The assignment is to write an essay in two parts. The topic should be a question, not just a concept or theme. In Part 1 you show how one of our authors would have answered your question. In Part 2 you comment on the adequacy of that answer.
- Ask a good question. (Tips and details.)
- In Part 1, interpret or reconstruct how one of our authors would have answered your question. The author's answer includes the conclusion and the arguments in support of that conclusion. Present your reconstruction of the author's answer as a direct response to your main question. (Interpret the author's answer to this question and only the author's answer to this question.) Support your interpretation with textual evidence. Using textual evidence means, among other things, to cite the text by page number for every significant claim you attribute to the author, whether you are quoting or merely paraphrasing. (Tips and details.)
- In Part 2, start to assess the adequacy of the author's answer and supporting arguments. Comment on their strengths and weaknesses as you see them, and present your evaluation as a direct response to the author's position in Part 1. (Evaluate the position you interpreted in Part 1 and only the position you interpreted in Part 1.) Assess the author's arguments, not just the author's conclusions. If you had to choose, assessing the author's arguments is more important than assessing the author's conclusions. Support your evaluative comments with explicit arguments of your own. Address your arguments to the open-minded, educated public. (Tips and details.)
- Be fascinating and profound. (Tips and details.)
Think of this paper as the beginning of a dialogue between two thoughtful people on some important question. The two thoughtful people are you and the author. The important question is yours. In Part 1 you are listening to the author; in Part 2 you are speaking. In Part 1 you are interpreting the author's answer to the question; in Part 2 you are evaluating it. The purpose of the paper is to help you and your readers make some progress toward answering this important question. That's the simple, grand idea.
Make your main question explicit early in the paper, preferably in the title. Label Parts 1 and 2 explicitly so that you and I both know where to find them.
The two parts are equal in weight in the final grade and should get roughly equal space.
To get started you need a question and an author. I usually ask for these two decisions in writing one week before the paper is due.
Look to the syllabus for the page range and the due date.
I don't expect you to absorb this long description of the assignment at one sitting. I include it here as a reference and study aid. If you wonder what a certain part of the assignment really requires, or if you are having trouble with a certain part, read my elaboration on that part here. Then let's talk.
Ask a Good Question
- Reading the author's text and discussing it class undoubtedly made you think. What questions were you moved to think about? Pick one for the paper.
- Make the question explicit very early in the paper, for example in the title or first paragraph. Don't make us wonder what your question is or infer it from statements about issues and problems.
- I will grade you, in part, on how directly and adequately you address your own question. So pick your words with care when stating the question, and monitor how closely you stick to your question throughout the paper.
- From all the questions that arise from the author's text, pick a question that is important to you. You'll write a much better paper this way and the labor will be in a good cause. Philosophy papers should not be merely academic.
- Your question should also be important to the author. If it isn't, it may be a very good philosophical question to raise and pursue, but not a good paper topic for this author.
- Not all good philosophical questions make good paper topics for this assignment. Some are too big. Some are too small. Some are best addressed to authors we're not reading. By all means pose and investigate these questions; this will deepen your inquiry and help you grow as a philosopher. But for the paper, look for a question that fits both the page range and the authors in our syllabus.
- One reason I often ask you for your topic question a week before the paper is due is to give you feedback on whether the question is too large or too small. If you want this kind of feedback even earlier, I'd be happy to talk (in my office or by email) about the questions you are considering or to help you frame your emerging topic as a question.
- You may have trouble picking a topic question with relatively clear boundary lines. You may like question A, but see that it commits you to write about B, C, and D, when each of those commits you to write about further topics. This is a genuine problem. You've noticed that in philosophy all issues are connected. Don't blame yourself or the author.
- The solution is to use your best judgment to give your primary topic primary attention in the paper, and to give secondary topics merely secondary attention. Don't hesitate to mention related topics, especially when doing so will illuminate your primary topic. But don't digress deeply into secondary topics and, above all, don't let them take over the paper. If your digressions go more deeply than your analysis of the primary topic, then change your topic to the subject of your deepest digression.
