Responding to student writing

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The Craft of Teaching: Responding to Student Writing

Responding to student writing
This packet includes two student papers on Augustine's Confessions. Please read over them both and devote some thought to how you might comment on them. Then, please do the following:
1. Jot down a up a quick list of the 3-5 most significant problems you find in each paper. This is just for you -- bring it to the workshop, but you won't have to share it with the group.
2. Write a comment on ONE (only one!) paper. Assign the paper a grade, and comment using any combination of end comments and marginal comments (using the Word or Open Office bubble commenting feature) that you like. (Please no PDFs; that might make comment distribution difficult).
**Please type your comments and email them to Tracy at by 10AM on Sunday, May 17.**
The assignment: The papers are on Augustine's Confessions, and they respond to the following prompt:
The nature of evil is one of Augustine’s main theological concerns. Reconstruct his theory of evil. Do you find it convincing? Why or why not?  
The course: Both of these were written some years ago for Human Being and Citizen, one version of the mandatory first-year core Humanities sequence here at the University. In the quarter when these papers were written, the course dealt with four texts illuminating the problem of evil: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Augustine's Confessions, Dante's Inferno, and selections from the writings of Gandhi.
The course is similar in its aims to freshman humanities sequences at many other institutions where you might end up teaching later in your careers. One aim is to provide all entering students with some foundation in the humanities. But the course is not specifically aimed toward humanities or religion majors. For some students this will be the only course they will take in their lives that will deal with texts like Augustine; other students will go on to major in the humanities or in religion. Almost all of the students in class are in their first year of college.
Another aim of the course is to give the students some instruction in writing -- at this university as at many others, the humanities sequence serves that function.
Your comment: When you write your comment, assume that the paper was assigned in the middle of the quarter. It was a complete paper, not a draft, and students were not required to write a previous draft for it. They will have two more papers to write for the course, and there are no mandatory drafts for those, either.
Assume, as well, that you're teaching the class -- you're not a teaching assistant or an intern. You thus have carte blanche to decide what goals you want your comment to achieve. Keep in mind that in this course you would be reading two more papers from these students later in the quarter. You'll want to to use your comment on this paper as an opportunity to teach them something they can use on their next paper. We will discuss in the session what goals you decided you wanted to achieve, and how effectively the comment will bring about these goals.
 (The names of the student writers, who graduated long ago, have been changed.)

Paper one: Steve Rogers
It Isn’t Money: An Interpretation of the Origin of Evil according to St. Augustine
Saint Augustine, as presented in his Confessions, was clearly an intelligent man. It was this trait that made his story so interesting to read. For all of his meditation on various topics, though, one thing became apparent: he can’t admit to not knowing anything without qualifying it. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to do this often, but he lacks an answer to one of the most important questions he raises: that is, the question of the origin of evil. He starts his discussion very strongly, but when it comes down to the big question, the answers he gives are so vague that it’s hard to understand how anyone could see his case as convincing.

He first poses the question of the cause of evil when he hears the beliefs of the Manichees. They believed in “a race of darkness in opposition to [God].”1 Augustine quickly identifies that if there were such a race, there would be no need for combat, as God is inviolable. If he could suffer injury, then he couldn’t be God. They also said that the soul was mingled with darkness, and that it was brought to purity by God’s word. Yet again, Augustine sees the problem in that the soul and God’s word are one and the same, so if the soul is corruptible, then so is God’s word, which goes against the idea that God is incorruptible. Augustine had no trouble dismissing the arguments of the Manichees, but what remained afterwards was a sense of confusion. Augustine realized even though there was no uncertainty in God’s immutability, he had “no clear and explicit grasp of the cause of evil.”2 The Manichees had no problem dealing with this, as they did not believe in God’s omnipotence. According to them, God suffered evil and could not eliminate it. Augustine was told that men can do wrong because of a free will, and he was certain that he had a will and was alive. If men chose to do wrong, they suffered God’s just punishment. “I saw that when I acted against my wishes, I was passive rather than active; and this condition I judged to be not guilt but a punishment.”3 Therefore, if God were indeed just, then it would make sense for Augustine to feel chastised. This explanation was fine, but did not explain why he had the power in the first place to do wrong. After all, man was made by the supreme good. This did not waver his faith, though, and instead he sought other principles, in hope that they would shed some light on this problem.

