"I do not insist that my argument is right in all other respects, but I would contend at all costs, both in word and deed, as far as I could, that we will be better people, braver and less lazy, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know..." –Socrates (Plato, Meno 86b)
Samples of four varieties of assignment I have used are available on this page. Visitors should feel free to use them (this is why they are Word documents rather than PDFs).
Traditional essay prompts: persuade me of a thesis about something that you found in the reading and think is really important.
(The first rule of writing assignments in my class is... DO NOT BORE YOURSELF.
You have been given a marvelous mind; take the assignment as an opportunity to use it.
If none of the prompts seems important, come up with your own question
that deals with the text and is important. Then defend an answer to that question.)
Midterm (Intro course)
Final Paper (Intro course)
Understanding Virtue (Intro course)
Imitation papers: defend a thesis of your choosing by imitating one of the writing genres we read in the history of philosophy.
(Assignments include a Platonic dialogue, an Aristotelian treatise,
a medieval quaestio, or a preface to a book of the modern period.
Later in the semester, you will defend the same thesis again,
likely using developed versions of some of the same arguments,
only now imitating a different genre,
so you can see how the genre itself influences your own thinking.
This should also help with understanding the course reading as you come to see
what kinds of questions the authors had to answer in the course of composition.)
Argument outlines: faithfully present the premises and logic of an author's argument.
(One of the fundamental skills in thoughtful conversation of the sort that should
– and could, but largely doesn't today, if it ever did –
animate both academic and political discourse
is that of accurately presenting someone else's position,
especially in a way that clarifies the logic of her argument.
People will be much more open to persuasion if they can recognize,
in your report of their views, what they find compelling about those views.
This scaffolded series of assignments will gradually change
the way you read and the way you write.
It begins with representing a relatively simple argument from the text
and leads into building your own argument for or against one of the author's premises.
Ultimately, it prepares you to write an essay that includes an honest evaluation
of the potential significance of your contribution,
since this depends on the centrality to the author's argument
of the premise you are considering.
This opens up a kind of academic honesty
that goes beyond simply citing your sources and avoiding plagiarism;
it thereby cultivates an intellectual virtue.)
Aristotle's NE Function Argument
Outline to Essay (Rough and Final Drafts)
Grammar exercises: learn to think carefully about the English language, especially its clauses.
(Many varieties of English exist; some of you are fluent in more than one
and can code-switch easily. But many of you are not native speakers,
while even some who are native speakers will benefit professionally
from further training in the peculiar dialect of English that's used
in the academic and publishing worlds. Moreover,
a great deal of philosophy, especially from the 20th century on,
depends on paying close attention to language.
And sometimes a philosophical text is so confusing that
the only place you can start is with figuring out what modifies what
in each sentence. Fortunately, punctuation and sentence structure
can be strategies for communicating, rather than blind rule-following.
After an initial diagnostic, this progressive series of assignments is tracked differentially
to provide a level of difficulty consonant with your previous training.)