Some tips for writing a philosophy paper 
Years ago, when I had a one-year teaching gig at Bowdoin College, the faculty there had some writing advice which they gave to their students. I adapted that as a list of ten tips which I printed out and gave to students along with the first paper topic.

Not all of the features are peculiar to philosophical writing, but some of them are.

I have refined that list numerous times over the years. It was pared down to nine points, but there were extra things I ended up saying when discussing the list in class. So now it has grown to eleven.

I just revisited it for this semester, and here's what it looks like now.

Some tips for writing a philosophy paper



1. Be as clear as possible. It is fine to try to write beautifully, persuasively, and concisely. If these ever conflict with clarity, though, let clarity win.

2. Your paper should hang together as a unified whole. It should not be a variety-pack of ideas and arguments that end up stapled together by coincidence. The direction of discussion in the paper should flow from the beginning, where you say clearly what you are doing; to the middle, where you consider arguments for and against the position you are advancing; to the end, where you summarize the action. (You might find it easier to do this if you write the introduction last!)

3. Provide a roadmap. The reader should always be able to tell what a given point or paragraph is doing in your paper. It may seem unsubtle to say, for instance, "There are two possible objections to this position. First... Second..." Nevertheless, clarity should win out over subtlety.

4. Avoid overblown rhetoric. Do not say that "everyone has always worried about such-and-so" or that it has "plagued man since the beginning of time."

5. Make arguments and give reasons. Do not just assert that something is such-and-so if someone might disagree with you. Offer reasons for thinking that it is such-and-so. Similarly, try to imagine why a person might disagree with you. Are there weaknesses in your claims or obvious objections to your arguments? If so, do not try to cover it up. Consider how you might answer the objection.

6. Expect your paper to need revision. After writing it, read it to yourself --- reading aloud can be helpful. If a passage seems tortured, ask yourself how you might say the same thing in different words. When you clear up your prose, you are refining your ideas at the same time.

7. Do not forget to spell-check, but do not use it as an excuse not to edit. The squiggly red lines will not save you from using the wrong word.

8. Use quotations. Quotations are a potent tool for just those points where you are attributing a contentious claim to an author. They are best used where the reader might disagree or misunderstand.

9. Do not use quotations just to bulk up your paper. You do not need quotations for every point you make.

A succession of long quotations with little or no explanation does not explain the author's views; it merely repeats them. You should explain what you take to be the meaning of each substantial quotation, either before or after quoting it. As a rule of thumb, your discussion of something in your own words should be at least as long as a quotation you use to underscore the same point.

10. Acknowledge sources. Include references to works that you quote, paraphrase, or otherwise reference. This means giving both a citation for the book or article and also referring to specific page numbers or sections as appropriate.

If your thinking is sparked by someone or something else, either include it among the references or in an 'acknowledgements' section at the end of the paper.

11. Be conscious of gendered language. It's the 21st-century. If you use "man" or "mankind" to mean everybody, you'll sound both pompous and sexist. If you make up an example to illustrate a point, it's OK for the person in the example to be "he" --- but if you have two people in your examples, at least consider making one "she".


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Pop, pop science 
The science news that my friends link to on Facebook is a mixed bag. Some of it's interesting, but lots of it is either junk or uncritical hype around new results.

There's some great science stuff on YouTube, however.

One great series is the Periodic Table of Videos, filmed by Brady Haran and hosted by Martyn Poliakoff. In addition to interesting tidbits of chemsitry, they put together a playlist which provides a guide to all the elements. Although I've been a fan for a while, this post was prompted by a recent video in which Sir Poliakoff expressed what philosophers would call realism about the periodic table. "What we're interested in is what nature is like," he says, "not how easy it is to draw."

While I'm at it, I'll also recommend Smarter Every Day. The host, Destin Sandlin, is an engineer who does some simple experiments but also finds experts on cool things to interview. His ecclectic interests include archery, animals, space, and what stuff looks like in slow motion. From his most recent video, I learned about devil facial tumor disease and the plight of the Tasmanian devil. Some YouTube slow-motion videos are just staged to be as spectacular, but Destin sets them up to illustrate the process he's filming; his video about tatooing, for example.

A few students from my summer course commented that they'd have preferred to have videos rather than so much reading. Although I don't think that I could use these videos to accomplish anything I use texts for, I do wonder if I could use them to warm students to a topic or get them to reflect on the popularization of science.

