Don’t Assume Students Don’t Read

One day when I was grading reading responses, I thought over half the class didn’t read. We’re near the end of the term, and this seems to be a common assumption among people in instructional roles in universities anyhow. But, to avoid throwing out accusations without sufficient evidence, I acted instead on the assumption that a lot of students just didn’t understand the reading. Turns out my first assumption was wrong, and we in instructional roles need to slow down our assumptions.

The text was Kate Manne’s “Humanism: A Critique”. I think the piece is fantastic. It’s really clear, to me, and Manne’s arguments completely changed my position. In the article, she responds to the popular belief that cruel behavior can be explained by perpetrators dehumanizing their victims. She labels this view “humanism”, and then proceeds to demonstrate that it’s wrong. Dehumanization rarely, if ever, works as an explanation of cruel behavior. But this isn’t what the reading responses said she said. Instead, they said that she was defending humanism. They took a few quotes and examples to defend their reading, but the examples were those she was using to illustrate the humanist position. That is, they took her to be affirming what she was denying.

Here the laziest explanation is that the students just didn’t read. They probably skimmed the first couple of sections to get enough material to put together a response, and then forewent actually reading the piece. This is a pretty easy assumption to make given both of the following:

  1. The popularity of the assumption that students don’t read, and
  2. The common practice of academics of not reading. By this I don’t mean that we never read, but rather that with the amount of stuff we have to be acquainted with, often enough we pay some attention to the introduction and some selected passages, but seriously engaging with an entire text is often reserved for the more important texts to our own projects.

I think 1 is bad. I think 2 isn’t necessarily bad. I have over fifty books on my desk relevant to my work, and there’s no way I’m going to be able to give all of them a complete read. However, there’s a difference between myself and many of my students: I’ve been training for years in how to do that sort of thing! But moreover, I’ve also been training in how to read complex philosophical texts. It is in fact unusual how philosophers will say things we don’t believe, but rather just want to present to then argue against. So from this understanding, I came up with a second hypothesis: they did read, but the text was just not one that they were equipped to understand yet.

Assuming my second hypothesis was correct (though making sure my plan would still work out if the first were correct), I spent the next section with the text on the projector so we could take apart the structure of the piece. Before class, I highlighted the sentences that to me signposted what Manne is doing. We came up with an outline of the paper from reading the introduction, and then worked out how she started and ended each section. But the moment of revelation for me came when I put this quotation on the screen and asked the class what the first thing she’ll do in the body of the text is:

First, I try to convey the flavor of humanist thought in some of its most interesting and fruitful philosophical applications, over the course of section 1. After that, I will clarify the humanist position (in section 2), criticize it (in section 3), present an alternative, “socially situated” model for explaining the humanist’s target explananda (in section 4), and argue that these alternative explanations will often be superior to those offered by the humanist (in section 5, to close).

To me, and to most of my similarly-trained colleagues, this is obviously an outline of the article to come. To the class, figuring out what Manne would do first took a minute or so. This made it suddenly obvious to me that

  1. This is not a move most people are familiar with, and
  2. The form of the paper is also one people are not usually familiar with.

A couple of students even told me, despite my suggestions to borrow the form of the article (present opposition, then present problems with opposition, then present your own alternative), they find it hard to follow or understand. Which makes sense; what other genres use this? If you read a scientific article, almost every sentence will be in agreement with the thesis. If you read a story, unless it’s some stuff that’s hard to get into, the text of the story is what the narrator believes. We don’t often see several pages of examples the author ultimately is seeking to reject.

From this experience, I take two conclusions, one more specific, and one more general:

  1. Don’t so quickly assume students didn’t read. Designing lesson plans around that assumption when its false at best ignores important learning opportunities, and it’s also fundamentally failing to treat students with respect.
  2. Reading complex texts is hard. It’s a skill that has to be developed before it can be performed. Assigning difficult readings without spending any time teaching the class how to do those readings is just setting the class up for failure.

Social studies

Seems like at some level (high school seems ideal, and also some kind of continuing ed) we should have classes that teach people how to navigate various social spheres and institutions.
I can tell a lot of people coming into college are pretty disoriented navigating academia. Plenty of us inside get disoriented with some more public places. How to interact with hospitals, banks, etc. is unintuitive, and especially given the declining social capital, people would be helped a lot by some instruction.

