Working on a JP or undergraduate thesis with Adam Elga

1. Introduction

Every advisor has his or her own style and expectations. I’ve described mine here to help guide you in your choice of advisor for your philosophy independent work, and to help you get the best advising from me, if I end up being your advisor.

2. Getting started

If you would like to talk to me about an independent work topic, the best thing to do is to see me at the very beginning of the semester. Stop by my office hour (listed on my web page) for a quick chat. There’s no need to email in advance for this unless my office hours are by appointment that semester—just stop by during the office hour.

During our chat, I can advise you on whether the idea makes sense as JP or thesis, and on who would might be good advisors for it. If it makes sense for us to work together topic-wise, then most often you can just get started on thinking about and writing the paper after we talk. On rare occasions I may be working with many other students already—if so, I apologize in advance if I have to ask to work with you in a future semester, or if I suggest alternate advisors to talk to.

3. Deadlines

Before we begin working together, please read the departmental information for your year (Junior or Senior) and the “Guide To Independent Work”, all linked from the department’s Undergraduate information page. Aside from giving other information, these documents also give intermediate deadlines that I will expect you to follow.

In addition to those deadlines, it is important to have a topic that we are both on board with by the fourth week of classes of the semester that your independent work starts. If it looks like that won’t be the case, you should consider it a high priority to come to my office hours right away so that we can talk about it.

4. Meetings

At the beginning of the semester you’ll be nosing around in the literature to narrow your topic. I advise that you learn how to use “The Philosopher’s Index” for this stage, which you can find (along with other good philosophy resources) on the library’s Philosophy Resources page. Also helpful are PhilPapers and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Later on, you will want to get feedback on your own arguments and lines of thought. A good way to proceed is to tell me your argument before you write a full draft. In other words, get together a main idea or two and come to my office hour (no appointment or advance notice necessary, just show up any week) and try them out on me. I will try to give you feedback right away, suggest lines of reply to consider, and let you know whether the argument needs serious revision or augmentation. These meetings tend to work best when students have some notes to themselves written out to guide the discussion. Do this early in the semester, so that there is time to develop your argument.

A common pitfall is to wait until the middle of the semester or year to really think through an argument of your own. The thought is often “I’ll put lots of time into the paper later in the semester”. The result is typically that the student puts lots of work into polishing a paper that is unsuccessful because it has no real unifying claim.

5. How I advise you structure your thesis work

Don’t think of your task as planning and writing a book. Instead think of it as writing a short philosophy paper. And then a medium length philosophy paper extending or taking off from the ideas of the first one. And then another one. And perhaps one more. And then tying it all together.

In particular, I recommend that your first piece of writing not be a gigantic outline or introductory chapter or survey of any sort. Instead you should write a thesis bite. A thesis bite is a short (typically around 8 page) paper with a modest, well-defined aim. Think small and unambitious. The idea is to factor off some corner of your thesis question that admits of self-contained treatment. Set yourself a task that is not overwhelming.

Often the best first step is to consult with me to decide on a good target paper for you to read and analyze closely. In this case your first thesis bite might be a short piece simply explaining what the author of the target paper was arguing for and what their main argument was.

Your thesis bite will probably end up being part of your thesis. But you needn’t think of that when you’re writing. You needn’t think: this is section 1 of my master work. Think instead: this is a philosophy paper that clearly argues for a modest thesis, or accomplishes a helpful bit of explication of a hard text. Finish it and get it under your belt.

If you get stuck at this stage, it’s especially important to see me right away. It may well mean you should shift your topic, or consult some other reference.

6. Revisions

When you submit a revision of work I’ve already read, please send along a version with significant changes indicated. In other words, format in boldface (or other easily distinguishable way) those passages or regions that involve significant changes or additions. Don’t worry about indicating every little change—just help me focus in on what important changes you’ve made. (An easy way to do this is to use the “track changes” or “revisions” feature of your word processor, or the latexdiff package if you use LaTex.)

7. End of semester crunch

In my experience the way of proceeding described above (coming to my office hours to talk through your proposed arguments, which you have written down in outline for your own reference during our conversation) is much more efficient than giving early drafts to me. That is because it is very psychologically difficult to throw out completed work and start from scratch, and in many cases you will want to make major changes in response to our discussions.

In addition, things get busy right before deadlines and right before break weeks. If you’d like to be sure of a meeting, it is best not to wait until the last minute to set it up with me.

If you do wish to have me look at any written draft material (optional), be sure to hand in the draft two weeks before the due date at the absolute latest.

8. McGraw Center

The McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning has a resource page for undergraduates. Check it out for strategies on working on your independent work, coaching, workshops, and more.

9. Staying in touch

It is important that you stay in touch with me about your thesis. Please stop by my office hour every once in a while, even if just to report that you’re stuck or haven’t made much progress. Sometimes I can help you get unstuck.

Sometimes students get behind and fall off the map. Don’t fall into that trap. If you are feeling overwhelmed or behind, it is always easier to consult sooner rather than later. This is true even if you come into my office and say “I’m terribly behind and have done nothing”. But do this early!

10. Where and when to hand in your completed thesis or JP

Follow the departmental directions linked from the department’s Undergraduate resources.

11. Grading

Independent work grades are reported as percentages.

The strongest grades require more of a thesis than that it lack various flaws. They also require a thesis to possess certain positive virtues. In most cases, when a student shows me a full draft of their thesis, point-by-point responses to my local comments and suggestions will strengthen the thesis somewhat. But such changes do not have the same potential for improvement as a complete rewrite from scratch, together perhaps with a modified or scrapped main argument. That is why addressing all of my local comments on a draft by making scattered changes or additions in no way guarantees an “A”.

(I feel the same about drafts of my own papers, by the way---all of my papers go through at least one iteration of “throw the whole thing out, open a new blank document, and start writing from scratch”.)

Since few students choose to rethink and rewrite their projects at a late stage, I don’t without special prompting tell students to do so. Everyone has to choose for themselves how to allocate their time, and many worthwhile theses have been written without such a reboot. However, if you want my assessment of this strategy, please just ask me. Say: “Work-to-reward ratio aside, what would it take to bring this thesis to the next level?” If you do ask, don’t be demoralized if the answer involves rewriting from scratch and/or rethinking the main argument from scratch. The best times to ask this question are (1) shortly after you have formulated your main argument, and (2) after you have written a substantial draft but at least one month before the due date.

12. Grade descriptions

The department associates no official verbal descriptions with grade percentages. However, the Guide To Independent Work (linked from the department’s Undergraduate resources) does give some indication of grading standards

Date: March 11, 2024

Author: Adam Elga

Created: 2024-03-11 Mon 16:13