Originality in Philosophy Courses is Punished Instead of Encouraged

Markers (at least, markers of undergraduate philosophy papers, though this is probably applicable elsewhere) punish originality, rather than encourage it as they should. This is a difficult claim to establish as it’s mostly based on my own experience, but I’ll give two examples of this happening.

First off, I’ll give the only example I have that’s short enough to be reproduced entirely in a blog post. This was the second philosophy assignment I ever did, and the absolute silliness of the comments pissed me off enough that I ended up typing the entire assignment and commentary out in an email to my parents explaining why the comments were silly (hence why I still have it). Little did I realize this strange commentary would not be an isolated incident; it would just be one case of a larger trend. Now, I’m sure some markers are better about this than others, but it is a startlingly consistent finding: the more original my arguments are, the more likely I will find stupid objections scrawled in the margins when I get the essay back.

For the assignment, we were supposed to make a (step form) argument that rebuts a “friend” who criticizes utilitarianism on the grounds that it recommends disposing members of society who are not “useful,” e.g. cripples and homeless people. The idea was that we make the easy, boring argument that utilitarianism would not recommend this. Instead I decided to argue that we shouldn’t reject a philosophy solely because it is counterintuitive; this was (and still is) a pet peeve of mine. Here’s the argument I handed in:

  1. The moral intuition of the majority of people in the past strongly supported racism and slavery
  2. The moral intuition of the majority of the people in the present strongly opposes racism and slavery
  3. So, the moral intuition of the majority is not always correct
  4. The friend’s objection to utilitarianism assumes that dispensing with unproductive members of society is wrong
  5. The friend assumes this because the majority of people intuitively agree that dispensing with unproductive members of society is wrong
  6. So, the friend’s objection to utilitarianism assumes the moral intuition of the majority is always correct
  7. So, the friend’s argument assumes something that isn’t true
  8. An argument that assumes something that isn’t true is invalid
  9. So, the friend’s argument is invalid

Again, I don’t want to single out this TA – this is just the only example short enough to fit in a blog post. Now, on to the comments. On steps 1-3 he wrote:

“Confusing. What do you mean by ‘correct’ here? This can defend racism in present just as much as racism in the past is incorrect [sic]. Both are majority”

A very nice example of a startlingly stupid comment that you simply will not find attached to unoriginal assignments. What do I mean by ‘correct’? What I meant by ‘correct’ is what every other person who speaks English means by ‘correct’ when they say ‘correct.’ The moral intuition of the majority could defend racism in the present just as much as it could attack racism in the past? Why on earth does he say that as if it’s somehow a counterpoint that I hadn’t considered? That was my point.

When I complained to him about the comments/mark, he admitted that the argument I’d made was in fact logically sound, but – like all graders I’ve complained to – refused to admit that he may have made a mistake. Instead he said that his mark was fair because, to make my argument more clear, I should have added a premise that states that if something contradicts itself then it is not always correct. Should I also add a premise stating that if all x’s are y and all y’s are z, then all x’s are z? Should I add a premise explaining that one plus one is TWO, rather than THREE?

Anyway, for the next comment he highlighted steps 6&7 and said:

“Do not have two conclusions back to back. You need premises that show conclusions.”

Another startling case of marker blindness that never seems to occur except when I am making original arguments. Perhaps there was a better way of structuring the argument (although, since both of 7’s premises need to be supported I can’t think of one barring using a diagram instead of plain text) but he is somehow under the impression that number 7 doesn’t have supporting premises, even though it quite clearly does – steps number 3 & 6. This should be evident to anyone who can remember what they read 30 seconds ago. One symptom of original assignments is that instead of receiving the quite charitable reading that unoriginal assignments do, you receive the kind of confused reading that you would normally only get from five year olds. If I’d been arguing something unoriginal he would have said “Oh, I know what he means,” but because the argument is original it is held to a bizarrely high standard that demands everything be made impossibly obvious.

His overall comment was:

“This is a creative effort. However, you need to tighten up the argument. Do not discuss + back up position with concepts that have nothing else to do w/ your argument (i.e. racism + slavery). You need to focus on making a more straight-forward, clear, convincing argument. Come by my office hours w/ your third argument if you want. 78 / 100”

My previous argument had got 84/100 with a minimum of effort, because I did it in boring and conventional manner. In this one I tried something original and ambitious, put more time in than I had for the first, overall liked the argument much more than the first – and instead of getting any credit for this originality (besides a reprimand that I should argue in a more “straight-forward, clear, convincing” fashion, which is code for “stop making creative efforts”) I got taken to town for his own logical failings.

