Friday, September 7, 2007

A tension in writing pedagogy?

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?


  1. I'm not sure that freewriting will really cause them to yearn for more order. It may even backfire. The process of having new, connected ideas is very pleasurable and may in fact be one of the things that keeps students from liking orderly writing.

    One thing I've occasionally done with students who are having trouble with philosophical writing is to take the philosophy out of it. Have them philosophically defend something like "My favorite band rocks." What is rocking? What conditions would be necessary and/or sufficient for rocking? How can I give evidence that my particular favorite band meets these conditions. What particular evidence might someone use against my claims? Might they have a different picture of what rocking is and use that picture to argue against my band rocking and what could I say about that evidence?

  2. Hi Michael,

    Are you concerned about this issue in more introductory class, or advanced classes (or both)? That would make a difference to the kinds of assignments and the reactions you get.

    Your students might be generally amazing and so this isn't true for many of them, but if you ask them to write whatever comes to mind in connection with some claim, topic, text, etc., you might not get what you are looking for! Probably more direction would be useful for most students (I realize you might very well meant to be saying that anyway).

    In defense of the plain and boring approach to writing assignments, I think there really often is a value to getting students to (a) make a clear claim, (b) give reasons in its favor, (c) consider objections and (d) respond to those objections, and present it all in a way that makes sense to an outside observer. For many students, this is a real challenge, and some of them eventually appreciate this kind of "order" forced on their thinking.

    So these papers might get dull to the reader (i.e., the instructor) but they are new to the students. And there are ways to make things more interesting -- and allow for creativity and more personal exploration -- while retaining the kinds of goals you mention above, of course.

  3. I also think that the free writing exercise is a bad one. I actually want students to "do" philosophy (whatever that means, right?) . Yes, it is formulaic and appears to be uncreative, but very few of us can pull off a dialogue, or do anything other than stay within the strict parameters of an analytic framework. If professionals cannot do it, i most certainly do not expect undergrads to delve into this abyss. They will develop a writing style once they learn what to say (form) and how to say it(content), which are the basics. Most students come into their first philosophy class thinking that philosophy is anything goes, and the last thing i am going to do is perpetuate this very false claim. They need to know how to write a formal introduction, struggle with the text, cite the text correctly, get frustrated with the reading, and, eventually, come for help. I have students turn in a formal introduction prior to turning in their papers. As a matter of fact, i will not even read drafts unless i've seen the intro. It always includes the same thing: state the issue or problem, thesis, and strategy. I agree with your final conclusion that if you want them to actually learn how to engage in philosophical writing they cannot avoid the hard struggle. Furthermore, i always give out topics. I never let them choose their own topics in an intro. course. Obviously, this changes in some higher level courses. Sometimes i will have students write explanatory essays before moving on to thesis defense essays. The former involves explaining a concept while the latter involves evaluating that concept. I know you know all of this, but that's my two cents.

  4. Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts.

    It appears I've been misunderstood: Free writing was merely a proposal, and I don't have in mind (a) free writing that is aimless or uninformed, nor (b) free writing as a replacement for more formal writing. And I'm not arguing against what Nathan tagged as the "plain and boring" approach. Instead, I'm wondering if there's a role for free writing in writing pedagogy whose goals are those of the plain and boring approach. As for its being "free," I have in mind that this would be impromptu writing focused on a fairly general question or topic ('Do you think people can choose their behavior?', say), typically done after significant reading and discussion. So I'm not suggesting giving students the chance to write uninformed BS!

    The research on free writing suggests that it's useful for stimulating thought, seeing patterns in one's ideas, etc., so my hypothesis would be that this would be an exercise functioning as a prelude to more formal writing. It wouldn't substitute for traditional writing, but would be an effort to help students figure out what they want to write, what they believe, etc. And those instructors who've told me they use free writing don't ask students to turn it in (so it's 'free' in more than one sense), so there's nothing I'm "looking for." I also tend to think that we do very little to encourage the habit of writing in students, and many students struggle precisely because they write so infrequently and then are asked to write these gargantuan (in their eyes!) term papers in their classes.

    Also: Aside from Adam's idea -- which I think is wonderful -- are there ideas out there to actually address the tension I'm suggesting? Or is order so important that the other goals that generate the tension should just be junked?

  5. Michael,

    I think your goal is worthwhile. I know that when I was an undergraduate, the most rewarding part of writing philosophy papers was the pages and pages of pre-writing that I did exploring different ideas and issues. One way to help might be to tell them directly about the value of exploratory writing.

    My impression is that students are got between having no idea what to do (which produces aimless papers) and just plugging snippets from class into a form paper (which produces boring papers). I've had some luck by giving my students a highly structured "form" for the paper that includes some elements that we haven't covered in class. For example, my Intro Ethics course focuses mainly on normative theories, arguments for different aspects of those theories, and applications of those theories; so we only address objections to the theories if students raise them in class. So, when I assign them papers that require an explanation of X's argument for Y, an objection to that argument, and a reply to that objection, students have to supply the objection and reply.

    With enough structure, I think your free writing idea is a good one, because I think it can help students generate their own ideas about the material. Maybe something like this: "We've just seen X's argument for Y. What objections might someone make to this argument? Take a few minutes to write out an objection. ... Now, pass your objection to the person next to you. Read the objection that's just been given to you. Spend a few minutes writing an explanation of how you think X would or should respond to that objection." (This also generates great pair, group, or class discussions. Besides, seeing other students' free writing might cause them to yearn for more order.)
    Then, when it's time to assign a paper, ask them to use one of their in-class objection-and-reply bits as the basis for a paper. Suggest that they spend more time writing out replies-to-the-reply, etc.

  6. I'd be worried about having my students do something in class and then not being able to check whether they did it or something else. For all I know, they're listing their picks for their fantasy football team. I'd collect it to make sure they did it even if it isn't going to be graded.

  7. I think in class writing is very worthwhile, whatever you want to call it (free-writing, or just "please take a few minutes to think and write out an answer to this question..." writing).

    Like Jeremy (above), I'd encourage at least collecting it. This will likely be very valuable because you will find out what your students are really thinking and how they are understanding (or not understanding) an issue.

    Lecturing doesn't typically result in this kind of understanding what the students are hearing. In-class writing allows you to get the information you need to change things and address issues so that more students get the understanding you hope they will get.

  8. Nathan hit upon some other good reasons for more in-class or free writing. It also serves to reinforce students' mastery of content. I guess I'm willing to collect it for my own purposes, but I trust my students enough that if I tell them "write something about X", with the caveat that it's ungraded, etc., they'll take the opportunity to teach themselves.

    In large part, I think students revert to any paint-by-numbers approach to writing whenever they feel anxiety about writing. We underestimate how much fear surrounds the writing process for many students, how foreign and strange writing seems to them. We might hope that talking about orderliness will allay such fears, but as I suggested in the post, this can backfire a bit: Having a structure laid out for you is comforting, but can also result in writing that's a bit vacuous. For example, in my intro courses, I tend to get a lot of variations on the five-paragraph essay, which (I gather) is pretty widely taught in secondary schools. These essays are nicely structured, but more often than not, they're formulaic.

    So I'm interested in giving students more freedom to write, in ways that are low pressure and comparatively low structure as well. Writing anxiety won't diminish unless students write more frequently - and I don't think students are asked to write frequently enough. And so when term paper time comes around, they're like novice mountaineers trying to ascend K2. I'd also like to think that free writing could enable students to find writing pleasurable, which (I believe) only a handful of students do.


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