Frequently Asked Questions
Most of these questions apply to my undergraduate courses,
but some apply to graduate seminars too.
How should I get in touch with the professor?
For short questions, email me. My email address is in the University’s electronic directory, and in my faculty profile at the Government, Philosophy, or Law School website. I don’t include it in this FAQ because it changes from time to time.
For long questions or conversations, see me during office hours.
In urgent cases, or by appointment, you may telephone my home between 8:00pm and 9:00pm. Yes, my telephone number is listed.
Never leave messages on my University telephone, in my University mailbox, or underneath my University office door. The telephone doesn’t take voicemail, the mailroom is locked, and notes slipped underneath my door will be swept up by the cleaning lady.
How will the professor provide class information?
I provide class information on this website; during class; and via email, so check your email regularly. I provide information via Blackboard only for classes in which I have the help of a teaching assistant, or TA.
What should I do if I come to the professor’s office and he’s already speaking with someone?
So long as you don’t throw things, I'm always delighted to receive your visits during office hours, but if I am already speaking with someone when you arrive, don't wait in silence -- KNOCK to let me know that you're waiting. Otherwise you may wait forever.
What if I disagree about something we’re studying?
Of course the authors have opinions, and so do I. But I also believe in fairness. I take my role as teacher and moderator seriously, but your grade will not be affected by whether you agree or disagree with the author, whether you agree or disagree with other students, or whether you agree or disagree with me. In fact, I like it when you speak up.
Naturally, you should be courteous in disagreement, but disagreement is not discourteous in itself. The courtesy of an intellectual community is different than the courtesy of an ice cream social. You show respect to others not by pretending to agree with them, but by explaining your reasons for thinking that they are in error. Just be sure that your reasons really are reasons. “I just feel that” isn’t giving a reason, but venting an emotion.
The teacher does have the last word; how could it be otherwise? I may also have to cut a discussion short if we are short on time. But you don’t have to worry about how much time we have; that’s my job.
How are grades calculated?
Each take-home essay examination counts the same. Your curved quiz average counts the same as one take-home essay examination. To calculate your raw semester grade, I average these elements. Missed quizzes are not counted in the curved quiz average, although absences do matter in other ways (see below).
Analytical outlines are strongly encouraged but not required. For a complete set of good, original analytical outlines, up to five extra credit points may be awarded per unit. Any extra credit points earned will be added to your grade for the examination for that unit.
If your raw semester average lies in the gray zone between two letter grades, I decide which final grade to award by considering your class participation.
As of Spring, 2016, I do not include pluses and minuses in final course grades.
May I use electronic devices in class?
At all times, electronic devices such as laptops, palmtops, tablets, cellphones, smartphones, smartpens, androids, cyborgs, personal digital assistants, and popcorn poppers must be turned off, removed from your desk, and stowed out of sound and sight. Of course you may continue to use pacemakers and other medical devices.
“But professor, I only use my laptop for taking notes! I wouldn’t think of playing with social media during class!” Your prof is hip, he knows what cooks. (And if you’ve never heard of the Coasters, click here.)
Does the professor care about absences?
Of course I do. Attendance matters not only for your own sake, but also because you owe it to your classmates to participate in discussion intelligently. You can’t do that if you’re not around. So I do record attendance.
Normally I take attendance every day, using an attendance sheet on which you must put both your name and your signature. If you don't sign, you are counted as absent, unless I have your name on a quiz from that day.
Absences on obligatory holy days of your faith count as excused absences.
Other than religious days, I excuse only what the University calls emergency absences, up to a total of seven, provided that you do makeup work, which I will assign. Absences because of not yet having added the course count as non-excused absences. So if you are trying to enroll, attend. I let the University decide which of your absences are emergency absences, so if you have an emergency absence, you must fill out the University's Class Absence Notification Request. Having an SSD accommodation letter does not excuse you from this rule (or from any of the others); however, if because of a disability the University certifies one or more of your absences as emergency absences, then of course I will excuse the ones it has certified.
If you have eight or more absences, whether excused or unexcused, you cannot pass the course, and I would encourage you to work out a drop with the Dean’s Office. Emergency absences have no other effect on grades, but if you have four or more non-emergency absences, your grade is reduced by one full letter.
For examples of emergency and non-emergency absences, see the University’s Class Absence Notification Request.
There are no exceptions to this policy.
How do the quizzes work?
In my experience, students of the University are both interested in what faculty have to teach and capable of learning it. However, students who carefully read what they are assigned to read by the day they are supposed to read it are a rare and vanishing species. The reasons for this puzzling fact don't concern us here.
