Monday, July 2, 2012

Should we teach writing?

We’ve just finished a round of assessment of our Introduction to Philosophy course that involved going through a large random sample of papers from 10 or so sections mostly taught by our great adjuncts. We examined each paper using rubrics for writing skills, critical thinking skills, and information literacy. Those are the three skill sets that the General Education requirement expects our course to advance. As expected, we found that though students were apt at summarizing the reading, understanding and focusing on the philosophical issue at stake, they needed a lot of help writing a critical paper that defends a thesis. It also became clear to us that instructors often didn’t explicitly require that students take a position and defend it in a paper.
 Instead, paper assignments required that students compare and contrast two views or that they explain an argument from the reading. On the basis of our assessment, we are now going to require that students write at least one paper in which they defend their own thesis.  We will also be encouraging those who teach 102 to focus more on writing and writing skills along with philosophical content.

I expect that there will be some pushback from our instructors, and there was some pushback during our assessment meeting (which included adjuncts).  Some instructors feel that students should not arrive into 102 without having the necessary writing skills to write a critical essay and that it is not our responsibility to teach writing but to teach philosophy. I sympathize with the sentiment, but I also strongly believe that the best we can do for our students’ education is to meet them at the skill level with which they enter the classroom, rather than teaching as if we had students with the skills we think they should have, so that we can help them get closer to be able to write a critical essay. I will be running another teacher development workshop for our new cohort of 102 teachers before classes start and expect this issue to come up again. Any thoughts on how to drive this point home? Of course, critical comments are also welcome.


  1. Writing is not a generic skill. Writing a philosophy essay is different than writing a sociology essay etc. although they share elements in common. What philosophers mean by argument is not the same as what is meant by argument in other disciplines, similarly evidence, etc.

    Philosophers do philosophy by writing (a lot of the time anyway) so it makes sense that part of the couse should be about how philosophers write and how to write like a philosopher (albeit a novice).

    In other words I agree with you and hope some of that gives you some ideas of how to present that to the instructors.

  2. Jennifer,

    Every educator teaches students how to communicate what they know (or purport to know). We have no choice in the matter. So everyone who asks students to write 'teaches writing.' The notion that you could teach philosophy without teaching writing is, in my estimation, incoherent. And any instructor who thought his or her job would be to 'teach philosophy', but not teach, e.g., writing, reading, note taking, etc., is in for a rude awakening.

    One way to drive this point home with your colleagues is to point out the connection between writing and thinking. When students write, they have to scrutinize the thinking of others, as well as identify (and scrutinize) their own thinking. There are other ways to do this besides writing, but writing is an especially powerful way to do this. So even if we don't care about student writing skills as such, there is a definite, albeit imperfect, connection between good philosophy and good philosophical writing. To teach how to write well philosophically *is* to teach how to philosophize well.

    As for the specific points about students defending a thesis in their writing: When you look at Bloom's taxonomy (here:, the skills needed to critically defend a thesis — analysis, synthesis, and evaluation — are the top-level skills, the ones whose mastery presupposes the lower level skills of recall, understanding, and application. The upshot: Critically defending a thesis is incredibly hard. What I might emphasize (and this has been reinforced in my own teaching experience) is that, when it comes to writing, students really do need an enormous amount of practice at the lower-level skills before they can tackle the higher-level skills. Most students I've taught know what a thesis is, but when they try to critically defend one, the shortcomings of their defenses typically trace back to low-level skill failures (misunderstanding a position or claim, not appreciating what counts as a good reason in a particular debate, etc.). So this is not an either/or: either students write compare/contrast, etc., OR they defend a thesis. They should be asked to do both sorts of tasks (and have to do both sorts of tasks) within a given writing assignment.

    One last thought: Thesis selection matters enormously here. Students often have a poor sense of what counts a "disciplinary" thesis (e.g., a philosophical thesis about ethics versus a sociological thesis about ethics, say) and of what features a workable thesis has. This presentation of mine ( and this 2010 post ( might be useful in this regard.

