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.

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 text.

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.

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 elsewhere, but...".

7. Do not make claims without backing them up with evidence of your own, either from the text or from outside.

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 summaries thereof.

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 elsewhere.

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 among them.

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.

15. Scoring.

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 value
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 perfect scores):