Symbolic Systems 201 - Digital Technology, Society, and
Democracy (Davies, Autumn 2019-2020)
Some Tips on Writing Online Comments in Symsys 201
[This version: October 15, 2019]
The written work required of students in this seminar consists
entirely of weekly comments on the course blog. Comments should be
300 words or less (not more). Blog comments are due at 6
pm prior to the 7:30 class period each Tuesday, to give just
enough time for your fellow students and me to read your comment,
and for you to read theirs. The following are some tips on
writing blog comments which are more likely to get high marks. These
guidelines may be added to or amended later.
1. There are many ways to write an effective comment.
I am reluctant to define what constitutes an ideal comment
for this reason. There is no one way to do it. A good blog comment
might be, for example:
The above is not an exhaustive list.
- A claim that an author of that week's reading has made
inconsistent arguments, showing what the inconsistency is and
why it is inconsistent;
- An elaboration of a point made by an author, especially in a
case where the original argument lacks sufficient illustration,
data, or examples;
- A diagram or outline of a complex argument, or any other way
of summarizing what is otherwise hard to follow;
- An argument against an author's claim;
- An alternative argument in favor of an author's claim or a way
of recasting it;
- A proposed solution to a puzzle, e.g., asking why an author
has made a claim, or has approached a problem in a certain way,
with an answer that cites other things the author says in order
to tie together loose ends or to complete an argument;
- A question that arises from the text, even if you have no
solution to it, but with a clear explanation for why the
question arises, why it is hard to answer, and how we would know
if we had an answer;
- Generalizing different points that are made by an author,
explaining what the more general principle is, and citing the
individual points made by the author as examples.
2. The purpose of an online comment
is not to grade the author of the target text, or say whether you
liked it or not.
Evaluating the quality of a text is not easy, especially when
you are a student reading a well-regarded piece of writing.
This is not to say that you should avoid making your own
evaluations, but pure statements of evaluation, such as "I found
this irritating" or "I really liked this chapter" are not that
useful in comments for an academic course. If you are going to
evaluate something, you should give reasons that take the form of
arguments, and evidence them clearly with quotes or references to
the text in question.
3. The purpose of online comments
is to help everyone, including you, to think more deeply about the
A good blog comment should be a springboard for discussion,
which is one reason why comments are due sufficiently ahead of the
class starting time so that they can be read before the discussion
happens. Part of this involves direct engagement with the
text, e.g. citing specific quotes and referring to page numbers.
4. Your comment should show
evidence of having read the assignment.
Indeed one of the purposes of making online comments due
before class is to get everyone to do the reading before the
discussion. Your comment need not summarize everything in the
assignment for a given week, but it should not be so absent of
direct references to the text that it could have been written
without reading the assignment.
5. Be wary of the "obvious" point
that the author misses.
Assuming the reading that is assigned is highly regarded, it is
unlikely that a point that casual readers would think of easily has
escaped the notice of the author. A famous psychologist once
responded to a series of questions about his study after a lecture
by saying, "Look, we've been working on this for years, have heard
hundreds of arguments, and run lots of variations. Anything that you
can think of in two minutes is not likely to be a fresh
insight." While this may have been a harsh response, it
expressed what a lot of serious researchers feel when readers or
audience members show a lack of regard for their intelligence.
6. If you are commenting on a piece
of text embedded within a larger whole, such as a chapter of a
book, and have not read the whole, consider the possibility that
the point or question you are thinking of is addressed in what you
have not yet read before criticizing the author for not including
It is reasonable to mention or comment upon what seems to be
missing, but again, not in a way that assumes the author is unaware
of it. You can say, "I will be looking for an answer to this
question in the coming chapters," or "Perhaps this is dealt with
7. Do not make claims without
backing them up with evidence of your own, either from the text or
This is part of the mark of a serious comment. Hold yourself
to the same standard that you would hold the author. Citing a
hyperlink is permitted, as are direct quotes and references to the
target or other texts.
References listed at the bottom of your post do not count against
the word limit for your comment. However, references to
outside work should be supportive of your own writing and analysis,
rather than constituting the substance of your comment. Citing an
outside reference is not a substitute for making your own
contribution, and you should not expect people to read an outside
work for them to understand the point you are making.
8. Avoid ad hominem or
impressionistic remarks about the author or their writing.
Again, this is a serious academic exercise.
Epithets and other personal insults would not be permitted in an
academic paper, and shouldn't appear in your online comment.
Likewise, you should avoid statements like "this is a diatribe..."
or "it seems like he just loves...". These are your
impressions. You can channel them into useful comments by making
claims that are supported by direct references to the text, or
9. Remember that you are writing
for others who have read the same thing you have, in most cases.
