So You Want to Pass Your First Philosophy Course?

A.D. Irvine
Department of Philosophy
University of British Columbia

Advice on How to Write a D- Paper

(This is just for fun; at least I laughed when I first read it!)

1. Don't bother preparing for class. And when in class make sure you listen only to those lectures which will be relevant to the assigned paper topics. Don't let extraneous information clutter your mind.

2. Sit in the back row. That way the professor might not call on you. If he does, mumble and cover your mouth with your hand. He'll soon learn to call on somebody else.

3. Be sure not to crack open your text. After all, doing so may reduce its resale value. Don't underline important phrases or make marginal notes. If you do, the thing will be worthless at the end of the semester when you need to get money for a trip to Europe.

4. Write your paper the night before it's due. The pressure will do marvels for your powers of concentration and selectivity.

5. Make sure you give your paper a very general title. That way you're not tied down to a specific topic. And, this way, if you get a good idea on an unrelated topic midway through the paper you can throw it in without worry.

6. Be sure that you repeat what your professor has said in class. Verbatim transcripts work best in this regard. That way he'll know you've been paying attention. After all, if you get your stuff straight from the horse's mouth, how can you go wrong?

7. If in doubt, hedge. Use words like "seems", "appears" and "maybe". If possible, end your paper with something like this: "But in the final analysis, who's to say?" This is known as a rhetorical question.

8. If you quote from the text, make sure you don't dwell on them too long. You might get into trouble. It's always better to say something like "The above quotation illustrates the author's point admirably." Don't say how, though. That's for the professor to figure out. And whatever you do, certainly don't attempt to evaluate anything. After all, you might get it wrong.

9. If you must have a thesis, make sure it's nice and general. Prove something that you're sure about, but never get pinned down to details.

10. Whenever possible, use lots of jargon. In fact, the more the better. It will give your paper an air of authority. And who knows, it may even confuse the professor. After all, what he can't understand he can't fail. Besides, jargonized morphemes are the sort of things that look good in a paper. Your professor may even think you are a logophile.

11. Don't bother to proof-read. And whatever you do, don't get someone else to proof-read for you. Professors are paid good money to catch spelling errors and grammatical faults. Besides, when you're out of college a secretary will do that sort of stuff for you.

12. Finally, whenever possible turn your paper in late. Your professor will probably figure that you worked on it harder and longer than your classmates. After all, 'A' is for effort, isn't it?

(Modified from Sanford Pinsker's "Sure fire ways to write a C minus paper", by A.D. Irvine, Dept of Philosophy, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.)

Advice on How to Write an A+ Paper

(Some helpful hints about improving your writing.)

1. Reading. The key to good writing is wide reading. This cannot be acquired overnight but you can begin today. As you read you are bound to find some academic writers whose style you find particularly good. Take them as models for your own writing.

It is also a good idea when preparing to write a paper to read both primary and secondary sources. Primary sources ensure that you understand the essential topic and issues at hand, and are often more enjoyable to read. Secondary sources allow you to compare your own ideas to those of others who have also given the topic some thought.

2. Choice of Topic. Being given the opportunity to select your own topic allows you both to follow your own interests and to exercise judgment concerning the importance of various issues. Thus, it is crucial to select a topic which you think is

Such topics can only be found by people who are interested in the subject matter at hand. Thus, if you find yourself indifferent to the topic you have chosen, try asking yourself what topics initially prompted your interest in the course and try writing about them. At the other extreme, if you find yourself becoming emotional about some topics, they, too, may be topics which you will find difficult to write about.

In either case, remember that the goal is to choose a topic of interest and discuss it rationally.

3. Thesis, Defence, and Conclusion. A thesis is a statement expressing an author's view on some matter. Theses may be very general (e.g. "abortion is evil", or "good rhetoric is based upon good logic") or very specific (e.g. "Section 27 of the B-edition of Kant's first Critique was written late in 1781", or "Lewis's solution to Newcomb's Problem fails to take account of the consequences of dominance"). In a philosophical paper it is essential that there be a philosophical thesis and that it be clearly and prominently stated.

A second vital component of a philosophical paper is the defence of the thesis. In most cases this defence should be of the following form: First the reader is given the grounds which persuade the author of the truth of the thesis; next the reader is informed of any reasonable objection to the thesis either known to the author or imaginable by the author; next, having explained possible objections, the author reveals to the reader his or her grounds for rejecting these objections.

Finally, the original thesis is reviewed in light of the evidence presented and a conclusion is drawn. It is important that in presenting your conclusion that you neither overstate nor understate your results.

