Assignments: Essay Sequence

Assignment Goals

In this sequence of assignments we will examine and reconsider terms, concepts and ideas raised in, and related to, the subject matter of the course. Beyond gaining familiarity with the subject matter, the goal of these assignments is to have you conduct, and judge, philosophical analyses in your inquiry. The assignment design rests on the conceit that while you may not do academic philosophy proper in the future, developing a philosophical facility benefits all forms of inquiry. To that end, the learning goals of these assignments are to have you formulate, refine and integrate your ideas throughout the semester into cogent arguments regarding issues in and around both the philosophy of science and the philosophy of technology.


This Essay Sequence has four general parts: Leading Discussion (comprised of four elements), Participating in Discussion, Essay One and Essay Two. You may approach this sequence as series of stand-alone assignments or as selected parts leading to a larger whole — the final essay.

Leading Discussion

Each of you will lead the class discussion once during the semester. Discussion leaders will pose questions and offer keywords on, and related to, the readings. Using the questions, keywords and responses, discussion leaders will prepare and orchestrate class discussion.

In light of the class discussion, leaders will return to the questions, keywords and responses and provide a commentary — a critical appraisal regarding where the week's questions, keywords responses and discussion have taken us. Questions, keywords, responses and commentaries will be posted on the class wiki.

    Leading Discussion: Question Formation

    As assigned on the course calendar, the discussion leader will develop three to five concisely worded questions based on the assigned readings, related readings and/or on related issues and topics. For each question, please provide a page reference (or references) to the assigned texts — or to outside texts — that indicate your thinking as you formed the question, why you formed the question as you did, and how the question might be approached. For assigned readings, you need only provide the title or author and page number. For outside sources, please provide full citations.

    Please post your questions to the appropriate wiki forum no later than Saturday at 6 p.m. (the Saturday before we discuss the readings on Wednesday.

    The purpose of the questions is to encourage thoughtful analysis, writing and argument. Please consider the "who, what, where, when, how" implied in the formulation of the question. I offer the following prompts to encourage an analysis of the questions as you pose them:

      • What kind of thinking does the question provoke? Does the question ask for a description? A judgment? An opinion? Data?
      • How is the question posed structurally? Is the question short, long, compound, over determined, vague, careless, precise, wordy?
      • How might the question be answered? What resources might be needed to answer the question — personal opinion, experience, expertise, experiment, close reading of the text, interpretation?
      • Who does the question ask the respondent to be? Fellow seeker? Novice? Dope? Collaborator? Believer? Cynic? Judge? Agent of change?
      • What is the goal of the question? Affirmation and Confirmation? Provocation? Knowledge seeking? Information?
      • When might the question be answered? Does the question assume an immediate answer? Does the question assume a certain vision of the future? Does the question assume a certain understanding of the past? Of current events?

    Leading Discussion: Keyword Entry

    As you analyze the reading, I ask that you select three to five keywords. The criteria for selecting keywords is yours to develop. However, I want the keywords selected to provide continuity, variety and inclusiveness. The inspiration for this part of the assignment comes from Raymond Williams Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976). Williams describes his approach:

      ... It is not a dictionary or glossary of a particular academic subject. It is not a series of footnotes to dictionary histories or definitions of a number of words. It is, rather, the record of an inquiry into a vocabulary: a shared body of words and meanings in our most general discussions, in English, of the practices and institutions which we group as culture and society ... I called these words Keywords in two connected senses: they are significant, binding words in certain activities and their interpretation; they are significant, indicative words in certain forms of thought. Certain uses bound together certain ways of seeing culture and society, not least in these two most general words. Certain other uses seemed to me to open up issues and problems, in the same general area, of which we all needed to be very much more conscious. Notes on a list of words; analyses of certain formations: these were other elements of an active vocabulary — a way of recording, investigating and presenting problems of meaning in the area in which the meanings of culture and society have formed. (emphasis mine, p. 13)

    Williams most noted keyword entry was 'culture.'

    From the assigned, or related, reading, then, I ask that you choose three to five keywords, no more. You may develop a longer entry on one or two keywords and develop a new, or integrated, entry on a previously selected keyword. These keywords should have a common usage (are part of our "general discussions"), but may be given a particular technical or disciplinary definition by the writer. I want you to provide brief entries — 150-250 words — for each keyword (at most, 750-1250 total words). I do not want you to mimic Williams' style or concerns, rather I ask that you offer "the record of an inquiry into a vocabulary" originating in your mind, our reading and our discussion. Ultimately, I want us to build a vocabulary that lends an evolving basis for our shared inquiry.

