If this was a good idea someone else would have thought of it, right?

First-year philosophy papers are awful. Oh there are a some that are pleasant to read, and a few that are interesting, and a smaller group that are both. But on the whole, they aren’t very good.

This is not because the students are awful. Of course, some students are awful. But the ratio of awful papers to awful students is not 1:1. It is (warning: totally made up statistic) more like 20:1.

The papers are awful because:

(a) Good philosophy often depends on subtleties. But the students have not yet read enough or thought about enough issues in enough depth to even begin to get the subtleties. Again, this is not because they are dumb. It’s because they haven’t had enough time.

(b) Writing argumentative papers is difficult, and most students are doing it for the very first time. In highschool students write research papers. They summarize the literature in an area. In literature classes they write interpretive or critical papers. But unless they are in one of a very small number of special programs they will have had no experience writing argumentative papers. If they do have experience with argument it is in the context of debates and political science education. But this sort of argument does not usually engage in the kind of probing examination of premises, assumptions, gut feels, and mass opinion that philosophy does. Indeed, this sort of background probably leads to worse philosophy papers rather than better ones.

Now, one can ameliorate this by having students write drafts and giving them extensive written feedback. There are two basic problems with this. One, in a first-year lecture one often has approaching 100 students (85 is the cap for our introductory classes). Which makes giving extensive feedback difficult, even with a teaching assistant. And second, doing this requires they start work halfway through the term. Papers written after 6 weeks of philosophy are even worse than papers written after 12 weeks of philosophy.

So I was standing in the shower (who doesn’t do their best work there) thinking about what to do in Sex, Love and Death in the winter term next year, and I had this idea.

What if we had a project that slowly built up over term. Say in the first three weeks they had to choose a topic. And then there could be a series of assignments (I’d need to give them lists of papers since they aren’t ready to choose their own):

1&2&2&4) Write a 300 word précis of the argument in a reading connected to your topic.

5) Write 300 words integrating what you have learnt into an analysis of the possible positions on the topic.

6) Pick a position you wish to defend, and then write 300 words outlining 1-2 objections to this position.

7) Write 300 words outlining responses to these objections.

8) Write 300 words outlining 1-2 arguments in favour of the position you wish to defend.

9) Write 300 words outlining the responses critics would make to those arguments.

Thats 2700 words all together. The problem is it would dominate the term for them — all they would write about would be things related to their project.

Currently I tend to have first-year students write ~5 300 word pieces on set topics and a ~1200 word essay (and they have a final exam). If they were writing this much for the project the set topic assignments would have to go. I guess the final would still keep them working on the course content that wasn’t project related.

But I think they would do better with these very focused tasks than they do when told to write an essay, no matter how much time I spend talking about what an argumentative essay is.

I googled, I couldn’t find anyone doing anything like this in first-year, but then maybe I didn’t search for the right things.

If it was a good idea someone else would have tried it.

Maybe it would be better to just have even more set topic papers. 8-9 of them perhaps. This is basically what I do in my second-year medieval philosophy classes. I suppose I am reluctant because first-year classes aren’t particularly about covering some specified range of topics. They are about engaging people. And folks tend to be best engaged when they have some choices.

One thought on “If this was a good idea someone else would have thought of it, right?

  1. Been there done that. The good thing is, the quality of the final paper is better than in the first two cases you mention, and students probably learn more. The downside is, it takes even more time than giving extensive comments on complete paper drafts only once. The difference is that instead of having to do that for a whole week in the middle of the semester, you may spend the whole semester juggling small 200-300 word pieces, trying to remember who was writing about what, coming up with new questions every (or every second) week, and then reading this stuff and commenting on every separate bit. Afaik, it’s quite helpful and definitely improves the quality of the papers but it’s also terribly time-consuming on the part of the instructor.

    A possible way out is to do a standard final paper for everyone but those students who’re gunning for a higher grade or something. The downside in this case is you’d make it harder for students to change their mind and start working hard in the middle of a semester.

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