How To Fail Philosophy Exams

How To Fail Philosophy Exams


Bob Hargrave was, I am told, a much-loved lecturer in philosophy at Oxford University (he died in 2012). Among his pedagogical contributions is a document he prepared called “Rodin’s Thinker, or How To Fail Philosophy Exams.” It was written for Oxford students, but much of it is applicable to philosophy exams (and some writing assignments) given anywhere.

One great part is a section in which the exam grader, Jeopardy-style, tries to guess the question the student actually answered in his or her exam. For example:

  • Write down all you can remember about Locke on Personal Identity, in no particular order. Abandon any attempt at accuracy or rigour. Above all, do not draw any conclusions.
  • Think up a really stupid view on Personal Identity, which no philosopher has ever held, and blame it on Hume. Remember to end your essay in the middle of a sentence.
  • Compose a brief piece on Personal Identity parodying the style of Readers’ Digest, and beginning with the phrase “Ever since the dawn of time…”.
  • Confuse Hume with Berkeley. If you have never heard of Berkeley, just confuse Hume.

I encourage readers to provide their own examples of this in the comments.

Apart from the humor, there really is some good advice about how a student should prepare and practice for an exam, what to concentrate on, how to structure one’s answers, when to mention Hitler, and so on. Another choice excerpt:

All candidates would have done better if they had concentrated on clearly explaining simple points which they did understand, and which were under their command, rather than gesturing vaguely at more complex or sophisticated considerations which they did not understand, and which were not under their command.

I learned of this via William MacAskill, who has put a version of it here. There is also a version here. MacAskill tells me that these versions are incomplete. If anyone out there has an unabridged version, please send it in. And if you have other advice about how to fail (or not) philosophy exams, feel free to share it.

(Photo of Bob Hargrave by Dominic Minghella)

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Mark Thakkar
6 years ago

There is no complete version, I’m afraid – Bob was a bit like that. I’m between web hosts at the moment, but I’ve temporarily archived his site here:
http://www.zen86579.zen.co.uk/~ball0888/
There’s some other pedagogically useful material in the ‘Oxford’ tab.Report

Michael P. Wolf
6 years ago

A friend of mine in sociology had a story that could be adapted here:

1. Discuss the work of Weber, getting most details wrong.
2. Discuss the work of “Vayber,” the guy we talked about in class but didn’t read, getting most details wrong.
3. Argue that Weber and “Vayber” disagreed on almost everything.

This would work easily for a philosopher with a name spelled unlike it is pronounced, but I’m too undercaffeinated to think of one right now.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

Here is what must surely have been the instructions for a paper I received today: Pick two ethical theories and briefly summarize them. Conclude with some general, unsubstantiated remarks about how the theories are both similar and different.Report

John Schwenkler
6 years ago

Write your answers in an illegible scrawl that takes immense cognitive effort to discern. Your professor will be too tired to evaluate the content of your answer, and will probably give you an ‘A’.Report

Rob
Rob
Reply to  John Schwenkler
6 months ago

My solution to this is to remind my students that if I cannot read their handwriting, I just have to assume that whatever they wrote was wrong.Report

Will MacAskill
6 years ago

Thanks Mark! Your archive means I’ve now rediscovered my favourite ever piece of philosophy advice. Here it is. (He’s just given an example of a good introduction, and now he gives an example of a bad introduction.):

The Bad

In order to answer this question it is necessary to first define Act-Utilitarianism and Rule-Utilitarianism, and then to investigate whether Mill was an act- or a rule-utilitarian, and finally to come up with an answer one way or the other. My answer will be that the truth lies somewhere in between. Act-utilitarians are only bothered about individual acts, but Rule-utilitarians think that they get it wrong, and that there is a place for rules in utilitarianism.

Commentary

Absolutely appalling. Firstly, this is a complete waste of time: these vague thoughts now need sharpening along the lines of The Good answer. So the candidate might as well have begun with paragraph 2. The only effect of this one is to tell the examiner that the candidate is a fuckwit.

Secondly, this paragraph has no intrinsic connection with utilitarianism. Or, indeed, with anything. It is generated by a programme which writes first paragraphs for any question. Suppose the title had been “Is Aten of more central symbolic significance in Egyptian mythology than Osiris?” Then the programme generates

“In order to answer this question is is necessary to discuss the symbolic significance of Aten and Osiris, and then to investigate whether one was more central to Egyptian mythology than the other. My answer will be that the truth lies somewhere in between. Supporters of Aten think that Aten is of central importance, but supporters of Osiris think that they are wrong, and that there is a case to be made for Osiris.”

First impression: Fuckwit
http://www.zen86579.zen.co.uk/~ball0888/oxfordopen/paragraphs.htmReport

James
James
Reply to  Will MacAskill
7 months ago

Hello from the future, six years after the exchange. Perhaps this will be chanced upon by other time travellers.

The exemplar Hargrave gives for a ‘distinction-plus’ essay gets straight into a definition of the terms of the question without giving a road map for the essay, which he says is the mark of a fuckwit. This strikes me as controversial advice – all advice I have seen has been that it’s essential to summarise the layout of the essay in the introduction. Hargrave concludes by saying, ‘This candidate … knows where he/she is going.’ The problem is, the reader doesn’t.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  James
6 months ago

What I used to say to Oxford undergrads (I was teaching at the same time and place as Bob Hargrave) was:

  • it is essential that the structure of your essay is entirely clear to the reader;
  • one way to make it clear is to tell them explicitly what it is in the first paragraph, which always works but can be a bit stylistically cumbersome in a short essay (these are 1,500-word essays);
  • if the actual structure of your essay is clear, you may not need that introductory paragraph;
  • leave a space at the top! If, on finishing the essay, you think the reader needs it, then add it in.

