Tag: attendance

Kant Stop, Won’t Stop

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Philosophy is weird.

Allow me to clarify. When I say that, I’m not referring to the broad topic of philosophy as a whole. I’m referring specifically to the college course of that name, Philosophy.

…Also, the broad topic of philosophy as a whole is weird but, well, that’s a whole other issue that I don’t have time to get into right now.

It’s been about ten years since I graduated. And since that time, I’ve discovered an odd little quirk about college. I can remember a number of things that were said word for word but almost none of what I was taught during class.

I realize that probably comes as a bit of a shock to anyone still attending college. After all, your ability to pass or fail hinges almost entirely on whether or not you retain all that information. Based on bad dreams alone, it seems to be the number one fear of any college student come exam day.

Well, that and the “not wearing any clothes” thing.

I also expect it’s considerably less of a shock to anyone who’s been a college graduate for more than fifteen minutes. As any Psychology major will tell you (if you ask before they graduate and prove my point), memory strength is based heavily on access. Things you thought of only once or twice are bound to be lost forever. Things you think of again and again tend to stick in your mind forever – whether you want them there or not.

There are only two things I remember with any real clarity from my college courses. The first was the theory of how the first peoples migrated to the Americas – largely by virtue of hearing it several thousand times during my Anthropology coursework. There’s a bit of grim irony there, mostly because it’s since been proven almost entirely wrong by dozens of peer-reviewed studies.

As to that, I assure you, it will come up at some point during the story. For now, though, I want to focus on the second thing I remember clearly. That being things said by my professors that were so bizarre, confusing or shocking (and in at least one case, borderline racist) that it permanently burned the quote into my brain.

In this case, “You can use philosophy to prove pretty much anything.

Taken at face value, this isn’t unusual. In fact, it hints one of the more interesting axioms of philosophy. There are so many different viewpoints and schools of thought that you can make a fairly convincing argument for almost anything. And if the teacher hadn’t said this in the middle of discussing how exams were graded, that’s exactly what I’d have assumed he was implying.

But he wasn’t.

“I mean, it’s all essays. No multiple choice or anything,” he added. “If you say anything that you can back up with any philosopher, I’ll give you credit. Hell, if you say something that sounds philosophically convincing, who am I to argue?”

His point was even more valid, considering that, through some administrative fluke, he was teaching the class without even having a Master’s Degree, but I’ll assume that wasn’t what he meant.

The class made sounds of confusion and disbelief until a brave soul raised their hand to ask a question. “So…anything we say that sounds right…is right?” the student asked.

“Pretty much,” the teacher said.

If the rest of the class was anything like me, their next thought was likely why we should even bother coming to lecture at all if that was the case. And apparently at least one other student was, because they asked, “Then…why come to lecture at all?”

“Well, I’ll be teaching you the specific areas of philosophy that will let you answer the exam questions best. You can use the ideas of other philosophers, but you may as well show up, since I’ll pretty much be giving you the answers,” the not-quite-professor explained.

The students didn’t seem convinced. Grumbling continued. “Couldn’t we just copy notes from someone who does show up?”

“You could,” the teacher admitted slowly. He quickly added, “Though, to be fair, ten percent of your final grade is based on attendance, so you should show up.”

 

Still a bit confused, someone asked for an example.

The teacher considered before brightening when he thought of one. “Okay. So let’s say there’s a question about whether or not it’s morally okay to steal bread for your family. I’ll be teaching you what Kant and Mill think of that question, so you can give either answer. Or, you could just use nihilism to say that everything is meaningless. So in the end, any codified system of how we ought to behave is irrelevant. Understand?”

A number of heads bobbed up and down. Then, another student raised a hand. “That seems like an easy answer to anything. Can we just say nihilism means all your exam questions are meaningless?”

“No,” the teacher said, starting to sweat a little. “No using nihilism on exams.”

“Why not?”

“Because you wouldn’t learn anything. It’d be meaningless for you to even be taking the course at all,” he said, exasperated.

“Isn’t that the point of nihilism?”

The teacher grudgingly conceded the point. “Yes. But it’s not the point of formalized education. If you don’t learn anything then I’m doing a bad job.”

A chorus of other questions erupted from the class.

“Are you going to argue this hard against our exam answers?”
“Isn’t closing loopholes just squashing critical thinking?”
“So…only easy answers are wrong?”
“I zoned out. Is this going to be on the midterm?”
How is it that you’re teaching this class when you don’t even have a degree again?”

The teacher cut off all discussion by rapping a book against his desk. “Okay. Just…don’t worry about it, okay? Just listen to lectures and you’ll do fine.” He shot me a dirty look then, because I was the one who asked the last question. “And don’t worry about my degree. It’s just…held up. I’ll have it soon.”

To his credit, things made a lot more sense when we reached the midterm exam. His questions were incredibly random, one of them arguing whether or not animals might be held to human standards of morality, or where the fault fell if they were trained by a human who needed them to steal for him and they committed other crimes. In short, I highly doubt he used the example questions from the teacher’s manual.

I still can’t remember anything I learned in that class. I barely remember which side Mill or Kant took in the debate on morality. But I’ll give that teacher credit. I won’t soon forget being asked whether or not it was immoral for a monkey to stab another monkey and steal his food.

Though, I really wish I’d remembered his name, because I’m actually really curious as to whether or not he ever got that degree.

