Wednesday, June 2, 2010

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Getting beyond "dissing"

This informative article by Joan Goodman got me thinking about respect. I think most philosophy instructors would agree that they teach (and teach about) respect. In ethics courses, respect might be an explicit target of philosophical inquiry: what is respect? What sorts of conduct display it, etc.? Is it earned or inherent? More generally, respect is a kind of intellectual virtue, and even if we don't make it explicit, we attempt to model it and teach it by example.

But Goodman's article reminds me of a conception of respect that students sometimes have and which is problematic in teaching: intellectually at least, respect involves agreement with another's view (or short of that, praising another's view regardless of its actual coherence, persuasiveness, or other intellectual merits). Anything that doesn't exhibit this respect amounts to "dissing."

I came face to face with this conception of respect three years ago when a student came to office and asserted that his C- grade on a paper about Peter Singer's argument for a duty to alleviate global poverty was evidence I didn't 'respect' him. The paper had many familiar shortcomings in student writing: some misunderstandings of Singer's reasoning, objections that were weak or irrelevant, too much heated rhetoric instead of careful argumentation. But the student insisted that in criticizing his work, I failed to show him adequate respect. I had 'dissed' him.

What ensued was a very challenging, but ultimately rewarding, discussion about respect. I pointed out to the student that I was not disagreeing with the conclusion of his paper, but taking issue with its understanding of the relevant material and how it defended its thesis. (This of course is another common student misunderstanding: assuming that any criticism of their written work is a rejection of its conclusion(s) rather than a critique of its methods and arguments, but that's a topic for another time.) Moreover, to deviate from my own grading criteria and award him a higher grade would (1) fail to show integrity and hence to show respect for my own evaluative standards, and (2) in effect condescend to him. I underscored that by taking his work as an attempt to make a serious contribution to philosophical understanding, I was showing him the ultimate form of intellectual respect, namely, assuming (regardless of any evidence to the contrary) that he could master an intellectual task and participate in the larger philosophical conversation.

This particular interaction ended fairly well, but I fear that the view of 'respect' wherein I had 'dissed' the student is not respect, but a perversion of it, and one that is detrimental to student learning and intellectual development. I'm curious if others have had similar experiences and how you handled them. More broadly, how should we teach in light of this (in my estimation) distorted and ego-driven picture of respect?


  1. Interesting post and article, I look forward to investigating both more closely this weekend. These come at a great time in my summer semester--thanks!

  2. While I haven't encountered anyone who framed this problem in terms of respect, I've certainly had students who saw criticism of or disagreement with their views as a personal attack.

    I think I've had some success in changing this view by confronting it explicitly. Special circumstances aside, no one wants to be wrong about something. But we're all wrong about some things—we all hold some false beliefs. The problem is that we don't know which beliefs those are. When someone points out that you are wrong about something, that you're relying on faulty reasonong, etc., in a sense they're helping you. They're helping you to see which of your beliefs are false.

    The silly analogy I use to take some of the edge of that little speech is that having a false belief is like having something caught in your teeth. You don't want to walk around smiling at people with food stuck between your front teeth. The person who points it out to you is doing you a favor.

    I think the same thing goes for your example, Michael. Your job is to help the student improve his reasoning, his comprehension of philosophical material, and his writing. You can't help him without showing him where he needs to improve. Taking the time to help him is a way of respecting him.

  3. Nice post. I've been thinking about related issues, not so much with respect in the classroom (or in offering criticism), but in relation to the way students think about the relations between concepts like respect, tolerance, and acceptance. The way many students use these concepts seems to show confusion (and this may seem familiar), of equating tolerance (and respect) with acceptance, or thinking that respect and toleration are the same. Some of the confusion may result from uncertainty about the degree to which, say, respect for a person can be separated from respect for that person's beliefs. These conceptual confusions are particularly interesting given that students seem to grasp the idea of "agreeing to disagree." But perhaps they think that when you agree to disagree, that precludes further discussion, argument, or criticism? A good article that you could use in your ethics classes that touches on the importance of judgment and criticism is Jean Bethke Elshtain's "Judge Not?"

  4. I suspect this reaction is due, in part, to a common belief that philosophical views are just "feelings" and/or "opinions" and so really can't be mistaken and so any bad grades are unjust. Good courses, of course, try to show people that none of this is true.

  5. Your description is exactly matches what I see the term used for. Indeed, I sometimes say that I 'respect' a view, knowing it will be taken to mean 'agree with.'

    Although I want to suggest that if you object to the line of reasoning, it's hard to distinguish that from disagreeing with the conclusion at the end, especially from the point of view of the student in question, who is not aware or does not remember alternative routes to that conclusion. To them, if that line is flawed, the conclusion is necessarily false.

    Similarly, in common conversation, the only purpose of bringing up these upstream disagreements is to put pressure on the downstream conclusion, so I find it understandable that when criticized in a philosophical context, the student thinks the criticism is ultimately about the conclusion.

  6. Like many faculty, I did my post-grad work at a Major Research University, and have gone on to teach at a much smaller institution. One of my students, complaining about a grade, said "Well I suppose nothing we do is good enough for you, you think we're all inferior etc." I responded by pointing out that, on the contrary, I thought students at my small branch campus are capable of producing work just as good as students as Major Research University, and so I subject them to the same high standards of evaluation. She agreed with me.


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