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Sunday, April 30, 2006

Grading their Politics

It's grading season again, and since Emery has taken to posing questions in recent posts, I thought I'd turn to a query of more immediate practical import (for me) than golden tablets and magic rocks. When, if ever, is it OK to downgrade student papers for their politics?

As we all know, the good PC liberal position is "never." It's also the "professional" position. We're supposed to be grading skills--thinking, writing, research, etc., matters of process--not judging substance per se. Such a policy adheres well to the principles of "liberalism," generally, insofar as liberalism promotes open discussion, tolerance toward diverse views, and official "neutrality" on questions of "the good." The professor's immediate responsibility focuses on what is sometimes called "instrumental reasoning," but liberalism tends to assume that by cultivating reasoning as process, individuals become more capable, in a substantive sense, of participating in and contributing to a pluralistic society. One of the big up-sides of this practice is that it helps to depoliticize our judgments, at least to some extent, while still cultivating socially useful behaviors among our students.

But in practice, I'm not sure these distinctions always hold up. Conservatives, for example, commonly complain that academia's lefty tilt results in a persistent political bias. David Horowitz has been travelling the country railing against the persecution of conservative students by the academy, which discriminates against anyone to the right of Lenin. Poor little conservatives, fragile flowers, you are a beseiged and victimized majority in a society run by a "murderous" Marxist minority. (TMcD's sister, LoquaciousMcD, recently had the pleasure of attending one of DH's campus rants.) Most of this claim is silliness, of course: right-wing victim chic offered, paradoxically, in a society currently run almost exclusively by the far right. Sure, academics as a whole tend to be left of center, but the numbers vary by discipline, and who ever said that every segment of society had to be politically representative. Are the military, the corporations, or the evangelical churches politically balanced? Of course not.

Still, there's a kernel of truth in Horowitz's complaint. We can't always avoid political judgments in grading, especially for those of us who actually teach politics. I recently graded a paper where the student's argument could be summed up as follows: although I haven't read it (!), I believe that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress after 9/11 gave the president absolute powers to do whatever he wants in matters of war, because that's what the president says it says, and after 9/11 we have to trust that whatever our president says is true without questioning or else the terrorists will win. Now that's pretty common conservative reasoning these days, but it's also pretty clearly a case of bad reasoning, at least when presented with the rhetorical overkill and lack of practical evidence or legal precedent this paper offered. Sometimes the substance of a political position derives from faulty process, and in critiquing the latter we inevitably denigrate the former. Or, to quote Steven Colbert from yesterday's White House Press Association banquet, sometimes "reality has a liberal bias."

I'm sure that Horowitz would be apoplectic were he reading this. But does he really think professors should offer NO judgments? It seems unlikely. I can't imagine he'd want high grades given to well-written papers advocating far left positions. Which brings me to my second example. I read a paper yesterday with the following argument: Fidel Castro is not a "totalitarian"; he's a profoundly "modest" and benevolent man (why, he even says so himself!), a hero of his people who has created an "Eden" in Cuba, one where people ride bicycles because it is more environmentally friendly, and where they have a real "freedom" the West cannot appreciate. Hmmm. . . . OK. So what this student has shown me is a complete inability to distinguish between objective analysis and agitprop oblivious to factual reality. I gave that paper a bad grade too. But I won't deny that politics played a role.

Any thoughts from my comrades?


At 9:15 PM, Blogger Transient Gadfly said...

Mrs. Transient Gadfly oft tells of the composition class she taught in 2000 in which the theme was the election, and issues upon which the voting would supposedly swing. Throughout the semester she meticulously avoided asking the students' political leanings, and the last paper of the semester (when, I am told, for I have not taught in many, many years, final grades are already pretty much set) was to say who you were voting for and why. Without exception (and this was community college, so take that for what it's worth), the students who were voting for Gore were (already) getting A's and B's, and those who were voting for Bush were (already) getting C's or lower.

At 1:05 PM, Blogger DK said...

Interesting question.

It's probably no surprise, but I think the liberal answer is correct.

Imagine a super-class including Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, Marx, Foucault, Robert P. George, Anarchy, State, and Utopia - era Nozick, etc.

They would produce wonderfully argued papers, all deserving of A's. And yet the politics would be completely diverent and, in some cases, repugnant.

So, ideally speaking, at least, student politics shouldn't matter for grading.

At 10:27 PM, Blogger cskendrick said...

Just because a view is heartfelt, earnest and well-researched does not mean that it deserves sympathy, if in fact it's just plain WRONG, or developed from logic or rhetoric that's just plain WRONG.

PS - Did you catch my front-page reference over at DKOS?

Oh yeah that's right. The only reason that I caught it was because you did. :)

At 6:16 AM, Blogger Number Three said...

TMcD's post raises a much more subversive question, as the TG's comment points out. That is: Is there a correlation between good academic work and political ideology?

DK is correct that, at a very high level, there probably isn't. Plato was no fan of the rights of man (or woman, either), but he was plenty smart. If one ever had the misfortune of teaching that super class . . . one would have to give everyone, or almost everyone, an A, because, frankly, do you want to argue grades in your office with Schmitt?

