Want to Write Better Essays? Take Philosophy

People usually groan when I tell them that I took an introductory philosophy course. They ask why I would take a course like that – and by asking that, they usually mean they want to know why I’m, “wasting my time.” Honestly? Not to slam the course, but, for a while there, wondered why I was taking philosophy.

Because the fact is, Plato won’t help me get a job, and Descartes won’t help me (eventually) pay taxes. Knowing what exactly ‘The Greats’ of philosophy-past thought about the world is not really something that applies to my life. And maybe that’s different for some of you, but the lack of practicality can be difficult for me to grapple with.

The first few months of that course (it’s a year course, so we’re talking back in September/October) felt kind of frustrating. I’d go to class twice and week, sit there, and wonder if I’d made a mistake. I thought: maybe all those people telling me I’d wasted my time were right.

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(Pretty much the entire discipline of Philosophy)

But then on one November day, while arguing with someone about…you guessed it… Trump, I figured it out! I finally had a reason to take that one, single, first year philosophy course. It wasn’t about learning about the greats and their ideas, and it wasn’t about trying to find some sort of higher truth, oh no.

Taking first year philosophy? It was about learning how to argue. Or, conversely, learning how not to argue.

Let me explain: as I see it, philosophy is a whole discipline based on people having discussions that continuously go back and forth on various topics. Whether it be about the actual existence of a physical world, the definition of piety, or the meaning of ‘self,’ it’s about people making and refuting arguments.

So, naturally, argument types is something they’re going to teach you about in first year philosophy. Lesson #1: learning that there are different kinds of arguments. That includes what it means to have something valid and strong. And with that, what it means to have something invalid and weak. Learning how to argue a point well is critical to succeeding in philosophy.

And as I have recently realized, that can help you succeed in other subject areas too – learning different ways to frame a point for an essay helps in pretty much any other essay-writing discipline just as much as it does in philosophy.

Then, you go another step further;

Lesson #2: how not to argue. because, after all, there are mistakes that can be made. Whether they be logical errors, where conclusions don’t follow from the points leading up to them, or other mistakes – they call them fallacies in philosophy – this course opened me up to things I was doing wrong.

Because when I used to argue, I realized, I made a lot of these formal mistakes without thinking, and I never would have known. What if one of those fallacies had ended up in one of my assignments? Suddenly a project is flawed just because I didn’t think about an argument that might discredit me? Not an appealing thought.

Learning how not to argue changed the way that I did make arguments and changed the way I listened to other people’s arguments. So much so that, one day while debating about Trump (again), I could say to the person I was debating, “Hey, that argument has a logical flaw.”

I meant that in the kindest of ways, of course, and in the end? Recognizing logical fallacies can make any argument in a debate tighter and more interesting. Same goes for essays, for papers, for lab reports. If they can be made stronger with the techniques of philosophy, then why not take a chance and learn them?

This is where I make my call to action to all you: if ever you need another elective, need to fill a humanities credit, or are just curious (as I was), then take an introductory philosophy course. It’s not likely to have a heavy workload, the assignments are not incredibly difficult, and you’ll learn some really helpful skills. Like me, you might learn that there’s more to philosophy than talking about philosophers.

And, maybe unlike me, you won’t have to soul search for a few months to find the point of it all.

Four Books for Your Next 4 Months of School

There is no question that finding a good book is both time consuming and difficult. Finding a good book to read despite being exhausted from all your classes and homework? It’s even harder. But, if you love books, and want something to read that’s more exciting than the idea of sleep and Netflix, then these four titles are worth your time.

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1. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

Okay, this isn’t so much a full novel as it is a collection of poems, but hear me out. I’m not a huge fan of poetry usually, but this book caught me within the first five pages. This collection of poems by a young author puts into words those feelings that we deal with in relationships of all kinds. It’s as beautiful as it can be absolutely heartbreaking.

Broken into four sections, the many poems are all fairly short, not wordy or difficult to understand, and hit a personal level. I think I cried within the first fifty pages. Though many of the topics are difficult – not only do they cover relationships, but also loneliness, abuse, and building yourself back up after being hurt – there’s this openness to the book that can open you up a bit too.

So if you’re looking for something to dig into your heart with very real emotion? Give this book a read. Like me, you might end up having it finished within hours of purchasing it in the first place.

