Final Paper Instructions

Your final paper should reflect a firm command of a specific issue related to the themes covered in this course. The paper is your opportunity to display your particular insights and cultivate expertise on your topic. Make the most of it!


Upon completion of your paper, you should be able to clearly explain your issue, answer basic empirical questions about the topic, identify the important normative questions related to it, and offer your own analysis of its significance.

You will be drafting a research paper. A research paper consists of a clear thesis (articulated in the introduction), supporting evidence, and your own original analysis of that evidence. Analyzing evidence entails not only citing the facts or text that support your argument, but also interpreting them for your reader. It is your job to connect the dots for your reader – a good analysis clearly explains how the evidence cited leads to drawing the conclusion asserted in the thesis.

Understanding your topic and garnering evidence for your argument will require that you conduct academic research. To this end, you should consider taking advantage of campus resources, including subject guides available through the library. Please use academic, peer-reviewed sources. This includes books published by university presses and articles available on ProQuest, JSTOR, and other databases accessible through the university library. Generally, these databases include a search option that limits your results to only peer-reviewed sources, which can be helpful if you are in doubt. Additionally, the McGill University Writing Centre offers assistance to students who wish to improve their writing skills.


  • The paper is due on December 1st
  • Papers should be approximately fifteen to twenty pages in length (double spaced), with standard margins. Title pages and bibliographies are required, but are not included in the page count. If you wish to develop your paper further (as a graduate school writing sample, for presentation at the Moore conference, or for submission to a journal), you may opt for a longer paper (20-25pages).
  • You may choose a citation style (APA, MLA, or Chicago). Please apply that style consistently throughout the paper.
  • Pages must be numbered.

Choosing a Topic

You will need to invest a significant amount of time in preparing, drafting, and refining this paper, so I encourage you to choose a topic that interests you. Topics should be broad enough to have clear significance, but narrow enough that it is possible to give a thorough treatment in the space allowed. All topics and thesis statements must be approved by the instructor, either during office hours or via email. Be prepared to explain your topic choice and how you plan to go about researching it. Questions to consider in choosing a topic:

  • Why is this issue important? If you were to explain your topic to someone who is not in this class, how would you persuade them that it is an issue they should care about?
  • What is your position on the issue and what reasons can you give for holding it? You will need to support your argument by offering evidence. When you give evidence, it is useful to imagine presenting your argument to someone who does not support your position or who is even opposed to it. As such, your evidence must be strong and as unbiased as possible.
  • What kind of argument do you want to make? Will it involve significant empirical elements (for instance, evaluating social, moral, or political psychology research and drawing some conclusion relevant to politics in a democratic society from it)? Is it wholly normative? Empirical arguments make a statement about what “is” or “is not.” Normative arguments concern what “ought to be.” Both types of argument require strong evidence – stating an unsupported opinion is not sufficient. Because this is a political theory course, your primary claim should be normative.

Research Questions and Thesis Statements

A research question is a concise articulation of the issue you are exploring. You should be able to formulate a research question if your topic has been sufficiently narrowed. Examples include:

  • What is a commercial association, and should it be treated differently from other types of association (expressive, intimate, etc.)?
  • What is the state’s interest in providing 1st Amendment protections to hate speech? Does the state have an equally compelling interest in limiting it?
  • Should “obscenity” be abolished as a category of unprotected speech? Why and under what circumstances?
  • Should the Court treat privately owned platforms like Twitter or Facebook as if they were public forums? Why or why not?
  • Which religions do not merit recognition by the state? Why not?

Your thesis statement is your answer to your research question. It should also briefly explain the significance of your argument.

Writing, Organization, and Evaluation 
While this is not a composition class, a well-written paper will receive a higher grade than a poorly written one. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Well-written papers are clear. There is no confusion about what the author is or is not claiming. It is impossible to evaluate an argument’s merits if it is not clear what that argument is.
  2. A poorly written paper distracts the reader, weakening the effect of your argument. Unnecessary sentences, tangential paragraphs, and extraneous words take your reader’s attention away from your argument, and so are not effective ways of making it.
  3. This is an upper-division course, and it is expected that by this stage, students have mastered the basics of composition.

Your paper does not need to be a great piece of literature. You will not be graded on merely stylistic or aesthetic elements, but it does need to be clearly written and well organized. I recommend having another person proofread your paper for clarity and errors.

A minimally sufficient (C grade) paper:

  • Has a thesis statement, but may not state it clearly or explain its importance.
  • Offers evidence, but does not clearly explain its relationship with the thesis.
  • Includes some logical fallacies or arguments that have serious flaws in their construction.
  • Has typographical or grammatical errors.
  • Does not clearly convey information.
  • Is disorganized, rendering it difficult to follow.

A good (B grade) paper:

  • Has a clearly stated thesis (usually at the end of the introduction).
  • Conveys why the central argument (stated in the thesis) is important.
  • Offers evidence supporting the thesis, drawn from reputable sources.
  • Explains clearly why the evidence given does, in fact, support the thesis.
  • Is free of typographical errors and grammatical mistakes.

The very best (A grade) papers will meet the requirements of a good paper, and also:

  • Situate the issue in broader debates.
  • Review and evaluate opposing arguments (Fairly, no straw men!).
  • Offer reasons why those opposing arguments are incorrect or 
inapplicable to the case under consideration.
  • Give a persuasive, detailed interpretation of what the evidence says about the thesis (analysis). This entails giving an account of what the evidence means in context.
  • Offer original insights.
  • Include insights from the entire course, synthesizing ideas and drawing clear connections between them. I recommend reading The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It is a good primer on how to write a clear, organized paper, and also gives a good grammatical refresher.

While I am happy to discuss papers with students during office hours, I do not read and evaluate finished drafts. It is not possible to do this for all students, and it is unfair to other students to allow some what is, essentially, two chances at the same assignment. I will offer comments on outlines, however.