Some Comments on Psychiatry, Re: Marianne Williamson

Marianne Williamson has been getting some attention for her rather obscene claims about healthcare. But I think there’s an important discussion to be had here; inability to pay isn’t the only thing harming people in the current system. I present the following four facts:

1. Most psychiatric disorders don’t have well-understood mechanisms. For most conditions, there are several competing hypotheses, some or all of which may be true or varying degrees of close to true.

2. Most psychiatric medications’ functions are also not super well-understood. They range from “Well, we know this drug does this in the brain, and that seems to help for one or more of these six possible reasons, and probably some reasons we don’t have a framework to understand yet,” to “It works sometimes, we don’t know why.”

3. Generally, psychiatric medications have low success rates and often some bad side effect profiles. Rates in the 10-20% chance of working range are common. It’s pretty much expected that a given patient of, say, depression will just have to try several.

4. We’ve seen pretty clearly from the opiod epidemic that a lot of medical doctors and pharmacists are fine with killing people if it means selling more drugs. There are incentives in place to prescribe as much as possible, and precribe certain drugs over others for non-medical reasons.

I’m not saying that nobody should take psychiatric medicine or that everyone just needs to think more positively. Of course not, that’s absurd. I am saying that political and economic factors make it very plausible that a lot of people are suffering needlessly because of unethical but profittable prescription practices. In fact, that’s definitely the case: again, see the opiod crisis. That it extends to antidepressants, antipsychotics, and benzodiazepines isn’t a big stretch. How little is understood about the underlying mechanisms doesn’t help.

