Wednesday, May 8, 2019

From the Archives - Drama in Philosophy Class!


When I was a student at UC Santa Barbara, choosing classes was never easy. The most important requirement of a class was that it fit into my cycling schedule. A two-hour span between classes, followed by a one-hour class, was either a total waste of riding opportunity, or truancy waiting to happen. Beyond this, I tended to go with classes that looked interesting, or—better yet—easy. So when I came upon Philosophy 3 – Critical Thinking, a class essentially about logic, I was really intrigued.

Right off the bat, I wondered if you can actually teach somebody how to think logically. I suspected that you couldn’t—that this was a kind of talent. I also felt like I kind of had this talent, since I was pretty good at math and at writing persuasive papers. Moreover, a childhood nickname my brothers gave me was “Logic Lad.” Believe me, my brothers were not given to ever saying anything nice to me, so this nickname must have been a grudging capitulation around an undeniable trait.

This confidence was tempered by (or perhaps a delusion brought about by) an insecurity, which was that I only thought I was a rational, logical person. To have such swagger and be woefully ignorant of my own inability to think critically was a frightening proposition. So, as a hedge against being an unknowing intellectual poser, I thought I better take this class in order to validate, or possibly bring about, my (supposed) capability to think critically.

Little did I realize, when signing up, how much drama this course would occasion. Read on for the torrid tale of our first midterm exam and its aftermath.

Drama in Philosophy Class – February 8, 1989

I had high hopes right from the beginning about Philosophy 3 – Critical Thinking. The textbook is really cool. Verbal arguments are encoded with all these cool symbols, bridging the gap I always felt there must be between math and clearly written arguments. But I was kind of disappointed, right off, by the professor. She just didn’t strike me as the total braniac that I hoped she (and all my professors) would be.

How could I assess this so quickly, and who am I to declare such a thing? Well, it’s mainly due to her imprecise, unstructured delivery. She loves to ramble worthlessly during lecture, repeating herself continually in a monotonous, tiresome tone. Also, her grammar is pretty bad for a UC professor: “Does anyone else need a syllabi?” or “Another criteria we look at is…” or “While the price of gold really might have fell…”

I know grammar knowledge isn’t the same thing as intelligence, but still … I don’t think an Oxford professor would ever slip up like that. But beyond all this, my main problem with this professor is that her lectures dang near put me to sleep every time. (I know, I know … this could be me. I’ve slept through all kinds of classes, even ones I know would be interesting if I were only awake to hear them.)

But you know, the professor isn’t that bad, actually … she does impart some useful lessons. But the Teaching Assistant (T.A.) for the class bugs the hell out of me. He seems to have recently moved here from some Eastern Bloc country, which wouldn’t be a problem except that his poor grasp of English hinders his ability to clearly teach this subject, given the importance of clarity when dealing with tricky argument forms. For example, when teaching a syllogism, it’s really important not to say “In case he” instead of “In the case that he.” Consider this sentence: “In the case that he does not bring an umbrella, he will get wet.” No problem there, right? But if your T.A. says, “In case he brings an umbrella, he will get wet.” This has an entirely different meaning and makes our protagonist seem pretty deranged, wouldn’t you say? I tried to explain the difference but this T.A. absolutely could not follow me. His English skills were not up to the job. Usually after he talks for a while, everybody ends up shrugging at the futility of it all, and loses interest.

As with most T.A. discussion sections, much of the period is devoted to the Question & Answer session. There are two possible scenarios for how this goes. If the entire class is unprepared or asleep (or both), nobody will ask any questions and the T.A. will wait patiently for about ten minutes before becoming irritated. Then he quizzes the class, perhaps to try to snap us into attention. He doesn’t get any satisfactory answers, either because the students are actually clueless, or they’re toying with him (I can’t figure out which). After five or six students give unsatisfactory answers, I’ll try to end the stalemate with the correct answer. For example, if the question is, “What is a sound argument?” I will say, “It’s a valid argument that has true premises.” Then T.A. will shake his head and field five more wrong answers, growing increasingly frustrated. Finally he will announce the correct answer: “It’s an argument which has true premises and is valid.” How does he not recognize my answer as correct? Perhaps it’s his poor grasp of English … maybe he has memorized the correct answer by rote and thus requires the wording to be identical. Critical thinking indeed!

The other question and answer scenario is somewhat less common. Here, a student actually comes to class having read the material and attempted the homework, but is completely lost. Well, the T.A.’s job is to eliminate confusion, so the student has come to the right place. Or so he thinks! Invariably, the student gets nowhere. He will ask something like, “What is the difference between cogent and sound arguments?” and the T.A. will throw the question out to the class: “Anyone? Anyone?” After waiting for about five minutes for a response from another student, the T.A. will say, “Hasn’t anybody done the reading?” After another awkward pause, he lets the question die, hoping the student has given up hope. If the student repeats the question, the T.A. says, “Well, it’s in your textbook.” If the student still persists, then the T.A. says, “You’ll have to come to my office hours.” This last resort is brutally effective, as no student in the history of higher education has ever gone to a T.A.’s office hours.

But you know, the T.A. isn’t actually my main gripe with the class. After all, being surrounded by other students could lead to a stimulating discussion anyway, right? That’s the whole point of the small discussion sections. But I have yet to hear a single intelligent utterance from any of my classmates. Mostly I just hear a lot of whining. And after the midterm exam, they turned their bitching up to 11. In fact, our discussion section was so heated, it was almost like a student revolt.