The more interesting question is whether, at the rank and file level, there is. TMcD points out that dumb student conservative answers follow, pretty closely, the GOP party line. My guess is that this is largely a case of garbage in, garbage out . . . if you listen only to agitprop, then you "think" (if that is the right word) in agitprop. Left (Castro's Cuba) or right.

But, as with so many things, the current administration has made me reconsider these issues. For example, in terms of GI/GO, many, many GOPpers today believe that they should pay no attention to the MSM, which is biased, and only listen to agitprop. "Only Fox News for me, thank you!" This is one level deeper than the passive model the GI/GO point suggests. If conservative students actively seek to prevent themselves from exposure to ideas and points of view with which they disagree, and they actively embrace the faulty reasoning and laughable talking points of the GOP noise machine . . . then there is reason to think that they will be unable to actually write a reasoned, reasonable essay on any subject that touches on politics.

It's no longer an aspect of their mental apparatus, or a preference. It becomes constitutive. They take their views from approved sources, only, and they do not question those sources. Nor do they really question alternative sources, which they generally ignore or, when noticed, simply reject out of hand as "liberal."

That is profoundly illiberal, in terms of a liberal education.

At 10:39 AM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

A smart set of comments. To clarify, the position I'm defending IS the "liberal" position, and I would have to agree with DK that Schmitt and co. would all have to get A's (although I'd have to hold my nose a bit on both Schmitt's and Nozick's grades).

But I also think the liberal position doesn't really help us dodge all those political questions as much as we would like it to, for the simple reason cited by Emery: some political perspectives emerge as a result of spectacularly bad reasoning processes. Garbage in, garbage out. And as CK notes, sometimes people are just plain wrong, and no amount of hermeneutic charity from the liberal grader can (or should) save them.

Finally, to pick up on the Gadfly, I should say that I've had some very good conservative students, and even some who were lacking in academic skills but nonetheless engaged and open to ideas. I still get e-mails now and then from a couple of my College Republican students from two years ago who struggled with grades but loved the classes and added a lot to them. I've also had weak and dogmatic liberals. If I were to compare my student activists, those involved with College Dems (which I advise) and College GOP, I'd say they're pretty similar overall. That said, I'd have to admit that a much higher percentage of the thickheaded and/or dim tend to reflexively adopt right-of-center views, while my most engaged students are a bit more likely to be Dems. I've also had two experiences with students this year who were traumatized to the point of tears by their encounters with political theory, and both were very religious and very conservative.

At 11:55 AM, Blogger Paul said...

What Emery points out at the end of his post is quite important: Professors in all disciplines must now, more than ever, teach students the value and necessity of source criticism. The same mentality, or possibly even methodology, that leads a student or citizen not to question a particular political figure or news source is the same one that has lead many a historian/philosopher over the centuries not to question a Herodotus, a Thucydides or a Plato: conferring authoritative status, and thus pistis (belief/faith), upon a particular source. This is the entire methodology of fundamentalists. The fundamentum, or foundation, of all truth, is a particular source, say the Bible or Koran. Any amount of contrary evidence will not shake that pistis. Students who ascribe faith to Bush, FAUX news, Fidel Castro... are merely replicating this methodology in some form. Since many of them have been taught that this method is not only OK, but it's the path to all truth, teachers have quite a mountain to climb to overcome it.

I happen to teach in a discipline that places a high premium on source criticism and since it deals with the distant past, it is not as threatening or controversial as current events/politics. So I try to get my students to see and understand the value of questioning the ancient sources, which ones to ascribe greater pistis to and why, and in the process I hope they begin to do the same for sources today. I also try to teach them the bases for why they ascribe pistis or not to every source. I think Aristotle had it mostly right -- people confer pistis based on what they think about their source's ethos (character), pathos (emotional sympathy) or logos (reasoning/systematic account). I said mostly right because in the past few months I've come to believe that they also ascribe belief based on mythos, which I'll define in it's original sense as a "sacred story", to a greater degree than almost anything else. Logos is the least powerful of all these four means of persuading someone of something. The scientific revolution, in the end, has not changed this. So, I try to get my students to identify what a logos is, if available, for each topic and I grade them accordingly.

So, by way of example, if you're teaching about whether or not there really were WMDs in Iraq, you can ask them what qualifies as a logos, that is a systematic and detailed accounting of the evidence? Bush's pronouncements? MSNBC News reporting... At the end of the day it shouldn't be too difficult to get them to agree on 4 sources: Hans Blix, David Kay, Charles Dilfer and the Congressional Report. These were all logoi -- systematic accounts with access to more evidence than Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly. Make them read these sources. What did they all say? Those who still believe that there was an active and dangerous WMDs program in Iraq just prior to the invasion (not 10 years before) must believe that all these logoi got it wrong and we've had 4 more intelligence failures.

Of course a fly in the ointment comes when language becomes so perverse that distinctions between logoi and mythoi are no longer made: En arche en ho logos, kai ho logos en pros ton theon, kai theos en ho logos: "In [a or the] beginning was the logos, and the logos was in the presence of God, and God was the logos."


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