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Writing Responses


What Makes a Good Response?

What makes a good 250-350 word response? If you have a specific prompt (e.g., "how do the five types of power relate to Steve Jobs' leadership?") respond to that. Otherwise, as a default, follow the model of summarize and engage.

Summarize and engage

In the first paragraph you should briefly identify the authors' main arguments, concepts, and cases/examples; in the second paragraph actively engage the texts. If there's multiple, focus on the most substantive and trying to connect it with one or more of the others.

Active reading means trying to identify themes of the course and connections with other texts we have covered; it means presenting your own examples and insights so as to augment or refute the author's position. Or, it means posing a really good question. You might even focus upon a particular quotation from the text. Your second paragraph should be novel and serve as your contribution to class discussion such that you should never have to say, "they already said what I said."

What makes a bad response? A cursory restatement of the points and little engagement. Don't say it is very "interesting" (or "insightful" or "fascinating"); show me how it is so or start with a sharp quote, surprising fact, controversial statement, or something funny. Opt to make a direct argument rather than using lots of "I found" and "I believe" statements. Cite pages, that way you can easily use your writing in subsequent writing assignments. However, avoid writing "on page __" in your prose, that is awkward, use a citation instead. If you have difficulties, review some of your colleagues' responses. Which responses do you think are good and why?

I've drafted two responses to Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma that I hope illustrate some "do's and don'ts." Note, the second response isn't perfect and readily admits to confusion, but that confusion results from a close reading.



The 2nd Chapter of Omnivore's Dilemma, "The Farm," is about the industrial production of corn. I found the description of the way in which corn has come to be produced in America very interesting. The author first talks about how planting corn is like planting a city of corn stalks genetically engineered for high density. On page 52 he then talks about how original prairie grass land is vanishing. Corn production is dependent upon the petrochemical industry, which got it from the Haber-Bosch process which itself derives from the German poison warfare program. This history is very disturbing! Part of the story is how there's a weird relationship between supply and demand and government involvement and how that has hurt the ordinary family farmer. In the New Deal period, government policy seemed to help farmers, but during the Nixon administration, and the selling of corn to Russia, the policy changed to helping the large industrial farmers more than anyone else: "get big or get out." I wonder how we could change things today so as to limit the effects of corn production on the environment and our health?


Corn is a "welfare queen," (p. 41) or so says George Naylor, an increasingly rare sight on the Iowa plains. The plight of this family farmer is the narrative arc on which Michael Pollan hangs a story of the industrialization of corn production in America. In the 1920s Naylor's predecessors might have been able to produce 20 bushels per acre. Today, Naylor (with the help of synthetic nitrogen, proprietary corn seed, machines, and government subsidies) produces roughly 180 bushels per acre. Yet, efficiency doesn't come without cost; this intensive form of corn production is susceptible to disease and pests, produces pollution, and is highly energy intensive. Indeed, Pollan argues that one way to think of corn is as an efficient catalyst for converting oil products (nearly 50 gallons per acre) into food that can feed 129 people.

The question that troubled me is to what extent is government intervention, as we discussed in the last class, appropriate? Pollan seems to approve of the New Deal programs of "loans" (which can turn into "purchases") and a surplus "ever-normal granary" (p. 49) and attacks the Nixon administration's policies of subsidies, but it is not clear to me exactly how these two systems are different: farmers could be paid for surpluses in both instances. Without understanding this I wonder what course we should take now with respect to promoting ecological diversity and economic sustainability?

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