Mastery-based Grading (for Moderates)

Last week I gave a short presentation on teaching to a group of faculty at my institution. I decided to talk about an experimental assessment method I’ve been thinking about privately for the last three-and-a-half years (ever since a post at In Socrates’ Wake stirred me from my dogmatic slumber). Next semester I’ll have my first really good opportunity to implement this method. It seemed like the sort of thing worth sharing here, even though I haven’t tested it yet.

Awkward things about traditional grading. I don’t think I’m alone in hating grading. I like reading good student work, but judging it is taxing.Students may think about their grades a lot, but very few of us got into teaching in order to pass judgment on people. And whenever I’m disappointed by an assignment, I ask myself if I taught well enough, if I made my expectations clear enough, if it would be unfair of me to judge the work harshly. Grading has various functions, though, and two obvious ones in particular: to motivate students to do the work (assuming they want good grades), and to serve as a signal of student quality to folks who weren’t in the class and didn’t assess them. Normally this is done by finding a weighted average of each student’s work over the course of the semester. Maybe later assignments count more, or assignments more central to the purpose of the course (like exams and papers) count more.

There are two drawbacks to this “average performance” model. One is that grades provide poor feedback. By the time a student has a grade, they’re stuck with it even if they improve later, and there is little external motivation for them to improve unless another assessment is coming up later that evaluates them for the same knowledge or skills. Instructors usually use other methods to provide feedback (e.g. comments), but those methods don’t motivate the way grades do. A second drawback is what might be called the “improvement problem” (described ages ago by Mark Lance at NewAPPS). Imagine Student A who performs pretty well throughout the semester. Student A may have taken similar courses before, or may be unusually sharp, or may have been better-than-usually prepared for the class. Student A gets an A–. Student B, on the other hand, struggles early in the semester but perseveres until things fall into place and by the end of the term she is outperforming Student A. Nevertheless, Student B gets a B because of her weak early performance. Something just seems a bit unfair about that.

The improvement problem

The improvement problem, illustrated.

Mastery-based assessment. There are a lot of ways to address the improvement problem. One strategy is called “mastery-based grading” or “mastery-based assessment,” inspired by martial arts (earning successive colored belts) or video games (passing successive levels). In particular, Ann Cahill and Stephen Bloch-Schulman developed an ingenious design for a critical thinking course based on the martial arts metaphor. I won’t describe it here, but you can read about it yourself (I recommend it). The problem with Cahill and Bloch-Schulman’s model is that it seems difficult to adapt to certain kinds of courses—it requires students to work individually at their own pace instead of together. The result is that students cover a topic at different times during the semester, and don’t collaborate. It sounds like a great way to teach their course, but I also want students to work with and learn from each other. (In fact I am contractually obliged to teach that way.)

Moderate mastery-based assessment. So my plan is to water down the Cahill and Bloch-Schulman model enough to get most of its benefits without its drawbacks, drawing significantly on a suggestion by Dustin Locke. I have a scaffolded sequence of main papers throughout the semester, each of which focuses on specific analytical skills and builds on the skills assessed in previous assignments:

  • Paper 1: precise description of a topic or view (200 words on the topic of the week)
  • Paper 2: exposition of an argument from the reading (300 words on the topic of the week)
  • Paper 3: Like paper 2 plus an original objection (600 words on the topic of the week)
  • Final paper: Like paper 3 plus a discussion of material from outside of class (3500 words on any topic from the semester)

Now, this sequence works for philosophy courses, but for other kinds of courses one could use a sequence of different skills, or use different kinds of assessments (e.g. tests or creative projects). None of this is particularly new. The “mastery-based” twist is to allow students to turn in the papers when they choose, and as many times as they choose. Only the last grade they receive on each assignment counts toward their final grade for the course. That way, I can hold them to high standards without being overly harsh or punishing them for being unprepared for the course, since they can try again and replace their previous grades.

I may be fooling myself, but I don’t think this plan will leave me buried alive under a mountain of grading, at least in a small-ish course. First of all, each paper but the last is quite short. I have pedagogical reasons for this—it makes the assignments seem less intimidating, and encourages students to focus on the target skill instead of panicking or getting distracted by the mechanics of writing. But also it’s easier to grade a lot of short papers with clear objectives. Second, students cannot regress in the sequence. They must take each step in the sequence seriously, moving on only when they’re satisfied. It also prevents strategic thinkers from massaging their grades and the end of the term by turning in a bunch of short papers. Third, students can only submit one paper a week. This encourages them to invest in each attempt (respecting my time as a grader). It also forces them to choose new topics for each re-attempt, so that they have to practice their analytical skills in a new context. Only for the final paper can re-attempts be revisions of earlier work.

The benefits of moderation. My hope is that this assessment model improves on the problems of the “average performance” model. Grades provide better motivating feedback since they contribute to the final grade, but can be improved if the student chooses to re-attempt the assignment. This model also softens the impact of the improvement problem (though not as well as Cahill and Bloch-Schulman’s more radical model).

And importantly for me, the model is flexible enough to work in courses on diverse topics, and varied uses of classroom time. In particular, I can reserve most of class time for lectures, group work, and discussion as in a traditional philosophy course. I can also have students work together through weekly topics on the syllabus, while they work on their analytical skills at their own pace through the written assignments.

