Essay assignment for: Junior Seminar in Epistemology, Fall 2019

There may be changes to this document, but not of a sort that will penalize anyone who begins working on the paper based on the initial version. So you can and should start working on your paper now if you haven’t already.

1 Your mission

Your paper assignment is to choose an argument we have discussed in the course (or is discussed in one of the starred course readings) and make progress on it. A good way to settle on a topic (if you haven’t already) is to review the course materials and notice which arguments/topics pique your interest (or send you into a rage). Think about whether these arguments are plausible. Do you see a non-obvious objection to an argument’s premise? Do you see a way to strengthen the argument? Do you see an objection someone might raise against the argument that you have an answer to? Do you see any non-obvious implications of the argument? These are all examples of ways to make progress on an argument.

If you do this long enough you will find an argument you care about and philosophical progress you can make on that argument.

Your job in writing your paper is to explain the relevant portion of that argument and the progress you make on it as clearly, simply, and succinctly as possible.

If you come to me with a few possible topics soon, I’d be happy to try to guide you in a fruitful direction. I want you to be inspired by the argument you choose, and we want your paper to be successful.

Help me help you by actually thinking about your paper early. And by “think about your paper” I don’t mean just “think about what topic you will write on”. I mean “actually begin thinking through the ideas you will put forward in the paper”. Think about it with the same intensity and focus you would if the whole paper were due 72 hours from now. This is the sort of thinking that, unfortunately, some students do only when the paper really is due in 72 hours. Just choosing a topic for a paper early is not enough: it is important to right away start thinking through the actual detailed ideas and arguments that will figure in your paper.

2 Goal: be surprising and convincing

Aim to make the most interesting/surprising contribution that you can support well. You will need to home in on a very specific argument in order to make progress with respect to it. If you stick to one argument and write it up in, say, 400 words, you should look hard for further considerations to support your reasoning. To do so, imagine what an ornery, stubborn, slow-witted and uncharitable reader would say in response to what you’ve written so far. Imagine them objecting at every step “Wait, hold on, slow down. How does that follow?” Fill in the details. Work hard to come up with the very best objections you can to your own proposed advance, and answer those objections.

If you absolutely can’t think of enough to say about your contribution without repetition or padding, that may indicate that you should switch to another idea.

3 Advice

  • I ask that you read Jim Pryor’s Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper
  • It is easy to spread yourself too thin. Choose one argument to make progress on. The goal is not to make a debate-style case consisting of lots of totally independent considerations.
  • Before writing the text of your paper, make sure that you understand the original argument you are trying to make progress on. Ask someone: do I have this straight? You might think through a map of the argument and ensure that each argument unit checks out. (Mapping is for your own use: what you hand in and are evaluated on will be a prose paper.)
  • Before writing the text of your paper, make sure that you can clearly and simply explain your contribution to someone else. Find a classmate and talk it through with them. Demand that they be brutally honest. Did it make sense to them? Have them ask questions to clarify your proposal. Have them explain it back to you.

4 Topic scope

To give you a sense of a suitable scope for your paper, here is the introduction from a paper that has a scope appropriate for this course:

In “Why Boltzmann Brains Are Bad”, Sean Carroll gives an argument that we should reject cosmological models that entail that most of the thinking entities in the universe are randomly-generate brains of a certain kind (“Boltzmann Brains”). Carroll argues roughly as follows: (1) Since …, it would unstable to believe …. But (2) our scientific practice should not lead us into that sort of cognitive instability. So (3) we should reject cosmological models that would be dominated by randomly-generated brains. My aim is to make trouble for (2), the assumption that our scientific practice should not lead us into cognitive instability. I present a case, “World Destruction Choice” (described in section 3), in which ruling out theories that lead to instability would require a theorist to perform highly unreasonable actions. I conclude that (2) is false, and hence that Carroll’s argument fails.

