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Department of Philosophy

College of Arts & Sciences

Philosophy for Non-Philosophy Majors


To provide an overview of how those students unfamiliar with philosophy may succeed in a philosophy class.



We are well aware that writing a poem, writing a technical engineering or scientific paper, and writing a letter to the editor exercises different skills. Just as writing for different venues requires a different skill set, so to does studying or reading the distinctive styles requires a different skill set. This webpage should provide a number of different study skills one should employ to succeed in a philosophy class.


How to do well in a Philosophy class...


1. Come to class, pay attention, and take notes

Success in life involves showing up and being prepared to engage in discussion. This is true of philosophy class. Attend the class regularly, regardless of what the "attendance policy" for the class is. Of course, it is not sufficient just to show up and sit in your seat like a lump on a log. Sit up straight and engage in active listening. Active listening means listening to what the instructor is explaining, how the instructor's explaining it, and interpreting it in such a way that it is manageable to digest later when reviewing one's notes before the next class. This implies that taking notes is quite important. Jot down key components of the lecture that don't appear on the slides (if the instructor uses MS PowerPoint). It's not wise to write everything the instructor says down, and it's not wise to re-write everything from the slide (hopefully, the instructor is kind enough to make the slides available on a class website); instead, the student should be selective of the information given in class.


2. Ask about difficult (incomprehensible) material

Philosophy is difficult! This is one reason why there are not many undergraduate philosophy majors and many people are scornful of their experience taking a philosophy class. When something comes up in the readings or in lecture that is difficult to understand, the student should ask the instructor a question to make sure she clearly understands the concept, the word, or technical term of art the instructor or the book has raised. If the word is a technical term of art, learn how the word has been used in class and in the book. If the word is a difficult one, i.e., a word with which the student is unfamiliar, look it up in a respectable dictionary (Oxford English or Merriam-Webster). Then, ask the instructor whether the word employed in the book or in class is used in a way consistent with the dictionary definition. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. Finally, in philosophy, professionals employ "concepts" to get at the nature of some deeply troubling philosophical debate. Along with the introduction of this concept usually comes an analysis (or logical argument) supporting the veracity of the concept. Students should make an effort to learn the analysis supporting some concept, and that might involve asking questions of the instructor (in class or in an office hour).


3. Do the reading multiple times

As I mentioned in the preamble, reading a philosophy text is distinguishable from reading an opinion column in the local newspaper. One cannot read the philosophy text just once and expect to understand all of the material appearing in that text. Similarly, one cannot just look for the bold, italicized, or underlined print and memorize it in order to succeed in a philosophy class. On the contrary, it is not unusual for students (and instructors alike) to have to read the text multiple times (three... four... five times, not once or twice) to learn the material in the text. Sometimes one will have to pour over a single paragraph many times in order to comprehend what is being said in it. Expect that and plan accordingly, i.e., set aside at least one hour per day to read a portion of the required text. Managing one's time wisely will yield fruitful results in terms of learning the complexities associated with the philosophy text.


4. Take notes while reading the text (multiple times)

Two things here: (a) have a note pad or notebook handy while reading the text and (b) write in the book's margins. First, having a note pad or notebook handy will allow the student to write longer notes associated with the text being read (multiple times). Jot down the argument and its structure in the notebook such that if asked by the instructor what argument appears in the text it'll be readily available for class time. In addition, don't be afraid of writing in the book's margins some critical comments associated with what's being introduced in the particular section or paragraph of the book. One will find it remarkably helpful to see "intro. utilitarianism" in the margins to indicate the spot at which the author has introduced the concept of utilitarianism.


5. Review notes regularly

Don't just take notes to take notes. Review them. Review them carefully and often. If there is a moment in-between classes where the student has some "free time," don't be tempted to check Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Whip out the note pad or notebook and re-read what was written the night before while reading the text (multiple times) or re-read what was written down the previous lecture. If the student has a question about what appears in the notes, then either go back and re-read the section / paragraph of the text or jot down a question to ask the instructor in the next class.


6. Start writing papers early and go through multiple drafts

Don't be tempted to procrastinate in writing a philosophy paper. Since it's probably unlike any task the student has faced before taking the philosophy class, starting early is critical to succeeding (read this as earning a good grade) in the writing assignment. Remember those notes I mentioned earlier. If the notes are sufficiently detailed enough and the writing assignment is associated with the text or with the instructor's lectures, then those copious notes will likely make the paper much easier to write. Next, the textbook adopted for the class is not the author's first draft but the author's tenth or eleventh stab at writing the book. If the author, an expert in the field, has taken the time to write multiple drafts of the text, then the student will have to write multiple drafts of papers too. Students should not see their first draft as comparable to what David Lewis, Plato, or Rene Descartes (all famous philosophers) wrote in On the Plurality of Worlds, Republic, or Meditations on First Philosophy. Writing a crappy first draft is the norm, and massaging out the textual and conceptual infelicities in multiple drafts is critical and should be undertaken as the rule. (There are no exceptions to the crappy first draft norm. Believe me, despite what parents and teachers have said.)


7. Attend review sessions

If the instructor has the time, then he may offer a review session prior to an exam. As for me, these review sessions usually take place at odd hours (8:00 a.m. on Saturday or 8:00 p.m. on Friday). Despite that students might have "other social plans", it might be in the best interest of the student to alter one's schedule and to attend the review session. Review sessions permit students to ask detailed questions about the upcoming exam. The review session may also provide some insight of how the instructor has drafted or will draft the exam. Ask questions about the content the student is responsible to learn and ask questions about the exam's structure. No question is out of bounds in these sessions. If the question is not something the instructor wants to answer, he will say so.


8. See me (or one of us) if you're struggling

The class' instructor and teaching assistants (if applicable) are paid a portion of their salary to assist in learning the class material. Use the instructor and teaching assistants by showing up to office hours. Come to office hours prepared to discuss a philosophical concept, an argument appearing in the text, a technical term of art, or to ask questions about such material. The one-on-one discussion will be helpful. If it isn't, then ask more questions or discuss further. Should the scheduled office hour end, set up another appointment. Oh, yes, appointments! Be courteous and respectful of the instructor's time. Schedule a time to meet with the instructor by sending a carefully worded request via email or leaving a nice voice message for the instructor. It's amazing how far a little respect will go. The instructor will likely enjoy the meeting and discussing relevant problems and issues the student faces in-and-out of class.

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