This post really follows up on one of the points made by Michael in this post: The teacher and the researcher.
It is common for introductory philosophy classes to be broad survey style classes. There are good reasons for this; we want our students to be broadly grounded, to have a chance to taste different aspects of philosophy and so on. However a consequence of this, as Michael pointed out, is that introductory and indeed other undergraduate courses in philosophy rarely go into any great depth. This often carries over to the specific lectures, so one week in a philosophy of religion class you may cover the argument from evil, the next the ontological argument. The upshot of this is that a lecture can often look something like this:
Argument 1 for proposition X
Why Argument 1 fails
Argument 2 for proposition X
Why Argument 2 fails
Argument 3 for proposition X
Why Argument 3 fails
Argument 4 for proposition X
Why Argument 4 fails
Conclusion: None of these arguments for proposition X work
Yet when we set essays we often, although not exclusively, ask students to concentrate on just one argument. Even if we do not specifically ask them to focus in the question, we usually argue that there is little point them giving just an overview of the area instead they should focus on a small part of that area since that is all they can cover well. The essay that gives 101 arguments for a proposition with little depth or critical analysis, philosophy by bullet point, will usually not do well.ral point is illustrated by this quote from the excellent The gene How to Plan a Philosophy Paper by Jeff McLaughlin, Thompson Rivers University.
“Choose a topic that is ‘do-able’.
Essay topics like "The philosophy of Aristotle", "What is Truth?", or "Science versus Religion", are far too broad. When thinking about your topic it is better that the "pool be small and deep, rather than wide and shallow". That’s a murky metaphor but basically it means don’t bite off more than you can chew. You don’t want to touch on fifty different and disjointed points and say nothing substantial about any of them (or you run the risk of writing a ‘too-long paper’). Instead, you want to pick a manageable topic that allows you some room for an in depth exploration of the particular issue. Are you keen on the topic of euthanasia? What aspect? Voluntary vs. Non-voluntary? Active vs. Passive? The role of non-family members as decision makers? Consideration of potential negative utilitarian consequences of a newborn euthanasia policy? Narrow your focus and develop your exploration of it.”
But there is an obvious disconnect here, while we insist to our students that good philosophy is focused and in depth, we model precisely the opposite when we get up in front of them and teach. It doesn’t seem too far a stretch to think that some of our students knowing that we are philosophers who are teaching philosophy, will probably get the impression that this is how philosophy ought to be done. Then they are likely to get a rude and disheartening awakening when, following the pattern of what is done in class they do badly in their assignments.
I’m curious to hear whether people broadly agree with this analysis, and what if anything they do about it.
I personally try and make it clear to my students that when I am covering huge swathes of material in a short time in a class that I am not doing philosophy, I am teaching them about others who did philosophy. I try and make this clear by occasionally doing philosophy in class, although I usually keep this for the tutorials, trying to make them focused on one or two aspects of the lecture not the whole. Likewise in the talk I give them about essay writing I make the point that lectures and course books perform a very different function than an academic paper. And what we are usually looking for in an essay is much more like an academic paper (not to the same standard of course) than it is to a course book or a lecture.