The Hard-Ass Philosophy Professor: an “Inestimably Valuable Educational Experience”


Last week, following Harry Frankfurt’s death, Katrien Schaubroeck (Antwerp) circulated an intellectual autobiography Frankfurt had written for a 2011 volume she co-edited on his work.

Max Black

In it, Frankfurt talks about his education and career. Here’s one passage about his time in graduate school at Cornell, before he transferred to Johns Hopkins:

To pursue my post-graduate academic goals, I enrolled in the philosophy department at Cornell University. It was a great department, at that time, but on the whole I did not flourish there. I did have one inestimably valuable educational experience at Cornell: a one-on-one tutorial course with Professor Max Black, an extremely intelligent and conscientious analytic philosopher.

At our first meeting, Professor Black assigned me to write a paper dealing with the question of our knowledge of other minds. At our second meeting, he subjected the essay I had written to a bewilderingly relentless and devastating critique: he tore apart my arguments, pitilessly exposed and condemned my ambiguities and my vagueness, and left the whole thing in a humiliating shambles. Then he told me to rewrite the essay for our next meeting. At that meeting, it was the same story: when Professor Black was done with my work, there was nothing left of it. Again he told me to rewrite the essay, and the outcome was more or less the same. Throughout the semester, I presented him weekly with revisions of my original essay; and weekly, he destroyed them. The experience was excruciating, but I learned a great deal from it. It taught me how to construct a solid argument, how to clarify my thoughts, and how to write a coherent and convincing philosophical essay. In short, it taught me how to function competently as an analytic philosopher.

Max Black, apparently, was a major hard-ass.

I would bet that a good number of Daily Nous readers have an experience somewhat like the one Frankfurt recalls with Black in their own educational past*, but I’d guess that it is becoming less and less common. Is that a change for the worse?
Such experiences develop certain skills philosophers tend to value: argument, clarity, writing. And they also develop certain attitudes or dispositions philosophers tend to value: to take criticism of you or your work as something that’s good for you, and to be able to persist in the face of it. So if such experiences are on the decline, one might see that as a loss. At the same time, it’s not clear that these experiences are the only means to those valuable ends, or even the best ones. (Perhaps that they’re among the most memorable learning experiences, for some people, in part because they’re among the most emotionally vivid, should lead us to lower our estimation of their pedagogical value.)

It should also be noted that such experiences also work as filters, selecting for advancement those already in possession of a good amount of the relevant skills and attitudes, and those with the psychological and social resources to judge continuing with such experiences worthwhile. And it isn’t clear that the only people who’d make good philosophers are the ones who’d flourish under a hard-ass professor.

My own view, shaped by my own educational experiences, is to appreciate and value the hard-ass philosophy professors, but also to acknowledge they’re not good for everybody—and so what we’d want, as usual, is a mix of rather different teaching styles. We philosophers are quite accepting of substantive philosophical disagreement; we can stand to be accepting of disagreement over philosophical teaching, too.

You can read Frankfurt’s intellectual autobiography here.


* As I commented on a previous post, “It is interesting to me how many of the respondents have not only named as ‘most impressive’ philosophers they describe as terrifying, or devastating, or even in one case driving them to tears, but quite clearly look back on those terrifying interactions with affection.” See also, “The Unsung Hero of Your Undergraduate Philosophy Education.”

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David Sobel
David Sobel
10 months ago

Might such a pedagogical strategy be more useful for those who are overconfident than for those who are underconfident? 

Nathan Howard
Nathan Howard
Reply to  David Sobel
10 months ago

My experience leads to me to suspect so. My most transformative exchanges in graduate schools were the painfully humbling ones with my advisor. They were so helpful precisely because they stripped away my overconfidence. I learned that many of the ways in which my writing and arguments were inadequate were explained by the goal of ego protection rather than that of making a helpful contribution to a discussion. I don’t think an underconfident student would have the same problems, so the hard-ass approach would not have been similarly helpful.

I often find myself defending the hard-ass approach to advising. It is criticized, sometimes rightly but sometimes wrongly. Just as David suggests, it is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Yet to the brash-yet-insecure young man *qua* PhD student, it can be the only approach that really works. I speak from experience. The challenge for advisors is knowing when to deploy it. And that requires knowing how people work, not how philosophy works.