That said, Bob’s ‘Bad’ example (quoted by William MacAskill) is not a structure roadmap. The first sentence contains almost literally no information, and could be crossed out without loss. The second, if squinted at carefully, looks a bit like a structure roadmap, but is a fuzzy mess, and is so vague about its intended conclusion as to convey little or no information..

One could (very) charitably rewrite the ‘Bad’ example as something like

‘In this essay I will present the core case for Act-Utilitarianism, then discuss central Rule-Utilitarian criticisms of that case, and finally argue for a intermediate position which modifies Act-Utilitarianism in light of those criticisms but without fully adopting Rule-Utilitarianism.’

But nine times out of ten, if you actually execute that structure in a 1,500 word essay, it’s sufficiently clear on its face how the structure goes that you don’t need to write it down explicitly, in which case your essay gets a more powerful start by going straight in with the case for Act-Utilitarianism.Report

ejrd
ejrd
6 years ago

A lot of these bad papers seem, at least in part, to have been brought on by bad writing prompts to begin with. I wouldn’t be so quick to put all of the blame on students for writing lazy answers to (what may amount to) lazy prompts. We could probably use a “How to Fail at Writing Philosophy Exams” joke-post also.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Maybe I am the only one who finds this in bad taste, this making fun of one’s students’ work from one’s position of authority over them. It reminds me of comedians who make jokes about homeless people– it’s fine to use humor as a way to speak truth to power, but when it is used to put down those who are weak, I find it less moving. If you’re going to give advice, then give advice, but don’t use it as a chance to shit on students who are in your care and who haven’t been taught to write properly.Report

Robert Simpson
Robert Simpson
6 years ago

Hi Will! I’m intrigued as to what it is that you particularly like about this advice. At first blush, this advice strikes me as needlessly aggressive, and kind of pompous. It seems like the kind of advice that a philosopher like yourself — who is patient with interlocutors, sympathetic to sources of misunderstanding, at pains to be welcoming and inclusive, etc. — would *never* give!

To be clear, I’m not categorically opposed to firm admonishments and the expression of pointed judgements in our interactions with students. But there are more or less constructive (and more or less kind!) ways to do this, and the above example seems to me to lie at the unhappy end of the spectrum.Report

Edward Swann
Edward Swann
6 years ago

If only more people could have known him…. I don’t know if it was intended, but some of the comments about ‘power over’ and ‘unkind’ couldn’t be more out of place if they tried. I was, am, a bad writer – this comment should make that obvious – Bob never made me feel anything but great from our interactions and I believe I have improved immensely as a philosopher/human from knowing him – in fact I was only yesterday using him as an example of why students from my VI form college ‘up north’ should definitely be applying to Oxford.Report

Josh Parsons
6 years ago

An important thing to remember here is that showing a student a list of “what not to do” is more likely to harm than help them. From all reports, Hargrave didn’t do that: his negative advice was accompanied by a lot of hands-on instruction in how to write an essay.
But I have seen lecturers try to help students just by showing them exemplars of poor essays and pointing out the problems with them as things to be avoided. This is hopeless even when not accompanied by jokes at the expense of students: it only makes good students feel complacent, and poor students feel lost.
There are plenty of great pieces of positive advice for students on how to write philosophy essays (Jim Pryor’s “how to write a philosophy essay” is a well known one).Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
6 years ago

Just to reiterate and expand on Edward’s comment (Bob was my colleague at Balliol and is much missed):

While Justin is probably right that some of the *content* of Bob’s pedagogical advice is widely applicable, the *style* really makes sense only in a very specific and narrow context (Balliol students, not even Oxford students more generally). I’m not sure whether it was even visible outside the Balliol domain when Bob was alive; certainly it wasn’t aimed at an audience beyond the students Bob taught and I think trying to reconstruct the pedagogical context from this material in isolation will give a horribly misleading impression, as literally hundreds of Balliol philosophy undergraduates over the years would be able to attest.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
6 years ago

(oh, and de mortuis nihil nisi bonum)Report

Anon from 8:30
Anon from 8:30
6 years ago

Wallace. I did not mean to speak malum de mortuis, but just to object to a particular pedagogical style. My comment was largely written in response to #5. Now I see that it came off the wrong way, and I apologize for that.Report

Derek Bowman
6 years ago

In defense of Anon, I think we can separate the spirit in which Bob Hargrave may have created and distributed this information and the gleeful compilation of it for a general internet audience. The danger is that it comes off as (or, worse, becomes an expression for) a too much of an antagonistic relationship between the students who make these mistakes and the frustrated, beleaguered professors who have to put up with them.

Context matters, as do the particular personalities of one’s students, and one’s relationship with them. But, in general, I’ve found that the hardest part of getting students to engage seriously with philosophy is getting them comfortable with the idea of making mistakes and of saying things that are wrong, so that they can be addressed and corrected. I can imagine a number of classroom contexts in which this kind of information could be part of a larger sense of mutual joviality and lightheartedness about such mistakes. But detached from that context, it risks confirming students’ worst fears about how they may seem to their professors.Report

Svdm
Svdm
6 years ago

The obvious way to figure out how not to fail a philosophy exam would be to read your material – and that is what lecturers hammer at. When a student writes like the above indicated, its his own lack of involvement and why cant there stem tong-in-cheek discussion from that? Irony much?Report

Tim
Tim
6 years ago

Interesting infographic how to write an argumentative essay http://www.essay-profy.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/how_to_write_essay.pngReport