Trigger warning: abuse, rape.

2. Wenjack by Joseph Boyden

Another smaller, shorter book, Wenjack is a little novella that hits some very real emotions. Historically based, it tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a residential school runaway in the 1960’s, whose death prompted the first inquiry into the practices of residential schools in Canada. While the overarching residential schools are a big part of this book, the story is personal, told from the point of view of Chanie, as well as the animal spirits who witness his sad journey.

To be fully honest, I bought this book not fully knowing what it was about, and not expecting it to really get to me like it did. Because this is history, because it’s the real story of a young boy, it has a historical weight and importance to it. Though short, the emotion and meaning is present and strong. There’s no questioning the significance of this story. It’s a must-read.

Trigger warning: sexual abuse.

3. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

You know those books that you start reading, and you have to pace yourself because you just don’t want them to end? This is one of those. Set in both now-Ghana and the US, this novel starts with two sisters, separated at birth, who have two very different experiences with British colonization and its effects overall. One marries a British slaver. One is sold into slavery, and through the transatlantic slave trade, ends up on the other side of the ocean.

That’s a pretty interesting and important topic to start with – but something else sets this book apart. Every chapter introduces the next generations, traced down from the two initial sisters, as they deal with the changes and challenges of growing up in their respective parts of the world, in the face of the rise and fall of slavery and the British empire.

And it’s excellently executed – of the many characters featured, each one I would read a full whole novel about, they all jumped off the page. Honestly, the historical care taken to these situations, the way that cause and effect from generation to generation is laid out in a larger societal context, it’s as thought-provoking as it is engaging. I read this over the winter break, and I already want to revisit it. In short? Go read this book!

4. The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

For all of you who prefer something mostly nonfiction, this last book is for you. To tell the truth, this book has also been my favorite of late, mostly because it threw a lot of what I thought I knew about my own rationality totally off-track. The Undoing Project is an account of the work of two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose friendship produced some major works about the psychology of rationality and decision making.

This book does two really great things while speaking about some complicated, but well explained, theory. First, it frames the information in a way that is understandable. I, myself, being a very un-sciencey person, thought I might have trouble understanding some of it. That was not the case. Second, it shows relatable examples, things we recognize – the first chapter explains the use of statistically choosing draft picks for the NBA, something that was a result of Kahneman and Tversky’s work.

And don’t get the wrong idea, either, this isn’t just a fun textbook. It tells the life stories of these two psychologists, and includes their work. It’s just a taste of their work, within the story of their friendship. And, if you want more, the author Michael Lewis provides notes and sources at the end, and in the novel, includes the names of the papers written by Kahneman and Tversky.

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So, these are my picks for books that are worth your while. Check them out, and tell me what you think in the comments if you like them! Happy reading!

Canadian Politics: Less Racist Is Not a High Enough Standard (Part 2/2)

Are we in Canada as multicultural as we claim to be? Erin Tolley explained that the answer is a big NO! And while my previous piece picked apart the first reasons for racialized press in Canadian politics, we left things incomplete. Let’s take those ideas and go one step further – into the very words we use.

The idea of “ethnic politics” (discussed in Part 1) ties in perfectly with the other main reason for why politics in Canada is racialized: language. Let’s start with the example Tolley used:

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Notice how the members of parliament abstaining in a vote about Israel are pointed out to be Muslim? As though they had abstained from the vote because of religious or ethnic reasons? If you read the rest of this story, it shows that, in fact, over 40 MPs abstained from this vote, but none of them are being considered as newsworthy as the 8 Muslim MPs. This article almost assumes that their reason for abstaining was religious – where the others who abstained did so for “logistical reasons.” Problematic? You bet.

The linguistic framing of race just continues to enforce a racialized political media in Canada. And sure, it’s not like there are racial slurs being used, but regardless, Tolley thinks of this as a new form of racism: “modern racism.”

When you frame it with those words, it seems pretty bad, and it is. The problem is, even though this keeps happening, not a lot has been done to address it. While privately it might be acknowledged, newsrooms continue to print these kinds of stories.  And if it is publicly acknowledged, then offenders may claim to be colorblind – which, as Tolley explained, isn’t much better.

