Academic Autopsy Part 3: The Rules of the Game

Like many undergrads who have later pursued advanced degrees, I devoted quite a bit of my time to being a teaching assistant (TA) and a research assistant (RA) for professors in the fields in which I was interested.  At the end of a particularly grueling semester I received emails from two of my students asking for help on their final paper– which would represent about a third of their grades.  The first student and I were on a first name basis.  She and I had met or exchanged emails several times over the course of the semester and I had watched her reading responses and exam grades steadily improve from near failing to very respectable high Bs.  Her questions had always been courteous even when she had clearly been confused and frustrated with my grading until–once she had developed a better academic style and approach in her writing–our exchanges were more likely to be about some fine point of the reading and its entailment for interpretation.

The second email came from another student I had heard from earlier in the course.  His complaints about grades on reading responses all begged the question of my impartiality and assumed that he was receiving poor grades because his views differed from the views of the myself, the professor, and the institution as a whole.  While I tried to explain that his s0/so grades were the result of his failure to understand what the reading responses and essay questions were asking–and his tendency to adopt a tone and vocabulary inappropriate in scholarly writing–after a month he seemed to resign himself to poor grades while becoming ever more vitriolic–and tangential–in his answers.  In response to his disengaging–that I’m a bit ashamed of now–I disengaged too.  Where I had left voluminous responses to his tirades with hints and strategies to improve his scores, I now found myself writing “Please see notes on previous responses.”

Justly or unjustly, by the time that I received these two students’ requests for help I already knew who would receive more benefit from my time.  In one last ditch effort to have my chronic complainer see the light, I scheduled a time to see both of them at the same time in a neutral location off campus.  The result was shocking.  She arrived early with notes in hand and a first draft of her outline.  He arrived half an hour late and admitted that he hadn’t read the book–which the paper was to be about–yet.  I described the rubric I would use on for the final paper’s grade and how the strategies I had tried to teach them in their reading responses would also help them with this paper.  She took notes.  He argued that the book was stupid.  After an hour at the coffee shop, the male student got up from the table, took out his cell phone, and said loud enough for both of us to hear “It was a waste of time.  He (meaning me, presumably) won’t give me an A because he’s an idiot.  The girl was off like a shot.  She followed him out the door and the two stood outside the shop’s picture window: her body bent forward and hand wildly gesturing and his back pressed against an alcove and eyes wide.

Welcome to my third post vivisecting my analytic exposition on Hegel and trying to arguing that one must play according to a prescribed set of academic rules if one is to succeed.  My apologies for the long introduction, but I’m a sucker for a good story–especially if it’s true.  My anecdote above is about particularly good and particularly bad academic game players, but the reality is that most students exist somewhere in the middle.  The thing to note is that the young man mentioned above should have been a far better student: his intellectual capabilities were far above hers, his extra-academic reading and interests had prepared him far better than her to make meaningful connections, and–in many cases–his answers and responses were more profound and interesting–they just so often ignored what the question was asking.  The reason she did better in school was because she played by the rules and he refused to.  What are these academic game rules?

1) The world is populated with people.  Institutions are made of people.  Processes are carried out by people.  Even ideologies and convictions exist only in the minds of people.  Grading systems, course enrollment systems, and even transcript forwarding systems are made of people.

2) People prefer to be treated like people.  You can rage against institutions and processes and their embodied ideologies, and convictions, but you are really just yelling about, at, or behind the backs of people.  You can try to embrace institutions and processes and their ideologies and convictions, but you are really just making a commitment to people.  If you act as though people are mindless, heartless, and soul-less institutions and processes you will find that you are right and if you act toward those people in the way you would wish to be acted toward you will find that the institutions and processes are far more accommodating than you imagined.

3) People also function like people.  That is, they tend to function more like you do than you might think.

Those are the rules.  Certainly there are further strategies, tips, tricks, and work-arounds beyond these broad principles, but most–if not all–are the result of thinking through these three maxims.  So, let’s see how I applied them as I wrote my paper on Hegel.

“Thus, as what is true of ‘Now’ is also true of ‘This’, Sense-certainty’s content (‘This’) is not on the side of the simple, immediate, sensuous intuition of Night, but on the side of the complex, mediated, contingent ‘Now’ whose object is indifferent to particular predicates and is preserved only through their negation. Thus, what sense-certainty gets right—what sense-certainty’s object truly is—remains a bare, mediated and universal ‘Now’ that is quite different from the rich, immediate, and essential content of objects that sense-certainty believed itself to grasp.

Obviously, this last line is a reiteration and negation of the claim originally made by sense-certainty about itself.  In essence, while I’m analyzing Hegel’s argument, I am also making my own argument for what Hegel’s argument is.  My statement of his claim is also my claim about what he is doing in these paragraphs.  My discussion of his justification for his argument is also my justification for why I believe my reading of his claim to be correct.  That is, if the material of his argument does not prove the claim that I have stated for it, then my reading must be incorrect.  I don’t have to include this final conclusion sentence except that it reminds my intended audience of what I have been claiming about the passage and ties the argument and claim together–solidifying my argument that the claim is correct.  After having graded many, many of these types of papers I know that I always appreciated an explicit reminder and justification at this point in a paper.

Having demonstrated that sense-certainty’s object is not gained immediately, but mediately through the knowing ‘I’ that declares its object to be ‘This’, Hegel continues beyond the assigned passage to disprove that sense-certainty’s object is gained passively by demonstrating the active participation of the ‘I’ who is ‘Here’. Understood in this way, the paragraphs are the first stage in Hegel’s rejection of sense-certainty’s claim to provide 1) immediate, 2) passive, and 3) determinate—not merely “pure being”–content.”

This section is intended to show the consequences, stakes, and implications of the argument.  I am making explicit reference to what I know my preceptor believes is the key argument of this passage–even if we disagree that it is the only argument being made in this passage–and demonstrating that Hegel’s next claim comes as a result of what he had already written.  In retrospect, I would have beefed up this connection.  I think as it sits I almost beg the question of how immediacy and passivity are related.  This is probably the weakest point of the paper and I expect to lose some points here.

So, one more trip to the mortuary before we are done and I hope that you have enjoyed, been edified by, or at least made it through these first three exercises in academic autopsy.  Now, wash your hands–you’re disgusting.

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