Adam Elga: Guidelines for undergraduate courses

This page contains some general guidelines that apply to all of my undergraduate courses.

Contact information

Information on my office hours and other contact info is at

Assignment types

Being the clarifier

As clarifier, your job is to read and understand the relevant reading especially well. That includes writing some notes to yourself on what is going on, and zeroing in on particularly vexing or difficult aspects of the reading. You should be in a position to give a succinct summary of what the author was up to. You will also be a "point person" to whom we will turn if the discussion gets bogged down. In addition, you should hang back during the initial part of the discussion, but then jump in at crucial moments with:

  • helpful clarifications of what the author was saying;
  • questions about what people in class have been saying;
  • comments to get the discussion on track.

Discussion board

The course discussion board may be accessed through Blackboard. (Go to the course blackboard page, click "Communications" and then "Discussion board".) Use it:-- Ask questions about a reading, or something that happened in class. Pose an objection to a reading. Confess to not understanding something. Post a manifesto---your take on a particular question. Write a summary of an important point that came out in class. Pose a philosophical challenge.

It is especially important to post questions if you don't understand something. If you have a question, it's almost certain that someone else in the class has the same question. Such questions will make the lectures better by letting me and the AI(s) know what you find puzzling/interesting/difficult.

However, it won't work if only the confident students ask questions. There should be questions from the people who found the reading completely intimidating and cryptic, and not just from students who basically understood what was going on.

If I don't hear questions about something, I tend to assume everything is hunky-dory. So don't suffer in silence---that just makes me get the wrong idea about how much people understand.

Presenting an article in class

When presenting an article, you should do three things:

  1. Set the stage for the discussion by saying (in just a couple of sentences) what the author's main claim is. Stop and ask whether everyone understands what the author's main claim is. It is important to make sure that everyone understands what the author is trying to do before we begin discussing whether he or she succeeded.
  2. Briefly explain the author's main argument for that claim. It can be very helpful to have a handout that breaks the argument down into steps, or to write the steps of the argument on the board. This explanation should be short (less than five minutes). If the author's argument is long or complex, choose the most crucial, controversial, or interesting part to explain. If you aren't able to make sense of the argument you're presenting, say so. Stop and ask whether everyone understands the argument (or portion of argument) that you've explained.
  3. Instigate discussion by asking a question or making a provocative comment or criticism that gets everyone thinking about the author's argument for the main claim.
  4. Keep the discussion on track by cutting off lengthy digressions that get far from the central argument of the paper.
Other advice:
  • The structure of what you say will not match the structure of the paper you're presenting. Papers often contain lengthy setups, distracting side-material, and so on. Your job is to weed out and ignore those portions of the paper that aren't directly relevant to arguing for the paper's main claim. In particular, it is not a good idea to go through the paper section by section. Instead, start in on the central conclusion of the paper right away.
  • The style of presentation described here requires you to read the paper you're presenting very carefully, since it takes a good understanding of the whole paper to know which sections ought to be ignored in discussion.
  • Presenters sometimes feel as though they need to keep talking until someone interrupts or asks a question. But that's not right. Your job is not to give a lecture. Instead, it is to set up, instigate, and manage the discussion. Other people should be doing almost all of the talking. So give a short summary (less than five minutes), and then stop (even if no one has interrupted or asked a question).