- Ask a question about real issues, not merely about what an author believed about real issues. For example, ask, "Can free will and causal determinism be reconciled?" not, "Does Leibniz think free will and determinism can be reconciled?" You can still write Part 1 of your paper on Leibniz, if you like. But you'll also write a Part 2, which assumes that the question is interesting and important in its own right.
- The question need not be one that the author directly addressed. When it isn't, you won't find the author's answer already laid out in black and white in the text, but you can often find plenty of textual clues to what the author would have said.
- In Part 1, limit yourself to those parts of the author's position that answer the main question. In Part 2, limit yourself to those evaluative comments that bear on the author's answer to the main question. In this sense, the question is the organizing key to the paper. The question should tell you what to include in the paper, what to omit, and when to stop. But the paper in turn may suggest revisions to make in the question. Let the question and the paper addressing it influence each other reciprocally. When you are finished, the two ought to be in perfect alignment.
- Organizing the paper around a single question lets you focus, and therefore helps you achieve depth rather than breadth.
- To reach depth in this sense is at least (1) to attain a fine level of detail, (2) to respect the complexity of the position and argument you are discussing, and (3) to qualify otherwise oversimple interpretations, explanations, and arguments. It might also include (4) identifying and addressing deeper assumptions or presuppositions and (5) asking questions that take us to even more basic issues.
- Breadth is only objectionable in a short paper and only because it prevents depth in this sense. Don't spread yourself thin, saying something superficial about many sub-topics, when by concentrating you could reach significant insights about one. There is no shortcut to depth, but you can help yourself by picking one question and sticking to it mercilessly.
Part 1. Interpret the Author's Answer
- You've asked a good question. What's the author's answer?
- Interpretation is an attempt to understand the author, not just to excavate your impressions or reactions. You may have to use your imagination to reconstruct the author's answer and argument from subtle clues in the text.
- The author's supporting argument is part of the position and must be included.
- Expound the author's position and argument as a direct response to the main question. Don't make us wonder about the connection between the position you are expounding and the main question.
- Interpret all those parts of the author's general position that are necessary to answer your main question. To leave some out will oversimplify the author's answer.
- Only interpret those parts of the author's general position that are necessary to answer your main question. In a short paper you don't have space to waste on inessentials. You may assume that your readers have already read the author's book. They may not agree with you on how to interpret or evaluate it, but at least you needn't summarize it for them in order the set the stage for your narrower inquiry.
- Cite the text by page number for every significant claim you attribute to the author, whether you are quoting or merely paraphrasing.
- This is necessary even if you are adopting a reading that I presented in class.
- The rationale is the same here as it is for published scholarship. Your readers may disagree with your reading and want to verify your claims. Or your readers may be inspired by your reading and want to follow-up and deepen the inquiry.
- Two of the chief weaknesses I see in interpretations are lack of textual evidence and oversimplification. These go together. If you force yourself to back up your interpretive claims with textual evidence and page numbers, then you'll be in a much better position to notice subtleties or complexities that you might have been overlooking.
- Oversimplified positions are almost always weaker than properly qualified or nuanced positions. Hence, oversimplification is a double fault. First, it weakens the interpretation by replacing the author's rich and complex position with a caricature. Second, it invites unfair or misguided evaluation in Part 2.
- Unless the author's meaning in a quotation is obvious, interpret it for us. Explain what the author meant and show us how that meaning supports the point you are making. Quotation proves that the author said the words, but it doesn't tell us how you interpret the words and it doesn't prove that the words support your interpretation. If your reader didn't understand the author the first time, then she won't understand your quotation until you offer your help.
- Demurrer. Although I judge interpretations by the standard of accuracy, rather than originality and cleverness, I do not assume that there is such a thing as "the author's intended meaning" which exists independently of our collective interpretive efforts. But neither do I assume that there is not such a thing.
- This is a good philosophical question on which it would be prejudicial for me to make an assumption one way or another.
- I assume only that to interpret a text as if the author intended a discoverable meaning will take you several steps beyond narcissism and toward productive listening, and that this is good education.