Interestingly enough, we hadn’t even gotten our tests back, so the class wasn’t responding to poor grades, not exactly. But I think they highly suspected they’d augered in, based on two things: one, almost nobody finished the test (or even came close), and two, the professor had announced at the post-exam lecture that almost everybody crashed and burned. The median score was a 56%. So my classmates came to class armed with numerous reasons why the test was like, totally unfair. The T.A., arrogant  as ever, took a big risk at the beginning of the period by venturing that the students, not the test, were at fault. Instantly the jackleg spokesman for the students fired off a rebuttal: “Isn’t your argument fallacious?” Well, at least the guy had picked up a bit of the lingo.

The T.A. responded: “At my Thursday review section, before the exam, I asked how many people thought the class was easy. Almost everybody raised his hand. Then I asked how many people had done the review problems. Out of 48 students, four raised their hands. Out of that four, only one had gone to the Reserve Book Room to check his answers. If this is indicative of the whole class, we can conclude that the students did not study hard enough.”

 I have to admit, this makes some sense. But, this being a class on logic, he probably should have trod more carefully. For one thing, it’s not necessarily a given that his Thursday section was intellectually similar to ours. They might have all chosen that section (day and time) based on their athletic or party schedules, for all we know. Second, it’s possible that after his first boring question, a lot of the students lost interest and couldn’t be bothered to keep raising their hands.

Our class demanded a “recount.” I found this absurd. The T.A. hadn’t asked our section these questions, so he had counted nothing … how could he now “recount”? And if he asked our class the same questions now, what were we going to say? That we had also neglected to do the review problems? Yeah, right. Amazingly, the T.A. indulged this “recount,” and guess what? It turns out everybody in the class had done all the review problems and had gone to the Reserve Book Room to check our answers! Obviously the test was a gross miscarriage of justice! Of course all this was immaterial. It’s not the T.A.’s job to write the test, so if the test is unfair, that’s not his problem. Nor could he do anything about it.

This pointless debate went on and on, the class growing increasingly impassioned and the T.A. becoming increasingly flustered. I had no interest in the proceedings because, notwithstanding the median score, I felt pretty confident that, unless I was the most self-deluded person on the planet, I’d done fine. The test had seemed easy to me, almost eerily so, and I had finished early. I couldn’t get too worried about my grade because, if I had done poorly, the low grade would be the least of my worries. Being the most self-deluded person on the planet would be a deep, deep hole that I’d probably spend the rest of my life trying to climb out of.

Feeling a strange combination of boredom and discomfort, I began doodling. Unfortunately I am a very poor doodler. I find my doodles tiresome and annoying and end up scribbling them out. So I got sick of that and picked up a flyer advertising a Spring Break trip to Mexico. Then I read a flyer about how I, too, could earn extra income at home doing telecommunications. Before long, I decided that the discussion had to be more interesting than the flyers. Tuning back in, I realized that there was actually an educational opportunity available to me here: I could listen for, and document, the all the logical fallacies committed by the students—proof of their unpreparedness, as these same fallacies were the very subject of the exam! So here they are, taken directly from my notes:

“We did fine on the homework. But when you put a gun to a guy’s head and tell him to recite the Constitution, he won’t be able to do it. Likewise, with our time restrictions, we couldn’t perform well on the test.” WEAK ANALOGY

“We couldn’t be expected to study that long. We got so many tests right now we just don’t got time for everything. If we spent all our time studying for this class, we’d, like, fail all our others! Besides, think of the stress we’re going through!” APPEAL TO PITY

“Exams are always too long. Like this History test I had we had basically fifty minutes to write three essays. And one of them was on material we hadn’t even covered! Soooo lame!” RED HERRING

“Look: 300 students did poorly. Four T.A.’s and one professor blame us for it. Obviously, you guys must be wrong.” ACCIDENT (general rule applied incorrectly to a specific case)

“Two of my friends didn’t even finish the test and neither did I. So don’t eee-ven try to tell me you gave us enough time!” HASTY GENERALIZATION

“I saw this one dude walking up to turn in the test, and he was just filling in random dots like crazy.” RED HERRING

Some of the arguments I wrote down, while not committing specific fallacies, seemed illogical anyway. See if you can pinpoint the weaknesses in the following arguments:

“In the categorical syllogism problems, the examples were too hard. I mean, what if we don’t know the difference between reptiles and mammals?”

“When you said ‘open book,’ you set a trap for us to fall into. That’s not fair!”

“We only had a minute for each [multiple choice] problem. Maybe we’re just not fast enough readers!”

“When you have that many problems in front of you, they just all start to melt together.”

“What if the ten percent of the class that did well were just a product of chance?”

“I got ahold of last year’s midterm and it was a lot shorter. How do you explain that?”

“I tried to calculate how much time we had for each problem, but it was hard because each section had its own numbering. By the time I figured it all out, I only had half an hour left and I didn’t finish!”

“It was totally bogus. I mean, they were all the kind where you have to, like, stop and think!”

“All the examples seemed like they were from poems.”

This last statement caused me to almost burst out laughing. That would have been unwise indeed … the whole class could have turned on me! From this point forward I was focused purely on not smirking or snorting … not only would I look like a dick, but I would actually be one. For once in my college career, I wished I couldn’t stay awake.

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