Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Matlock Standard

Came across Clayton Littlejohn's blog, Think Tonk, which has the best byline ever (sorry, TAR ART RAT): In like an or. Out like an and. Littlejohn is a philosopher based in Dallas; the blog has posts with titles like An Argument Against Doxastic Voluntarism, Knowledge in Assertion and Action, and A second thought on the (alleged) opacity of reasons ascriptions. While wandering around Think Tonk, anyway, I discovered the Littlejohn also had a disused blog, The Shabby Pedagogue, with guidance for students, of which this is a sample:

Remember that in writing these papers, your aim is to create reasonable doubt. First, focus on what you think is the strongest argument from some author we've read in class and explain it highlighting what you take to be the author's crucial empirical and ethical assumptions. Second, explain how one might reasonably resist accepting the author's conclusion. In doing this, you might challenge their assumptions. You might also challenge the way in which those assumptions are being used.

When playing defense, you needn't satisfy the 'Matlock standard' (I hope you all have seen Matlock once). Anyway, Matlock, for those who don't know, was a defense attorney who would always defend his clients by discovering the criminal's real identity. This is one dramatic way of defending one's clients, but given the rules of the game, all you have to do is create some reasonable doubt about the guilt of your client. Similarly, in writing these papers, your task is only to create reasonable doubt and you can do this without satisfying the Matlock standard and proving that your view regarding abortion, euthanasia, stem cells, animals, etc... is the right one. In fact, I urge you to refrain from doing that as more likely than not, this will stand in the way of providing a careful discussion of the text. Instead, aim at satisfying the 'Psychoanalytic standard'. You are trying to imagine an audience that has been convinced by the reasoning of the article you are discussing and you want to undo the effects that article has on the reader. To do that, you must convince them that they were taken in by a line of reasoning they shouldn't have been. Telling them that the conclusion they drew was mistaken isn't really going to do much for them, they want to know how they were misled. You are supposed to tell them.

The Shabby Pedagogue: how to write an examination paper on moral philosophy. Here.
(An Argument Against Doxastic Voluntarism, again, is available here.)

5 comments:

Jenny Davidson said...

Interesting--good descriptions... I often feel that it is just as well that teaching and research/thinking have been conventionally paired like this, I think I explain my own hopes and desires about what kind of work I want to do most clearly in my instructions and prohibitions to my students. Too early in the AM for me to think of a main example, but something I often find myself explaining to students when I meet with them about their papers--this is just a minor instance--is why you cannot say in a paper "the young So-and-so." We do not think of ourselves as "the young So-and-so" (or if we do, we should be smacked), we do not think of people we know i.e. our peers or even our elders either in the present tense or in the past as having been "the young So-and-so." It is a lazy phrase that comes with a host of fairly awful assumptions about, oh, middlebrow biography writing and shapes of careers and the patina of the Great Work and how it stops us from thinking about the writer THINKING!

Lee said...

Jenny, I don't get your point at all. What's wrong with comparing the young x to the middle-aged x to the older x to the old x to the dying x unless it's the American fear of ageism? Are you really suggesting that we don't change as we age? Or that we don't age?

(I'll admit quite freely that I'm allergic to professorial prohibitions, likewise editorial ones!)

Jenny Davidson said...

"The young" is a formulation that we use selectively without an awareness of our own principles of selection, and that thoughtlessly invokes an uncritically Romantic idea about geniuses and the shape of careers that seems to me quite at odds with the experience of aging and changing and the life of making art. It is not that I do not think our thoughts and practices change with age, of course they do! And it may make sense in the case of various artists to separate careers into stages (but this itself is quite often a falsifying move). It's the verbal phrasedom of it, the borrowing of a thoughtless formulation as a unit, that's unacceptable to me. "The young Wordsworth"; "the young Mozart"; "the young Kubrick"--you see, we only fall back on these for a certain subset of artists (much less likely to be female for instance--do you find yourself saying "the young Emily Dickinson?" "the young Austen"? For these writers whose ambitions are less ACCESSIBLE to us, it is patently an absurd way of categorizing). It all comes from people like Milton aggressively thinking of the shape of their future careers--but "the young So-and-So" makes teleological assumptions about where someone's career is going, of course we think historically and DO know where the end will be, but I like (let's say) Richard Holmes's biographical practice in his book about Coleridge of really working very hard to think about what WOULD have happened if Coleridge died young. It would be insufferably pretentious of me to think of myself as "the young Davidson," and I therefore also do others the courtesy--especially thinking of how they were once living breathing struggling human makers of things who did NOT after all know that they were going to be anointed Genii--of not falsifying the shape of their lives in that way...

I MUST STOP WRITING LONG BLOG COMMENTS THAT OVERLAP WITH MY TEACHING LIFE! Arghh... I am going to be determinedly frivolous now...

Lee said...

"The young" is a formulation that we use selectively without an awareness of our own principles of selection.

Well, perhaps some of us do. I use it to refer to someone's younger years. Full stop.

Language said...

Jenny, don't take this the wrong way, but I'm sure glad I'm not your student. You are doing what in some quarters is known as "overthinking a plate of beans." I realize you consider it your professional duty, but from the outside it looks both silly and appalling. Sometimes an adjective is just an adjective.