The paper is structured as follows. Section 1 briefly describes how some mainstream cosmological models entail that there are many randomly generated brains, and how accepting such a theory might be thought to put one in a cognitively unstable state. Section 2 explains Carroll’s argument that we should reject such cosmological models. Section 3 spells out “World Destruction Choice”, a case in which rejecting such cosmological models leads one to make unreasonable decisions. Section 4 considers Carroll’s strongest availabe reply, that … and explains why that reply itself leads to an unattractive consequence: that …. Section 5 concludes.

Note how this introduction:

  • gets right to the point,
  • gives the reader a good idea of what the paper accomplishes and how the main argument goes, and
  • gives the reader an idea of the structure of the rest of the paper.

5 Structuring your paper

The structure of your paper should make it blindingly obvious to the reader what argument your paper considers, and exactly what progress your paper makes on that argument. One straightforward and good way to proceed:

  • Have an introduction briefly describing the contention of the argument you consider and the way in which you propose to make progress on the argument.
  • Give just enough explanation of the target argument that the reader will be able to understand the progress you propose to make on it. One common pitfall is spending too much space on this part of the paper, leaving not enough space for you to develop your own idea and objections to it.
  • Make your progress. This is the most important part of your paper. Here you describe your counterexample, or explain your new supporting consideration, or explain an objection and say how to answer it, etc.
  • Anticipate objections. Think about the weakest point or two of your proposal, or the best way to object to it. Answer the objection if you have a good answer. But if you notice a serious objection that you don’t know how to answer, it is better to describe the objection and admit that you don’t have an answer than to ignore it.
  • A brief conclusion is optional.

6 Outside reader requirement

I ask that you have someone who is not a student in this class read your paper before you submit it, and that you revise the paper in light of their reactions. Find a friend or relative and blame me: say “my extremely demanding philosophy instructor is making us each have someone read over our papers before handing them in. Willing to read a paper I wrote and tell me what’s wrong with it?” If they don’t understand something in your paper or think your reasoning is subject to an obvious objection or has a big problem, edit it for clarity and rewrite to handle or fend off the objection or eliminate the problem. Fix any typos or grammatical errors or awkward constructions that your reader finds. Please record your outside reader’s name and email address at the end of your paper.

The outside reader requirement applies to both the draft and final submission. You may (but don’t have to) use the same person for both.

7 Formatting and submission mechanics

Please include a word count. Include your name in the header. Number your pages. Any standard bibliographic/citation style (such as APA, MLA, or Chicago Manual of Style), consistently applied, is acceptable. Include at the bottom the standard university-wide statement of academic integrity.

To get credit for improvements to your initial draft, you will need to submit both a clean revised version and a “redline” version showing what changes you have made. Redline versions are easily generated by turning on “track changes” or similar function in your word processor before you start making changes to the originally submitted version. LaTeX users may find the latexdiff package useful.

Submit files in pdf format using the same form you use to submit your homework.

8 Draft requirement

Part of your assignment is to submit a substantial draft of at least 3000 words that contains the core ideas of your final paper. (The draft due date is listed on the course syllabus.) The draft should be a complete paper that stands on its own: a fragment of a paper or a submission containing material in notes or outline form is not acceptable.

7% of your final paper grade will derive from your draft, as follows:

The draft topic matches the final paper topic
A clean version as well as a redline version of the final paper were submitted on time
The draft is a complete paper of acceptable quality, as opposed to a hastily-prepared document, or one containing material in notes or outline form.
The draft contains the core ideas of the final paper

That all said, the draft itself will not be given an overall letter grade. In addition, it is not a problem if—and you will not be penalized if—your draft has weaknesses or omissions. For example, in your draft you may not have anticipated a straightforward objection or sufficiently clarified a crucial step in your argument. Or you may not have explored a question that your draft leaves hanging. Or your reasoning may contain some mistakes. Or your writing may need smoothing and improvement, for example to increase its clarity. Such limitations will affect your final paper grade only to the extent that they also appear in your final submission.