I Won Runner-Up In A Costume Contest As Myself

I’m beyond good and evil
So be careful what you feel
You might identify with the Devil
Find your conscience insincere
Stomp your feet up on the stage
Dance faster than the flames
Bring in the new age
Crash with aesthetic waves
Analyze my words however you fit
The most important line is your life
Someone’s always married to their strife
Every wreck on the ocean floor
Spun out on the side of the road
Do you ever feel you could soar?
From the sky, here’s my show
Lines forged in the sun
Intense pressure is how I fly
Nuclear fusion is so much fun
Burning bright across the sky
What do you feel?
Let my pretty face be your avatar
Take a walk in my mind
Get lost.
Remix. Repeat. Remix. Repeat. Again.
Let’s go again let’s go again let’s go.
It’s all been done. Do it again. Once more.
All-American suicide. Revive.
Sell me your toes. One dollar each. Regrow.
I know you slip. I heard from Dante you
will burn, too. Can you feel the fire burning?
There is a spectre haunting this house and
I wonder who it could be. Maybe that
old ghost of Communism is back. Or is
God back? Maybe a broken family.
Let us begin again. Once more. Again.
I’ll tell you over and over. Again.
One more Pan-European patricide.
Perhaps the whole world will sing, too. Somebody
once told me to ask what I know for sure,
but I was not sure I knew what he asked.
Try all you want to make me understand.
All that you can do is remix the words
I’m not sure you know anyway what you mean.
Sound and fury signifies nothing. But we
make do with what we have and what we are
nothing. Negate the being and remix.
Repent. Reiterate and then repent.
Go collect all the gems and free the slaves.
The nothingness that is me is no thing
that is you is the other is just Hell
so to Hell with the other-people! Leave
me be alone. Forget the meaningless
despair, though. You shake your hips. Please don’t stop.
Hide tragedy. Say never again.
Just once more for our justice so they say,
now never again except now we get
a turn for our revenge. Retribution.
But there’s no crime without a victim so
I guess you’re fine. Recapitulate and
decapitate. Remix the words and you’ll
get something new. Reiterate the moves
and you can have some meaning. But feel the
respect for nothingness.
Now how about some personality?
Does your true self want some personality?
In the best of all possible worlds
where everything is in harmony
And my very concept entailing my world
and myself entailed in everyone else
I seek my preestablished fate
If I’d not stumbled the world’d be worse
and if I’d not fallen much the same
But is the best possible world the best for me
or is my joy contrary to the good’s destiny
While the world could not be any better
my lack of faith demands an impossible world
For some impossible world could be better yet
what kind of god can’t surmount that
What kind of god cannot turn the non-contingent
into the contingent–why does non-contingency
entail necessary falsity
And then why is a better world unchained by agony
necessarily non-being?
This I find so opportune.
So opportune.
Hey man, fuck you, too.
I have six in line to screw.
That’s more than you do.
Now how do I look? Disappointing.
How do I sound? Disappointing.
How about I disappoint you more?
A crash and a dash and a lask and a slash
Burning through all the loves (lives) I’d love to smash
Raise your glasses to all of the ashes
I am better than all of my exes
Put you in front of a fancy dress and you glow
And I don’t need your romance because I only want your adoration
But you taught me how to hate with all of your love
I almost forgot you in this scene; I guess that proves I grow
You know I’m always there whenever you feel low
And I don’t need your faithlessness becaue I found the way within myself
So you can trash my name all you want but it’s stronger than you
Weather’s getting colder and I can’t see you (thought I saw you) in the snow
You come and you go and you cum and you go
And I don’t need your fucking god because I am a fuck-God
But honey, let me tell you, your head’s been fucked enough
And I’ve already got something to show
Your wrists are awfully good at hiding the scars below
And I don’t need your dark ambitions because I already swallowed Hades
And dear, we can only dance in the moonlight until sunrise
Yet I’m pretty sure that’s a line you already know
Is that enough personality?
Is that enough disappointment?
Engine of Destruction, Goddess of Corruption
Power with no handle, burning the brightest candle
Fading to a wraith, in need of a grain of faith
A thousand steps down, a blood-soaked crown
Just disappear, please reappear
One thing led to another, find cover
Prayers for transduction, proclivity for induction
A wreck scene photo-op, encountered a suspected cop
Contortion is a hobby, contusions in the lobby
No desire out, two ways about
Half-empty boxes, devillish foxes
Contrived synthesis, actually (co)incidence
Complete deconstruction, mystical production
Self-laceration, ethanol intoxication, anaerobic metabolization
Hypertense salination, just anything will do for this fixation
Another bout of inhibition, aid via inebriation
A deeper form of auto-asphyxiation
followed by disappointing auto-defenstration
Abstraction escaping concretization
No reverence for life’s station
Liberty enacted radically usurping destination
Broken intonation for a melancholy audiation
Visualization of nothing beyond imagination
Barred depression, anxiety, no coming to realization
Depths of disenchantment leave no space for persuasion
Cyclically revolving diurnal and nocturnal peregrination
Evisceration of fantastical illusory forthcoming salvation
Coming to idealize only inevitable nihilation
Analyze my words however you fit
The most important line is your life

Opening Lines

I’m beyond good and evil
So be careful what you feel
You might identify with the Devil
Find your conscience insincere

Stomp your feet up on the stage
Dance faster than the flames
Bring in the new age
Crash with aesthetic waves

Analyze my words however you’ll fit
The most important line is your life
I love the light too much to quit
Someone;s always married to their strife

Every wreck on the ocean floor
Spun out on the the side of the road
Do you ever feel you could soar?
From the sky, here’s my show

Lines forged in the sun
Intense pressure is how I fly
Nuclear fusion is so much fun
Burning bright across the sky

Pain, gain, part of the game
Play with me, girl
No day is quite the same
Let’s give this one a whirl

Life wrapped in plastic ain’t half-bad
Plus I get to live forever
That just made someone here mad
They hate that I’m so clever

What do you feel?
Let my pretty face be your avatar
Take a walk in my mind
Get lost


Gazing at the stars
Each one a light
Shining for years
Going down with a bang

Unnoticing the dark sky
Freckled with stars
All ensuing mystery

Absorbing the night sky
Dark and light/Mystery and guidance
Our lives not even
The sky leads us at night

Staring at the Sun
Burning retinas to see the light
Our life source, so minuscule
And we all don't care

Looking at the clouds
Dark or light—always gray
The shapes blocking the Sun
But giving us water

Ignoring the day sky
There for us always
Us there rarely
A common combination

Night sky and day sky
Warring for the right
Both ignored in their own way
Always there, always free