The next example of punishment of originality is one from my philosophy of the 21st century class. Basically, around the time I first wanted to write this post, I decided to put my money where my mouth is. At the time I was still sore over the comments I received for an essay in my philosophy of the 21st century class, where my professor claimed I misunderstood Kripke when in fact I had anticipated and addressed his primary objection RIGHT IN MY ESSAY; and yet made the counterpoint anyway, completely ignoring my… countercounterpoint. It was surreal. But of course it was a 3000 word essay, so I knew there was no way I could really explain this sufficiently to convince anyone; I would essentially be putting a biased undergraduate’s word against a not-too-biased professor’s, and so the natural and understandable reaction people would have would be to side with the professor.

I had one more essay left to hand in in this philosophy of the 21st century course, so I decided that for the next essay I’d argue something that I didn’t believe at all, in an unoriginal fashion (i.e. relying on arguments used in the course), and see the results.

The second essay question I chose asked me to compare and contrast Mark Johnston’s account of religion with Alvin Plantinga’s; describe them and say how they differed, were similar, and which was more persuasive. I found both of their “accounts” to be pathetic – I’ll write about why later. In any case, I realized that arguing “both these philosophers suck” would be a good way to guarantee some confusing, irrational notes scrawled in the margins. So instead, I decided to make what my TA would call a “more straight-forward, clear, convincing argument” – in other words, I said what my marker wanted to hear instead of what I believed, and relied on recombining the flawed arguments taught in class rather than on using my own good ones. I decided to argue the most “straight-forward” thing possible: one of them would be bad and the other would be good. Plantinga (or, as I misspelled him throughout the entire essay, “Platinga” – not intentional, I just hadn’t read the Plantinga section of “What Philosophers Know” very carefully) would be BAD and Johnston would be AMAZING. Although I hate Johnston’s account of religion with a passion, my conclusion in the essay was that “Johnston’s account of religion is an elegant, compelling one that sidesteps many of the great problems that face religion today.” Note I never said that it was right – “right” seems to be a bad word in philosophy.

Needless to say, I got higher on the essay on Johnston and “Platinga” than I got on my first essay – in fact, it got a higher grade than any philosophy assignment I’ve got to this point. (for what it’s worth, the first essay got 83 and the second got 89)

For the first essay I spent a good amount of time constructing the essay and I read the relevant sections of Gutting’s book multiple times to ensure I was understanding the claims correctly. I was informed that I had misunderstood Kripke. For the second essay I spent less time overall, I made arguments I knew were wrong, and I hadn’t even done all the reading relevant to the topic – in fact I’d done less than half of the reading assigned for Johnston. The final comment was that it was a “Very good discussion of these ideas, and effective well-argued comparison of Plantinga and Johnston.”

If I had to say why original essays provoke bizarre, uncharitable grading, I’d guess that the unfamiliarity of the arguments creates a number of problems. One is that when reading familiar arguments the marker can easily fill in missing gaps in the arguments, and may well do this automatically and subconsciously; but when reading unfamiliar arguments this is impossible, and so unfamiliar arguments will naturally be harder to understand and will naturally seem less clear. Another problem is defensiveness and bias, which again everyone will suffer from to a greater or lesser extent. Another is that unoriginal arguments are to a certain extent immune to criticism; for my second essay I relied on rearranging and recombining the arguments of Gutting, Plantinga, and Johnston, and so he could not really criticize anything I said as it was what I had been taught in class. Original arguments invite the marker to make whatever random objection occurs to them, whether that objection makes sense or not. Lastly, original arguments are, of course, harder to create than ones that are based off of what you’ve already been taught, and yet credit is not given for this even though it really should – a philosopher who is unable to think for themselves is not a philosopher at all. Philosophy shouldn’t be about arbitrarily recombining arguments you’ve already heard, but this is what is encouraged.

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14 Responses to Originality in Philosophy Courses is Punished Instead of Encouraged

  1. Kirbycairo says:

    I didn’t need your examples to know that your original claim is true, I have seen it in action countless times. However, your orignal claim should be expanded to include “academia” in general, not simply philosophy courses. The fact is that institutional learning very seldom rewards any kind of originality. Unfortunately this problem extends into the process of peer review in publishing, it becomes a bulwark against any kind of original or marginal idea. And North America seems to be particularly bad for this kind of shutting down of original ideas. I truly believe that this is why the most interesting ideas in the Humanities in the past 50 or 60 years have emerged from the Continent, not only are their academics more original but they function in a much more interdisciplinary atmosphere.

  2. GNZ says:

    I have long been annoyed by this. I was thinking I might be able to add some value but actually you have summed up the primary reasons pretty well !

