Reading-Response Papers

Instructions for undergraduates

Reading responses should be one to two paragraphs in length — a little longer if you get inspired. I expect your reading response to be carefully proofread and free from typographical and grammatical errors.

What you write should contain very little recapping or summarizing of the readings; if any, just enough to make the argument that you want to make.

Some ideas about what to write about:

Please also see the questions in How to Read in College.

Instructions for graduate students

Reading responses should be at least three pages and one thousand words each, double spaced, 11 or 12 point font. Do not add a cover page, but do be sure to put your name and the date at the top of the first page. I recommend that you use the MLA in-text citation style for references to the readings you are discussing; see this page for details. Be sure to give specific page numbers where appropriate. When citing assigned readings, you need not provide a bibliography at the end of your paper; only include a bibliography for things you cite that are not on the syllabus (if any). Please proofread carefully — I expect your work to be careful and well-polished — and consult this checklist before submitting your reading response.

We read the things we read in seminar for a number of reasons. Some of the main ones are: to acquaint you with the literature, to consider examples (positive and not-so-positive) of how others have contributed to a given line of inquiry, to get practice in assessing others’ work, and to identify opportunities for future contributions of original research. The point of the reading response is to engage intelligently with the readings with one or more of these purposes in mind and to make an argument about them.

The reading response should contain very little recapping or summarizing of the readings. The paper should certainly encompass at least two and ideally more of the week’s selections.

There are a variety of approaches that you can take to writing a reading response. It can appraise the readings, identifying their useful and/or flawed aspects. It can discuss the use of specific sources (e.g. their strengths, biases, limitations), concepts (e.g. how they are defined or operationalized), or methods. It can bring the current week’s readings into dialogue with issues from elsewhere in the course, or issues of general importance in academic debates. It can identify ways in which someone could build on what we’ve read in future scholarship.

Remember that reading responses must be turned in before class. Follow the instructions on the syllabus.

In courses that I took as a graduate student, I found that reading-response papers forced me to think about the readings more carefully than I otherwise might have. I think they also help add spark to class discussion, as students have already committed themselves to specific positions before class begins. Moreover, they give me, as the instructor, sustained contact with your way of thinking and expressing yourself, which I think is much better than just reading a single paper from you at the end of the semester.

It’s good to think of questions that the readings suggest, but spinning out a long list of questions is much less desirable than posing one or two really important questions and answering them well.

It’s reasonable to bring in some empirical evidence from your own knowledge to make a point, but these responses are not, at bottom, empirical papers.