PHIL 395: Junior Seminar

Conducting Independent Research in Philosophy

Instructor: Chris Latiolais

Course Description:

The Philosophy Department Junior Seminar spans two terms, fall and winter, earning 0.5 units per term, so a full unit upon completion at the end of winter term. This seminar is devoted to cultivating a student’s ability to conduct independent research over a sustained period of time under close supervision by the instructor, as one type of pedagogical support, and in close collaboration with seminar participants, as another type of support. Seminar participants are responsible for drafting a largely expository manuscript at the end of fall term – i.e. a charitable and detailed presentation of the views of relevant thinkers and artists, and a 25 to 40 page
independent research manuscript that presents a concerted argument at the end of winter term: i.e. an essay that presents the student’s own critical response to a self-legislated philosophical question. During spring term, seminar participants will present a precis of their argument in a Philosophy Department Symposium, perhaps with both a guest speaker and participants from surrounding institutions.

The central goal of the Junior Seminar is support, guide, and to promote student’s ability to address a philosophical issue of their own choosing, to adequately research the issue, and to craft an original thesis. To prepare for participation in the Junior Seminar, students are required to prepare a Research Proposal that responds to the following requests:

  • To list all courses already taken having a bearing upon, or provide the foundation of, the general area of philosophy the student seeks to explore. Describing both figures and texts will be relevant to the research project.
  • Provide an bibliography of books and articles having a direct relevance to their research.
  • Provide a list and brief account of artworks that will be mentioned or analyzed in the completed manuscript, articulating how such artworks address the key issues of the research.
  • Draft a brief account of one’s own experiences or those of others that will provide targeted examples or illustrations of situations important for vetting the merits of the philosophical theories to be discussed.
  • Identify and describe coursework or reading outside the domain of philosophy that might come into play in one’s research; in particular documents in the social sciences, natural sciences, or humanities.
  • Describe the general area of philosophical scholarship in which the student will conduct research.
  • To articulate the basic question the student will address in their research, and, to the extent possible, to articulate one’s projected answer to that question and the intuitions that inform the answer.

During the first week of the seminar, the instructor will review the Research Proposal, suggesting relevant articles, texts, artworks, and possible additional coursework that will bring coherence to the proposal. During the second week, seminar participants will submit a tentative reading schedule, with writing submissions to the instructor scheduled on the 6th and 10th week. Students will also be partnered with another seminar participant who will likewise review their respective Research Proposals for questions, discussion, and advice. Seminar partners will read each other’s written work, discussing and commenting upon them before they are submitted to the instructor for review and commentary. During the third week, seminar participants will upload a paragraph describing their Research Proposal for the entire class to review, allowing participants to familiarize themselves with the work of their fellow classmates. During the remaining weeks of the term, seminar participants will correspond with the instructor with any questions or concerns they have, receiving feedback and guidance throughout the term, often with adjustments to the reading list and schedule to sharpen the student’s ability to articular their argument precisely. Moreover, seminar participants are encouraged to follow the work of other participants, particularly where there are overlapping themes or issues, discussing amongst themselves their respective approaches to the issue. Because juniors have a significant overlap of about 3 to 6 courses in the department, they will be working from a common knowledge base. Because seminar participants will also be symposium participants responsible for raising good questions to each other during the spring symposium, they will be motivated to work with each other in a workshop orientation during the fall and winter. In this way, seminar participants will receive as much advice and guidance from the instructor as they do from classmates. The central purpose of fall term work is the drafting of an expository manuscript that charitably, precisely, and in a detailed way presents the theories to be critically vetted during the second term.

The second term of this two-term seminar focuses the student’s critical claims in regard to their key research question. The pedagogical strategy of the second term is to have students works on two manuscripts simultaneously: the first a short, 8-page precis or summary of their argument, which will be presented during the spring symposium, and the second their larger manuscript in which the argument is more fully detailed in connection with their supporting expository background. The calibration between precise summary, along one polarity, and expansive expository-critical manuscript, along another, allows students to master the hermeneutic circle: i.e. the holistic bifocal way in which writers mutually adjust parts and whole within an emerging manuscript. Seminar participants remain in close contact with the professor, partners, and participants during this phase of framing their argument, focusing upon sharpening the argument in response to initial objects raised against it. In this way, students learn to anticipate objections and to incorporate them into the formulation of the argument. Moreover, this phase of composition incorporates both personal experiences and artworks into the discussion, not as decorative illustration, but, instead, as the personal confrontation or aesthetic disclosure of the central issue of their research. Good philosophy papers make ample room for the two central dimensions of philosophical writing: namely, the poignant aesthetic disclosure of some reality, whether autobiographical or imagined, and the precise discursive conceptualization and critical diagnoses of it. The spring symposium will allow students and department faculty to, first, enjoy the individual initiatives and ideas of our students and, second, to assess the liabilities and assets of our guiding, supporting, and intervening in their progress over the two-term period. The most challenging exercise in philosophy is independent research and original argumentation, which defines the Philosophy Junior Seminar, which is calibrated to Teaching Assistantships (i.e. Advanced Studies courses with teaching assistant responsibilities) and SIP work.