- So how can I grade you by the standard of accuracy? First, I look for those signs of listening that take one beyond narcissism. Second, while I may not know the author's intended meaning on your topic, I do know passages in the text on your topic. If your interpretation does not take them into account, then it oversimplifies or fails to respect the complexity of the text, an important kind of inaccuracy.
- Here's a rough and ready way to tell whether you have written a good interpretation. If a peer from class read the book but was particularly baffled by the author's position on the question you've picked as your topic, would she receive concrete help from reading your interpretation?
The most common problems I see in interpretations are the following.
- Missing the target. Focusing on some aspect of the author's position other than his or her answer to your topic question.
- Weakening the author. Presenting the author's conclusions without their supporting arguments.
- Oversimplifying the author. Failing to respect the complexity or nuance of the text.
- Omitting your evidence. Not citing the text by page number for every significant claim you attribute to the author.
- Tying your own hands. Failing to interpret the parts of the author's position and argument on which you want to make evaluative comments in Part 2.
Part 2. Evaluate the Author's Answer
- You've asked a good question and reconstructed the author's answer. Now, what do you think of that answer?
- I say "evaluate the author's position" only as shorthand. This brief formulation hides four aspects of an evaluation that are hard to squeeze into a headline.
- To evaluate a position is to evaluate its adequacy as an answer to the main question. Its adequacy for other purposes is secondary here.
- To evaluate the adequacy of a position requires us to evaluate the adequacy of both the conclusion and its supporting argument.
- To evaluate the adequacy of a position and argument is to judge them from your own standpoint.
- Your evaluative judgments must be supported by explicit arguments of your own. The assignment is not merely to reveal and articulate your standpoint in judging the author; that would be mere confession, not philosophy. The assignment is to defend or justify your standpoint.
- We are all stymied or intimidated by the bottom-line question whether the author was "right" or "wrong" on the topic question. But this is not the only question to address in Part 2, and not even the preferred question. If so, then what's left, exactly? Consider some of these possibilities.
- Look closely at the author's arguments for the answer to the main question, as you have interpreted them in Part 1. Are you persuaded? What in them is strong? What in them is weak?
- Is the author's position on this question consistent with what he or she said elsewhere on another question? (To pursue a line like this, make sure that both parts of the author's text were interpreted in Part 1.)
- Is the author's position one-sided? Does it fail to take into account some kind of evidence, or some line of reasoning, or some relevant phenomenon, that you can argue should have been taken into account?
- Take an objection to the author's position. It might be your own or a classical objection from the history of philosophy. Interpret the author's likely reply to the objection in Part 1. Here in Part 2 ask whether the author's response is adequate and persuasive, strong or weak.
- Explore what you find persuasive and unpersuasive, attractive and unattractive in the author's position and argument. Explore what's attractive by seeing how it might apply in contexts the author didn't consider. Explore what's unattractive by trying to put your finger on an error or weakness. Explore the position by following out lines of thought to see whether their consequences make the position, all in all, more attractive or less. Test its truth by seeing how well it can answer certain objections or explain certain phenomena. Perform these explorations in front of our eyes. Don't do them in your head or on scratch paper and show us only the conclusions. In a philosophy paper, the reasons are at least as important as the conclusions.
- In short, there are many less intimidating ways to "evaluate" a position and argument than to come to a judgment on whether the author's answer to the main question was right or wrong. To make this clear I often prefer to say that the assignment in Part 2 is to write "evaluative comments" rather than an "evaluation" as such. This is not just semantics. I really have the friendlier and less intimidating assignment in mind. I still want you to evaluate the author's position, and the adequacy of that position as you see it is still the only issue in Part 2 of the paper. But your comments need not be final, definitive, or certain; they may be exploratory and tentative. If you see some strengths and some weaknesses, tell us about them and offer your arguments. Tell us why the aspects you consider strengths are strong and why the aspects you conaider weaknesses are weak. But don't worry if they don't add up to a definitive judgment. I want you to make progress toward answering the main question; it would be unfair for me to expect you to finish the job when philosophers themselves are still at work on it.
- Don't change the subject in Part 2. Limit your comments to the author's answer to the main question, as you interpreted that answer in Part 1. There are two reasons for this.