Robert
10 months ago

I had one professor who was ruthless about tearing apart all written work. They would also regularly meet with their grad students to continue to explain just what was so wrong. Many students left their office in tears. But in my experiences with them, I came to realize that their harranging often was on minor points that did not substantially affect the main argument. However, the utter confidence that this prof exhibited led many students to drop ideas that were worth refining and developing. (Many of their advisees, especially women, also ended up dropping out of the program)

I had another prof who had pretty much the opposite approach. They would talk through papers with students, and suggest that they think more about a certain point or other. And when you sat down and thought about that point, you realized it was devastating to your argument, and that the paper needed to be completely re-written.

I learned much from the latter, little from the former.

Another Philosopher
Another Philosopher
Reply to  Robert
10 months ago

Russell once complained that Wittgenstein treated fledgling theories with the kind of ferocity they can only handle when they are mature.

I’ve often thought that analytic philosophers are too much like Wittgenstein in this regard.

Reginald King
10 months ago

I agree with Professor Frankfurt — and have had a similar experience that I think validates the ‘tough love’ approach to teaching philosophy. When I studied philosophy many years ago in the UK, we were expected to give very serious, careful reading to the texts of Dummett and Frege, and the standard to which our written work was held was VERY high (not like much of the stuff that is written by students nowadays). The first essay I turned in many years ago, which I had put excruciating effort into, was greeted with two remarks. First, I was told that, based on the merits of the essay, the only possible employment I had shown aptitude for is “captain of the ship of fools”, and secondly, I was asked whether English was my mother tongue (I’m from right outside Manchester). I did not shed a tear (stiff upper lip was how we coped). Looking back on this, I know now that the professor who told me that (I will not name who this was) was right and in response to these remarks, I worked all the harder. By the end of the class, my final essay critiquing Dummett’s account of epistemically constrained truth conditions was judged to be passible, and even somewhat promising. Would it have been without that very robust critique, I shall not know.

Last edited 10 months ago by Reginald King
Cara Charles
Reply to  Reginald King
10 months ago

Reginald (if I may?), this story I’m afraid has a ring of “yes, master, can I have another lash”. While I surmise your studies of Dummett and Frege must have been many years ago, I am pleased to say that psychology has developed since then to recognise what is called ‘Stockholm Syndrome”, which I encourage you to study with even half the fervour your cruel master made you read Dummett

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Reginald King
10 months ago

I can see how a set of harsh critiques can be pedagogically quite helpful, but I don’t see how those two *particular* criticisms could be *at all* helpful. If there were other, more contentful comments, I would assume it was the other comments that actually led to improvements – and it’s not clear what value these two added, other than strong emphasis on the other points!

Reginald King
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
10 months ago

Cara, fair enough I guess, but the whole experience did have the effect of me learning the lessons. Kenny, I do think I must push back here a bit. It was those criticisms (and their nasty belittling spirit) that caused me to study all the harder! I remember very well the feeling — after getting dressed down like that in front of the other pupils, I was mortified that it could happen again, and the fear caused me to work TWICE as hard at least. So even if it left me a bit scarred (a point I grant to Cara), I think fear of being made the fool is an undeniably effective pedagogical tool! An old nun in Manchester I’d heard about had said “Fear is the heart of love” – I won’t go that far (not a believer, per se) but fearing a tongue lashing really can make a pupil put in the work they might not otherwise! For that I remain grateful.

Gerhardt Weinhaus
Reply to  Reginald King
10 months ago

Reginald – a bit of bluster over Dummett is hardly tough (I’m sorry to say) — those of us (perhaps few of us left) who remember the old days of serious doctoral research in Germany (not least what we called Dr. habil.), especially in the decades after the war, will look upon a few barbs about Dummett as something one simply shakes off. We were at that time required to memorise the metaphysical system of Nicolai Hartmann (his work had great influence in some circles then), and those who did not were asked to put each foot in a separate bucket and stand outside in the courtyard. Water was put in the bucket (this was in January in Marburg) and we had to recite the Hartmann’s system until the first bit of ice formed in the bucket.

Cara Charles
Reply to  Gerhardt Weinhaus
10 months ago

I don’t know where to begin with this one. I’ll try here: Nicolai Hartmann???

