Wednesday, February 21, 2007

How to Impress a Philosophy Professor

Thinking about former students whom I've suspected of being Objectivists has made me think more generally about what I hope for from my students.

It's sometimes funny, sometimes troubling, to catch a glimpse of what they think I'm looking for.

Often, students assume that because I have a PhD in Philosophy I must really be impressed by long words. I can't even count the number of times I've received a paper written in an inflated and self-important tone with lots of long words that are, somehow, not quite right. I can tell that the students who hand in papers like that spent a lot of time with a thesaurus, which almost always leads them astray: the denotations may be more or less right, but it's the connotations that get them.

I try to tell those students, sometimes with some success, that what really impresses me is clear thinking expressed in plain language.

There are also students who take this a step further: The only thing that will impress a philosopher, they seem to think, is something written by another philosopher. So, they cut and paste a paper from other sources. Pastiche does not impress me; it just wastes my time in gathering the evidence to file an academic misconduct report. It makes me very grumpy.

What does impress me is students trusting themselves enough to try to put together an argument on their own, even if it doesn't go very well at first.

Other students get annoyed with me because I have the audacity to be critical of the argument they offer in support of their view on a particular topic. This is just a philosophy class, they tell me, and my point of view is as good as anyone else's. They assume that if I give them anything less than an A, I am showing disrespect for their point of view, which amounts to disrespect for them as people. Shouldn't I be more accepting than that?

This came out several years ago, in the anonymous evaluation of a course I taught. I tried from the beginning to make it clear that I grade papers on the quality of the argumentation, using clear standards that are set out in the syllabus; I do not grade papers based on whether I agree or disagree with the conclusion. I worked tirelessly to help them see that not all opinions are equal, and that the goal should be to have informed opinions that can be supported by reasons. Still, at the end of the course, a student wrote: "I thought the grading was kind of harsh, since this is only a philosophy course, which is really just opinion." What could I do?

Some time ago, I even had a student send me a series of abusive emails about what an incompetent jerk I was to give him a B on his final paper, which led to his receiving a B in the course. He was deeply committed to his thesis, it seems, and thought I was punishing him because I did not agree with his thesis. Again, what could I do? I could only try to explain, again and again, that the grade I assigned had nothing to do with my agreement or disagreement with the thesis, but with the fact that the argument needed much more careful development and he needed to be more scrupulously fair to other points of view.

Again, I try to tell students that what impresses me is clear thinking and basic fair-mindedness. To tell the truth, some of the best papers I've ever received from students were ones I disagreed with strongly. It may be that those students knew or suspected that I would disagree, and so they tried that much harder to put together a cogent argument.

On the other hand, some of the worst papers I've ever received came from students who assumed that I would agree with them. Kissing up does not impress me.

Then there are students with an axe to grind, who think that my role is to sit back and be impressed as they trot out well-rehearsed arguments in defense of their own particular dogma. The suspected Objectivist I wrote about in my last post was like this.

Apologetics do not impress me. What I hope for from my students is that they will begin to entertain some reasonable doubts about their own beliefs and assumptions, and perhaps develop a more nuanced and more complete view of the world. I hope that their moral imagination is richer than it was before we started. More than this, I hope that they get into the habit of doubt, which is to say the habit of open and honest intellectual inquiry.

Come to think of it, there's something wrong with the way I've cast this. In the end, it really doesn't matter whether my students impress me. What matters is that they leave my class with a broader and richer understanding of human life in the world and the choices human beings have to make, and with some of the basic skills they will need to continue the inquiry.

1 comment:

Hrafn said...

I'm not sure if you'll see a comment on an old post, but I wanted to thank you for your series of posts on Objectivism. It struck home with me: I spent six or so years, starting in the last half of high school, squelching my doubts when they conflicted with Ayn Rand's words, because she had a more perfect reason than I, or so I was assured by my community of Objectivist friends and mentors. But those same friends and mentors had been the people who, for me as for you, had helped me find some philosophical foundation after I left the fundamentalist church of my upbringing, and it has only been in the past months that I have had the courage of my own thinking (ironically the notion that attached me to Rand's work in the first place) to identify myself to them as "not an Objectivist." So of course now I'm not "rational" anymore.

The final straw for me was probably the global warming issue - for I finally read something of the evidence on both sides, and decided that the evidence was firmly weighed in favor of the notion that anthropogenic global warming was occurring. But no Objectivist will accept the evidence, and the arguments that I have heard voiced by Objectivists against it have been weak; working backwards from conclusion to data. Other, "higher" Objectivists say that AGW isn't occurring, so if I disagree, I must be irrational, right? So their thinking seems to go. But no longer mine.