Because there has to be a balance to this. Reporting on people based on their race is not good journalism, but erasing ethnic background can erase the distinct cultural identities and history within racial minority groups. Both aren’t good, and yet a balance doesn’t seem to have been found.

In coming to this dilemma, we have to ask ourselves: do we really have the right to call Canadian politics multicultural? And if not, how do we change that?

I mean, there could be small fixes. Tolley suggested that the media could use a “Reverse Test” in which they ask themselves: “would I include this information (the mention of race) in a story about a white person?” If the answer is no, then take it out of the story! Or, we could acknowledge the fact that Canadians are not as superior when it comes to racialized media, as some might think we are.

And, in terms of action, we could simply refuse to support stories that perpetuate racialized language. Don’t click on clickbait that has a questionable headline. Don’t say we’ve got a multicultural cabinet now with Justin Trudeau in charge – there may be more racial minorities than in the past, but that number is still small, and still fails to represent the whole of Canada’s diverse population. “Less racist” than other countries should not be an acceptable standard for Canadian politics, and the media shouldn’t be helping this trend continue.

Most of all, I think it’s time to hold media truly accountable for giving us stories that highlight race. We can boycott headlines all we like, but unless we start asking why certain people are framed in certain ways, then we’re never going to get anywhere. Thankfully, UTM’s own Tolley has provided us a starting point – creating awareness of the issue. Now, let’s take that knowledge and make a real change! Because we know for sure that institutions aren’t going to go on and change themselves.

(I have included a note below that touches upon methodology and restrictions, as outlined by Tolley.)

It should be noted that indigenous peoples were not included to this, because they have a different relationship with Canadian government, and a different history of colonial oppression.

This study focused on print media, and compared the news coverage of white candidates to non-white candidates. All subjects and samples are Canadian, as to prevent comparing it all to another country with different media and political atmosphere. Tolley’s research was done by examining headline and articles as well as conducting structured interviews and conversations with MPs and staffers on Parliament Hill.

All the research shared above belongs to Professor Erin Tolley. Her book is available in hardcover and softcover on amazon.ca if you care to read it.

Canadian Politics: Less Racist Is Not a High Enough Standard (Part 1/2)

“The media are the gatekeepers to our reality… they choose what to include, what to exclude,” said Professor Erin Tolley on Monday, November 28 in a special lecture hosted by UTM’s own PSLA. Twenty attended the lecture intended to briefly go over Tolley’s academic book Framed, which shares the results of her study exploring race, media, and politics in Canada. And, as it turns out, Canadian politics are not quite as multicultural as Canada itself – though not in the explicit way that we might think.

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After speaking to her methods and restrictions (elaborated on below), Tolley laid one thing out clear: even though Canadians often act superior to other countries, our politics are still very much racialized in the media. Not because the media has some horrible racist mandate, it doesn’t, but for smaller reasons.

One of those reasons is the “newsworthiness” of not-white people. Because whiteness has long been a general standard in Canadian politics due to historical reasons, non-white candidates have become exceptionally newsworthy. Not for their work of qualifications, but for the fact that they’re not white. Think Barack Obama, a famous American example of this. It wasn’t his academic background or work in government that made his election momentous, though those things should be the only focus. It was the fact that he’s a racial minority, and that was a new thing in America.

Same goes for Canada, only on a much smaller scale. In Canada, because we elect individuals for seats instead of choosing one leader for all, it’s harder to notice. But, as Tolley’s research showed, mentions of qualifications and work for candidates who are racial minorities are few and far between – instead, the media makes their appearance the most newsworthy thing about them.

Which doesn’t make life any easier for them, of course, as shown by another of Tolley’s findings. Racial minority candidates, numbers show, are often expected to “prove themselves” more so than their white counterparts, especially if they don’t already have a seat in the House of Commons.

That cannot be easy when all the news wants to focus on is race – even though many of these candidates do say that their top interests are important issues, like the economy. Failing to be able to get that message across because of selective news coverage makes it harder to communicate viability. Instead, wins might be attributed to race and not actually policy.

There’s a particular term for this too: “ethnic politics.” Defined more strictly, this is the phenomena media claims when a racial minority wins because of high voter turnout and organization. This is as opposed to what they call it when white candidates have high voter turn out and organization – “politics.”

Seem unfair? That’s just the beginning.