Open thread: Cheap discussion contributions

Many of the readers here are or have been graduate students and are therefore aware of the vast number of cheap, substance-free “contributions” that one can make during in-class discussion to bring attention to oneself without necessarily advancing the conversation. During my time at K College, it has become clear to me that advanced undergraduates, particularly those who might be interested in grad school, are already well on their way to mastering these techniques. I try to correct this problem on a case-by-case basis, but it is an uphill battle.

What I’d like to do in this post is to begin a kind of compilation of these cheap contributions, with the hope of creating greater awareness of the problem of cliched remarks with no substance, so that we as educators can do a better job of stamping out the problem and allow us to actually talk about a text or issue without getting endlessly caught in debates about what it might mean to one day think about possibly talking about it….

Here are some good ones:

  • Question the definition of terms: “Well, it depends on what you mean by….”
  • Question the implied premise of a question rather than answering it directly (related to the previous)
  • Object to generalizations simply for being generalizations: “Of course, as a generalization, your comment can’t hope to reflect the rich nuance of concrete reality….”
  • Critique the short-sighted perspective of a particular demographic group that is well-represented in the discussion, preferably by reference to another group that is completely absent: “Of course, from our white middle-class perspective this might seem like a big problem, but if you ask an African slum dweller….”
  • Act as though someone is presenting their proposed change in social norms as a magic bullet that will solve all problems: “Of course, poverty and oppression won’t disappear if we convince everyone to adopt gender-neutral language….”
  • Object that someone is analyzing problems without proposing solutions.
  • Authoritatively declare that a proposed social change is simply impossible.

Surely there are more, right?

18 thoughts on “Open thread: Cheap discussion contributions

  1. Critique the use of the work of X on which significant elements of the argument rest by critiquing the work of X or X’s person entirely unrelated to his or her deployment in this argumentative instance. “Negri’s point about the multitude is stupid, hence his arguments about post-Fordist capitalism are also stupid”, “Heidegger’s work on art might be interesting, but since he was a Nazi ergo it is wrong”.

    Object to the absence of the analysis of personally favoured thinker in consideration of the question or argument at hand, regardless of context – this is a continental philosophy favourite.

  2. Bring up text of thinker mentioned in argument as a means of suggesting deployment of figure is badly informed, regardless of the relevance.

    Direct accusation of essentialism (or now as you pointed out on Twitter) anthropomorphism. Extra points if accusation of anthropomorphism is seemingly unrelated to topic of discussion as discussion primarily concerns the doings and beings of human beings – ie politics or economics.

  3. Totemic use of the work “problematised” or “problematic”.

    Reduction of the argument made into another negatively perceived argument: “Isn’t this just what Lenin said?”. Variation claiming pet figure already said this: “isn’t this just what Derrida said?”. Extra points if original argument used the figure cited as a sparing partner: “I know your paper hated on Derrida, but aren’t you just already saying what Derrida said?”

    There is a whole category of general contributions questioning the originality of the argument, as if originality meant a deal to assessing the quality of the argument or point.

    I’m done.

  4. Questioning the possibility of reading/discussing a translation at all — “We can’t really know what he’s saying because he wrote in German and we’re reading the English.”

  5. That’s especially irritating coming from people who don’t read foreign languages, as the “original text” becomes a kind of fantasy object full of unimaginable nuance, etc.

  6. Good post. I would like to add:

    Asking questions about a point or refernce in an end or footnote.

    Also, bringing in some obscure thinker into the conversation and making connections that are not at all viable… often the professor is not aware at all of what the student is then talking about, and others get in on it.

    This used to frustrate me as a grad stuent, and as a parody of some of our classmates a few of us at Drew invented a philosopher named Pierre LaPrey, who is a French radical futurist who only publishes his works in letters to the editor columns in Parisian comic books, in the language of Esperanto. He found a way to apply Luigi Russolo’s The Art of Noises to the humanities in general.

  7. This is more of a type of thinker, but something that got to me during coursework was students ahistorically imposing their “project” onto material. There were at least two or three people in my cohort that would call each work we encountered part of their geneology of XYZ–usually whatever avant-garde tendency they saw as reaching a zenith after 1968.

    That said, I had some righteously bad grad seminar leaders that couldn’t get a discussion going because they so clearly disdained many of these kinds of questions. This kind of chaff is irritating, but because of those seminars, I usually view it as the cost of doing business. I’d prefer to see people trying to get their motors started than seeing them afraid to speak because their questions need to be a compact, crystalline thoughts in their own right.

  8. TW may be right — perhaps these moves are like the smalltalk of intellectual discussion. But I wish we could focus on a kind of smalltalk that would more naturally open out onto a real conversation, even something as simple as how you found the writing style, whether it had too many footnotes, etc. These procedural questions are often a black hole, with no obvious way back to non-meta territory.

  9. Assume that one’s failure to understand a text after a cursory read just prior to or during class is a failure of the writer. Particularly, a failure of the writer to communicate in the “plain” or “ordinary” language (i.e. contemporary, localised idiom) of the reader.

  10. -answer question by referring to completely different text/situation. e.g., if the question is about the staging of violence in a post-modern british play, answer said question by referring to the production of richard iii that you saw last night.

    -object to another student’s statement without offering an alternative opinion: ‘really?!’

    i’ll get back to you. my next class is in a week.

  11. “answer question by referring to completely different text/situation. e.g., if the question is about the staging of violence in a post-modern british play, answer said question by referring to the production of richard iii that you saw last night.”

    For the win: in second year ancient Greek philosophy, a student, in what was ostensibly a discussion of Parmenides said, “Yeah, but what would Schopenhauer say about that?” He thought he was making a good point. Same student in third year philosophy of language said, after looking over the syllabus, “Why aren’t we reading Locke? He said everything important on the subject.”

    For second place: a doctoral student, in a discussion of Montesquieu, said “this sounds a lot like the state of the exception.” The instructor said, “I don’t see what Carl Schmitt has to do with this.” The student, “Who is Carl Schmitt?”

    For third place: a doctoral student, in a seminar on the first critique, discussing space in the transcendental aesthetic wondered what Negri would think about all this.

  12. There is a masters student in my (technically undergrad) class whose frequent contributions are limited to either a) blanket statements, or b) when faced with a critique of her position by another student calls on the prof for arbitration. Needless to say, the latter is awkward for everyone: “Well, clearly this is a complex issue so I wonder if, [prof], you could shed some light on the matter.”

  13. This is related to some of the contributions above, but I very often hear this: “Ethicist X doesn’t perfectly practice what he/she preaches, therefore his/her argument is wrong.”

  14. My favorite is the piggyback, in which the speaker restates what another student has just said, in slightly different words, adding a different quote from the text under discussion which adds nothing new.

  15. “Doesn’t X talk about this?” or “Isn’t this mentioned in Y?” Where X is a popular author that the student hasn’t read and Y is a similarly popular book (e.g. “Doesn’t the Bible talk about blah blah blah?”).

    This really bothers me, especially when it is deployed as a means to find support for the student’s position, regardless of its accuracy.

  16. one more from me: psychologising or ‘befriending’ the author to disguise one’s cursory or non-existent reading of the text while avoiding any contribution of substance: ‘i really wish i could meet x author…’ ‘x sounds like he/she would be fun to be around…’

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