How to Write A Journal


I. Why Write A Good Journal?  

The journal is probably the most important assignment. Unfortunately, it is the assignment that people neglect the most. The journal constitutes 20% of your grade; a bad journal can have great impact. But the journal influences your grade in many more subtle ways. The better your journal, the easier your other assignments will be and, in most cases, the higher your paper grades will turn out.

    Why does the journal have such a large impact of your work?

(1) The journal lowers stress. The journal is important because it is a rehearsal for your other papers. It allows you to think about the material in advance and to begin to develop an understanding, an interpretation, an opinion, and a criticism of the material long before you sit and write your papers. This will help to make the first draft of your paper easier to write and as a result, it will significantly lower your the stress-level. Philosophy papers can be overwhelming, and not understanding the material makes the assignment even more difficult. By writing about the material in advance, you will have a better idea of how to start.

(2) The journal increases sophistication. The "rehearsal" aspect of the journal will allow you to present a better discussion of the issues and arguments. It allows you to become familiar with the texts and issues and this allows you to look deeper into the philosophical issues. When you think about interpretation and criticism in advance, you already start to develop your own ideas even if you are unaware of it. You can reference your journals in order to remind you of your initial thoughts.

(3) The journal saves time. Many students regard the journal as incredibly time-consuming. However, in reality, the journal saves time because it provides a library of summaries and criticism which you cash use to start your papers. What are the major delays in paper writing? First, many people have to re-read part or all of the text because they don't remember the main points or the argument. Second, people have to struggle to understand that which they thought they could put on paper. Third, often underestimate how difficult it is to summarize and criticize. A journal cuts much of that time. Since you can use your journal entries in your papers, you can develop the framework of your first draft with only minimal cutting and pasting. You can use the journal summaries as the beginning of your paper summaries, and use your criticism to jump-start your paper as as well. Those students who are genuinely conscientious about their journals have told me time and time again that the papers are not nearly as difficult or overwhelming as they would be had they not written their journal.

II. What Are the Parts of the Journal?

    The journal is divided into two parts: a summary and a commentary. The minimum requirement for the journal is one full page, but you will most likely discover that as you progress in the course, the journals will become longer. Many people regularly submit journals that are between two and three pages pages long, but do keep in mind that this is larger than required.

    The summary section of the journal should answer several important questions. First, what is the main point of the essay? In other words, why is the philosopher writing this particular piece? What problem is he or she trying to solve? And, what conclusions did he or she arrive at? This section is best placed in the opening paragraph of the journal entry. Second, what is the argument of the essay? The argument presented must be different from the conclusion. the conclusion tells the reader what the philosopher is trying to prove, but the argument explains the reasons for the conclusion -- it is that part of the essay in which the philosopher tries to convince the reader that the essay's conclusion is correct. The philosopher will cite evidence and put forth explanations. In the journal, you should summarize the main points in this section. The summary section should contain one or two quotes from the text that you think are important enough to represent the entire text. When completing the summary, ask yourself: "Did I list the main point of the essay?" and, "Is this enough information that when I need to write a paper, the journal will remind me of the essential information?" Keep in mind, summaries are difficult and require practice. It takes some time to learn how to condense large amounts of information into a few paragraphs.

    The commentary, or "opinion" section of the essay should follow the summary section. It should contain your evaluation of the conclusion and the argument. Do you agree with the conclusion? Why or why not? Do you think the argument presented supports the philosopher's conclusion? Why or why not. It is very important that you justify your opinion. It is not enough to indicate that you agree or disagree with the philosopher, you must explain why you agree or disagree.

    The journal is that place in which you can explore your ideas and initial thoughts regarding the essay. Don't be afraid to be critical, and don't be afraid to try new ideas. Feel free to include personal commentary. If an example from your own life will help to explain your feeling on the essay, include it. Remember, the more interesting the journal is for you to write, the more interesting it is for me to read.

III. Sample journals.

   Below, you will find a sample journal. It is not based on a philosophical text, but I think it will be helpful to show you what I expect out of each entry. The right column has the actual text, whereas the left column describes what I am doing in the journal and why.




This first paragraph is straight summary. It outlines the main idea (in this case, the plot). Notice that all technical terms -- words that have specific meanings to this essay -- are all in quotes, and that each term is clearly defined. Example, "The Empire" is defined as "an oppressive government", "Jedi Knight" is defined as "wise...soldier... [who are] the guardians of peace and justice in the old Republic for over a thousand generations", "The Death Star" is defined as "A massive space station...that has enough fire power to destroy an entire planet."


The paragraph contains all of the main points but ignores the smaller details. It is a difficult skill to learn which details are important and which aren't. It takes practice.


Notice the use of a quote and a citation. The citation is found in parenthesis after the sentence with the quote. Normally, instead of the name of a character, you would include the page number in which the quote is found. For example, your citation might read: (page 23.). But since this is a move, not a text, there are no page numbers.


