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(a little off-topic but) what pro-relativism reading do you assign your students? I'd like to be able to give them something that's both philosophically good and speaks to their concerns, but the anthologies I looked at were pretty weak. Most of the good readings I found were arguing for relativism for complicated metaethical reasons; most of the accessible readings I found weren't very good. I wound up using Ruth Benedict, but I wasn't thrilled with it. Got any better ideas?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Amy: I usually only assign my students papers against relativism, but when I do assign stuff defending it, I tend to assign stuff from David Velleman's recent book. It's very accessibly written.

Derek Bowman

I'm sorry to see that this post hasn't generated more attention. Hopefully that's just because the people who read it agree with it and so find they have little to contribute.

I think your essential point is right, but in the spirit of fruitful conversation, I'm going to focus on the details where I would differ.

1. There is an additional dynamic underlying the grad student behavior you identify: Sometimes you're right, they may already know some of the background, and they may take for granted the importance of debates 'in the literature.' But, perhaps just as often, they may also be afraid to admit that they don't already know the background or that they don't already understand why the debate 'in the literature' is important.

2. I don't agree that undergraduates, by and large, have particularly good B.S. detectors. I think they have overactive 'this is pointless' detectors that give lots of false positives. Nonetheless, the valuable epistemic function of their response is the same as the one you chart.

3. In focusing on the teaching part, you elide the various presuppositions that make "undergraduate teaching" the relevant category. Undergraduates are, among other things, the people who pay to go to college, and teaching them provides the basis for our salaries. Insofar as what we teach is valuable, I think it is an evil (possibly a necessary one) that we are put in a position of only teaching those who can afford to pay or otherwise navigate the bureaucracy of higher ed. This tie of teaching with our employment also means that we have to spend an awful lot of time on grading - but grading is at best only tangentially related to learning for the student and contribution to our own knowledge and research. (Note that I'm here presupposing a distinction between 'grading' and 'giving students feedback on their writing.')

Marcus Arvan

Derek: Thanks for your comment, and for the kind words. The post hasn't entirely been devoid of attention. Michael Cholbi has a nice post here discussing it: http://insocrateswake.blogspot.com/2014/11/why-undergrad-teaching-is-not-necessary.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+blogspot%2FqNdd+%28In+Socrates%27+Wake%29 .

Anyway, here are my thoughts in reply to your three points:

On (1): you may be entirely right about that! When I was a grad student, *I* sort of went along with the flow in just that sense. For example, I totally didn't share Kripkean/Putnam intuitions about reference, but I never really said much because everyone around me accepted that prevailing dialectic.

On (2): Good point. Michael Cholbi says something similar, and I'm in agreement. Undergrads may not have great BS detectors, but their *overactive* BS/pointlessness detectors serve (in my view) a valuable epistemic function.

On (3): I entirely disagree with just about everything you write here! First, although I don't like spending a lot of time grading, I think lots of practice doing it can help one to become far more critical of one's own work. Second, I think grading is one of the most important parts of student learning in ALL of undergraduate teaching. Because I am a harsh grader, give a ton of detailed feedback, and encourage students to do rewrites, grading has the effect of motivating students to rethink, rewrite, and improve their work--all of which is (in my view) absolutely vital to a sound undergraduate education.


Thanks for the pointer, Marcus! Can I ask why you usually only assign papers against relativism?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Amy: Mostly it's because I tend to teach ethics at an introductory level and it's hard to get students to read more than one article on a topic carefully.

A second reason, though, is that I like to give students room to think for themselves. If I were to give them readings on both sides, they would get to see how proponents of relativism reply to the arguments against it--which would preempt them from grappling with the arguments against relativism themselves. By merely giving them one side of the issue (arguments against relativism), they get to think about and debate the merits of those arguments--and then we can discuss the positive case for relativism in class (which I think is also a good exercise to leave to them!).

Phil H

I'd like to ask a question: do you think these arguments apply beyond philosophy?

Because I can imagine, for example, a maths prof thinking: there is no way I can be clearer about basic calculus. And no student in my calculus 101 class is going to say something that sends me of on an interesting new line of thinking.

That might be true in the humanities, too. A history prof may find that the grind of conveying the facts about Roman civilisation doesn't inspire, and that no undergrad is going to have a thought about the Romans that many scholars have not had before. (Or not, I've heard historians talk about how interesting it is to present history in different ways.)

Do you think it's a special feature of philosophy that it benefits from repeated examination of the reasoning at a fairly basic level? What about those bits of philosophy where this wouldn't apply e.g. advanced logic?



I think lots of folks who are thrown into teaching end up getting research out of it. I think it is important emphasize what you say at the end of the post—that teaching is intrinsically valuable. I’ll just give one example. At York we have an intro course titled ‘The Meaning of Life’ which I have TAed a few times. A lot of great stuff happens in this course because students come expecting philosophy to impact how they view their lives. I once had an astronomy student who had often thought that her life must not be meaningful because of how very small she was compared to the cosmos. We read Nagel’s ‘On the Absurd,’ in which he argue that if one grew to the size of the sun, it would not make one’s life more meaningful. This student told me that she found this argument compelling—a philosophy class undercut her reason for thinking that her life was meaningless!

Marcus Arvan

Hi jmugg: Thanks for your comment. I am entirely in agreement. I've had more than a few students say that studying philosophy has changed their lives, and how they think about everything from morality to politics to which career to pursue. And simply seeing students struggle, succeed, and grow is incredibly gratifying.

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