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Essay Writing for Politics and IR

* I spoke to finalists in Oxford’s Politics, Philosophy, and Economics  program about preparing for the all important final exams at a seminar held by Oxford Women in Politics on 8 May 2012. These remarks focus on politics and international relations, but many of the tips here apply broadly to writing good essays at the undergraduate level.

First, some reassurance: Finals are a stressful time, but remember that the most important part of your Oxford education does not take place in Exam Schools! Your final results are but a proxy for your mastery of the material and your ability to think critically under pressure. This proxy is imperfect in many ways.

Second, try to remember you have spent the past three years learning how to learn through your tutorials, lectures, conversations with friends, and right now, through revision. As much as the PPE course is about Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, it is also about learning about how to learn. Your final exams will not test for this, but it may be the most important skill that you will take from your Oxford experience. Do not lose sight of this!

Mastery

1. Be interested and be interesting.* If you are not interested in what you have to say then your assessor will not be interested either. Instead, take this opportunity to figure out what you really think about the subject and then share your passion for the topic with your reader. Just remember that the assessor is marking 50+ scripts and is likely to see the same arguments over and over again. If you have something different (or provocative) to say, then your reader is more likely to pay attention.

Attention women: do not be afraid to be provocative or controversial with your thesis. You may find you write more convincingly by arguing the opposite of what you actually believe, or taking an extreme stance on an issue. Try this in your practice timed essays. For first and second year students, use your tutorial essays to be bold and to test ideas. You do not have to be right to be interesting.

2. Think like an IR scholar.* Or a political scientist. Or a political theorist. Or an economist. Or a philosopher. In other words, be mindful of what is expected in each discipline. Political scientists and international relations scholars structure their arguments quite differently from political theorists. Be aware of the discipline-specific norms. Structure your essay and use language that is appropriate to that discipline.

3. Breadth. Demonstrate knowledge of multiple areas in international relations/politics.

Do not repeat material. I.e., Be careful in choosing your questions. Do not choose to cover the same material in different essay questions on the same exam paper.

4. Cite. Cite. Cite.

i) Be aware of your audience: Ideas are the currency of academics. If you do not cite, it is a sign of disrespect or ignorance.

ii) Associate concepts with specific scholars. E.g., Nye (2004) soft power.

iii) Read through the two excerpts at the end of this page and compare how you perceive the author’s authority in each piece. One version includes full citations and the other version is stripped of citations. You should notice that citations give depth and authority to the writing.

5. Have confidence in your opinion. Attention women: Avoid “I think”, “It seems”. These terms indicate uncertainty. If you are not certain of your point, then it does not belong in the essay. If you choose to express uncertainty, do so purposefully, not by slipping into it.

Tactics

1. Read the question carefully. What is it getting at?

Answer the question in front of you, not the one you want to answer.

2. Thesis. Have one! Make it clear that THIS is your thesis.

i) In this essay, I will argue…. Make it as easy as possible for your reader to figure out what your thesis is. Do not leave her hunting around for your argument.

ii) Underline your thesis in your own notes at the top! This will keep you focused on your argument. Ask yourself: does this particular sentence contribute to my argument?

Example: War is an appropriate response to terrorism. Do you agree?

There are many different ways to approach this question. Here are a few:

i) Yes/No, followed by sub-arguments A, B, C.

ii) Yes, it is an appropriate response under conditions A, B, C.

iii) A broader frame from which an answer to the question can be deduced. “Terrorism aims to provoke the state into overreacting on security, thus delegitimizing itself in the process. Militarization of a conflict with terrorists falls directly into this trap. Although it may seem counterintuitive, I will argue that the most appropriate response for ensuring state security is to demilitarize the conflict as much as possible.”

3. Definitions. Stock definitions. E.g. globalisation.

Also consider problematic definitions. E.g., terrorism.

Think about what ‘appropriate’ means in the context of the earlier question. Appropriate from whose point of view? The government’s? The people’s? The terrorists’?