 

 

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The First Day of the Rest of Your Class

facepalm

“This is your syllabus,” the professor said, holding up his own identical copy of the sheet. Then, as if the class hadn’t believed him, he pointed to the word “syllabus” at the top in bold lettering. I still remember the odd silence in that room as sixteen students wondered if the remainder of the class was just going to be a tenured professor reading aloud from handouts.

While the seventeenth, to my immediate left, wrote the word “syllabus” phonetically next to the page heading on her sheet. I promptly edged my seat a few inches away from hers and then died inside.

“Are there any questions so far?” the professor said, stopping his whirlwind lecture to let our young minds digest all the facts he’d been throwing at us.

“What is dead may never die,” I muttered, feeling my insides trying in vain to die a second time.

Here, I jotted down those words in my own notebook, thinking it might make a good line for a book character who you like, then dislike, then is mutilated until you sort of feel bad for him. The girl to my left saw what I’d written down, shuddered, and moved her chair slightly away from mine, as well.

A hand went up. “What’s the attendance policy?” someone – clearly a winner – asked.

I had a brief moment of surprise that someone would choose that as their first impression in college. The professor, meanwhile, dashed my hopes of hearing something I couldn’t read myself by reading the paragraph on attendance, word for word. And as annoyed as I was at wasting an increasing portion of a gorgeous summer day indoors doing the activity I think awaits most sinners in Hell, the question had made it clear that students could not, in fact, just read the syllabus themselves.

The farce went on for several more minutes as my spirit tried to escape its cage of misery when there was a knock at the door. And in walked a man that would have looked more at home in an 80’s metal band than academia. “I can take it from here, Dean. Unless you want to keep boring my class to death.”

(Note: It’s worth noting that the man I mistook for the course instructor wasn’t a Dean. His name was Dean. Though he was also the head of the department – which in other schools would have given him the title of Dean. Thus allowing everyone to call him “Dean Dean, PhD.”)

The two exchanged some pleasantries, exchanged some friendly insults and then the department head left. The newcomer introduced himself as a recent graduate student (who I’ll nonetheless be calling “professor” for the sake of simplicity). And while I didn’t know it at the time, I would come to deeply respect him over the course of the next five years. Whereas he would gradually lose all respect and patience for people who, in his view, had no place in higher education.

In short, I’m not sharing his name until he’s got tenure someplace.

“I’ll assume you can all read,” he said, dismissing the remainder of the syllabus. “But are they any other questions?”

A familiar hand went up. “What’s the policy on attendance?” the same student repeated. It was only when an entire classroom of heads swiveled in his direction that he clarified, “I mean, I know missing is bad, but will we lose points? How much can we miss without losing points? That sort of thing.”

He apparently hadn’t liked the previous answer he’d gotten from the syllabus and hoped to hear something different from the man who wrote it.

The professor, for his part, only frowned when a hundred other reactions might have been more fitting. “It’s pretty cut and dry. You miss three classes, you drop by a letter grade. No penalty past that, though my experience has been that people who miss all the lectures do badly on the tests…which are based on the lectures, so…”

The student nodded in understanding. He then immediately disproved that understanding by asking, “Is there any way to get an exemption?”

“To the attendance policy? Or attending in general?”

“The policy…or either. Both, I guess?”

The professor’s face went through a series of emotions at this answer, settling at least twice on complete confusion. He shook it off. “Well, I’m not forcing you to take the course. You could stop taking it and take something else instead.”

“It’s just…this isn’t even my major. This was one of the only courses left…” The younger man trailed off. “Honestly, I’m just looking to pass. I don’t want to waste effort in my non-major courses. So…what’s the least I could do and still pull off a C?”

“I really don’t know,” the professor said. He seemed to be in disbelief that he was actually having that conversation. He wasn’t alone. “I’ve never been solicited for advice on how to be mediocre before.”

The instructor changed tack. “May I ask what your major is?”

“Oh.” The student was taken back. “I…well, I haven’t actually decided on one yet. But definitely not this.”

“Do you even know what ‘this’ is?”

“Anthropology.”

“Bravo. And what do think anthropology is, exactly?”

The younger man considered. “It’s sort of like…philosophy?” he offered uncertainly. When two separate classmates buried their faces in their hands, he quickly sputtered, “But, not exactly. I mean, it’s like philosophy…for people, though.”

The professor blinked back at him. “As opposed to…non-people philosophy?”

“Right. Like…not stuff.” A pause. “And not animals.”

The exchange went on for some time thereafter, slowly destroying any shred of dignity the student had when he’d arrived at college. He never once seemed to notice. In fact, he looked downright pleased with himself when the professor agreed to let him miss as many classes as he wanted without losing points, in exchange for him never speaking in class again. This, the instructor explained, was an effort to avoid “wasting either of our valuable times.”

“Well,” the professor said after their deal was struck, shaking his head, “I didn’t really have any plans beyond handing out the syllabus today. So I’ll be cutting this one short.” His tone suggested he’d liked to have cut it far shorter.

He half-heartedly asked if there were any more questions. Thankfully, no one volunteered. And with that, we were on our way.

I still remember that as something of a crossroads for my life in college. It was the moment I met the professor who would eventually become my Dr. Cox-esque role model. It was the day my naivete regarding college being a “sacred place of higher learning” died.

And, most of all, it was the day a student strolled into a class he was paying for, demanded permission not to return and then tried to bully each of his classmates to take notes for him as we filtered out.

I’m happy to report that not a single one of us volunteered. Not even when he begged. Not even when it came to to pronouncing “syllabus” phonetically.