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