NOTES ON WRITING ASSIGNMENTS
August 21, 2014
The major assignment for this course is to write a pair of research memos totaling a
minimum of 15 pages of text, not including lists of references and any tables or figures. The
memos must be at least six pages each, double spaced, 12-point font, with standard margins.
The memos must be about a specific public policy controversy related to one of the topics
on the syllabus covered during October 16-December 4. You should pick an issue that was
actively considered and resulted in a formal decision by a federal or state legislature or
administrative agency, or a ballot initiative. Note that the decision may have been to do nothing
and maintain the status quo.
Research topics are due Thursday, September 11
- Identify the controversy you are going to analyze, including when and where it occurred,
and the date(s) on the syllabus to which is corresponds. Explain in a paragraph or so why it is a
good topic for the research memos for this class.
Topics to Avoid
Do not choose confirmation votes on political appointees, a decision by a court of law, or
appropriations bills. Do not choose legislation on political process issues, e.g., campaign finance,
voter ID, or redistricting (which aren’t on the syllabus anyway).
In addition, policy decisions made quickly as a reaction to external events and passed
with very lopsided votes do not make good topics for research memos. These did not involve
much debate at the time, although in some cases there were significant second thoughts and
opportunities for reconsideration. For example, the original USA PATRIOT ACT was passed
shortly after the 9-11 attacks without a lot of debate. The 2006 reauthorization would be a much
better topic for research memos.
ORGANIZATION AND CONTENT
The first memo should focus on a substantive analysis of the policy issue, and the second
should focus on the politics. Each memo individually must be a minimum of 6 pages of text, and
they must total at least 15. There are no maximum limits, but remember that excessively long,
redundant memos make the graders cranky and the ability to present information and analysis in
a concise manner is a highly prized job skill.2
The substantive memo should begin with an abstract of no more than 150 words. The
abstract summarizes the highlights of your memo; reading the abstract should help someone
decide whether it is worth their time to read the whole memo.
The body of the memo should have an introduction and a conclusion, and should address the
following questions (at least):
1. What was the problem to be addressed?
Who was affected by it?
Provide some objective evidence to demonstrate the severity of the problem.
How did it get on the policymaking agenda?
2. What were the various alternatives considered? What arguments were made for or
Note that keeping the status quo policy (or lack thereof) is always an alternative.
3. How well does the action taken seem to address the problem?
For recent decisions, this may have to be speculative.
If some time has passed, is there objective evidence that conditions have improved or worsened?
If the decision was to take no action, does the evidence indicate this is still a problem requiring
some kind of action?
The politics memo should again start with an abstract of no more than 150 words, and should
have a short introduction and conclusion. It should address the following questions (at least):
1. Who were the important stakeholders? What were their interests and sources of
Stakeholders are those people who are affected by the problem or the proposed solution. This
will most likely focus on the general public and interest groups, although it could also include
state and local governments interested in a federal policy or a federal agency affected by
legislation, for example.
2. Who were the important political players? What were their incentives?
Focus here on those who can make the policy decision, e.g., the members of the legislature or
executive or administrative agency. Who were the important players? Why were they important?
What did they stand to gain or lose politically?3
3. Why did the outcome turn out the way it did?
Don’t just say that one side had more votes! Why did individual decision makers or groups
decide a certain way?
For example, was the issue decided purely on the merits, or did other factors play a role? Was
one side able to use procedural rules to their advantage? What compromises or deals may have
been necessary to secure the outcome? Was the proposal amended or refined in order to gather
more support? Did some stakeholders change their position during the course of the debates?
Each memo should also have a list of sources at the end along with in-text citations (see
comments on citation style below).
Note: If something very close to these outlines doesn’t seem appropriate for the topic you are
considering, you might want to pick another topic.
There is no minimum number of sources, but I expect you to do reading outside of the syllabus
and include facts supported by this reading in your analysis.
Don’t forget research librarians are good sources of information.
The endnotes to the substantive policy chapters in the Peters textbook include lots of potential
CQ Researcher articles also have citations to primary sources.
Be careful about using internet sources.
- Make sure you know who wrote the information and ask yourself whether they might
have an agenda.
In general, any time you assert a fact that is not part of general knowledge you should have a
source for it.
Always cite a source if you quote or attribute words or thoughts to a specific person.
Similarly, always cite a source if you use a specific number, unless it is common knowledge
(e.g., there are 50 states; the legal drinking age is 21; it takes 60 votes in the Senate to invoke
Use the Chicago Manual of Style form for citations. There is a link to the CMS quick
citation guide on the course eLearning page. Or just go to
http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html and click on the link for “Chicago-Style
Citation Quick Guide.”
Use the author-date system with in-text citations and then a complete list of sources at the
end of the memo sorted alphabetically by first author’s last name.
Include citations to web sites. Note that a URL is not a source; it’s simply the web
address where the information you are citing can be found. The source is the person or
organization who posted the information.
Memos will be graded based on writing as well as content.
Use subheadings to delineate different sections of your memo.
You don’t have to use footnotes or endnotes, but if you do I prefer footnotes.
Watch out for incomplete sentences – when in doubt, say it out loud.
PROOFREAD!!! The spell check function doesn’t catch everything.
Feel free to consult the writing center. See
Each draft and final memo will be graded on a 50–point scale:
Abstract and overall impression 10 points
- Does the memo successfully explain the substance or politics?
Analysis of 3 questions 10 points each
- Includes quality of the evidence provided and use of sources
Organization, grammar, citation style 10 points
Penalties for short papers: For the draft and final substantive memos, 5 points will be deducted
for each page below 6. For the draft and final politics memos, 5 points will be deducted for each
page the combined length of the two memos is below 15.5
PLAGIARISM AND FABRICATING SOURCES
Don’t do it! I have referred students to Judicial Affairs before, and will do so again.
See the comments on “Avoiding Plagiarism” at http://coursebook.utdallas.edu/syllabus-policies/.
If you have any doubt about whether you should be citing a source, cite the source. You will
never lose points for having too many citations.
Fabricating sources includes citing imaginary sources, as well as citing a real source for a
proposition that is not in fact supported by that source.
|Due By (Pacific Time)||12/18/2014 01:00 pm|
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