Grading a Philosophy Paper
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 papers. I 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.