Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Student writing, signposting, and 'no surprises'

I'm currently advising 22 undergraduate philosophy theses. No kidding!

Let me share a frustration— and an insight — I recently gleaned from a recent batch of rough drafts.

Upon reading the last batch of their rough drafts, I was struck by how even the best prepared, most knowledgeable, most conscientious students gave very little explicit guidance to the reader as to how the overall argumentative strategy of the paper unfolds. Broadly generalizing, the students' papers tended to have structures like this:

  1. Introduction: usually some background on the topic, some indication of why the topic or question engaged in the paper is of philosophical interest
  2. Statement of thesis
  3. The rest of the paper: facts, evidence, arguments, objections and replies, conclusion, etc.
What's lacking here is 2.5: a few sentences outlining how the thesis will be defended. Jim Pryor is terrific at describing this. As he puts it, the point of section 2.5 is to make the structure of the paper obvious to the reader. As I think we can all appreciate, philosophy can be sufficiently confusing that a proficient philosophical writer should strive not only to explain his or her claims or arguments clearly, but also to explain their significance — how the particular claims, arguments, etc. work in combination to defend the paper's thesis. This sort of 'signposting' (some call it 'scaffolding') helps the reader see why, if the arguments, etc. that occur throughout the paper succeed, how their success adds up to a plausible defense of the paper's thesis. So in 2.5, we need something like: 

I will defend thesis T first by contrasting it with some other theses — T1 and T2 — that it resembles and with which it can be easily confused. In section 2, I give my main argument for T. Section 3 addresses an objection to T raised by Smart Philosopher X in her seminal article 'Article.' I conclude, in section 4, by drawing out some of the practical implications of T.
As Pryor points out, ideally this sort of signposting will recur throughout the paper:

Another way you can help make the structure of your paper obvious is by telling the reader what you've done so far and what you're going to do next. You can say things like:
  • I will begin by...
  • Before I say what is wrong with this argument, I want to...
  • These passages suggest that...
  • I will now defend this claim...
  • Further support for this claim comes from...
  • For example...
I imagine that most instructors recognize the lack of signposting as a familiar (and frustrating) problem. 

Here's the insight: How do we help students see and appreciate signposting (or its absence)? A phrase that seems to be helping my students is 'no surprises'. Good philosophical writing, unlike a magic trick or other more 'literary' forms of writing, should end with the reader being entirely unsurprised: The writer set out to defend a thesis, indicated how that defense would go, and (hopefully) provided a rationally compelling defense. So what I've told many is to apply 'no surprises' to the process of revision. If, at some point in your paper, you engage in a task (making a claim, critiquing an argument, whatever) that surprises you, then it will probably surprise your reader too!. At that point, the student needs to return earlier in the paper and 'signpost' the surprising material. A few students have reported that this exercise has helped them, introducing 'flow' and direction into their writing.

That's the frustration and the insight, but I'd be interested to know how others have tried to encourage the signposting habit in students.


  1. I like the idea of no surprises! Williams (of Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace) calls this metadiscourse. One thing I like about Williams' treatment is that he recognizes that metadiscourse can be useful and necessary - for the reasons you state - but that it can also lead to terrible bouts of "throat-clearing." For a hilarious version of throat-clearing, see the great John Cleese in the Monty Python sketch Anne Elk:

    I actually have more of a problem with the latter - with students who do too much stage-setting, too much throat-clearing, pages and pages of it!

    So perhaps we should be more direct in our teaching of good and bad forms of metadiscourse. As you say, the best way to approach it is to have a discussion about what metadiscourse is for. As I often remind my students, good writing isn't really about writing - it is about reading. That is, it is about your readers. Can they join with you in a common project by reading your work - are you inviting them in, engaging them, speaking to them, having a conversation with them?

    The "bad" kind of metapdiscourse isn't really even all that bad - for note-taking. It can be a useful exercise in figuring out what your project is, why you are doing it, what's at stake, etc. But ideally it shouldn't end up in the paper.

  2. Good philosophical writing, unlike a magic trick or other more 'literary' forms of writing, should end with the reader being entirely unsurprised.

    I'll accept that for teaching, but not (entirely) for writing. Or: rules like this (are made to be) can be broken, but not until you understand what it means to operate within the rules--which as you point out (and I agree) even the best students need to learn better how to do.

    Good post.

  3. Just to clarify--one "surprise" at the end of a paper might involve making further suggestive connections with related (or larger, etc.) philosophical issues that go beyond the scope of the argument.

  4. Matt, in the spirit of clarification: I think 'no surprises' is something of a useful exaggeration. Sure, there can be surprises as to how forceful an argument is, what the implications of a view are, etc. But the mantra is useful when trying to help students stay on track topically and organizationally, i.e., we shouldn't find ourselves surprised by the scope or general direction of the paper.

  5. I tend to agree with Michael here.

    I require - of all papers, with no exceptions -- an abstract at the start. This should accomplish the following:

    1. Introduction to the topic, basically a quick description of the problem, and why it is a problem.

    2. Your stance/thesis. Exactly what you will say about that problem, and why.

    3. A road map that explains how you will get the reader to the finish line, which is the goal in (2). Essentially, this part should be a quick sectioning of the paper. So, something like: "In order to best describe the problem, in section A I will X, Y and Z. Once accomplished, in section B I will turn to my stance on that problem, suggesting yada yada yada. In section C I will address some fill in the blank objection or counter reply to that problem and outline why it is not preferable to my own solution."

  6. Michael: sure, I agree with that. Chris' suggestion of an abstract is a good idea, too (that I've used in the past as well)--thanks for the reminder, Chris!

  7. One successful way I've had of pushing my students to do this is through a somewhat "fun" activity. I use a sample paper that I've written usually on the topic we've been discussing, print it out and then cut up the paragraphs into individual pieces of paper, I then give each student all of the paragraphs in a random order and ask them to work with a partner to piece the paper back together into the right order. The paper I distribute, of course, has a road map sentence. When we reconvene to discuss what the right order for the paper is we discuss how the road map helped them piece the paper back together and, also, how other signposts in the other paragraphs helped them. After we do this activity, most of my students attempt some kind of road map in their own papers and the organization of their papers vastly improves.

  8. One strategy I use is having students "diagram" a section of a class reading. This semester I'm using the first ten or so paragraphs of Hume's "Of the Standard of Taste," where he explains why he doesn't think beauty can be a sentiment with no reference to an external reality. Working in pairs, I have them underline "signpost" phrases and work up an outline of the passage. I then have one group write their outline on the board, and the rest of the class asks them where they think a certain bullet-point came from in the text, or they can challenge something about the outline. We also talk about whether there are points they think Hume (or whomever) makes that isn't properly "signposted," and whether that made the text more difficult to understand.

    I do this more to help with reading comprehension and get them used to discussing philosophy (this is for a core research-intensive class), but I think it could also be used to get students thinking about how to balance arguments and counterarguments. It would probably work even better if you were using a contemporary analytical paper rather than a historical essay - J.L. Mackie's "Evil and Omnipotence" jumps to mind as a text that might work well.


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