The Four-Sentence Philosophy Paper

Some philosophy professors have been assigning their students four-sentence papers to write. Why do this?

In a 2015 paper, Dennis Earl, professor of philosophy at Coastal Carolina University writes:

Most everyone reading this who is a philosopher surely assigns argumentative, “thesis defense” papers. Most everyone reading this surely struggles with grading such papers, and most everyone reading this surely thinks about how best to help students improve their argumentative writing skills. A first thought is that if we want students to be able to write good argumentative papers, we should assign more papers. But we all know we’re limited in that—in terms of load on both students and us—and most of us wind up assigning just a few papers in any one course, and the consequence is that progress is slow. What to do? I agree with the common thought just mentioned, and also with the thought that practicing various components or subskills of argumentative writing is helpful too. One of the most important of these is that of considering and replying to objections. This might be the most important skill in argumentative writing after getting the expository material right and having clear and cogent arguments of one’s own. But in my experience, and my own department’s assessment data confirm this, students only rarely consider objections to their own theses and arguments. Or if they do, it is usually by way of just a passing mention of an opposing view. Again, what to do?

What I offer here is a tool to help build argumentative writing skills by way of making more practice of them possible, where the tool essentially includes practice at considering and replying to objections. I call it “the four-sentence paper.”

[Roy Lichtenstein, “Cow Triptych / Cow Going Abstract”]

Professor Earl says the idea was inspired by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein in their book, They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, which recommends giving students templates to help with their writing, and he offers up his version “as one tool we should use in teaching argumentative writing.” Here’s his template:

(1) They say __________.
(2) I say __________, because __________.
(3) One might object that __________.
(4) I reply that __________.

He goes on to show how the template can be used for a variety of philosophical topics, and how it can be used to help students prepare for writing longer essays, build reading skills, and enhance their in-class participation. He presents some empirical support for the effectiveness of the the tool and also addresses objections to its use. An ungated manuscript of the paper is available here.

I learned of Professor Earl’s idea from a recent discussion on social media in which several philosophers said they used it. Have you? How has it worked out? Are there other valuable mini-assignments more philosophy professors should be aware of?

(via Andrew J. Cohen)

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Kevin DeLapp
Kevin DeLapp
5 months ago

I haven’t used anything like this myself (yet), but sounds both effective and fun! Once, I tried to implement a (watered-down) scholastic-style disputation template for some writing assignments with somewhat similar aims and motivations as Earl, but it was way too wonky (although it did have the virtue of illustrating something of historical relevance). Earl’s idea seems much more flexible and accessible.Report

John Schwenkler
Reply to  Kevin DeLapp
5 months ago

[Replying to Kevin DeLapp] I’ve used the scholastic disputation format a few different ways. It worked best when I did it in the context of the whole medieval rigamarole: in advance of the assignment I’d announce the question and have students come up with arguments for one or another answer to it; then we’d spend a day where students would present these arguments and we would discuss them together; finally I would show up in full academic regalia and pronounce on the correct answer, while students submitted their written versions of the same. It was a time-consuming activity but the writing I got was way better than the usual five-paragraph essay. Unfortunately, these days I think too highly of myself to be caught dead around campus in my regalia.Report

Marcus Arvan
5 months ago

I’ve done something similar, but a bit different. I assign 4-5 sentence papers on daily readings. The first sentence has to quote some short passage from the text. The second and/or third sentence(s) must then concisely sketch the passage’s role in the author’s argument (is it a premise? How does the author justify it? What conclusion are they using it to argue for?). Finally, the fourth and/or fifth sentence must then motivate some kind of question about it or objection to it.

This may sound like a lot for 4-5 sentences, but I find it works like a charm. It requires students to do many things that students tend to struggle with: focus carefully on a specific passage, quote and cite it properly, demonstrate that they have some idea what it means and why the author is making the claim in question, think critically about it, and do all of this concisely. I then ask students to volunteer them as conversation starters in class. Students seem to appreciate the exercise, and it seems to me to work well to develop a variety of important skills.Report

Samantha Copeland
Samantha Copeland
5 months ago

I used it this past year to give my engineering students in ethics a structure for commenting on their reading. It helped them to see the arguments in the news stories and articles as such, and gave them a clear element-based approach to constructing their response to one argument as preparation for our tutorials (bonus: it kept them from submitting wider ranging, longer or rambling, discussions…mostly). Great for students taking philosophy or ethics as an elective from more science-based disciplines. Report

5 months ago

Quidam dicunt —
Respondeo dicendum quod — quia —
Posset aliquis obiicere —
Respondeo quod —

Reply to  edward
4 months ago

How to make something already simple more complicated: put it in LatinReport

Michael Roche
Michael Roche
5 months ago

I really like this idea, though I’m inclined to use it for reading assignments rather than papers. I currently have students post to Moodle (Blackboard, Canvas) prior to the class where the reading will be discussed. They need to write a couple sentences about something they found unconvincing or confusing and then a couple sentences about something they found interesting or important. But I think I’ll try out the template from above. I think this kind of assignment would better prepare students for the four short papers (1-2. pp) that I assign than my current assignment does. I also really like Marcus Arvan’s assignment! I might try both, or a combination of the two. Report

Daniel Weltman
5 months ago

I use a slightly modified version of the template in my intro courses. (I just finished grading a batch of them in the Introduction to Philosophy course I’m teaching right now.) I like them because they get students focused on writing concisely about a single point, and I think the structure helps people who are new to writing philosophy. My rubric is very clear about what each sentence should have and they get feedback on each sentence separately so this lets them improve a lot from one paper to the next.Report

5 months ago

It’s an effective way to get people to understand the “skeleton” of their general argument.

But I don’t think it’s new. People in critical thinking have been assigning versions this for decades. Usually just as an outline for an actual paper though.

Martin Davies
5 months ago

I applaud this, but can’t see it is much different from assigning assignments in the form of argument maps (preparatory to, or in place of formal essays).Report

Nancy J. Matchett
5 months ago

I’ve used a number of variations on this for structuring asynchronous discussion in philosophy courses. One not already mentioned: divide class into four groups. Each week (or unit, or whatever chunk/time period makes sense for your class structure), assign one of the sentence tasks (with appropriate deadlines so the four tasks unfold in order). At the end, have the whole glass thumbs up the replies to objections they think are strongest. As instructor, post a debrief as appropriate to highlight strengths/weaknesses exhibited by the class as a whole (including both knowledge and skills gaps) and provide advice for improving the next time around.

This essentially allows the instructor to treat the co-created discussion as a rough draft or outline of an argumentative paper. Important to the exercise is that students receive discussion points simply for making a good faith effort to complete their sentence task by the deadline (formative assessment only). But instructors can indicate how the discussion as a whole aligns with rubrics/standards used for argumentative essays students are expected to produce on their own at the end of the class. This helps students understand the link between the discussion and the knowledge/skills a philosophy class is designed to produce. (good news- philosophy is not just folks sitting around pondering questions that can’t be answered/don’t have better/worse answers). It also lets the instructor manage workload by giving constructive feedback to the whole class at once even in an asynchronous setting where students are participating at different times.Report