4. Citations and References. It is essential in all written work to give accurate credit to anyone whose ideas or words you may use. Thus, be sure to include a footnote or endnote every time you quote or paraphrase someone else's work or use someone else's ideas. If you are unsure of how to do this, consult one of the many style guides available. In any event, whenever you cite another source, make sure that you give your reader exactly the information needed in order to find and check the original quotation or idea. An additional list of recommended readings (placed at the end of your paper) is also often included as a courtesy to your reader.

5. Presentation. Style guides will also help you structure your paper to make clear both its content and purpose. As a general rule, short research papers (including those written for most university courses) include an introductory section which outlines the purpose of the paper and introduces the reader to the subject under consideration. This section is followed by another which defends the paper's main thesis. Finally, the paper concludes with a section designed to summarize your results and state your ultimate conclusion.

6.Grammar and Spelling. Professors are compulsive but resentful editors. The result is that if you hand them a paper full of grammatical and spelling errors, they will return your paper with a lot of minor corrections and a bad mark. Do not think that philosophers consider spelling, grammar and punctuation to be beneath them. These things are the minimum conditions for making sense and so should not be despised.

7. Simplicity. Many bad papers come from authors trying to wield concepts and terms which they do not fully grasp. In such cases errors are inevitable and are immediately obvious to anyone who does understand the terms. Therefore, if you are uncertain about the meaning of an expression, either avoid using it or (better yet) find out how to use it properly. Remember, too, that a point is often made worse, not better, by being dressed up in jargon or other fancy language.

8. Final Remark. In view of the above remarks which encourage clarity, simplicity and cogent argument, it may sound as though there is a specific formula which, if followed, will provide you with a mechanical recipe for writing A+ papers. Fortunately, there is not. As a guide, though, if you enjoy both writing and reading your own work, this is a likely indication that what you have written will be of interest to others as well.

(Modified from Graeme Hunter's "How To Write Good Papers", by A.D. Irvine, Dept of Philosophy, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.)

Advice on Avoiding Plagiarism

(Essential reading for everyone.)

Plagiarism--passing off someone else's work as your own--is the most serious of academic offences. It strikes at the very core of the educational enterprise, for it separates evaluation from actual scholarly achievement. The penalties for plagiarism are severe. Thus, the purpose of this handout is to help protect you against accidentally or inadvertently committing plagiarism.

There are three basic forms of plagiarism:

1. The presentation of someone else's ideas as if they were your own, i.e., without acknowledgment. By 'acknowledgment' is meant both reference to the fact that a particular primary or secondary source was used and a clear statement of how it was used. For example, all passages taken directly from another author should be clearly marked as quotations and their specific source cited.

2. The copying of someone else's words (from either primary or secondary sources) without acknowledgment. This applies to both short and long quotations. It also applies to the copying of essays from both published and unpublished sources and even to cases where you may have obtained permission from the original author--friend, relative or stranger--to do so.

3. The use of bought, borrowed or stolen essays; in short the use of any essay other than your own, no matter what its source or origin. This applies whether the other party is a student or not, whether the essay has previously been submitted elsewhere or not, whether said party receives remuneration or not, and whether the material is taken or received in writing or by any other means, mechanical, electronic or otherwise, in sickness or in health, in good times and in bad, so long as you both shall write.

In contrast, activities that do not count as plagiarism include the following:

1. Actually reading those books and articles which have been recommended to you by your instructor, or by other acquaintances, and then putting down on paper what it is that you now know concerning the subject at hand.

2. Discussing your work with friends, relatives, classmates, other professors, casual acquaintances, or members of other species, alive or dead.

3. The use of notes from class lectures and discussions. Of course, while using class notes does not constitute plagiarism, a paper that merely paraphrases what your professor says without showing that you have understood and thought about the material will be graded accordingly.

Finally, please note that you (and you alone) are the one responsible for whatever you hand in to your instructor. For example, it is your responsibility to ensure that your typist does not inadvertently type the wrong paper.

(Modified from Arthur Ripstein and Gary Rubinstein's "Avoiding Plagiarism", by A. D. Irvine, Dept of Philosophy, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.)

Advice Concerning Excuses, Pretexts, Appeals and Petitions

(This is just for fun. I am not soooo old that can't remember some of the kinds of excuses I used to try and pull when I was an undergraduate! Like "Advice on How to Write a D- Paper", though, there is also a semi-serious point behind it.)

