Feelings? A Note to Students

Note to Students: Don’t Tell Me How You Feel

Far too often, when I am reading an undergraduate student paper, José Neto’s lyrics come to mind: ‘Feelings … nothing more than feelings, …”.

I truly don’t want to hurt a student’s feelings, but I have to tell them time and again that I am not really interested in reading about how they feel. Please show me what you know about the topic and how you view the topic in a structured way and on the basis of your reading of the literature, empirical evidence, logic, ethical principles, or any other approach to analysis.

What is leading so many students to center their essays on how they feel about any given topic? Perhaps it is watching television interviews in which journalists or media personalities often ask people how they feel about a candidate, an issue, or an event. But I also sense that many instructors might be encouraging students to express themselves by asking them to write about their feelings. This is an easy ask: How do you feel about any given topic is something that requires no research, no analytical perspective. But surely this is a mistake to invite students to write in a way that frees them from reasoned analysis or critical thinking.

The ability of a student to critically address a question by drawing from literature, evidence, and a variety of analytical perspectives, is one of the fundamental skills and habits that should be instilled by a college education. It would be tragic if we reinforced a tendency for students to simply express their feelings, primarily because it was an effective means to encourage them to write. It might be that teaching writing skills in general, without writing being taught in the context of a substantive course, makes it difficult for the instructors to lead students to appropriate evidence and perspectives. It is undoubtedly important for instructors in all courses to constantly think of their role in teaching students how to write about the subject matter of their courses. feelings-morris_albert_ly

Nothing more than feelings might work in a song, but not in conveying knowledge, questionning conventional wisdom, or writing a substantive term paper. Therefore, I sometimes shock my students by telling them – gently but clearly − that I am not interested in how they feel about the topic of their papers.

Am I wrong?

Some Tips for Students on your Final Exam and Term Paper:

In preparing for and sitting your final exam, keep the following in mind:

  • Answer the question, and make sure you read the question carefully and not answer the question you thought would be asked;
  • Show that you were engaged in the course by bringing lectures, discussion and readings into your responses;
  • Demonstrate an understanding of key concepts, ideas and research by using and explaining them in your answers to questions;
  • Marshall facts to the degree possible to show that you can provide concrete evidence and illustrations of general statements;
  • Avoid offering your opinion as an answer to a question since you are not (yet) an expert and even experts need to develop the arguments behind their views and not just state their conclusion;
  • You might offer your conclusion, such as why you agree with one line of reasoning, rather than another. However, you must then indicate why you reached this conclusion, such as by referring to the data, methods, or theoretical basis for one versus the other line of reasoning.

In completing your term paper, keep the following in mind:

  • Follow a clear structure. This is not a mystery novel, but an interdisciplinary paper in the social sciences. Follow a structure, such as clarifying the problem you are addressing, the question(s) it raises, different perspectives or theories of relevance to the question, your approach and methods, findings, conclusion and discussion of limitations and further research required. As is often advised: tell the reader what you are going to do. Do it. Then tell the reader what you’ve done;
  • Avoid anchoring your term paper in your opinion(s), as noted above with respect to exams;
  • You may quote interviews, authors, other research studies, but always make sure you cite this work precisely and carefully to avoid any question of what are your own words. Putting ideas and research into your own words is valuable – showing the instructor that you are aware of key work and its relevance to your topic – but always be sure to error on the side of referencing the source or inspiration for your points. Remember you get credit for bringing the work of others into your paper as long as they are properly cited and credited;
  • Use words and sentences, data, relevant documentation, such as a photo or chart, and your text in general to make your case, and in the same spirit, avoid flowery templates, fonts, and binding to impress the reader;
  • Draft your paper, revise it, and revise it again and again. Spending time in getting the structure, argument, grammar and spelling and clarity of your paper right will take time. There is no shortcut to spending time in crafting your paper; and
  • Write a paper that you would be proud to use as an illustration of your writing, such as for your application to a graduate program or a job.

That is probably enough to think about, but please let me and your colleagues know whatever I’ve forgotten. Best of luck with doing your best on all of your exams and term papers.

Quote from Mark Twain
Quote from Mark Twain