4. Scope.

i) Where the question is vague, limit the scope. E.g., “Intervention”. Diplomatic intervention? Military intervention? In the earlier example, does ‘war’ refer to national governments taking military action against an internal threat or governments taking military action in other countries? Could war refer to cyberwar?

ii) Limit the scope of the question to make it answerable in 1 hour. Do not try to do too much!

5. Assumptions. Do you make assumptions about values or principles in your argument? Are these assumptions critical to your argument?

E.g., In US-China relations, the US should do X and China should do Y. In your analysis, do you implicitly want one of these countries to do better? Do you assume that democracy and capitalism is always better? Make your assumptions clear to the reader

6. Word choice. Be precise with your words. Do not use ‘issue’ when you mean ‘argument’. Do not use ‘norm’ if you mean ‘principle’. Do not use ‘define’ if you mean ‘describe’. Do not use ‘sovereignty’ if you mean ‘state power’.

7. Timing. 1 Hr/essay.

5-10 min planning. 45 writing. 10 min re-reading.

8. Write the intro paragraph last. Sometimes you will not be clear about your argument until you have finished writing the entire essay.

9. Headings, Underline. Some of you (but not all of you) will benefit from using headings or underlining in your essays. This can help keep you focused.

10. Double space. Leave room to add in sentences.

11. Be legible. Assessors cannot mark what they cannot read.

How to revise

1. Do the readings. Use your old essays. Choose 4-7 areas to focus on. Pick issues that you are passionate about. If you are not interested in the topic, your reader will probably find your essay boring.

Use your revision time to develop depth in niches of the subject that you had always wanted to learn more about. Attend talks and guest speaker seminars where relevant. Going to events may seem like time you can’t afford, but in fact, you are likely to pick up interesting ideas at these seminars that will impress your assessors and stimulate your own interest in the subject!

2. Empirics. You need evidence to support your arguments. Focus on cases, institutions, countries, relationships. Learn a few of these really well and use them in your essays! E.g., China-US. Memorize basic facts such as GDP, military info, growth rates, demographics, etc.

3. Timed essays. Work in pairs. Read each other’s essays & critique.

Writing a timed essay in one hour under a lot of pressure is a very different experience from producing an essay for your tutor on a weekly basis (no matter how difficult you found that to be). It is a different skill and needs to be understood as such. Doing well in your tutorial essays will not necessarily translate into high marks for your final exams. The best way to get better at it is to practice: write at least one timed essay each day.

4. Essay plans. 5-10 minutes. Thesis + 3 supporting arguments. Share with a friend and discuss. Flesh them out as much as you can with evidence, citations. Pick each other’s arguments apart. Work with the same group of friends so that you feel comfortable enough to be honest with each other about the validity of your ideas.

5. Essay outlines.

i) Write topic sentences for each proposed paragraph. Think about how your argument is presented to your reader. Does it flow?

ii) Take an old essay that needs structural work. Write a topic sentence for each paragraph of the existing essay. Does the argument flow in its existing form? Move around topic sentences to better understand the framework of your argument structure.

* Thanks to Jim O’Connell, VP OUSU and former PPE finalist, for these points.


Does peacekeeping keep peace? International intervention and the duration of peace after civil war

Virginia Page Fortna. International studies quarterly. 2004. Vol 24 Issue 2. pg:269 -292

Version 1. No citations.

Does peacekeeping work? Do international interventions to help maintain peace in the aftermath of civil war actually contribute to more stable peace? Since the end of the Cold War the international community and the UN have moved beyond “traditional peacekeeping” between states and have become much more involved in civil conflicts, monitoring and often managing or administering various aspects of the transition to peace within states.

Scholars and practitioners of peacekeeping have debated the merits of the new wave of more “robust” and complex forms of peacekeeping and peace enforcement developed after the Cold War, and even over the effectiveness of more traditional forms of peacekeeping. However, this debate is hampered by lack of rigorous testing of the effectiveness of these interventions by the international community. We do not have a very good idea of whether they really work.

