Monday, September 26, 2005

Melancholy Monday: Speak Plainly

I just arrived in Washington D.C. at the Washington Hilton in Dupont circle, you know, the one where John Hinckley attempted to assasinate President Reagan. This is how my mom and I always refer to this hotel. The first time I ever came to this hotel was with my mom back in 1992 (she was here for a conference). Then I returned again in late 1992 during the first December of my graduate school career. The second time I stayed here was because this is where the American Philosophical Association (APA) holds its meetings every four years. I have since attended the APA here 3 times.

The first time I attended the APA, I was the girlfriend of a Ph.D. on the market. I was mesmerized by the whole conference and the ways I was interacting with the participants, since 6 months earlier any one of them could have been my undergraduate professor. The second time I stayed here, I was interviewing for two jobs (Vanderbilt University and University of Memphis). The third time I was here, I had a job and just came down to D.C. to see old friends.

When I walked into the lobby of this hotel, pass the bar, I was transported back to several scenes from over a dozen years spent in this hotel lobby. I transformed from a wide-eyed, idealistic philosophical upstart to an anxious job seeker, and finally, to a securely employed undergraduate Philosophy professor.

The first time I was in this bar (where I am sitting now sipping a glass of Sauvingon Blanc), I was desperate to be as smart and articulate as the "grown ups" I was surrounding myself with were. I had become a Philosophy major late, changing from Chemistry, which was a subject that I felt secure in but uninspired by. All my philosophical insecurities revolved around writing. I hated writing papers in high school, feeling safer with balancing equations or doing derivatives.

Yet, I wanted to challenge myself to do something I wasn't good at, and become good at it. I suffered while learning how to narrow my claims, focus my argument, and offer reasons/evidence in a logical manner. I was bursting with big ideas and my mind tended to wander in all sorts of directions on the page. I loved learning new words and trying to incorporate them into my sentences, which often rendered my writing affected.

Only now, 13 years later, after hours and hours of perspiration, do I understand why affected writing sucks. It says: "gosh I want to impress you with how smart I am, even though I am terrified that I don't understand this stuff, nor that I have anything interesting to say." Affected writing, full of fancy sounding phrases and words newly discovered from the thesaurus, signals to an attentive reader that the writer is scared of telling you what she really thinks.

I just taught the end of the Euthyphro today, and after Euthyphro fails once again to define, satisfactorily, what piety is, Socrates says:

I think that you could have answered in much fewer words the chief question which I asked, Euthyphro, if you had chosen. But I see plainly that you are not disposed to instruct . . .

I was especially struck by this passage today because I had just handed back a graded paper to a bright young student in my class. She received a B-, something I doubt she is used to earning. Her face blushed when she looked over the grade and read my comments. A student from across the room yelled "hey, did you get the A" (they knew the grade distribution, because I had put it on the board). She looked down quickly and said "NOOOOOOOO."

She wasn't mad (which is not an unusual reaction from some of my students who have never been pushed to do good work). She was embarrassed. She had told me a week before that she was a tutor for the writing center and was curious what writing standards philosophers followed and how they instructed writing.

When I read her paper, I immediately noticed the affected tone that might make her stand out among very, very mediocre English students, but signaled to me: "I don't know what I want to say and I don't think I really understand Parmenides' criticism of Heraclitus, so I will mask it with artful sentences."

Philosophers don't stand for such ornamentation, especially when it does nothing to advance the argument. And, what I saw in her reaction to my grade was a recognition that I had seen through her smoke and mirrors. She was embarrased, not angry. She was embarrassed because deep down she knew what she had done, and felt exposed.

I felt for her. I was her 13 years ago. I wanted so desperately to be taken seriously, seen as smart, and I was too afraid to admit that I just didn't yet know what to say. I was too afraid to ask for help.

While I was driving up to the Hilton, a flash of images of the insecure girl that I was paraded before me. I started second guessing what I had done to her.

Did I do the right thing by calling her out? Was I too rough? Would she go home and berate herself in a way that was ultimately unproductive. Or, would she take to heart my words and just speak plainly next time?