A Philosopher's Blog

Fake News I: Critical Thinking

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 2, 2016

While fake news presumably dates to the origin of news, the 2016 United States presidential election saw a huge surge in the volume of fakery. While some of it arose from partisan maneuvering, the majority seems to have been driven by the profit motive: fake news drives revenue generating clicks. While the motive might have been money, there has been serious speculation that the fake news (especially on Facebook) helped Trump win the election. While those who backed Trump would presumably be pleased by this outcome, the plague of fake news should be worrisome to anyone who values the truth, regardless of their political ideology. After all, fake news could presumably be just as helpful to the left as the right. In any case, fake news is clearly damaging in regards to the truth and is worth combating.

While it is often claimed that most people simply do not have the time to be informed about the world, if someone has the time to read fake news, then they have the time to think critically about it. This critical thinking should, of course, go beyond just fake news and should extend to all important information. Fortunately, thinking critically about claims is surprisingly quick and easy.

I have been teaching students to be critical about claims in general and the news in particular for over two decades and what follows is based on what I teach in class (drawn, in part, from the text I have used: Critical Thinking by Moore & Parker). I would recommend this book for general readers if it was not, like most text books, absurdly expensive. But, to the critical thinking process that should be applied to claims in general and news in particular.

While many claims are not worth the bother of checking, others are important enough to subject to scrutiny. When applying critical thinking to a claim, the goal is to determine whether you should rationally accept it as true, reject it as false or suspend judgment. There can be varying degrees of acceptance and rejection, so it is also worth considering how confident you should be in your judgment.

The first step in assessing a claim is to match it against your own observations, should you have relevant observations. While observations are not infallible, if a claim goes against what you have directly observed, then that is a strike against accepting the claim. This standard is not commonly used in the case of fake news because most of what is reported is not something that would be observed directly by the typical person. That said, sometimes this does apply. For example, if a news story claims that a major riot occurred near where you live and you saw nothing happen there, then that would indicate the story is in error.

The second step in assessment is to judge the claim against your background information—this is all your relevant beliefs and knowledge about the matter. The application is fairly straightforward and just involves asking yourself if the claim seems plausible when you give it some thought. For example, if a news story claims that Hillary Clinton plans to start an armed rebellion against Trump, then this should be regarded as wildly implausible by anyone with true background knowledge about Clinton.

There are, of course, some obvious problems with using background information as a test. One is that the quality of background information varies greatly and depends on the person’s experiences and education (this is not limited to formal education). Roughly put, being a good judge of claims requires already having a great deal of accurate information stored away in your mind. All of us have many beliefs that are false; the problem is that we generally do not know they are false. If we did, then we would no longer believe them.

A second point of concern is the influence of wishful thinking. This is a fallacy (an error in reasoning) in which a person concludes that a claim is true because they really want it to be true. Alternatively, a person can fallaciously infer that a claim is false because they really want it to be false. This is poor reasoning because wanting a claim to be true or false does not make it so. Psychologically, people tend to disengage their critical faculties when they really want something to be true (or false).

For example, someone who really hates Hillary Clinton would want to believe that negative claims about her are true, so they would tend to accept them. As another example, someone who really likes Hillary would want positive claims about her to be true, so they would accept them.

The defense against wishful thinking of this sort is to be on guard against yourself by being aware of your biases. If you really want something to be true (or false), ask yourself if you have any reason to believe it beyond just wanting it to be true (or false). For example, I am not a fan of Trump and thus would tend to want negative claims about him to be true—so I must consider that when assessing such claims.

A third point of concern is related to wishful thinking and could be called the fallacy of fearful/hateful thinking. While people tend to believe what they want to believe, they also tend to believe claims that match their hates and fears. That is, they believe what they do not want to believe. Fear and hate impact people in a very predictable way: they make people stupid when it comes to assessing claims.

For example, there are Americans who hate the idea of Sharia law and are terrified it will be imposed on America. While they would presumably wish that claims about it being imposed were false, they will often believe such claims because it corresponds with their hate and fear. Ironically, their great desire that it not be true motivates them to feel that it is true, even when it is not.

The defense against this is to consider how a claim makes you feel—if you feel hatred or fear, you should be very careful in assessing the claim. If a news claims seems tailored to push your buttons, then there is a decent chance that it is fake news. This is not to say that it must be fake, just that it is important to be extra vigilant about claims that are extremely appealing to your hates and fears. This is a very hard thing to do since it is easy to be ruled by hate and fear.

The third step involves assessing the source of the claim. While the source of a claim does not guarantee the claim is true (or false), reliable sources are obviously more likely to get things right than unreliable sources. When you believe a claim based on its source, you are making use of what philosophers call an argument from authority. The gist of this reasoning is that the claim being made is true because the source is a legitimate authority on the matter. While people tend to regard as credible sources those that match their own ideology, the rational way to assess a source involves considering the following factors.

First, the source needs to have sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question. One rather obvious challenge here is being able to judge that the specific author or news source has sufficient expertise. In general, the question is whether a person (or the organization in general) has the relevant qualities and these are assessed in terms of such factors as education, experience, reputation, accomplishments and positions. In general, professional news agencies have such experts. While people tend to dismiss Fox, CNN, and MSNBC depending on their own ideology, their actual news (as opposed to editorial pieces or opinion masquerading as news) tends to be factually accurate. Unknown sources tend to be lacking in these areas. It is also wise to be on guard against fake news sources pretending to be real sources—this can be countered by checking the site address against the official and confirmed address of professional news sources.

Second, the claim made needs to be within the source’s area(s) of expertise. While a person might be very capable in one area, expertise is not universal. So, for example, a businessman talking about her business would be an expert, but if she is regarded as a reliable source for political or scientific claims, then that would be an error (unless she also has expertise in these areas).

Third, the claim should be consistent with the views of the majority of qualified experts in the field. In the case of news, using this standard involves checking multiple reliable sources to confirm the claim. While people tend to pick their news sources based on their ideology, the basic facts of major and significant events would be quickly picked up and reported by all professional news agencies such as Fox News, NPR and CNN. If a seemingly major story does not show up in the professional news sources, there is a good chance it is fake news.