    A lot of this comes down to just not dedicating sufficient time to marking to actually be ahead of many of the students they are marking if those students veer off their topic of interest / course material. There is no way to pay more for better marking….. and the markers often feel they know about what your mark will be before they even start marking your paper.. or even give you the assignment…

    The other thing is that these same rules will apply when you try to get things published (if you choose to do so). And yes they do effect other areas besides philosophy.

  3. screwplato says:

    It’s unfortunate that this applies elsewhere, although I’m kind of relieved that people were already aware of this; the reason I spent so most of the post on the examples is that I was worried that no one would take this seriously if I didn’t back up my claim well.

    As I see it the only way to mitigate this problem is to raise awareness of it and to encourage evaluators when marking original papers to give as charitable a reading as they can, and to make sure that any objections they have are actually good ones. Thoughts?

  4. Kirbycairo says:

    I am not sure that is any systemic solution to this problem – it is at the core of the institution itself. In grading the issue is often paradigmatic, which makes it extremely difficult to really deal with. This happened to my daughter recently. She handed in a paper in an English seminar class. The prof opened her comments by saying how well written and well-researched it was but gave the paper a B- ostensibly because the paper was written from a sort of Marxist/Deconstructionist paradigm and this prof operated in a different (and I would antiquated) paradigm. She graded the paper down not because it was poorly written or because it was not well researched, but because she was offended by the ideas and the point of view. This is the first B- my daughter has gotten on a paper in her entire four years at university. Though my daughter has made an official objection to the grade and another prof might give it a higher grade, there has been no way to really address the issue with her prof because the prof would never admit that her grade was motivated by a personal bias for her own paradigm.

    The only way I can imagine trying to address this would be to have every paper graded by two profs who have opposing view-points, but can you imagine the logistics involved in such an effort?

    Am I too jaded?

  5. GNZ says:

    The worst cases (e.g. kirbycairo’s) where the marker conciously marks your paper down because you chose to use another position which has its own literature (and therefore is obviously defendable), could be partly adressed by having multiple markers or by having some sort of feedback mechanism that encouraged the markers to be very careful (in a way disputing the mark does this but I never had a mark disputed so I assume it isn’t very common*).

    But in general I agree it is quite fundimental to how the system works. Even if all the markers were quite motivated to remove this bias they wouldn’t be entirely sucessful. Besides if this same thing is true in regard to publishing journals, some markers will feel they are teaching you somthing useful by marking down your otherwise good paper.

    Now that i think about it I believe i had this explained to me once long ago… it was somthing about a tree of knowledge and how if you are building out from the trunk where you have lots of supporting literature then your work will be stable and supported but if you go too far away from that trunk you get into trouble.

    For me, I just use huge numbers of references.

  6. screwplato says:

    Removing the bias entirely is, I’m sure, impossible; but I still think that the obvious non sequiturs like the marker giving B- to a paper they admit is well-researched and well-written, or giving objections that were addressed in the paper, can be avoided by raising awareness of the problem and encouraging markers to be careful when marking original papers.

  7. Matt says:

    “Instead he said that his mark was fair because, to make my argument more clear, I should have added a premise that states that if something contradicts itself then it is not always correct. Should I also add a premise stating that if all x’s are y and all y’s are z, then all x’s are z? Should I add a premise explaining that one plus one is TWO, rather than THREE?”

    Moral intuitions are not like arithmetic. There are plenty of serious and defensible metaethical positions on which two different groups of people at different times can hold different moral intuitions without either of them necessarily being wrong. I assume your TA was alluding to this possibility (poorly) in their remark about what you mean by “correct”. You needed a premise 2.5 that said something along the lines of “What is morally permissible is determinate and unchanging.”

  8. screwplato says:

    First, even if I concede that the argument needs that extra premise, I don’t think it changes much, in fact I think that it just supports my claim that original arguments are held to impossibly high standards. If a student had implicitly assumed something like “what is morally permissible is determinate and unchanging” in an UNORIGINAL argument then no marker would ever dream of holding them accountable for that – after all, they’re just an adorable little first year!

    But if a first year student implicitly assumes something like that in an original argument then all of a sudden it’s a Big Deal that needs to be pointed out and get marks deducted.

    What’s more, I DON’T concede that I needed a premise 2.5. My argument is still valid whether or not you agree that “what is morally permissible is determinate and unchanging.”

    This is because the moral intuition of the people, in opposing or supporting racism, opposes or supports it in the sense that they believe that it is permissible or impermissible in a determinate and unchanging way. That is, in the past a majority of people felt not only that racism was just swell, but that it would ALWAYS be just swell.

