The Evergreen State College

Advice for Students (and Faculty, for that matter)


The primary objective in the two online courses, "Political Controversies: The 'Great Divide'" and "Crime & Punishment,"  is to help students sharpen their critical skills in addressing complex issues that have no simple answers. We assume that your thinking will develop and change as you carry out the work of this curriculum, but finding answers to difficult questions isn’t anything we expect anyone to achieve. Answers to some questions may seem clearer at the end of this course, and answers to others more elusive: neither of these outcomes is wrong or right. What we do expect, and anticipate, is that students will learn to see these controversies from more than one point of view, that they will fully understand how some might arrive at one answer to a question, and others at another answer, and perhaps others at yet another. Effective dialogue and informed action presuppose this ability, and these are things we hope to promote.

It follows, then, that we all must keep an open mind and focus our attention on the opinions and arguments of others. Be willing to set aside your own opinions and give others a generous hearing. Look first for what a person has right, then try to understand why they might, in your view, have something wrong. Winning arguments is not the point of what we will do.

Plan on giving at least an hour to each of the assigned readings (there will be two for each seminar). A single reading isn’t likely to be enough. Again, find the best in what you read; focus on those things that surprise you. In short, read with an open mind. Ideally, you will find additional time to explore the topical links we have provided and others you have found on your own. The internet has become a vast library, and we hope to discover resources that we haven’t yet come across.

When you write a critical comment on the reading (one for each of the scheduled seminars), look for ways to extend and deepen your thinking. What puzzles you is more likely to be fruitful than what you find wrong or right in something you’ve read. These comments are your first steps in a collaboration and conversation with your seminar colleagues. When you write responses to your colleagues take a similar approach. (We have written down further suggestions about comments, which you will find posted on our course web site.)

Our essay assignment has been designed with this same objective in mind: learning how to address a complex problem from more than one point of view. (Details can be found on the program web site.) The sooner you identify the problem or controversy you will address in your essay, the better. Take time at the outset to explore each of the seminar questions in a preliminary way (just look at the sites, if nothing else) and notice which ones are puzzles you already have on your mind. Or, if you know of a question that isn’t scheduled for seminar, see immediately what you might find on the web that addresses the question from differing points of view.

Particularly once you’ve familiarized yourself with the curriculum, read newspapers and news magazines. Regularly. Most of the issues we’ll be discussing will be in the news during these next weeks and months. NPR and PBS are valuable resources, of course, and major newspapers are available online. A good deal of foreign press (in English) can be found there as well.

Finally, the required work for this course shouldn’t overwhelm you, but keep in mind that the schedule for completing our work is strict. You must post a written comment on Web-X by 9pm of the day before seminar, and you must post written responses to the comments of others by noon of the day of each seminar. Then you need at least an hour to read comments of your seminar mates and post a topic for discussion, up to an hour before seminar begins. Of course, you must be available for seminars at the scheduled times. As you see, the seminar days will require close management. The pay off, however, is that other days won’t be too busy, and you won’t be losing time stuck in traffic.

For the most part these suggestions have come from other students who have taken this course in past summers. We don’t mean to offer "warnings," just constructive advice. Our experience tells us that most of you are going to succeed, have a good time doing it, and value what you learn.


Midway through a previous summer’s version of these online classes, we wrote the following critique of student work in "Comments and Responses." Perhaps if you read this now, it will help you understand clearly what we’re looking for:

Faculty Observations on Student Critical Comments and Responses
and Advice About How They Can Be Improved (July 27, 2001)


For the most part, the responses students have written these past five weeks offer affirmations of what someone has said in a comment.  Of course when someone is learning a skill it works well more often to tell them what they are doing right than what they are doing wrong.  We think, however, that this principle is being misapplied in the "critical comments and responses" writing at the center of this curriculum.

Because we are addressing "controversies," we must explore disagreements and differences in points of view in order to understand what these topics are about. As you read one of the essays and the comments others have written, give full attention first to what is being said, and make the best of it. Then, focus on what you do not understand or on what you think is not clear or defensible. Read for understanding, and above all read critically. Your comment should not be directed so much at what you think is right as at what you think is unclear, poorly argued, based on false assumptions, morally indefensible, in need of amplification and so on.

Similarly, your responses should be based on a thoughtful reading of the comment, but directed at something that will help the writer see the issues or questions in a clearer, more revealing light. We therefore ask: write no responses that begin with "I agree…", "You are right when you say…", "You hit the nail on the head when…" or anything equivalent.  Rather than that, raise a question, sharpen a disagreement, challenge an assumption, criticize the logic…  This will serve both you and the commentator much better than offering an affirmation.

The time for an affirmation comes later, when you can say to someone that her criticism has truly helped you see something in a new and different light.

José Gómez

Charles Pailthorp

Go to Political Problems & Controversies Home Page

Go to Crime & Punishment Home Page