- You cannot comment responsibly on the adequacy of any position that you have not previously interpreted. The author might not deserve the judgment you have rendered. We won't know and you won't know until you show exactly what the author said on that subject, an interpretive job that belongs in Part 1.
- If you interpret the author on one question, and then evaluate the author on different questions, then you waste the labor of your interpretation. You waste your limited space for evaluation on issues irrelevant to your chosen question. You miss an opportunity to deepen the inquiry by responding to what the author really did say on the question. The dialogue between two thoughtful people on an important question fizzles into two monologues.
- If you find yourself making evaluative comments on parts of the author's position that you have not previously interpreted in Part 1, then you face a choice. Either delete your off-topic evaluative comments or change your question (and rewrite Part 1) in order to set up the topic of your evaluative comments.
- Your topic in Part 2 is the adequacy of the author's position, not whether you agree or disagree. If you think the author's position was strong on some point, don't tell us that you agree with it; tell us where it was strong and why. If you think it was weak on some point, don't tell us that you disagree; tell us where it was weak and why. Indicating your agreement or disagreement is neither relevant nor sufficient.
- The question in Part 2 is not whether you agree or disagree, but whether you ought to agree or disagree.
- If you agree with the author, you and the author might both be wrong. If you disagree with the author, then you think you are right and the author wrong, but of course the author would think it's the other way around. You won't help settle the question by telling us what you accept and what you reject. Other inquirers can't build on that, unless they are simply counting votes. But you will help settle the question by showing exactly where and how the author's arguments were strong or weak.
- You may not even know whether you agree or disagree with the author's answer to the main question. Don't be alarmed. Your reluctance to judge can actually help you write a good paper. (Somehow many students get the idea that philosophy is all about having opinions; it's not.) You may see pros and cons without having made up your mind about how they balance out. Fine: tell us about them. Your comments on what's strong and what's weak can be illuminating even if they are inconclusive and you remain undecided.
- In fact, your evaluative comments are likely to be weak (one-sided and dogmatic) if you made up your mind made before undertaking the reasoned inquiry required for Part 2. Making up your mind is not always important; and when it is, then it's important to do it right. That requires you to look closely at sophisticated answers to the question, think about their strengths and weaknesses, and frame your reasons for finding them to be strong or weak. This is just what Part 2 calls on you to do.
- The evaluative comments should show what you think about the author's answer to the main question. What's important to me is that you think about that answer. I don't care whether you agree or disagree or can't make up your mind. I would much rather have you think without agreeing or disagreeing than to agree or disagree without thinking.
- Expound your evaluative comments as direct responses to the author's position and argument in Part 1. Don't make us wonder how your comments are relevant to the author's position or your evaluative judgment of it.
- Avoid making significant, new interpretive claims in Part 2. This steals space needed for evaluation, limiting the depth of your evaluative comments. Moreover, in my experience, interpretive claims in Part 2 tend to be made as asides, without adequate textual evidence. To make them superficial is a problem; to give them adequate textual evidence in Part 2 would subtract from the space left for evaluation. Lesson: Give them adequate textual evidence, but do it in Part 1.
- Since you are interpreting as well as evaluating the author, make sure your readers can tell when you are speaking for the author and when you are speaking for yourself. Don't be afraid to use the word "I" and take responsibility for your views, regardless of what you were taught in High School.
- The evaluative comments are roughly half the paper in importance and weight, and hence, roughly half a paper's grade. So give them roughly half the space.
- You may find it easier to criticize an author than to support one. On the one hand, don't mistake the easy path for the best path; on the other, don't worry if you only have critical comments. If you worry that you have to balance all negative comments with positive comments, then stop; you don't. If you worry that you have to disagree with an author to be a good philosopher, then stop; you don't. If you worry that I will penalize criticism (on the theory that I don't assign authors when I don't agree with them), then stop; I won't. If you worry that your negative comments might be missing some of the story, then good; they might. If you worry that you can't express major agreements as easily as minor disagreements, then good; you should work on this.
