Teaching the Writing of Philosophy

03 November 2019 by Charles cpencepermalink

There’s a common refrain that I hear when talking to students, even doctoral candidates, that I wish we could somehow communicate better about. It starts with mentioning something about getting a new draft finished or what have you, and then somebody says something like:

“Oh, sure, this writing is easier for you because you’re good at it.”

Sure, for some people this may be right. We all know stories of people who publish six or eight books a year, or can sit down at their laptop and crank out an article in a half an afternoon. But not for me. (Me, I’ve only once written an article in a single day, and it was only because it fell sideways out of my book project, so I’d already finished all the research for it.) And, I suspect, not for many of us.

Part of this misconception seems to me to derive from a very common experience at the professional level that I, at least, didn’t really see any examples of until pretty late in my graduate school career, when I started working on collaborative projects. I spend lots of time, every week, printing off a new version of some draft or another (I can’t do my proofing electronically, much though I’d like to be able to), and absolutely filling the thing with red ink marks. A paper might go through fifteen or twenty versions of revision before it gets submitted. Every project folder I have has numbered sub-folders marking out each major such revision that I start. One project – my BJPS paper with Grant Ramsey on fitness – was up to something like folder number fifteen when the final version was accepted. Rewrites to fix problems in the argument, re-focusing the project to be acceptable to different journals, responses to peer reviewers, and so on, and so on.

For my money, at least, this is the number one skill that philosophers need. I’m certainly not here because I’m better at what I do than anybody else. I’m here because I’m obsessively persistent (not to mention, of course, incredibly lucky). That, I think, is the most important thing you should manage to learn over the course of your graduate studies.

I’ve been wondering for some time, though, how we might be able to better teach – or perhaps the better verb would be train – this kind of process. How can we encourage our students to adopt the right kind of attitude toward their writing, to see it as a long and tortuous process of revision, giving your ideas form almost in spite of themselves, and in dialogue with other scholars across time and place?

Of course, one classic method for this is something that I assume many readers of this blog already do: producing writing assignments as a sort of iterative, draft-construction process, where you start with an outline or an argument sketch, comment on that, solicit a draft, comment on that, solicit a final version, comment on that… I fear, though, that this doesn’t quite cut it. I, at least, had a qualitatively different feeling about these kinds of assignments than I get with my work in producing real professional writing. Similarly with involving students in that peer review process; it’s not obvious to me that the experience really translates.

And this can have real impact on our students, especially when they’re in dissertation phase. When you’re used to the process of producing seminar papers being much more cut-and-dried – in essence, much closer to the experience of writing an undergraduate paper than to the experience of writing a professional journal article – then this deepens the gulf between The Dissertation (*spooky organ chord*) and everything else that you’ve done so far in your career. Far better, I think, to show students that the process of the dissertation is much more like the kinds of things that they will do on a regular basis for the rest of their careers – to normalize dissertation writing!

To wrap all of that into a nice TL;DR: Philosophy is distance running, but we don’t train people for endurance.

Really, then, this is an open question post: do other folks have experience with programs where people do start to get exposure to the full ? Do portfolio-focused doctoral programs manage to duplicate something of this (involving the various members of your doctoral committee)? Are there cool kinds of writing assignments that we could be doing but aren’t? Would love to hear any and all ideas that people might have on Facebook or Twitter.