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Reading theory….

Thinking Cat (1)

No matter which course you’re taking, you’ll have to read articles about “theory” — in ethics, it’s ethical theory — in Intro to Philosophy it also includes theories about mind-body, free will, God etc..

The thing about these articles that is similar is that the philosopher has an idea, and they’re trying to put that idea down on paper — sometimes it works well, other times it’s a bit more difficult to understand what they’re thinking or trying to say..

So — some hints and tips..

  • Read all parts of the assignment, the introductions and conclusions — the foonotes etc.. because you’ll often find clues there.
  • Google the word, idea, or concept that seems central for another point of view on it…
  • Skim the assignment first trying to get the general idea.  Figure out how the parts of the article and argument go together.
  • Go back and read carefully — taking notes as you go… write down each major move in your own words, and why the philosopher thinks that’s a good move.  As you’re going, write down objections and questions you have — since those will be useful later.
  • When you’re done reading and taking notes, look at your notes — do they make sense?  If you had to use them to teach someone else what you just read, could you do it?  If not, go back and check to make sure your notes reflect what you read…
  • Then, think about ways that theory connects to the world around you — put it in context for you… (this is a good way to start a mid-term and final paper assignment… ).

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How to get started on those assignments… Fall 15..

you go girl

To start, the first week is a bit wonky, there are a couple of extra things to do — because 1) I want you to get to know the course, and 2) we have a college-required assessment project and your responses are necessary… I’m only going to cover the normal weekly assignments here.

Read This” — that’s your reading assignment.  Plan to do it over time — philosophy is hard, and you have to think about it… don’t think about it like you would reading a regular book, it’s not like that.  As you read, take notes — write in the margin, and generally engage with what you’re reading.  If it all becomes a blur to you after a bit, stop and do something else — I’ve found housework, taking a walk etc… to be very helpful.

Summarize the Readings” — this is where you write a short summary of each reading.  For many weeks, that means a bunch of short summaries — that’s ok. The idea is for you to get the general idea of the reading and write it down — post them all together in one post — it’s due the first Sunday of the unit.

Read and Respond” — the questions are on the class schedule.  Pick one of them, write a short paper about it (1-3 pages or so) and put it in the drop box —It’s also due the first Sunday of the unit, but you may revise until the second Sunday because….

Peer Feedback” — Post either your Summarize the Reading OR your Read and Respond paper into your Peer Feedback group for this unit.  Do this by the first Sunday of the unit as well… then, spend the next week reading and critiquing the work of your group… they’ll do the same for you. Respond to a minimum of 2, and ideally 4 or more posts (or 100% of the other people posting).

When writing peer feedback for Summarize the Readings — pick a couple of summaries out of their larger post and focus on those… tell your peers what works and what could be better…It’s not too hard once you get the hang of it.

Questions and Answers” –During the second week (by Thursday for sure!) post a question you have about the material — it might be something that relates to the material, but is from current events — it might be an aspect of the material you don’t understand etc… but, ask a question, a good question — in about 100 words (or more..).  Then answer a minimum of 2, and ideally 4 other students’ questions before the discussion area closes…

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How to Talk to your professor…


This is a brilliant site about how to “do” college…

It’s all pretty much common sense to us, the proffies — who have spent most or all of our adult lives in college in one way or the other.. but, you’ll probably find some helpful advice here…

Probably #1, It’s on the syllabus (Class Schedule 🙂 )…. I really do mean that.

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How to write a decent philosophy paper…

Thinking Cat (1)

First of all — you should know the basic conventions for paper formatting… among the common ones I see students mess up:

  • Paragraphs — unless you’re explaining one very complicated idea, you should probably have at least 2 or 3 paragraphs per page of text.  A paragraph has ONE central topic sentence and the supporting sentences for that topic.  Each section of your paper should have at least two or three paragraphs.
  • Citations — if I ask you for an original example, then it doesn’t need a citation.  If you’re using/applying OR quoting ideas from someone else, it needs a citation.
  • Use standard English spelling, grammar, punctuation etc — if you don’t know those things, figure it out — this is college… to be honest, I learned most of that in about 4th grade, if you didn’t — then look it up.


