Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Grade Expectations

Hmm. This NYT piece and Michelle Cottle's follow-up both seem a bit overwrought to me.

Yes, of course, grades are earned by performance, not deserved by effort. And, yes, of course, "I showed up for class and did the reading" doesn't count as spectacular effort anyways; that's the beginning of trying, not the end.

On the other hand: in any field of endeavor, "But I tried very hard!" is the first response to being told that you didn't do a good job. It's not strictly speaking relevant, but it's part of how a person defends him- or herself, and tried to redeem his or her standing in the eyes of the other person. If you really make it the grounds of an appeal of a grade, of course, that's a silly mistake. But the mere fact that you can find some undergrad sentences that express a sense of desert and entitlement doesn't mean that there's some new crisis wave of such things. I can "kids these days!" with the best of them, but Professor Marshal Grossman's complaint that "Some assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before" is utterly banal and trivial. Of course they do. Of course college is a new experience and there's a shock to the system compared with high school. Of course that's especially true for a college with competitive admission, when high schools are basically just admission-by-geography. The perennial condition of the 18-year-old college frosh does not make for a deep anomaly to explain in terms of the last generation's parenting skills, etc., etc.

Grossman and Cottle are both saying the sorts of things professors say to each other all the time, but it's trivial-level grumbling, on a par with saying "hot enough for you?" in the summer. (See also: Rate Your Students, passim.)

Maybe I'm undersensitive to such things, because the truth is I've experienced *very* little grade-grubbing during my academic life, despite being a medium-hard grader. I do believe that women faculty get hit with grade appeals more often than men, so at least on that front I've been unfairly insulated from the problem to the extent that there is a problem. And I have some other reasons to think that my experience isn't totally representative. But at the end of the day: I like undergrads, and in my experience they try to do well. To the extent that they don't understand what it means to do well, I think they respond well to having it explained to them. Making fun of them, by name, in the pages of the New York Times doesn't seem to me like the way to go. Neither does the Allan Bloom/ Harvey Mansfield approach of elevating "Kids these days!" into social criticism.

(I'm sure that there have been other days in my scholarly career when I would have written a "Go Grossman!" post. But the mood passes-- and grownups are supposed to know how to let a mood pass without committing it to print at other people's expense.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Lots of great and interesting stuff on traditional themes of interest around here.

Will Wilkinson on inequality and American exceptionalism... and race.

Many people on liberaltarianism; Ross Douthat, twice; Reihan Salam; Will, and again (I especially like that last post); Ilya Somin; Virginia Postrel.

A characteristically epic and rich post from Russell Arben Fox on some of his own favorite themes, some of which he and I have discussed from time to time (and I chip in in comments there). A sample:

The point is, I suspect, that trying to extricate liberal ideas in all their varieties from any political argument that doesn't address capitalism (and the mostly or at least increasingly democratic forms of modern life it presumes to be valuable) itself directly is probably always going to end up failing. Burke himself, who is usually held as the very font of modern conservatism, was a liberal, or at least was liberal; as Jacob Levy (among others) has persuasively argued, Burke was a Whig whose "pluralist liberalism" led him to greatly respect the "ancient liberties--of churches, guilds, parlements, provinces, cities, nobles, and all the rest--[that] provided a place to stand against absolutism." So from the beginning, any conservatism which speaks of liberty in the context of modern democratic capitalism--the arena within which different groups (the small platoons!) as we know them today can form and seek the freedom and power to live their lives as they see fit in the first place--is going to be, at most, a form of liberalism, one that is, as Alasdair MacIntyre once put it, a "conservative liberalism," a liberalism more pluralist in its devotions, more sensitive to history and less rational in its ambitions, but a liberalism nonetheless.

Now in some ways this is obviously a kind of silly point to make. Political theorists like Jacob and Patrick (and, sometimes, me) can argue all we like about the conceptual and/or historical connections between Burke and other early modern liberals, but in historical fact it is the conservatives--certainly at least since Russell Kirk--that have seen in Burke's appreciation of tradition and natural limits a conservative response to Rousseau and thus to all the revolutionary or egalitarian implications of liberalism. And, of course, the liberal reading of Burke can itself be contested: the man did rhapsodize about how moved he was by the glorious presence of Marie Antoinette, after all. So (perhaps to allude back to the aforementioned debate between Patrick and Damon) there are elements of a fundamentally illiberal appreciation of authority in his thought. Still, overall, I think the general point stands: every successful modern conservative political argument has been, to a degree, in the same position as that which Michael Walzer once famously said about the relevance of communitarianism to our modern liberal world (about which, more here); namely, that it is, however interesting and important an ideology, nonetheless parasitic on liberalism, a "recurrent critique," at best.

So does this mean that Patrick's search for a conservatism that can truly be tried and made fruitful is, in the end, in vain? Not necessarily--it just means that one needs to get clear on what it is you're searching for, and think again about where to find it and what one hopes to accomplish There are different sorts of recurrent critiques, after all.

Read the whole thing.
Pettit and His Critics

Pettit and His Critics

Saturday 14 March 2009

Research Beehive room 2.21
Old Library Building
Newcastle University

Philip Pettit is one of the most significant moral and political philosophers today. This conference will bring together new work on Pettit’s many philosophical contributions by three philosophers—Thom Brooks (Newcastle), Cecile Laborde (University College London), and Michael Ridge (Edinburgh)—with replies to each by Philip Pettit.


Registration (tea/coffee)

Speaker: Michael Ridge (Edinburgh)
An Opportunity for Expressivists?
Sincerity, Belief Expression and Ecumenical Expressivism
Respondent: Philip Pettit (Princeton)


Speaker: Thom Brooks (Newcastle)
Moral and Political Freedom
Respondent: Philip Pettit (Princeton)


Speaker: Cecile Laborde (UCL)
Respondent: Philip Pettit (Princeton)