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Here is some context, I am currently a graduate student in education but I come from an art background. Needless to say, writing papers is not something I've done on a regular basis since high school.

Although I've gotten good grades on the two previous ones I wrote, I suspect they drained me a lot more than they should have had. I tend to be able to see the contradictions in everything, which I find is very helpful (as well as annoying) in my life in general but it makes writing position papers a living hell. I always feel like I am presented with a question that can not be answered and that I am forced to give a definite answer to it.

An example of question from a previous paper would be:

Learner-centered approaches should replace teacher-centered approaches

Once I find an angle on how to go about it while feeling reasonably comfortable, things flow and it's not a problem but I always have this nagging doubt that it's not good because half the time I end up not really answering the question but dismissing it because nothing is this black or white. I tend to want to run everything by the teacher to get feedback because I'm never sure what we are really expected to do. I would fare much better if the question was in the likes of:

What should one take into account when choosing between teacher-centered approaches and learner-centered approaches?

Don't get me wrong, I have opinions but I feel like they're not applicable in all scenarios. Sometimes I feel like those papers are only used to see how well we can write, how well you can form an argument and be convincing but I see little value in convincing just for sake of it. How can I get out of this rut?

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    Switch fields to mathematics :-) – Nate Eldredge Apr 4 '14 at 18:24
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    "Woohoo! Someone sent feedback, maybe I can finally make sense of this!..." Nevermind. ;-) – Emilie Apr 4 '14 at 18:32
  • Nate Eldrege's comment, while probably not intended as literal advice, has a serious point to it: "position papers" exist in some areas of academia and not in others. There are even some areas (like mathematics) where the idea of taking an obviously subjective question, "arguing" for one side or the other and "proving" your arguments looks silly or specious. I do think that you deserve an explanation of the worth of this sort of paper (but beware that it may include: "If you don't like this, then maybe this field is not for you.") – Pete L. Clark Apr 4 '14 at 18:36
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    In particular, I find the passage " I have opinions but I feel like they're not applicable in all scenarios. Sometimes I feel like those papers are only used to see how well we can write, how well you can form an argument and be convincing but I see little value in convincing just for sake of it." in your question to be a rather incisive indictment of this kind of assignment. Speaking selfishly from my own perspective, I would love to know what response your professor would give if you brought this sort of concern to them! – Pete L. Clark Apr 4 '14 at 18:37
  • I did ask before how I am supposed to answer the question that I cite as an example above if I am advocating a mix of two positions and the reply was that the exercise is to: develop -and then support with evidence from the readings- a strong position. And that I could defend either positions or in between. – Emilie Apr 4 '14 at 18:48
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Writing position papers does not require any special innate talent or disposition. You can develop these skills through the combination of systematic method and frequent practice.

First, you need to understand that a "position paper" (a.k.a. "analysis paper") is very different from a "survey paper" or an "essay". A position paper is somewhat similar to a legal argument for each side of the question. Your only goal is to communicate and evaluate the arguments for and against each alternative. You don't have to describe the whole issue, its history, its cultural setting or social significance, or many other issues. Deconstructing the question or alternatives is not in-scope for a position paper. Neither is your impressions, experience, or personal value judgments. Don't go "meta". (Those are in-scope for an essay.)

Here's the method, boiled down to its essence:

  • Be clear about the scope of the question and alternatives. Make assumptions if you have to fill in blanks.
  • Identify an ideal advocate for each alternative or position, even if you imagine a fictionalized advocate.
  • For each alternative and idealized advocate, make an outline of the following:
    • Their strongest argument in favor of that alternative
    • Their strongest argument against the other alternatives
    • Their counter-arguments to the criticisms of the advocates of the other positions
  • Once your outline is complete, rewrite it in sentence and paragraph form.
  • Finally, add introduction paragraphs setting up the debate and conclusion paragraphs that evaluate the relative strengths of the various arguments.

From your professor's point of view, the most important paragraphs are the conclusions where you decide which of the arguments is most compelling and with the least number of unanswered flaws or voids.

In your example:

Learner-centered approaches should replace teacher-centered approaches

Who best advocates learner-centered approaches? Who best advocates teacher-centered approaches? What arguments do they advance to support their positions? What criticisms do they level at the other?

In examining these arguments, the following questions might come to your mind to compare and contrast the positions: Do they both agree on the criteria are for "best" or "better"? Whose values and needs are most important? Do they both agree on what the implications are for "change" vs "status quo"?

What evidence does each advocate have to support their position? What credibility and relevance does the evidence have? What are the uncertainties and voids (lack of information) in each position. (No argument is perfect or free from some uncertainty.)


The best way to learn this is to practice it frequently. The best way to practice it frequently is to start a blog and write a post every day or every other day on a topic area that is important to you. Aim for 'minimalist' position posts, which are probably four paragraphs.

After you do this for a couple of months, you will find that you are no longer seeking your professors' feedback regarding whether you are giving them what they expect to see. Your confidence and efficiency will rise.

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