It is also useful to check with the fact checkers and debunkers, such as Politifact and Snopes. While no source is perfect, they do a good job assessing claims—something that does not make liars very happy. If a claim is flagged by these reliable sources, there is an excellent chance it is not true.

Fourth, the source must not be significantly biased. Bias can include such factors as having a very strong ideological slant (such as MSNBC and Fox News) as well as having a financial interest in the matter. Fake news is typically crafted to feed into ideological biases, so if an alleged news story seems to fit an ideology too well, there is a decent chance that it is fake. However, this is not a guarantee that a story is fake—reality sometimes matches ideological slants. This sort of bias can lead real news sources to present fake news; you should be critical even of professional sources-especially when they match your ideology.

While these methods are not flawless, they are very useful in sorting out the fake from the true. While I have said this before, it is worth repeating that we should be even more critical of news that matches our views—this is because when we want to believe, we tend to do so too easily.

 

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Critical Thinking, Ethics & Science Journalism

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Science by Michael LaBossiere on June 3, 2015

As part of my critical thinking class, I cover the usual topics of credibility and experiments/studies. Since people often find critical thinking a dull subject, I regularly look for real-world examples that might be marginally interesting to students. As such, I was intrigued by John Bohannon’s detailed account of how he “fooled millions into thinking chocolate helps weight loss.”

Bohannon’s con provides an excellent cautionary tale for critical thinkers. First, he lays out in detail how easy it is to rig an experiment to get (apparently) significant results. As I point out to my students, a small experiment or study can generate results that seem significant, but really are not. This is why it is important to have an adequate sample size—as a starter. What is also needed is proper control, proper selection of the groups, and so on.

Second, he provides a clear example of a disgraceful stain on academic publishing, namely “pay to publish” journals that do not engage in legitimate peer review. While some bad science does slip through peer review, these journals apparently publish almost anything—provided that the fee is paid. Since the journals have reputable sounding names and most people do not know which journals are credible and which are not, it is rather easy to generate a credible seeming journal publication. This is why I cover the importance of checking sources in my class.

Third, he details how various news outlets published or posted the story without making even perfunctory efforts to check its credibility. Not surprisingly, I also cover the media in my class both from the standpoint of being a journalist and being a consumer of news. I stress the importance of confirming credibility before accepting claims—especially when doing so is one’s job.

While Bohannon’s con does provide clear evidence of problems in regards to corrupt journals, uncritical reporting and consumer credulity, the situation does raise some points worth considering. One is that while he might have “fooled millions” of people, he seems to have fooled relative few journalists (13 out of about 5,000 reporters who subscribe to the Newswise feed Bohannon used) and these seem to be more of the likes of the Huffington Post and Cosmopolitan as opposed to what might be regarded as more serious health news sources. While it is not known why the other reporters did not run the story, it is worth considering that some of them did look at it critically and rejected it. In any case, the fact that a small number of reporters fell for a dubious story is hardly shocking. It is, in fact, just what would be expected given the long history of journalism.

Another point of concern is the ethics of engaging in such a con. It is possible to argue that Bohannon acted ethically. One way to do this is to note that using deceit to expose a problem can be justified on utilitarian grounds. For example, it seems morally acceptable for a journalist or police officer to use deceit and go undercover to expose criminal activity. As such, Bohannon could contend that his con was effectively an undercover operation—he and his fellows pretended to be the bad guys to expose a problem and thus his deceit was morally justified by the fact that it exposed problems.

One obvious objection to this is that Bohannon’s deceit did not just expose corrupt journals and incautious reporters. It also misinformed the audience who read or saw the stories. To be fair, the harm would certainly be fairly minimal—at worst, people who believed the story would consume dark chocolate and this is not exactly a health hazard. However, intentionally spreading such misinformation seems morally problematic—especially since story retractions or corrections tend to get far less attention than the original story.

One way to counter this objection is to draw an analogy to the exposure of flaws by hackers. These hackers reveal vulnerabilities in software with the stated intent of forcing companies to address the vulnerabilities. Exposing such vulnerabilities can do some harm by informing the bad guys, but the usual argument is that this is outweighed by the good done when the vulnerability is fixed.

While this does have some appeal, there is the concern that the harm done might not outweigh the good done. In Bohannon’s case it could be argued that he has done more harm than good. After all, it is already well-established that the “pay to publish” journals are corrupt, that there are incautious journalists and credulous consumers. As such, Bohannon has not exposed anything new—he has merely added more misinformation to the pile.

It could be countered that although these problems are well known, it does help to continue to bring them to the attention of the public. Going back to the analogy of software vulnerabilities, it could be argued that if a vulnerability is exposed, but nothing is done to patch it, then the problem should be brought up until it is fixed, “for it is the doom of men that they forget.” Bohannon has certainly brought these problems into the spotlight and this might do more good than harm. If so, then this con would be morally acceptable—at least on utilitarian grounds.

 

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Mistakes

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 22, 2015

If you have made a mistake, do not be afraid of admitting the fact and amending your ways.

-Confucius

 

I never make the same mistake twice. Unfortunately, there are an infinite number of mistakes. So, I keep making new ones. Fortunately, philosophy is rather helpful in minimizing the impact of mistakes and learning that crucial aspect of wisdom: not committing the same error over and over.

One key aspect to avoiding the repetition of errors is skill in critical thinking. While critical thinking has become something of a buzz-word bloated fad, the core of it remains as important as ever. The core is, of course, the methods of rationally deciding whether a claim should be accepted as true, rejected as false or if judgment regarding that claim should be suspended. Learning the basic mechanisms of critical thinking (which include argument assessment, fallacy recognition, credibility evaluation, and causal reasoning) is relatively easy—reading through the readily available quality texts on such matters will provide the basic tools. But, as with carpentry or plumbing, merely having a well-stocked tool kit is not enough. A person must also have the knowledge of when to use a tool and the skill with which to use it properly. Gaining knowledge and skill is usually difficult and, at the very least, takes time and practice. This is why people who merely grind through a class on critical thinking or flip through a book on fallacies do not suddenly become good at thinking. After all, no one would expect a person to become a skilled carpenter merely by reading a DIY book or watching a few hours of videos on YouTube.