First, he asserts that something incorruptible is superior to something that is corruptible. After all, incorruptibility leaves no room for evil to become a part, whereas that which is corruptible can be swayed by evil. From this, he draws the conclusion that God is incorruptible. Augustine explains well why god can’t be corrupted: “If it were so, that would not be God.”4 His reasoning continues that since God is incorruptible, he is not the origin of evil. It is important to note that he does not explicitly state this, but it is implied by his continuing in a search for evil’s origin. He never dares to think that God could have created evil for some purpose. He does admit, however, that he searched in a flawed way: his very search was flawed. He conceptualizes all of creation as being very large, but very much finite. God, on the other hand, is infinite in many things. Therefore, God is everywhere and in all things, permeating but not diffused. If God fills all things, he wonders, where does the evil creep in? He ponders that perhaps evil has no being, in which case a fear of evil is a fear in vain. That would infer that fear itself is evil, though it has no being to be afraid of. “Yet we still fear. Thus either it is evil which we fear or our fear which is evil.”5 This brought Augustine to the questions that led the Manichees to their beliefs about evil: primarily, why does God let evil exist? Is God unable to remove evil from the universe, despite his omnipotence?

Augustine decides to move onto fortunetellers. He knows them to be frauds, and asserts that any correct predictions they have made are purely by chance and not skill. For the most part, the stories he tells at this point have little to do with his quest to find the root of evil, but it becomes clear at the end. He gives instructions, saying, “when someone consults a futurologist and hears what he should hear, that is dependent on the hidden merits of souls and the profundity of your just judgement. Let not the man say ‘What is this? Why is that?’ Let him not say it, let him not say it; for he is man.”6 He explains that the reason for things happening is God’s will, and mere mortals could never hope to understand it. To believe that one can is to fly in the face of God with arrogance. As it is said in modern times, God works in mysterious ways.

While he does discuss more about evil later, it is important to evaluate the arguments presented thus far, as they tend to be used even in modern times to justify the existence of evil. The thing is, these arguments should not be at all convincing. The bottom line is effectively, “no one knows.” Why does God allow evil to exist? Augustine doesn’t know, so he assumes it is God’s will that mortals do not know. This is simply faulty logic. Just because one man cannot find the answer does not mean the answer cannot be known, and his lack of knowledge is the only proof he has to support this argument. Meanwhile, history has proven many things previously thought impossible to be quite the opposite. Airplanes, space travel, seeing beyond our galaxy… all of these were once thought to be impossible to achieve by humanity, and yet nowadays they are seen as commonplace happenings. If anything, history suggests that given enough time and resources, humanity can find an answer to almost any question posed. Anyone who follows Augustine’s argument thus far in the modern world is simply not trying to find the real answer.

The remainder of Augustine’s arguments on evil seem to take a more intellectual approach. He begins to reevaluate his position on the existence of evil. He systematically argues that God is supremely good; therefore everything he creates is good. Anything that is not good cannot be corrupted, but if something were to have no good, then it could not exist. “Therefore, as long as they exist, they are good.”7 Therefore, evil cannot be a substance, since it would have to be made by God, and would thus be good. Thus, if evil is a corruption that diminishes the good in other things, yet has no substance itself, does it even really exist? Augustine postulates that perhaps, there is no evil. Instead, “there are certain elements which are thought evil because of a conflict of interest.”8 When two good things have a conflict of interests, one may see the other as evil. As the example was given in our own class, snow is a form of precipitation that helps keep water supplies full… but it can interfere with coming to class, which is certainly another good thing. In that situation, it would be easy to assume that snow is an evil thing, though it is only a conflict of interests that drives such an opinion. Augustine observes that taken in isolation, it would be easy to want something better, and there are things that may be seen as a greater or lesser good. However, the sum of all the goods is greater than any of the superior things alone.

