Sunday, August 26, 2007

Grading on Comportment

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. A good philosopher is good at the analysis of theoretical issues.
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.


  1. I lost the original point too in the other thread (sorry about that - I see that my cellphone anecdote did take us pretty far afield).

    I think that Chris's argument is a good one, because of what it ordinarily takes to do good philosophy. I think it is uncontroversial that one can be a good thinker without being a pleasant person. One can treat philosophical problems as mere puzzles that need solving, and one can see other philosophers as people who haven't been smart enough to come up with a good answer yet. However, I suspect that such a person would rub all other philosophers the wrong way, both on a personal and professional level.

    On the personal level, they're just a jerk, which is bad enough. But their behavior is offensive on the professional level too, because philosophy is a very collaborative discipline. We demonstrate arguments and articles we are working on for our colleagues so we can see how good they are; we seek feedback on our work; and we look to give others feedback on their work. We are, after all, interested in being as clear-headed and lucid as possible, and sometimes it takes the help of others to point out our own mistakes or to help us realize the significance of what we've been working on.

    Now, we can do the things I listed above without being cordial or respectful. But I doubt that produce the best philosophy, because we would find it highly difficult to work with philosophers who excel at being jerks. Students, too, I suspect, find it difficult to think when one of their peers excels at being a jerk. It distracts them from thinking about what they ought to be focusing on, and instead of paying attention to the instructor or another classmate, they might find themselves thinking about what a jerk that one person is, and why the instructor doesn't do something about it. It seems to me that this falls under the category of "disrupting the learning environment", and is quite open to the instructor's sanction.

    The problem is, of course, practical implementation. But at least theoretically, I'm in favor of grading partially based on comportment.

    * Edited to fix a typographical error.

  2. Keeping in mind that the context is discussion-based courses, I, too, think that Chris's argument is basically okay, though I do have a quibble about how parts of it are worded in the opening paragraph. I don't think that I can assess people's attitudes (such as contempt, genuine interest in fostering an open environment, etc.) particularly well, except maybe in extreme cases on either end of the spectrum. So, what I tell my students concerns specific behaviors -- including body language -- that I think can hamper such an environment.

    Three additional quick thoughts, expressed. These have to do with some of the larger questions behind the behavior of a few in-class jerks.

    First, I'm not so sure that as a profession, we are particularly good at modeling that which we're here asking of our students. But in any case, I think that if you're going to raise the issue of comportment with your students, you need to provide them with actual models of what you would like to see, along with models of what you don't want. It can be hard to find examples of the former, especially ones that are available on video, but that's what YouTube is for, I guess.

    Second, the course assignments and in-class work ought to reward the skills and comportment that you're describing here. Some arrogant jerks become far less so when they're paired, for a discussion assignment, with someone who isn't as stupid as they thought. Are there particular kinds of work that you have found helpful for that purpose?

    Third, sometimes getting that group of students out of the classroom -- especially early during the term, before various patterns have hardened -- can really alter their dynamic with each other. (Sometimes not...) How easy would it be to do something as a class, elsewhere on campus (or off campus altogethe), such as viewing a course-related film, etc.?

    Maybe this is getting too far afield from the matter at hand...

  3. I don't teach philosophy, but I can comment a bit on your query about whether there is a way to teach these concepts to students. At my college, effective social interaction is treated as one of the skills students are expected to learn and demonstrate before graduating. We use a task-oriented interaction model which the students learn early in their program and which then provides a shared language on the topic. Students in upper-level courses work on improving their ability to use various components of the model, and use videotapes of their group discussions as evidence.

    I would hate to try doing this on my own in just one class, though. I think one reason our students take it seriously is that it is emphasized throughout the curriculum, not localized in just one subject. It also takes a lot of time to review the videotapes; although I could imagine double-dipping by making the taped interaction also a content assessment.

  4. I guess what sounds jarring about the question of "grading on comportment" is that it sounds so baby-ish, almost like we're grading students on their posture or whether they bring enough sharpened pencils to class. Yet I and most philosophy teachers I know base part of students' grades on "participation," "preparation," or "involvement," which I suppose are stand-ins for something like comportment.

    I do think it's important to emphasize, particularly in introductory courses, that the classroom is meant to be a space for dialogue, but not just any dialogue: a reasoned, careful dialogue where events that might be frowned upon in the larger culture (asking people to clarify their positions, or even changing one's mind!) are acceptable. I've certainly had students who've glommed onto the idea that philosophy is argumentative while totally missing that it's also dialogical in this way. So to my mind, it's crucial that if we grade on comportment (or whatever one calls it) that we explain how this is connected to students' acquiring the attitudes, skills, etc., of philosophy. If we don't, then I fear that grading on this basis will seem baby-ish to students.