Another key factor in avoiding the repetition of mistakes is the ability to admit that one has made a mistake. There are many “pragmatic” reasons to avoid admitting mistakes. Public admission to a mistake can result in liability, criticism, damage to one’s reputation and other such harms. While we have sayings that promise praise for those who admit error, the usual practice is to punish such admissions—and people are often quick to learn from such punishments. While admitting the error only to yourself will avoid the public consequences, people are often reluctant to do this. After all, such an admission can damage a person’s pride and self-image. Denying error and blaming others is usually easier on the ego.

The obvious problem with refusing to admit to errors is that this will tend to keep a person from learning from her mistakes. If a person recognizes an error, she can try to figure out why she made that mistake and consider ways to avoid making the same sort of error in the future. While new errors are inevitable, repeating the same errors over and over due to a willful ignorance is either stupidity or madness. There is also the ethical aspect of the matter—being accountable for one’s actions is a key part of being a moral agent. Saying “mistakes were made” is a denial of agency—to cast oneself as an object swept along by the river of fare rather than an agent rowing upon the river of life.

In many cases, a person cannot avoid the consequences of his mistakes. Those that strike, perhaps literally, like a pile of bricks, are difficult to ignore. Feeling the impact of these errors, a person might be forced to learn—or be brought to ruin. The classic example is the hot stove—a person learns from one touch because the lesson is so clear and painful. However, more complicated matters, such as a failed relationship, allow a person room to deny his errors.

If the negative consequences of his mistakes fall entirely on others and he is never called to task for these mistakes, a person can keep on making the same mistakes over and over. After all, he does not even get the teaching sting of pain trying to drive the lesson home. One good example of this is the political pundit—pundits can be endlessly wrong and still keep on expressing their “expert” opinions in the media. Another good example of this is in politics. Some of the people who brought us the Iraq war are part of Jeb Bush’s presidential team. Jeb, infamously, recently said that he would have gone to war in Iraq even knowing what he knows now. While he endeavored to awkwardly walk that back, it might be suspected that his initial answer was the honest one. Political parties can also embrace “solutions” that have never worked and relentless apply them whenever they get into power—other people suffer the consequences while the politicians generally do not directly reap consequences from bad policies. They do, however, routinely get in trouble for mistakes in their personal lives (such as affairs) that have no real consequences outside of this private sphere.

While admitting to an error is an important first step, it is not the end of the process. After all, merely admitting I made a mistake will not do much to help me avoid that mistake in the future. What is needed is an honest examination of the mistake—why and how it occurred. This needs to be followed by an honest consideration of what can be changed to avoid that mistake in the future. For example, a person might realize that his relationships ended badly because he made the mistake of rushing into a relationship too quickly—getting seriously involved without actually developing a real friendship.

To steal from Aristotle, merely knowing the cause of the error and how to avoid it in the future is not enough. A person must have the will and ability to act on that knowledge and this requires the development of character. Fortunately, Aristotle presented a clear guide to developing such character in his Nicomachean Ethics. Put rather simply, a person must do what it is she wishes to be and stick with this until it becomes a matter of habit (and thus character). That is, a person must, as Aristotle argued, become a philosopher. Or be ruled by another who can compel correct behavior, such as the state.

 

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College & Critical Thinking

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 29, 2013
Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the ever increasing cost of college education there is ever more reason to consider whether or not college is worth it. While much of this assessment can be in terms of income, there is also the academic question  of whether or not students actually benefit intellectually from college.

The 2011 study Academically Adrift showed that a significant percentage of students received little or no benefit from college, which is obviously a matter of considerable concern. Not surprisingly, there have been additional studies aimed at assessing this matter. Of special concern to me is the claim that a new study shows that students do improve in critical thinking skills. While this study can be questioned, I will attest to the fact that the weight of evidence shows that American college students are generally weak at critical thinking. This is hardly shocking given that most people are weak at critical thinking.

My university, like so many others, has engaged in a concerted effort to enhance the critical thinking skills of students. However, there are reasonable concerns regarding the methodology used in such attempts. There is also the concern as to whether or not it is even possible, in practical terms, to significantly enhance the critical thinking skills of college students over the span of the two or four (or more) degree.  While I am something of an expert at critical thinking (I mean actual critical thinking, not the stuff that sprung up so people could profit from being “critical thinking” experts), my optimism in this matter is somewhat weak. This is because I have given due consideration to the practical problem of this matter and have been teaching this subject for over two decades.

As with any form of education, it is wise to begin by considering the general qualities of human beings. For example, if humans are naturally good, then teaching virtue would be easier. In the case at hand, the question would be whether or not humans (in general) are naturally good at critical thinking.

While Aristotle famously regarded humans as rational animals, he also noted that most people are not swayed by arguments or fine ideals. Rather, they are dominated by their emotions and must be ruled by pain. While I will not comment on ruling with pain, I will note that Aristotle’s view about human rationality has been borne out by experience. To fast forward to now, experts speak of the various cognitive biases and emotional factors that impede human rationality. This matches my own experience and I am confident that it matches that of others. To misquote Lincoln, some people are irrational all the time and all the people are irrational some of the time. As such, trying to transform people into competent  critical thinkers will generally be very difficult, perhaps as hard as making people virtuous.

In addition to the biological foundation, there is also the matter of preparation. For most students, their first exposure to a substantial course or even coverage of critical thinking occurs in college. It seems unlikely that students who have gone almost two decades without proper training in critical thinking will be significantly altered by college. One obvious solution, taken from Aristotle, is to begin proper training in critical thinking at an early age.

Another matter of serious concern is the fact that students are exposed to influences that discourage critical thinking and actually provide irrational influences. One example of this is the domain of politics. Political discourse tends to be, at best rhetoric, and typically involves the use of a wide range of fallacies such as the straw man, scare tactics and ad hominems of all varieties. For those who are ill-prepared in critical thinking, exposure to these influences can have a very detrimental effect and they can be led far away from reason. I would call for politicians to cease this behavior, but they seem devoted to the tools of irrationality. There is a certain irony in politicians who exploit and encourage poor reasoning being among those lamenting the weak critical thinking skills of students and endeavoring to blame colleges for the problems they themselves have helped create.