Matthew Duncombe
Matthew Duncombe
Reply to  Cara Charles
10 months ago

Hartmann is quite fun (although probably not if you’re standing in a bucket of ice water). He thinks that something is able to act only if it is acting. So water can freeze only if it does freeze. So I suppose there is no risk of frostbite until you’re already frost bitten.

Marc Champagne
10 months ago

I understand that all sorts of events can trigger our thinking, often in productive directions. But, of all the things we could be talking about shortly after Frankfurt’s death, we talk about this?

Last edited 10 months ago by Marc Champagne
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Marc Champagne
10 months ago

There’s more than a bit of irony here because I think this very much illustrates why we need to have these sorts of conversations. After all, this is pretty much the model of unhelpful criticism. You don’t think this is a good thing to talk about, then okay tell us why not exactly? And more importantly, what other more interesting or important thing connected to Frankfurt and his work should we be talking about? The latter might actually start an interesting conversation. This sort of magisterial snark won’t.

Grad Student
10 months ago

I’m of the opinion that the key thing here is rigor, rather than having the attitude of a hardass.

I had a professor in undergrad who had very high standards, and he would tear apart my submitted work – but he was also very kind. He knew his stuff, was happy to explain any feedback, and was a very charismatic lecturer. He gave me some of the worst grades I got in undergrad, but I didn’t mind, because I knew an A- from him was worth more than an A+ from someone else.

He’s probably my model for being an instructor, but I don’t feel that I can replicate his rigor in class. My students often equate “kindness” with “gave me the grade I wanted.” If I push them to excell, they whine that their other classes are easier. I don’t have the job security to demand better of them.

Nate Sheff
10 months ago

I guess I’m lucky that I never had professors who humiliated me. Easily the best guidance I got was early on as a graduate student, bringing ideas for possible dissertation topics to a potential advisor. I floated one idea, and he showed that it was so inane that I more or less decided right there that I would never seriously pursue metaethics.

Addendum: I should note that he didn’t have to say it was inane. He only asked for clarification. That was all it took.

Last edited 10 months ago by Nate Sheff
Quill
Quill
10 months ago

I just don’t even slightly get why we should associate rigorous criticism with being a mean and sadistic asshole. Rigorous criticism is sometimes helpful and called for, sometimes not. Being an asshole never is, and appreciating receiving assholitude like this just perpetrates intergenerational cycles of abuse.

Cat
Cat
Reply to  Quill
10 months ago

Could we maybe say something more than just “it is wrong to be a [contestable thick concept that implies wrong action]”? Surely the interesting questions here lie in the precise contours of assholery and how they interact with the requirement to communicate strong criticism. No-one who understands English disputes that it’s wrong to be an asshole.

Quill
Quill
Reply to  Cat
10 months ago

My point was that a certain kind of traditional philosophical/patriarchal culture in evidence here conflates being rigorous and willing to give critical feedback with being an asshole. They feel like people are more rigorous if they are being humiliating sadistic dicks about it. (This is super gendered, often; many women who try this are just taken as ‘bitches’ and not as some sort of awe inspiring genius that everyone wants to have dom them.) So yeah of course it’s analytic and not so interesting on its own that it’s bad to be an asshole. But it’s not analytic that people confuse being treated like shit by an asshole with receiving some sort of especially rigorous induction into a cult of genius.

JaredX
Reply to  Quill
10 months ago

Except it isn’t “in evidence here” because, as Justin’s reply made very clear, the hard-ass philosopher he discussed isn’t necessarily being an asshole in any of the ways you invoke. He’s just being a hard-ass and that’s not the same. There’s a difference between, for example, pointing out that a grad student’s argument is invalid and their choice of words unclear, on the one hand, and calling them a terrible, awful philosopher with no talent, on the other. Just for example.

Quill
Quill
Reply to  JaredX
10 months ago

I was talking about many comments on this thread, mostly. John Rapko’s comment is a great example.

Cat
Cat
10 months ago

I would have killed for this in grad school. It sounds like heaven compared to what many of us in the program went through, which was neglect. To actually be sat down and told *exactly* where the flaws were in my work so I could improve and maybe publish and get a job and avoid crashing and burning out of an extremely demanding career? Yeah, give me that, please.

