Some Ideas to Get Undergraduate Philosophy Students to Write Better Papers
I want students to write papers in which they genuinely engage a question that is motivated by the text and their own curiosity in which they come to an insight worth sharing. Getting students to this place in their writing is the biggest challenge of my teaching life. One of the difficulties is that students think of writing as a technical endeavor. They are given a prompt. They need to find a thesis that they think that can support based on evidence they can find in the text. They set to work writing the paper by looking for the evidence and then choose a thesis that is most supportable. This approach to writing papers short-circuits the stage of thinking. It is to this stage that I try to return students and get them to work. The problem is that it feels to students like flying without a net. They do not have experience with being asked to think. They do not have experience with being asked to take their own questions and insights and concerns seriously.
This last semester, instead of giving prompts in which I tried to motivate their thinking and then hoping it would push them into the gap for thinking they tend to short-circuit, I told them explicitly that this process of finding their own puzzles and problems was what I was expecting. It helped that in the class I did this most explicitly in, we were reading Aristotle and talking about how wonder is the source for philosophizing because when we come to an impasse, we are motivated to think. I asked them to think about what the impasses in the reading were for them and why and then to delve further into the reading to try to work through their impasses. The very first paper in this class was explicitly on what causes them to wonder in the world at large, and how they understand this process of wonder in the pursuit of knowledge better in light of reading the first several pages of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.
I was happy to get better papers from students. What I found was that better students wrote much better papers when I was clear that this drive to think was what I wanted evidence of, but students who were less prepared for the work in the course struggled more. I encouraged those students to work with me and for those who did, they seemed to do better once they developed papers out of their own questions rather than having to take up my questions. The difficulty was in getting them to see the reading as the limit of their question. I was able to talk to them about needing to anchor their question in the text, so if the question arose from the text, the text also had to be the fodder for getting clearer on the question and how it works and what it indicates.
Getting to Better Questions
My colleague at Earlham College, Kevin Miles, is really good at this. He tells students that all their papers will be argument papers. Argument papers, he explains, with reference to Hacker’s Rules for Writing, develop a research project from a guiding question. I like this approach for fitting philosophy, but also the humanities in general, into the wider world of the pursuit of knowledge. It helps to have students see that scientists develop questions from the impasses they face in the work of other scientists and in the material world. For philosophy as for the sciences, some questions are more productive than others. I was recently at the GLCA Ancient Philosophy Workshop that I run with Kevin and our colleague Lew Trelawny-Cassity, where one of Kevin’s students in the Q&A of her paper, said well, as Kevin likes to say, not all questions are created equal.
Working in the history of philosophy, I want students to see the texts as a source of a guiding question and the material for research that their guiding question leads them to think through. The difficulty is in knowing whether the guiding question is a good and productive one, and how the guiding question might be refined and improved.
Like I say above, students want the paper writing process to be a technical one in which it is clear whether they have filled the requirements, which they understand as a list of rules that must be followed. But the task of thinking is not a craft, it is not a “know-how.” It does not have explicit rules that can be met. The task of thinking involves good judgment. More experience at thinking makes you a better judge of whether your thinking is leading to insight or not. This is part of why students write better papers when they get feedback from people who have more experience thinking.
I have two ways to encourage them to develop better questions. One is that I ask them to post a thesis or an abstract before they write the paper in order to build in a feedback process so they can see how they are doing. I encourage those who do not do well on the initial thesis statement to come talk to me further.
The second is an exercise that gets them to think about how questions lead to questions. I have students start with a question or concern that arises from the text for them. I should say, for beginning students, it is very hard for them to think of the text as prompting questions. Their questions might be, I just don’t understand. I encourage them to focus on what they do understand and develop their questions from those places in the text. The assumption is that these texts are fruitful and full of possibility for developing further implications so there are multiple places for questioning. I have them do an assignment where they consider the first question they write and think about what question then follows from that one — informed, of course, by their reading. And then I ask them to think about what question follows from that one. And so forth. I ask them to try to take this series out to the fifth or sixth question. One way students struggle with this assignment is their questions become unrelated to the text, so in reviewing the assignment, I ask them to explain how the next question was motivated by the reading. While the paper they write might not end up being guided by the fifth or sixth question, the exercise leads them to see how a question can guide them to further thinking and how thinking is a matter of pursuing the questions and impasses in their understanding.