Another example of this is the domain of entertainment. As Plato argued in the Republic,  exposure to corrupting influences can corrupt. While the usual arguments about corruption from entertainment  focus on violence and sexuality, it is also important to consider the impact of certain amusements upon the reasoning skills of students.  Television, which has long been said to “rot the brain”, certainly seems to shovel forth fare that is hardly contributing to good reasoning. While I would not suggest censorship, I would encourage students to discriminate and steer clear of shows that seem likely to have a corrosive impact on reasoning. While it might be an overstatement to claim that entertainment can corrode reason, it does seem sensible to note that much of it contributes nothing positive to a person’s mind.

A third example of this is advertising. As with politics, advertising is the domain of persuasion. While good reasoning can persuade, it is (for most people) the weakest tool of persuasion. As such, advertisers flood us with ads employing what they regard as effective tools of persuasion. These typically involve various rhetorical devices and also the use of fallacies. Sadly, the bad logic of fallacies is generally far more persuasive than good reasoning. Students are generally exposed to significant amounts of advertising (they no doubt spend more time exposed to ads than critical thinking) and it makes sense that this exposure would impact them in detrimental ways, at least if they are not already equipped to properly assess such ads with critical thinking skills.

A final example is, of course, everyday life. Students will typically be exposed to significant amounts of poor reasoning and this will have a significant influence on them. Students will also learn what the politicians and advertisers know: the tools of irrational persuasion will serve them better in our society than the tools of reason.

Given these anti-critical thinking influences, it is something of a wonder that students develop any critical thinking skills.

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Are Facts Dead?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on June 22, 2012
Ideology Icon

Ideology Icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Misrepresenting facts and actually lying have long been a part of politics. However, it has been claimed that this is the year facts died. The death blow, at least according to some, was April 18, 2012. On this day Representative Allen West of my state of Florida claimed that about 80 congressional democrats are members of the Communist Party. A little fact checking revealed that this is not the case. Interestingly enough, West decided to stand by his remarks rather than yield to the truth. While this might seem odd, West’s approach was probably the best policy politically.

In some cases, the abuse of facts is more subtle. For example, Obama has been attacked on the grounds that the average economic worth of the middle class in the United States plummeted on his watch. While this is truth-like, it does leave out some key information, namely that the plummet was well underway when Obama took office. To use an analogy, it would be like blaming a new pilot who took the stick halfway through a nose dive for that nose dive. Sure, he is at the stick and the plane was in a nose dive—but he did not put it there. As might be imagined, this approach of making truth-like claims is not limited to the right. For example, Romney is being bashed for the Massachusetts’ seemingly bad job creation numbers while he was governor. However, Romney’s situation was very much like Obama’s: he took the stick after someone else put the plane in a dive. Given that the situations are comparable, both men should be able to avail themselves of the same defense. Also, it is tempting to think that getting the relevant facts would defuse these attacks. That is, one might want to think that people would regard both attacks as flawed and essentially unfounded and this would be the ends of these attacks. But, one does not always get what one wants.

While this might come as something of a shock, people are often not very rational—especially when it comes to politics. While both of these attacks have been addressed in detail subject to rational examination, this did not spell their end. In fact, it has been found that when people get information that corrects a false claim, they will be even more likely to believe the false claim (provided that they claim matches their views).  For example, if Republicans and Democrats read an article that claims that one of Obama’s policies had a significant positive effect and then learn that the initial article was in error, the Democrats would  be more inclined to believe the original article despite the fact that it had been shown to be in error. The Republicans would be more inclined to reject the original article. In short, it seems that corrective information is generally only accepted when it corrects in a way favorable to a person’s ideology.  This has the rather unfortunate effect that correcting an error in an ideological context will only correct the error in the minds of those who already want to believe it is an error and will generally not change the mind of those who want to believe.

In addition to the obvious problem, this tendency also means that people who are wrong (intentionally or unintentionally) generally will not suffer any damage to their credibility among their own faction, provided that their errors match the ideology of said faction. As such, the consequences of saying things that are not true seem to be generally positive—at least from a pragmatic standpoint. After all, if the claim matches the proper ideology and is not called out, then it will be accepted. If it is called out and shown to be in error, the criticism will generally serve to incline those who agree with the claim to still believe it. As such, presenting an ideologically “correct” falsehood (which need not be a lie) seems to be generally a win-win situation.

Since I teach critical thinking, this rather worries me. After all, I devote considerable energy to trying to teach people that they should base their beliefs on evidence and rational argumentation rather than on whatever matches their ideology.  One stock response to my concern is that people are this way “by nature” and hence there is little point in trying to teach people to be critical thinkers. Trying to overcome this tendency and solve the problem of ideological irrationality would be as futile as trying to solve the problem of teen pregnancy by trying to teach abstinence (after all, people are fornicators by nature).

On my bad days, I tend to almost agree. After all, I have repeatedly seen people who are capable of being rational in non-ideological areas show that they lose this capacity when it comes to ideology. However, this is not true of everyone. After all, there are clearly and obviously people who can do a reasonably good job of objective analysis. While some of this might be disposition, much of it is clearly due to training. While everyone might not be trainable, most people could be trained to be critical thinkers. To use an analogy, just as natural tendencies can be overcome by other forms of training (such as military training), this allegedly natural tendency to just go with one’s ideology can also be overcome. I know this because I have seen it happen.

Of course, there is also an artificial barrier. Folks in politics and other areas benefit greatly from being able to (consciously or not) manipulate the poor thinking skills and emotional vulnerabilities of people. As such, they have a vested interest in learning techniques to do this and to ensure that people are left as defenseless as possible. As such, while critical thinking skills are in demand, the education system is actually largely designed to not create such skills. One rather glaring example is that the most basic critical thinking classes are generally taught in college and not earlier. While some educators wonder why students do so badly at critical thinking, this is obviously part of the answer. Imagine what the math skills of students would be like if they took their first actual math class as a college freshman. While it might be countered that critical thinking is too hard for kids, this is clearly not true—the basics could be taught as soon as kids were being taught the basics of math and probably even earlier. In short, I would say that much of what is attributed to human nature is actually the result of education—or the lack thereof.

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Photos and Memories

Posted in Aesthetics, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 17, 2011
The Polaroid Corporation logo.

Image via Wikipedia

A short while before she was heading to Orlando, my girlfriend asked me to scan the photos in her old photo album and in a box. No doubt worn out after a week of preparing to move and dealing with her ongoing dissertation study, she said that she was tired of carting the photos about and wanted to toss them after I had scanned them.