As happens on occasion and from time to time, you may, over the course of time, at some point feel the desire to make some form of request or petition concerning either a change in dates for examinations, or in the due dates for term work, or in the method of evaluation for this course. You may even, upon occasion, feel compelled to request that some aspect of your work be re-evaluated on the grounds of some perceived moral or intellectual turpitude on the part of your professor. Such desires are, of course, both inevitable and understandable given the lamentable fact that not every student receives a first class grade on every piece of work submitted throughout his or her entire university career.

Nevertheless, in order that your task of petitioning be made as easy and as painless as possible, the following several points concerning excuses, explanations, alibis, pretexts, appeals, petitions, pleas, implorings, beseechments, supplications and the like are offered in advance for your consideration.

I. In requesting that you be excused from sitting an examination or that your examination be postponed ...

1) Do not begin your request with phrases such as 'My best friend's dog ...', 'My boyfriend and I ...', or 'Last night my roommate ...'. It is sad but true that one's non-academic infatuations, flirtations, and social life in general simply do not count as adequate excuses for one's failure to prepare for an examination. It is also sad but true that you are required to fit at least a minimum number of academic requirements into an otherwise hectic social schedule.

2) Similarly, do not begin your request with phrases such as 'The work-load in my other courses doesn't permit me to ...' or 'I would have had it in on time except that last night at the cinema ...'. You do not endear yourself to your professor by telling him or her, quite frankly, that you place a higher degree of importance on your other courses or your social life (or both) than you do on the course which he or she is currently teaching.

3) After you have sat an examination, do not request that you be able to re-sit the exam on the ground that 'After reading through the questions I began to feel ill.' This common but abrupt (and always unforeseen) illness has the clinical name nervosia examaphobia because of its epidemic-like proportions within the undergraduate population at certain times of the year. The only known cure is the reading of large doses of your textbook.

4) Should you genuinely require to be excused from sitting an examination on medical grounds, contact your professor prior to the examination requesting that you be excused and be prepared to provide a note from your physician at a later date in order that a make-up exam may be scheduled.

II. In requesting that you be granted an extension for term work or that you be allowed to re-submit term work ...

1) Do not begin your request with phrases such as those listed in 1) or 2) above. That is, do not for a minute believe that even though they didn't work in the case of re-scheduling an examination, they may still work in the case of re-scheduling term work.

2) Do not ask to re-submit term work on grounds such as those which begin 'My sister-in-law's uncle had agreed to hand the work in for me but ...' or 'My typist somehow forgot to include my very best argument ...'. It is your responsibility (and yours alone) to see to it that your work is submitted on time and in its entirety.

3) Should you genuinely require an extension, be advised that honesty is the best policy. You should also know that there is often a penalty attached to work which is not handed in on time.

III. In requesting that your term work or examination be reconsidered for the purpose of re-grading ...

1) Do not begin your request with phrases such as 'I know that I have the wrong answer but ...'. If you know that your answer is incorrect you also know the reason you received the grade you did.

2) Do not begin your request with phrases such as 'It's really unfair of you to expect me to be able to spell the words I use correctly ...', or 'In this question I didn't know what a square root was so ...' , or 'I know my English ain't so good but ...'. You are one of this country's brightest undergraduates reading for a degree at one of the country's top tertiary educational institutions. Frankly admitting that you have completely forgotten whatever elementary language skills or rudimentary mathematics that you were once exposed to in high school does not give you a tactical advantage in your quest for a higher grade. An appeal prefaced on ignorance is a cause for pity, not a reason for the reconsideration of your recently evaluated work.

3) Do not begin your request with phrases such as 'When writing out my answer I thought that the question said...' or 'I know that I said this, but what I meant was ...'. Part of what you are evaluated on is simply whether you can read, think, and write what you mean to write. Simply repeating the phrases 'But what I really thought ...' and 'What I really meant ...' over and over again in more and more sincere tones will not improve your chances of obtaining a higher grade.

4) Be warned that in cases of plagiarism and cheating the academic penalties are severe. In cases where cheating has occurred, but where it cannot be determined to what extent, a grade of zero may be assigned. (For example, it is impossible for an invigilator to know that innocent talk among friends prior to handing in an examination was just innocent talk or to what extent cheating may have occurred.) Thus, it is to your advantage to make especially sure that you do not accidentally present even the appearance of participating in an irregularity during an examination.

5) Finally, should you genuinely feel compelled to request that your recently evaluated work be re-evaluated, be warned that there is no guarantee that your grade will go up. In some cases it may even go down.

(Prepared by A.D. Irvine, Dept of Philosophy, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.)

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