As I noted in my teaching philosophy, writing is “an academic mode of engagement—one that allows students to practice philosophy rather than merely auditing what they’ve understood from readings and lecture.” Learning to write arguments is at the heart of writing philosophy and is the main focus of all my writing assignments. Because so many of my students are non-majors and because of my goal for students to recognize that they’re already philosophically engaged in the world around them, I also make use of many different kinds of writing assignments. Below are a few of those I use most regularly.
Although initially resistant, I've also been converted to the use of rubrics - it adds tremendous clarity for the students, improves my own consistency, and above all aids me in counseling with students who are upset about their paper grades. You can see a compilation of different rubrics I use in combination in various papers HERE.
Perhaps my favorite and most successful writing experiment was an online class journal. Students in my Political and Social Thought course (a first year survey of classical political philosophy) posted journal submissions each week to our course blog. I read and gave feedback on the submissions, assigning each submission a value of “accepted,” “accepted with changes,” “revise and resubmit,” or “rejected.” Students’ overall grade for this ongoing assignment was pinned to the number of “accepted” submissions they received. The point of assignment was twofold: first to mimic to the degree possible what it is actually like to write professionally; and second, to serve as an iterative writing assignment that required improvement. Submissions were short (300-500 words), consisting entirely of one to two narrow arguments. Each week students were assigned a topic, allowed to choose a topic, or were required to read and respond to their peers work—citing the class journal just as they cited the classical texts we read. Additionally, students read and responded to one another’s submissions, creating a both a community of practice and also a common body of knowledge.
Initially students were highly intimidated—and as a four credit course the work was never easy—but students quickly warmed to the experience and eventually gave very high marks to the real world nature of the assignment and were excited to see the dramatic improvement in both their writing and their overall grasp of the material.
The assignment was a significant time burden, however, and requires a small class. I look forward to implementing it again in the next small class I teach.
A full description of this assignment is available here: PST Class Journal Assignment
Reading & Media Analyses
Particularly with students who are new to college or even just new to philosophy, understanding arguments is a challenge. Learning to identify and reproduce such arguments is an important skill on it's own, and crucial to helping students learn to evaluate and compose their own arguments. Helping them to find arguments in the texts their reading is an important first step. Learning to find arguments in diverse forms of media in their everyday lives is similar, though often more fun. It also forces students to come to grips with enthymematic arguments and gives them practice at re-working arguments to make them more compelling.
For these reasons I have students formally identify and reproduce arguments. An assignment for doing this from the readings can be found here; and a related assignment for doing so with outside media can be found here.
These two assignments are also an important example of scaffolding, which I commonly employ in both lower and upper division courses. The Reading and Media Analyses papers are from my online Introduction to Philosophy course. After practicing with these assignments, students go on to write synthesis papers, showing how a given text or argument illuminates some real world scenario, evaluation papers where they critique others' arguments, and argument paper where they produce their own argument on an issue, and finally put it all together in a standard philosophy paper.
Iterative Argument Analyses
These are my most commonly employed assignments in ethics and political philosophy. Students write short essays (less than 800 words) that use the moral and political frameworks from class in order to illuminate the moral texture of a current event or reading from another class, and then use this synthesis to craft an argument of their own. These essays are due every other week (sometimes there are variations). I give feedback and a mock grade on the papers at the start of class, and we collectively analyze and evaluate sample papers in class each week. Students also give feedback to two of their peers' papers with each submission and are given a specific set of guidelines for doing so. They then revise and resubmit their best three papers for a conventional grade later in the semester. Often times, one of these is then expanded into a final term paper.
You can read a recent draft of the instructions for my Global Justice course here: Writing Analysis Papers
Interdisciplinary Term Paper
In addition to blurring the lines between the classroom and the rest of students’ lives, I believe that education requires us to blur the lines between the different subjects that they study. This is why, for example, I often require students to philosophically analyze readings or research from their other classes. Teaching an interdisciplinary course on environmental ethics, politics, and policy allowed me to make this goal of blurring the disciplines more prominent. Students were required to write a policy paper targeting a specific social level (institutional, municipal, federal, regional, or international) that showed a grasp of the political processes needed to implement the policy, was economically feasible, and was firmly grounded in a specific moral justification. Course readings included papers that did something similar and time was devoted throughout the class to discuss and ensure student understanding of the assignment. They were likewise required to submit a thesis statement and outline as well as to meet with me to discuss their papers well in advance of the deadline. Students loved the opportunity to write and propose a policy of personal concern to themselves as well as the sense that what they wrote mattered concretely while explicitly reflecting their ethical values. As an instructor I continue to be surprised at and take pride in the caliber of these writing assignments.
The initial instructions for this assignment can be found here: Interdisciplinary term paper
Standard Philosophy Paper
Particularly in upper division classes where a significant portion of students are either philosophy majors or have some background in philosophy as well as more experience writing generally, students need more time and space to wrestle with their arguments and plausible objections to those arguments. In such cases, I find more standard philosophical papers apt. Given the variety of classes and disciplines in which students (even majors) are engaged, and given the self-consciousness and insecurity of (at least new) majors, I still find it important to explain clearly and thoroughly exactly what I’m looking for in my papers (especially the first time a paper is assigned). Doing so empowers students and improves the quality of their writing. Depending on the course and its goals, standard philosophical papers are often used as warm-ups for a term paper or else multiple such paper assignments replace the need for a term paper.
An example of a first paper assignment can be found here.