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A bit of a problem with the liberal arts department

  1. Feb 16, 2012 #1
    I've went above and beyond in my philosophy class and wrote an outstanding (at least compared to other students) essay, or in my opinion at least. I had very good sentence structure, coherence and flow, vocab and ideas, good progression of logic, I had original insight into the topic, and finally I brought much more to the table than what was asked etc. The topic was about the good life, and I supported my idea of happiness with a good solid foundation of science. I brought up deep and profound philosophical topics and went above to provide original insight into the philosophy. However I got a B+. I was very surprised to say the least.

    Later, I figure out why I attained that grade. During class, the professor mentioned "leave the science out of it, this is a philosophy paper," and "don't write about the chemistry of happiness." (The Cold Chemistry of Happiness was the title of my paper and the main theme was happiness from a scientific perspective and rooted in a philosophical context. I quickly questioned (professionally and in a mannerly order) the professor in class and added my perspective, saying "Science is the pursuit of truth, and philosophy through science is only stronger."

    I wasn't surprised to find that the professor is a faithful theist, and believed that "science is materialistic." Unfortunately, he believes in some mumbo-jump psyche complex (at least it seems to me; as much of a relativist as I am, I am an absolutist with respect to science). Surprising to say, the professor and I have a pretty good relationship, I usually start an intellectual conversation with him. In addition, I actually find him to be a very intelligent and wise person, full of philosophical complexity.

    But what I am afraid of is that his differing belief will completely affect his judgement of my papers. I talked to him after class a bit (not about the grade but concerning science and philosophy), and the conversation was running in circles. There is just no way to get to him the value of science in philosophical topics it seems. I don't want to have a bad semester grade because he believes that science should stay out of it; I will not be able to keep science out of it in my future essays because science is the very center of my life, including my belief systems.

    Unfortunately, this is a perfect example of how your graded based on what the professor wants to hear (in humanities).
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 16, 2012 #2


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    My experiences with humanities professors mirror yours. Once you discover what you're dealing with, you have two choices: continue on the path you're on, and get a B or maybe even a C. Or you can do what the prof is telling you to do - write papers on the topics he assigns, i.e., leave science out of it.

    The first choice, staying on your path, is for stubborn people. The second path, doing what the prof assigns, is for people who do what they're told.

    The first path will result in a higher GPA. The second, not so much.

    Me...I'm stubborn :tongue2:.

    What will you choose?
  4. Feb 16, 2012 #3
    I'm stubborn too unfortunately. Luckily, I am well articulated; I can transfer the energy of my adamant position to convince him of my approach. :biggrin:
  5. Feb 16, 2012 #4


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    personally, i'd be inclined to do what i would do anyway, to the best of my ability. it comes down to: who do you want to be...the person you'd like to be, or the person you'd like other people to think you are?

    for some, the outward image is everything: social standing and reputation mean more to them than any inward ideal. there's nothing wrong with this, but it is certainly a different path than being true to what you believe. but, in all fairness...that way (living your beliefs) is fraught with cost: for there will be many people who don't see things as you do, and may actively put obstacles in your way.

    that said: there is something to be said for trying to put aside your own beliefs, and understand someone else's. there's a fine line between stubbornness, and pig-headedness. and, just because your professor may be prejudicial, doesn't make you right.

    in other words: it's not just about how well-written your paper might have been. are you learning anything from the class? is that showing in what you've written? are you aware of the short-comings in your own belief system?

    if the answer to all of the above is "yes", then it could be a case of simple injustice. life is like that, it's rather hard to avoid. don't worry, the class won't go on forever.
  6. Feb 17, 2012 #5
    B+ is good.

    First of all, I know lots of people in academia that love it when people disagree with them. I also know lots of people that don't. Figure out which one your professor is, and behave accordingly. The fact that you got a B+ for a paper which he disagrees with suggests that its closer to the former than the latter.

    The question then becomes can *you* constructively deal with people that have different philosophical beliefs. Also, can *you* think in the mindset of someone whose beliefs you fundamentally disagree with. If you can't, then I don't think you should get an A in the course.

    (Also, personally, I think it is *extremely* unwise to make science the center of your life. Science is far, far too uncertain for that.)

    First, you got a B+.