Seminar Participation and Collaboration:

As participants in Junior Seminar, instructor and students work together over a two-term period to share, collaborate, support, and guide our individually framed research projects. Conducting this classic type of research and manuscript composition is challenging, requiring sustained personal interest, constant recalibration of readings to emerging argument, sharing our work with others to gain expanding perspectives, and ultimately presenting such work in a spring-term symposium. The “workshop” format in this seminar requires students (1) be “partnered” with another for sharing and discussing their work, (2) identify and collaborate with students working on the same or similar issues, and (3) correspond with the instructor with questions and concerns. The process is tightly structured because such exploratory research always encounters garden-path dead ends, demanding backtracking, rerouting, revision, and renewal, often with surprising results. This type of collaboration is also anchored in both personal experiences – with all of their obscure quandaries and beacon insights – and public artworks, which provide us with a distinctive type of aesthetic reason for altering our emotively charged perceptions of self-and-world. Aesthetic disclosure and discursive argumentation work in tandem in the Humanities, in general, and philosophy, in particular. A good deal of workshop arises from the discussion of both personal experiences and public artworks, precisely because our pragmatic orientation to them reveals our commitments, worthy and unworthy alike. Moreover, some of the most important philosophical conceptual discoveries arose from compelling metaphors, neologism, pictorial presentations, and music urging us to discursive expression and appropriation. Seminar participants are strongly encouraged to discuss their preferred artworks, if only to gain clarity about their interrogative appeal.

Although all evaluated work is to be completed during fall and winter terms in the form of (expanded) manuscript and its (contracted) precis, seminar participants are asked to present their work during a spring-term symposium, which we will plan and host in a way that best suits our aspirations, inviting other students to listen in to ongoing research. The overall idea of having students present their work in the spring symposium is to focus honing the verbal skills required for participation in professional conferences. Here is the department’s assessment rubric for conference presentations:

Conference Presentation Rubric:

Clarification of Key Question Addressed
Scholarly Context
Presentation of Others’ Views Articulation of Argument
Consideration of Alternative Views
Explication of the Significance of the Issue and the Argument
Quality of Argument
Philosophical Approach
Verbal Style:
Demeanor (nervous versus calm, poised versus fidgety)
Clarity of Voice & Level of Enunciation
Pace & Tempo of Presentation
Eye Contact & Connection with Audience
Re-presentation of Audience Questions
Response to Audience Questions
Sympathetic Tone with Audience Members
Ability to Manage Critical Pressure

Depending upon circumstances, our hope is to devote the last few weeks of winter term to “mock conference” presentations, when seminar participants act as a discerning, critical, and exacting audience that demands clarity, detail, and charity in exposition and precision, economy, and soundness in argumentation. In this way, we move from compositional content to verbal style.

The Inclusive Place of Diverse Learning:

In what follows, the term “diversity” will be used to pick out various coordinates of difference: e.g. (economic) class, (sexual) gender, (social) ethnicity, race, (interpretive) culture, (biological) age, (differential) abilities, etc. When welcomed, such diversity is a great pedagogical strength, not only for individual members, but for the inclusive participatory class as well. How?

A philosophical learning environment demands students and professor alike read texts, discuss issues, collaborate in tasks, and write essays, all for the basic purpose of understanding and assessing a thinker’s ideas, claims, arguments, and theories. The first and most fundamental moment of learning is, of course, participants take themselves personally as willing and able to engage in the activity. One must take oneself as having experiences that equip one to reflect upon the shape of one’s own life, along one path, and upon the views of a thinker, along another, so that each questions and interrogates the other, allowing the text to guide one’s reflection upon one’s own history and one’s own life experiences to cross-examine the text. In this way, one breathes life into the text, allowing it to speak to one’s own experiences, and one uses one’s experiences to critically assess the text, making them articulate each other, so each moves in coordinated response to the other – a dance, of sorts, wherein the student must ultimately take the lead in critically assessing the text. The basic contract of a learning community is students animate scholarship with their distinctive identities.

