Session 6 (10/22/14): Recap, Assignment, & Further Reading

RECAP: What did we do?

1. We discussed the assigned article, “The Science of Success” (Dobbs, 2009).  We reviewed the concept that inspired the article: the orchid hypothesis. According to the article synopsis, the orchid hypothesis is “a provocative new theory of genetics, which asserts that the very genes that give us the most trouble as a species, causing behaviors that are self-destructive and antisocial, also underlie humankind’s phenomenal adaptability and evolutionary success” (Dobbs, 2009). While acknowledging that the orchid hypothesis is intriguing and has implications for each of our own lives, more than a few of you also voiced concerns about connections or conclusions, whether stated or implicit, that the author is perhaps too quick to draw.

We discussed how David Shenk, author of the blog “The Genius of Us All,” similarly voiced valid concerns. Shenk gave the Dobbs article high praise, but he also objected to Dobbs (mis)treatment of dandelions.  Shenk writes,

We can recognize certain extraordinary orchid alleles without rhetorically ghettoizing the other alleles as not-very-plastic dandelion weeds. After all, the studies you cite are presenting population percentages — they are not showing a clean separation between individuals with or without the alleles. Clearly, as this science marches on, we’re going to be stumbling onto specific genes and combinations that seem to have a particular influence in one direction or another. But as we do, I think we need to be careful not to overstate their lessons. We don’t want to leave readers with the impression that, without a particular allele, a person is protected from being depressed or barred from having super-talent. 

So Shenk cautions Dobbs against misleading readers, against implying that dandelions somehow got a raw deal or even that “orchids” can be cleanly separated from “dandelions” when it comes to people (vs. individual genes).

You each made your own astute observations regarding the article’s limitations, and several of you have based your paper topics on those observations.

 2. We reviewed a few ways to determine a paper topic. We discussed how one of the best ways to make the essay-writing process engaging (i.e. more fun) is to choose a topic that matters to you (the writer). We also discussed how you can save yourself time and frustration by choosing a topic that originates in the course material. So the task is to find where your own interests and the course material intersect. To do this, try one or more of the following:
  • Look through your notes for ideas. Find a topic that matters to you and is relevant by searching your notes from course readings and lectures.  Even if there is seemingly nothing about an assignment that appeals to you, you can usually find a gold nugget buried somewhere in your synthesis notes.  Look back and identify any personal reactions or questions you recorded.  Look to see whether you starred or underlined anything you found intriguing.  This process of following your synthesis notes can lead to ideas for a fruitful, relevant topic.
  • Freewrite.  Take five or ten minutes to write whatever comes up for you around the text/topic.  Try not to worry about the mechanics of your writing (e.g. spelling, grammar, structure), and try not to judge your ideas.  After you have finished, read over your writing.  Identify an idea that would lend itself to further exploration/investigation.
  • Answer a series of personal response and/or critical analysis questions. If you prefer a more structured approach, try answering a series of personal response questions about the text/topic to stimulate your thinking.  There are links below to resources that provide such questions.
  • Engage a friend in a conversation. If brainstorming alone doesn’t appeal to you, try engaging a friend in a conversation about the assignment.  Instead of writing your answers to personal response questions, discuss them with a friend.  Your conversation may very well lead you to a topic you want to write about.

A final note: You can also save yourself time and frustration by choosing a topic that is specific but leaves room for exploration.  To test your idea, turn it into a question.  The scope of the question should match the size of the assignment.  In other words, if you are asked to write a 5 to 6 page double-spaced paper, you will not want to try to tackle a question that will require 10 pages to adequately answer.

A solid question with an appropriate scope can also serve as the basis for further research and analysis, which you will likely need to do before you can finalize a thesis.

3. We discussed the plan for this course for the remainder of the semester and the final assignment. For more details, see the individual posts: Class Schedule: Oct 29 – Dec 10  and  Niteo Final Assignment. Final papers are due in class, December 3.

4. We discussed the assignment for this week (see below).



  1. If you have not already determined a topic for your paper, do so using one or more of the strategies listed above.
  2. Once you have determined your topic, turn it into a question. If you had already devised a question, refine it to be suitable for the length of your paper.
  3. Identify, read, and annotate any sources you will be using.
  4. Email me, Sarah, at with 1) which essay option you have chosen, 2) your question, and 3) link(s) to any source(s) you will be using (if available online).
  5. Read this post from the blog “The Write Practice.”



If you are interested in reading more on the orchid hypothesis, here are links to more David Dobbs material:

Neuron Culture (David Dobbs blog)

Beautiful Brains (2011 Dobbs article published in National Geographic Magazine)

The Social Life of Genes (2013 Dobbs article)

David Dobbs posts on


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