Journal Entry: Star Wars


The movie Star Wars tells the story of a small group of rebels who struggle to overthrow an oppressive government called "The Empire". The main plot-line focuses on the capture and attempted rescue of Princess Leia, a member of the inter-galactic senate.. The rescuers consist of two robots (R2-D2 and C3PO), a farm boy with heroic fantasies (Luke Skywalker), two mercenaries (Han Solo and Chewbacca), and a wise old soldier or "Jedi Knight" (Obi wan "Ben" Kenobi). The Jedi Knights were, according to Kenobi, "the guardians of peace and justice in the old Republic for over a thousand generations," and Leia believes that Kenobi, being the last of the Jedi, can help her win the rebellion. The Empire has created a massive space station named "The Death Star" that has enough fire power to destroy an entire planet. In addition to rescuing the princess, the rebels must analyze stolen blueprints of the Death Star in order to find a weakness in the weapon and then destroy it. The rebels succeed when Skywalker and Solo manage to detonate a missile called a "Photon Torpedo" in the Death Star's exhaust shaft during the movie's climactic space battle. The victory is possible because Han Solo eventually realizes his duty is to his friends and fellow freedom-fighters, and helps protect Luke in the final attack.



The second paragraph moves to a more abstract level. It introduces philosophical issues, such as the struggle between Good and Evil. It explains symbols, but once again defines all of the symbols. For example, I explain that white is  "the classic Western Color of purity and Goodness".The second paragraph contains another quote and another citation. This is probably the most central quote of the movie, and the paragraph explains its purpose -- it explains the religious quest that lies at the foundation of the movie.




Paragraph two contains more details. In it, I attempt to show the many layers of the movie, while relating each layer to the plot summary in the first paragraph.



Thematically, the movie tells of the classic struggle between Good and Evil. The rebels represent Good and the Empire represents Evil. Throughout the film, the main characters are on, not just a political quest, but a religious one as well. Obi wan Kenobi seeks to convince his new friends that there exists "an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together " (Ben Kenobi) The energy field is called "The Force", and with its assistance, the rebels appear to succeed in their quest. George Lucas, author and director of Star Wars, uses classic symbols to identify Good and Evil. Leia, the princess in need of rescue, and the person who manages to successfully hide and deliver the stolen plans, represents democracy and hope. She is dressed in all white, white being the classic Western color of purity and goodness. Darth Vader, the chief villain who is meant to represent evil, is dressed all in black. Black, the "opposite" of white, is the traditional Western symbol of evil. Han Solo represents the forces if individualism and capitalism -- he appears to be motivated solely by money -- and Luke represents the possibility of youth  and idealism. In essence, we learn that goodness, democracy, hope, youth and idealism  can succeed, but only if they work in harmony. Any of these traits, in isolation, will fail. 


The third paragraph takes the philosophical issues to an even deeper level. It discussed the main philosophical dilemmas inherent in the plot and action. For example, Luke is struggling with the conflict between family and political responsibility. Remember, an essential part of any journal is identifying the questions that the philosopher is trying to address.




Notice the shift from simple analysis to larger analysis. Not only do I try to list individual issues, but I attempt to show how these issues are related to one another

Our characters face many important moral dilemmas. For example, Luke struggles with whether he should remain at the family farm and help his uncle harvest, or whether he should leave and become a pilot to assist his community. Also, Han Solo struggles with whether he should act out of greed or out of political obligations. I think it is important to notice that both of these moral dilemmas are related. Each of the characters struggle with the relationship between the individual and the community, and each struggles with the role of political and moral sacrifice and commitment. Ultimately, the movie asks the its audience to investigate the questions "What should I do to help others?" and "What is my political responsibility?" Furthermore, the movie asks us to consider what kind of government is best: a repressive regime or a democratic one. Lucas clearly thinks the latter is best, but there are certainly moments when the repressive regime seems more efficient and effectual.  I guess there are moments when I wonder whether a more totalitarian government might have its benefits.  





In this next paragraph, I offer my own opinion. I explain that I liked the movie (although in a normal journal, you will explain whether or not you AGREE with the text) I describe my emotional reaction to the text and try to share my own experiences in order to explain the reason for my feeling of connection.


I liked Star Wars very much. I was very happy with Lucas' attempt to place morality in a modern context. I also identified with different aspects of the main characters. I saw myself in Luke's lack of control, and the fact that he got swept away by the battle despite his intention otherwise. I saw myself in Han Solo's struggle to help his new friends while still having personal needs that he knew he had to address. I also saw myself in Leia's struggle to maintain her authority in the face of Solo's stubborn refusal to listen to her suggestions. As a teacher, maintaining authority is often the most difficult of tasks, and I can sympathize with Lea's frustration with their clumsy rescue. Finally, I liked the fact that he movie's setting ("a long time ago in a galaxy far far away") allowed me to think about my own life in the abstract. I could make connections with contemporary political debates, but I could also think about the concepts of "justice", "freedom", and "adventure" in isolation.   






In this last paragraph, I am critical of an element in  the movie. Clearly, although I liked the movie very much, there is at least one point that I think is "naive". This is very important. I do not expect you to agree with every point made by every philosopher. I expect you to be critical and to point out weaknesses. however, whether you agree or disagree with the text at hand, you explain and defend your commentary.


At the end of Star Wars, Good triumphs over Evil. Although I like the optimism of the message, I think this is a little naive. Evil is often much stronger than Good because it can make up its own rules. Those who are evil need not be consistent, and they need not care about others, whereas those who are good must be bound by ethical standards and may be forced to sacrifice efficiency for morality. As a  result, evil can always find new ways to destroy goodness. In contrast, I often wonder whether goodness can ever triumph over evil and still preserve its moral essence. Maybe this is why Lucas ended up making so many more Star Wars films. Maybe life isn't as simply as the first film (or, episode IV as it is now referred to) leads us to believe.



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