Help me design a writing guide for undergraduates
April 1, 2009 1:10 AM   Subscribe

I'm putting together a writing guide for my undergraduate philosophy course. What information should I put in the guide?

My goal is to give students a useful reference for writing papers in philosophy, since this course is likely the first course they have had in this field. I would like to do something more than a grammar cheat sheet or style guide. For instance, I am including discipline-specific examples of how to reconstruct an argument, how to effectively use a quotation, and how to adequately explain a central claim. But, I also want to cover at least some of the major grammar issues my students have: e.g. vs. i.e. vs. viz., its vs. it's, and so forth.

In addition to what I should include, I would also appreciate feedback on how much is too much. The guide will definitely be at least two pages, but it could be substantially more. At what point does it become overwhelming rather than helpful? I don't want to create my own book, but I could imagine a 10-page guide. Is that size intimidating rather than helpful?
posted by philosophygeek to Education (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
My school requires a basic writing course for every incoming freshman. The course webpage I linked to recommends the online tutorials that complement the text they use in their course, one of which covers exactly how to use quotes.

What kind of papers would your students be writing? Would they be constructing proofs or developing arguments on ethics?

If it's an intro/100-level course and your students are mostly freshmen/sophomores, I'd honestly say 10 pages on a writing guide that isn't associated with an English course might be a little too much. My humanities profs usually just took the time to explain at the beginning of the course or when they assigned the first paper what they would like to see. They summarized their major points on the assignment handout.
posted by twins named Lugubrious and Salubrious at 4:10 AM on April 1, 2009

Unless your students are very diligent, they probably won't read ten pages of writing advice for a course which isn't specifically about writing. Sorry. Undergrads are lazy, and they think they know it all already.

A better approach would be to narrow down your advice to a specific list of, perhaps, 20 serious errors for which you will lower their marks. Be selfish - fill the list with the kinds of mistakes you really don't want to read in their essays. Then explain, in detail, how each error can be avoided. If your students know that stupid mistakes will cost them marks, they'll be much more motivated to read the guide. But I still wouldn't make it more than three pages.

I took a philosophy class in undergrad, and the professor made it clear at the start that he would dock marks for errors like misusing the phrase "begs the question," or confusing "valid" with "true". He also marked us down for bad spelling or grammar, but he didn't bother teaching those things explicitly because he assumed we'd have already learned them elsewhere. Your guide should be about setting minimum standards, not teaching remedial literacy. Does your university have a study centre which could help your students with the basics?
posted by [ixia] at 4:55 AM on April 1, 2009

Or you could not try to make them into miniature academicians and let them write their papers in any style they choose given that they discuss things in an honest and curious manner. Most of them will never take another philosophy course, don't choke the immediacy out of the discipline with a bunch of staid and arcane rules. I'm biased, since I learned philosophy in a fun way, but while I still have no idea how use viz et al I remember most of the books I loved and hated and wrote breezy amateurish essays about.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:18 AM on April 1, 2009

I tend to come down more on the side of [ixia]'s argument. Explain the errors, explain the reasoning behind them. Perhaps include links to places where they can find more information about the terms you don't want them to misuse if they really want to know. Example:

'- If you confuse validity with truth, I will dock you y percent of the total points.
Validity is a statement about the form of the argument and whether it follows rules of logic (which you can find more about at, which has essentially nothing to do with the truth of an argument, which is a statement about the content of the argument and whether it reflects fact.'


'- If you use the phrase 'begs the question' to mean 'raises the question', I will dock you y percent of the total points.
Begging questions describes a fallacious bit of logic where an assertion to be proved is stated implicitly or explicitly in one of the premises. This has nothing to do with prompting other questions, though if your argument begs the question, it will certainly raise questions about your logic.'
posted by kldickson at 5:26 AM on April 1, 2009

As an English prof, I think this is a great idea if you grade hard for style and correctness issues already. In courses of mine that aren't writing-intensive (literature courses with a single big paper and several in-class essays) I've found handouts that remind them about things like topic sentences, precision in language, and active vs. passive voice actually help me get decent results.

