Friday, September 14, 2007

Writing about how to Write a Philosophy Paper

Here's an assignment I've been using for a while on how to teach students how to write a philosophy paper. I've found that if I can get them to -- on paper -- teach someone else how to do it, then that has better results than merely asking them to read something about how to write a philosophy paper (which they may or may not do) or me telling them how to do it.

Here's the prompt I use:

How do you write a philosophy paper?

4-5 pages

The assignment is this:
A friend knows that you are in a philosophy course. This friend asks you to come to her group to give a little presentation on what philosophy essays are like and how to effectively write them. Your job is to carefully read the readings below on how to write philosophy and then effectively summarize them for this person. Write up the text that you could read -- or pass out -- to this audience so that they can learn from you. Write so you teach them how to write a philosophical essay: pass on what you learn from Professors Pryor and Horban! This assignment requires you to summarize advice from a number of different sources and explain this advice to other people in your own words.

There are a two writings on how to write a philosophy paper that you need to read. Please read:

1. An online article by Jim Pryor called "Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper":
2. An online article by Peter Horban called “Writing a Philosophy Paper”

Papers must by typed and carefully written: put your name, email, the date, course # and time at the top of the first page; DO NOT USE A COVER PAGE. And give your paper a title.

9-10= excellent
8 = good
7 = fair
6 = poor
5 or below = very poor

They will be graded on clarity, organization, thoroughness, grammar and spelling, and, most generally, whether your reader would get a good sense for what philosophical / argumentative essays are like and how to write them.

Although citations -- i.e., direct quotations -- are not needed for this paper, if you use them you should use an official citation method that you learned in introductory English. Guidance on how to do so is found here, among other places:

Perhaps some of ya'll will find this useful, or know of a better way to advance students' understanding of what philosophy papers are like and how to write them


  1. Nathan,

    A terrific assignment. One thing that I believe has been pretty well-established in the literature on teaching writing is that many students have few if any writing strategies. I.e., they do very little planning or reflection about they will approach a writing task. Your assignment introduces metacognition to the picture, which can only help students become more self-conscious about their writing habits and strategies.

  2. Nathan I like this. The only thing I might add is that noting how much my writing improved when I began marking I've adopted suggesting to my students that every time they read a philosophy article they give it a mark from 1-100 and try to write a brief comment at the end justifying that mark. Gets them into the habit of assessing which hopefully they then apply to their own papers...

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