Diversity in life experiences is crucial to sounding out the full range and reach of a philosophical text, which is tested by one’s own experiences, which may well reveal an author’s shortcoming, mistakes, or blind spots. The text may well reveal shortcoming, mistakes, or blind spots in one’s own autobiographical reflections. Neither is presumed authoritative at the outset, each must prove its worth, both must test and testify to each other, and each must move towards its merit. Because philosophy addresses the human condition as such, diversity of experiences provide the sole mechanism of assessing this presumption, allowing differences in economic, sexual, social, racial, cultural, and enabling conditions to probe and prod a theory, asking it whether it has taken the full measure of human experience. A student’s life experiences provide a particular “hearing,” “inquiry,” or examination of the text, in just the same way the text asks students to listen to, take apart, and re-examine their own autobiography. Harsh, painful, and devastating experiences often anticipate an author’s views about the human condition, so shared breakdowns inform both student and author, however removed each is from the other. High points in life do as well. Student and scholarship cross-examine each other, and diversity in life experiences sets the stage for a convening a fuller “hearing” – i.e. critical appropriation – of the text, along the scholarship polarity, and deeper hold upon one’s own life, along the autobiographical polarity.

Classroom communication is, then, distorted, violated, and perhaps violent when all participants are not respected, welcomed, and encouraged to deliberate. It is crucial to listen, not only to the letter, but also to the life experiences that underwrite such words. We all come from different places, and yet we occupy a shared space where we give and receive reasons, which can only emerge when we cooperatively draw up the wealth of life experiences that migrate into the classroom. As a refuge for cooperatively reflecting upon this confluence of life histories, it’s crucial to ask questions before pronouncing claims, which allows a student’s views to be “heard” against the background experiences supporting them. Obviously, such careful listening requires students to take an interest in how background experiences inform one’s view of self and world. Because one’s view of self and world set the stage for how one reads a text, some experiences illuminate and underscore an author’s viewpoint more sharply, viscerally, and strongly than others, so, for instance, the experience of hardship, pain, and suffering provide the student with privileged access to the text. The absence of certain experiences in one’s life may well hinder one’s ability to grasp the range and reach of a text. The great fortune of a diverse classroom is, then, the expansion or our shared openness to the text, whether this access speaks for or against the text. In short, collaborative deliberation across our diversity – empathic, careful, heartfelt, and playful – establishes a learning community that is more than the sum of its parts.

Such collaborative communication requires participants to dissolve dogmatically held beliefs, allowing them to be questioned and appraised. The dissolution of dogma is the crucible of reasoned convictions. Moreover, cynical skepticism – a comic defense against commitment – is likewise detrimental to a learning community, which simply presupposes truth, rightness, and sincerity as the defining goals of conversation. In such a deliberative arena, students must speak, or remain silent, for themselves, so another’s presumption about who one is can be tested. So too the authors of our texts must be allowed to speak for themselves, and this demands we first interpret them carefully and charitably, supporting our claims by citing and explicating the text. The greatest danger of scholarship is strawman argumentation, which arises with hasty, careless, and dismissive readings.

A standard pedagogical exercise in philosophy courses is what I call “supervised autobiography”: i.e. the opportunity to write about one’s own life experiences, with all that informs it, by using a philosopher’s theory as a way of perceiving and interpreting one’s life. Philosophical theories provide ways of feeling, perceiving, conceiving, and critically appropriating one’s own narrative self-identification. In short, they provide a sort of guidance in confronting dangers and embracing opportunities. By allowing the philosopher to provide a framework for narrating events in one’s own life, one accomplishes two crucial things: first, one
literally animates the philosopher into a virtually contemporary figure who guides narrative self comprehension and, second, one brings experiences to the text, critically testing whether the theory provides adequate resources for understanding one’s circumstances. This bifocal approach – understanding theory & autobiographical narration – allows for a personal encounter with the material, unlocking the students resources for critically assessing the merits of theory,
along one polarity, and assessing the merits of one’s self-narration, along the other polarity.

Another technique is the pairing of philosophical theories and artworks, the former providing discursive argumentation, the latter providing aesthetic depiction and demonstration. The juxtaposition of theory and art – i.e. discursive description and aesthetic disclosure – invites students to, first, interpret the artwork from the conceptual perspective of the theory and, second, to critically assess whether the theory falls short of capturing the complexity of situations disclosed aesthetically. Each corresponds with, calibrates to, and corrects the other, sometimes in one direction, sometime in the other, but always in the collaborate effort to become
responsible to our circumstances. Students are invited to bring artworks which “speak to them” to the class, allowing other students to appreciate how differently situations feel and impact upon differentially placed others. Student suggestions of artworks provides a way of introducing diversity in our reading list of traditional schools of thought, allowing us to assess whether they are superseded predecessor or contemporary collaborators. Diversity of artworks – i.e. by and about differentially constellated identities – is important in opening up traditional theories to critical scrutiny.

