rESPONSE Papers:
An Informal Formality


No matter how informal your writing style, you should always avoid sentence fragments, check your grammar, and back up claims with quotations or page references. 

Many professors use response papers as a way of insuring that students seriously engage with assigned materials. Often these assignments are graded relatively informally (e.g. using the "check" system) because most teachers genuinely want students to take risks with new ideas. However, these assignments are not throwaways. Writing response papers gives you a chance to practice and improve your ability to summarize, analyze, and criticize—valuable skills when writing longer, higher-stakes essays.  

Balance Summary and Analysis

Response papers can be tricky since you have to effectively integrate both summary and analysis of a text or multiple texts. It is important that you provide a well-crafted summary that refers both to the overall arc of the reading as well as to some of its most crucial details. However, your summary should not exceed more than one third to one half of the paper.

The type of your analysis will depend on how many readings you are required to address. If you are dealing with a single work, you should provide an overall assessment of its contributions and shortcomings. Secondly, you should devote part of your response paper to some specific aspect of the book that you found interesting, troubling, or especially revelatory. This could be a corollary argument the author proposes, an ethnographic vignette, or a theme that relates this book to the discipline's history or to other themes from the course.

In many anthropology and archaeology courses, however, you will often be assigned various articles or book excerpts to read in the same week. In this case, your response paper will need to address simultaneously the texts of different authors. Once again, your instructor might set some guidelines for your course, but in general there are some options when responding to multiple texts at once:

  1. Focus on one main text, and refer to the others to enrich your analysis of the main text.
  2. Compare and contrast all texts. Thinking about why your instructor put these readings together in the syllabus, examine how each speaks to a central theme and/or to each other.
  3. Choose a narrow question that is relevant to the course or to that week, and use the readings to develop possible answers to it.