Of course, it’s possible for an extremely driven and well-prepared student to finish all her papers within the first four weeks of the term. I think that’s fine—if she’s that over-prepared she can finish early and spend more time on her other courses. There are other reasons for her to read and come class each week. Another worry that’s been expressed to me is that this plan might contribute to grade inflation. Again, I’m not worried. I think it’ll be easier for me to hold my students to higher standards this way. If they all earn As by the end of the term, they’ll each have earned it.

Rumors of My Demise…

So I confess this blog has fallen into disuse. It’s been a busy year—I made a job market bid, finished my dissertation, graduated, moved across the country, and started a new job (which I love) teaching history and philosophy of science in the Honors College at Texas Christian University. And, of course, I was absorbed by the events of the EU referendum in the UK and the recent election in the United States and their aftermath.

But I still have a lot of thoughts that are too complicated for Twitter and unsuitable for academic journals, and I’d still like to share some of them in this space. So I’ll try to make a habit again of regular short posts.

(Apologies also to Paweł for promising a post in June that never came. That one is coming soon.)

Job Seeker Solidarity: Shine Theory for Graduate Students

So the academic job market season is coming, and job seekers are busy preparing their applications. This year I and several of my close friends and colleagues are polishing our CVs and girding our loins for the coming storm. I won’t try to offer detailed advice about the application process—it’s not the role of this blog, and it’s done better elsewhere than I could do here. But I thought I’d write about a policy that I and some of my friends have adopted.

Shine TheoryOur policy might be described as an analogue of Shine Theory. Shine Theory is a term coined by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow. Friedman writes that women often perceive themselves as in competition with each other, and treat their interactions as zero-sum situations. Friedman urges her fellow women to resist the inclination to give in to this pattern, and instead to celebrate each other’s accomplishments. “I don’t shine if you don’t shine.” Minimally, Shine Theory demands that women not throw each other under the bus when they feel under pressure.

Now, I don’t want to appropriate Shine Theory from women. But I do think Friedman’s call for solidarity between women can be a model for graduate students in philosophy. We are relatively powerless in academia, and we feel some of the specific pressures that Friedman describes. Most importantly, we face rough competition for jobs. So let’s just call the grad student analogue “job seeker solidarity.”

How does job seeker solidarity work? Just as Ann claims happens among women, graduate students often fear that the job market is a zero-sum game. At the end of the season, only one person will get a particular job, and if there are only X jobs then only X applicants will get jobs. In recent years, there have been several times as many applicants as jobs. Unlike many of the cases Friedman describes, the job seeker situation is both zero-sum and demonstrably dire. (Professor Carolyn Dicey Jennings estimates that in a year fewer than 30% of graduate student job seekers get placed at all, and fewer than 20% get permanent jobs.)

But that doesn’t mean that you and your close colleagues can’t all win out. (I beg indulgence if this sounds selfish—it is at least less selfish than a policy of “Every job seeker for herself.”) It’s not the case that there is just one job, and that if Joe gets that job everyone else is unemployed. In the best case scenario (for me), my friends and I will all be among the successful job-seekers. After all, I want my friends to get jobs, too. I want to meet up with them at conferences and cite their papers and grumble for decades about why they’re wrong about something. We each maximize our chances of success if we share advice and encouragement with each other. And we make the emotional mayhem of the job market more bearable if we share in each other’s (rare) triumphs and (inevitable) defeats.

Even though most of us graduate students have feared that a colleague’s success on the job market implies our failure, my colleagues and I help keep each other on track. We alert each other to promising job postings, even though that means we will compete against each other for those jobs. We remind each other of deadlines. We edit each other’s dossiers. We share tips and discuss strategies. We don’t hoard advice. We talk each other up to scholars at other universities. (And we do this most for those of our colleagues who face extra challenges as women, people of color, or trans* philosophers.) In general we do our best to make each other the strongest applicants we can be.

[Thanks to Eimear O’C and Rhona T for recommending Call Your Girlfriend, Friedman and Sow’s podcast, which is where I first learned about Shine Theory (and many other wonderful and frightful things).]

The Impartiality Contract

I’ll be teaching my social philosophy course again this summer, which takes a turn through some very controversial issues—the justification of rights, oppression, racism, sexism, linguistic privilege, theories of punishment, &c. So I am thinking of beginning the term with a clarification of my policies about impartiality. In particular, I abide by the following two principles:

I will not be impartial in my presentation of material. A philosophy class is not a venue for indoctrination, but I make no promise that I will present material in an impartial manner. My selection of topics is meant to stimulate my students, but not to present every side of an issue. I will not always disclose my views on a topic, but I will not always refrain from doing so, either. There are several reasons for this.

For one, I don’t think every ‘side’ of the issues we cover deserves a defense in the classroom. I don’t think that Nazis or people who deny the value of logic or reason need their arguments aired clearly and respectfully in every class where they might be relevant, and if I do defend their arguments for the sake of a discussion I won’t do it with an impression of earnestness. So some viewpoints will be left out or marginalized because I don’t think they’re worth considering. That’s not to say we won’t discuss immoral viewpoints or bad arguments—not at all!—but I am trying to teach my students to think well, and I won’t present the bad as if it were good.

Relatedly, I want my classroom to be a particular kind of safe space (insofar as I can make that the case in a classroom). Making my own views clear on certain matters will, I hope, bring some comfort to some students, and make it clear what they can expect from me in one-on-one or confidential conversations.

