I believe in the squeaky wheel principle. My job is to guide and assist you through the world of ideas, to equip you to be self-sufficient explorers of that world. I want to help you as much, or as little, as you want to be helped. If you want to be left alone to struggle through, Iíll leave you alone. But if you want guidance and help, you need to let me know, i.e. be a squeaky wheel. Iím here for you.
Being a squeaky wheel is easy Ė drop by during my office hours; ask questions during the open question period at the beginning of class; interrupt me with questions during class; stop me in the hallway after class; post messages on the class WebCT site; email me; etc. Take advantage of my help; thatís what youíre paying tuition for. The sooner you seek help, the better. Donít wait until right before an exam or due date. If you donít quite grasp something, letís resolve it right away. And feel free to ask me or talk with me about anything you need Ė philosophical content, class expectations, general test skills, other courses, etc.
My expectations of you include, at minimum, attending all classes, doing all the required reading, and putting in good faith efforts to understand the ideas and arguments. As a rule of thumb, the average student is expected to do 2-3 hours of homework for every hour of class time (a full time course load is thus a 45-60 hour per week commitment). It is important to put oneís time in, but the key is using that time efficiently. We all have to discover what works best for us (and ďbestĒ ought to be determined by the most productive of results, rather than by what feels good), but I recommend against spending the whole time pouring over and re-reading the text a number of times. Read the text (I try to read everything twice: once very quickly to get the gist and general shape of the text and a second time more slowly and carefully to extract the details), but then meditate and reflect on it. I try to spend time sitting quietly with eyes closed and let the ideas dance about in my head. I use that time to view them from all sorts of different perspectives, to break them down and see how they connect, and to try to move them in various directions to see what they are capable of. This sort of meditation is invaluable in philosophical study and is where most of our understanding comes. You can engage in just this sort of reflection while engaged in certain other activities (although donít count such time as part of your 2-3 hours of study time!) I continue it while riding my bikes, while laying in bed in the mornings after awakening, while gardening, etc. It doesnít work while watching TV or listening to music or being social. You need a kind of tranquility and solitude. But while running or cooking or driving you can let part of your thoughts wander to these philosophical reflections.
Ultimately, I expect you to develop a level of mastery of the ideas and arguments appropriate to the level of the class. Mastery seems somewhat vague, but itís not really that difficult to see. Being able to regurgitate class lecture or discussion, or to reproduce the text read is a necessary condition for mastery. Itís the most minimal grade of mastery. Itís merely minimal because it does not show that your understanding includes the other perspectives from which the ideas might be viewed, how the ideas themselves connect together, or what sorts of movements and connections the ideas are capable of. (Oneís understanding might include that, but simple regurgitation does not show this.) What weíre looking for in your test answers and your term papers are these deeper kinds of understandings. This is what the higher grades of mastery involves. You can show this in your answers by explaining and/or analyzing the ideas and arguments described in the text and/or in class discussions. We are doing this in the class discussions, raising the sorts of questions we must ask of the ideas and arguments, and providing further explanations and analyses of them. And it is this ďsupplementaryĒ material that is important in acquiring, and displaying, the deeper philosophical understanding of the ideas and arguments. In the ideal (A+) case, that is what constitutes mastery of the material.
Philosophical papers are meant to bring out somewhat different qualities. The higher grade of mastery mentioned above is necessary for a good philosophical paper, but not sufficient. Papers go beyond mere mastery of the material to making your own, original contribution to the on-going philosophical debate. Papers showcase your philosophical judgment, originality, and your skills at argument construction or thesis defense. (The adequacy of your display of those skills is, of course, relative to the level of the course Ė fourth year courses demand greater displays of those skills than first year courses.) Basically, you want to make and defend a judgment or assessment of one of the ideas or arguments (note: not broad topic!) introduced or discussed in class or the readings. So, you donít want to write a paper about your views of God simply because we discussed Descartesí argument for Godís existence. Rather, you want to write a paper about Descartesí argument for Godís existence. You donít want that paper to be merely reporting Descartesí argument (thereís no thesis there, no original contribution to the debate about Descartesí argument). Rather you want to say something about whether or not itís a good argument. And you donít want to leave it simply at that, i.e. the argument is good or the argument is bad or illogical. Rather, you want to be very specific regarding where and how the argument is good or bad Ė e.g., premise 3 of the argument does not follow from premises 1 and 2, or the argument is question-begging in itís definition of perfection, or the argument is unsound because premise 5 is false. You should be able to see how this goes beyond mere mastery of the argument. Mastery involves knowing not only what all the premises are and how they all are supposed to hang together, but also what motivated Descartes to accept them and how he did or might have defended them. But in writing a philosophical paper on this, you are also passing judgment on Descartesí thought Ė thatís what it means to make a contribution to the on-going debate. At this point, then, what you need to do is simply show the truth of your judgment. You canít simply assert it or repeat it. You need to give the reader reasons for accepting your assertions and judgment. You need to recreate for the reader what led you to this judgment about Descartesí argument. That recreation is what should constitute the body of your philosophical papers.
If this sounds intimidating or beyond you, believe me itís not. You can do it; in fact, we all do this sort of thing all the time in real life. The only difference is what weíre going to do about it Ė philosophical ideas and arguments. And youíre just as entitled to do this as anybody else, me or Descartes or whomever. But remember, youíre not expected to be giving the sorts of arguments and criticisms or defenses that I would. Your thesis does not need to be original in the sense that no one in the history of philosophical reflection hasnít thought of it. It needs to be original relative to the level of the course. So think of your readership as you classmates, the thesis and argument needs to be appropriate to the level of analysis and argument that one would expect from students at that stage in their philosophical educations. You are expected to display certain intellectual skills, but you have considerable freedom in how to structure your displays, and you need to simply ďoutdoĒ students at your level to get a good grade, not me or Descartes.
Most of all, have fun with this stuff! [N.B., the following clip is meant to be tongue-in-cheek; as Iíve said above, when it comes to philosophy youíre not ďmeatĒ who ďdoesnít know shit.Ē But itís from one of my favorite movies and I couldnít resist.]
Itís hard work and there can be lots of tension associated with it, but there doesnít have to be such tension. The world of ideas should be, first and foremost, enjoyable Ė why else do it? Indeed, often when we relax we perform better as well as feel better about our performances and consequently have more fun. So relax and let yourself enjoy the exploration of the world of ideas. Make new discoveries! Open new perspectives! Push the ideas in new directions! Things donít always work out, but as in science sometimes the ďfailuresĒ that blow up in your face are often the most exciting, and they certainly show of far the ideas in question can be pushed, which is an important part of developing a mastery over them.