Monday, April 14, 2008

A happy result with student writing

I've just finished grading a batch of papers for my Introduction to Philosophy course. This semester I assigned several (five) very short readings on how to write a philosophy paper over the course of the three weeks prior to when students would begin their papers. The readings were culled from various texts and websites about how to write philosophy papers. Here are the results:

Many of the sorts of errors that can distract us from assessing the progress of our student's skills in philosophy were wonderfully absent. Gone were the windy introductions, the awkward, high-falutin' language, the simple proof-reading errors many of us feel we cannot leave unmarked, etc. It was freeing to be able to spend most of my time focusing on the areas of the paper that demonstrated success (philosophically speaking) and on the specific skills they ought to focus on in order to improve (philosophically speaking).

While it is true that clear thinking and clear writing cannot be divorced, placing the burden on students to work on these areas of their writing prior to submitting work is empowering and effective. It also prevents students from becoming demoralized by an overload of comments.

Of course, it could be fluke. But I'll be doing this in all my 100 and 200 level philosophy courses from now on.


  1. This sounds like a great approach. Could you give references to some of the material on writing papers that you assigned?

    Also, did you just assign the readings, or did you also go through them all in class?

  2. Yes, second to Roman's request! Having vivid flashbacks to mid-Fall grading.... dreading next Fall....

  3. I'm also interested in what you used, and how you used it. This has been on my mind a lot recently, since I realised how much of my marking time I spend writing comments like 'this kind of biographical introduction is rarely worth the trouble' against 'John Stuart Mill was born in 1806...'.

  4. I did this in a Philosophy of the Arts course last fall and also had very good results--similar to those reported by Becko. I just typed up my own handout, which was 5 pages long, and made it an optional reading. Judging by how the papers turned out, I'm guessing that almost all of the students read it. This may be in part because I made it clear that when I graded the papers, I would expect the students to follow the guidelines explained on the handout. My handout focused mostly on style, but I also talked briefly about the straw man and ad hominem fallacies.

  5. Becko, I'd also be interested to see what materials you provided to your students. It's astonishing how just a small amount of guidance can pay big dividends in improving students' work. I like to tell students that if the problems with their philosophy papers are philosophical, that's actually a good thing!

    A slightly different way to get the same results is to show students papers written in the past, say, an A paper, a B paper, etc. Usually students have an inkling of what makes for a quality paper — they just seem to forget all this when they do their own work. But I've found that if students look at papers and critique them, the lessons seems to stick better because the students have discovered the criteria instead of having them spoonfed to them.

  6. Dear All:

    Sorry to be late in my reply. Here are the items I used, plus a few more books I recently discovered:

    Chapters 3, 7 and 8 from Writing Philosophy: A Student’s Guide to Writing Philosophical Essays. Lewis Vaughn, Oxford University Press: 2006.

    Chapter 6 from A Preface to Philosophy. Mark B. Woodhouse, Thomson Wadsworth: 2006.

    Jim Pryor: Guidelines for Writing a Philosophy Paper:

    University of North Carolina Writing Center Handouts (check out the handouts on introductions and conclusions):

    Two more books I recently found:

    Writing Philosophy Papers. Zachary Seech, Wadsworth: 2009.

    Writing to Reason. Brian David Moggk, Blackwell: 2008

  7. Thanks for sharing, Becko.

    I got an email from a Cengage sales rep a few weeks ago saying that they would bundle one of several free "supplemental" book with any Wadsworth philosophy book ordered for a course.

    The two Wadsworth titles you mentioned—Woodhouse's Preface to Philosophy and Seech's Writing Philosophy Papers—are on the list.

    As best I can tell from the email, you have to contact your sales rep to get the deal. You can find your sales rep here.

    Sorry for the spammy post, but this actually sounds like a pretty good way to help your students stretch their textbook dollars a little further. If you're going to ask them to read these texts, you might as well help them get the texts for free. Of course, not having tried these texts or any of the others on Becko's list, I don't know whether it's worth switching to a Wadsworth text specifically to get these books, if you're not already using one.

  8. Michael Huemer also has helpful guidelines on writing philosophy papers at his U of Colorado, Boulder faculty webpage.

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  11. Hi,

    I took Becko's writing class back at Cornell in 2001 when she was a PhD student. She used the book "Ten lessons in clarity and grace", and I found it to be the best writing/grammar book I've read. I still have it.



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