For another thing, it’s just bad pedagogy to aim for impartiality. I have to make a decision about how to make the material comprehensible in the short time that we have, and some viewpoints and complications will be glossed over. That’s for the benefit of my students (philosophical education involves raising ladders that can be thrown away once they’ve been climbed, right?). So some viewpoints will be left out not because they’re unworthy of serious consideration, but because we have limited time and effort in the course of the term or because of pedagogical demands.

Finally, I don’t think it’s possible to be perfectly ‘impartial’ about any complex topic without specifying a sphere of common opinion or a metric for partiality, which is heavy weather. Ultimately, when considering which viewpoints to address I consider my educational objectives—what content I think my students should be exposed to, which skills I want them to develop, what I want the tone of the classroom to be, and to some extent of course what I think of as right and wrong. That being said…

I will not punish you for the substance of your views. I will impose no sanctions—in classroom policies or in my grading—for holding certain beliefs. That’s right. If one of my students is a literal Nazi and says so, believes that allegiance to an ethnically pure state is paramount and that impure people should be interned or killed, and if they defend these views from a place of conscience, it will not affect their grade and I will not remove them from class. More topically, I won’t dock someone’s grade for being a libertarian or even a white supremacist.

In fact, dissent from the views presented—mine or those of the authors and thinkers I assign—is very important for a philosophy class to work. So I positively encourage productive dissent. This can come in at least two forms: students might disagree with a view or argument under discussion, and even if they don’t disagree they might explore objections. If a student disagrees with a view under discussion, she should test her reasons against those of others. If a student doesn’t understand a view or argument under discussion, considering objections and opposing viewpoints will help her to improve her understanding.

That being said, it’s not the case that anything goes. I will remove students from the classroom if they are repeatedly disrespectful of their classmates, or if they express their views in a way that is cruel or hurtful. So even if a student is a conscientious white supremacist, I the use of slurs or dehumanizing language is still, of course, inappropriate (the mention of such expressions is allowed, with special care).

Furthermore, I expect my students to become familiar with the views and arguments presented in the lectures and readings. A student who does not believe in structural oppression must still be familiar with assigned readings by Iris Marion Young, and must engage with them thoughtfully and charitably.

I have generally followed these guidelines whenever I’ve taught—though in most classes I am very circumspect about expressing my own views. But I think it is probably worthwhile to make these policies explicit at the beginning of the semester. I’ve discovered in the past that some of my students were unsure about the extent to which they were permitted to express disagreement with the lecturer or the readings, and I think these two principles set the stage for critical thinking and lively discussion. The first principle, that I will not be impartial regarding to the subject matter of the class, will probably irk students but it will help to encourage them to question the readings and what I say. The second principle, that I will not sanction students for their views, gives express permission to think out loud and to express their questions and skepticism. Of course, students don’t take in what I say just because I’ve said it. But I have a hunch that discussing these two policies together might help us all to start off the term on the right foot. I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes.

By the way: in my last post I mentioned Adam Ragusea’s discussions of journalistic objectivity and impartiality in his podcast The Pub. The discussions spanned segments over several weeks, but the latest episode of The Pub is a recap of all that material. So if you’re interested, it’s all in one place now [Edit: the episode has finally been posted]. Ragusea is not a philosopher, but I think his discussion reflects precisely the kind of sensitivity to abstract distinctions that we philosophers should be encouraging outside the discipline. Listen if you’re a true nerd!

Agreeing and Disagreeing with Help from Objectivity

Adam Ragusea

Adam Ragusea, journalizing. Photo: Mercer University.

People sometimes describe questions as ‘philosophical’ as a way of saying that they don’t matter, but I often find that philosophical questions matter quite a lot (and not just questions of ethics or morality)—it’s just that the contexts where they matter are often not obvious. I’ve been reminded of this a few times recently by Adam Ragusea’s excellent podcast The Pub, about issues in North American public media. In February and March, Ragusea made a big to-do about the value of journalistic objectivity, and distinguishing that value from journalistic impartiality. Now, distinguishing objectivity from impartiality is a very philosophical task—it’s abstract, and doing it well requires being handy with niggling matters of logic and conceptual analysis. But whether one takes objectivity (or impartiality, or neither) as a guide to journalistic practice should matter to everyone who is affected by the news media.

When he got around to trying to define objectivity, Ragusea said that “An argument based on facts is objective. An argument based on ideology—or, heaven forbid, ‘belief’—is non-objective” (ep. 7). I think I see what Ragusea is getting at, but I wouldn’t want to put it quite that way, myself. In part for the kinds of reasons pointed out by Justin McBrayer in his much-read NYT column on facts vs. beliefs in the common core curriculum. For example, coming to “believe” a fact-based claim does not make it subjective. But I think Ragusea is using a notion of fact here that makes sense for journalism—a state of affairs that can be confirmed using journalistic methods like consulting sources, records, or experts. But for many purposes, the universe of facts is larger. So I’d like to say a little about how what is objective or subjective can vary with context, and why it matters. (There is, of course, a lot of philosophy about objectivity already that I won’t engage with here. If you’re interested there are some free resources here, here, and here.)

What is objectivity? Roughly put, I think the core notion of objectivity is this. You’ve got a bunch of things (let’s call them “discursive critters”) like sentences, claims, objects, properties, whatever. And they have what philosophers call “semantic values” or “outputs.” For example, sentences, claims, judgments, &c. can be either true or false; those are their semantic outputs. Objects can be real or not. Properties can apply or not. Standards of evaluation sort things into ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ or ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than other things.

