Exemplary Writing in Social Science

First Prize
Kaitlyn Krivitzky, Psychology
"Comparing the Controversy to the Data: Does Gender Symmetry Exist in Intimate Partner Violence?"
PS409 Senior Seminar in Psychology
Michele Hoffnung, professor of psychology
Read the essay (Adobe PDF)

From Michele Hoffnung: Kate wrote this paper as her senior thesis, when she was my student in PS409. Senior Seminar in Psychology, Fall 2012.  The senior thesis is the major task of this course.  Several small assignments help the student prepare for writing it.  After it is complete, the student shares it with the class by means a half hour PowerPoint presentation, followed by a Q&A session.  By that time, I and two other students will have read the thesis and all members of the seminar will have heard the presentation.

For the thesis, each student selects a current topic in psychology, does an exhaustive literature review, and writes a 45-50 page thesis that presents the topic thoroughly and includes a final chapter that proposes a study which would add clarity to what is already known.  In addition to presenting a literature review based upon primary psychology sources and a thorough understanding of the topic, seniors are expected to write clear prose, free of jargon and direct quotes.  The psychology department wants well-written, interesting papers that can be read by any thoughtful reader.

Kate's thesis is notable in this context.  In it she uses the available data to assess gender symmetry theory and feminist theory (which sees asymmetry).  She concludes that power inequity between genders makes symmetry in intimate partner violence (IPV) impossible, and predicts that once genders have more equal power there will be less IPV overall.  Her work acknowledges the complexity of her topic, respects alternative points of view, shows tolerance for ambiguity, and is very well written.  Her thesis goes beyond the formal topic to enrich it, by placing it in the larger social and historical context of gender equity.   Most senior theses do not do this.

I grade senior thesis using a rubric that students see before they start writing.  It rates a paper as Distinguished, Effective, Developing, or Underdeveloped in subcategories of : Evidence of Critical Thinking, Thesis Development, Empirical Support, Concluding Materials, Idea Flow, Writing Style, and APA mechanics.  A paper can be awarded 60 points, unevenly divided among those categories.  Kate Krivitzky's thesis was one of the very few I have graded over the years that earned all 60 points.  It is outstanding.

I am very proud of Kate Krivitzky for her thoughtful, well-researched, and well-written senior thesis, "Comparing the Controversy to the Data: Does Gender Symmetry Exist in Intimate Partner Violence?"  I am particularly impressed that she went into the research with an open mind, evaluated existing evidence, and came out with a clear and well argued position on the issue.  For all of these reasons, I recommend it for the QUWAC Writing Prize.

Honorable Mention
Andrew Bonacci, Chemistry
"Uncertainty in America: A Sociological Analysis of How Modernity is Blurring the Future"
SOC 235 American Culture
Keith Kerr, assistant professor sociology
Read the essay (Adobe PDF)

From Keith Kerr: Andrew Bonacci's essay was written as part of this semester's Sociology of American Culture course and represented one of three formal writing assignments given to the students. I have had Mr. Bonacci for two classes, and have seen his writing grow immensely during this time, and seen his thought mature over the two semesters. For me, this paper represented and demonstrated the culmination, achievement and maturation of a sociological mode of thought in that he was able to imaginatively and analytically shuttle between levels of abstraction, thereby linking micro-level (interactional) phenomenon to larger macro-level (structural and cultural) arrangements. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that Mr. Bonacci is a chemistry major, and not a sociologist.

The assignment is a formal writing assignment that asks students to bring two disparate readings (Goffman's Presentation of Self and Giddens's Consequences of Modernity) into conversation with one another, and to apply this "conversation" to the documentary Digital Nation. This assignment is one of the more difficult of the semester, as not only were Goffman and Giddens writing in two different time periods and on two separate subjects, but each also write from opposite extremes of sociology's levels of analysis. Goffman, at mid-century, focuses on micro-level interactions between agents, while Giddens, writing at our most recent fin-de-siècle, was focusing on macro-level socio-cultural evolutionary trajectories.

While the course that this paper was assigned in is a course on the Sociology of American Culture, it is best described as a course on culture and personality as applied to the American experience. As such, its main goal is to demonstrate to students in what way the culture they now live in and the people who make-up that culture, are emergent outcomes of the intersection between historical change, structural arrangements, and culturally influenced social-psychological processes.

While the lectures, readings and discussions tend to focus on a specific component involved in this emergent process, this assignment was designed to test students' abilities to "play" with the interactional emergent component. That is to say, its goal was to force students to think about in what way history, structure and biography are linked in order to understand and explain contemporary American culture.

The grading rubric is designed such that students who can demonstrate a solid grasp of the factual components of the readings and the documentary, can achieve a passing grade of 70. Grades beyond the 70 mark, however, are achieved with the demonstration of original thought/analysis and the ability to construct and carry an argument throughout the entire paper (achieved through an integrative approach whereby the paper can demonstrate sustained considerations of various facts' relationships to other facts, throughout the paper).

This criteria in separating A and B level papers from other papers, is reinforced in the documentary that the assignment is in part over. In the film Digital Nation, a professor laments on how interactional changes created through structural shifts in technology, now produce students who write "in paragraphs." In other words, students answer questions in paragraph form with no demonstration of a sustained argument, what the paragraphs have to do with each other, and with no consideration of what the paragraph does in advancing the overall thesis (if even such a thesis exists).

The strength of Mr. Bonacci's paper was in exactly this: its ability to demonstrate and argue links and emergent outcomes between macro-level arrangements (as discussed by Giddens) and micro-level interactions (as discussed in Goffman) and to apply these into the context of a digitally-infused world that neither author explicitly or implicitly engages. As such, the paper not only shows the emergent social outcome of interaction between macro and micro social levels, it also successfully abstracts the theoretical content within the readings in such a way that applications and conclusions can be drawn when applied to specific social settings depicted in the documentary.

The paper thus demonstrates not only good writing, but also a mature and deep level of critical thought that shows a clear move toward self-directed and abstracted applications of the material presented in class and readings. This intellectual gymnastics provided clear evidence to me that the student has successfully mastered the skills and techniques to understand and apply theoretical concepts to a wide range of social phenomenon and thus has mastered a skill that will be beneficial to the student long after the student's exit from the University.

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