Problem sets

  • Length. Most questions can be answered in a short paragraph, but this is just a rough guide. If you're confident you can nail it in two sentences, go for it. If it takes more to get clear, so be it. But all else equal, shorter is better.
  • Correctness. For most (though not all) of the questions, there is a right answer, or something specific we are looking for.
  • Late homework accepted only with a very good reason. (Example of a very good reason: extreme medical excuse with written documentation. Examples of not very good reasons: computer foul-ups, other commitments.)
  • Please type your answers, and include your name and which precept you are in at the top.
  • You may (and are encouraged to) discuss the homework questions with others. But (1) write up your answers completely on your own, and (2) if you do discuss the homework with others, say who you discussed it with at the top of your homework.
  • If you are asked for the strongest argument for a claim, or the best objection to a claim, then give what you take to be the strongest or best argument. In some cases, you will need to think up your own argument (if you have an argument that you think is stronger than one in the text, or if the text does not contain an argument of the sort requested). Note that you needn't yourself find the argument or objection convincing, in order for you to count it as the strongest argument or objection. If you think there are many arguments of equal strength, choose one. Often when grading these questions we judge whether you have come up with a strong enough argument or objection. It is not always the case that we have one particular argument in mind.
  • These will be collected at the end of class but not returned. We will use them to help determine the homework/participation portion of your grade.


Please read Jim Pryor's Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper.

Working with others

You are encouraged to discuss the paper with others. But (1) write up your paper completely on your own, and (2) if you do discuss the paper with anyone, say who you discussed it with at the top of your paper.

Pledge, Clarity Code, Lateness

As with all University papers, you should state and sign "This paper represents my own work in accordance with University regulations." Instances of academic dishonesty (see will be taken very seriously. Cover yourself by citing your resources. When in doubt, cite!

For papers in courses taught by Adam Elga, there is an additional, more stringent requirement for you and an outside reader to state and sign: the clarity code.

I pledge my honor that I have had this paper carefully read by someone who is not enrolled in the class for which it was written, and who has no special knowledge of the paper's subject area. On the basis of the paper alone (without any explanation on my part), the reader was able to correctly state (1) what my conclusion was, (2) the steps of the argument that got me to my conclusion. Furthermore, the reader found no typos, spelling errors, "thought-o's", or garbled sentences.
Reader's name:
Reader's signature:

Note that abiding by the clarity code requires advance planning. If you wait until the last minute to do your paper, you will almost certainly not be able to sign the clarity code in good conscience, for two reasons:

  1. There might not be an appropriate reader around at the last minute.
  2. Your reader will likely not understand your paper well enough or find mistakes. If so, you will have to make appropriate revisions and return to that reader or another reader for an additional attempt. That takes time.

Being clear is difficult--you should expect that on the first (and probably second) read, your reader(s) will not be able to satisfy the clarity code conditions. Plan for this by giving your paper to a reader well before the paper is due.

If there is a special reason why you cannot arrange to have such a reader, please contact me immediately. Not being able to find a reader at the last minute will not be grounds for an extension.

Late papers will be penalized one "notch" (E.g., B+ to A-) per calendar-day. Exception: for those papers due Dean's Date, faculty are not allowed to accept late papers or grant extensions. In case of difficulties, you should talk to the Dean of the College.

Your target audience

  1. Pretend that the ultimate reader of your paper is lazy. Unless your paper consists of simple language and non-convoluted sentences, he's not going to follow. Read what you've written out loud. If you wouldn't say it, don't write it.
  2. Pretend that your reader is stupid. Imagine reading your paper to him and having him ask, at every step "Hold on, why does this follow from that? Why do you think this? What do you mean here?"
  3. Pretend that your reader is grouchy. If you say something that can be interpreted in more than one way, he's going to interpret it in the less plausible way. If you don't say exactly what you mean, he will take you literally and won't bother to figure out what you meant to say.

Grading definitions

(Approved by the University Faculty, April 26, 2004)

A+ Exceptional; significantly exceeds the highest expectations for undergraduate work.
A Outstanding; meets the highest standards for the assignment or course.
A- Excellent; meets very high standards for the assignment or course.
B+ Very good; meets high standards for the assignment or course.
B Good; meets most of the standards for the assignment or course.
B- More than adequate; shows some reasonable command of the material.
C+ Acceptable; meets basic standards for the assignment or course.
C Acceptable; meets some of the basic standards for the assignment or course.
C- Acceptable, while falling short of meeting basic standards in several ways.
D Minimally acceptable; lowest passing grade.
F Failing; very poor performance.

