Reflective essay

One aspect of assessment which can be puzzling is the distinction between the two main types of essays you will be asked to write, the research essay and the reflective essay. A number of students have confirmed that they are not completely certain what a "reflective essay" is, and how it differs from a normal research essay. Of course, individual lecturers often state their own expectations of the essay form, and these will in all cases over-ride the general comments offered as a guide here. We can, however, offer you these general pointers, and leave you to apply them with discretion.

Writing on a "horizontal" axis: an overview of the course

First, if you think of a research essay as a "vertical" axis (delving quite deeply into a quite narrow field of inquiry), then the reflective essay works on a more "horizontal" axis, attempting to range quite broadly over the whole course and, consequently, not trying to go into as much detail as you might for a research essay

Telling the reader what you make of the topic

The topics of reflective essays are often much broader, and more general, than those of research essays. This is a deliberate ploy to open the course up as widely as possible to your speculation. Nonetheless, the greater breadth can be a problem, and can put you at risk of writing a very general and vague essay. Far more so than a research topic, the reflective essay question usually puts the onus on you to state what you have made of a general topic, and to explain to your reader how you intend to address it. Look out for deliberately vague terms such as "political" revolution and "social" revolution, or "conservative" and "radical". They are open invitations for you to weigh in and do some purposeful personal definitions

A (relatively) decreased emphasis on substantiation

A corollary of this is your substantiation. In a research essay, you are trying to prove that you have read and understood the texts on a set list of readings: you have to put them on an extensive bibliography, and you have to footnote extensively, if only to demonstrate that you have really read them. These readings are extra readings, in addition to tutorial readings. In a reflective essay, you are not expected to do extra reading, although you may do so if you wish to. You are really responding to work you have already done in the course, so in a sense you may take it as "read". True, if you refer to a reading, you should do so clearly by author and title, so that your reader knows exactly to whom you are referring. You would not be expected to footnote extensively unless you quote directly from the author's text, in which case you are obliged to do so. Your lecturer might tell you to put only a minimal bibliography, or none at all

The secret of revision: "trawling" through your notes

A reflective essay might require some ingenuity, as well as some basic revision. It is true that, in many historical studies subjects, you could write a basic sort of an essay using only the readings from the final weeks of semester, but a truly excellent essay would seek to engage with the course as a whole. In a sense, you are trying to throw a broad net over the whole course,both in terms of addressing the large themes that run through it, and in terms of mentioning some of the key readings

Demonstrating your intellectual mastery of the readings

You should also try, however, to tie in some of the more specific articles, and you should learn to refer to an important article in one short, deft statement which demonstrates that you have understood the essence of its argument or historical significance. This does not mean that your essay should become one monotonous review of every reading: you should weave these references meaningfully into the overall line of reflection you are pursuing. In a sense, you are giving a "cameo sketch" of a piece of scholarship, showing that you have a command of its broad significance, and that you have now reflected upon how that unit of meaning fits into a broad reflection on the period of study. One of the most painless ways of doing this is to cruise back through your book of readings, perhaps also your tutorial notes, maybe even your lecture notes, and you will be surprised how much information, both factual and analytical, will come flooding back to you. With so much information ready at hand, you will find that your mind will be free to concentrate on the more difficult part of the exercise, which is that of pondering the broad themes and significance of the period of study

Setting up time-frames

Remember that because you are pondering the broad span of an historical period, rather than the highly specific time-frame typical of a research essay, it might be useful to set up a distinction between the short term and the long term

Showing awareness of the changing meanings of key terms

One of the most useful distinctions you can draw is a linguistic one: remember that it might be relevant to take key words from your field of study - words which are so common as to have a fixed, universal meaning - and to do a subtle analysis of how they had radically different meanings a) between different social types and b) at different times

Demonstrating a sense of the definition of social class

As in a research essay, remember to avoid vast social categories which can be meaningless. Remember that a category that is too broad can lead you into a statement that is absurd. If you are doing a course which involves writing about a social class, try to "nail it down" before you get too far into your essay: try to give a quick little definition of who they are and what sorts of people you are talking about. Remember that in the vast majority of cases, the terms we use to describe classes, such as 'bourgeoisie' and 'working class' are woefully inadequate to capture their full complexity, so you can impress your reader with a sense of real accuracy and sophistication by setting up clearer definitions and distinctions