Friday, October 03, 2008

Teaching Philosophical Writing

What is the best way to teach students how to write philosophy papers? My current plan is to (i) assign Jim Pryor's guidelines as a prepared reading; (ii) offer a shorter handout highlighting the most important points, which I'll briefly talk through at the start of precept; and then (iii) get them to work through examples of good and bad philosophical writing, perhaps as a small group exercise, noting some of the differences.

Any other suggestions?


  1. I tell my students that from this point on any philosophical paper they read they should assign it a mark and give a brief justification for that mark. I think this forces them to reflect on what makes good philosophical writing. I know for me probably the most profound improvement in my writing came from marking essays, since it forced me to think about what was good and what was bad philosophical writing.

  2. First year students, I assume? I did (ii) last year, along with an extremely short paper I'd written to illustrate some of the points. That seemed to work pretty well. If your students are anything like ours, I think they're much more likely to take it in if (a) it's clear you've written it for *them*, and (b) you force them to go over it together in class.

  3. You are at Princeton, so you have it easy. Just give your students a few examples of well-written philosophy, and they'll be bright enough to figure out on their own how a good philosophy paper should be structured.

  4. It would depend on what exactly you're doing. More and more I've come to the conclusion that the best way to do it is to have them work up to it as the course goes on. That is, rather than expecting them to write them immediately, the goal should be to have them writing reasonably solid papers by the end of the course. And so the early assignments should be stripped down, not full papers at all, developing up to a full paper.

    But if that's not feasible, I think you have the right idea. HOWEVER it's important not to pull a bait-and-switch, which is what most teachers unintentionally end up doing. There's often a disconnect between what professors say they want and what they actually (appear to) grade on, especially in philosophy classes. If you're going to use Pryor's guidelines, for instance it's important that the actual grading of the paper *closely* follow those guidelines (preferably referring back to it, or the handout you mentioned in ii, repeatedly in comments on papers).

    Think of it as something like a political problem: In order to teach students to write a proper paper you have to make a clear and definite effort to make it in their interest to do the things that lead to proper papers by making it obvious and clear that it relates to their grade. If you don't, or if you don't appear to be doing anything along these lines, students will start wandering off course. In some sense that's a specialized version of what might be called the Hard Problem of teaching, since there are analogies to it all across pedagogy, it's very difficult to do, and it is the only thing that (consistently) works.


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