From Student Papers

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I assign dialogue papers to my students. They basically write a philosophical conversation between two characters who hold differing views, thus presenting both sides or multiple sides of a debate in a way that is fair to the people who hold such views. In the last batch that I graded, I noticed two particularly puzzling sentences and typed them up into my blogging file. I can't remember now if these were from the same paper, so I don't know if the same mind produced them both, but it wouldn't surprise me. The first one sets up the conversation, and the second was uttered by one of the characters in a conversation on the same topic (so they might well be from the same paper).

1. Lester walks into his house and tells his parents that he has been out [of] the closet for 10 years now and has kept it a secret in fear that they would not accept it.

Out of the closet but keeping it a secret? Any suggestions as to what that's supposed to mean? My guess is that the student thought being out of the closet had something to do with admitting to yourself that you're gay rather than its actual meaning of being publicly known as gay.

2. Though I disagree with homosexuality, I do not have anything against it.

I'm trying to figure out what disagreeing with it is supposed to involve if it doesn't involve holding something against it. Maybe the idea is that the person doesn't approve of it but is nice to gay people, but notice that it doesn't say against gay people but against homosexuality. So it's not well put if that was supposed to be the idea. It might be that disagreement is finding it distasteful, while having something against it is thinking it's morally wrong (or vice versa). But that doesn't seem like a natural way to say either.

As I've suggested, there's probably something coherent that these sentences were supposed to mean, but this is a philosophy paper, and clarity and precision are crucial for the very enterprise that these students are supposed to be engaged in.

2 Comments

Without broader context, I can't say with much confidence, but I'd be inclined to interpret them thus:

(1) I'd understand Lester as having been out of the closet to some people -- his close friends -- but to have kept his homosexuality a secret from his parents.

(2) One way to 'disagree' with a preference is not to hold it: some people like the Cubs better than the Red Sox; I disagree with this preference, although I don't have anything against it -- i.e., I don't think there's anything wrong about having it.

I admit that the second interpretation is a little tenuous; given the kinds of views that people actually have, "I disagree with homosexuality" is a terribly misleadingly inflammatory way to say that you're not gay. But maybe it's what was meant.

(1) is plausible, although it doesn't seem to me to be the most natural reading. I don't think (2) is likely, but I guess there's a kind of charitability to it.

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