Thursday, November 29, 2007

'Fails to consider'

Tim Burke has a nice, short post at Easily Distracted about students using phrases like 'fail to consider' in their writing. As Tim points out, such phrases indicate a tentativeness on the writer's part — a kind of hedge against saying something more assertive. I was also intrigued by this comment from Rob MacD:

Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academe observes that student writing rarely uses any of the vast inventory of verbs to describe mental actions: he argues, she assumes, they challenge, I infer, he claims… Instead students return again and again to variations of “discusses,” “considers,” or “talks about.” Graff relates this to a broader difficulty with familiarizing students to argument culture, where our students often understand the process of “choosing topics” but not of “forming arguments.”

That certainly reflects my experience with students attempting to write philosophy. They often have an impoverished vocabulary to describe argumentative moves and strategies. Any tips out there as to how to help students develop the habit of thinking about their own thinking —and the thinking of those whose work they study — in more richly argumentative terms?


  1. I have us brainstorm a list of useful philosophical verbs: holds, argues, objects, suggests, illuminates, etc. I then suggest that they keep the list close by them when they write their papers.

  2. Have them read books about writing, perhaps? Zinsser's On Writing Well, for instance, helped me to start kicking the habit of "Don't use I in a paper!"

  3. I like Becko's suggestion.

    I wonder if our paper prompts are partly to blame, too. How many paper prompts ask students to "discuss" somebody's argument? Using argumentative verbs in the prompt itself might help.

    Small stakes writing assignments leading up to the paper might help, too, since you can suggest argumentative verbs in your feedback on them.

  4. I don't share your blanket antipathy toward 'I', mikep; sometimes it's the only way to avoid awkwardness.

    Good point, David, about writing prompts. It seems that there's a larger problem here, not limited to writing (though student writing is where the problem shows up). Students don't think of their intellectual studies in terms of people making argumentative moves. Perhaps the problem can be tackled with some carefully constructed reading assignments? The First Meditation, with all its various epistemic attitudes, would be a good target text for such an assignment.


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