I never mind explaining something that you've read but don't fully understand. That's what I'm here for. Because you are an adult, though, I do expect you to read the assignment first. If everyone did, I wouldn't give quizzes. Because not everyone does, I do. It provides an incentive to do the reading on time, it makes my lectures more valuable to you, and it makes class discussion much more interesting and worthwhile.
The quizzes don’t really check to make sure you understand the reading. For that, I use exams. Quizzes merely check to make sure you have carefully done the reading. I expect you to recognize that some idea or some detail is important even if you don’t grasp what it means yet. So, if you can accurately express the idea in words of your own, that’s great, but if you don’t understand the idea, you can use the words of the book instead, and that’s okay too.
The questions may cover all sorts of things, and not just "main" ideas, because I want you to read the assignments, not just skim them. For example I might ask you about one of the author's claims, definitions, distinctions, metaphors, examples, or technical terms.
You are permitted to use hard copies of your own analytical outlines during quizzes. That’s another good reason for writing them. Writing good analytical outlines doesn't guarantee that you’ll remember the details that quizzes ask about, but it certainly makes it more likely.
Except for hard copies of your own analytical outlines, you aren't allowed to use any other aids during quizzes. No, not even ordinary notes! Let your analytical outlines be your notes!
I do expect precision. A student once complained to me, "The wording of the first question on today's quiz was unfair. It asked which provision of the Constitution the author was defending. I took that to mean which governmental power he was defending, but you didn't accept my answer." Translated, that means
1 It's unfair to expect me to know that 'power' and 'provision' aren't synonyms!
2 It's unfair to expect me to know what the author was really writing about!
Nobody would have made such silly objections in 1950; college standards have slipped. But not in this courses. The slippage began during my generation, for which I apologize. High standards are how I make it up to you.
How hard then should quiz questions be? I aim at the same standard as designers of standardized college admission tests: The average well-prepared student, answering the average quiz question, should have a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right. In my class, a student counts as well-prepared if he has read his readings for the day several times and then analytically outlined them -- preferably in writing, but at least in his head.
Because I think all students should be well-prepared, the average raw quiz grade should be about 50. Here then is how I calculate the quiz curve (I call it a curve, but algebra buffs will notice that it's really a linear transformation.) First, although I don’t allow students to make up missed quizzes, I drop the student's two lowest quiz scores. These two can include zeros which result from absences; anyone may have a bad day or miss class due to illness or some such thing. Then I average the remaining quiz scores, which gives me the raw quiz average. Finally I take half of the raw quiz average, and add 50 points. That gives me the curved quiz average.
Example #1: A raw quiz average of 0 becomes a curved quiz average of 50 (an F-). Why? Because half of 0 is 0, and 0 plus 50 is 50.
Example #2: A raw quiz average of 50 becomes a curved quiz average of 75 (a C). Why? Because half of 50 is 25, and 25 plus 50 is 75.
Example #3: A raw quiz average of 84 becomes a curved quiz average of 92 (an A-). Why? Because half of 84 is 42, and 42 plus 50 is 92.
The curved quiz average counts as much as one exam grade, though essay grades aren't curved.
Some people do a little better on quizzes than on essays, and some do a little better on essays than on quizzes. However, my experience has been that curved quiz averages correlate very closely with essay averages. That is, students who turn in a middling performance in essays generally turn in a middling performance in quizzes; students who turn in a superior performance in essays generally turn in a superior performance in quizzes; and so forth. As a result, quiz grades change overall grades in the course very little -- unless you aren't keeping up with the reading!
Can I turn in my work handwritten, or must I type?
Except for quizzes and signatures, everything you turn in should be typed. With my poor old eyes, I find it almost impossible to read other people’s cursive handwriting. Even on quizzes, please print your answers, like this:
-- rather than using cursive, like this:
How should I format my essays and analytical outlines?
Please use 14 point, that’s right, 14 point font, on 8 1/2" by 11" paper, with one-inch margins all around. Please do insert page numbers at the bottoms of the pages. Print on only one side of the paper. For essays, single-space within paragraphs, but double-space between paragraphs – just like in this FAQ. For analytical outlines, do the same. Analytical outlines should be ten to twenty pages in length. Unless I specify a different length, undergraduate essays should be no more than 1800 words (4 full pages), and graduate essays should be 7000-11,000 words (16-24 pages). Requirements for law students taking the course as a Law Writing Seminar may differ, because they must meet the Law School's requrements (currently the equivalent of 30-50 doublespaced 12-point pages -- but please use my formatting).
Staple your sheets together. Do not use clips or binders. Do not make a cover page; at the top of the regular first page, put your name, course number, exam number, and problem number. These requirements accomplish three purposes:
1 They make the essays easy for me to read. This is important because I am so nearsighted.
2 They make the essays easy to carry around and handle.
3 They provide enough room for me or your TA to scribble comments.
A final point about outlining: Avoid "orphans." This means that there should be no I without a II, no A without a B, no 1 without a 2, etc. To write "A" is to say "I am about to begin a series, and this is the first item in the series." But if there is no B, there isn't any series, is there?
