Dissertation Seminar (PHI 599), Spring 2021

Instructor: Adam Elga

Registrar’s page for this seminar

Meeting time: Wednesdays 10:00-11:50a, over zoom. Zoom link accessible through the seminar page on Canvas. It is especially important to attend the first (Wednesday Feb 3) meeting, as we will decide whose paper will be discussed in each session, and who the commentators etc will be.

1 Description

Students will give and receive feedback and help on in-progress papers (or dissertation chapters), in the following way. We will discuss one student paper per session. At the beginning of the semester, each author will choose between the following two formats:

  1. “Conference-style”: This format is best suited for papers that are nearly ready for submission to a conference or journal. The paper is assigned a presenter and a commentator. Session format:
    One week before the session, the author distributes their paper.
    At the beginning of the session, the presenter gives a 5 minute presentation of the core ideas of the paper. The presenter’s job is pure exposition: they should aim to simply get the main contribution of the paper across as clearly and simply as possible, and have no responsibility for giving any evaluative reaction. A handout of no more than 1 page should accompany the presentation. The presenter should coordinate in advance with the commentator to make sure that their presentation includes a summary of the portion of the paper on which the commentator’s comments focus.
    After the presenter speaks, the commentator gives a 5 minute presentation conveying what they judge to be the one most interesting and useful critical reaction to the paper’s argument. A handout of no more than 1 page should accompany the comments. The reaction should aim to be delivered in a constructive but direct style. Critical reactions can take various forms, but options include:
    • Pointing out an unclarity or ambiguity in the paper.
    • Giving an objection to one of the paper’s main arguments or premises.
    • Augmenting one of the paper’s main arguments by adding a significant consideration in favor of it, or by rebutting a potential objection.
    • Bringing to bear relevant literature not considered by the author.
    • Describing a nearby issue or question that the paper does not quite address, but which it should address.
    • Explaining why the paper’s accomplishment is more important than it first seems.
    • Situating the paper’s accomplishment within the existing literature in a way that suggests that the paper, as it stands, does not significantly advance the discussion.
    • Situating the paper’s accomplishment within the existing literature in a way that makes clear why the paper advances the discussion.
    Author (reply)
    The author replies to the commentator for 5 minutes.
    The goal is that the general discussion be in the style of a productive discussion session at a professional conference. In particular, you should neither shy away from pointing out strengths of the paper nor pressing your strongest objections and most serious questions.
  2. “Philosophical SOS”: This format is appropriate when an author has a well-defined problem or issue with a substantially complete paper or chapter—an issue that a nonspecialist audience has a reasonable chance of helping with. Typical suitable situations include:

    • Your argument has a particular, well-defined flaw that you don’t know how to address. For example, perhaps an analysis you put forward faces a counterexample, or your view has an unattractive consequence that you don’t know how to avoid.
    • Your paper—or a particular part of it—is complicated and hard to understand. You know it needs to be simplified and streamlined, but you are stuck at which of several approaches to take.
    • You want to make your paper accessible to a general audience, but its existing opening is not sufficiently exciting, and does not draw the reader in. You aren’t sure how to craft an opening that does so, but have a few ideas.

    The paper is assigned two solvers. Session format:

    One week before the session, the author distributes their paper along with a cover letter explaining their “philosophical SOS”: what one or two specific problems, issues or question about the paper they are hoping to address during the session. These questions should be specific and focused enough that the class will be able to come up with proposed answers to them during the course of the session. Especially welcome are multiple choice questions of the form: “The paper has such-and-such problem. I’m not sure whether to pursue [option A], [option B], or another option in solving it.”
    At the beginning of the session, each of the two solvers presents for 5 minutes, briefly explaining the author’s problem or question and either giving their best shot at solving or answering it, or explaining why they think doing so is either impossible or unnecessary. The solvers should coordinate in advance to avoid overlap in their presentations (for example by each addressing one of the author’s questions, in case the author asked two). A handout of no more than 1 page should accompany each solver’s presentation.
    Author (reply)
    The author may optionally respond to the solvers for 5 minutes, perhaps raising further questions about the suggested solutions.
    We will then in discussion try to respond to the author’s philosophical SOS. One desirable outcome of the general discussion is to solve—or at least put the author on track to solving—the questions they posed. But that is not the only desirable outcome. Not all drafts have fixes. Sometimes an argument just plain does not work and needs to be given up or seriously retooled. And coming to that conclusion can sometimes be a desirable outcome of the discussion. Authors should know that there is no shame in needing to backtrack and rethink things from the ground up. (True confession: Elga has had to do that many, many, many times.)