This argument is much more satisfying than the previous conclusion drawn. Indeed, it is easy to see how related events form a complex web of happenings, and it is difficult to see the good in all the individual occurrences. Knowing that God always directs the final result of these events explains how seemingly evil things can happen. The problem with this argument is that it is very hard to prove one way or the other. To do so would require for the good of every event to be analyzed and compared, and decide if the end result of all that exists is indeed a net good. There’s always a “bigger picture” to consider with unknown outcomes. It makes for a good philosophy to live life by, no doubt about it, but unless there is some way to prove this outlook’s proof, it is hard to accept as the truth. Another problem with this scenario is that it brings up the question of free will. In his earlier arguments, Augustine asserted his free will. Yet, this theory suggests that God controls all our actions. It would seem that there certainly is a contradiction in this line of thought.

Do not misunderstand me, I respect St. Augustine a great deal. His efforts in attempting to understand the world around him are certainly commendable. But his arguments on the origin of evil only appear solid on the surface. After some probing, it is revealed that his theories are either not completely fleshed out, or run contradictory to his other assertions. Furthermore, it seems that his theories are just elaborate ways of explaining why he doesn’t know. When presented with the question of why God lets evil exist, answering with “it is God’s will” does not truly answer the question. Perhaps one day, the question of evil’s origin (or even its existence) will finally be answered. Then mankind can move on to answering even tougher and more important questions… like finding out how the female mind works. That would indeed be a great boon to men everywhere.

Paper two: Peggy Carter

In a world created by an almighty benevolent “god” the concept of evil is questioned. How can there be evil when God created it all? Augustine had these concerns. He did not understand how God and evil can coexist. His main inquiry was where did evil come from and how it is manifested in the good creatures that God created. The main manifestations of evil in humans are sins. Therefore, then why do humans sin if they are genuinely good? God created us as good creatures with free will. By giving us freedom to choose we can decide to sin or not. If we make bad choices we corrupt the good in us. Augustine states “It was obvious to me that things which are liable to corruption are good” Therefore, Augustine believed that humans are liable to corruption because we have a good nature, then there is no real evil. Instead evil and sin can be defined as a rejection of the higher good. This rejection is what makes us commit what we can describe as evil acts. These evil acts are corrupted human actions, therefore, evil is nonexistent.

Although Augustine came to the conclusion that evil was nonexistent, he did not always believe that. Before Augustine became a Christian he believed that evil was the

following: “ …I also believed that evil is a kind of material substance with its own foul and misshapen mass…a malignant mind creeping through the earth”. .He thought that evil was a certain type of spirit or force that influenced our judgment and made us sin. He also believed that this evil substance had no reason to exist and that humans committed evil acts just for the sake of it. For example, when he was a child he stole pears with a group of friends. He explains that if he were alone he would have never committed such crime. The thrill of the moment and the fact that he was accompanied and tempted by the desire and pleasure of the act made him commit the crime. Therefore, he thought that the reason why we sin is because of the pleasure that we encounter in committing the act, even though what we are doing might be considered an evil act we are compelled to do it because it satisfies our instant desires. This is why he believed that evil exists without a particular reason.

Also, he states that the type of evilness that we cannot control occurs to humanity because we put ourselves in a position in which harm comes to us. For example, he believed that even natural evil like diseases, affected us because of our free will. This means that if we get sick, we are getting sick because we put ourselves in the position of letting harm or evil come to us. He assumed this because we get sick by getting in contact with an infected person. Therefore, he believed that we have a choice to come in to contact with natural evil.

When his transformation began he still questioned how could God and evil coexist. His vision undergoes a transition.


