“Teach me how to be original!”

This is one of the most common issues that I have encountered with university students, both in my work as an academic, and as a private tutor. It is also, on the face of it, one of the most difficult ones to solve. However, I’m going to suggest that it isn’t as hard as you might think.

If you look at the marking criteria for your course, there are probably references to original or independent thought. Typically, at least in the British educational system, this is emphasised more at university level than at school or sixth form college, where you often need to say particular things to show that you have met the criteria to get marks.

This emphasis on independence and originality can be intimidating to some students, especially the less self-confident ones: very clever people have been thinking about these ideas for millennia, so how can I, a random person who has been thinking about this for all of three weeks,be expected to say something new?

Nothing new under the sun (or near as dammit)

First of all, take a deep breath and relax. You don’t need to come up with a totally novel approach that nobody has ever thought of before. Many well-respected academics go through their entire careers without saying anything completely novel or revolutionary, and some of the most famous philosophers are great recyclers, adapting older ideas to address problems in different ways. You would be hard-pressed to find a single thought in Sartre that someone else hasn’t said elsewhere, although he does say it in his own unique way (more on that later).

Independence

I can’t generalise across all philosophy and philosophy-related degree courses, but most marking criteria only mention originality in their descriptions of the absolute top grades (even then, you can often reach those grades if you do well in the other criteria, without ticking the originality box).

What tends to be emphasised more throughout the spectrum of grades is independence. Originality means that you have said a new thing, or said something in a new way. Independence means that you have autonomously gone beyond the material that was mentioned in class and thought about it yourself. You can show a degree of independence by describing, summarising, and structuring your explanations and arguments in a different way from the one that was presented in lectures. It means that you don’t simply regurgitate material, but process it and synthesise it yourself.

Originality: an anecdote

Still, it would be sort of satisfying to tick that ‘originality’ box, wouldn’t it?

There’s no straightforward method that will allow you to nail this every time (if there were, it wouldn’t really be originality) but I can give a little advice.

First of all, a little story:

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, I found myself stuck for a long time on mid- to high 2.1 grades. For people unaccustomed to the British system, this is roughly in the range between an A- and a B. It’s perfectly respectable, in fact it’s pretty damn good, but it is still frustrating if you want to get an A or A+. I (mostly) did all the reading, I was keen in class, I put time an effort into my essays, but they always seemed to lack that spark.

When I took a philosophy of language course, I found it utterly bamboozling. It wasn’t that I didn’t follow the arguments about rule-following and scepticism about meaning, it was more that I didn’t understand how anything hung on it, how it connected to other ideas in mind and metaphysics, or what it would mean for the world if meaning scepticism was true. I had no idea about the status or significance of any of the entities or relations that I was studying. I could join it together, but it felt a little like trying to build Lego houses in zero gravity.

When essay time came around, I read in the syllabus that “intellectual risk will be rewarded”. This was a very nice touch from Patrick Greenough, the module leader for this course, and it prompted a minor miracle for me.

I felt like this gave me permission to approach things in a way that would help me to address this weird vertigo that the subject induced in me. After checking with Patrick to make sure I wasn’t doing something totally off-track, I took Kripke’s meaning scepticism, something that I thought I didn’t understand at all, and compared it to moral scepticism, something that I thought (perhaps mistakenly) that I had a fairly firm grip on. I placed the two side by side, and looked at them analogously, where the two kinds of scepticism had similar arguments in their support, and where there were major differences between them. In a spirit of open-minded puzzlement, I joined these dots, hoping that whatever I could grasp in ethics might give me something of a foothold in philosophy of language.

I was very nervous when I submitted this essay, since I felt that it had opened up even more puzzles than it had attempted to solve. However, when the results came back, I was astonished to find that the essay had been awarded nineteen points on a twenty-point marking scale: a full grade boundary higher than anything I had written before, and close to the maximum that I could have been awarded. In a bizarre twist, it was my nervousness and lack of confidence in the subject that allowed me to write something genuinely original.

After this, I felt much more confident with trying things out and experimenting with new ideas. I eventually graduated with a first class degree, and went on to take a masters and a PhD.

What can we learn from this?

So that was very nice for me, but how can it help you?

  • Sit with your confusions and discomfort.

Before this essay, when I hadn’t fully understood an issue, I would either avoid writing about it, or try to gloss over the bit that I didn’t get. On this occasion I was forced to face up to my confusion and dive into the bits that confused me. It is very easy to think that whenever we feel that we don’t quite grasp something, it is a problem with us and our understanding, but often, when something doesn’t quite seem to gel with you, it’s because you have the germ of an argument against it, or you intuitively approach the issue from a different, perhaps novel, angle. Interrogate yourself: what is it that you don’t understand? What makes you feel resistant to a topic or argument? Why does something bore you? Sometimes when we listen to our feelings about this, rather than gritting our teeth and hammering out the stock answer that we think that we are supposed to give, we end up saying something very interesting.

  • Find analogies and examples – this means reading, and having a life outside of your studies!

You can show a great deal of independence, and often originality too, by making analogies and comparisons, and giving examples. These may be other theories and arguments from different areas of your subject (as it was here) but it can also be from other areas of your life. Maybe you’re studying rule-following arguments, and you’re also a football fanatic. Can you think of any interesting examples where the rules had nothing to say, or it was unclear how they should be interpreted? Are there any good analogies or examples from literature that you love, or from your favourite movies? If you cultivate a rich and interesting life beyond your academic studies, it will be good for your mental health, and also provide you with a much better store of material to draw on in your writing.

This, provided you can form a useful analogy or example that illustrates an idea, is enough to show a good degree of independent thought, but maybe you can go further than that: what would we say about your analogous case, whether it is in philosophy or in something else? Can what we would say about that example be transposed back onto the philosophical issue that your essay is tackling?

  • Take (calculated) risks

If you are unsure whether to write an essay-by-numbers that is basically correct, or something more original that might be wrong, it is often better to take the risk. This is not always the case, but it is true more often than you might think. You can always check with your tutor or lecturer to make sure you’re not on completely the wrong track. If you’re nervous about this, try it out in essays that don’t count towards your final degree, or which only count for a very small percentage. This can help you to work out what level of risk is right for you.

  • Talk to your tutors, lecturers, and fellow students

If you have an idea that you’re unsure about, talk it through with people who can give you advice or different perspectives. A tutor or lecturer can help you see if it works, how you might develop it, and whether anything similar has been said on the subject (don’t be put off if it has, this is still independent thought if you have got to it independently!) Friends and fellow students might have their own take, or offer you other examples and analogies. It is OK to use their thoughts, provided that you can make them your own (if you pursue postgraduate study or an academic career, it is good form to acknowledge their ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with starting that now if you like – stick a nice ‘thank you’ to them in a footnote).

This is not exhaustive – there are a lot of ways of showing independence and originality. The main thing to remember is that it isn’t as scary as you might think, and if you can sit with your discomfort, you might come to realise that what is lacking is not so much original ideas, as the confidence to express and develop them. This confidence is something that you can work on and develop, although it may take time. For now, please take this blog post as permission to try things out and see where it takes you!

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