A philosopher enters politics

Matt Johnson is the only philosopher I know who responded to the political shit-storm of 2016 by actually throwing down and running for public office. He’s doing it right now – somehow juggling finishing his PhD, teaching seven (!!) courses, serving as a human relations commissioner, and running for Lancaster city council all at the same damn time. And he wrote a goddamn musical.

His whole approach is so impossibly cool that  I had to interview him about what it was like. The whole interview is over here.

Things I learned:

  1. Matt actually starting teaching free rhetoric and argument courses to activists in a local pub.
  2. Matt thinks the joys of philosophy and the joys of public service are deeply similar – throwing yourself at profound and intractable problems – except sometimes, in public service, you actually, like, save somebody’s home.
  3. Best of all: Matt thinks that the skills he developed over in philosophy are incredibly useful for consensus building in political life. Which blows my goddamn mind, because in academic philosophy itself, everybody’s using their analytic skills to stab each other in the face. But it occurs to me: maybe that’s nothing about the skills of philosophy itself, but just the incentive structure of academia. As in: to publish, you have to prove you’re different. But in political life, the incentives switch: things happen when you build consensus.

Matt’s take is so thrilling and so invigorating that he almost convinced me to run for city council.


The philosophy writing workshop sequence

Most undergraduates who come into my classroom seem to have no idea what it’s like to work on a paper with other human beings, or work on a paper in stages. They just sort of crap out a paper in one long go and throw it at you, starting with an empty screen and making it up as they went along. So I started forcing them to do what most serious writers do: write down their ideas at every stage, show them to other human beings, and get feedback. I tried to gather as many of the different methodologies I knew about for paper-writing, and turn them into a set of exercises. I’ve been fine-tuning it for about eight years.

The biggest thing is to break apart writing into a conceptual stage, and a communication stage. I mean doing an outline first, settling what you want to say, and then starting to actually write prose only after most of the conceptual work is settled. Most students, I think, start writing by opening up their word-processor, with no idea of where they’re going, and just start writing.  (I polled a class of thirty philosophy majors once about how many did at outline first, or anything like that, before starting to put prose to page. The answer: one.) I emphasize that separating the stages makes it easier: you don’t have to worry about communication when you’re figuring out your arguments, and when you’re writing, you can focus on the task of clearly presenting your ideas.

Most importantly, this introduces a low-cost stage where students are willing to change and revise their ideas.  I used to comment on rough drafts, but my students were almost never do any deep surgery when they’d already written a draft. It’s just too easy to get too attached to your own prose, and the sunk effort. But if you get the criticism in at the outline level, it’s so much emotionally easier to pivot. The moment I started doing outline-level work, the quality of argument in the final papers took a major jump up.

Students often hate it at first. And then they love it. Usually, they get frustrated and ego-wrecked for the first few sections. By the end of the term they’ve come to terms with it. And then so many of them come back to me in a year or two and tell me that they think this is how they actually learned to write, that they’ve been using this style of thing forever paper since, that this workshop sequence was one of the most valuable things they’d gone through.

There are many variations. Below is how I run it in a standard upper-division philosophy class. It’s designed for maximum impact for minimum in-class time expenditure. Here’s how it goes:

First Paper Outline Workshop

Students write a one to two page outline of their future paper, based on several provided essay prompts. It helps to be very explicit about the fact that I’m asking them to separate the conceptual stage from the communication stage. When they’re thinking about their arguments, they only think about their arguments. And by the time they’re actually writing a paper, they’re supposed to already know what they want to say, and only have to worry about how they’re going to say it. I say, for the outline, to not worry at all about reading clarity, and just to worry about their arguments.