    Second, yes you are graded based on what the professor wants to hear, because it's his class. Some professors like to argue. Some don't. If the professor is being a jerk (and I don't see any sign that he is) then write exactly what he wants you to write, get the grade you want, and then you are done. Consider it training for when you have to do this at work.
  7. Feb 17, 2012 #6
    On the other hand, maybe the professor as a point. What if your beliefs *are* wrong.

    One of the reasons to try to write something that will make your professor happy is that it will help you learn what he thinks. Knowing what he thinks may be useful, because it lets you think about how the world looks from different eyes. Also, *even* if you conclude it's all nonsense, being able to write an essay from a different viewpoint will let you out argue them. I'm pretty sure that if someone asked me to, I could write a decent essay supporting young earth creationism, and being able to write a convincing essay supporting young earth creationism makes it more effective for me to undermine it.

    And you got a B+. If you are going to go into a tail spin because you got a B+, you are not going to do well in graduate school.

    The other thing is that I think it's more likely that my view of the world is closer to your professors than it is to yours. I think the statement that "science is the pursuit of truth, and philosophy through science is only stronger" is fundamentally wrong, and if you are getting a professor that is forcing you to question that statement (and I don't think he is being a jerk about it) that's good for you.
  8. Feb 17, 2012 #7
    Think about it conversely: what if you wrote a paper about philosophy on your E&M midterm? Especially after the professor specifically told you 'numbers & symbols only' on your test? "What is EMF really? It's nothing more than our imagination..." I don't think will get you very far.

    I think you should count yourself lucky that you got a B+ for doing something your instructor specifically said he didn't want (sounds like he wanted something purely metaphysical). Part of a liberal education is learning to think differently - or at least express yourself in different terms. Applying the same rhetoric to every paper/class/experience doesn't actually expand your personal context. Humanities classes are supposed to expand the horizons for STEM majors just as Science classes are supposed to expand the horizons for English majors.
  9. Feb 17, 2012 #8
    I've known professors, atheist or theist, who would have given me an F for totally ignoring their explicit demand. And actually rubbing his face in it with that title! The essay would have come back in shreds from some of those profs... Why not stretch your mind by trying to 'leave the science out'?
  10. Feb 17, 2012 #9
    I don't think his differing beliefs will cause him to give you bad grades. In fact, I think he was generous in giving you a B+, a decent grade, after you didn't follow his specific instructions to "leave the science out". If "leaving the science out" entirely is so personally difficult for you, at least try to make it less central to your papers... like don't put it in the title of your essay! For example, if you typically mention science in 10 paragraphs in your essays, try to just mention it in one or two.

    EDIT: Plus, just because something is at the center of your belief system doesn't mean you must bring it up all the time. For example, I am Christian, but I once took a class in Existentialist Philosophy, much of which denies the value of Christianity or other religions. I did not feel the need to bring my personal beliefs into my essays. In fact, I am glad I took this class and was exposed to new ideas and beliefs that contradicted my own.
  11. Feb 17, 2012 #10
    Same here. If the professor had failed you and screamed at you, then he is obviously being a jerk, and then thing to do there would be to just make him happy until you leave the class. With a B+, it doesn't look like the professor was being a jerk, and who knows. Maybe he was going to give you a B but added points because you disagreed with him.

    Having been on the evaluation end of things, trying to outguess yourself can make your mind go in circles. For example, if you interview someone and get a bad impression, you have to ask yourself whether that bad impression was because the interviewee just disagreed with you, in which case if you give your gut evaluation you'll just end up with yes-men and that's a bad thing. But if you try to correct for that, you have to figure out how much and how, and your head starts spinning, because you might be giving someone too many points for disagreeing with you.

    And even if you get rid of conscious bias, then you always have to worry about unconscious bias.
  12. Feb 17, 2012 #11
    And you know this because you think it's true?? Maybe the essay is just not as good as you think?? A bit of self-criticism can never hurt.
  13. Feb 17, 2012 #12
    I haven't read your paper, but I don't necessarily disagree with what your prof is doing. I mean, if you're a science person, obviously you think about science all of the time and are good at it. The professor knows this, and so is probably just pushing you to branch out a bit.