For papers, I think one good way to get this advice across is to assign papers with a detailed prompt with bullet points of advice, and then grade with a rubric (scores in different categories) that has a long list of what you're looking for. Detailed rubrics act as a review or checklist for editing, and they have the advantage of making grading look more objective.

They're more apt to read things directly associated with a paper than they are works of general advice.
posted by LucretiusJones at 5:40 AM on April 1, 2009

As above, if it's long it won't be read anyway, so consider a point form list instead that can be understood at a glance and taped up on a wall for reference.

At minimum, include one-sentence summaries of each point in a sidebar or as headings. Example:
WRITE SIMPLE, DECLARATIVE SENTENCES. Don't twist your argument into a fifty-word rats' nest of parenthetical weasel words in the passive voice. Furthermore.... [and then go on explaining all you like in small print detail.]
This will make your guide a lot more accessible, memorable and useful.

And to avoid eternal infamy, be very double-damn certain your own list doesn't break any of its rules. Check and check again.
posted by rokusan at 5:49 AM on April 1, 2009

What type of undergraduate institution do you teach at? Is it a community college type setting, or a high-ranked university? I ask because I believe different institutions have different pedagogical goals.

My advice based on my experience at a private liberal arts college:

While I tend to agree with [ixia] that undergraduate students are hesistant to read everything they're assigned, and only the seriously motivated will review a ten page handout, I still think you have a duty to distribute a handout of your stylistic, grammatical and argumentative expectations, and to grade it rigourously. You worry about being intimidating? Be intimidating!

The philosophy department at my school was hardcore, kicked my ass into shape, and I love them for it. Now I write well, stay close to the texts I work with, proofread my work with an eagle-eye, and omit grandiloquent flourishes. Three years out of college, I may forget the details of Heidegger's Being and Time, but I am totally prepared to show a law school paper who is boss.

So I say give them the ten page handout and then grade them accordingly.
posted by HabeasCorpus at 6:06 AM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to mention that Jim Pryor has a guide aimed at beginning philosophical paper writers. It might be helpful to take a look at, if you haven't seen it before.
posted by gorillawarfare at 6:52 AM on April 1, 2009

I want to heavily suggest that you include examples of good practice (and bad, if you have room). For a lot of students, just giving a rule isn't particularly useful because they can't see how the rule applies to their particular situation.
posted by marginaliana at 7:07 AM on April 1, 2009

Or you could not try to make them into miniature academicians and let them write their papers in any style they choose given that they discuss things in an honest and curious manner.

The problem, Potomac, is that many of them won't understand the difference between writing in an honest and curious manner, and not making sense. You need to get to that point of "miniature academician" before you can expand your expressive repertoire to be less structured and more usefully conversational. You need to know the rules in order to break them effectively.

At the end of your guide, OP, I'd recommend a book like Strunk & White's Elements of Style that tells them to write, above all, for clarity and directness. Limit yourself to a list of specific errors to avoid. Also recommend something like Orwell's "Politics & the English Language". They key idea you want to get into their heads is that writing well is about expressing yourself clearly, which means thinking clearly, which means not throwing a bunch of boilerplate jargon onto paper in the hopes it gets a B without much effort.
posted by fatbird at 8:14 AM on April 1, 2009

As above, if it's long it won't be read anyway, so consider a point form list instead that can be understood at a glance and taped up on a wall for reference.

To a point, I don't think it's the length of a supplement guide that's the issue, but the feeling that it won't be relevant to the students, namely to their all-consuming interest in getting a good grade. Be sure that the supplement doesn't feel optional--tell students that making the mistakes listed there will result in a severe grade penalty, or (even better) quiz them on it. That might make me sound like a pedant, but this is information that they need to do well in your class, as well as in classes that follow. A simple ten-point quiz will be viewed by most students as an easy opportunity for "extra credit." And it gives you even more justification to penalize them on these mistakes when you grade their papers--they should certainly know these things, because you'll already have quizzed them on it.

