Spring 15 Session 4 (2/25/2015): Writing a Response Essay & “The Science of Success”


Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve spent time discussing how to actively engage with different kinds of texts. In Session 4, we transitioned to discussing how to respond to a text in the form of a response/reaction paper. We used the article “The Science of Success” (Dobbs, 2009) to practice formulating our responses.

Article Review

We started class by reviewing the assigned article:

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). The orchid hypothesis is a hopeful, strengths-based theory in that it suggests that genes we previously viewed as liabilities – as “all bad” – can actually be assets.

We also looked at a real-life example of a reader response to this article. This response was written by author David Shenk. Shenk gives the Dobbs article high praise, but he also objects to Dobbs overextension of the orchid/dandelion metaphor.  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).

Skill Review

After reviewing “The Science of Success” and a real-life reader response, we briefly discussed what a response paper is and how to write one well:

Response/reaction papers are usually brief (one-three pages) and involve writing about one or more assigned readings.  Instructors often assign response papers to prepare students to discuss readings in class and later in a midterm or final essay assignment.

Here are some tips for writing a quality response paper:

TIP #1: Rather than writing a summary, demonstrate that you read and understood the text by stating the author’s thesis in your own words.  When you write a response paper, assume that the reader of your paper is familiar with the article.  Don’t spend time writing a substantial summary.  Instead, show that you understood the overall message of the text by establishing and discussing the author’s thesis. The Writing Center at Empire State College provides a nice overview of how to identify the thesis of a text (see “identifying the author’s main thesis” about halfway down the page).

TIP #2: Dedicate most of the paper to a thoughtful discussion of the text that is supported by examples.  The discussion section should go beyond just your opinion; it should demonstrate that you have thought critically about the text.  You should include examples from the text that support your statements.

As we’ve discussed before, one of the best ways to make the essay-writing process engaging (i.e. more fun) is to find an angle that interests you.  Rather than spending the entire time discussing the text as a whole, choose one aspect of the text that you reacted strongly to, and use the majority of the paper to “unpack” that reaction.


Write a one to two page response paper on “The Science of Success” (2009) by David Dobbs.  Papers should be double-spaced, have one-inch margins, and use 12pt Times New Roman or 11pt Arial font.

If helpful, here is one general format for the paper[1]:

  1. Introduction/theme: A paragraph that “sets the stage” for what will follow. Possible entry points include: a broader trend that interests you in a related subject (e.g. psychology, genetics, sociology) how this text’s contents explain it; another text (or idea) that this article either supports or refutes; assumptions or opinions you hold that this book might challenge.
  2. Background: A paragraph that names the author and the text and paraphrases its thesis.
  3. Critical response: Use the remainder of the paper to hone in on a certain element of the text and provide your opinion of it. This, as much as anything, is the “thesis” of this essay. You may choose to focus on author’s thesis, or just one element of the article (for example, the author’s treatment of a particular theory, or the author’s conclusions, or the author’s style). This section should contain direct quotes or paraphrased examples from the article to support your statements.  To illustrate your discussion, if relevant, include examples from your own life, current events, other texts, history, etc.
  4. Conclusion: A paragraph that brings us back to your entering statement and states the wider significance of this work to you, and to the overall themes of the course.

[1] Format and text adapted from “How to Write a Reader Response Paper” (O’Mara) http://faculty.washington.edu/momara/Reader%20Response.pdf