  • Dictionary definitions — there are only a few reasons to use one… IF you are using a word in a non-standard way, supported by the dictionary — then that’s fine.  IF you are writing ABOUT dictionary definitions, then use one.. otherwise, find the relevant section of your class reading and use that.
  • Make sure you know the meaning of the terms in the paper prompt — when I ask for a specific objection, I’m giving you a break — look it up, write about it — and you’re done.
  • While I’m on the subject of objections — here’s what makes something an objection… it’s a situation that a) is permissible, or even encouraged by the theory and b) it’s an intuitively bad thing — so, it’s a reason to think the theory isn’t a good one to follow.
  • It’s always better to over-explain than to under-explain.
  • Use the words of others sparingly, and explain them in your own words.  Things like “When Steck says …. she means ….., which has the following implications….”

In general — make sure your paper actually answers the sections of the paper prompt in a substantial way —

When  you’re done with your first draft — take a look at it.  Look to see how much space you’re allotting to each section of the prompt.  Look to see where you quote people and how much space you use explaining the quote etc.

Now — go write!

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How to be a good college student, from the professor’s point of view…

So, you’re kind of new to college — either as a first-timer or a returning student.  That’s awesome (I really mean that 🙂 ) — good for you.  I know how much courage and determination it takes to decide to add college to your otherwise full life.  I remember both being a first-time college student at the U of MN — and a returning (married) student at UNO (University of Nebraska, Omaha).  Every year I see folks come in all fresh-faced and excited to learn… let me tell you a few things that will help you out.

  1. Keep track of things — you’ll have small and big assignments, stuff to read, stuff to do etc.. keeping it all in one place, the same place where you write down your dental appointments, kids’ soccer games, etc — will keep it in your mind.  
  2. Have ONE bag for school — physically keep your notebooks, books, pens etc.. in one bag (if you can..).  When you go out the door on a day you have school, that bag should be with you — it sounds simple, but often students don’t quite get this one.
  3. Talk to other students in your classes.  Exchange contact information, plan to get together for a coffee/homework / exam review or whatever.  These folks are also smart, funny, and generally trying to balance all the things you are — they can help you out, and you can help them.  
  4. Stop by your professor’s office hours — we’re there to help you.  Also, don’t be surprised when we’re there (not in office hours) and say we don’t have time to help.  We have lots of things going on outside of class time –and often that work is on a deadline too.. 
  5. Budget enough time to do your homework — and do it in a quiet place, with internet access.  Sometimes you’ll get stuff done early, sometimes it will take you longer — learning is a fluid process.
  6. Sometimes life isn’t fair — you’ve probably learned by now that life can be less than fair — bad stuff happens to good people, and the rest of your life interferes with homework time.  That’s the way things go sometimes.  Do your best to play by the rules outlined in the class schedule / course syllabus and keep in touch with your professors if things are really, super crazy…Otherwise, don’t be too worried about turning in less than amazing work, it happens to folks sometimes… 
  7. Make sure you know how the class is graded, so you can put your effort where it should be… and, so that you can make sure your final grade is accurate.  I had a good friend once who was displeased with their grade in a course.  My first question was ‘what does it say in the syllabus about x, y,z’?  Turns out the professor had addressed x, y, and x in the syllabus — said specific things about how that was to be handled, and DIDN’T follow their own syllabus.  My friend sent a polite e-mail to that effect, and the grade got changed. 
  8. When you’re e-mailing, be sure to include your full name and the course you’re taking  Almost all of us teach 3-5 courses per semester.  In philosophy those courses have between 30 and 50 students.  I’ve had semesters in which I had 250 students — across 5 classes — not having to go in and find your name among all the class lists makes a decent e-mail response all the more likely.  

Generally, do your best — be smart, don’t suck — and college will be ok. 

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Writing and editing a philosophy paper… hints and tips


Disclaimer — I’m a philosophy Ph.D, not a writing professor — it’s quite possible that you’ve had better advice about how to write papers elsewhere — and that advice is probably right, if it works for you.  Below is what has worked for me over philosophy courses between about 1088 and 2002 — and then in writing my dissertation from 2002-2010… your mileage may vary — but, if you adapt these ideas and write a good paper, it works — if your paper sucks, then find other ways… there are plenty of places on the internet that will help you write, go find one that works…

the BIG questions answered up top..

Page numbers in an assignment are guidelines, and assume you are double-spacing a paper at 12 point Times New Roman font.  

You can choose ANY citation format.  Philosophy officially doesn’t care.  Most students use MLA or APA, but we don’t care which you use.

No, you can’t have an extension — IF your class has a one late paper policy, you can use it.