They come into class with copies of their outline. I break them into groups of four or five. Each students takes about twenty minutes to stand up in front of their group, and present their thoughts. I tell them to do it in two stages: first stage, present the argument, where the audience only asks clarificatory questions. Second stage: the audience raises challenges, look for gaps in the argument. I emphasize that the goal in the second stage not to be antagonistic, or to crush the presenter, but to help them locate weaknesses in the paper, and to think together about how the paper might be improved. The goal is for each student to use their fellow students to locate weaknesses in their paper, so that they might be improved. And, more importantly, to figure out which criticisms are deepest and will lead to the most interesting dialogue

I also tell the students not to be too attached to where they originally thought their paper was going. It’s easy for students to get broken-hearted if their original line of argument seems to fall apart. But if you tell them that the goal of this session is not to defend their original argument, but to search for the most interesting version of their paper possible – if you tell them it’s OK to modulate, or restrict, or even switch directions for their conclusion – things go a lot better.

I give them colored markers and white-board space and usually make them sketch out their arguments in some sort of logical flow-chart. Usually, students resist doing this at first, but it seems to really help a lot of the groups talk about the structure of the argument.

I usually give them about 1.5 to 2 weeks to generate a final paper from this workshop.

Second Paper Outline Workshop

The second paper outline workshop is much like the first, but I provide no essay prompts. Typically, students struggle with choosing topics of appropriate size. Thus, the second paper outline workshop often forces students to focus their topic, refine their thesis, and clarify their direction of argument.

It’s really important here that students have a sense of ownership over their ideas. Having to present an original idea in front of their peers seems to force students towards coherency, and towards actually thinking about the motivations for taking on a particular topic. Without this, papers often have an automatic quality, as if the students are simply filling out a template passed down from on high. There’s a sense I often have that students have been taught this thing, this essay form that they plug through, which is completely disconnected from any sense of communication. But by doing peer presentations of their own ideas, the students suddenly seem to start viewing themselves as actually communicating, and their natural sense of clarity and order emerges.

Second Paper Draft Workshop

A week after the second paper outline workshop, the students bring a draft of the paper into class. I break them into groups of four or five, and circulate their papers, reading and commenting on them. I tell them that, though they’re free to raise criticisms, the primary goal of this session is to focus on writing clarity. I tell the students that they are not editors today – they don’t need to provide fixes. They are simply reporting their reading experience. They’ll write down where they become confused, what words they don’t understand, what questions they had, where they got lost about the structure. I say: “It’s often so hard to see your own writing, because you often don’t actually see what you put on the page – you just fill in what you wanted to say, from your own head. But a lot of times, the most important thing is so obvious to you that you don’t put it on the page. So now, as a reader, your job is to communicate to the writer what the experience of reading was like for you, where you stumbled or got lost, so the writer knows what got through into the writing, and what was left out.”

I have a theory here that most important thing here is being on the reading end of this exercise. Of course, getting feedback is great. But having to trudge through all these other students’ papers for an hour or more is the heart of it. They see: how easy it is to get lost, how important structural transitions are. They see how, over and over again, little tiny vaguenesses in grammar or simple pronoun ambiguity accumulate and destroy communication. They see how hard it is to understand argumentative material when it is anything less than absolutely lucid. And usually, in a batch of papers, there’s one or two that are much more clearly written, and it suddenly becomes clear to them how much work the little transitional and structural details are doing, to help the reader.

They usually end up in a state of misery and nausea, and a lot of the times what I hear is, “How the hell do YOU manage to read papers like this without shooting yourself?” And then they get their own papers back, covered with marks from their peers about the very same problems – the ambiguities, the confusions. And it’s so much easier to understand what’s missing in their paper when they’ve just been in the confused-reader role on their peers’ papers.

Peer-commentary is also, I think, more emotionally convincing. A lot of students are, I think, ready to dismiss their professor’s comments as coming from some weird, nit-picky, ivory-tower sort of place, but willing to accept their peers’ comments about unclarity or incomprehensibility.

The final drafts I get after this work are so, so, so much clearer.

Feel free to use these ideas in your own class. One request: if you do, let me know how it goes, and let me know any tweaks or improvements you come up with.