100-Level Philosophy: Morals and Society (Writing-Intensive)

WRITING PHILOSOPHY

Reading and writing intertwine in allacademic fields but perhaps no where more tightly than in philosophy. As a result, Professor James Tiles maintains, "You can't teach philosophy without writing." Tiles starts his first-time philosophy students writing on the first day of class, asking them to attempt to write philosophy before most have read any. This early writing gives students an added impetus to want to read philosophy. The reading in turn invites students to write again, then to read more, and so on, as the interconnections between the two are emphasized again and again.

Tiles leads students through a carefully constructed sequence of reading/writing assignments. Students are asked to undertake increasingly complex tasks that build upon the earlier, simpler skills they have already practiced. Tiles's students thus are prepared by the end of their first semester's course to engage with such final assignments as, "Write problems does Mill's theory of justice leave? Can these problems be overcome?" and "Write an essay addressing the question: Is it possible to do anything ethically improper to oneself?"

To understand how Tiles prepares students for such ambitious culminating tasks, we will look:

  1. at how he keeps writing and reading connected and
  2. at several of the methods Tiles uses in responding to student writing.

Reading to Write, Writing to Read

Tiles's syllabus describes the twelve writing tasks practiced in this introductory philosophy class. In approximate order required, these tasks include: a personal introduction (narrative) a summary an opinion an abstract brief statements of opinion an edit of a published article a thesis statement a definition a description two outlines two evaluations two essays (mentioned above).

Tiles has found many students have difficulty understanding the texts he assigns so he begins the semester emphasizing writing activities that encourage students to read more deeply. He begins by assigning a narrative introduction to encourage students to compose within a familiar genre as they, according to the syllabus, "indicate why you enrolled in this course, what you expect, and what, if any, misgivings you feel having seen the syllabus." Students are next required to draft a summary and then an abstract of various philosophical texts. These tasks are likely to be less familiar to students, though not so unfamiliar as to be undoable. The required writing forces students to begin to read with the care that philosophical texts require.

Summary and abstract assignments are followed in Tiles's syllabus by the composition of thesis statements derived from texts, brief statements about readings, and then by the writing of definitions, descriptions and outlines of further texts. Every two weeks or so Tiles distributes a review sheet providing an overview of the different topics to be summarized, defined, described, or otherwise written about. Throughout, students must read to inform their writing, then read again to increase the complexity and clarity of that writing.

Tiles has discovered that asking students to write outlines of assigned texts can be an especially useful way to improve the quality of their reading. Before practicing outlining, for example, many students do not understand the difference between making a list and identifying the structure of an argumentative narrative. Outlining helps students learn to recognize how philosophical arguments are shaped and sequenced.

Outlines also help students understand, for example, that while some arguments may be developed in a single sentence or paragraph, others may stretch on for many pages.

In the final third of the semester, students combine elements of their earlier writing assignments to compose one evaluation of an argument in Aristotle and another evaluation of an argument in Mills. In the final weeks, the students combine all the skills they have practiced during the semester in the composition of the two essays mentioned above. These more complicated assignments depend upon a semester's practice in careful reading-to-write.

The success of these culminating compositions depends as well upon the work Tiles has done all semester in shaping student writing through his responses.

Responding to Writing

"I mark the more formal assignments meticulously," Tiles says. Still, too much responding is likely to overwhelm both instructor and student, so Tiles selects only exemplary aspects or sections of each student paper to respond to in detail.

Unlike many other writing-intensive instructors, Tiles believes it is necessary for him to offer at least some minimal written response to every written assignment, no matter how small. Longer, more complex assignments receive long, complex responses. On shorter assignments, Tiles at least makes a brief comment, pencils in a check mark or two, maybe marks some grammar, to show students that he is paying attention. Without such marks, he believes, students would begin to suspect some assignments were not important.

Tiles's longer responses often take the form of questions so he can demonstrate for students this useful way to interrogate texts. Tiles also offers statements designed to encourage students to strive to reveal implications other readers might have overlooked. Tiles aims to model philosophical reading and writing in the way he reads and writes back to students about their own texts.

Tiles tries to shape his comments on student papers according to each student's needs. &quot Different things work for different students," he says. The more knowledge he has about a student, the more appropriately he is able to respond. The initial class assignment, narratives students write about their expectations and apprehensions upon enrolling in the course, inaugurates Tiles' acquaintanceship with his students' varied needs.

Tiles marks the portions of student texts he will comment on with numbers so he can type his responses without worrying about the legibility of his handwriting. Tiles encourages students to talk to him about his comments and permits students to revise their essays as often as they like. Too few students, he finds, take advantage of this opportunity.

Tiles also responds to student texts through the use of student models.

Use of student models

Tiles revels in those occasional student texts which illumine aspects of the assigned texts Tiles himself has not noticed. This, Tiles teaches, is philosophy: the close interrogation of texts and the sharing of insights with others also interested in those texts. Tiles often makes copies of the more successful student papers for distribution to the entire class. Students are encouraged to study these models as supplements to Tile's written responses as they work revising old and composing new texts. Sometimes, rather than distribute these models to all, Tiles makes copies but distributes them only to those students who explicitly request the chance to see them.

Tiles also provides model answers for the review sheets he hands out every two weeks. Here, as in the example shown, Tiles offers further instances of successful student responses to the various types of writing being practiced in the course.

Student writing often provides the foci for class discussions. Brief assignments are given about class topics. Students write their social security numbers but not their names on these short compositions specified to be only from three to five sentences in length. Tiles collects these assignments then passes them around during class so students do not receive their own. Students read aloud from the paper their receive. These comments are used to foster class discussion and, over the course of the semester, to help students learn to distinguish which sorts of writing provide the strongest philosophical statements.

In some classes Tiles collects an exemplary sample of student papers and creates class publications. Tiles uses a scanner to turn student papers into text documents. He manipulates these documents to create pages with fonts and designs that have the look of a professional philosophy journal. Tiles creates titles for these journals, for example, The Pacific Journal of Ethics, and then distributes the publication to all students in the class. Such a publication rewards and inspires currently enrolled students, and can be used as a model to distribute in subsequent classes as well.

(For suggestions about other ways to create class publications, see Creating Class Publications.)

More about Reading and Writing

Most instructors of writing intensive courses across the disciplines discover intimate connections between reading and writing like those Tiles' emphasizes. For example, Robert Weiner, in his 300-level geometry course, utilizes some of the same writing strategies Tiles uses in guiding his students to read and write mathematical definitions, proofs and theorems. Close reading in philosophy, mathematics and most other disciplines usually leads to improved writing, just as careful writing can as often guide students to read and re-read with increased expertise.

For further discussion of ways to integrate reading and writing, see the following publications prepared by the Mānoa Writing Program:

Freewriting and Journals

Writing Activities to Get Students Thinking and Learning

Writing Matters #3: Writing and Research