This doesn’t mean that Black’s approach is ideal in every case of course, and many people do engage in pointless “harsh” criticism. But we talk so often about the profs who risk being arrogant jerks, and we talk SO much less about the profs who risk destroying careers by just not showing up, or by offering “gentle” or vague criticism that helps no-one.

Ian
Ian
Reply to  Cat
10 months ago

I don’t know if it’s heaven compared to the lethargy and indifference I experienced, but gosh do I wish there was someone who cared enough to actually be a mentor

Ryan
Reply to  Cat
10 months ago

God does this ever hit home. I would have loved an advisor who mentored rather than supervised, or more accurately, oversaw my progress just closely enough to vouch for my funding each year.

One of my biggest disappointments from graduate school, and it left me with complicated feelings towards a supervisor who is a truly kind person.

Even just a, ‘Jeez, this part of your chapter could really be a great article in x journal if you developed it more. How about you try submitting it there, and I can help you jump through the hoops.’

Also, as for hard-assery and assholitude, the feedback sandwich goes a long way resolving this debate: good–needs work–good.

Sam Duncan
10 months ago

Isn’t the ideal here some sort of Aristotelian mean? The professor who’s too nice to give needed criticism of work, or more commonly too lazy to do the emotional labor that doing this well requires, does no one any favors. On the other hand doling out insults and emotional abuse under the guise of “rigor” or “having high standards” isn’t good either, especially in cases like the one King talks about where the professor is both an abusive dick and too lazy to give any actual criticism that shows engagement with the work much less constructive criticism that might be helpful. Like a lot of things that require judgment it’s hard to specify what this sort of mean looks like in a very helpful way, and it will also look like different things with different students, but one thing I’d suggest is that it involves treating students and their work with respect. That doesn’t mean being nice or forgiving, which fails to show respect by not taking them or their work seriously. But bullying and insulting your students even more clearly fails to show respect. Also, as with other things that require a mean, it might be good to think about which direction we incline towards and pull the opposite way to correct. Now that no doubt varies from individual to individual but we as a profession almost certainly incline very much toward being too harsh and uncharitable. All of which is to say I think valorizing the “hardass” professor or lamenting his decline is pretty much the last thing we should be doing.

Caligula's Goat
10 months ago

I had two advisors in graduate school who had completely opposite styles when it came to advising. One was a hardass. I think, inside, that they were actually a really caring person but when meeting with them you were essentially signing up for a 60-90 minute intellectual beatdown. Dissertation chapters would be returned with almost as much red ink as black and the meeting would essentially consist of answering questions that, in my view at that time, were different flavors of: “what does this mean? No matter what you say it doesn’t make sense.” I want to make clear that this person was never been mean intentionally. They were not trying to destry my ego but were, instead, coldly and methodically (and repeatedly) showing me where my arguments were coming up short. This advisor made me cry, more than once, and was the source of a lot of anxiety and panic.

My experiences with my other advisor were a complete 180. They preferred to focus on things they thought I was doing well and tried to help me sharpen or expand on those things. Meetings with them were always pleasant and time flew. I’m glad that I had both advisor styles honestly.

For some background: I was not then, and am not now, the overconfident male archetype of philosophy. I grew up very poor, went to literally some of the worst schools in my state, and did not come into my graduate program from an undergrad R1. I had pretty severe imposter-thoughts and always believed myself to have been a diversity admit. All of this colored my experiences in grad school.

Looking back, I think my hardass advisor made me a much better philosopher than my kind advisor even though I’d much rather grab a coffee with my kind advisor even now. One thing that I think it is worth mentioning is why we care about whether we become the best philosophers we can. I notice that in these conversations we seem to only be talking about our research skills. My hardass advisor certainly improved my research ability but, I think, at the cost of other things of value. I learned so much more from my good undergraduate professors about how to teach than from anyone in graduate school.

Most of us, if we’re even lucky enough to get secure employment in academia, are not going to be focusing on our research and even if we do, it’s unlikely that anyone reading this is going to be an extremely influential philosopher qua philosophical thinking and writing. So why focus on that specific talent? When we treat our students as hardasses we’re perpetuating a certian type of culture in philosophy whose value we should cast doubt on. When I teach, I’m not trying to create the next Parfit or the next Frankfurt, I’m just trying, in my own small way, to create people who take their lives seriously and realize that they do philosophy every day and could do it better with a more care.