For some reason, some of my students think all this is mysterious, but I think you’ll see that it’s pretty easy.
How do the take-home essay exams work?
For each exam, choose one of the assigned problems to write about. Don't write about all of them.
Deadlines for the essays are always shown on the course calendar. For some essays you have more time to write, for others less. For each day an essay is late, the grade for the essay is reduced by one full letter, so turn them in on time.
Assuming that your essays are formatted as I've requested, then your essay should be four pages in length. A little spillover onto the fifth page is okay, but please, no more. This forces you to learn concision, which is an essential part of good writing. Analytical outlines, however, are longer.
Naturally, grammar, spelling, and other such things count. A clear and orderly mind expresses itself in a clear and orderly fashion.
You may study with other students before an examination has been assigned, but after that point, you must work independently. Any sharing of notes, drafts, or ideas during an examination period is treated as scholastic dishonesty. So does plagiarism (obviously). If you don’t know what plagiarism is, scroll down to "What happens to students who are caught cheating?"
Unless asked for your own views, explain the author's views, not yours. Get right to the point; don't waste time explaining who the author was or why it's important to study him. Approach your topic as you would a puzzle in geometry. In other words, the purpose of your essay shouldn't be to "tell me about" something, but to present a solution to a problem.
You'll be evaluated on the basis of your ability to construct a good argument based on a careful reading of the assigned text. A good argument is not the same as "what the professor said in class," and you're not required to agree with my opinions. Nor is a good argument the same as merely asserting something. Don't just tell what the author or speaker thinks; tell how you know he thinks it, and why he thinks it's true. Please remember that telling me how the author “feels” is not the same as telling me how he reasons. One does not “feel” that Q is true; one infers or judges that Q is true, for reasons P. So if your essay is full of sentences like “Aristotle felt that …,” or “I feel that …,” don’t be surprised that I take off points!
You are welcome to use additional primary sources, but avoid secondary sources. By the end of the semester, I hope you will have learned enough about the topic to judge for yourself which secondary sources are sound and helpful -- but you aren't there yet. Read the authors with your own eyes and mind.
Finally: Relax, and think before your write. Allow yourself to be interested in your problem. Develop a strategy of argument even before you outline. If you have enough days to write the essay, then outline first, wait a day, write a first draft, wait a day, then write a second draft.
How do reflection journals work?
In some courses I require from each student what I call a reflection journal, which the student begins on the first day we meet, works on frequently, and turns in at the end of the semester. Three or four reflections each week are fine. You may write more often if you wish; some students like to write every day. Each reflection should be at least a good, meaty paragraph. If you want to write more – say, a page – go ahead, but if you have an extended reflection which takes up several pages, I would rather you break it up into several reflections over several days. It’s helpful to head each objection with the date, the reading (if it’s in response to a reading), and, in a word or phrase, the topic. Format your reflection journal just as you format your essays.
Naturally, it would be good to reflect at least once on each reading, and at least once on each handout. However, reflections might also be sparked by my lectures, by what other students have said during class discussion, by remarks you have heard from friends or in other classes, by other things you've read, by current events, or even, sometimes, by personal experiences germane to the subject matter. Everything is grist for the mill.
When a reflection does concern one of the readings, the purpose isn’t to summarize it, but to ruminate on it – to think it over. A reflection may simply express a thought, but on the other hand it may raise a question or puzzle. Whenever it does raise a question -- for example “How would A reply to B?”, “What did P mean by Q?”, or “Is proposition X true or false?”-- try to work out the answer. If you’re confused, you may even be able to ruminate fruitfully on your confusion! “Why is this puzzling? Is the tangle in me or in the author? Here's what I think.”
If you wish, you may also revisit a reflection you wrote previously, explaining on a subsequent date, “I've thought about it further, and here's what I think about it now.”
Remember that I'm not grading you on whether you agree with me, agree with each other, agree with the authors, or even agree with your own previous opinions, but on whether you are thoughtfully considering the issues that arise during the course.
So long as they don’t fall behind, most of my students find writing a reflection journal interesting and enjoyable.
May I get writing help from the University Writing Center?
You are more than welcome to use the free, individualized services of the Undergraduate Writing Center. I tell you this because I am often asked. But please don’t think you aren’t welcome during my own office hours! You may visit me (or my TA, if I have one) for help at any stage of writing an analytical outline or an essay. If what you are writing is an exam, we won’t give you help on content, because that’s what you’re being tested on. Even then, however, we will be glad to help you with logic and with the mechanics of writing.
