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I think discussing the role the idea of talent plays in philosophy is extremely important. There was a study a few years ago that found that the expectation that a successful researcher needs to be intellectually talented is by far the greatest in philosophy (https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1261375). It also found that this kind of expectation correlates with a smaller share of women in a field.

I think the role of this expectation cuts both ways. On the one hand, I think you are right to point out that we can fault students by sorting them in "talented" or "untalented" boxes. I also think there's an issue with whether students perceive themselves as talented. If you think that you are talented and you think that talent is important to being a good philosopher, you'll be more likely to be active in class discussions, more likely to be in an 'open' or playful made of thinking during these discussions, more likely to have some initial confidence in your own ideas, more likely to bounce around these ideas with your peers or your instructor, and because of all of that you might well write a better paper. (There's an issue with over-confidence too, but I find that to be a far less common problem.)

I think your example of that is great: maybe just saying that Thomson's violinist is biologically unrealistic (but not saying why that might be a problem) is a bit flat-footed. But a confident student might turn that into a paper about whether philosophical thought experiments need to be realistic, or whether they can be a bit more far-fetched. So we should encourage a student who has that concern to keep pursuing it.

(I don't have all the answers about how to fix all this, but I think active learning goes a long way in making students who consider themselves untalented build up some confidence.)

Sam Duncan

I think these are all good points. I do think its important to ask whether students perceive themselves as talented or not. But even there I think that professors' do a lot to set up students' own judgments both of their own levels of talent and how important talent is in a field. On the latter issue I think of myself and math. None of my teachers ever flat out said "talent is the deciding thing in math" but they just really conveyed that impression all kinds of subtle ways. And I picked up on it and decided that since math wasn't easy for me I must be untalented and therefore hopeless at math and so there was no point in "wasting" effort on math.
I think your last point about overconfidence is really interesting too and I think overconfidence can be a massive problem. It's much rarer but the really overconfident student can really wreck discussions and a classroom atmosphere. I honestly struggle to do with those students. How does one convey to them that things aren't as easy or clear as they think and that they need to take dissenting voices more seriously without getting nasty? Then again when it gets to a point where they're stepping all over other students and monopolizing discussions getting nasty may be the lesser of evils. I dunno. Maybe we should have a discussion here about what people do with overconfident students. I'd like to see those suggestions myself.

anonymize papers

"Let me begin with a question: When you look at student papers or consider how to respond to student comments, questions, and challenges in class do you think about whose paper it is or who made the comment? I’m betting that you do. If you make much of an effort to know who your students are it’s hard not to do this, and to a great extent this is part of getting to know our students. But this also opens up a danger of bias and believing that talent determines success in philosophy makes this danger much worse."

It cannot be done for comments made in class, but papers should really be graded without knowing the identity of the author, especially in lower-level classes. In almost all cases, any benefit of knowing the identity is greatly outweighed by the benefit of limiting bias.

Sam Duncan

anonymize papers,

When possible I agree with this. But for most of my classes it's not feasible. In pretty much all of my classes I make students do multiple drafts of their papers. This makes it much much harder to do, especially since a fair number of them want to talk to me about the first draft and my comments. I've went back and forth on requiring students discuss first drafts with me in office hours (it has its advantages but takes sooo much time). Anyway, when I do that it's pretty much impossible to anonymize in any meaningful way since much of what I'm grading on is whether they took my comments and the overall discussion into account and how they responded to them. I know both of these things are a little unusual at four four year schools but they're kind of par for the course in humanities classes at community colleges like mine.

anonymize papers

Hi Sam,

This might be one of the exceptions. But it might not: the halo effect is a real effect in a lot of areas. For example, if I recall, the evaluation of something known to be associated with Harvard actually goes up when the word 'Harvard' appears and down when it doesn't. I have no idea whether the halo effect is operative in grading things like multiple drafts, but it might be. And it's still possible to anonymize assignments with multiple drafts. For example, perhaps each draft can be given three bullet points as suggestions, and these need to be included at the top of the subsequent draft. Again, this might be an exception to anonymization, but I don't want us to be too quick to think it is.

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