All that being said, a ten-page list, even if you're grading on it, is pretty extreme. It would make a lot more sense to integrate some of this information into the teaching of the course, especially if it's an Intro class. This is especially the case if terms have specialized meanings within philosophy. I'm thinking of "valid" and "true" in [ixia]'s example, a distinction which students might not learn until they have a logic class, depending on their background. While it's understandable that you wouldn't want to take too much time to teach the basics, it's sometimes, unfortunately necessary, and an actual discussion will be much more useful to the students than a hand-out.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:27 AM on April 1, 2009

Or you could not try to make them into miniature academicians and let them write their papers in any style they choose given that they discuss things in an honest and curious manner. Most of them will never take another philosophy course, don't choke the immediacy out of the discipline with a bunch of staid and arcane rules.

I tell my students that their writing should be "conventional" meaning not that it shouldn't be original or innovative, but that it should follow the conventions of the type of writing they're doing. So it's not that the way we write in my discipline is inherently right or better, it's just that this is how we do it. Now you're writing in this discipline and so you write this way, too.

This is a valuable lesson to learn not just for academics. Wherever you go in life you will have to write in the conventions suited to the place/audience for which you are writing. Learning to identify and adopt the conventions of different kinds of writing is a transferable skill.

Engaging is good. It's great, but it doesn't make up for writing in an inappropriate format. You can't file your taxes in verse, and you can't write your inter-office memos as novels, and you can't post on metafilter in txtspk. That's life. Get used to it.

In addition to the because-that's-just-the-way-it-is argument above, writing in particular styles often requires you to think in particular ways. Writing in verse forces you to think about the rhythm and sounds of language. That's nice and all, but when you fill out your taxes, rhythm is superfluous and the precision required by entering numbers is essential. That's obviously a deliberately silly example, but here's a real one: Philosophical thinking requires very precise thinking. You can't express precise thoughts without choosing your words carefully and ensuring that the word you're using is precisely defined and that you're using it in a way that coincides precisely with it's dictionary or assigned definition. And you can't express precise ideas using non-standard grammar, since meaning is conveyed in grammatical constructions and so sentences too need to be constructed carefully.

I'm not in philosophy, but when I explain conventions of writing in my field I also talk about how making common mistake X implies/conveys this way of thinking about something, whereas the conventional form implies/conveys the kind of thinking that we do in this discipline.

OP: I have some powerpoints that I use to do a two-hour writing workshop with my students. It's not philosophy, but you might find it worthwhile to look them over and if you mefimail me an email address I'll send them.

I try (in theory) to spend my time talking about how students should write rather than trying to correct common mistakes. I think the problem with correcting mistakes is that students will go through and remove those mistakes. No matter how hard you try you can't list every mistake they could ever make (and if you do they won't read it), so they correct the mistakes you list and then just come up with new super-duper-creative-what-were-they-thinking mistakes. And what's worse, if they didn't make the mistakes listed on your sheet, they think this entitles them to an A.

So instead, give them principles of good writing to work towards. Go ahead and show how some common mistakes interfere with meeting those principles, but make the principles and not the mistakes the focus.

Sorry this is so long. Maybe someone should post on metatalk pointing out that concision is a principle of good writing on metafilter!
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:42 AM on April 1, 2009

To those who think a ten-page guide is too long:

One of my tutors at university produced a twenty page booklet detailing common and not so common writing errors. Each problem had a little acronym next to it. When he marked essays, he would write these acronyms in the margins next to the error:. This meant that someone reading their essay back to themselves would HAVE to have the booklet open in front of them.

Obviously the only ones who are going to pay attention to the booklet are the students who don't want bad grades; the bad ones will throw it in the back of their drawer anyway. But his method made it a more relevant study tool and increased the chance that it would get read. At the very least, this method would save you some time because you don't have to write, "Start a new paragraph when you introduce a new topic" on fifty essays, week in week out, for the rest of your career.
posted by marmaduke_yaverland at 10:02 AM on April 1, 2009

Why bother reinvinting the wheel? There are dozens of how-to-write-a-philosophy paper guides on the internet, written by faculty -- why not just tell your students to read one of those? (My personal favorite is The Pink Guide, but that's mainly because it was written by a dear friend.)
posted by paultopia at 10:31 AM on April 1, 2009

« Older Is there any recourse if you are fired for conduct...   |   I need to start my life without worrying so much... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.