If the final essay examination is due after the last day of class, then how do I turn it in?
Since the University no longer allows the use of drop boxes or mailboxes for exam submission, you should deliver your essay in person, either to me or to my TA, as directed in class. If you cannot drop off your essay at the drop-off time, you have three options. (1) You may have a friend drop it off, but only if the friend understands the DON'Ts listed below. (2) You may snailmail it to my home; I will provide the address. I will regard the date of the postmark as the date on which the essay was submitted. If you want to make sure that I am able to post your grade before the College’s deadline, I strongly suggest express mail rather than ordinary mail.
What NOT to do: (1) DON'T leave your essay in your TA's mailbox or in my mailbox. (2) DON'T slip your essay under your TA's door or under my door. (3) DON'T send your essay through campus mail. (4) DON'T snailmail your essay to me at my University address. If you do any of these things, I may not receive your essay until after the deadline. In fact, I may not receive it at all.
What are the professor’s views about reading?
You probably wouldn't ask that question, but you should. Reading is a vanishing art. In this course we still practice it. Read each assigned text at least three times. No, that was not a typographical error. Three times. At least. I don't assign a lot of reading, but I expect you to read thoroughly.
One kind of reading is scanning. This is fairly rapid reading in which you look for broad themes and overall relationships -- in which you catch the drift of the author's arguments without focusing on details of logical structure.
Another kind of reading is studying. This is close reading in which you try to find out exactly how the author's arguments unfold. An important part of studying is interrogating the author. As you read, ask him questions like these: "Why do you say that? How do you know that? What does that imply? Where does it lead? How does it square with what you said three paragraphs ago? Given what you've said, how would you respond to the objections of that other fellow whose text I read yesterday?" Then scrutinize the text to figure out how the author would probably answer your questions.
After you've scanned and studied a text, you'll need to read it yet again in order to outline it. There are several different kinds of outline. Unfortunately, the kind most commonly taught in schools is probably the least useful. This is the "topical" outline, which is merely a list of topics and subtopics with which an author deals. When finished, it looks like a table of contents. Another kind of outline is the "propositional" outline, which lists the claims the author is trying to get you to believe. It isn't much more useful than a topic outline, because it doesn't tell why he considers them believable. An analytical outline -- the kind that I want you to compose -- is a different kettle of fish. Instead of merely listing the author's topics or claims, it breaks down the text into arguments. It shows his premises, his conclusions, and the reasoning that ties them together. It also includes the reasoning that lies behind his willingness to accept these premises in the first place. I'll say more about analytical outlining in class.
You should never assume that you understand everything about a reading just because you understand everything I've said about it in class. The lectures are designed to help you to analyze the texts on your own -- not to offer a substitute for doing so. Remember this. It's absolutely crucial.
Bring your books to both lecture and discussion section so that you can follow along. If you write out your analytical outlines, rather than just doing them in your head -- a practice that I strongly encourage -- then bring them too.
May I request accommodation for a disability?
I comply with the University policy that students with disabilities may request appropriate academic accommodations from the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, Services for Students with Disabilities. Call 471-6259, or find the office on the web.
What happens if I have to miss class because of an obligatory holy day of my religion?
I comply with the University policy that students who may not work or attend class on holy days of their religions may request alternative accommodations. According this policy, you must notify me of your pending absence at least fourteen days prior to the date of the holy day. Quizzes missed on such days are excused.
What happens to students who are caught cheating?
Naturally, scholastic dishonesty results in a failing grade for the course, as well as a disciplinary referral to the dean. The University of Texas Student Honor Code, such as it is, can be found here. An explanation of what constitutes plagiarism can be found here.
For a quotation, you must use quotation marks and identify the source. Paraphrase involves genuine restatement, not just changing a word or two. For a paraphrase, you should not use quotation marks, but you must still identify the source.
What happens if we have to evacuate the building?
The University wishes me to inform you that in the event of a fire or other emergency, it may be necessary to evacuate a building rapidly -- as though you didn't know. Upon the activation of a fire alarm or the announcement of an emergency in a university building, all occupants of the building are required to evacuate and assemble outside. Once evacuated, no one may re-enter the building without instruction to do so from the Austin Fire Department, University of Texas at Austin Police Department, or Fire Prevention Services office. Students should familiarize themselves with all the exit doors of each room and building they occupy at the university, and should remember that the nearest exit routes may not be the way they typically enter buildings. If you would need assistance in the event of an evacuation, the University requires you to inform me in writing during the first week of class.
If you observe behavior which worries you, you may email campus security here, or phone the Behavior Concerns Advice Line at 512-232-5050.
Emergency information updates can be found here.