Before Writing

  • You start with the question — if you’re given one (like in most of your short paper prompt) great — then, ask what it means… what every part of the prompt means, this isn’t a multiple-choice thing, you need to answer the whole paper prompt.
  • Have an on-paper brainstorming session — sit down with a pen and a blank piece of paper.  Write key words for each of the paper prompt on the paper and write down all of your thoughts about each one.
  • Turn your paper brainstorming into an outline — it will probably follow the path of the paper prompt, but maybe not.
  • Do main sections for each part of the paper prompt — maybe putting each of those sections on a separate piece of paper… now, put the stuff you wrote down into an outline that starts at the beginning of how you’d like to write the paper and working down.  
  • Ask yourself what’s missing — where do you need quotes of philosophers, where do you need more analysis, where should you insert stuff you read from your classmates etc.  
  • Fill what’s missing into the outline… it may help to do the outline on note cards, so you can easily rearrange the points.
  • Gather all the stuff you’re missing — use post-it notes as bookmarks if you want to use philosophers in your text.  If you’ve found online sources outside of the class, then gather them in a set of bookmarks on your computer.  If you’re using quotes from classmates, copy them into one document and make sure keep track of where you found it.
  • When you’re gathering sources from elsewhere, make sure you have enough information to make a citation… I usually do this by keeping track of the author’s name, where I found it, and when their information was published.


  • Write the introductory paragraph, outlining your paper –something like, “I’m going to prove that Macs are superior to PCs by explaining that Macs are easier to use, are less vulnerable to computer viruses, and their hardware is more durable.” — notice that I gave a conclusion “Macs are superior to PCs”, and three reasons (premises) for why that is the case.  At this point, you have three main sections to develop — and then a concluding paragraph to write.  
    • It’s important to note that the introductory paragraph may change as you write the paper, but if you’re working from a good outline, it may not change much..
  • Write the body of the paper — a few things that have helped me:
    • Use a color to denote places you’ve used the words of others — it may be one color for direct quotes and another for paraphrasing.  Pretty much, when you’re looking at another thing and typing, you need to use a color.
    • Insert placeholders for your citations.  If you like parenthetical references, use  something like (Insert ________ info here) — keeping track of what you’re looking at as you type.  Put these notes in RED — so  you’ll see them later.  If you prefer footnotes or endnotes, insert them as you write — they’ll follow the text if you move it — and put the shorthand of the citation in the blank area… The reason for doing it this way is that your brain is in a creative mode, it’s jarring to put citations in right away… besides, you’re going to edit anyway.
  • Keep writing until you think you’re done.  Then, go back and keep writing… you’re going to cut.  Don’t just STOP when you get into the page range… stop when you’re done saying what you need to say.  
  • Write the concluding paragraph, explaining briefly what you did and how you did it.
  • NOW — save it a couple of places, and if you can — print it.
  • This last step is important — walk away.  Physically get up from the computer and walk away — go do something else.  Let  your brain unwind, and give yourself time to think of stuff that should be in the paper — or stuff you need to cut.  I call that part “percolation” — and it’s important.  I tended to put longer stuff in percolation for longer periods etc.. 