While this might not seem like a matter fit for philosophy, it did get me thinking about the exploitation of male labor by the female oppressors. I mean, it got me thinking about the preservation of photos and whether there would be any meaningful difference between the original photos (which are pre-digital) and the digital copies.

The easy and obvious answer would seem to be that there would be no meaningful difference. After all, a photo is just an image and the scanning would duplicate that image. In fact, the scan would be better than the original. Not only could the scanned image be backed up against loss and printed as needed, it could also be color corrected and otherwise improved relative to the original. Also, a photo created from a negative is already a copy (of sorts) and hence any concern about one being an original and one being a copy can apparently be set aside. That said, it would seem to be worth looking a little deeper.

Before looking a bit deeper, I believe I am obligated to present a possible biasing factor. Being a person of moderate age, I grew up long before digital cameras and have a certain nostalgic attachment to physical photos. However, I do not even own a film camera anymore and have been doing digital photography since the late 1990s. As such, I think that I can restrain my bias and look at the matter with some objectivity. Or perhaps not-the ways of one’s youth can be hard to shake.

While an non-digital photograph is but an image of an event that was most likely created from a negative (with the obvious exception of the Polaroid), it can be argued that a photograph can become an artifact of memory, history or nostalgia. This, perhaps, makes it more than just a mere surface image that can be copied by scanning. Rather, it is an item that is imbued in a way that makes its physical composition an important part of what it is. Since this component cannot be replicated by scanning, to scan a photo and discard it would be more than merely discarding a redundant image, but throwing away a vessel of memory, a vehicle of history, a bearer of nostalgia.

To use an obvious analogy, imagine if someone wanted to scan historical documents and throw away the originals to save space and weight. While the images would be preserved, a significant part of the history would be lost. To use another obvious analogy, consider the distinction between an  historical item, such as a coin or sword, and a modern replica. While the replica might look exactly like the original (and might even be “better”), it would seem to be lacking in important ways.

Of course, it can be argued that while historical artifacts have a value in terms of historical research, the main value of old items comes from the fact that we value them. Take, for example, a fading childhood photo. While it has numerous objective qualities, these do not include those that make it a vessel of memory, a bearer of nostalgia or a possessor of sentimental value. These qualities do not exist in the object. Rather, they are a relational property between the person and the object: a photo has sentimental value because I value it. Perhaps they are not even that-after all, a person could certainly be duped into thinking that a photo is the original one, even though it was replaced with a new print modified to look old. Perhaps someone damaged the photo and wanted to replace it without the person knowing-perhaps as a perceived kindness or to avoid the fruits of anger. The person would feel that sentiment, but would, of course, be in error. It would be like a person thinking she was seeing the person she loves, but was actually seeing his twin. Until she became aware of her error, she would feel that love. Likewise, a person would feel the same way about the photo, at least until she was aware it was not the original.

Or perhaps she would still feel the same way. After all, perhaps it is the case that the value attached to the image is based on the image rather than the object. So, for example, a scanned copy of an old photograph would create the same feelings and stand in the same relationships as the original in terms of the value placed upon it. If so, then being rid of the old photos would be no loss at all.

In my own case, my emotional view is that it would make a difference. While the image is an important aspect of the photo, the physical photo also has a value as an object connected to the past. Of course, this feeling is just a feeling and could merely be the result of my pre-digital youth. I also feel the same way about hand written letters, but that perhaps says more about my age than about the world.

 

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Bachmann

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on August 12, 2011
Official photo of Congresswoman Michele Bachma...

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Having been delayed by start of the semester preparations, I only just got around to seeing the cover of Newsweek. I had heard about the Bachmann controversy, but hearing about it and seeing the horrible cover in person are two different things.

The intentional use of unflattering images is, of course nothing new. Using such an image is a standard rhetorical device and can be somewhat effective in slanting the audience’s perspective. As with all rhetorical devices, a critical thinker will be on guard against it and (hopefully) see through the rhetoric so as to determine if anything substantive lies behind it. To use this specific example, one way to approach this cover is as follows: “wow, what a horrible picture of Bachmann. Newsweek claims she is the queen of rage, but do they provide any actual evidence for this claim? Also, is that something that should worry me?”

In addition to the critical thinking aspect, there is also the ethical aspect regard such images. Such photos are easy enough to find-after all, no matter how attractive or intelligent a person might be, there is always some angle, lighting or momentary expression that will enable a really awful photo. Of course, better photos are also easy to find and, as most folks know, a professional photographer can make almost anyone look good (or at least okay).

As such, there is typically a choice to be made when it comes to images: a good one, a bad one, and so on. In some cases, a bad image can be justified. Obviously, if that is the only available photo, then it would thus be generally acceptable to use it. It can also be justified in cases when the image is relevant to the story. For example, if someone is arrested a photo of that event, even if the person looks awful, would seem to be acceptable. After all, a photo of someone being arrested seems perfectly appropriate for a story about the person being arrested. However, neither of these apply to the Bachmann photo. First, there are plenty of good photos of her that could have been used. Second, while a picture of her being angry could be relevant, the photo selected does not show rage. It is a bad photo that makes her seem, well, dull and a bit confused. About the only thing that can be said in Newsweek’s favor is at least they did not modify the image to make it appear worse (like what Time did to OJ Simpson).

As sort of a variant on the philosophical principle of charity, news publications should follow a principle of image charity: unless there is an adequate justification for a bad image, then at least a neutral one should be used. As such, Newsweek acted incorrectly in using this image.

Another possibility worth considering is that a bad image is used because the person selecting the image is lacking in aesthetic judgment. That is, they do not realize that they have picked a crappy picture. This does happen. Years ago when I tried my hand at Match.com I noticed that many women would have some very good photos and also some truly horrible photos that made them look awful. While I could be wrong, I infer that they did not realize that the photos were bad-if they did, they would not have used them.

Of course, the folks at Newsweek cannot seriously claim that they are incompetent when it comes to picking photos. Surely they were quite aware of the nature of the image and went with it anyway. The most plausible explanation is that it was intended (as noted above) a rhetorical shot at Bachmann to make her look bad. While this sort of thing is what can be expected in campaign ads, it is not what should be done by a publication that purports to be an objective purveyor of the news or a provider of objective and fair analysis.

