Teaching Philosophy

Against Lower-Level Philosophy “Papers”

When I assign intro students their first philosophy paper, I usually end up spending more time explaining what it isn’t than what it is. You can use first-person pronouns, but it’s not a personal narrative or reflection. You should make arguments, but your goal is to inform, not to persuade. You should engage with the ideas as deeply as you can, but don’t take any knowledge for granted; write as though the reader has no acquaintance with the material. You should try to come up with your own thoughts about the topic, but don’t try to be too original; you’re not ready yet. It’s okay if you paraphrase ideas from the lectures. It’s okay if you paraphrase ideas from the book. Don’t bother citing anything, because it’s not a research paper.

What’s the point of this sort of assignment? Why even call it a “paper”? The relevant educational goals are probably more like the goals of a math professor assigning a take-home exam than the goals of a history or English professor assigning an essay. We want students to understand how to structure a certain kind of line of reasoning, and we want students to demonstrate within this structure the beginnings of understanding concerning a certain subject area. We don’t want students to try to enlighten us about that subject area or to teach us about a text we might not be familiar with. By and large, we don’t want students coming up with too many of their own ideas. They haven’t yet learned how to tell the good ones from the bad ones.

Maybe a better name for this sort of assignment would be “memorandum.” That captures the ideal: efficient, informative, terse, mostly uncreative. It also captures the attitude with which most lower-level philosophy papers are received by graders. Then again, maybe a better solution is to stop assigning these memoranda at all. The ambitions of a college essay in the humanities are not realized by even the best intro to philosophy paper. And such papers tend to confuse students’ instincts about how much original thinking should go into an essay and how much can be copied directly, sometimes without citation, from other sources. Such confusion ultimately obscures the nature of philosophical work. For all these reasons I stand against lower-level undergraduate philosophy papers.

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