When these critters are subjective, you can only figure out what the outputs are when they’re “for” or “to” someone. So subjective claims are true or false only for some person (a subject), not absolutely. Whether something is real or not ‘to’ someone is also subjective. The most straightforwardly subjective matters are preferences or how things seem. Thus, one might say Star Trek is better than Star Wars to me to mean I prefer Star Trek to Star Wars, while withholding any general commitment about which is better, independently of one’s preferences. Or, Joe might say The Eiffel Tower looks taller than the Tokyo Tower to me. What makes this true is just how things look to Joe, not which structure is actually taller.

The Tokyo Tower

Does it seem taller than the Eiffel Tower to you? Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

These discursive critters are objective, on the other hand, when their outputs are determined without being “for” or “to” someone. A claim that is either true or false period, no matter what anyone thinks, is objective. It is also objective whether something is real or not, so long as we’re not talking about whether it seems real to this person or that person. If I say The Tokyo Tower is objectively taller than the Eiffel Tower, I mean it in such a way that its being true or false does not depend on what anyone thinks. If I say Star Trek is objectively better than Star Wars, I must be assuming some standard of evaluation such that the quality of science fiction franchises can be compared to each other, but that standard is not one that changes from person to person.

Some standards of evaluation will change from person to person—a standard like whatever makes me cry more will rank Star Trek higher for Helen if it makes her cry more, but will rank lower for Ryan if it does not make him cry as much as Star Wars does. This “most crying” standard is subjective, because it varies between people. Different things make different people cry more. But many evaluative standards are objective. For example, objective standards might include having a higher number of self-described fans, or grossing more in box office and advertising sales. Or they might involve cinematic or narrative qualities that are harder to quantify or agree on. Just because a standard is difficult to measure or quantify doesn’t mean that it is subjective.

Why does it matter? It’s fair and good to ask, when these distinctions have been made, what use the concepts of objectivity and subjectivity have. Basically: assuming we can identify which claims are objective in this sense, what good does it do us? I think that talk about what is objective and what is subjective serves mainly to sort out what kinds of disagreement are appropriate. For matters that are objective, we can disagree about what the semantic outputs are for everybody. So we can argue about whether claims are true or false, or whether objects are real, or whether properties apply to something. Generally speaking it’s better to believe true claims, believe in real things, and apply properties to things they apply to. For matters that are subjective, however, we can only disagree about what the outputs are ‘for’ or ‘to’ people. We can disagree about whether the Eiffel Tower seems taller than the Tokyo Tower to Joe, or to the average person, but not whether it seems taller to no subject.

One thing that concerns me about most objective/subjective talk is that statements that a question is “subjective” (or often: “just subjective”) often seems to indicate that a speaker thinks a question of truth or reality can’t really be sorted out. So if Helen and Ryan are arguing about whether Star Trek or Star Wars is better, and someone tells them “You know, though, it’s all just subjective, really,” that’s a way of saying that there’s no point in continuing to disagree. And I don’t think that’s usually right. (Put another way: the language of objectivity and subjectivity is a bit of metadiscursive technology, and technology can be misused!)

Three kinds of disagreement. It helps to sort out different kinds of disagreements. For the moment, there are three kinds of disagreement that interest me. First, there are mere differences of taste. Perhaps Helen likes Star Trek more than Star Wars, and Ryan has the opposite preference. Helen and Ryan might report their respective preferences to each other and leave it at that. Second, there are disagreements where one person tries to get another to see things her way. So Helen might try to convince Ryan that he, like her, should prefer Star Trek, and give various reasons for him to see one as better than the other. You might call these see-it-my-way arguments. Third, there are disagreements about (what you might call) facts, where substantive differences of opinion mean that at most one party can be right. Claiming that a matter is objective often means that it belongs in the third category of disagreement. And often, when someone claims that a matter is subjective they intend to place it in the first category. If I want to get Helen and Ryan to stop arguing, I might say “Well, you know, it’s all subjective.” But Helen and Ryan can still disagree in the second fashion—where Helen tries to get Ryan to see things her way—even they disagree about a subjective matter. And many times, apparently subjective questions admit of the third kind of disagreement as well.

Three kinds of disagreement:
1) differences of taste
2) see-it-my-way disagreement
3) disagreement about the facts

If Helen and Ryan are at a polite dinner party where none of the other guests care much for science fiction, their disagreement might be disruptive. If their elaborate appeals to finer aspects of storytelling are tedious for the other guests, perhaps they should treat their disagreement in the first way and leave the matter alone. If Helen and Ryan are trying to help a friend get into science fiction, though, and they want to agree on a recommendation, it might be appropriate for them to treat the disagreement in the second fashion and try to get the way they see things to match up. Finally, if Helen and Ryan are on an award committee, it might be best for them to treat their disagreement in the third way, and try to convince the other of the more objective merits of each sci-fi franchise.

Different universes of facts. Now, questions about which media franchises are better are not usually super-important, and it may not seem important to figure out when such questions are subjective or objective. But there are other contexts where it matters a good deal more. And I think it’s important in those contexts to be aware that there are different universes of objective facts. For example, there are journalistic facts—those that can be fact-checked and reported. I suspect that journalistic facts are for the most part just facts that can be corroborated by witnesses, by documentation, or by experts (at least for American journalism. In many European countries, ideological reporting is not frowned upon the same way). I think Adam Ragusea had such a standard in mind when he said that questions about ideology are outside of the realm of facts.