Among other things, this means that you don't need to rehash things
that would be clear to anyone who has read the text. As you
read, you might notice that some parts are harder to understand than
others. This is a clue that you might have value to add by paying
more attention than the average reader would, perhaps going back and
reading previous sections to better understand the one in question,
and that you can then share your effort in your comment.
Another consequence of writing for others who have read the same
thing is that, obviously, you can't get away with making false
claims about what the author says. Make sure what you say is
accurate, and cite evidence as needed.
Since you are writing for others who have read what you are
commenting on, you can generally "cut to the chase", i.e. not write
sentences that summarize what we have read, any more than is
necessary to set the stage for your contribution. This allows you to
write more, with substance, within the word limit, and also avoids
wasting the time of your readers on what they already know.
10. It is okay to share a personal
bias or perspective, but this should help people understand your
point, rather than being the point you want to make.
A simpler way to say this would be, "The online comment is
not all about you." At the same time, it can help us to understand
where you are coming from if you are open about your background and
personal reaction. This should then lead into a point that can
be argued on the basis of more objective evidence from the text or
11. It is okay to refer to another
online comment, or to something other than the reading, but this
should not be the only thing you refer to.
Online comments are about the week's reading, first and foremost.
Sometimes an interesting exchange will occur between students in a
comment thread, or someone may have already made a point that you
want to make, and you can and should refer to it before elaborating
or adding your own twist.
12. Be careful about posing
questions like, "I wonder what everyone thinks about Y...".
You can pose questions, including ones calling for responses from
the class, but you should make your own position clear and argue for
it, or if you are genuinely puzzled, give us as good an
understanding for why you are puzzled as possible.
13. It is better to make one point
well than to make multiple points less well.
As my criteria for scoring comments are insightfulness, clarity, and
thoroughness, it is hard to achieve these for more than one
point. Making two or more points un-thoroughly or unclearly
does not equate to making one thoroughly and clearly. While it
is true that you may increase your chances of hitting on a point I
would regard as insightful if you make multiple points, I tend to
score based on average insight across points rather than the maximum
14. As with discussions, remember
that each week is a learning experience.
Don't be afraid to make mistakes. The scoring of comments is
inherently subjective. If you run afoul of the above
guidelines, don't feel bad about yourself. Just chalk it up to
experience and try to do better the next time.
I assign comment scores based on the following scale:
5 points => insightful, clear, thoroughly described point
4 points => strong on two of the three above dimensions
3 points => strong on one of the above dimensions
2 points => lacking on all of the above dimensions, with some
1 point => just better than no comment at all
0 points => did not post a comment
Late policy. I will take off half a point from your score for
a comment posted past the Tuesday 6pm deadline up until class time,
and one point after that.
Over length policy. I will take off half a point from your
score for a comment over the word limit by 1-50 words (301-350
words), and a full point for comments over 350 words. References
listed below your comment do not count against the word limit, but
footnotes or in-line notes or references do.
16. Common issues with comments.
Here are some factors that frequently lead comments to be less
effective than they might otherwise be (and hence to get less than
- not making references to direct quotes and page numbers when
you make a claim about what an author is saying;
- not mentioning what version of the text you are using when
citing page numbers (important if you are not using the version
sold in the Stanford Bookstore);
- not writing something that is useful for someone else who has
read the assigned material thoroughly; not writing something
that demonstrates you have read and understood the assigned
text. (You don't have to refer to everything in the reading,
obviously, but your comment should reflect having read it all.);
- not reading over your comment before posting it and asking
yourself if it is as clear as you would like it to be for
someone else to read. (You can check this by having a friend
read it over and seeing if they understand both your main point
or question and how you approach it.);
- not proof-reading your comment before posting it, for grammar,
spelling mistakes, etc.;
- not being clear enough with an explanation and/or argument;
- not considering what the author says thoroughly;
- not being focused in what you write;
- not pursuing the point. (Whenever the text poses a question or
puzzle for you, though, I would prefer that you not just point
that out, but try to answer it using evidence from the text, as
much as possible.);
- not bringing your own analysis or questioning to the text.
(Showing you understand the author's argument well is worth a
lot to you as a reader, but for benefiting others in the class,
your comment should contribute some thinking or work that the
average close reader might have missed.);
- not posing an issue you are addressing sharply, as a problem
to be solved or a question to be resolved. (This helps give
shape to comments that attempt to summarize an argument in the
text, and makes such comments worthwhile.);
- for comments posted during Student Presentations: not thinking
about how student presenters could benefit from your comment,
and how it could help the discussion.