- Because the author has already argued in favor of his or her position, probably very well, it is difficult to find anything to say in support of the position without merely repeating what the author has said. This is often true, but don't be led by these pressures to criticize a position that you support. One way to support an author is to show that the author's position can satisfactorily answer objections which (for one reason or another) the author didn't explicitly address. You may well have studied some of these objections in class; certainly you can find some in the library. Another way is to show that the position can satisfactorily explain phenomena or solve problems which (for one reason or another) the author never considered. Another is to show that an apparent problem is not a real problem, or that the solution to one problem dovetails or coheres beautifully with the solution to another problem. Another is to show that the philosopher solves a problem left unsolved by some previous philosopher, yet without creating the new problem that prevented the previous philosopher from seeing or adopting the same solution. Use your imagination and you'll find many other ways as well.
- On the other hand, don't hesitate to criticize a position strongly. You will not violate some unwritten rule or offend me. I defend our authors against misinterpretation in order to help us interpret them accurately, and I defend them against objections (at least while I'm teaching them) in order to show you what resources these positions have to defend themselves. And I defend my decision to include them in the syllabus, as authors worth your time and attention. But that's it. I don't defend them against a well-argued critique. Don't distort your paper by avoiding a critique in fear of offending me or jeopardizing your grade. I'm teaching, not preaching. You can learn a lot from an author by clarifying your suspicion that something has gone wrong, putting your finger on what you believe to be a mistake, and arguing that such a step is mistaken. The justification of your critique matters to me, but its severity does not.
- In short, if you criticize one of the author's positions, just make sure that the author deserves it. If you need a checklist to keep you honest, then try to (1) show that the author actually asserted the claim you want to criticize, (2) show the author's reasons for asserting it, and (3) show what's wrong with those reasons. Here's a little elaboration on these three tasks.
- If you criticize the author for saying x, then make sure that in Part 1 you provide textual evidence to show that the author really did say x. Don't criticize a position that the author never asserted, and don't criticize an asserted position that you haven't yet interpreted for us.
- Make sure that in Part 1 you reconstruct the author's arguments for x. Show the case for x at its strongest, at least in the strongest form in which this author gives it. If you don't, your evaluation is bound to be unfair.
- Make sure that you directly address the author's arguments. If you have an original argument againt x, that's good; we want to hear it. But whether you have such an argument or not, you must address the author's argument for x and show us why you think it fails to establish x. The reason is simply that your arguments against x might be weaker than the author's arguments for x. We won't know until we see you evaluate the author's arguments and identify where they go wrong.
- Try to imagine how the author would reply to your criticism. Can you answer the author's objections? Should you make any concessions to them and qualify your criticism?
- Interpreting the author's arguments in Part 1 is part of careful reading. Evaluating those arguments in Part 2 is part of responsible dialogue. But the task here is one of sensitive imagination. The author never heard your criticism and never responded to it. Can you imagine how the author would reply?
- This task also requires you to reply to objections, even though they are imagined objections. This requires fair-mindedness with those who disagree with you, the humility to articulate objections to your own views, the logical sense to know when you've answered an objection and when you've evaded one, the honesty to change your mind in the face of persuasive objections, and the skill with language to qualify your claims so that they capture the criticism you think is warranted and still acknowledge the strengths you wish to concede.
- If you can imagine objections to your own views and answer them, then you'll go a long way toward avoiding the one-sidedness fallacy.
- Here's one perspective on the last couple of points. Don't be impatient to get to the important business of supporting what you support and opposing what you oppose, as if the author didn't exist or didn't offer arguments. There are two jobs to do first. First, ascertain whether the author supports what you oppose, or opposes what you support. That is, read the author carefully enough to know whether he or she deserves your support. Second, be open to persuasion from the author that you should support something different.
- Part 2 is your chance to do philosophy, not merely to read and reconstruct the philosophy of others. Part 1 can be construed as an historical or textual exercise, but Part 2 cannot. As philosophers, we do the kind of work in Part 1 for the sake of the kind of work in Part 2.
- Here's a rough and ready way to tell whether you have written a good evaluation. If a peer from class agrees with you on how to read the author's position on the question you've picked as your topic, but is tormented by indecision on whether the author's position is a good one, would she receive concrete help from reading your evaluation?