    So if you think that what is morally permissible changes over time, that just means that’s one more thing that the moral intuition of the majority is wrong about, because the moral intuition of the majority has ALWAYS felt that morality is determinate and unchanging.

    You could argue that I should have somehow worked those last few paragraphs into my argument, but that’s the problem with being original – you’re expected to somehow anticipate and rebut all possible misunderstandings and fallacious counterarguments. This is impossible. But that does not mean that original arguments are wrong or that they are worse than unoriginal ones or that they are not worth making.

  9. Tristan Haze says:

    Yep, this brings back bad memories for me too.

    By the way, about your argument about the friend trying to rebut consequentialism – and it is an interesting and clear-headed argument – and in particular this step:

    5. The friend assumes this because the majority of people intuitively agree that dispensing with unproductive members of society is wrong
    6. So, the friend’s objection to utilitarianism assumes the moral intuition of the majority is always correct

    This seems to be a weak point in the argument. It seems to rely on the principle that one should not assume something on the basis of some indicator unless the indicator is infallible – i.e. unless the judgements formed on the basis of it are always correct. But this seems to be an overly stringent requirement to place on real-world thinkers.

    (I don’t mean to suggest that the mark you got wasn’t unjust! I’ve got an even worse horror story, involving a whole new theory of metaethics (really!) and a mark of 51, but I won’t go into that.)

    • screwplato says:

      I agree, that’s definitely the weakest part. Still, with more steps (the limit was 11 or something here) I could have used more examples for the first subargument, and supported a stronger conclusion than simply “the moral intuition of the majority is not always correct” – maybe “the moral intuition of the majority does not indicate a high probability of truth” – which would let me change #6 to “the friend’s objection to utilitarianism assumes the moral intuition of the majority indicates a high probability of truth” which is sound. So I think it’s fixable.

      The horror story you mentioned sounds inexcusable. I’m probably sounding like a broken record here but I really hate how much philosophy relies on evaluating arguments by authority (whether it can be linked to reputable philosophers) rather than the actual strength of the argument, and how ambition is punished instead of rewarded.

  10. Tristan Haze says:

    All I can say is keep at it! It would be a great shame for states of affairs like this to drive you and your ilk out of serious philosophy. The title of your blog is hilarious, by the way.

  11. Tristan Haze says:

    P.S. I just added you to the blogroll at sprachlogik.blogspot.com.

  12. Greg says:

    I know this thread is long dead, but I wanted to give folks a quick view from the other side (I’ve been a professor for 5 years, and was a TA for 5 years before that).

    I vividly remember having similar sorts of experiences as an undergraduate, feeling that my originality was being punished. (To be honest, I’m not really 100% sure that’s the full explanation of what’s going on in the example in the OP (more on that at the end) — Kirbycairo’s 2nd comment more clearly describes the kind of thing I used to do, and which I occasionally see in student papers now, from good students.)

    But try to imagine being on the other side. You’ve spent a month or so trying to help students understand a certain set of texts and/or arguments. You then get a paper that, in large part, does not cover the material discussed in class. A fair marker wants to grade on whether the student work demonstrates understanding of the material that all students are responsible for. The marker simply cannot tell whether or not the writer understands the material. The marker can only judge (though as you point out, probably not quite as well) whether the student understands some other material, material that is not covered in class. Here’s an example that is a bit extreme: suppose the teacher in your geometry class asks you to use the Pythagorean theorem to determine the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle, given the lengths of the bases. One of the students, in response, writes down the proof of the Pythagorean theorem. Yes, the second thing is more impressive. But it does not demonstrate that you can do what the instructions asked you to do. (Perhaps as a less extreme example: the math teacher asks for an algebraic proof of a claim, and you give a geometric one.) In short: think about it from the marker’s point of view.

    A few other points about philosophy papers:
    1. I never give a paper an A unless it exhibits substantial original thought. Just going through the argument-objection-reply that we covered in class, even if done perfectly, won’t get higher than a B from me. But when I was an undergraduate, it took me about 2 years to figure out exactly the right balance in my philosophy papers between being original, but still covering the material the prof expected me to cover (=staying within the assigned question). I think part of it was my very slow realization that very often in philosophy what I initially thought would be “the boring, easy answer” (as you put it) ended up being, upon closer analysis, much more interesting and posed unexpected difficulties.

