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Less Research Is Needed in This Area

Contempt for students is ultimately contempt for your subject.

Goodnesses have been thanked. Sighful reliefs have been heaved. Guardian angels have doubtless been waving away gratitude with modest shakes of their heavenly wings.

Phew. Exam season is over.

Students have a tough time of it—and it’s all my fault. If it’s any consolation to them, their examiners (me, anyway) have spent the last month reading somewhere in the region of a million words. That’s equivalent to two big fat Russian novels. And not just reading, but re-rereading, checking, cross-marking, attending meetings about the marks and, at the end of it—reviewing the whole process for next year.

Well boo-bloody-hoo, you might well think. You chose the profession of academic—this is a big part of it. And you know what? You’d be right. So I think it’s worth comparing two somewhat different attitudes to the exam process and drawing out some themes. And--because it's me--talk about sex at least a bit.

Sometimes, Examined Lives Are Not Worth Much Either

As I marked my last paper I became aware—via the magic of Twitter (I am a new Twit @DrRobertKing !) of the attitudes of a prominent academic--Slavoj Žižek—and his attitudes to pedagogy. I had only previously heard of him as someone Noam Chomsky had taken apart for talking utter nonsense--see below for details.


In the foregoing clip Žižek, this “rock star among academics” was talking about his life and about teaching. The most telling passage comes along at about 7 minutes in when he tells us that his students are boring and stupid and that if they were foolish enough to submit papers to him then they would really be in trouble. Apparently imposing on this great man’s so-called research would result in an automatic failing grade. However, not submitting an essay would earn you an automatic “A”.

Presumably this is because the contribution you will have made to world culture by not taking this intellectual behemoth’s time is much more important than your demonstrating that you have understood what he has been going on about over the past year. I have now read some of what Žižek has been going on about and I’m forced to agree with him.

Writing an essay demonstrating that you have understood Žižek probably would not be helping our composite understanding of the human condition. Save yourself. It’s host of what Dan Dennett calls “deepities” and ideas borrowed from Lacan and Hegel. As we academics don’t say nearly often enough—less research is needed in this area.

Compare and Contrast

Compare and contrast (as exam setters say) the attitude of an equally prominent public intellectual—Steven Pinker. Earlier this year we were treated to a public share of his MCQs. These are the multiple choice questions he sets and marks for first year undergraduates on his psychology course and I recommend having a go at them.

Interactive MCQ Pinker Questions

Think of the care that went in to setting these. They are aimed at making you think about the principles you have been learning throughout that year in a creative and interactive manner. They are fun. They are interesting. They demonstrate that setting first year exams is not beneath the dignity of a world-famous public intellectual.

No-one can pretend that the marking period is the most fun part of the academic job but it’s a large part of where the rubber meets the road. It’s where you find out whether what you have been teaching to the next generation of thinkers has been absorbed and processed. It’s where you might spot misunderstandings, mistakes you have made in your own reasoning, rising stars in the next generation of thinkers, and what non specialists make of your work. And if you can’t see that as part of your job—what do you think you are doing there?

Less Research is Needed in This Area

Wittily and somewhat controversially, Martha Nussbaum made some thought-provoking comparisons with public intellectual work and sex work. A point not often made is that people have thought it demeaning to be paid to think just as often as people have thought it demeaning to be paid for sex. And this has been for very similar reasons—you are meant to do it for love. Nussbaum pulls apart the often class-based assumptions behind these prejudices with humor and insight in her paper which I won’t spoil by giving away too much of here.

An economist friend of mine once pointed out to me that we are lucky enough to do jobs that we love—the money is so that we can live and to give incentive for those marginal aspects—like last thing on a Friday afternoon when you might otherwise go home. None of this is good enough for Žižek. He says to his students “You will get an A if you don't bother me".

I have a suggestion. Let’s take him at his word. Let's none of us "bother" Žižek, or others like him. Ever again.

Update

Well, what a surprise. Žižek has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Worse, in fact. Short of making up data there is no worse academic sin that plagiarism. Apparently he regrets the incident. How was he spotted? Hilariously--because the stolen passages actually made some sort of sense--at least they stood out from Žižek's normal gibberish.

Given that the stolen passages came from a white supremacist rag, and wittered on about Jewish conspiracies, they stood out as being Alex Jones wrong rather than Derrida wrong. In other words, frothing at the brain rather than frothing at the mouth*. 

Plagiarism is cheating, but it's not like cheating at sport. If someone cynically fouls or takes performance enhancing drugs then they care about winning. They just hope to not get caught. Stealing someone else's work is sneaking into the trophy room at night and etching your own name onto the cup. Hoping that no-one notices. And it's beyond pathetic.

 

References

 

Nussbaum, M. C. (1998). “Whether from reason or prejudice”: Taking money for bodily services. The Journal of Legal Studies, 27(S2), 693-723.

* (I pinched this arresting image from the Terry Pratchett Novel Men at Arms. See how this works? Not too difficult to quote sources of inspiration, is it?)

Robert James King, Ph.D., is a lecturer at the School of Applied Psychology, University College Cork, in Ireland.
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