A Ku Indeed!

Grading Based on Comportment

Posted in Pedagogy by Chris on August 26, 2007

(cross posted at Socrates’ Wake)

Adam thinks that the main point of Mike’s post on classroom management was lost (I lost the point too). In this short post I’d just like to redirect it to what Mike probably intended (or at least what Adam thinks he intended) the main focus to be: grading students in the philosophy class based on comportment. In other words: should a part of a grade in a philosophy classroom be based on whether a student is cordial, not arrogant, respectful of the opinions of others, genuinely interested in creating a classroom environment that focused on collaboration (and so on).

Adam and I saw a plenary talk about this topic some years ago (3 years ago?) at the AAPT. The talk was given by the then-president of the AAPT (I believe his name is Daryl Close). I can’t remember exactly the specific arguments Close gave, but I remember that he was clearly against this sort of practice, arguing that grades in philosophy classes should be reflective only of the student’s learning/writing.

Later on, Adam and I had an argument about this ourselves, with Adam more on Close’s side and me taking up the opposing point of view. In the effort to keep things simple, I think Adam’s argument went something like this:

P1. The business of philosophy is focused solely on the analysis of theoretical problems (understanding them, solving them, advancing them, etc).
P2. Being a good philosophy student means being good at the business of philosophy.

C1. To be a good philosopher it’s enough that you are good at analyzing problems.

P3. The aim of a philosophy class is to impart the skills to engage in philosophy.
P4. Students should be graded on whether they develop those skills.
P5. Comportment plays no part in a student’s ability to develop/use those skills.

C2. Students should not be graded on comportment.

I suppose my contention with this argument, if I recall (not that we walked around talking about P2s and P5s), was that P1 is false, because the business of philosophy isn’t just about the analysis of problems (necessary, but not sufficient). I argued that philosophy is also (a) a social discipline involved in getting people to learn to appreciate and perhaps engage in the activity of approaching the world differently (from a philosophical perspective). In a way, it involves helping people to “get out of the cave”. Certain kinds of comportment, taken generally (not in specific instances, where it may help) do not contribute to this, and if anything disrupt the creation of the kinds of environments where “learning to do or appreciate philosophy” flourishes. Moreover, (b): the philosophical way of life is also about cultivating a real sense of Socratic humility about the way in which one lives/currently thinks about the world. Excessive arrogance is inconsistent with this (I see this sometimes in the dismissive attitude of some of my own students towards religion, and I also see it on both sides of fence in some folks regarding the superiority of “analytic” or “continental” points of view).

Essentially, my way of looking at it suggested the following distinction:

P6. Good thinkers do all of the things that Adam prized. You can be a great thinker and be an ass, or be uninterested in the development of others, cultivate a dismissive disposition, etc.
P7. Good philosophers are good thinkers and care about (actively, not just in theory) the issues I’ve raised.
P8. Philosophy class aims at developing students with the skills to do philosophy.

C3. Thus, comportment grading is acceptable (if not even required).

Well, that’s a hastily typed version of it I think. All of this said, I don’t grade based on comportment — I’ve never put it into practice. This is not because I’m not convinced by what I’ve written above (not that I’ve ever really sat down and tried to work out specific forms of the arguments needed), but rather because I can’t figure out a way to put it into practice that would be really clearly understandable to students and also not excessively subjective. So it’s more of a practical problem than anything else.

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