The most common problems I see in evaluations are the following.
- Changing the subject. Not focusing the evaluation on the position you interpreted in Part 1.
- Dogmatizing. Not supporting your evaluative comments with argument.
- Fighting a straw man. Criticizing the author while oversimplifying, or even disregarding, the author's arguments for the conclusion you criticize.
- Quitting early. Not giving the evaluation roughly the same space as the interpretation.
Be Fascinating and Profound.
- You understand why your question matters. Can you communicate this understanding?
- Write for the audience of the wide world, not just for me, yourself, your peers, or people of your own gender, race, culture, or century. Hence, be sensitive to the fact that large sectors of your audience share few if any of your values or background assumptions, and simply do not take for granted what you take for granted. Assume that your audience has read the books for the course, and is open-minded, but does not (yet) agree with you on their meaning or merits. Make sure that this very diverse audience knows (1) what you are talking about, (2) why it should agree with you, or at least why it should find your view reasonable and responsible, and (3) why it should care.
- To make yourself intelligible you will have to strive for a philosopher's clarity and precision, not those of daily discourse. To make yourself persuasive you will have to make cogent use of textual evidence (in your interpretation) and argument (in your evaluative comments). The request to argue is not a request to be quarrelsome, defensive, or aggressive. It is a request to be accountable to your audience, giving it good reasons in place of asking readers to take your word or to believe blindly. To make yourself fascinating and profound to this diverse audience you will have to reach beyond your own self and the provincial interests of those like yourself to the interests of all humanity.
- Explicitly raise objections to your evaluative comments. Answer them and argue for your answers. The objections could be from the standpoint of the author you are interpreting, another author from our course, a scholar you found in the library, or your imagination.
- Do some library research. This might help you interpret the author's position and argument or evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. If you do use the library, cite all your sources in a bibliography.
- Write an abstract for your paper. Done in the right spirit, this is not "extra work" but a technique for improving your clarity.
- Make your paper comparative. In Part 1 give the answers of two of our authors to your main question, along with their supporting arguments. Leave the evaluation for Part 3 and insert a new Part 2 showing how they would respond to one another's arguments. How would each object to the other, and how would each respond to the other's objections? Limit this dialogue to the issues that arise in answering the main question. Then in Part 3 comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the two positions and their supporting arguments. Start to judge who has the stronger argument. Explicitly label your sections Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 so we can both tell where they are. Give each section roughly one third of your paper. Sometimes I assign comparative papers; when I do, this is what I mean. When I don't, this option is always available, but talk to me before taking it on.
- Make your paper semi-comparative. Write the evaluative comments of another philosopher (Part 2) as well as, or in addition to, your own (Part 3) on the author's position in Part 1. For example, Part 1 interprets Descartes on the ontological argument. Part 2 interprets Hume's evaluation of Descartes' position. Part 3 offers your own evaluation of Descartes' position, perhaps in light of Hume's evaluation. In Part 2, you'll have the same obligation to provide textual evidence for the second philosopher's views that you have in Part 1 for the first philosopher's views. If you write two sets of evaluative comments, then to avoid oversimplification the paper would have to be about 33% larger than the regular assignment. To write only one set of evaluative comments (those of another philosopher), the paper will be of the regular length. Talk to me before choosing either option.
- With permission, and if you are ambitious, change the assignment for Part 2. Instead of writing evaluative comments on the author's answer to the main question, offer your own answer to the main question and an argument that your answer is superior to the author's answer. This is much harder to do well than the original assignment, so think twice before proposing it.
- End your paper with a series of questions. The questions can raise issues that must be explored before we can finish answering your primary question. Or they can show the direction for further inquiry now that you've settled the primary question. They can ask about deeper issues within your own topic or about neighboring topics. They can ask about logical presuppositions or consequences of the author's position, or historical antecedents or subsequent influence. Don't feel obliged to have answers. Let your inquisitive nature run.