Grading standards, as applied to philosophy papers (by Jim Pryor)

This is a truly outstanding paper. It is clearly written, well-argued, and original. A paper that just gives a straightforward or "obvious" response to some philosophical or interpretative problem would not merit an A, even if it is clear. An A paper does something extra--but not at the cost of a clear treatment of the problem. If you receive an A on a paper you have reason to feel extremely proud of your work.
This is a really good paper, one that operates at an advanced level. It is clearly written. (If there are any significant problems with the writing or the organization of the paper, then it won't merit an A-. This is because good clear writing and organization are not separable from good philosophical thinking.) The paper may have a couple of minor mistakes or confusions, or it may fail to unpack some of its arguments sufficiently. It may have an original argument or interpretation, but if so, that will be offset by some other flaw. For example, in a longer paper, perhaps there is too little philosophical back-and-forth (considering objections and challenges, and responding to them). Or perhaps it is not as engaged with the texts as it should be.
This is a well-written paper with nothing terribly wrong. The writing may have some small problems, or it may be flawless. The paper may make some mistakes or have some ambiguities that have to be sorted out, but overall it will be a good paper. It will show more promise or originality than a B paper, but nothing will make it stand out like an A- paper, or it won't be operating at as advanced a level as an A- paper. (Or perhaps the paper would stand out if some of its ideas were properly developed, but as it stands they aren't.)
This is a solid paper, with some notable mistakes or obscurities, but no serious misunderstandings. The writing may not be super-clear. To get a B, the paper should make it clear why the problem addressed in the paper is a problem, and offer some response to it. (It may be a straightforward or unoriginal response; it may not be a decisive response; the paper may even end by showing that a certain response doesn't work. But the paper must put forward or examine some response to the problem.) A B paper does not seriously misrepresent the views of other philosophers.
Something is starting to go wrong. Perhaps the writing is really unclear or the paper is poorly organized. Or perhaps there are straightforward mistakes and misunderstandings about what the problem is, or about what other philosophers say. Or perhaps the paper presents the problem correctly, but doesn't really address it. Still, there is an effort. The author has some understanding of the problem and of the relevant texts. She does offer some argument. A paper with no argument won't merit a B-.
There are some more serious problems. Either the writing is really hard to get through; or the paper has no discernible structure; or the author doesn't understand the text or the positions she is discussing; or the paper doesn't really attempt to offer any argument.
Papers with more problems get Cs or C-s or worse.
It is difficult to give a general gloss on these grades since the problems that beset C and C- papers are quite varied.

Your conscience

It is much, much more difficult to write a paper you do not believe in. Tell it like you see it! Of course, the ideal is a paper with a very strong, creative argument. But if you think that your argument does have serious weaknesses, or that there is something significant that hasn't been adequately explained, the thing to do is to note that yourself. That is much better than leaving the weakness unflagged or trying to cover it up.

Being prepared for seminar/precept

  • Please show up ready to rock.  That means:
    • Showing up on time--that will make it easier for me to stop on time, since there will be lots to discuss each week.
    • Being prepared, which means, in addition to having attended lectures and done the relevant readings, having thought about the material.  If you don't understand something in the readings, be prepared to ask.  If you think something we read is wrong, or crazy, be prepared to say so.
    • Bringing copies of the readings for that week so that we can refer to specific passages.
  • If you miss a class of any kind, it is your responsibility to find out (from another student) what happened and to get (from another student) copies of notes and handouts.  After doing that, if you have questions about what was covered, please meet with me or your AI. Anything covered in lecture, seminar, or precept is fair game for being on tests and quizzes.
  • An important aim of class is for you to discuss the views of other students. In order to do that effectively you need to learn the names of the people in the class. It is better to try to use someone's name and get it wrong than just to say "I agree with the second thing she said..."

Adam Elga | | Princeton University
Last modified: Tue Feb 15 12:55:44 EST 2005