Perhaps in politics, where ideologies are expected to clash, only non-ideological facts are considered political facts. However, there is still a difference between the journalistic and the political case. It is plausibly a breach of journalistic objectivity to advocate for seeing things in a particular ideological light, whereas politicians can argue in this way with each other and to the public. So whereas straightforward journalism should treat ideological disagreement as differences of taste (the first kind of disagreement above), politicians can make see-it-my-way arguments (the second kind of disagreement above).

And in other contexts there are still more facts. Political theorists and philosophers argue about which political ideologies are better, and they don’t take themselves to be arguing about something ‘merely’ subjective. Furthermore, they’re not even trying to get others to see things their way, like politicians in speeches. They use various arguments to try to figure out which views are right. And analytic philosophers tend to think that all kinds of things are objective: political views, moral claims, aesthetic judgments, and many more. Probably because analytic philosophers are accustomed to seeking the truth about these matters, and settling their disagreements with arguments. So in different contexts—journalism, politics in practice, and political theory—ideological facts can be treated like differences of taste, see-it-my-way disagreements, or disagreements about facts. They run the full spectrum from fully subjective disagreements where something is only true to someone and no one way is clearly better than another, to see-it-my-way disagreements where something is only true to someone but some ways of looking at matters are better, to objective disagreements where there is a truth independent of any person’s perspective.

I'm pretty sure the use of this image here counts as Fair Use under U.S. copyright law. Thanks to Adam Ragusea for educating me on that. Check out episode 11 of The Pub.

If this didn’t make you cry then I don’t know you or the darkness in your heart.

The moral I want to draw here is that the way people use terms like objective changes with context, according to what people agree on and what kinds of things people can see themselves coming to agreement on. And I think people’s instincts about what’s subjective or objective tends to shift according to the way they engage with different subject matters. Now, these are just conjectures on my part and they should be tested empirically (can I get a collaborator on that?). But what I suspect is this: someone who just consumes movies and television for entertainment is likely to think that whether a film is good or not is subjective. People who make or criticize films for a living, though, are probably more likely to think that there are some objective facts about films that make them better or worse. Most people probably think whether something is funny is subjective, but a lot of comedians and some comedy critics think there are facts about what’s funny and what isn’t (although they probably concede that whether someone enjoys a joke is subjective). A lot of folks in the West think that matters of politics or morality—or philosophy—are subjective, whereas people who sort out political or moral (or philosophical) questions for a living are probably more likely to think that they’re objective. Myself, I’m tempted to call anything ‘objective’ so long as it can be treated objectively in some context, any context. That goes for claims about justice, about values, about aesthetics, and even humor (though it’s important to relate those claims back to objective standards of evaluation). But perhaps that’s just because I’m a philosopher.

I worry that people often think something is objective or subjective absolutely, so that if political ideologies are treated as subjective at a dinner party, they’re subjective period. I think when we give into this thought, we give up on the possibility of learning a lot of things. Some of those things, like what makes humor work, or whether Star Trek really is better than Star Wars, are interesting. But others, like what justice is and what it is for something to be right or wrong, are also important and we shouldn’t be quick to give up on the idea of objective truth, just because agreement can be hard to reach. As a parting observation: I know a number of folks who are interested in social justice, and are wary of talk about “objectivity.” They tend to think that calls for objectivity are ruses to recenter discussions around the perspective of privilege. I do agree that this often happens, but I think that’s a rhetorical problem, not a philosophical problem. I think that giving up on objectivity because of that is throwing out the baby with the dishwater. (Similar things might be said about tone-policing. I think it’s nice to be civil and polite, other things being equal, but even J.S. Mill, ultra-privileged boy extraordinary, knew that calls for civility in discussions of justice served more often to cut off productive discussion than to facilitate it. See the last paragraph of On Liberty, Chapter II.) Real objectivity is important, especially regarding social justice. The existence of structural oppression is, I would argue, real and important and objective. It matters in part because whether it’s real is not a matter of perspective or opinion, even though it is controversial. It’s like climate change or poverty; it’s real for everybody whether you believe in it or not. A little bit of sloppy philosophy goes a long way toward obscuring the truth.

Thanks to Joe McCaffrey for indulging me as I nattered on about this for weeks, and for helping me shape up my thoughts. Joe does not endorse the content of this post in any way. (But that’s just his opinion.)

Why Study Philosophy?

The term has recently begun here in Pittsburgh, which means I’m teaching again. The last few semesters I’ve begun the term with a quick spiel for my students about why to study philosophy, which I thought I’d share here.

A lot of people have the impression that philosophy is a useless discipline. (Even, sometimes, famous educators). I’m going to avoid a digression for now about what it means for a discipline to be “useless” and the various misconceptions about philosophy that come into play here. Instead I’ll just discuss one way of thinking about the value of philosophy education.

There are different kinds of questions that, for one reason or another in your life, you may want to answer. The most straightforward kinds of question, from an answer-finding perspective, are questions that (a) have definite answers, and (b) have universally agreed-upon methods for finding those answers. For example, questions of arithmetic are like this. What is 128+64? In school we’re taught an algorithm for working out the answers to such questions (remember to carry the 2). Not all of these questions are easy to answer, though. A trickier question is “What is the value of π?” We may never be able to give the full answer to that question, but we can calculate the value of π to a fairly extraordinary degree of precision. Many questions in science are also like this. (Many are not but that’s a conversation for another time.) One might ask, “When did Tyrannosaurus rex live?” That’s not a question we can answer with a pen and a napkin, but we can examine fossils and the places we find them and, with some creative reasoning and background knowledge, make progress on answering questions about facts.

