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A First Aid to Philosophy

A Student's Guide to Philosophy Courses By David Benatar

Please note: this material is copyrighted, but may be used for personal use without charge on condition that the author and source are acknowledged.

How to Succeed in a Philosophy Course

(i) Attendance

This is not a distance education institution. Attend all lectures and tutorials. Not only is doing so a DP(Duly Performed) requirement, but it will benefit you. Lectures aim at presenting a coherent outline of or approach to a philosophical problem. It is important for students to see philosophy in action. There will also be some opportunity for class discussion. Tutorials allow students to raise, and discuss at greater length, issues that they have not fully understood in lectures. Tutorials also present an opportunity for students to try out their arguments and ideas in relatively small groups. Do not wait until you submit your essay or write a test or exam to find out whether your ideas and arguments work.


(ii) Notes 
Notes are taken in haste during class. It is an excellent idea to review one's notes each day. If the first time you look at your notes is when you come to write your essay or prepare for your test or exam, you may only discover at that late stage that your notes do not make any sense. Reviewing your notes on the day you took them and, if necessary, writing or typing them in fuller form, will help to ensure that they will be of value to you when you need them later. 


(iii) Reading 
Make sure that you do each of the readings at the appointed time in the semester. If you leave the reading until the end of the semester or if you think you can read chunks every few weeks, you will find that you cannot devote the kind of attention to the readings that is required. Reading philosophy is not like reading magazines or novels - it is difficult and requires close concentration. You may need to read the same article two or three times. It is sometimes helpful to underline words, phrases or brief passages that mark the various stages of the argument or are otherwise important. One should be cautioned, however, against getting carried away and underlining (or highlighting) the bulk of the text, which will serve no greater purpose, but will be more ugly, than underlining or highlighting nothing. Another helpful technique is to make annotations in the margins. Sometimes, while reading a paper, one thinks of an objection or a question. Writing it down in the margin is a way of preserving that thought and enabling one to return to it later. Marginal annotations may also serve to mark the various stages in the development of the argument. Conscientious students may want to make summaries of each article. 


(iv) Thinking 
Taking notes and reading is not sufficient. In a philosophy course, one also has to think (for oneself). Thinking is not as easy as it may seem, even though, unlike many tasks, one does not have to get out of bed to do it. Make sure that you understand all the arguments advanced in lectures and in the readings. Reason through them. Determine which ones you support and why. Philosophy can be fun. You can engage your friends and have philosophical discussions with them. Be careful, though, that these discussions do not deteriorate into undisciplined chatter. It is hard to keep a philosophical discussion on track and thus productive.  


(v) Assignments 
Start planning and working on your essays early. Too many students leave their essays or studying until the last minute and then do a hasty, sloppy job. Assignments must be submitted by the deadline.


(vi) Communicate
If you have any personal problems that impact on your work (including your attendance in class, your ability to keep up to date with reading and other preparation, or your ability to submit assignments by due dates), you should communicate in good time with your lecturer (or tutor). This indicates a mature response to your problem, may prevent DP trouble, and enables your lecturer (or tutor) to help you as much as possible.