Academic Autopsy Part 1: Playing the Game

I was a horrible student from kindergarten to graduation.  I nearly flunked the fourth, sixth, and eighth grades and the news that all students who were being allowed to participate in the commencement dress-rehearsal would be graduating actually occasioned a sigh of relief when–at eighteen–I struggled through pomp and circumstance in my high school band.  My mixed report card was not the result of a lack of intellectual chops–I was often one of my teachers’ favorite students and an all-state speech pro–but because I had the attitude that I shouldn’t have to play the academic game.

Now, I couldn’t have put it that succinctly twenty years ago.  It wasn’t until I married my lovely and charming wife that she introduced me to the academic “game” analogy.  When I returned to the scholarly life in Northwest Iowa I was determined to brush all the detritus of my primary and secondary education under the rug and play the game as only a second-strike loser can.  The result was that success was as common during my undergraduate years as failure had been during my primary/ secondary education and I arrived at U of C determined to continue my winning streak.

It would be easy enough for me to simply sketch out what I understand the academic game to be and then discuss how I play it in order to give you, the reader, a sense of what I mean.  However, we’ve already shared some fairly esoteric and theoretical discussions about curriculum and pedagogy.  Instead, I am going to embark on a series of  posts that will work through the analytic exercise that I just completed and turned in today and make explicit the conventions that I played to, the concessions that I made, and a few of the little tricks I have learned playing the academic game’s Paper Writing Challenge.

For the non-philosophers among you, I’m going to try to keep things moving and crack a few jokes here and there.  For potential MAPH students, the sort of paper that I am dissecting in these posts is exactly the sort of paper that you will write for MAPH whether you are a philosophy major or not.  For the hardcore philosophers who still persist in reading these posts, I hope that you either agree or argue but please remember that the paper is only the occasion during which I can discuss–my game.

So without further ado, here is the first bit of my analytic exposition on a selected portion of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (indented with quotes) with my commentary interspersed.

“Paragraphs 94-96 address the first problem which is setup in paragraphs 90-91. Hegel (and/or the phenomenological “we”) are concerned that human knowing has misunderstood its own capacities and mistakenly believed sense-certainty—the direct, concrete experience of an object—to be 1)immediate, 2) passive, and 3) determinate”

Notice, first, that there is no introduction, no “hello, how are you?  How’s the lumbago?’  I have only two pages–with one inch margins all around, and double spaced lines in 12 point font–to unpack three paragraphs of Hegel’s notoriously dense (indecipherable) prose.  My opening salvo doesn’t even make a pretense of introducing my topic.  I know that my paper comes precisely nine-hours into an overworked preceptor’s weekend and they are a bit cranky by now.  Thus, instead of being understood as jarring to a reader–as it probably does to you–this first sentence is a courtesy to my soon-to-be grader.

Also, another concession is occurring in the latter half of this sentence: notice the easy to follow numbers that imply an easily grasped argumentative structure?  They are a lie.  I don’t believe that Hegel works programmatically through his argument crossing off items on his to-do list.  The linguistic example of Hegel uses of the ‘Now’ does all the philosophical work of points (1) (2) and perhaps even (3) only waiting for Hegel to call attention to their entailments in successive passages.  However, by sprinkling in a bit of artificial clarity and programmatic structure, I appear to have an even firmer grasp on Hegel’s allusive argument.  (Yes, I meant “allusive” not “illusive”).

“Hegel argues that sense-certainty naively takes itself to grasp the essence of things, but only succeeds in providing mediated, contingently created, and universal content. The first movement in proving Hegel’s claim is to investigate whether the essence of the object known in sense-certainty corresponds with what sense-certainty believes it to be and, therefore, demonstrate that sense-certainty’s nature intrinsically provides only mediated knowledge.”

Here in the latter half of the first paragraph I am still hammering home that I understand those three separate and distinct phases of argumentation–that aren’t really nearly so cut and dried.  The phrase that begins “only succeeds in providing” is not merely compounding adjectives.  “Mediated,” “contingently created,” and “universal” are the exact opposite of points 1-3 from above.  Hegel argues that sense-certainty’s knowledge is mediated–as opposed to immediate, contingently created–as opposed to passively intuited, and universal–as opposed to determinate.  What I am compounding is the grader’s impression that I have constructed a taught, programmatic reconstruction of the author’s argument–hopefully–allowing them to nod off a bit.

Also notice the italicised and bold “intrinsically.”  I know from our time in precept group that the idea that sense-certainty’s downfall–due to Hegel’s immediate/mediate argument–was inherent within its own self-identity is a very important concept for my preceptor.  I know this because the group spent almost a half an hour trying to formulate it in such a way that he recognized that we recognized this fact.  Hopefully the call-out of the italicized word reminds him again that I recognized this important fact and he thinks well of my efforts.

Hegel’s argument in 94-96 begins with the premise that the ‘This’ of sense-certainty’s intuition is only intelligible as the intersection of ‘Now’ and ‘Here’. He then demonstrates that the truth of a ‘Now’ statement resides in the universal, pure-being of the ‘Now’ rather than in the particular, essential character of its predicate ‘Night’. This character of ‘Now’–and later of ‘Here’–supports Hegel’s claim that the content delivered by sense-certainty is mediated by the negations of other predicates (e.g. Now is not an hour ago or an hour from now).

Okay, this paragraph represents an invaluable trick that I learned in undergrad.  This one paragraph is a summary and road-map of my entire paper.  The purpose of placing what would otherwise seem to be superfluous paragraph at this point in the paper is so that my preceptor can see what I intend to write before I write it for two reasons: A) he can be assured that I have crafted a taughtly programmatic essay and 2) he doesn’t have to actually read it.  While I was working toward my BA I know of two times when one of my friends’ assignments failed to print completely–leaving off the last few pages of a major paper.  However, in both cases, their instructor gave them excellent grades without any comment because he had graded them on these sorts of summary paragraphs without actually reading their entire paper.  This, is why I include the silly summary.

So there you have it, the first–rough–third of my analytic-exposition on Hegel.  Already I have shown that I took very seriously the fact that my intended audience–the preceptor–had very particular ideas about the passage.  Because I only have two pages, I don’t have time to argue in favor of my reading–I don’t really even have enough space to fully discuss my reading–so I try hard to formulate my ideas in ways that he will easily recognize.  I also used several tricks that infer clarity and organization–even when that clarity and organization is imposed unnaturally on the original text.  In the next two or three blogs I will spool out the rest of my paper and the reasons that I feel I can justify this sort of game playing.  I look forward to your comments and/or abuse.

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