Straightforward questions:
What is the sum of 128 and 64?
What is the value of π?
When did Tyrannosaurus rex live?
Under what conditions would the Mackinac Bridge collapse?

A second kind of question is one that has no definite answer. For example, “What is the best kind of ice cream?” This might have no answer because perhaps all there is to being better ice cream is being preferred, and people have different preferences. Or there might be no correct ordering of ice-cream features such that one could determine which is best. Or there might be better ice creams for different circumstances.

Questions without definite answers:
What is the best kind of ice cream?
Does the top stop spinning after the end of Inception?

However, there is a third kind of question, questions that have definite answers but no universally agreed-upon methods for determining the answers. For example, we might wonder whether, if the Federal Reserve were to raise interest rates this month, the unemployment rate would go up, go down, or stay the same. There is an answer to this question; there is a fact about what would happen, at least in a particular circumstance. But economists often can’t agree on the answers to these questions. They have a bunch of different models that predict different things and take different factors into account, and they argue with each other about which one is right, or right for a particular set of circumstances.

Nevertheless, just because there isn’t a universally agreed-upon method for determining an answer doesn’t mean we can’t know the answer. It doesn’t mean some answers aren’t better than others. And it definitely doesn’t mean that there is no right answer. What it means is that in order to sort the better answers from the worse, we have to rely on the method of last resort: evaluating arguments and reasons.

Well-posed philosophical questions are questions of this third kind. They have answers, but there is no agreed-upon method for determining what the answers are. In addition, classic philosophical questions of the sort discussed in intro philosophy classes also often concern very abstract or general matters. They are determinate enough that students can engage with them, appealing to familiar considerations, but general enough that there are few guides to success other than clear reasoning. Philosophers have to be comfortable with a greater degree of ambiguity and uncertainty in their subject matter. The quality of the arguments can always be questioned—the premises may not be true, the principles of reasoning may not be reliable, the terms in which they’re expressed can be misunderstood and reinterpreted.

Some classic philosophical questions:
Is all knowledge ultimately grounded in sense experience?
Is all value ultimately grounded in pleasure and pain?
Does free will require that you could have done otherwise?

So the familiar philosophical topics from intro courses have two interesting features: (1) they can only be answered by the method of last resort, evaluating arguments and reasons unsupplemented by other more specific methods, and (2) they involve a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity. Both features can be extremely frustrating, but philosophical inquiry and discussion requires that we be as clear as we can in spite of the difficulty. I think that philosophical engagement can be very valuable in education precisely because it involves practice confronting these frustrating circumstances. Philosophy helps us practice sorting good arguments from bad, and being comfortable with uncertainty.

There are a lot of important questions that share these features with philosophical questions. Questions in macroeconomics, for one, on which the welfare of millions of people may depend. These are important skills in contemporary society, in professional and personal life. And they are also important civic skills in democratic societies.

Of course, I’m not saying that everyone should be a philosopher. A society in which everybody is a professional thinker sounds terrible to me, and would probably not be a very prosperous society. However, I do like the sound of a society in which everybody has some training and practice with the kinds of intellectual difficulty raised in philosophical thinking. And in a democratic society, where voters have important responsibilities to look after their collective welfare, I think some philosophical education does some good for everybody. That’s why I tell my students they should study some philosophy in school.

Metadiscursive Technology: Distinctions, Continua, Phase Spaces

In an earlier post I discussed the notion of metadiscursive technology: we use concepts to make sense of the world and do things in it, and bits of metadiscursive technology are the concepts that help us understand how we do this. In this post I’d like to talk about three ways of carving up possibilities (three categories of ways to draw categories): distinctions, spectra or continua, and phase spaces. I’ll be drawing on examples having to do primarily with gender and sexuality, since they’re pretty easy to understand but also surprisingly complicated.

But I should briefly say two things, before I get into the examples. First, this post is a little meta (getting meta is another important philosophical activity). I’m going to be talking about ways of categorizing possibilities. People usually adopt ways of categorizing things without thinking about which way to use; they just use a way. But I’m going to talking about these ways as objects. If you like you can call the different ways models, or schemes, or theories. Personally I prefer “model” because it seems natural for there to be lots of different models that are useful for different contexts. People are more likely to think that with theories and schemes, one of them has to be better than the rest. Second, I am no expert on gender and sexuality. I owe some thanks to @zaranosaur for constructive feedback. Obviously any remaining problems are my responsibility. If I’ve spoken wrongly here, or missed something important, I hope some charitable soul will correct me and I will strive to own any mistakes I make, and to learn gracefully.

First, the distinction is one of the most important tools a philosopher has. A distinction is a contrast between two or more categories in a space of relevant possibilities, or a contrast between two ways of categorizing. For example, one might distinguish between men and women, or between people who are gay and people who are straight. Both of these distinctions help us carve up spaces of possibilities—here the space of genders, or the space of sexual preferences. (As a side note, though, “sexual preference” may be a bad label because while sex is an important part of being gay or straight, it is not the only part and it may be misleading or problematic to make it seem like the most important part.) One might also distinguish between the space of gender and the space of sexual preference. For example, if we’re trying to figure out who is sending mysterious love notes to Vijay, we might (problematically) consider several women who know him. But since not everyone is straight, we should distinguish between the gender of potential admirers and their sexual preferences. Those are different ways of dividing the space of possible admirers, and we should probably consider both if we want to determine the identity of Vijay’s secret admirer.

Figure 1.

