Friday, June 19, 2009

It's tough (reprise)

I was on leave last Easter term, and so not examining. But the previous year I commented here, under the heading "It's tough being a philosophy student",

It strikes me again while marking that it's quite tough being a philosophy student these days: the disputes you are supposed to get your head around have become so sophisticated, the to and fro of the dialectic often so intricate. An example. When I first started teaching, Donnellan's paper on 'Reference and Definite Descriptions' had quite recently been published -- it was state of the art. An undergraduate [indeed, a final year undergraduate] who could talk some sense about his distinction between referential and attributive uses of descriptions was thought to be doing really well. Just think what we'd expect a first class student to know about the Theory of Descriptions nowadays (for a start, Kripke's response to Donnellan [on our first year reading list!], problems with Kripke's Gricean manoeuvres, etc.). True there are textbooks, Stanford Encyclopedia articles, and the like to help the student through: but still, the level of sophistication we now expect from our best undergraduates is daunting.
The same basic point struck me just as forcibly this year. Except perhaps now I'd say that textbooks and the Stanford Encyclopedia in some ways make things even tougher for students. Here's a very good, well-briefed student: they've got their head round X's excellent text book presentation. They write four and a half crisp sides on topic, organizing the necessary points covered by X to answer the question set. Before the textbook appeared, we'd have been delighted with the answer. Now we read the same script and think, yeah, fine, a competent rehearsal of X's treatment -- so nothing outstanding. So how is the poor student to really impress? It gets harder.


RYviewpoint said...

I find it hard to find a sensible common ground between this post and your previous post entitled "Thank heavens that's over".

In the previous post you said: "Now, with grade inflation, that first/upper second divide tends to fall bang in the middle of a bunch of really pretty good if not quite outstanding students, some of whom were just that bit luckier with the way the exams went for them than the others." As I read this, you are nostalgic for the good old days when there were outstanding students who would clearly rise up to meet the stern demands of a philosophical education and distinguish themselves.

But in this post you say: "Now we read the same script and think, yeah, fine, a competent rehearsal of X's treatment -- so nothing outstanding. So how is the poor student to really impress? It gets harder." As I read this, you acknowledge that being outstanding is getting harder to achieve because the field is some much more complex and the resources at hand so extensive.

I know you are a first rate logician, but how do you square these two comments. Are the best students truly only mediocre nowadays? Or do they only appear mediocre because the field is so much more difficult and extensive?

Johnny Logic said...


It is perfectly compatible to state that it is both harder to distinguish yourself as a student of philosophy, and it is easier to get good grades. They even enhance one-another, as grades may no longer act as a faithful guide to distinguishing students.

This is how I read the posts, anyway.


Peter Smith said...

RY misreads me, I think. I was saying that the first/uppersecond divide used to (try) to divide the really outstanding from the rest. That divide nowadays is placed rather lower down the slope. So you now have outstanding and also not-so-outstanding-but-very-good students on one side, and not-so-outstanding-but-very-good students appearing too on the other side. My thought, right or wrong, was that the divide now seems to fall in a more arbitrary place, with students who, through the year, seem much of a muchness, scattered either side perhaps a bit too randomly for comfort.

I'm certainly not saying that the very best students, those who'd have got firsts under the old regime too, are mediocre! Very very far from it. But my sense is that we demand a lot more from them.