My own advising style trends closer to my kind advisor than my hardass advisor and I think that works out just fine.

Kaila Draper
10 months ago

The three professors I worked closely with in grad school–Greg Kavka, Gary Watson, and Nelson Pike–were all very kind to me, but also rigorous and honest in their criticism of my work. I was very lucky.

John Rapko
10 months ago

Once as an undergraduate I wrote a class paper of Wittgenstein. At the next class meeting, the professor (the recently deceased Jim Friedman, a star pupil of Anscombe and Frege-Wittgenstein expert who left academia to make millions in construction) quite literally threw the paper back at me and said “My 5-year-old could write something better than that.” Later, when we were arguing about the interpretation of a particular passage in Wittgenstein, I said “Well, I have a different way of reading it than you.” He replied, “Your way of reading it is to not read it at all.” Brief and unelaborated as they were, these remarks still seem to me the best criticism I’ve ever received. They made me realize the need to take infinite care in thinking and writing, and not to coast along on an occasional insight or witticism. In my mind it’s connected to the poet Frank O’Hara’s remark that if someone’s chasing you with a knife, you can’t get away with saying ‘Give up! I was a track star at Mineola Prep”; you have to run.

Patrick Lin
10 months ago

This seems like a good time for a sports analogy: coaches and teachers are often stereotyped as being hard-ass, esp. the best ones, e.g., Roy Kent (from “Ted Lasso”), Pai Mei (from “Kill Bill”), etc.

But there may also be a valuable role and room for kinder approaches, even if there are fewer exemplars, e.g., Ted Lasso or Daniel LaRusso (from “Cobra Kai”). I don’t know if one way is objectively “better” or more effective than another, but it seems there’s something good to say about both, at least under some conditions.

In contrast, basic training in the military is notoriously hard-ass, but the reasons for it (if they’re good at all) don’t seem to apply to teaching philosophy: they have different purposes, different stakes, etc. Except for maybe the overconfident ones as already noted in comments here, most students don’t need to be “broken down and built back up” as basic training seeks to do with warfighters…

Sam Duncan
Reply to  Patrick Lin
10 months ago

Actually even basic training isn’t like that any more. The article I’m linking to says the move away from “hardassedness” has been most pronounced in the last few years. But a lot of my students did basic in the Navy ten or so years ago and say even then the “Full Metal Jacket” approach is a thing of the past. A friend of mine who did basic in the Air Force 20 years ago said the same thing.
https://www.military.com/daily-news/2022/10/18/less-screaming-more-weightlifting-army-reinventing-basic-training-gen-z.html

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Sam Duncan
10 months ago

Right, and it may also have something to do with low recruiting numbers; see link. Just as some academic departments might feel pressure to inflate grades to attract more students (or at least repel fewer), our military is upping the incentives (e.g., signing bonuses) and lowering barriers (e.g., less-intense basic training) to attract more recruits.

But boot camp can still be brutal, esp. in “elite” units like Navy SEALs which care more about weeding out than ruling in. Not saying this is what academic depts. should be doing, even those that overproduce PhDs, but only that there could be a time and place for being a hard-ass, though one’s own mileage may vary…

https://www.cfr.org/blog/presidents-inbox-recap-us-military-recruiting-crisis

Grad Student
Reply to  Patrick Lin
10 months ago

Speaking as an academic who is also a member of the military, a significant part of the transition away from brutal training is that it served very little pedagogical purpose. A lot of what passed for badass, hardcore training was just a cover for harassment or hazing that served no useful developmental purpose – just made subordinates hate their superiors and/or themselves.

Notably, a disctination is drawn between stressing out trainees or making them perform tasks they need to, and harassment. I think there is an analogy here to academic feedback. Criticism is always stressful, and so too are certain tasks (e.g., writing a thesis, crawling through mud), but a good instructor is going to subject you to them away. They don’t need to be a jerk – but you need honest, and sometimes negative, feedback to grow.

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Grad Student
10 months ago

Thanks for sharing!