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Online Reviews

Posted in Business, Epistemology, Reasoning/Logic, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on May 30, 2011
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Like all sensible people, I hate to waste money. So, when I plan on buying something, I like to ensure that I am making a good choice. Looked at philosophically, this is both a value problem (what is best?”)and an epistemic problem (“how do I know?”)  Conveniently many online stores, most famously Amazon, have customer reviews online.  However, as you yourself have probably noticed, these reviews are often not as useful as they might seem.

The first you will see of the typical online review system is stars (or whatever). On the face of it, this might seem to provide a useful assessment of the product. However, it is simply an average (maybe) of all the rankings. As such, it is only as good as the individual rankings. From a critical thinking standpoint, the ranking system is a survey and hence can be assessed by the standards of an inductive generalization.

One obvious problem with the ranking system is that it is based on a biased sample. People who take the time to write a review (or just click stars) will tend to include a disproportionate number of people who have had very good or very bad experiences. This is borne out by the fact that many products have numerous 5 star and 1 star rankings. As such, the stars should be read with due caution.

A second concern is that the rankings are often based on small samples. For example, my own 42 Fallacies on Amazon currently has a 5 star ranking based on one person. While I do agree with the ranking (oh, if only there were six stars), assessing a product on the basis of a small number of reviews would be risky. Of course, even a large sample will still suffer from a bias problem.

A third concern is that people game the system. Since the review processes tend to be rather lacking in regulation and verification, it is very easy for people to load in fake positive or negative reviews. Like plagiarized papers, these are often very easy to spot. If, for example, the “review” reads like company PR, then it is probably a ringer. If, as another example, the review is incredibly negative but praises a competing product at great length, then it is probably someone acting on behalf of that competitor. However, some “hired guns” are probably clever enough to load in reviews while concealing their true nature.

Since the stars are generally not entirely trustworthy, it is natural to turn to the specific reviews.

In some cases, these reviews can be useful. Not surprisingly, assessing reviews is an exercise in critical thinking. As a general rule, I look for reviews that seem to be balanced in assessing the product and note the weaknesses as well as the strengths.  While this does not guarantee that the review is honest, it tends to be a good indicator of a lack of bias. I also look for consistency across the reviews. For example, if reviews for a laptop consistently mention that the screen is not very good, then that serves as some evidence that this is true of the laptop (or that a hired gun has been busy cranking out reviews). Some companies, such as Amazon, link reviewers to their reviews and this can be useful for getting a better picture of the reviewer’s credibility and expertise. For example, if a reviewer has reviewed numerous books in an area and always takes a measured approach in her reviews, then this increases the credibility of her reviews.

Another factor to look for is the time factor. Many reviewers review the product as soon as they get it, which can (in some cases) be a problem. For example, a review of an Android tablet written right after the person opens the box and fires it up will not tell  you much about its actual battery life or ease of use in various tasks. Some reviewers post updates to their reviews, which can be useful.

While five star reviews should be greeted with a critical review, one star reviews often demand special attention. In some cases, of course, the rating is deserved. However, one star reviews are sometimes inflicted unfairly. First, as mentioned above, people try to game the system. Second, the review might be based on an unusual experience with the product that would generally not be a factor for most users. For example, a certain percentage of electronic devices arrive with problems (such as a defective battery) and this should be taken into account when reading a review that gives a product one star for a failed battery. Naturally, if the same problem appears over and over again in reviews, then that makes it a point of concern. Third, one star reviews are sometimes due to a reviewer not using the product properly or not understanding the product. For example, I have seen reviews attacking a product for not doing something that it was never intended to do. Fourth, some one star reviews are criticisms not of the product but of something else, such as the shipping time or the seller. While these can be relevant factors in buying a product from a specific seller, they really are not relevant to assessing the product. A fifth point of concern is that one star ratings are sometimes used in retaliation.

Naturally, you cannot go wrong buying my books. 🙂

 

 

 

 

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Defending the Arts & Sciences

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on March 4, 2011
Bertrand Russell

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A week ago I received a call informing my of an emergency. In the light of budget woes, the Board of Governors intends to restructure the university. As with corporations, this restructuring seems to be aimed at eliminating certain programs and various programs ranging from Biology to Social Work have been called on to justify their existence. An emergency meeting was called for Monday of this week and we had until noon to prepare our responses .

Since the budget woes are widespread and education is always a prime target (politicians pay and largess for corporations and buddies of politicians are never at risk) I thought I would share my defense with other folks who might be in similar straits.

The main attack against us is based on a quantitative analysis based primarily on the number of majors graduated, the number of students who take the classes in a program and the money brought in via other means. Naturally, the quantitative analysis is based on a set of qualitative assumptions about what should count and how much it should count relative to other factors.

My general suggestion was a six part defense for the arts and sciences programs that attempts to respond to the quantitative challenge.

First, many programs in the arts & sciences tend to be rather low cost. To use some specific examples, English, Philosophy, Religion, and History have no need for laboratories or special equipment and this makes them rather inexpensive to operate. As such, they tend to be “budget” programs.

Second, eliminating a major in the arts & sciences typically will result in no monetary savings. Most of the programs, such as English and Philosophy & Religion, provide classes that are graduation requirements in the general curriculum or in specific programs. Since there are no special fees that must be paid to keep a major “on the books”, eliminating a major that contains such essential classes deprives students of options while yielding no financial savings.

Third, the new global economy requires that American students learn how to understand other cultures and diverse view points. It also requires that American students develop critical thinking skills. The arts & sciences provide critical thinking skills and the knowledge needed to understand specific value sets. As such, the arts & sciences will be critical for American success in the new economy. Eliminating programs might seem to yield short term benefits but the long term consequences would seem to be negative.

Fourth, while certain programs in the arts & sciences tend to have relatively few majors, the number of majors should also be considered in the context of the proportion of such majors needed by society as a whole. To use an analogy, quarterbacks make up a rather small number of the people on a football team. However, it would make no sense to eliminate quarterbacks so as to save money. After all, while they are few in number they are still rather important to the team. So, for example, while philosophy produces few majors, there is a relatively small need for professional philosophers. This need is, however, legitimate. At the very least someone has to teach all those critical thinking and ethics courses that people will need.

