For students

How to approach a philosophy course

Philosophy is an exciting subject, but for many students it involves a whole new genre of reading, thinking, and writing. Because of this, even strong students may discover that previously successful strategies no longer work in a college philosophy course. Students tend to do much better, however, as soon as they shift out of 'autopilot' and begin actively reflecting on their own approach to the course.  

Since philosophy is a DIY activity, not a spectator sport, you will benefit from paying attention to the approaches that you intentionally or unintentionally take toward your work. For instance:  Are you actively thinking along with class discussions, or just saying whatever pops into your head? Are you asking critical questions about the text, or just searching for the main ideas? Are you voicing your doubts, concerns, or objections in class, or just trying to absorb what others say? The trick to success is to stop thinking of yourself as a passive learner and start actively engaging the texts, your classmates, and the professor.

It is our responsibility, as instructors, to help you make this shift. However, we won't simply give you what you need to pass the class. That model fundamentally misunderstands what it means to be a student. We will teach you to do the work of thinking with, against, and beyond the course material, and that will help you pass the class-- and maybe score a bit of intellectual autonomy along the way.

Tips for success in philosophy classes

1.  Ask questions. When you are confused about something said in class or in the reading, and especially when you aren't sure what you are supposed to be doing, ask.  

2.  Go to office hours, at least once, even if you don't have a particular question or concern in mind. Talking one-on-one with your professor can help you see the class in a new light, and sometimes it can chip away at intimidation or anxiety.

3.  Reading philosophy takes far longer, and far more energy, that many other kinds of reading. Don't expect to breeze through assignments as quickly as you read a novel. Give yourself plenty of time to do the work well.  

4.  Coming to class prepared allows you to get more out of class. Lectures and discussions will make more sense if you've read the material, and bringing questions or comments to class will even enable you to steer the class in directions that you want to go.  

5.  Your class notes are a key resource for papers and tests. Take good notes to provide yourself with a map of the semester.

6.  You don't actually write as well at the last minute as you think you do. No one does. Start papers early, finish drafts early, and give yourself time to revise.    

7.  Find a place on campus where you actually get work done. We all tell ourselves that we need music, friends, a sunny view, etc. in order to do our work. But really? At least once, treat yourself to a quiet and lonely spot in the library, just to see what happens.

8.  If you get lost in the reading, or stuck writing, it's tempting to turn to the internet for help. But there is a lot of junk on the internet, especially about philosophy. Instead of clicking around blindly, start with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and check out the bibliography at the end of every entry. And no matter where you look, always cite your sources, even if you paraphrase. Students risk plagiarizing when they forget where they got an idea, phrase, or formulation, so keep careful track.

9.  Your professors will be happy to recommend secondary sources to help you. We will be delighted to recommend additional reading on topics that interest you.