Indeed, part of the point of requiring a draft so early is to give you a chance to notice such limitations in time to correct them. Note in this connection that the word limit for the final paper is higher than that of the draft, leaving you some room to, say, respond to an objection you hadn’t considered.

I will not specifically grade you on the amount of improvement there is between your draft and your final paper. Except for the 7% described above, your paper grade will just be based on the quality of your final submission. For example, if someone were to hand in a 4,000 word draft that on its own deserves an A, and were to hand in the exact same text as the final submission, their paper grade would be an A. In most cases, however, the best final paper will result from substantial additions and rewrites based on the draft.

Late submissions

Your essay will be graded on a percentage scale.

For the draft submission only (not the final submission), submitting the essay up to 24 hours past the initial deadline carries no penalty (though I ask as a courtesy that you treat the listed deadline as real, and not abuse this grace period). After the 24 hour grace period, there will be a penalty of 1% for each additional 24 hours (or portion thereof) that the draft is late, up to a maximum of 7 calendar days after the due date. The penalty will be applied to the final paper grade. (Drafts handed in later than 7 calendar days late will not be accepted.)

The lateness policy for your final submission is different: Final submissions of late term papers cannot be accepted (and extensions on final submissions of late term papers cannot be granted) without the permission of your residential college dean or director of studies.

9 How your paper will be assessed

In assessing your final paper, your grader will in part be asking “Which of these boxes can I check off in good conscience?”–

  • The paper focuses on just one argument and gives it careful attention, rather than listing a number of considerations and giving them superficial treatment.
  • The paper reflects and conveys a correct understanding of that argument.
  • The paper gives reasons, rather than simply asserting that such-and-such argument is or is not convincing.
  • The content of the paper was easy to follow. I didn’t have to go back and reread it to figure out what was going on.
  • The language was simple, clear and clean. The sentences were short and punchy. Simple words were used wherever possible, rather than obscure or unfamiliar jargon.
  • Direct quotation was used sparingly, if at all. No large “filler” quotations were included.
  • The writing was grammatical and everything was spelled and punctuated properly.
  • The paper gave just enough background to make sense of its reasoning, and no more. It didn’t have unnecessary “filler” text that explained peripheral matters.
  • The paper reflects a creative contribution. Either it introduces a novel argument or provided a fresh perspective, criticism, or supporting point to an argument. Perhaps the contribution isn’t mind-blowing, but it also is not one that occurs to one right away, given the readings.
  • No straightforward objection to reasoning in the paper occurred to me. Or if it did, the paper addressed that objection somehow (even if only to register it at as an unsolved problem).
  • The paper included the author’s name in the header, an appropriate word count, and page numbers.
  • The outside reader’s name and email address is included at the end of the paper (both draft and final versions).
  • The paper reflects not a mechanical slog but rather a genuine spark of interest from the author in the topic.

One way to improve your paper is to make changes that enable you to honestly check as many of the above boxes as possible.

10 Collaboration

You must write your own paper. However, you may discuss the ideas in your paper with others in the class. In particular, you may if you wish brainstorm for paper ideas together with others from the class. You must give credit where credit is due: if you write a paper based on your own development of an idea kernel that someone else came up with, you must explicitly credit that person. More generally, document what help you have received by not just listing who helped you, but how exactly each of the people helped you did so. Examples of (some of) the sorts of information it would be appropriate to include:

“Quentin reacted to my argument that such-and-such with the objection that so-and-so. That led to me writing the discussion in section 3 of my paper.”

“I discussed such-and-such paper with Una. She thought it odd that [so-and-so]. That led to the idea that […], which led to the main idea of my paper, which is […].”

Another example: suppose that you have a paper idea. You may explain the idea to someone else from the class to see if it makes sense to them. You may ask them to help you come up with objections and weak points in your reasoning. But this should all take place within the context of a discussion of ideas, as opposed to the manner in which those ideas get expressed. As usual, give credit for any objections or observations that your classmates supply.

You should not be working with anyone else when you are actually typing the text of your paper.