Fifth the arts & sciences also provide key classes that have value beyond mere numbers and money. One such value is the cultural value provided by the arts. Another is the value of scientific inquiry and training. A third is the value of having a truly liberal education. While the notion of such non-numerical values has considerable appeal to folks in the arts & sciences (which is usually why we are in these fields), they might carry little weight with the folks who are mostly concerned about dollars in and dollars out.

One of the most moving defenses of education was given by James Stockdale:

“Generally speaking, I think education is a tremendous defense; the broader, the better. After I was shot down, my wife, Sybil, found a clipping glued in front of my collegiate dictionary: “Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity.” She certainly agrees with me on that. Most of us prisoners found that the so-called practical academic exercises in how to do things, which I’m told are proliferating, were useless. I’m not saying that we should base education on training people to be in prison, but I am saying that in stress situations, the fundamentals, the hardcore classical subjects are what serve best.”(Stockdale, J.B., The World Of Epictetus, The Atlantic Monthly, 1978)

In addition to my general response, I also formulated specific responses to the five questions we were asked to address. I have included these as well:

1. Provide summary information on any concerns or issues within your program that may not be addressed by quantitative data.

One concern is that quantitative data fails to take into account contributions that are not readily quantified.

First, graduates of the philosophy and religion program have gone on to become significant figures in academics. To use but two examples, Dr. Tommie Shelby is a professor of African and African American Studies and of Philosophy at Harvard University and Dr. Darryl Scriven is a professor of philosophy at Tuskegee University.

Second, the program is directly relevant to three of the learning outcomes: critical thinking, ethical values and cultural diversity.

Third, philosophy has been at the heart of academics since the beginning of academics at Plato’s Academy.

Fourth, philosophy and religion are essential components of a liberal arts education. The value of these contributions has been argued by such thinkers as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Bertrand Russell.

A second concern is that the program reviews have consistently noted that the program would require additional resources (including more faculty) in order to increase productivity. As such, the current productivity could be regarded as being in accord with the allocated resources. The program seems to be producing majors at a rate comparable to other programs which operate with similar resources (number of faculty, etc.).

A third concern is that in addition to simply looking at the overall number of majors it is also important to consider the proportionate, but legitimate, need in society as a whole. To use an analogy, to only assess on the basis of overall numbers would be on par with being critical of a soccer team’s resources being spent to train goalies because the team only has one on the field at a time. While society does not need a multitude of philosophy and religion majors, there does seem to be a legitimate need for the program to exist so as to produce those that are, in fact, needed.

A fourth concern is that the philosophy and religion majors are very flexible and open programs relative to the requirements of other majors. This makes the major very useful for students seeking to graduate. Roughly put, the flexibility of the major allows it to serve as a safety net that has often caught students and enabled them to graduate in a timelier manner (or graduate at all).

A final concern worth noting is that eliminating the philosophy and religion major would not result in any savings. Assuming there is no special cost involved in keeping majors available to students, eliminating the philosophy and religion majors would save no money. If the faculty positions were eliminated, this would merely result in the need to hire replacement faculty to teach the humanities courses that students need as part of the General Education requirements as well as for the specific classes that many other majors require (such as Aesthetics,  Introduction to Philosophy and Logic). Overall, I would contend that the volume of service classes provided to the university offsets any concerns about the relatively low number of majors produced.

2.  How do you see your department and its program(s) contributing to the realization of the University’s strategic vision? (consult the University Strategic Plan at  http://www.famu.edu/OfficeofInstitutionalEffectiveness/UserFiles/File/Strategic_Plan_2010_2020_Approved.pdf)

In light of the economic, political and social changes in the 21st century it is evident that students will more than ever need critical thinking skills, an understanding of ethical values, the ability to understand other cultures and a comprehension of the religions of the world.

The philosophy and religion program faculty endeavor to provide the students with the tools and knowledge they will need to compete and thrive both on campus and in the diverse world beyond.

The faculty will make use of the latest available technology as part of the learning process, making full use of the new smart classrooms as well as web technology such as downloadable lectures and videos of class material. While philosophy and religion classes are traditionally regarded as being discussion based, many of the classes would actually be ideal for being offered as online classes.

In addition, the faculty contribute to the general mission of recruiting and retaining students, enhancing the academic program and improving graduation rates.  As noted above, the flexible and open requirements for the major provide an effective means of providing graduation options to students.

Special emphasis is also being placed on low (or no) cost means of recruiting students using online means including establishing an online presence for the department via such means as blogs and social networking.

3. List any existing or expected interdisciplinary or inter-university activities in which your program is engaged.

Currently the program is working with Dr. Will Guzmán in developing the African American Studies Minor in History & African American Studies.

4. What disciplinary, national or international trends do you anticipate that may impact your program, and what impact may they have?

First, as the current QEP indicates, the concern about critical thinking is certain to be an ongoing trend. Given that critical thinking belongs within the domain of philosophy and that the classes in the program generally contain strong critical thinking components there should be an ever-increasing need for classes within the program. Of course, critical thinking is not something germane only to philosophy; considering the plethora of religious/spiritual beliefs in the world one has to be critically engaged to determine what is wheat and what is chaff. As such, the study of critical thinking in general and its specific applications will be of ever increasing importance to students and hence in demand.

Second, given the fact that ethics is a branch of philosophy and the ongoing need for education in ethics (as the recent financial meltdown, which was largely a moral failure, indicates) there will be an ever increasing need for classes and other programs relating to ethical values and ethical reasoning.

Third, religion shows no sign of decreasing as an important factor in national and world events. As such, it can be expected that the study of religion will continue to be rather important in preparing students for their careers and life after college.

Fourth, the new economy will be ever more international in character and will require students capable of understanding other points of view and this includes various faiths. As such, there will be a critical need for training in philosophy and religion.

Fifth, there is role of technology in education as well as a subject of education. As noted above, faculty make extensive use of this technology and incorporate it into their classes.  There are currently plans to develop online classes when the resources are available to do so. Additionally, faculty as also involved in the shift from the traditional academic avenues to the online world. For example, a faculty member is a contributory to a professional international philosophy blog.