Another dimension of diversity in philosophy courses is less evident but by no means less important: namely, the way in which philosophical schools of thought provide the philosophical foundations of contemporary social-scientific methodologies and the interpretive models in the Humanities. By studying the precedents of, for examples, Marxism, feminism, poststructuralism, genealogy, deconstruction, praxeology, critical race studies, ethnic studies, cultural studies, post-colonialism, and identity-based political theorizing, students gain an understanding of how theory can provide conceptual resources for framing radical differences and how the life experiences of different groups differentially appropriate such conceptual resources. An abiding pedagogical dimension of any philosophy course is, of course, critical questioning from all quarters of differentially positioned others in the modern world.


If you are a student with a disability who seeks accommodation or other assistance in this course, please let me know as soon as possible. Kalamazoo College is committed to making every effort to providing reasonable accommodations. If you want to discuss your overall needs for accommodation at the College, please direct questions to the Associate Dean of Students Office. For more information, please see Students with Disabilities page on the Student Development website.

Academic Honesty:

This course operates under the College Honor System: i.e. we treat each other with respect, we nurture independent thought, we take responsibility for personal behavior, and we accept environmental responsibility. Academic honesty is a critical part of our value system at K. When you borrow an idea, express the idea in your own words, thus thinking it through and making it your own, and acknowledge the source of the idea in a note, or, in certain situations, use the exact words of the source in quotation marks and acknowledge with a note. Ideas raised in class are part of the public domain and, therefore, sources of the ideas need not
be acknowledged. If you are ever in doubt about this, you must ask. For the full policy, see Student Policies.

General Policies:

Students are expected to follow the reading schedule and to come to class prepared to actively discuss the texts they have read. More specifically, students must bring their texts to class with marginal notes, highlighted or underlined passages of particular importance, and pages marked where they have encountered difficulties in understanding the material. Quizzes offer students the opportunity to identify and to clarify central terms and concepts. The midterm assignments allow students to write essays on key philosophical issues and arguments, and the final paper offers students the opportunity to respond in depth to a single topic. The final
paper is due on the day scheduled for the final examination. The following are basic policies:

  • Three (3) unexcused absences will result in a full course grade reduction (exceptions allowed only with proper documentation).
  • No active electronic devices such as computers, mobile phones, Blackberries, Blueberries, or any other electronic fruits and vegetables are permitted in the classroom, although tape recorders are permitted.
  • All documented disabilities will happily be accommodated upon the student’s request.
  • An act of plagiarism will result in a failing grade for the specific assignment. A second act will result in an F course grade.
  • During seminar discussions, students must attend to the person holding the floor, responding to his or her contribution. In other words, no one-on-one lateral comments, which divert attention from the ongoing discussion.
  • Late papers will be marked down a half grade for the first day and a full grade for the second day. All work must be turned in at the end of term, unless alternative assignments have been given by the instructor.


Grades are based upon quality and detail of collaboration with partner and professor (30%) and manuscripts (70%).


Fall Term

  • Week One:
    Submission of research
  • Week Two:
    Student receives feedback from seminar partner and professor suggestioned revisions of readings, artworks, framing of the research question, and potential theses.
  • Week Three:
    Students submits tentative Reading and Writing Schedule.
    Upload Research Proposal to Moodle site.
  • Week Four:
    Collaboration with partner and professor.
  • Week Five:
    Collaboration with partner and professor.
  • Week Six:
    Collaboration with partner and professor.
  • Week Seven:
    Submission of expository writing to partner and professor
  • Week Eight:
    Feedback from partner and professor
  • Week Nine:
    Collaboration with partner and professor
  • Week Ten:
    Collaboration with partner and professor
  • Finals Week
    Submission of expository essay
    Submission of outline for the critical-argumentative half of the essay.

Winter Term

  • Week One:
    Submission of 5-page summary of argument to partner and professor.
  • Week Two:
    Feedback from partner and professor.
  • Week Three:
    Collaboration with partner and professor
  • Week Four:
    Collaboration with partner and professor
  • Week Five:
    Collaboration with partner and professor
  • Week Six:
    Submission or full rough draft of manuscript.
  • Week Seven:
    Feedback from partner and professor.
  • Week Eight:
    Third Mock Conference Presentations of precis (15-minute paper with 10 minutes for questions) [all participants]
  • Week Nine:
    Third Mock Conference Presentations of precis (15-minute paper with 10 minutes for questions) [all participants]
  • Week Ten:
    Third Mock Conference Presentations of precis (15-minute paper with 10 minutes for questions) [all participants]
  • Finals Week:
    Submission of full manuscript, precis, and anticipated questions from audience members.