Teaching: May 2008 Archives

More Student Quotes

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I finally finished grading for the semester, and after sleeping only three hours I haven't wanted to expend the effort to write anything I have to think much about. I do have two more student quotes from the last batch of exams and papers. One student in my Issues in Ethics class presented me with the following gem:

Democratic socialism calls for the abolition of a classless society in which the upper class rule the lower class.

Read that sentence over again, and think about what it says. First off, it's ambiguous. On one reading (the more natural one, I would say), democratic socialism (a) calls for the abolition of a classless society and (b) has the upper class ruling the lower class. This is a consistent definition but wrong on both counts. On the other reading, democratic socialism calls for the abolition of a classless society, and the classless society has the upper class ruling the lower class. This is the more natural reading, but it's also wrong on both counts and even has the additional problem of being flat-out contradictory!

I have another one from a dialogue. I believe it was actually Barack Obama's mouth that this was supposed to be coming out of (in a discussion between Obama and McCain):

I believe that there are three factors to determine the justness of war and terrorism. One would be that bad consequences are not intended. Next, the action should be a side-effect rather than a blunt end. The action can't be justifiable to victims.

The final sentence says the opposite of what it's supposed to say, but that's not what's especially funny about this quote. The second factor is an attempt to say that the bad consequence should be (a) a side-effect, as opposed to either (b) the goal of the action (i.e. the end) or (c) a means to that end. How did the idea of an end as in a goal or purpose somehow get turned into a blunt end, presumably of a weapon? And how is that a contrast to a side-effect? Is there some way to read this that I'm missing?

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.

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