Figure 1. Three distinctions. The third distinguishes between the first distinction and the second.

A dichotomy is a special kind of distinction that divides the entire space of relevant possibilities into two non-overlapping categories. A distinction may only partially divide the space of possibilities, or may not be exclusive. For example, the distinction between gay and straight partially divides the possibilities for sexual preferences. But it’s problematic to think of the gay/straight distinction as a dichotomy, because there are other possibilities for sexual preference. Some people are bisexual, and are neither gay nor straight. Or, instead of distinguishing between gay and straight people, we could have distinguished between people who are attracted to men and people who are attracted to women. That’s also a distinction that’s not a dichotomy, but this time it’s because there are people who fit both descriptions, not because there are people who fit neither. If we wanted we could think of sexual preference as a trichotomy, which is like a dichotomy but with three categories instead of two.

Figure 2.

Figure 2. Two examples of distinctions that are not dichotomies. (A) The gay-straight distinction is not a dichotomy because there is a third possibility. This situation might be represented as a trichotomy. (B) This is not a dichotomy because there is a non-empty intersection between the categories.

However, many people like to think of sexual preference as a continuum or a spectrum, with attraction to same-gendered partners on one pole and attraction to other-gendered partners on the other. On the continuum model of sexual preference, people are not simply gay or bi or straight, but can be anywhere on a continuous scale from very gay to very straight, with people who are very bi falling nearer the middle.

Figure 3.

Figure 3. A continuum, rendered in doge for easy consumption.

Sometimes, especially when it comes to the politics of gender and sexuality, people like to say that dichotomies are terrible and that we should think of things as continua. Sometimes that’s a very helpful thing to say. But continua aren’t the be-all, end-all of discursive technologies for categorization; sometimes things are more complicated, and sometimes continua aren’t inclusive enough. For example, in addition to the variation captured by the continuum in Figure 3, there are people who identify as asexual, and do not experience sexual attraction to men or women. That possibility is not represented on the continuum above. However, since many asexual people do still experience romantic attraction, we may find it worthwhile to revise our understanding of sexual preference (perhaps there’s an important distinction to be made! I leave it as an exercise to the reader).

Moreover, a continuum only varies along one dimension. That is, a continuum is only the appropriate discursive technology if the relevant possibilities can be placed in order, along a single line. If placing things in a single line doesn’t help you with what you’re doing, you may need to consider more than one dimension of variation. To capture multiple dimensions of variation, you need what I call a phase space by loose analogy with a notion from math and physics (in this post I’ll ignore worthwhile complications of the phase-space framework, like attractors). Phase spaces are also tools for making sense of a space of possibilities, but are more complex than distinctions or continua because they simultaneously incorporate multiple dimensions. For example, think of Vijay and his secret admirer. We said above that we needed to take into account two factors: the sexual preference of his admirer, and their gender. We can’t explain preference or gender in terms of the other, so we can construct a phase space that takes those factors into account. If we keep the assumptions that sexual preference is a spectrum, and that we can distinguish between men and women, it might look like this.

Figure 4.

Figure 4. A simple Vijay-fancier model. This is a phase space composed of a continuum and a distinction. The bluer areas indicate regions more likely to contain Vijay’s secret admirer.

There are some well-known contexts where people play with simple phase spaces. For example, people sometimes talk of the political spectrum from conservative to liberal, but sometimes economic and social dimensions are distinguished as here. There’s also a two-dimensional model for categorizing Scotch whisky. Blogger Jonathon Owen proposes a two-dimensional phase space for understanding linguistic prescriptivism and descriptivism. All of these phase spaces are constructed of orthogonal continua, like a Cartesian plane. Those are the easiest to visualize, but phase spaces can be constructed of any number of independent dimensions. The philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith defends a three-dimensional model of populations where one corner of the phase space represents the populations most amenable to Darwinian description. And the space of colors is often represented as non-Cartesian three-dimensional space (see here for a discussion).

For an example of a more complex phase space, we can consider the fact that gender identification does not always agree with biological sex. We could represent that situation by constructing two distinctions in different dimensions, like so:

Figure 5.

Figure 5. Sex and gender as a phase space composed of two orthogonal distinctions.

And if we wanted to highlight more of the relations between these categories, we might look at Monica Helms’ four-dimensional model, which separates gender expression, gender identity, gender presentation, and sexual attraction as independent dimensions. These are fairly good models for some relations between sex and gender, but they’re both incomplete. The simple model in Figure 5 represents gender and sex as simple categories, which can be a problematic idealization. First off, there is biological sex—male vs. female—but there are also bodies that do not quite fit into either category. For example, there is a great variety conditions such as Klinefelter syndrome, XXYY syndrome, various forms of hermaphroditism and others that complicate categorization by biological sex (these papers by Anne Fausto-Sterling are a little old but include a concise discussion of some intersexual variation and Western history). So the distinction between female and male is not a dichotomy. Maybe we could imagine the female-male space as a continuum, but given the variety of non-binary conditions it might pay sometimes to have a more complex view of sex. If we’re interested in genetics, we could plot number of X chromosomes and number of Y chromosomes independently, but if we’re interested in manifestations, complications, and other factors we may find it more helpful to categorize the variety some other way.