  3. "Some instructors feel is not our responsibility to teach writing but to teach philosophy." What's the difference? Can you do philosophy without writing? Then teach that. If not, then every philosophy course must have some component of writing instruction. If students cannot develop and support a thesis, then they clearly aren't doing philosophy.

    Hopefully the expectation is that students will develop as critical thinkers and writers (and therefore as philosophers) at every step of the way.

  4. Thank you everyone for your feedback. I wholeheartedly agree and, Michael, I do think that we should be thinking about 'scaffolding' assignments so that students get to work and practice on basic reading, comprehension, and critical thinking skills in order to build up to writing a paper defending their thesis. I just want to stress to other instructors that because some of our students are not there yet, that doesn't mean they shouldn't be given at least one shot at doing that in an intro philosophy course.

  5. Jennifer, you wrote: "I also strongly believe that the best we can do for our students’ education is to meet them at the skill level with which they enter the classroom, rather than teaching as if we had students with the skills we think they should have, so that we can help them get closer to be able to write a critical essay."

    True not only for philosophy courses, but for teacher ed courses (which I teach) and every subject kids do at school. If only ...

  6. I have very clear views on this: one should always write in the first person, and be judged on the objective weight of the words. The putative objective standpoint looks fake in much writing, which always remains in fact subjective. Secondly, it is awareness. The words reveal an enormous amount about the writer, from the way they are strung together. Thirdly, it enables specific shaping of forms of words to shape our awareness on paper before our eyes. Finally, the form of words, and their factual and logical basis, will be as they may be, open for criticism, and the importance of a string of words applies across the board to all sciences, including mathematics.

  7. Jennifer, this will sound somewhat improvisational, but it is relevant. I have written a book, which mentions this issue in the introduction, actually, and which considers the entire scope of philosophy and science from a "new" perspective. It is free at I mention it not only to encourage you to have a look, but because it is so original that my ideas could appear in students' work without attribution (I hope so, and not, respectively). I am making it known in posts currently.

  8. The problem we have in my little neck of the woods is that the course designers assume that the students have absolutely no writing skills when they enroll in our philosophy courses. Thus, we don't just have to teach things like "This is how you read a philosophy paper" or "this is how we form arguments" or "this is how you write a critical analysis." We have to teach APA format, how to break apart ideas into paragraphs, punctuation, etc. It gets to where we don't really get any useful philosophy done because we spend so much time on the writing.

    Now, I do think we could make a fantastic philosophy course that also introduces writing skills to the students. Maybe the first writing assignment is simply to provide an abstract and citation of an article we read in class. Then the second assignment would add in an outline. Then the third could add in arguments from the article. Then the fourth could add in counter-arguments or thoughts from the reader. Finally, by the end of the semester they have gradually learned the writing skills necessary to successfully write a term paper. But, as it is, they are thrown into the water to sink or swim...we know they have no idea how do do all of this, but we nonetheless require it of them and harshly grade against them not being able to do any of it.

  9. You can't defend your own thesis if you aren't able to write accurately and clearly about others' theses. And where I am teaching, I find that my intro students are utterly unable, at first, to write accurately and clearly about others' theses (much less their own). For this reason, I don't, for the most part, ask students to defend their own views in writing assignments (they do some of it in class discussion though) and instead, focus on the skills that go into accurate, clear and concise descriptions of the views of others. This may vary from campus to campus, but this seems to be what's needed on my campus.

    For what it's worth, my students seem to learn alot from this approach--papers go from abysmal at the beginning to decent and sometimes excellent by the end (among those students who attend and actually write the papers each week, anyway). It takes a lot of direct feedback and one-on-one tutoring, but they get there. And I can't imagine how I could teach these skills as effectively if I were also trying to get them to defend their own theses at the same time. (The scaffolding idea mentioned above is intriguing, though.)

    Perhaps I have a student or two in each semester who could do well at defending their own thesis, and naturally the course is not as interesting or productive for them as it might of been. But not every course can be all things to all students!


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!