5. How will your program contribute to generating revenue for the University?  Please be specific.

First, the primary way the program contributes to generating revenue for the University is via providing courses that are consistently at or (more commonly) over their University set caps. For example, an Introduction to Philosophy class (taught by a single professor) typically has 60+ students. Presumably this contributes to the University’s revenue stream. Since the program requires no special expenditures for laboratories, equipment, non-teaching supplies and so on, the program is also not consuming revenue beyond the cost of salaries and the cost of the classroom facilities.

Second, the program can, like other programs, seek to acquire grant money and other outside sources of funding that can either offset University expenditures or provide direct revenue for the University. Unfortunately, support for philosophy and religion from outside sources tends to be rather limited. In addition, the four courses per semester teaching load tends to impede the ability of faculty to develop grants and create  alternative revenue generating projects.

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The 3/4 Class

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on November 28, 2010

As a professor I face various challenges in designing my classes. While some of these challenges are obvious (like selecting just enough material to cover), others are less so. One of the less obvious challenges I face is designing a class that maximizes education while minimizing my problems.

While I have fewer problems to deal with than K-12 teachers, I still face various problems. At this time of year (1 week before finals), the problems revolve around students who are doing poorly but have only come to realize (or accept) this. In some cases, students are just now picking up tests and papers from weeks or months ago. As I write this, I still have papers and tests that still have not been picked up. While most of them are passing or better, I do have some that are not-and some students who probably are unaware that they are not passing. While I do make the grades available online (securely), some students do not learn of that until the end of the semester, when they hear other students talking about it.

As far as the specific problems, the main ones are students who ask about extra credit (= points for nothing), students who ask about doing more work, students who want an incomplete, and students who want to be passed simply because they need to graduate/keep a scholarship or avoid parental wrath.

Naturally, requests for points for nothing or for passing grades because of a need to graduate or whatever, are easy to handle. I just offer a “no” and my sympathy, plus some advice about how to pass (if it is possible) or how to retake the class.

Incomplete requests are handled on a case by case basis. In most cases, students ask for them because they are failing. However, incompletes are intended for students who were passing but could not finish the semester due to some dire event (like major illness or military service).

As far as more work goes, my usual reply is that I would need to offer the same deal to all the students. I go on to note that is just what I do: my classes have a lot of work-4 tests, 15+ quizzes and 25+ assignments in Critical Thinking (as an example).  Also, if someone has been consistently doing poorly on the work, getting more work would probably not change that.

But, getting back to the design of my classes, I have also tried to counter/solve some of these problems with my 3/4 approach (picked mainly for the name rather than mathematical accuracy). The gist of this that I count roughly the best 3/4 of a student’s work. For example, in my Critical Thinking class, the best 3 of 4 tests count, the best 10 of 15+ quizzes count and the best 10 of 25+ assignments count. Each student also gets a small bonus as well to his/her quiz and assignment grades. In classes that have a paper, the paper does count-but it is done in drafts and students have a long time to complete it. Plus, each student gets +5 added to his/her grade on the paper.

When taking this approach, my hope was that it would reduce the problems I (and my students faced). While the students do have to do well consistently to get a good grade (as opposed to classes that have just a midterm and  final), the idea was to provide a “damage buffer” for cases in which students had problems that were serious enough to impact their performance. This way the “buffer” would handle such problems without a need for special problem handling at the end of the semester. Problems of a more dire nature would, of course, not be handled by the buffer-but these would almost certainly either qualify a student for a legitimate incomplete or allow a retroactive withdrawal.

When I was young and naive, I had hoped that this approach would eliminate such problems. After all, it seemed so generous that anyone should be able to get through a class with a modest amount of effort-even if they faced challenges and problems in the semester. Anything worse, I reasoned, would be easily handled by an incomplete or retroactive withdrawal.

Experience revealed what you, the reader, probably already guessed: I was somewhat surprised to find that the impact was far less than I expected. Every semester I still have students with the same problems and the reduction in problems seems rather modest. Of course, it must be noted that most of my students do well-they pass and have no problems. However, I had hoped for more success and wondered  why it had not worked as well as I had hoped.

One hypothesis is that the “damage buffer” is not big enough. That is, even more work must be offered so that the students will be able to do and pass the minimum needed. So, for example, perhaps offering 25 assignments and counting the best 10 is not enough. Perhaps 50 is needed. Of course, I do offer 15+ quizzes and that seems to get the same result as offering 25+ assignments. This suggests that it might be the required number that determines what people do. So, students look at the fact that there are 10 required quizzes and assignments and some just do less than 10, even though 15+ and 25+ are offered. Of course, if I increased the required work to 12 or 15, this would just mean that certain students would do less than 12 or 15. This leads to the next hypothesis.

Another hypothesis is one put forth by a friend of mine. His view is that problem students (his Peters’ Principle is that 20% of the students cause 90% of the problems) will be a problem no matter what a professor does. For example, if a class offers 10 assignments and requires 10, this sort of student will do just 5. If the professor offers 15 and requires 10, the student will still do just 5.  The same sort of hypothesis can be applied to society at large: no matter what you do, problem people will still be problems. You can, at best, reduce the numbers a bit.

While I do suspect that expanding the buffer would marginally reduce the number of such problems, this would create other problems. One problem would be that I would have to do more work-every extra quiz, assignment or test is one I have to create and grade. Another problem is that if the buffer is too large, a student could pass without learning enough of the material, which would undercut the educational value of the course. At this point, I think the buffer is large enough to offer reasonable protection for the students while at the same time being small enough so that the proper academic standards are still met.

As a final point, another reason I designed my classes with a buffer is for my own peace of mind. By offering such a buffer, I can honestly believe that I have given the students a very fair chance at doing well in the class and that a student who fails actually fails himself/herself. True, I could probably have a smaller buffer (or none at all) and still be justified in believing that the students have been given a just and fair chance to pass. However, I like to have a bit of a buffer for  myself.

One of the most dramatic vindications I had of my approach occurred after a final. One student was complaining loudly about his grade and how unfair I was for “failing him.” Another student, who had already earned a solid A,  looked at him and said “You’d have to be a total f@ck up to fail this class. He gives you every chance in the world. If you fail, it’s your own damn fault.”  While I would not word it that way, that is how I design my classes-so that people get what they deserve.

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