    2. Sometimes there is a reason that the professor is narrowing down the range of types of responses (which students could experience as ‘squelching originality’). Philosophy is full of questions that are Way Too Big to deal with responsibly in a 5 page paper, but students who haven’t taken a bunch of philosophy classes don’t know where these pitfalls are. The prof often does, and a good essay assignment will steer students away from trying to answer a book-length question in 2-3 pages. Just to give an example that hopefully will make some sense to some people: if my objection to a given argument is ‘Well if that argument is correct, then it follows that humans don’t have free will, and everybody knows that humans have free will.’ But as readers probably know, there is a gigantic and unbelievably complex debate concerning whether and in what sense humans might have free will.

    3. re: clarity and originality. I can only speak for myself, but I don’t think I’m completely idiosyncratic. It is possible to possible to be clear and original. Clarity DOES involve stating your position — which side you are on — up front. Stating the view will be arguing for does not force you to be unoriginal, though. The #1 thing that helped me to understand philosophical standards of clarity was going to office hours and running my arguments past the prof or the TA’s. They could then tell me whether what I was saying was clear enough to them or not (and they’re the ones doing the marking, after all).

    Finally, on the first example in the OP itself…
    1. Demanding that you to include as a premise ‘Contradictions are false’ is, I think, wrong — this is (more or less) a *basic*/ fundamental rule of inference that philosophers and mathematicians use all the time, reductio ad absurdum.
    2. The real concerns I would’ve had if I read this argument in a student paper are two:
    (a) This one has already come up in the comments: the fact that X does not *always* give the correct answer does NOT give me a good reason to believe that anything X says is wrong. If X delivers the right answer 99% of the time, then we still have reason to believe it (by the way, I have never encountered a resistance to using the word ‘right’ in philosophy, but maybe local conditions are different for you). E.g. visual perception: when we see an illusion, it delivers the ‘wrong’ output — but the vast majority of the time, perception is (approximately) veridical, so for this reason we use observation reports as legitimate evidence in arguments all the time, both in science and everyday life. So the ‘friend’ could grant that occasionally the moral view of the majority is wrong, and still say it’s right most of the time — so we should have just as much confidence in the majority’s moral view as in our perceptions.

    (b) The numbered argument you presented is not an objection to the anti-utilitarian friend’s view. Rather, it is an argument against ONE PARTICULAR argument for the anti-utilitarian friend’s view, namely, an argument from the moral view of the majority. But there’s no reason that the anti-utilitarian friend has to use that argument for the conclusion. For example, if the anti-utilitarian friend were a Kantian (or many other species of deontologist), the fact that the majority think ‘Treating disabled people differently is wrong’ is NOT going to count as convincing evidence against utilitarianism — what the average schlub on the street thinks is irrelevant.

    Wow — I went on much longer than I meant to. Hopefully something here will be of use to someone.

    • Jake says:

      One of my favorite philosophy teachers said something to the effect of, “philosophical discussions are almost always wrong. The real value is in how entertaining they are in being wrong.”

      Currently, I’m taking a meta-ethics class and the teacher is abominable. There is:
      -Almost no meaningful feedback that could show how I’m wrong rather than just that I am wrong.
      -Minimal demonstration of these completely divorced from reality theories (Hare, Moore, Gibbard) being functional outside the most simplistic thought experiments.
      -An unwillingness to develop imperfect critiques into more effective ones.
      -An unwilligness to use external, non-philosophical information, to critique a theory.

      This woman is a terrible teacher with the gall to say her class is hard. It’s hard because she makes it hard. I’ve had much more difficult coursework made simple by effective educators, none of which were in the humanities. Why is this? I think the answer is that none of them know much of anything. All of their answers lack an objective criterion for truth. If I make an incorrect mathematical proof, I can be shown where the flaw is and why it doesn’t work. With philosophy, the focus of correction is on the argument being wrong, not in the actual correction.

      The problem with your statements is that if you can see through the bullshit of an argument and give viable criticism from a non-standard position, you demonstrate a kind of understanding that is implicit rather than explicit. The former is better than the latter because the latter is no evidence that you can actually use the ideas. You can see this in gender breakdowns for education. Women tend to have higher GPA’s, but they’re not nearly as productive as men when it comes to innovation or scientific discovery.

      And unfortunately, philosophy still ascribes to British sophistry rather than American pragmatism. Hell, that teacher of mine has paper guidelines that say that a theory doesn’t have to be usable or practical. Well then what fucking good is it? What can you possibly do with a theory that doesn’t have a function other than dick around with the words? That is ultimately what created the problem philosophy has become. It has never had the market, science or even common culture challenging it. It’s insular, backwards and unflinching to empiricism and facts.

      I have seen my fair share of bad teachers in the sciences and maths, but I have never seen more institutionalized unprofessionalism, resistance to new ideas, alienation of the curious and outright impractical, unreasonable bullshit as I have in the humanities, particularly philosophy.

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