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Tutor profile: Tobias F.

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Tobias F.
PhD in philosophy, 5 years experience teaching philosophy at the university level
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Questions

Subject: Writing

TutorMe
Question:

My professor says that my paper isn’t written clearly, that it was hard to understand. But they didn't say why! And anyway, I don’t get it. My paper makes perfect sense to me. How can I write more clearly?

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Tobias F.
Answer:

That’s an important question, but also a very big question! In other words, there are a lot of things that can make writing unclear, hard for readers to follow, and so on. So, here’s a really basic tip, but also, based on my experience, a really important one. Ready? Here it is: when you finish a draft, read it to yourself out loud. Yes. Out. Loud. With your voice. Preferably with a paper printout of your draft, and a pen in your hand. (But try not to do this in public. You might scare people.) Why do this? Very often when we start to write, we’ve already got a bunch of our ideas in our head, some of them clear, but some of them not. Then, we pour them out into the keyboard, and read them on the screen silently as we go. When we do this, we’re writing from a particular (and limited) perspective, namely, the solitary perspective of our own private thoughts. Things seem so clear! But, very often, that seeming clarity is illusory, in two ways. First, our ideas are often not nearly as clear as we think. They’re often pretty confused, but this is difficult to detect by ourselves. Second, even if our ideas are fairly clear, the way in which we explain our ideas is very often not so clear, at least not in a first draft. This is partly because when writing alone, you don’t have to explain your ideas to someone who’s not in your head, who doesn’t have the benefit of seeing all of the *other* ideas and reasons and distinctions that are needed to understand what you’re trying to say. In other words, we’re often not writing with the reader’s perspective in mind. So it’s not surprising that our first drafts are unclear to our readers! So, where does this crazy idea of reading out loud come in? Reading your own writing out loud tends to simulate reading your writing to someone else—someone who’s not in your head, someone who can see only the words you’ve put on the page. So, reading your writing to someone else helps you to see your writing from someone else’s perspective. I do this with every single draft I write. And every single time I do it I find things to fix: things that I didn’t say very clearly, things that would be better explained in a different way, and things that, it turns out, really never made sense in my own head in the first place. (And, of course, you’ll find misspellings and typos.) So, read your drafts out loud, and revise! I guarantee it’ll help.

Subject: Study Skills

TutorMe
Question:

I’m taking a class with a lot of assigned articles to read. I’ve been told I should print these out and annotate them as I read them (or use an annotation app). But why? It slows down my reading a lot, and I don’t see the benefit.

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Tobias F.
Answer:

Good question! And you do have a point: annotating (i.e., marking up) what you read does slow you down a fair bit. So, when should you do it? Here’s the good news: you probably shouldn’t annotate *everything* you read. Why not? As you said, it slows you down. Also, for some (but not all!) assigned readings, the most important thing is to get a general feel for what’s being discussed. For those sorts of articles, it’s ok to read the article (or chapter, or whatever) straight through, and fairly quickly, just getting the main gist of things. But for other articles—e.g., ones for which you need to understand the author’s main line of argument—it’s often a good idea to slow down, to focus on detecting the main ‘joints’ or structure of the author’s reasoning: their main claims, reasons for those claims, inferences from one claim to another, etc. For articles like that—especially if it’s something you’ll be tested on, or that you’ll have to write about—it’s worth the up-front investment in time to analyze the reading, and to annotate it in ways that are brief but helpful to you later, when you need to remember what the author said or argued in the reading. In other words, *if* that article is one you really need to understand in more than a “get the gist” way, you’re likely to *save time* by taking the time to analyze and annotate it. If you don’t, then later on when you need to remember what the author said, you’re likely to look at the article and think, “I don’t remember any of this!” But, if you annotate the article—even in simple ways—you can skim your annotations and more quickly recall what you earlier thought was important. Also, the process of annotating forces you to read the article more carefully in the first place. So, those are some basic, general reasons to annotate *some of* (not all of) the assigned readings in a class. Now, *how* do you annotate? Well, that’s a whole other question! For now, here are two bits of very basic advice (not everyone will agree with me, but these are based on my own experience): first, keep the annotations brief by using abbreviations, symbols, etc., so long as you’ll be able to tell what they mean later on. Second, don’t stress about using the perfect system of annotation right away. Just annotate in the way that seems right, and you’ll naturally start developing your own system.

Subject: Philosophy

TutorMe
Question:

Rene Descartes says that there’s a “real distinction” between my mind and my body. What does that mean? It seems like he thinks that my mind and body are different or separated. But how could that be? Aren’t I one thing, a thing that has a mind and body as parts, or something like that?

Inactive
Tobias F.
Answer:

Good question! First, let’s make a quick distinction: one question is this: *What’s Descartes even talking about* when he says that there’s a “real distinction” between the mind and body, or that the mind and body are “really distinct”? Here’s another, separate question: *Why* does Descartes think there’s a real distinction (whatever that means) between the mind and the body? What’s his argument? Notice that the second question can’t be answered until we know what Descartes means by ‘real distinction’ in the first place! So, here I’ll just focus on answering that first question: what does it mean to say that my mind and my body are ‘really distinct’? (Quick note: Ideally, you’d want an explanation of Descartes’s own technical terms like ‘real distinction’ using the sorts of terms and concepts that Descartes himself would’ve used. But since I want to keep this brief, I’m going to answer the question using more contemporary language.) Here’s the basic idea (which I’ll refine a bit below): to say that your mind and your body are ‘really distinct’ is to say that they’re *two separate things*—not one thing, not two parts of one thing, not two aspects of one thing. But two separate things. Ok, but… Huh? Consider a different sort of example: Suppose you’re looking at a table. You see a plate, and a bowl on top of the plate. How many things are on the table? Two, right? The plate and the bowl are, to use a contemporary philosophical term, ‘numerically distinct’, which is to say that the *number of things* on the table is two, not one. But, ok, suppose we glue the bowl to the plate! How many things are there now? Well, in a way, the plate and bowl now make one thing. But in another way, it seems that there’re still two things on the table. The plate and bowl are still numerically distinct. Why? Well, for one thing, we can—if we’re careful—separate the plate from the bowl. But then, there must be two things there. We couldn’t separate them if they weren’t already two things there to separate! Similarly, Descartes thinks that the mind and body are numerically distinct things. He thinks that your body (which includes your brain) is one thing: a thing that’s extended or spread out in space, measurable with rulers, etc. But your mind, he thinks, is a numerically distinct thing, that is, a fundamentally separate thing from your body. We should count the mind and body as two things, not one. Descartes also thinks that your mind has a completely different essence or nature than your body: your mind has no physical or spatial features at all, but is rather a purely thinking, experiencing thing. Your body, by contrast, has no mental features at all. (Although that difference in nature is critical for Descartes’s philosophy, for brevity I won’t discuss it further.) Now, even though the mind and body are two things, not one, Descartes admits that the mind is intimately connected to your body, sort of like how the bowl is glued to the plate—except that the connection isn’t a glue-like physical connection. Also like the bowl and plate, Descartes thinks that it’s at least *possible*—even if extremely unlikely, even if it’s only possible given different laws of nature, or a violation of those laws—that your mind *could exist without* your body, and that, vice versa, your body could exist without your mind. But, if that’s true—if one of those things *could* exist without the other (even if that “could” is very thin indeed)—then they *must be* numerically distinct things, that is, not one thing, but two things. Even though you surely have more questions, hopefully it’s at least clear now what Descartes means when he says that there’s a real distinction between the mind and body: he means that they’re numerically distinct, that is, two (even if intimately connected) things, not one thing.

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