He starts to examine facts and different theories. He first heard the story of the beggar and the rich man and realized that astrology is false in context. The reason for this is that there is no feasible explanation of how can two different persons born at the same time have the same horoscope if they are living such different circumstances. Also, astrology denies the idea of free will. Consequently, in astrology the idea of evil is not explained, evil just purely exists.

Then Augustine turned to the Platonist beliefs. These ideas made him realize that God has no physical substance. This is also why he rejects the Manichee deity ideology, because it limits divinity to a physical substance. On the other hand, Platonic deity offered Augustine an explanation of God’s place on earth. According to the Platonic theory God is eternal, infinite, immanent, incorruptible, unchanging, and perfect. Now that he has this knowledge he perceives God as an immaterial God. Yet, the platonic ideology fails to explain God’s physical presence on earth, what we also know as Jesus Christ. It is imperative that Augustine understood the physical presence of God, because Jesus is the mediator and the reason why our sins are forgiven and we become saved. This is why Augustine is compelled to justify his argument using the bible. After his research Augustine concluded that God has almighty power and that he created everything in a benevolent manner. He believes by faith in God’s goodness, superiority, power and omnipotence.

Augustine states “I had already established that the incorruptible is better than the corruptible, and so I confessed whatever you are, you are incorruptible. Nor could there have been or be any soul capable of conceiving that which is better than you,

who are the supreme highest good.” In this quote we see that he comes to the conclusion that God is incorruptible because he is the highest good. Therefore, he has supreme power. God is a supreme benevolent immaterial being that created us. What makes us inferior to God is our vulnerability to corruption. This is the reason why corruption of the good does exist, but only in humans. According to Augustine evil is only a concept that we use to define the corrupted humanly actions that we make. Thus, he states that evil is nonexistent.

Augustine’s reasoning explains very well why the world has come to be so “evil” or corrupted. The bible states that God created humans in his image. This is why we are good creatures, but he also gave us free will. He gave us the choice to decide whether to reject or accept the higher good. God gave us the power to choose to live in corruption or not. God created everything good, yet it is up to us to maintain this goodness around us. An example of this is the first sin. God warned Adam and Eve to not eat from the tree, yet they decided to do so. It was their choice to sin and to commit a corrupted act. In the Christian belief this is the main reason why we are doomed and sinners because of the decision that Adam and Eve made. The world becomes corrupted because of the actions we decide to make. We decide to kill, steal, fornicate, etc. By committing all this sins we have turned the world into an evil place. As a result we have evil or as Augustine would say corruption in God’s creation.

Also, we can apply his theory to natural evil. Only God is perfect, we are not. We are good creatures vulnerable to corruption, therefore, so is our body.


We can not control sickness or diseases, because these are a result of a corruption in our body. For example, cancer, sometimes we inherent cancer, like breast and ovarian cancer, inheritance is a human action. Yet, there is other types that has nothing to do with genetics. Cancer is a malfunction of a cell that suffers a mutation. The mutation causes the cell to keep the cell division in process, making it spread throughout the body or cause a tumor. We do not control this disease, and we most certainly do not choose to come in contact with it. It is a malfunction or corruption in our body that causes this disease. His reasoning can also be applied to AIDS. Even though humans get infected with AIDS by unsafe sexual intercourse that we choose to have, at first the disease developed in a person that was not aware of the sickness and did nothing wrong to contract it. The reason why the person got infected was because his body suffered a mutation in his immune system. Once discovered, it is up to humans to choose whether to be safe or not and protect themselves of it.

Evil in essence is human corruption. Every aspect of our lives is prone and vulnerable to be corrupted. This includes our mind, body and soul. According to Augustine God is the path that we need to follow in order to attain the higher good and live a righteous life. As humans we cannot understand God’s perspective or judgment, we should believe by faith that if we obey him we should acquire happiness. Sometimes we can prevent corruption and sometimes we cannot. Though as good human beings what we should do is make good choices, and prevent to commit bad mistakes in order to live a benevolent life. We should be aware of our surroundings, and even when affected by corruption that we cannot control we should always act in order to protect ourselves from it.

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