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Monday, August 31, 2015

Revise and Resubmit

This Fall I want to try something different with gradable assignment in my upper division social theory class. Let me explain in broad terms what considerations are on my mind.

Last time I taught this course I did so without a TA and so used it as an opportunity to experiment with open deadlines. Students had to write 3 papers but could submit them at any time. For some student this was a gift, but for most it proved to be a problem. Near 1/5th of the class didn't submit all their assignments. So they received an "N" for incomplete and didn't pass the course.

In principle I am ambivalent about this model. On the one hand it allows students to take ownership over their studies; but it can feel like abdicating one's role as an instructor. In practice however, near half of the students waited until the last couple of weeks to write 3 papers. For this reason the papers were generally awful and rushed. So many students learnt less than what they could. Given my ambivalence, I think it better to err in favor of students producing work, even if it is shoddy.

Fortunately, this term I have a TA. But this does mean that open deadlines are not suitable. However, I am contemplating a revise and resubmit model. This idea comes from the research methods class I teach. Here I have had great success with the revise and resubmit. I do primarily because students undertake field work, and so their are ethical considerations that require attention, Students knew that their work will not be accepted if it doesn't meet certain standards, or that it needs to be rewritten if it is plainly false or incorrect. After 4 iterations of this class, my experience and intuition (yes, I know...) is that the quality of the work improves and there is LESS remedial marking in the second half of the term. More investment upfront means that there is less marking overall. The difference however is in this class students are divided into groups, and so have more minds, skills, and expertise to draw upon when rewriting material.

In my social theory class I have normally require students to produce three 2000 word essays. There is no mid term, nor a final. If I decide to go for a revise and resubmit model, it is highly likely that the TA and I will end up marking papers several times, if mostly because social theory is difficult and students are not accustomed to thinking about abstraction: This is because our undergraduate program is designed to be the New Liberal Arts, not to groom social scientists.

All of this is to say that if we were to go to a revise and resubmit model I was thinking to reduce the assignment to two papers at around 2000 GOOD words. To offset this reduction, I would I like the students to keep their work in a file that includes an ungraded self-assessment report regarding their known weaknesses that they would complete in the opening weeks of the course. With each essay submission or revision they would have to write a paragraph or two outlining how they attempted to work on their weaknesses and how they might have improved. Similarly, for each revise and resubmit they would have to write a basic letter highlighting the major changes undertaken from the previous iteration.

My main goal is to have students be thoughtful about the work they are submitting. I don't want them to go through the motions. I understand the political economy of higher education, but it is precisely because of their indebtedness that I would like my students to leave class having applied themselves. Over the years I have become disenchanted by seeing students disenchanted by 'submit and forget.' They write 2000 words to jump through hoops then TAs and instructors jump through hoops when marking to just clear the due diligence bar. Students in turn do not implement the feedback, but because we know this we only pretend to offer fixes and suggestions. This contraption is performance without purpose. I would like to offer something different this term.

Those are my thoughts at the moment. I would welcome your feedback, even if you think I should undertake another course of action.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Rawls and the Violence of the State

Given the rise of the security state, one developing critique Rawls work faces is that he did not give enough due attention to the problems of war and the violent capacity of the state. As an example, Paul Kahn in Political Theology (2011) charges that “Rawls and his followers never took seriously the violence of the state,” because the threat of “mutual assured destruction never appears within liberal political theory.” Further “the defence policies of the United States are always seen as somehow exceptional—more transitional arrangements than expressions of national identity.” In other words, violence is not considered a salient feature of American foreign policy. The charge is used as proxy to indict the ideal of justice as fairness; for if justice relies upon the State for implementation, and but that social institution at its very core is violent and corrupt, then how can any system of justice implement in its name be just?

Kahn, as well as other critics of liberalism, fall into the trap of sentimentalism, believing incorrectly at the absence of a particular kind of demonstrated concern for a particular topic indicates its absence altogether. It is the emphasis of empathy while neglecting the merits of sympathy. While Rawls did shy away from public engagement, this does not mean that he had few political opinions, nor any positions on war or violence in general.

For Rawl, instances of war were the very items that turned him away from religious belief (although not religious temperament) to political philosophy. In his reflective essay On My Religion, he writes about some of his military experience in the general infantry in the Pacific theater, and his horror at the use of the atomic bombs, the discovery of the concentration camps, and the contingent death of a close friend. Rawls knew war.

Moreover Rawls took an early public stance against the Vietnam War because it was an unjust war. In 1969 Rawls choose to teach a class on the Problems of War because of its timely nature. Issues covered includes ius as bellum and ius in bello, conscientious objections to serving in an unjust war, and civil disobedience. These ideas would find themselves articulated in Political Liberalism.

There is also his 1969 paper “The Justification of Civil Disobedience” which established justified citizens as dissenters in publically and non-violently disobeying the law, within limits to the fidelity to the law. Such work provided philosophical support to the ideas of dissent of the civil rights movement. And in 1995 on the Fiftith anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, he published a paper condemning the actions, writing that they “were great wrongs.”

Kahn’s argument fails. In general he neglects that liberals have often been at the forefront of reforming indiscriminate state violence. The French and English Civil Wars provided the hard lesson that unchecked power would create a world, to use Hobbes description, has "continual fear, and the danger of violent death." Such a condition is intolerable to Liberals and their deep reverence for life. Hence why liberal social contact theorists of morality demand that 'might cannot be right,' and instead seek to base political decisions on reason.