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On-line course post mortem 
I just finished teaching my Understanding Science course as a four-week on-line course. My goal was to figure out what's involved in on-line teaching.

The level of student engagement in the course resulted from an alchemy of summertime, the on-line context, and the compression of a semester of material into four weeks. Since this was my first time both for teaching on-line and for teaching during the summer, I can't entirely separate these. There were students who had trouble logging on because they were traveling, however, and of course they simply couldn't have been traveling if the course had met face-to-face every day. Still and all, we covered almost as much material as I cover in a regular semester, and it all went pretty well.

I had an end of course survey which asked my usual questions: Which modules were indispensable, such that I should definitely include them next time? Which modules should I jettison in favor of something else?

For each prompt, I let them check as few or as many items as they pleased.

The results were somewhat surprising.

The module with the most up votes was Who counts as a scientist? (+15 to -1) I have them read about AIDS science in the 1980s, when activists disrupted drug trials, and I ask them to consider who were the experts in that situation. It's a topic I added to the face-to-face course a few years ago almost as an afterthought. A surprise hit.

The modules on gender and science also got a large number of up votes. We talked about underrepresentation of women in science (+13 to -0), the problem of invisibility (+12 to -0), and ways in which thinking about gender can change the content of science itself (+11 to -0). I was worried that some students might act as chauvinist trolls in the discussion forums, but that didn't happen. The discussions were some of the best in the whole course.

Two topics had as many down votes as up votes (+5 to -5). In both cases, I think it was because people didn't like the reading. For the module on scientific observation, they read Trevor Pinch's analysis of experiments to detect solar neutrinos. The science is somewhat abstruse. For the module on causal inference, they read Stephen Jay Gould on the history of IQ testing. It's history, so the text is just longer than most of the other readings.

Both of those topics are important, and students seemed to understand them after doing the work. So the down votes for each don't make me think I should cut them from the course.

Although the net vote was in favor, there were actually more down votes for the chapter of Mill's On Liberty (+8 to -6). As a surprising contrast, they were of one mind about Peirce's "The Fixation of Belief" (+10 to -0).

In general, students did a good job of engaging and discussing the material by scientists, historians, and sociologists. They had more trouble with the articles written by philosophers. I think that this is because reading philosophy is a distinct skill.

Scientists, historians, and sociologists tend either to present facts or argue for some conclusion. Those two voices are pretty easy to distinguish, and both involve advocacy for a claim that the author thinks the reader ought to believe.

Contrawise, philosophers don't just state a thesis and explain it. Instead, they state a thesis, make an argument for it, consider objections to their argument, provide rebuttals to the objections, and so on. The objections are things they write but don't ultimately mean to endorse. The rebuttals are things they write but only care about with respect to the objections. Sorting all that out is hard work.

What I do in a face-to-face class is try to help students sort it out, to help them navigate the text. I'm not sure what to offer as a substitute for that on-line.

I turned in grades today, so I can set it down for a while. But there were enough points at which I thought "Oh, I know what I should do next time" that I'm sure I'll teach this on-line again.

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Teaching covers 
We talked about covers today in my philosophy of art class.

To my surprise, a few students preferred the Otis Redding version of "Respect" to Aretha Franklin's. The students self-identified as fans of Otis Redding and were already familiar with the track.

I ran out of class time, so we didn't get to listen to the Cardigan's cover of "Iron Man". We did have time for Tiny Tim and the Brave Combo's cover of "Stairway to Heaven" and Dokaka's multi-track a capella version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit", though. Both were polarizing. Some people liked them, others were horrified. Responses included: "This is soo cool", "Creative! But it was horrible", and "Tiny Tim scares me".

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Amalgamating ratings 
Although I haven't been following it closely, last year President Obama proposed rating universities using factors like affordability and graduation rates. TIME recently hacked together an example of how such a system might turn out for 2500 colleges and universities in the US.

The ranking is generated from just three components: graduation rate, percentage of students receiving Pell grants, and affordability (the inverse of cost).

The University at Albany comes in at a respectable 129th.

That showing depends on how the various factors are weighted, however, because UAlbany does not do as well given any of the components separately: 299th in graduation rates, 535th in Pell grants, and 277th in affordability.

The greater oddity is that none of these components indicate the quality of instruction offered by the institution. However, they might be as good a thing to base a decision on as alumni giving rates, which is a major component of the usual rankings.

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