    One last thought: We want to grade students based on the breadth and depth of their learning. But many of the tools we use (writing assignments, etc.) may miss the degree to which students have learned some of the attitudes and skills associated with philosophy. For instance, I've encountered many students who learn a great deal from the process of philosophical writing but whose final essays are often weaker than students who probably learned less but are simply more natural writers, better able to plug ideas into a structured written template, etc. This is why I have reservations about the Close/Adam view (as it's been represented). It's hard to see how without looking to comportment we can measure effort, commitment, willingness to learn, etc.

  5. I may be being a little misrepresented here. A couple of preliminary points. First, I think the philosopher/thinker distinction Chris is suggesting can't be quite right. It would seem to rule out the idea that there could be arrogant or anti-social philosophers. It may be tempting to say that those arrogant philosophers we've all met are just thinkers, but even when reading Aristotle, I can't help but thinking that the guy probably had a big old stick up his butt.

    Also, I think Chris's argument as written might be taking a little too much from the word "good". I'd be more willing to say it represented my view like this:

    P1. The business of philosophy is largely focused on the analysis of theoretical problems (understanding them, solving them, advancing them, etc).
    P2. Being a skilled philosophy student means being _skilled_ at the business of philosophy.
    C1. A skilled philosopher is good at the analysis of theoretical issues.
    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. Grading on comportment plays no part in a student's ability to develop/use those skills.
    C2. Students should not be graded on comportment.

    The question I think we have to ask is not whether comportment is part of philosophy. As far as I can tell it's something that makes any practitioner of any discipline better. But can grading on comportment make someone into a better philosopher. I don't think grading really works as an incentive in behavior modification, so I believe that comportment shouldn't be graded.

  6. Let me scramble to add that, as Vance suggests, I think there is a place for comportment in the philosophy classroom and that's in modeling the most desirable qualities we would like philosophers to have (humility, ability to listen, etc). And I really like Pat's idea of developing these qualities as a part of a university culture. But I don't think it's a special attribute of philosophers and, aside from encouraging a little participation, I don't think grades are the best tool for behavior modification or bringing people into compliance with socially desirable norms, even if we could objectively assess someone's attitude.

  7. Though I am in some sense grading on comportment this semester, I admit I have reservations about doing so. Part of me thinks that if a person never comes to class, but is able to write the papers and do very well on exams, then she deserves whatever grade she gets. Yet I also believe that part of being a student is being present in the classroom, and being present in a respectful way. If part of college is preparing students for their lives after college, and comportment is important to life after college, then [provide suppressed premises here] there are some reasons for grading on comportment.

    And, while I don't have an argument for this last point, I just cannot escape the thought that part of being a truly good philosopher is being able to do philosophy with others in a respectful and charitable way. But this probably has a lot to do with my view that philosophy is not about solving puzzles, but rather about figuring out how to live.

  8. Hey everyone – thanks for the replies. I’ll try to reply to each person in turn.


    First, I agree about the difficulties of practical implementation. I’m just not sure how to justify my grade (hypothetically), so I’ve shied away from it. But in principle I like the idea, or at least insofar as I am convinced that it is getting at an essential part of doing philosophy.

    Second, I would want to go further than you here. As far as I’m reading you, you’re making comportment out to simply be a means to an end. It’s true it is a means in many cases. Pleasant philosophers are easier to work with, to study from, and so on. All that is true, and such approaches no doubt help others to learn. But I’d want to say that even if they did work to get people to think better, or more clearly, there’s still an issue here – simply put, bad comportment is inconsistent with the attitude of the philosopher. A small example: to think of or treat another person as if that person is an idiot is inconsistent with the desire to collaborate, to help, and to develop (others and myself), even if it turned out that it did do those things. Let’s say that comportment is a constituent element in being a philosopher, not just a means.

    Vance (and Pat),

    You’ve raise some good issues and points here, and I find myself mostly in agreement.

    On your first point: how true; we often are not the best representative of our own discipline, and we need to work to be better exemplars. But still, I’d argue that we also want to make it clear that such comportment isn’t just an inessential “nice thing” but rather just as important to philosophy as is good cognitive thinking.

    Second point: absolutely right, I think – do our practices lead to the development of the kinds of philosophers we want to create? You are most certainly onto something important here. Most of philosophical practice is individual, not to mention “attack” based. Work needs to be done on developing methodologies that can develop critical thinking while at the same time creating certain types of people. Unfortunately, I just don’t have any good examples of practices that work well here, outside of the ones you’ve mentioned. Anyone have any further thought on this? Pat’s suggestion that such training needs to be implemented across the curriculum is on the mark, I think. That said, I have a hard enough time trying to figure out how to effectively do it in the philosophy classroom!


