How to do well in philosophy
1. Read the syllabus and check it often. It tells you important things like what to read and when, when assignments are due and what they are about, and how the grading system works. This may seem to be obvious, but you’d be surprised how many students never refer to the syllabus for this information. Since the syllabus is online, I have the flexibility to change it if it seems advisable, so check the online reading and assignments schedules regularly. DO NOT download the syllabus and only refer to the downloaded copy. You should also check your grades regularly to make sure I have posted them correctly.
2. Read the material carefully and more than once. Philosophical material can be complex, difficult and subtle.. Read through a first time to get the overall picture. Then read again to pick up the details of the arguments along the way. It is a rare student who can understand these assignments after reading them only once.
1. READ each assigned reading once over to get the overall picture. What is the topic? What’s the main point? How is it structured? (Make an outline if you have time.) Don’t expect to really understand it the first time through. It’s probably different from any other kind of reading you’ve ever done and it takes time to get used to.
2. READ AGAIN more closely and carefully. Philosophy cannot be read quickly or skimmed. If you don’t understand after carefully trying to figure it out, you won’t be alone. Keep reading: perhaps it will become clearer later on. Pause and think about it: what would make sense? If you still don’t understand it, make a note, and ask me in class. Paraphrase what you read: if you can’t put something into your own words, you don’t understand it.
3. Do not wait until the last minute to read the assignments . Philosophy cannot be understood well if you try to read it all at the last minute. There’s a certain amount of time necessary for the ideas to percolate into your mind. Let your subconscious do some work.
4. Read any links I put on the syllabus. Whether we discuss them explicitly or not, they are useful in helping you understand what's going on.
5. Write your essays regularly-- this will ensure that you are keeping up with the readings as they are assigned. This is the single most important factor in getting a good grade: Keep up with the written work.
6. Come to class. Students routinely tell me that they understand the material much better after attending class. Explanations from me and discussion by other members of the class should help clarify and deepen your comprehension of the readings.
7. Ask questions and be involved.Philosophy is an activity, not a spectator sport. If you don’t understand something, ask for an explanation. If you don’t understand something, you can bet that many others don’t understand it either. Don’t be afraid to appear ignorant. Better appear ignorant than be ignorant. If you still don’t understand something after asking about it in class, ask me after class or come to my office during office hours. You can’t learn to play an instrument by watching others or reading a book about it; you can’t learn to play a sport by watching others or reading about it. You have to do it yourself. Discussion is one of philosophy’s central activities. Speak in class in moderation:neither too little nor too much. Contribute your knowledge and viewpoints. Much of what you learn you will learn in class from discussion with other students and from me. Unless you are exceptionally adept, you won’t do well trying to learn this material on your own.
8. Don’t be dismayed if you are confused for a while. Philosophical thinking and writing is different from most any other and it may take a while for you to see how it works. You should start getting the idea after a few weeks though and if you don’t, come see me. No matter how good an athlete you might be, starting a new sport takes some adjustment. Philosophy is like a new sport for all of you. Allow for that adjustment. Work hard, ask questions, and don't worry too much if it's confusing at first. Don't defeat yourself by telling yourself you can't do this or that it's too hard. Let me be the judge of whether you can do it or not. Have some faith in yourself.
9. Work hard. The university expects that you should put in 2 hours of out-of-class work for every hour in-class. That means you must plan to study out of class at least 7 hours a week, one hour per day every day. Some students put in endless hours in the gym buffing their bodies. Your mind is a muscle: no pain, no gain. The more time you spend exercising it, the smarter you will be. Don’t exercise it and your mind will be a couch potato. No one would ever expect to be good at an art or sport without putting in hours of practice. The same is true of philosophy or any other area of knowledge. And when you’re sixty years old, what will be of more use to you: that you put in hours buffing your body when you were young or that you put in hours training your mind. The body goes; the mind stays.
10. Get to know me. Don’t be shy: I’m paid to talk to you and I try not to be an ogre. Feel free to come to my office during office hours to talk philosophy or have me look over written work before you hand it in, or to explain how I graded your essay and how you can improve it. I'm a resource: use me.
11. Respect philosophy and your own choices. You’ve committed yourself to spending quite a few hours this quarter on this class: why not get the most out of it by taking it seriously? You may have some preconceived notion that it’s all a matter of opinion and that anyone's opinion is as good as anyone else's. You may think philosophy has no relevance to the real world. These attitudes are usually held by people who know nothing about philosophy. Philosophy has been the most serious and important subject for human beings for millennia. What could be more important than knowing what’s right and wrong, or how to live your life? Why would some of the greatest of the world’s geniuses have devoted their lives to philosophy if it were a waste of time? Remember, we all live in an intellectual world created by philosophers of the past. What can be more important than to understand the basic presuppositions of how you look at the world?
1. W hen you discuss, try to state what you think as clearly and carefully as you can. Be prepared to give reasons why you think your views are true. Listen to what others have to say with an open mind. This is one of the major ways you learn philosophy. Philosophical discussion is quality control for your ideas: it sifts the true from the false, the wheat from the chaff. Ideas you keep to yourself may be wrong but you’ll never know it unless you put them out there for discussion.
2. On the other hand, don’t speak all the time. You don’t learn very much from listening to yourself speak. Closed mouth, open ears is usually a good rule. It’s also polite to leave some space for others to speak. Some people are slower at formulating responses than others (Einstein was one of these, they say). Give them time to do so. There is little correlation between the speed of a response and its quality.
3. Politely and reasonably contradicting someone is a good thing; it forces them to defend their views and this makes them more aware of what they believe and why they believe it: you may even change someone’s mind. You are not doing anyone a favor by being "nice" and trying not to offend them by disagreeing with them. But such disagreement must be limited to disagreement over the issues, and not to remarks about a person’s character or intelligence.
4. I have my own views: you may agree or disagree with them. I will try not to impose them on you, but I would ask you to consider them seriously and to accept or reject them based on good reasons. Your grade in this class does not depend on your agreeing with me or on your holding any moral view in particular. It depends on your understanding how to analyze, evaluate, argue rationally and communicate about moral issues in order to get closer to the truth.
5. Be fair--don’t misrepresent views that you disagree with. Interpret what you read or hear in the most plausible way, rather than in a way that makes it look idiotic. if you think that some view is obviously wrong, you are probably misunderstanding it.
6. If you turn out to be a better student, don't do all the work for the others: it's unfair to you and they won't learn as much as if they work through it themselves.
7. If you think you are not a better student, don't let the better students do all the work or intimidate you. No matter how smart they seem to be, they don't have all the answers and your group needs to hear from you. Remember that quickness is not the same thing as understanding: Albert Einstein was slow on his feet and needed to think about things for a while--no one doubts his level of understanding.
How to Not Do Well in Philosophy