I'd like to discuss what I've experienced as a tension in how we help students learn to write in philosophy and to get some insight as to how the tension might be resolved.
First, the tension: Good philosophical writing is much more orderly than many students are accustomed to. At its best, it proceeds in a logical way, makes its assumptions explicit, lays out its reasoning carefully and directly, etc. I imagine that all of us have observed students struggling with this objective, producing written work that, whatever the merits of the ideas on offer, lacks structure, focus, or flow.
The natural remedy for this is to be direct with students about the orderliness that's expected. I have handouts I provide to students and I make available examples of written work that exemplifies the orderly style they should strive for. However, I've found that this has an unexpected negative consequence: Rather than their awareness of the need for order liberating them, many students find it either constraining or mechanical. The writing they produce becomes very by-the-numbers, with unoriginal theses and arguments drawn directly from texts or class discussion. The result is formulaic, sterile, risk-averse writing the crafting of which (I suspect) does little to help students master philosophical ideas.
This tension is important for two reasons: Yes, we want to encourage orderly writing. But writing also serves two other aims.
First, even though philosophical writing is less "creative" than many students realize, it can be a way for students to articulate and defend their own philosophical views. Students often take this to heart more strongly than I would like, treating each writing assignment as an opportunity to state, now and for all time, their true view on some philosophical matter. I like to remind them there's no sincerity requirement on their written work. (I don't even think there's a sincerity requirement for professional philosophers, but that's another story.) Nevertheless, helping students find a philosophical voice is a legitimate pedagogical goal, and I've found that this goal is sometimes at odds with the goal of producing orderly writing.
Second, the pedagogical value of writing isn't exhausted by the production of written work. The process of writing -- shaping a thesis, putting together arguments, digesting texts, identifying objections -- makes no less a contribution to student learning than does actually producing prose. That said, I've found that the need to produce orderly prose often results in students not really using the writing process as a way to interrogate philosophical ideas. They revert to plugging ideas into a written structure so as to generate clean prose, which means they neglect the much dirtier process of wrestling with philosophical problems and claims.
The tension, then, is between order and engagement with content, between the goal of crafting well-structured prose and the goal of learning about philosophical problems by writing about them. I don't think this tension is irresolvable, since some students react positively to the need for order, as it frees them to think less about the writing task proper and more about the intellectual tasks that accompany writing. Still, I believe there's a genuine tension here, one I've observed often in my career.
Can these two goals be harmonized? One idea I've fiddled with is to use more free writing with students. The idea here would be to give students a block of class time (10 minutes, say) to write whatever comes to mind in connection with some claim, topic, text, etc. The hope would be that this would let students do a bit of intellectual exploration (I wouldn't collect them, so there'd be little performance pressure) that they could then use as a springboard for more formal writing tasks later on. Perhaps they would, upon reading their free writing, come to appreciate that orderliness makes one's ideas more perspicuous and that our (my) insistence on orderly writing is not a whimsical authoritarian demand. Has anyone tried any free writing techniques? Do you have any thoughts about how to address the tension I've identified?