    I suppose that sharpened pencils and preparation and such are important, but they seem related to technical development of philosophy still, whereas I suppose I’m trying to center more in on the character of the philosopher towards himself as a philosopher and towards others as dignified beings. Sure, sharpened pencils demonstrate some character (diligence, say), but still seem too practical minded. I think when the distinction is made, the thought that it seems baby-ish – for me anyway – seems to dissolve.

    I also agree with the need to effectively communicate this to students, at least for the reason that they will surely misunderstand what the point of the assessment is (which may do more harm than good).

    Also, though I agree that introductory classes should incorporate this, I am actually more concerned about upper divisional classes. It seems to me that students actually start off fairly good to one another and open to listen (mostly). It is as their knowledge increases that the problems emerge. With knowledge comes arrogance sometimes. Upper divisional philosophy students can too often display the “I don’t have anything else left to learn from you” attitude. In fact I’ve often been shocked by how certain students – having good comportment as freshmen and sophomores, turn into different creatures by senior year.


    I knew it wouldn’t be long before Adam showed up to claim that I’d misrepresented him (which I may have done, it’s been years since that conversation). In any case…

    First, I’m not moved by Adam’s attempt to counter my point with an intuition pump about how we, of course, think of all sorts of folks from the past as philosophers, even if they were asses. I guess my reply is: (a) Socrates would have had a serious problem with that point, given that he took character to be an essential part of living as a philosopher (not just technical ability). So I’ll say that being with Socrates is good company! Second, (b), it doesn’t matter to me whether we’ve gotten into the habit of calling such folks philosophers, and whether that habit has developed certain intuitions in us. I’m suggesting that we alter those intuitions and develop a more demanding notion of what philosophy is.
    Second, on the reformulated argument (which seems quite a bit weaker than the original):
    1. I’m fine with P1, if the other part alluded to is comportment/character.
    2. I think that would mean altering C1 to say a being a skilled philosopher is largely dependent upon analysis. Then I’d be okay with that as well, given that the other unmentioned part is comportment.
    As to the second argument, I’m not opposed to dropping the requirement for grading. My thinking here is not that this means admitting comportment is not important, but rather that it may well be the case that grading isn’t the best way to accomplish the aim of its cultivation; moreover, it may well be that it hampers it for all I know. However, this very well may be the case for just about everything else too (grading in general on other aspects of what is required in a class).
    On Adam’s last point: lastly, it may well be that good comportment is an essential part of every discipline. But I disagree that this dilutes its special important to philosophy. Being a good biologist may be augmented by working well with others and seeking their development, but this seems to be a means to an end. Only if I work well with them will they work well with me, and so only by acting in certain ways can I get what I professionally want. But philosophy is different – and this is what I was getting at in my comment to Justin, I think. Here, I think, it is Mike’s last comment that makes the point. Philosophy is not just a technical discipline (whereas biology might be). It is fundamentally concerned with living a certain kind of life, with figuring out how to live.

    Comportment in such a case is not just an instrumental good, it is an intrinsic one.

  9. My apologies for the occasional spelling/grammar error in my reply; I just read it over and found them, at which point I then learned that I don't have "edit" power! :(

  10. Michael makes an interesting point that philosophy is not only about the analysis of philosophical issues. From a slightly different perspective (the design discourse), I'd like to suggest the following:
    Philosophical discourse is -- among other things -- based on an assumption that its issues be resolved on the strength of arguments -- implying the agreement to refrain from other means of 'persuasion' such as (most importantly) coercion of all kinds: violence, brute force, but also economical and psychological coercion. Leaving aside the issue of how grading itself figures in this connection, it can be argued that disrespectful and disruptive behavior constitutes a kind of coercive means of influencing the discourse. And should not be condoned, with appropriate sanctions. These might include grading -- but only if this is made clear at the outset, and itself made plausible e.g. by pointing out that studying itself is learning not only the subject matter itself but also the civilized manner of inquiry and discourse about the subject. Some questions might arise: could it be that such behavior is a kind of nonverbal argument against the choice of topics to be discussed (anything 'imposed' by the instructor or the curriculum tends to elicit this kind of response no matter how valid the subject) or the manner in which the discourse is managed. Sometimes, (but of course not always; there are undoubtedly people who persist in obnoxiousness for its own sake...) explicitly bringing up such reasons and re-establishing the common agreements about this can help defuse such situations.
    The issue shows how important (and difficult) teaching is, quite apart from the subject matter... Thanks for bringing up the question.


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