Papers for HSS 152 = EALC 035

N. Sivin


The Writing Requirement

The course offers you two ways to satisfy the writing requirement. You can do a single essay, due near the end of the term, of 10-12 pages. If you would like to work more intensively on your writing, you can elect to do four papers of three pages each, spaced at intervals through the term. They will give you regular responses to your writing, and specific suggestions for improvement.

The number of pages in either case is relatively small. That is because I expect you to turn in finished pieces of writing, concise and clear, rather than raw drafts pounded out at the last moment. If your study habits permit learning to critically edit your drafts and revising them over a week or so, you should do well on the short papers and considerably improve your writing.

The first short paper will be due about a month after the beginning of the course, and the others at roughly equal intervals through the term. Dates will be announced once the term is under way.

To choose the short-paper option, simply turn in a short paper on the first due date. Not turning in a paper then, or on the second or third due date, enrolls you in the long-paper option. Extensions are available from your section instructor, but only if you request one before the date on which the essay is due.

Paper Topics

The most interesting papers are invariably the ones you are want most to write about. For that reason, we do not prescribe paper topics. As the course proceeds, keep track of what arouses your curiosity, and think about looking into it. Generally, a question will be more likely to keep you intrigued than a title. "Acupuncture" is too vague to guide you, but "How do doctors decide between using acupuncture and other therapies?" gives you an idea of what to look for.

If you have not had much experience in choosing your own topics, drop in and chat with me about your interests, and I will help you choose a topic based on them.

This is not a research seminar, so you are not required to write research reports. You may wish to set down your reactions to something in the course, or something related from your own experience, or even fiction or poetry based on something you have read or we have discussed. If you have an idea you are not sure about, just contact me before you begin work on it.

If you do decide to do a research paper, you will want to make sure there is adequate material for your topic. Your first step should be to look at the course bibliography on my web site.

Finding Sources

The course bibliography

It is natural to assume that anything that makes its way into a published book or article is knowledge you can depend on. Once you build up a little familiarity with a field, and begin reading critically, you will discover that thatís not true.

The value of secondary sources varies greatly. In some areas, especially Chinese medicine, a large proportion of the publications are poorly informed. That is because, although knowledgeable authors are rare, publishers, who have to make a profit, will do anything to meet the great and undiscriminating demand for books on this subject. In other fields, such as Taoist studies (which fundamentally changed in the 1970ís) and work on the beginnings of therapy in China (transformed by archeological discoveries published after 1980), change has been so rapid that older sources are almost certain to be misleading.

In order to help you find good sources, the course bibliography ("Bibliography of East Asian Science" on the web site) is an up-to-date list of all the reliable sources, as well as a certain number for which specific warnings are necessary. It covers Chinese science and medicine generally, but includes a few of the best sources on Japan and Korea. For topics in this area, it will give you important information of two kinds:

1. You can find out whether useful sources are available for a topic you are thinking about, and

2. You can find out whether a source you have found is reliable. If it isnít in the bibliography, it probably isnít. That is particularly true for writings about medicine or Taoism. If you want to use such a source that the bibliography omits, I strongly suggest that you consult me. Many course papers fail to meet their potential because they have trusted authoritative-sounding but ignorant or obsolete opinions. That trap is easy to avoid. I am glad to evaluate any source for you at any time.

If you want to work on a related topic that the course bibliography does not cover in depth (for instance, medicine in Korea), check a comprehensive, less evaluative professional bibliography, such as the Bibliography of Asian Studies (on the Van Pelt web site), and let me go over your tentative list of references and evaluate them for you. It is essential to do that for any topic related to medicine or Taoism, and recommended for any source not listed in the course bibliography.

If you happen to be able to read a foreign language, I will be glad to help you find scholarship in itóalthough that is definitely not a requirement for anyone.

