Monday, March 10, 2008

Paralysis of the pen

I'm teaching my department's 'proseminar' this quarter: This course is designed specifically for those considering (or who have recently declared) philosophy as their major, and instead of focusing on particular philosophical content, it aims to practice and develop the characteristic skills philosophy students need, including analytical reading, scholarly research, logical reasoning, and of course, writing.

However, I made a somewhat unsettling discovery recently:
The students have been working for several weeks on their term papers and a first draft is due this week. Last week, I did an exercise I commonly do in class: I distributed note cards to each student and asked them to write down what challenges they were confronting in completing their drafts and what sorts of writing-related topics they wanted us to address in class this week. There were a wide variety of responses, but one clear theme was an undercurrent of anxiety. What were the students anxious about? Broadly speaking, what I'd call "authorial judgment": which authors present the best cases for a thesis, which objections to take seriously, how to determine the scope of the paper, etc. What was undeniable is that students expressed a sense of being stuck or trapped.

These are understandable anxieties, but what took me aback in these responses was that the very purpose of the course has been to provide students with practice in using effective writing strategies that ought to diminish this kind of anxiety. But it appears that for some of them, my talking about the need for extensive pre-writing, etc., has induced a kind of graphophobia, where they're afraid to write and paralyzed by the need to make authorial choices.

I should say that I've encountered this sort of paralysis before. But it usually arises when students have an inadequate understanding of the writing task and how to tackle it. What's puzzling here is that we've worked so much on the very strategies that ought to forestall it. So now my concern is how to help students alleviate or circumvent this sort of anxiety or paralysis? How do you motivate them to make these necessary choices and write?


  1. What you are describing strikes me as a very common phenomenon--among ABD students working on their dissertation! So perhaps the problem is that you've taught your students too much. Personally, I don't think I ever experienced this sort of paralysis until fairly late into my studies, at the point when I was suddenly struck by how much disagreement, and how much sheer published work, there is on almost every imaginable point. Recognizing that makes it extremely difficult to take a definite stance.

    Suggestions for clearing this up:
    1. Assurances that the point is to develop research and writing skills, not to come up with groundbreaking work.
    2. Guidance in dealing not just with analysis of arguments in general, but with the specific body of work the students are writing about.

  2. You mention a "need for extensive pre-writing." Depending on what exactly pre-writing is, I wonder if it can be not ideal to call that a "need." Perhaps to meet that "need", someone would have to be really organized, e.g., have a plan for a paper worked out or fairly detailed outline, and that's overwhelming for many students so they feel like they can't get started since they can't complete step 1.

    Maybe acknowledging that different people have different strategies in approaching writing could be helpful. Maybe especially helpful would be mentioning that some people, when they start thinking about a topic, just kinda write down everything they can think about it, get out all the relevant ideas, etc. and try to brainstorm it all. After doing that, they can try to impose some order onto the mess and go from them there. (The worry here is that students wouldn't impose order on the chaos after the fact and chuck what's gotta go).

    You could also allow early assignments to be approached with whatever methods they'd like (but require them to justify these methods?) and then later require them to try out the methods you are advocating and then ask them which worked better or worse and why. If they experiment with different approaches, they'll have better evidence in favor of whichever methods they come to find most fruitful, in terms of producing the final paper product.

  3. Roman and Nathan,

    Thanks for your suggestions. Roman, I reminded them today that their work doesn't have to approach that of the philosophers they read in order to be good undergraduate work. This seemed to reassure them slightly.

    Nathan, I've had in mind by pre-writing this sort of stuff:
    • identifying topic and thesis
    • locating sources
    • inventorying main ideas
    • crafting overall structure

    Now I've not been too specific about how to do all this: I've certainly not discouraged random brainstorming, etc. In fact, I've tried to emphasize that you're not wrong if you don't use an outline; you just need some technique, however informal, for doing this. Outlining works for some people, but not for others, etc. I'd describe my approach not as advocating methods so much as advocating attitudes or habits.

    I guess what's intriguing to me is that I've thought of myself as trying to demystify the process of philosophical writing, and what students see behind the veil is that it's hard work -- you literally can't just sit down at your computer with some books a few hours in advance of the paper's being due and hope to write something decent. But what's ironic here is that once students see how hard it is, some become discouraged as opposed to empowered.

  4. "[O]nce students see how hard it is, some become discouraged as opposed to empowered."

    A wide variety of students could wind up in an undergraduate philosophy pro-seminar, with different backgrounds and motivations for taking such a class (I suppose this is even true for a graduate course!), and I wonder if this could be happening with some of your students: could some wonder what "the point" is to working so hard and spending so much time on a ("mere") paper and then come to feel that this wasn't what they were hoping to get into?

    I suppose it can be rather mind-blowing to some people how long philosophers (and other academics) can spend working on papers ("You've been working on this same paper for years?!"). If someone doesn't understand the kinds of intellectual and, I think, aesthetic satisfaction that can come from a piece of philosophy done really well, that could lead them to want to jump ship, which could display itself in a kind of paralysis.

    Just a thought: hopefully it doesn't apply in your situation!

  5. I had the same initial reaction that Roman did: This sounds like a lot of ABDs. I've seen similar reactions in my own students when they begin to see how many arguments there are on each side of an issue.

    This may help: If they're worried about which authors make the best case or which objections are important, remind them that forming these "authorial judgments" requires careful thought and argument. It requires doing some philosophy, and if they can capture just part of that process on paper, they've got themselves a philosophy paper.

  6. I know it sounds odd but some of my students are reassured when I ask them to think about their papers as being like geometrical proofs. Unless you get to very high level geometry, we don't expect folks to provide novel proofs. Rather we are asking people do establish some conclusion in a step-by-step fashion. But proofs can be more or less eloquent, more or less clear, include more or less extraneous material, exclude more or less necessary material, etc.

  7. sounds like fear of failing to accumplish a mission that requires "inspiration".
    Euclides asked ptolomeus about that matter, and i belive the answer was that what inspires him to write is not having to.


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