Grading a Philosophy Paper

[Revised 8/08]

In most philosophy classes, you will be asked to write papers. This can be a mysterious process since the line is sometimes fine between a serious philosophical discussion and shooting the shit, a line many professional philosophers seem to have lost track of! I will provide several handouts on how to write a philosophy paper. But I will begin with a short explanation of how I and many other philosophers approach grading a philosophy paper. A good way to get a feel for how to write a philosophy paper is to see what your professors might look for when they grade a paper. Note three things. First, the proper guidelines can vary depending on the class and project. You have to decide how the following guidelines might need to be revised for a particular project. Second, not all philosophers approach philosophy in the same way and some might not be as impressed by this list as I am. Personally, I would drop their classes, but you might feel differently. Third, this is just a check list. Every one of these points can be expanded. But it is a checklist I try to keep in mind when reading student papersI expand on many of these points in the various pages on how to write a philosophy paper. 

Many philosophy papers have two parts. First, you must explain the views of others and second, you must make a contribution of your own.

What I look for in your explanation of the view of an author.

  • Do you restrict yourself to information that is relevant to your topic? For example, if you are writing about Hobbes’s view that humans are completely selfish, you should not go off on a tangent and start explaining why he prefers monarchy over democracy. Of course, if the paper is long enough and the assignment allows it, both of these topics might appear in a single paper. But you must keep your focus and not assume that just because the paper is about something in Hobbes, everything I Hobbes is relevant.

  • Is your explanation complete, given the space you have? Do you give me all the relevant information? For example, do you include definitions of all relevant key terms and concepts?

  • Do you explain why your author believes as she does, that is, her reasons and arguments? That someone believes something is often less important and interesting than her reasons for believing.

  • Did you understand and explain the author accurately? It is not uncommon to read a philosopher and to get him exactly backwards. This might be because of poor writing, something not uncommon among academics, or because of the complexity of the work. It is also caused by the fact that philosophers can spend a lot of time explaining their opponents' views as convincingly as they can. If you are not used to reading people who give a fair shake to their opponents, you might think that a philosopher is explaining his own view when he is explaining an opponent's view.

  • Is your presentation concise? How concise it must be depends on the situation, especially on the length of the paper. In a one page paper, you must be more concise than in a ten page paper. In my experience, it is often possible to remove half the words from a paper without any loss of content. Note the requirements of conciseness and completeness battle with one another. You need to balance, and you are graded partly on your ability to strike a reasonable balance. Needless to say, the ultimate judge of whether you have struck a reasonable balance is your professor – teaching is rendered worthwhile by the ability to exercise such tine bits of pure and seemingly arbitrary power. Live with it.

  • Is your presentation clear? The ideal is to be able to give a good idea of what is going on to someone who does not know the author at all. Assume your professor is an imbecile, which is often a reasonably fair assumption. Now make it clear to the imbecile.

What I Look for in Your Contribution

  • This is a university class.  Simple book reports, summaries of information you got from elsewhere, and so on, are not usually acceptable, unless specifically asked for.  Usually you must make a contribution of your own.
  • Do you have a clearly articulated thesis?  Most philosophy papers must have a thesis, some view, positive or negative, that you are trying to establish and defend.  How clearly have you stated and developed your thesis?  Sometimes this is simply a matter of the quality of your writing.  Now matter how reasonable your position, you do not get much credit for it if I cannot understand it!  And you cannot expect me to put the sort of time into figuring out your paper that I might put in to figuring out Plato.  Note, often lack of clarity indicates not just bad writing, but confusion in your ideas as well. 
  • How well do you defend your position?  It is not enough just to state and explain your thesis.  You must defend it.  I look for a persuasive defense.  Is your defense likely to persuade someone who initially disagrees with you?  If not, then it is inadequate. 
  • Is your contribution creative?  By 'creative' I do not mean something completely new under the sun.  Nor do I mean something from the Outer Limits.  Rather, I am looking for valuable insights that go beyond what others in the class might have and which go beyond what our authors or lectures might have given you. 
  • How complete is your discussion of your view?  Of course, you are limited by space.  But with that in mind, I look to see whether you have done all that needs to be done.  For example, have you made any questionable statements that you have not supported?  Or have you used key terms that need further illustration or explanation? 
General Comments

  • I look for focus in a paper.  Many topics are too large to deal with effectively given the length of your assignment.  Short papers must have narrower focuses, and long papers can have broader focuses.  I would rather have a narrowly focused topic that is dealt with well than a large topic that is deal with poorly for lack of space.  Trying to deal with a lot is usually a cover for not having though deeply about the issue.  
  • Writing counts.  Pay attention to everything from sentence construction to the overall structure of your paper.  Generally, regardless of the quality of your ideas, writing must meet a minimal standard if you are going to get a 'C' and a fairly high standard to get an 'A'.  One of the main reasons for low grades is poor writing.  
  • Have you given adequate citations for your sources?  To avoid plagiarism, and the rather grizzly death that can result, you must give proper citations when you use someone else's words or even just their ideas.  Use standard citation methods, for example, the MLA or Turabian methods.  Guidance can be found online, though college students should generally have hand books for styles.  They can usually be found in college bookstores. 
  • If you are in doubt about anything having to do with writing a philosophy paper, raise your hand and ask in class.  This has two advantages.  You might actually get information, and perhaps more important, it will release the tension in students too fearful to expose their ignorance about such a basic matter.  I t might even make you the class hero, or clown.  Either is fine so long as the job gets done.

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