survey course such as PS 207, does not provide many opportunities for meaningful writing assignments. Despite this, Professor Allen said that he attempts to find proper places and times to sneak them in. For example, in his midterm examinations, he likes to incorporate an exercise he terms “paragraph identification,” wherein students are given one or two questions and are asked to answer them in short essay form. This, Allen said, “encourages on the spot, short essay development.” The crucial element to these essays is that they force students to try to focus their writing on the topic at hand, and reveals the depth of their comprehension. In political science, Professor Allen believes, essay development is the very best way to gauge a student’s understanding. He notes that this is true in almost any other field in the humanities and social sciences.
In more advanced courses, such as PS 411, Professor Allen expects a higher level of discipline and product from his students. He assigns not only a handful of short essays, but a long one as well. The short essays function in a manner similar to the midterm “paragraph identification” exercise (which he also uses in his upper level courses.) Additionally, they serve a communicative purpose – allowing him to see how a student’s perception of the course material develops throughout the semester, which gives him the opportunity to better guide those students. The longer essay (6-7 pages) is announced at the beginning of the term, and due near its end. The intention is that the students can use the greater length of time to develop their thoughts.
Professor Allen emphasized that the central qualifications of a well developed critical essay are specificity and concision. Those two things are what he looks for in a student essay, whether it is long or short. Both are difficult to achieve. For an essay to successfully include the former, a student must know his or her topic well. Also, the student must try to focus on one area of the target subject – he or she must “identify a position [they] want to defend.” The best way of determining whether a student has achieved an appropriate level of specificity, Professor Allen explained, is to ask the question: “Can you state your point in one sentence?” If a student is able to do so, he feels that they have an excellent base to work from. Additionally, Professor Allen feels that concrete examples from pertinent texts can help solidify, specify and clarify an argument.
On concision, Professor Allen specifically noted that “shorter rather than longer” essays are more effective. Ultimately, he said, the reader of an individual essay should be able to see a clear progression of thought. For a student to achieve this, Professor Allen recommends the use of plain language: “The longer the sentence, the more room there is to digress from your topic.” He also admitted (a little sheepishly) that he has been guilty of occasionally skirting this advice in his own writing. It is something he endeavors to avoid.
In an attempt to aid his own students with their writing problems, Professor Allen has developed a detailed packet on writing papers in political theory. In the packet, he expounds some of the aforementioned ideas, and gives solid examples of an outline or citations. He encourages his students to use this resource and others like it – such as the Writing Center, which he is highly enthusiastic about.