Writing a Response Paper

Originally for students in my “Media and Narrative” and “Film as Literature” classes, Spring 2015

“Responding” to a media artifact (whether film, text, or some other form) in an academic environment is a valuable exercise in idea generation, research, and organization. We have to immediately interrogate the idea that any response at all (“I liked it” or “I didn’t like it) demonstrates analysis; we have to separate our definitions of opinion and response.


As we have (or will) investigate in class, our original ideas about a media artifact develop and mature within the incubators of conversation, research, and analysis. I’ll take, as an example, the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (a film we’ve talked about in ENGL 3180). We begin the process of analysis when we challenge ourselves to “slice” the film into pieces (its sounds, its imagery, its words, or even more granularly, its camera angles or its intertextuality), consider multiple components of one of those pieces, and reflect that thinking back onto the work as whole. Reading the opinions of others (from journalists, critics, biographers, historians — basically anyone who has a developed expertise on the subject) on that feature of the artifact is also essential to keep us from producing uncritical analysis. The process I’m describing breaks down into three simple steps — defining a small piece, relating back to the whole, and interacting  with the ideas of others (known by the less inviting term “research”).

But this “process” isn’t a process in a linear sense. It can and should be more organic. For example, while preparing to respond to a media artifact, you might begin by reading the published work of others to see just how those experts went about isolating a feature of the article; or you might have a conversation with someone else who has recently engaged with the artifact. Those activities may help you isolate the element that you want to explore. Or, you may begin your work with the “relating” step by asking yourself “What element of this [film, text, etc.] most clearly defines or complicates it?” Finally, you might begin with the thing that interests you the most, and your analysis takes off from there. One of the most important lessons I learned in graduate school was related to this: chase something that confuses or eludes you, so that you’ll work will follow your curiosity. For example, if the human interactions or the lighting or the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey are the most complicated for you to understand, begin there.

All of these words describe a process of discovery. Some people might wonder: why not just give us the “requirements”? My answer: the discovery is the requirement. Anyone can quickly churn out 200-300 words on a topic. I want your Response Papers to capture the most contemplative, nuanced, informed ideas that you have after studying something — not the first ones that you have.


Responses papers should begin with a 500 word draft that cites the original artifact clearly along with three sources of references. References should include include the author and title within the text of your Phase One draft and either a) a link to the source (not a URL) or b) a bibliographic citation at the end (in these particular classes, stick with MLA format).

Sounding Board

In order to further experience the process, I’ll ask you to interact with the ideas of others — a process sometimes called “peer review.” However, in traditional (or lazy) peer review the reviewer becomes “the proofreader.” Let’s break away from that. You should be free to play with ideas, even unstructured ones, in your Phase One draft. Thus, as a Sounding Board, you should be more like someone panning for gold. It’s there. You just have to find it or leave some more. When you are reviewing the work of others, concentrate on identifying the BEST sentences or ideas and asking for MORE. You should even try to leave some of your own ideas — about the implications of the author’s thinking or by offering a second read on the text.  In the Sounding Board you should identify where parts of the text don’t make sense, but refrain from commentary on punctuation, spelling, or sentence structure. We should assume that the author knows to make the appropriate mechanical edits to her paper before submission.


During a response paper cycle, half of the class will turn in a 500 word draft on Sunday. The second half will reply as Sounding Boards to two drafts on Monday. The second half will submit a 500 word draft on Tuesday, and the first half will act as Sounding Boards (again, to two drafts) on Wednesday. On Thursdays, final Response Paper’s will be due. All authors must participate in each part of the process to achieve a grade of B or better on a Response Paper. A caveat: I may tweak this daily schedule from time to time to accommodate other things going on in class.

Anticipated Questions

How long should Response Papers be?
Drafts should be at least 500 words; final text should be between 200-300 words.

What should a Response Paper be “about”? What’s our topic?
You may have noticed that I spent a lot of time describing the process of writing a Response Paper. That puts the responsibility on the author to find something interesting, valuable, curious, research-able, creative, and academic to observe in a Response Paper. Questions that come up in class can make great Response Papers, but ultimately, the text should be an answer to a question rather than the question itself. If you have a question about whether a topic is valuable for a Response Paper, ask me or the class in general.

How are Response Papers graded?
I will expect a) solid ideas, b) a logical and inventive structure, and c) mechanical precision for all submissions. I will also expect Response Papers to utilize and intelligently cite from primary and secondary sources. These four criteria will be balanced equally in a score out of 8 points where 1-2=F, 3-4=C, 5-6=B, and 7-8=A No Response Paper may earn higher than a 4 without participation in all parts of the drafting and review process.

Hangout with Rabia and guests rescheduled

Rabia Chaudry and I had originally arranged to have one final Serial Hangout today with some folks who’ve been regular viewers/commenters on our Conversations series so far. Due to holiday family plans, I need to reschedule. We’re going to shoot for next Monday (Jan. 5) at the same time, but I will confirm that later. If you’d like to join us, get in touch with me (prorabaugh at gmail).

Conversations on the Serial Podcast: Six

My post-Thanksgiving Serial break conversation with Rabia Chaudry in which we discuss Rabia’s release of the Jay/Jenn interviews, Muslim community response to Serial, and ideas of truth.

Additional resources this week:
Rabia’s post, “Where It All Began”
Rabia mentions Susan Simpson’s posts on the podcast. You can find them here.
My post, “Serial and Literature”

Serial and Literature


“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed
ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up,” Esquire, February 1936

Serial has become gut-wrenching to me, in the way that every good novel I’ve ever read feels like it’s re-organizing my thinking with fire. It is instructive, artful, and intricately organized. It is also a painful path to walk, but the million-odd folks who are listening to it together are embracing that complex ambivalence. Most of us know by now that there will be no smoking gun or creaking prison door swinging open. However Serial ends, it leaves a wake of pain. Whether Adnan is innocent or guilty, two horrible things have happened: the lives of two potentially vibrant, intelligent, kind people were lost. Their families grieve them.

Continue Reading →

Conversations on the Serial Podcast: Four

Serial is more than halfway complete at this point. I’ve waited until now to focus on one of the three most central topics for my study of the podcast: ethics. It is a happy coincidence that our guest on today’s Hangout is Adam Bonnifield (/u/quickredditaccount), one of the four moderators of the Serial subreddit; Reddit serves as a massive laboratory for media ethics because users operate without journalists’ professional boundaries.

My conversation with Rabia Chaudry and special guest Adam Bonnifield today:

Continue Reading →

Time Change and Reddit Guest for “Conversations” #4

My weekly discussion “Conversations on the Serial Podcast” with Rabia Chaudry will happen Mon, Nov. 17, at 2pm EST instead of 1pm EST. You can watch the conversation live here.

We will be joined by Adam Bonnifield (/u/quickredditaccount) who serves as one of the four moderators of the subreddit on Serial.

I will be blogging about the latest Serial episode, “The Deal with Jay,” on Monday morning, but I wanted to make sure viewers knew in advance of the time change. On Nov. 24, we’ll be back to 1pm EST.