Posted by: Danielle Heitmann | November 10, 2009

The road too frequently travelled

I recently received my first three philosophy papers back. Two of them I had been excited to write, as they expressed some of my original ideas and what I really thought about the subject under discussion. For the other one, I gave the T.A exactly what he had suggested (even though I disagreed) because he had strongly urged me to do so. The grades? Mediocre on the two in which I developed my most original ideas, and an A- on the other. Lesson learned? There is an underlying incentive in philosophy papers to give the teachers what they already know and want to hear.

The reason is simple. In order to argue against a particular ideology or interpretation being offered in class you would need to write much longer than a 5-7 page paper. You would need to outline all the presuppositions and assumptions you are making and provide reasons why you think they are correct. This alone would take an unheard-of effort. Then you would probably need to draw on experts in the field to support your opinion—experts which you probably have never heard of given your limited academic experience in the field—so your point of view could be seen as credible and validly presented. And the kicker is that you only have a week to do this.

Or, you can take the easier option. Give the professor what he or she has already taught. The proofs and assumptions you are making are already understood and accepted by the audience. Adopt the framework that was presented as strongest in the classroom and argue from that lens. Your reasons for doing so will be obvious to those grading the paper, and a considerably less amount of work and effort is involved. The less you challenge, the easier your views are accepted, the more cogent your argument seems, and the higher the grade will be. The only problem is that you probably won’t be able to say anything of what you might actually think.

The thing is, I am determined not be discouraged by the skewed incentives of such a grading system. The point of my philosophy education is both to learn the ideas of great thinkers and also how to present my own point of view in a coherent and effective manner. Thus, though it may be more difficult to challenge traditionally accepted viewpoints in my papers, I think it is better than thinking inside the box! I believe I am going to have to send up a few extra prayers to God this semester on behalf of my GPA…


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