[1] Kahn’s position is one where state violence derives less from conflict about political identity and affiliation, and more in the deeper realm of the apparent lawful order wherein“political violence has been and remains a form of sacrifice.” The disadvantage of the majority of liberal political theory is that it cannot make that identification for “not reason but decision describes that most characteristic of all political acts: killing and being killed for the state (emphasis added).” The extent to which Kahn is correct could be turn on an assessment of the degree to which the US incarceration is form of sacrifice made for political order. Kahn is probably correct on this account.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Philosophy and The "Homeric Struggle"

It it vital to have a positive defense of meaning. This is because it provides the substantive foundation for normative claims. This is reflected in the 'Homeric struggle' currently underway in contemporary philosophy of language between neo-Cartesians and neo-Pragmatists.

The description comes from Peter Strawson, a participant in this struggle. The struggle refers to different takes on contemporary approaches to mind and language. “One central battlefront” Jeremy Wanderer writes, “concerns the potential autonomy of semantics from pragmatics.” Wanderer continues, outlining the stakes
"To say that semantics is potentially autonomous from pragmatics is to allow that there can be a semantic theory that makes no potential contribution to pragmatic theory. Neo-Cartesians affirm, whilst neo-Pragmatists deny, the potential autonomy of semantics from pragmatics."
A ‘Homeric struggle calls for heroes’; heroes in the neo-Pragmatist camp are said to include Dummett, Brandom, Rorty, McDowell, Davidson and (possibly) Sellars, whilst heroes in the neo-Cartesian camp are said to include Dretske, Fodor and Lepore. Here we have a basic divide in contemporary philosophy of language, one that John Macfarlane has dubbed as ‘perhaps the most significant divide of all’.

In dispute between these different views of analysis, is as Scott Soames (2005) writes, more than standard methodological concerns (the appropriate object of analysis, what is a successful analysis, what are the benefits of this type of investigation and so on.) Rather, disagreements serve as a proxy terrain for larger stake intellectual confrontation, such as
"the nature of philosophy, the sources of philosophical knowledge, the role of language in thought, the relationship between language and the world, and the nature of meaning—as well to more focused questions about necessary and apriori [sic] truth."
At stake in the semantic-pragmatic interface debate Soames (2010) writes is “whether the traditional conception of the relationship between meaning and use can survive.” The traditional conception holds that the “semantic content of a sentence in context is always a proposition … [which] … is both asserted by utterances of the sentence in the context, and itself the source of whatever subsidiary assertions may result.

See Wanderer, J. (2010) Inhabiting the Space of Reasoning, Analysis, 70(2) pp367-378, Strawson, P. F. (2004) Logico-linguistic Papers. Aldershot: Ashgate, Soames, S. (2010) Philosophy of Language, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p3-4, Soames, S., (2005), Philosophical Analysis, in Borchert, D.M. (ed.), Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 1, 2nd ed., Detroit: Thomson Gale, p144

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Disaffected by Politics

In anticipation of the GOP debates, Peter Suderman has a fairly good article on Trump's politics over at Reason. Here is a bit:
[T]he Trump crowd has thoroughly tired of conventional politics and conventional politicians. The draw of Trump’s candidacy is that he is so very obviously not bound by these conventions—that he is not a conventional politician, nor even really a politician at all. He doesn’t have policy ideas or governing plans to speak of? So what? Those are for politicians. Trump’s politics are a kind of anti-politics, and his lack of a traditional political agenda only adds to his anti-political appeal.
While this is useful, Suderman's real insight is in locating the fantasy elements of this political imagination. He writes:
What Trump offers is a fantasy of governance without negotiation, of economic success without policy detail, of a president who does not particularly feel the need to act presidential. It’s a fantasy of politics without politics, for people who just don’t want to think about it too much. In this view, the fact that Trump has clearly put so little thought into it himself makes him seem sensible and relatable. All of which is to say that the mindlessness and stupidity of Trump’s presidential campaign are not incidental to the candidate’s recent success. On the contrary, they are key to his appeal.
For the most part, I believe this description is apt and accurate. However I think there are several other things at play.

I suspect this disaffection stems not only from a loss of appetite for politics, but also from not being involved in politics. Without having held office, or even a civic representative position, a person doesn't have the prerequisite experience to even begin to imagine what politics and governance is like. So it is easy to think that problems can be resolved with a change of attitude rather than through structures wherein one accrues and uses pressure, trades, and concessions to advance agendas.

Certainly the Trumpers' simplistic and destructive worldviews are a function of distance, but second, they are also the product of not thinking they have a stake in the reproduction of the institutions formed by politics. If you don't believe you are invested or at risk, you likely believe there is little to lose by supporting a candidate like Trump. I don't think it is stretch to infer that Trumpers do not believe they belong to society at large. And to the extent that research can and does show that they benefit from all kinds of latent bias and social privileges, that society caters toward them for the most part, this does nothing to quiet their disaffection. So it becomes incredibly difficult to reason on these grounds, and indeed doing so comes across as yet more dismissal of their concerns and evidence of their political marginality.

Under these conditions it fairly easy to indulge in mythological talk of strongmen. Through force of character and will Trump would right the apparent wrongs, and change the way things are done. It is the both the desire for individual talent to superseded all institutional restraint and the yearning for power to punish those who are good at politics.

As always, comments and critique invited.