Editing the paper

  • Now that the paper is out of percolation, take one of the copies (and make sure you know where the other copies live, just in case disaster strikes at this point) and re-name it something like “Ethics ethical theory paper 1 Patty Courtney” — so, your class name first, the assignment second, your name last.  Putting the course name first will help you find ALL of your work for that course… trust me, you’ll want that system later when you’re looking for a writing sample, something to revise etc.
  • If you can, print out the paper — this really DOES help.. look at it away from the computer screen. 
  • Outline the paper — yep, sounds weird, but make marks in the margin as to which paragraphs go with which parts of your original outline.  Do you spend 6 paragraphs on a sub-point and only one on the main point?  Maybe that needs to change, or maybe you need to revise your opening paragraph to shift the focus of the paper… before you do that, is that shift going to satisfy the assignment?
  • Highlight, with a pen, the quotes — do you have lots of quotes right next to one another without your own analysis in between?  Are you asking your sources to do all of the explaining?  If I wanted that in a paper, I’d just go read your source…. I want to see what YOU think of  your source.  How does it interact with your argument (is it in support or opposition — if it’s opposition, why are they wrong and you right?).  
  • Circle all the places you put in placeholders for the citations.  
  • Find  your pile of references — bring it to the computer.  
  • Adjust the body of the paper so that it makes sense — cut paragraphs if needed, explain more where needed and generally adjust the writing so that it answers the question (remember, it’s all about the question, doncha know? ).
  • Now — look at the form of the paper — a few things to look for (among many):
    • spell-check underlines… and pay attention to what spell-check wants to insert, is it correct, use the dictionary to find out.
    • Missing punctuation — do your in-text quotes have TWO quotation marks?  Do your other uses of quotes fit the style you selected.
    • Informal language — no “lol” — if you’d text it to a buddy, that’s probably not ok language for a formal academic paper.  Also (and this is a biggie) when referring to a philosopher, use their LAST NAME (not their first name… you don’t know them, and there are lots of “Immanuel”s out there in the world, but I think there is only one Kant… use the last name, not the first name — and generally not the whole name.
    • Get the names right — and the names of their theories right… FYI, JS Mill is NOT “Mills”.  
    • It’s your (for things that belong to you) and you’re for (you are).  See other common mistakes all over the internet.
  • Now the body of the paper is how you want it, you’ve adjusted the proportions of the paper and generally you’re (notice that.. hmmm…) happy with the way the paper reads.  At this point, go back and put the citations in — carefully checking the text of the citations one more time.  Follow your style manual, doing your best if you can’t find a way to cite what you’re using — making sure to include basic information.
  • THIS IS IMPORTANT — make sure that EVERY time you use an idea from another person, in the body of your paper, you have something that indicates it’s a quote or paraphrase.  
  • IF you have incomplete citations in the body of the paper (Smith, 97) for example, you MUST make a “works cited” page that includes the full citation.  If you’ve used footnotes or endnotes, that’s not necessary.
  • Once you’ve done all of that — give it another read on your computer.  Fix small errors, adjust the phrasing and generally look carefully at every paragraph.
  • Now –put it in short percolation…
  • When you’re back — give it one more read –quickly this time… does it say what you want to say?  If so, go in and turn everything you’ve colored to black type, no highlighting etc.
  • Save it.
  • Save it someplace else.
  • Close it.
  • Submit it to the dropbox… 

There you go — a million little steps to a decent philosophy paper… 

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Online teaching vs. Face-to-face teaching….

of scars, me..


This is my 14th year teaching — and, for sure I’ve seen lots of changes.  

I started teaching in Nebraska, part-time, for three difference colleges — each with their own unique characteristics (4-year public, 4-year private, and community college.).  Each college had a unique student body and I got plenty of experience teaching all kinds of students.  The thing is, all of those colleges only had face-to-face courses — and my general teaching strategy was pretty much the same.  Go in and talk to a group of people about something I found fascinating — give quizzes/exams, assign papers — and you’re done.  

With a face-to-face course, the preparation had two parts — 1) design a syllabus, 2) prepare for each individual class.  The syllabus design usually took me no more than an afternoon, even with new textbooks.  The class preparation was usually less than an hour in the time before class, less later on when most of the content was in my head already.  

The teaching part took whatever amount of time it took to hold the class in the classroom, plus office hours and an occasional e-mail problem to solve.  Students asked questions in class, I answered them and everyone else heard the answers.  Students would learn from me and one another and it all kind of worked out.  When class was over, so was my teaching — until next time.  Of course, there was periodical grading, which meant taking a stack of papers home to read and hoping the cat didn’t eat anything important. 

Teaching online had a totally different rhythm — For starters, the pre-course preparation just began with the syllabus.  After figuring out what the course was going to look like, I had a whole bunch of work to do in D2L (our current course management system).  D2L doesn’t always work like you’d think it does.  They have odd defaults for things, they update the program (often not fixing previous problems, but adding new “features” just when I got used to the old “features), some things can be copied between courses but others can’t etc.  

Teaching online is like teaching in short intervals — because the students are accessing the course material at different times of day, different days of the week and generally taking advantage of the online course format to fit learning into their busy lives.  That’s one of the wonderful things about online teaching — the learning never really stops — that also means that the teaching never really ends.  

In face-to-face courses the teaching routine was clear — not entirely under my control, but pretty close — you go in, teach, be done… An online teaching ‘routine’ is quite different and it needs to be two things — 1) it needs to provide answers to students in a reasonable time-frame, and 2) it needs to fit into MY otherwise pretty busy life.  Establishing that routine can (and continues to be) a challenge. 

Perhaps the bigger challenge is that students’ questions don’t come all at the same time — and most of them are about the mechanics of the course, not the course content.  So I find myself instructing students to scroll down and find a set of discussions.  I help them trouble-shoot browser complications, I help them figure out where to post something etc… none of this is based on anything but my own experiences with the CMS — and it’s not my specialty, or anything close.