Other bibliographies

For papers on topics that move beyond Chinese science, the most reliable bibliographies are those of the pertinent professional fields. The most obvious are the Bibliography of Asian Studies (, HST (, and NIHís huge life sciences database, Pubmed (

All are available online at Franklin. If your topic does not fall into any of these categories, consult the Reference Desk at Van Pelt library for the most appropriate one. If professional bibliographies do not yield what you need, consult me (or do it earlier in the process if you prefer).

Online sources

If you have time to winnow the reliable sources from the enormous bulk of useless commercial stuff on the Web, the first order of business is to learn to approach it critically. You can find on my web site links to a couple of guides that explain how to estimate quality. Select Links, then Internet Guides.


Once you have done a literature search, you have your main sources. You may pick up additional data from the Web, but you are responsible for the quality of what goes into your paper. That means evaluating the source and its author, and checking its assertions against refereed and published sources if they exist. If you donít have time to do this critical checking, Web material is likely to lower the quality of your research report.

Research is just a fancy word for reading critically, using what you read to test and refine your ideas, and clearly stating the outcome. Some high-school teachers like a neat schema in which you form a hypothesis, then read up on the topic, and only then draw a conclusion and write it up. I donít know anyone who works in such a neat and abstract way. I usually start with a rather vague idea, do some reading and find my idea has changed, do some more reading and gradually, reiterating this process, form a clear idea of what I have to say. The act of writing tells me what I understand and what I donít, so I draft early, revise or toss what I first wrote away and write something new, and round and round until I am satisfied.

That leaves me with a first draft that includes all the ideas that I think hang together, but at that point it probably wouldnít make sense to anyone but me. It isnít finished until it makes sense to any person of normal intelligence and education who reads it. In other words, editing, which is the heart of writing, is a matter of getting outside your own head, and reading from the viewpoints of other people. It takes time to learn this art, so the sooner you start the better. It becomes much easier if you have a particular reader in mind when you write and reviseósomeone you know well, not an expert on the material, who will demand that she understand what you write. These criteria obviously rule out writing for your professor, whom you do not know well, and who you assume knows the material no matter how you phrase it (that assumption is often untrue).

Improving Your Writing

The published and broadcast media bombard you, like everyone else, with dreadful writing meant to convince you that you need shoddy goods, ought to vote for candidates who havenít the slightest interest in your needs, ought to trust valueless information, and so on. If such writing were clear and plain, you would see right through it. But learning to let someone know in writing exactly what you thinkóand whyóis a skill that, more than any other, will determine whether you succeed in doing what you want to spend your life doing. It takes hard work to become good at it, but nothing can be more worth while. That is why this course emphasizes the skills of writing and revision.

For everyone, what results when you write something down is a rough approximation to good communication. Turning a draft into clear, concise writing is a matter of critically scrutinizing your own writing, to estimate how other people will read it, to identify weak logic, ambiguity, and verbosity, and to fix them.

This courseís main tool is the "Checklist for Editing," a document that, on two sides of one sheet of paper, describes all of the writing problems that turn up in student papers and makes suggestions for overcoming them. If you have never studied the rudiments of grammar, and are not sure what the passive voice is, or how to be sure which word in a sentence is the verb, there is an interactive version of the Checklist on my web site under "Guides to Writing." Clicking on any term you donít understand will take you to an explanation and examples. I will be glad to recommend other aids, but if you use this one fully, you will find it covers most of your needs.

Anyone who wants to read with understanding and write well needs a good dictionary and a guide to style. For the first, buy what is called a Collegiate or College Dictionary. A paperback just doesnít contain enough words. I use Websterís New World, but I notice that the Bookstore is selling the American Heritage, another good college dictionary, for a bargain price, about $20. If you want to spend less, buy a used dictionary, not a smaller one.

Copyright reserved by Nathan Sivin. Please email
nsivin! at sas! dot upenn! dot edu! (but use normal form and omit the exclamation points)
with comments and corrections.

Back to Nathan Sivin's home page Back to the Department of History and Sociology of Science home page

Use your browser's "back" button to return to your last location.

Last Modified 2004.9.24