    But yeah, I see where you're coming from, too. I usually incorporate science as much as possible into my elective courses so I don't get bored. I had to do an article review for a geography class once, and one of the possible articles was about population growth. It was a technical paper and had all kinds of linear algebra and differential equations in it, so of course I picked that one. :smile:
  14. Feb 17, 2012 #13


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    Without seeing the essay it's impossible to comment on your claims about its excellence, but apparently you made one basic mistake: you didn't answer the question that you were asked. Treat that as a learning experience.

    Of course there are times and situations in real life where not answering the question you were asked is a good strategy, but "handing in work that affects your course marks" isn't one of them.
  15. Feb 17, 2012 #14
    I used Category Theory when doing an assignment on diagonalization and self-reference in my logic class, but my Professor wanted me to use set theoy and recursion, because that's what the class was about. He didn't give me an A, even if I did much more than he asked for, and in a much more interesting way than he wanted me to.

    Unfortunately, this is a perfect example of how your grade is based on what the Professor wants to hear (in mathematics).

    (Are you serious?)
  16. Feb 17, 2012 #15
    It's true, on one hand, that category theory is vastly more interesting that what your professor asked for, but it's also true that you need to know set theory and recursion. Now, you probably do know those things, but the only thing the professor has to go on is the work that you hand in. He's grading your knowledge of those concepts, which he can't do unless you use those concepts.

    I sympathize, though, since I once has marks taken off for invoking a result from group theory in an introductory mathematics course.
  17. Feb 17, 2012 #16
    My thoughts exactly. I highly doubt that your professor is just picking on you because of your beliefs.. You probably didn't follow the assignment correctly and now it's time to take a bite from the humble pie. After you're done eating, throw it up back up in their face.

    If anyone can say they went through college with a grudge it was me. From my very first semester of college I know people thought less of me because I was the "black kid from the ghetto." Anytime, I would get bad grades I would use these as a motivating factor to prove myself. Do whatever it takes to show that professor that you're smarter than he/she is. Make them write that A+ on that next paper so you can hold your head high.
  18. Feb 18, 2012 #17
    I think they were using an example to undermine the claim that humanities professors are the only ones that grade based on they want to hear.

    A B+ is still good, and you should be more concerned about learning that a grade. Your professor seems to really care about your learning and most likely wants you to think from a different perspective. I feel his personal beliefs have very little to do with how he graded you.

    Thinking in a non-scientific perspective may be doing you a favour. There are times when I don't want to talk about science at all. Although I love physics, I do think I would get a little annoyed if the physics of cooking was mentioned frequently when I talk about my cooking. :P
  19. Feb 18, 2012 #18
    Then again, maybe he was. I've known jerks who will do anything for an easy life. I would ask the student to rewrite the essay 'according to instructions', maybe after a lengthy e-mail exchange! Students can't just write the essay they want 'cause they dislike the one they are asked to write... Otherwise what is the point of having teachers? If the student then point blank refused to write the essay I would, without shouting and screaming, award an F. Some jerk of a dean would then probably haul me up for not being nice to the student... I'm so glad I'm out of the academic scene :)
  20. Feb 18, 2012 #19
    I'm learning, but I'm not aware of the short-comings of my own belief system. To me science is and just is. It is truth. Of course it is not the complete truth, and there are lots of holes to fill; but I would rank it higher then vague ideas of the soul etc. I'm going to visit my professor and learn as much as possible about his own ideas though. I will give it a chance.

  21. Feb 18, 2012 #20
    But it was philosophy. It was my philosophy of the good life, verified by the idea of science of happiness. That doesn't compare to using electromagnetism verified by philosophy, because philosophy doesn't verify electromagnetism.

    Also, he didn't say beforehand to avoid science. He only said it after he handed back our papers. I didn't go against his wished or anything. He asked for a philosophical paper, and I gave him one.

    His demand was only noted after the paper was given back.

    But I didn't bring any personal beliefs in. I simply noted the good life, and based it around happiness. Then, I supported it by what neuroscience and psychology has to say about happiness. How is that a personal belief? Its an impersonal and objective reality supported by hundreds of years of work.
    I'll visit my professor his next office hours and will listen to his beliefs. I want to understand them as much as possible. I'll seek first to understand, then to speak. Then I'll adjust my following papers accordingly (to some extent).
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