I also have to design a course knowing that I won’t be around to answer content questions in person. That means I need to look for a different kind of textbook. I need to write quizzes that are more like reading guides than tests of knowledge about the content.  I write discussion questions and debate topics with the hope of getting students to engage with the material.  I write paper topics that I hope will get them to apply higher-level thinking to the material — and I write this blog.  All of those things are designed to help the student help themselves to information I had taught to me in-person.  Weird, huh… 

One of the challenges is blending my in-person responsibilities and my online responsibilities.  I still usually teach at least one in-person course, if not a couple.  I sit on a committee that meets every Wednesday afternoon and deals with issues central to the function of the college — I’m also the department chair this year, so there are other duties and meetings for that… plus, you know — I have a life.  I’m a newly wed, a new step-parent, a daughter, a friend and a person who needs to get some things done.  I also want to have a creative and intellectual life outside of my job — so I take photos (processing and printing them myself in the darkroom… cool, huh?), I read books, watch stuff on TV and sit on the porch with my husband discussing everything from our shared experiences from middle school to the crisis in the Mid-east.  

The question becomes, how do I fit the online teaching into all of that?  The answer isn’t easy… I try to set up a schedule that gives me some blocks of time to do grading, to fix the mistakes I made when I set up the course, to think about new ways to teach the course, and to develop the materials for the next time around.  For the most part, those times are Mondays and Fridays — and it’s a challenge to keep those times free from meetings and other stuff.  

Then there are the ‘few minutes’ here and there over the rest of the week.  That’s where the time really gets away from me.  I’ll regularly (like, maybe several times per day) check e-mail, trying to answer the questions /resolve problems as I go — I also check into the course’s “ask the class / ask the professor” discussion area.  That’s where other issues tend to pop up.  

It’s quite common for me to check my e-mail and course message boards from my ipad, after I’ve started the coffee brewing but before I’m really ready to get out of my warm comfy bed — so I’ll start the coffee and snuggle in for some e-mail and student problems from the night before.  

I try to save complicated things for after I’ve had some coffee — and after I’ve put on my glasses and fired up the computer.  This is why it takes me a while to get out the door in the morning — those ‘few minutes’ are often more like 30 or 45 minutes, depending on the time of the semester.  Sometimes with my morning coffee I’ll even write a blog post about something in my news feed, send an article or e-mail to my students etc.. 

When I get to campus, there’s another quick check for messages (and especially replies from students) and then I’m off for in-person duties.  After class, a third round of checking — and usually at least one more round of checking when I get home.  

One thing I’m getting better at is not checking in the evenings.  I’ve found that even though my students’ most often do coursework in the evenings, I need that time to relax, unwind, read  — mess around on facebook or play a mindless game on my ipad.  I need that for my own sanity, and I’ve noticed that if I’m going to make a mistake, or send an e-mail with too much snark in it, it happens in the evenings — so, better to step away from the keyboard at some point.  

To that end, I try to be clear with students that they won’t necessarily receive an instant response to an e-mail, even when they have stuff due on Sunday night.  I spent MANY years doing college (think, freshman year was the Fall semester of 1987, my Ph.D. defense was June 2010) — A LONG TIME.  I did take about 3 years off between 1990 and 1993, but otherwise, I was a college student from 1987 to 2010 — and ALL of that time I was a working college student — my work changed from managing at McDonalds to teaching my own classes part-time, to teaching my own classes and other full-time duties.  I know exactly what it’s like to try to fit college in and around the rest of a life… and, after all that time, I think I’m ready to have more or less ‘normal’ evening and weekend activity — most of the time.

Weekends, for the most part, I try to limit my work to the ‘quick check’ variety — but sometimes a working weekend is inevitable — like last weekend.  There were a bunch of small and large things on my to-do list, and I managed to get them done… This weekend, I suspect, will be different.

In the end, I think that online teaching is MUCH more time-consuming, invasive into the other parts of my life, and perhaps less initially rewarding — but, I like the flexibility it gives me.  I like seeing students progress in their abilities to write about material I really love, and I like that online classes require participation by everyone, so instead of a classroom conversation in which a few smarty-pants dominate a set amount of time — folks who are a bit more shy can say what they think and others will listen… 

Now — off for a weekend — well, maybe one more check of messages and THEN weekend!  


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