Opponents of peacekeeping often point to dramatic failures that dominate news coverage of peacekeeping without acknowledging the success stories that make less exciting news. Proponents are also guilty of selection bias, however. The vast literature on peacekeeping compares cases and missions, but generally examines only cases in which the international community intervenes, not cases in which belligerents are left to their own devices. Surprisingly, very little work has been done to examine empirically whether peace is more likely to last in cases where peacekeepers are present than when they are absent.

Moreover, the few studies that do address this empirical question, at least in passing, come to contradictory findings. In one case, there is evidence that for peacebuilding in civil wars since World War II, multilateral, United Nations peace operations have been shown to make a positive difference. In particular, multidimensional peacekeeping, i.e, missions with extensive civilian functions, including economic reconstruction, institutional reform, and election oversight significantly improve the chances of peacebuilding success (measured two years after the end of the war). There is weaker evidence that observer missions and enforcement missions improve the chances for peace, but, surprisingly, traditional peacekeeping has no effect on the chances for peacebuilding success. However, there is also evidence that shows that third-party involvement (which includes peacekeeping missions) significantly and substantially increase the duration of peace. Separately, there is further evidence that third-party peacekeeping interventions, including those by the UN, have no significant effect on the duration of peace. The evidence suggests much variation in the effect of a peacekeeping presence. From the existing studies, it is not at all clear whether peacekeeping works. A closer look is clearly needed.

Version 2. Original. With Citations

Does peacekeeping work? Do international interventions to help maintain peace in the aftermath of civil war actually contribute to more stable peace? Since the end of the Cold War the international community and the UN have moved beyond “traditional peacekeeping” between states and have become much more involved in civil conflicts, monitoring and often managing or administering various aspects of the transition to peace within states.

Scholars and practitioners of peacekeeping have debated the merits of the new wave of more “robust” and complex forms of peacekeeping and peace enforcement developed after the Cold War, and even over the effectiveness of more traditional forms of peacekeeping (Tharoor, 1995/96; Luttwak, 1999). However, this debate is hampered by lack of rigorous testing of the effectiveness of these interventions by the international community. We do not have a very good idea of whether they really work.

Opponents of peacekeeping often point to dramatic failures that dominate news coverage of peacekeeping without acknowledging the success stories that make less exciting news. Proponents are also guilty of selection bias, however. The vast literature on peacekeeping compares cases and missions, but generally examines only cases in which the international community intervenes, not cases in which belligerents are left to their own devices. Surprisingly, very little work has been done to examine empirically whether peace is more likely to last in cases where peacekeepers are present than when they are absent.

Moreover, the few studies that do address this empirical question, at least in passing, come to contradictory findings. In their study of peacebuilding in civil wars since World War II, Doyle and Sambanis (2000) “find that multilateral, United Nations peace operations make a positive difference.” In particular, they find strong evidence that multidimensional peacekeeping, i.e, “missions with extensive civilian functions, including economic reconstruction, institutional reform, and election oversight” significantly improve the chances of peacebuilding success (measured two years after the end of the war). They find weaker evidence that observer missions and enforcement missions improve the chances for peace, but, surprisingly, that traditional peacekeeping has no effect on the chances for peacebuilding success. Hartzell, Hoddie, and Rothchild (2001) find that third-party involvement (which includes peacekeeping missions) significantly and substantially increases the duration of peace. However, in a study using Doyle and Sambanis’s data set but more sophisticated statistical techniques, Amitabh Dubey (2002) finds, inter alia, that third-party peacekeeping interventions, including those by the UN, have no significant effect on the duration of peace. Of the three studies that examine whether peace lasts longer when peacekeepers are present than when they are absent, one finds that it does, one that it does not, and one finds that only some kinds of peacekeeping are effective.2 From the existing studies, it is not at all clear whether peacekeeping works. A closer look is clearly needed.

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