Second, the gender distinction between men and women is also not a dichotomy; there are other gender identities that people adopt. The model above accommodates cisgendered and transgendered identities. But there are other trans* identities, including agender, gender fluid, genderqueer, and more (this fact was reported in even the most uninspiring news outlets recently because of Facebook. There are a few glossaries floating around now, including this one). Some of these gender identities involve combinations of femininity and masculinity; some involve refusal to identify either as a woman or a man; some involve opposition to the gender binary altogether; some adopt different binaries. Given the richness of identities here, their variation cannot be completely captured by plotting them along a continuum between femininity and masculinity. Rather, it might be better to plot femininity and masculinity as separate dimensions, and discomfort with traditional gender categories as a third. But femininity and masculinity are complex constructs, each traditionally bringing together numerous features including social and familial roles, power dynamics, tastes and interests, &c. Depending on what kinds of variation we’re interested in, we might find it useful to distinguish several of these as well. So inclusive schemes for categorizing sex and gender involve making many, many distinctions that track many more than three independent dimensions. Perhaps the space could be represented more compactly by identifying a small number of dimensions and locating the various categories and their regions of overlap within that space, but that task would be the work of an expert who knows more than I do about trans* identities.

Now recall our simple phase-space model of Vijay’s potential admirers, the Vijay-fancier model. That model relied on the assumption that we could treat gender as a dichotomy. That might be a safe assumption under some circumstances—perhaps all of the people who might have written the notes to Vijay are transgendered or cisgendered. Nevertheless, we could strive to be more inclusive of other trans* people and replace the man/woman dichotomy in the model with a more complex categorization of gender. However, the continuum conception of sexual preference also presupposes a gender dichotomy, so we might also want to revise that dimension of the Vijay-fancier model. A model like that would be a very serious piece of conceptual technology. And as I hope is evident, the activity of categorization need not be restrictive or oppressive. By engaging earnestly with variation and maintaining an open mind about the choice of models for categorization, the activity can be legitimating to those who might normally feel left out. Perhaps particularly with gender, sex, and sexuality, a refusal to think openly about categories often cedes too much ground to traditional (in these cases, also oppressive) models of categorization.

I don’t mean to suggest that phase spaces are always best and distinctions or dichotomies always worse. Different technologies are suited to different tasks. If you’ve misplaced your glasses and you’re trying to find them, you might distinguish between places you’ve been since you last had them and places you haven’t been, and only look in the places that belong to the first category. If you’re not entirely sure which places belong to which category, then you might complicate the way you think about the situation. For example, you might order places along a spectrum according to how confident you are that you’ve been there since you last had your glasses. You might think of the situation in more complicated terms—as a phase space—if there are other factors. For example, if you think someone might have taken your glasses (with either good or bad intentions).

I trust these examples show that doing things with concepts—even just distinguishing between related categories—can get really complicated really quickly. It often pays to use the simplest model that suits your present purpose, as with the case where you’re looking for your glasses. This is why I say that the distinction is one of the philosopher’s most important metadiscursive tools, even though it’s the simplest technology I discussed here. Even math and logic, where clarity is prized very highly, are full of conceptual complications. Consider the distinction between the integers and the real numbers, or between cardinals and ordinals. In logic there are many different logical systems, and logicians must learn to categorize rules and proofs across those different systems. The philosopher Mark Wilson (disclosure: one of my academic advisors) has written extensive discussions of the conceptual complexities in math and physics. He populates his writing with vivid metaphors like atlases and Riemann surfaces to help his readers make intuitive sense of these structures (There is an unwieldy but excellent book, though Robert Brandom [disclosure: my supervisor] has a fairly compact overview). It’s an important philosophical skill to learn how to comfortably handle this kind of conceptual complexity. A lot of the work of professional philosophers involves sorting through complicated spaces of possibility and devising ways to make sense of them. But complications like these arise in every subject and in many aspects of everyday life. Perhaps sometime soon you’ll find yourself puzzled by how to draw categories, and you might ask yourself: Have I made the right distinctions? Have I inappropriately assumed dichotomies? How many independent dimensions of variation are relevant to my purposes? Am I using the best conceptual model I can? Then you’ll be availing yourself of metadiscursive technologies.


EDIT: While I strove to avoid ‘splainer vibes, &c. in this post, I now feel a more strenuous qualification is called for. Especially since in the end it’s a rather dispassionate and decentering treatment of some extremely sensitive issues, and nobody likes a scumbag analytic philosopher. I’m a straight, well-educated, American cis man, so I’ve got no shortage of privilege to check. As I tried to make clear throughout the post, there’s nothing about sex/gender/preference that I say first or best; I try to be a well-informed citizen and ally but I’m not an expert on these issues.

There are two reasons I used these examples, anyway. First, in the years since I started making these points about metadiscursive technology in conversations with colleagues, these examples always came easily to mind. I think they’re good illustrations of my main points, and I’ve tried not to say anything wrong or insensitive. Second, I didn’t think it’d be dismissive to use facts about the complexity of gender and sex in order to make a different point (though of course thinking doesn’t make it so). I had three reasons for thinking this. For one, my discussion on this blog isn’t hijacking anyone else’s conversation-in-progress. Next, while I’m a pluralist about models I claim that the less complex models have the twin vices of empirical inadequacy and social/political insensitivity. When I made a small apology for simple models in appropriate situations, I did not reach back for the sex and gender examples. And last, I hoped that using these examples in an unrelated context was an appropriate act as an ally, who can’t speak from first-hand experience. You’re not much of an ally if you’re so afraid of saying the wrong thing that you don’t even try to do your part to normalize inclusive talk and thought about marginalized identities. Anyway, those are my reasons and I earnestly hope they’re good enough.