    Please post your keywords to the appropriate wiki forum no later than Saturday at 6 p.m. (the Saturday before we discuss the readings on Wednesday.

    Leading Discussion: Class Discussion

    The discussion leader will use their questions, keyword entries and class members' responses as the basis for structuring an in-class discussion of the assigned reading and related topics. Leaders may conduct the class in any manner they choose — being more or less structured — but the general goal is a cogent discussion about the issues and ideas raised in, and related to, the assigned reading.

    Leading Discussion: Commentary

    After Wednesday's class the discussion leader will comment and reflect on any ideas raised, or neglected, in the question, keyword, response and discussion process during the preceding week. And, if so inclined, the discussion leader may revisit and comment on previous questions, keywords, responses, discussions and commentaries. While I leave the commentary's content to the author, I ask that one goal be to help develop a coherent narrative about the issues raised in the course. Thus, a possible outcome of the commentaries would be that at the semester's end one could, simply by reading commentaries, get a clear sense of the relationship among significant ideas raised in the class. Commentaries will be 350 to 500 words and are due to the wiki within a week after leading the class discussion. Might I suggest that the commentaries be performed soon as possible after the class as proper reflection allows?

Participating in Discussions

If you are not leading a given week's discussion, please select a question or questions to which to respond. You may also respond to the discussion leader's keyword entry, but are not required to do so.

    Participating in Discussions: Questions and Keywords

    If you are not leading a given week's discussion, please select a question or questions to which to respond. Your response should be roughly 350 to 500 words. Concision is a virtue. In your response, please give a reference, or references, to the assigned reading — or to outside texts — that indicate the basis for your analysis and argument. Please keep in mind that your responses may provide fodder for two future essays.

    You may also respond to the discussion leader's keyword entry. However, you are not required to do so. Your participation would be in addition to your response to a given question or questions. You may participate by providing content to (including other media, references), or editing, the entry. You may also integrate a keyword entry into your question response. If you choose to respond to keyword entries, your effort would be noted as a valuable, rewarded asset to our community.

    Please post your responses to the appropriate wiki forum by Tuesday noon (the Tuesday before we discuss the readings on Wednesday).

    Participating in Discussions: Assessment

    If you are not leading a given week's discussion, please provide your input on the presentation as soon as possible after class. Please assess the discussion by using this on-line form.


You will write two essays — at the mid-term and at the end of the semester. You may use any materials developed previously — questions, keyword entries, responses, discussion preparation and notes, commentaries — for your essay. You may conceive of the essays as two discrete assignments or as parts of a larger whole; that is, the first essay may be integrated into the second essay.

Each essay will develop an argument regarding an idea or issue — that you define clearly — regarding the philosophy of modern science and technology. While you may use any of your previous work in the class, your essays should develop fully realized, evidence-based arguments. Consequently, stringing together previous responses to loosely related questions will not suffice.

    Essays: Drafting

    You have idiosyncratic writing processes. But you share a common belief in the efficacy of deadline pressure to promote, if not good prose, then "good enough" prose. Such a persistent belief is nearly impossible to shake and extends well into many academic careers. Let me strongly urge you to begin as early as possible developing ideas for your essays. Again, the raw material may exist in any of the forums mentioned above, or in other work. Likely, your first idea for an essay will not be your best idea.

    Consider whatever strategy works best for you in generating ideas and organizing thoughts and evidence — outline, abstract, annotated bibliography, notes, a written response to a conversation (with me, a classmate), paragraphs, full draft, free writing. While I do not care about the overall state of the draft, I do want something to which I can respond. As far as I am concerned, the bar for drafts is set low; coherent prose happily accepted, but optional.

    As you set out to draft, I ask that you consider the following (which you can address more or less directly):

      • The object of your inquiry;
      • The problem you have formulated;
      • The central question you will pose and will explore;
      • The argument you will make about the object, problem and question you have described;
      • The resources you might use.

    For Essay One, please send me your draft by e-mail by February 10.

    For Essay Two, please send me your draft by e-mail by March 31.

    Essays: Evaluation

    I will evaluate your finished essays based on the clear aims of your inquiry and the norms of academic argument. Your essays, then, will:

      • Define in careful detail the problem, idea or issue being explored;
      • Pose an explicit central question about the idea or issue;
      • Provide an arguable claim that takes a position on the central question;
      • Develop clear argumentative logic;
      • Lend textual (and other) evidence to support the argument's claim.

Essay One: Due to the appropriate forum on the wiki by March 3; 1500-2500 words.

Essay Two: Due to the appropriate forum on the wiki no later than 9:00 p.m. May 10; 1500-2500 words.

Philosophy of Modern Science and Technology