- Sometimes students attach hand-written notes to their papers. "I worked hard on x this time. Did I do a good job?" when x is interpreting arguments and not just positions, using textual evidence, arguing explicitly, sticking to the subject, grappling with a slippery distinction, raising objections and answering them, writing clearly, organizing, proofreading, or that puzzling passage on page 14 of the author's text. Sometimes the notes give some personal context on why this topic is important. Sometimes they describe an admitted problem with the paper and ask for suggestions on how to avoid or solve it. I enjoy these notes. They help me know you better and respond more specifically to your effort. Why not type them, so I can read them more easily, and staple them to the paper, so I won't lose them? I'll try to comment on them as I do on the paper itself.
My grading criteria follow this definition of the assignment. Any specific grading criteria that I will use for papers will be written in the syllabus or announced in class. In general I will look for:
- a sharp question
- your interpretation of the author's answer and its supporting argument
- conscientious use of the text to support your interpretation
- your evaluative comments on the adequacy of the author's position
- explicit, persuasive argument to support your evaluative comments
- clear, precise writing
- depth over breadth in analysis
- respect for the complexity of the text, problem and/or position, and
- careful proofreading.
Please take these criteria seriously; I do.
Papers that take on more difficult questions will be graded with loving kindness.
Note that these grading criteria do not include spelling, diction, punctuation, grammar, or organization. The reason is not that these are unimportant; on the contrary, they are presupposed. To think that these essentials of good writing count only in Humanities or English classes is a mistake that hinders your growth as a writer.
In grading I do not comment on matters of style. But clarity and precision are not merely matters of style. Clear writing reflects clear thinking. (Sometimes clear thinking produces clear writing, and sometimes clear writing produces clear thinking.) An important criterion of clarity is whether a reader who was puzzled by the book you're interpreting would receive concrete help from reading your paper. Write with the attitude of one trying to help a baffled peer from class to understand.
Sometimes I will grade your interpretation and evaluation separately, and give the simple average of these two grades to the paper overall. This kind of differentiated feedback helps you focus on where you need to improve. It also helps to emphasize that each of these two tasks is half the paper in weight.
If you would like me to give you comments without a grade, I will be happy to do so. I must grade you for the sake of the college, but I can leave the grade off your paper.
I try hard to grade fairly. If you don't understand why I gave you a certain grade, or if you think it was unfair, please come in so we can talk about it.
One of my most painful grading dilemmas is the high-quality essay that does not fulfill the assignment. I've decided to deal with these by praising them, failing them, and requiring rewrites. If you want to change the assignment, talk to me in advance.
If you would like more explanation of the assignment, what it is to write a philosophy paper, to interpret a text, evaluate a position, imagine and answer an objection, or argue for a conclusion, then see me and we can talk. If you are unsure about the wording or focus of your topic-question, its narrowness, difficulty, or importance, or if the connection between the writing assignments and the objectives of the course is ever unclear, I'd be happy to talk to you in my office.
- Unless the syllabus says otherwise, your paper is to be a solo effort. For clarity in doubtful cases, see my hand-out on avoiding plagiarism or talk to me.
- This assignment requires many separate skills, for example, in focusing, interpreting, evaluating, arguing, articulating, organizing, and proofreading. Some of these skills you will already have. Some you will acquire quickly, and some you will acquire more slowly. Be lenient with yourself if you have some but not all of these skills at the time a certain paper must be turned in. Use my comments to take note of the skills you are gaining and to spotlight the skills that still need work.
- The assignment is difficult, but is not a mere ideal or aspiration that takes a lifetime to master. You should be able to write good essays of this kind before before the semester is over.
- On the other hand, you have probably not written this kind of essay before. Don't be surprised or discouraged if your first few efforts fall short of perfection.
- I do not maintain that this is the only way to write about philosophy books, positions, or arguments. But I do maintain that this assignment calls upon skills that philosophy students ought to cultivate and practice.
- If you write your essay on a word processor, which I recommend, then keep the file at least until the end of the semester. This helps in case you want to rewrite the paper. It also helps in the rare case that the printed copy disappears and I need a new printout from you. While you are writing, make frequent back-ups.
- See my generic hand-out for details on paper mechanics, lateness, and rewrites.
Department of Philosophy,
Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374, U.S.A.
email@example.com. Copyright © 1999-2002, Peter Suber.