Michel
10 months ago

It’s not the hard-assedness that’s pedagogically useful here. it’s the combination of frequent writing, frequent revision, and frequent feedback.

How many grad students get _any_ meaningful feedback on their one term paper, let alone more than one set of comments?

Eddy Nahmias
10 months ago

Hmm, does anyone know if Frankfurt named the counterfactual controller Black in his famous paper after his hard-ass professor Black?

On the Market
10 months ago

I find it striking how many people here look back fondly on similar experiences. It has a whiff of fraternity alumni reminiscing about hazing and how it sucked but ultimately got them closer blah blah the young are weak blah blah.

The idea that one must “endure” this or that to be excellent strikes me as toxic, archaic, and something we had better overcome.

Perhaps many of us only recount two kinds of advisors. Those who did not give any useful feedback at all, and those who hand out “beatdowns”, “destruction”, “devastation” and other metaphors from violence. Obviously the latter kind is more helpful on balance, and perhaps the best one could have hoped for in the elitist, old boys club model of the university. But this doesn’t mean that the decline of this kind of advisor, together with the university model that produced them, is to be lamented.

I think Michel, above, is quite right to observe that it is the repeat revision and feedback that is useful here, not the intellectual violence. We should aim to provide the former without the latter.

I recall that my best advisor would hand me back my papers positively dripping in red ink, but framing her feedback as part of a cooperative effort rather than an adversarial relationship. I can’t imagine how humiliation would have improved that situation.

Last edited 10 months ago by On the Market
Meme
Meme
Reply to  On the Market
10 months ago

“I find it striking how many people here look back fondly on similar experiences.”

Do you think those people are deluding themselves? Or could it be that they are sensitive to something valuable—not outright abuse, of course—which you’ve overlooked?

Michel
Reply to  Meme
10 months ago

They are wrong.

And that’s a hard truth forthrightly told, and without deprecation.

Meme
Meme
Reply to  Michel
10 months ago

You might be right. Of course, without any argument, you might also be wrong. I’m genuinely unsure. It doesn’t seem obviously false to me that tough love might help someone develop a “thick skin,” which might be valuable (e.g., for the constant stream of often brief/unexplained rejections in academic research). At the same time, abuse is obviously unacceptable, it certainly happens, and the line between it and tough love needs adjudicating. I just don’t find it very charitable or helpful to claim that people who genuinely appreciate their tough love experiences are merely rationalizing their abuse (or what have you). That feels like risky psychologizing—i.e., those who disagree with me must be deluded. I wonder if there’s some conflation, in the original comment, between tough love as a philosophical method and tough love as a cudgel for problematic institutions (given the comparison with hazing and the rituals of “good old boys”).

Michel
Reply to  Meme
10 months ago

I have nothing to say about their mental states, save that they are wrong about what was doing the pedagogical work. As you can see in my initial post, my claim is that what does all the lifting here is frequent writing, frequent editing, and frequent feedback.

If someone can’t give that feedback without being mean (like, e.g., the poster above whose supervisor asked them whether English was their first language), then they’re not very good at supervising students. And if that’s an infuriating observation to them, then they’re not very good at taking what they dish out, either.

Meme
Meme
Reply to  Michel
10 months ago

I mostly agree with you. Do you think that frequent writing, editing, and feedback would help one develop a thick skin, in the sense I suggested? I can definitely see how all three are beneficial for philosophizing. But they also seem to lack the—I don’t know how else to put it—harshness that would develop that skin.

Just to distinguish what I have in mind from outright abuse, imagine a professor commenting “why are you writing like this?!” on a student’s paper. (Something a professor once wrote on one of my papers!) This is obviously feedback. But it possesses some harshness which goes beyond mere feedback. Does that harshness, by itself, have any benefit unpossessed by mere feedback? I feel like it might. In my case, it helped emphasize the seriousness of the feedback. It stuck out in my mind, and affected my future writing. It inured me somewhat to the harsh feedback of referees, which allows me to shake them off and keep on trucking. And so on (I’ll add that, as far as I can tell, I’m not deluded about this—but of course that’s what a deluded person would say).

Now, maybe you’d just consider this mere feedback rather than tough love. Or maybe you’d say that it isn’t necessary for developing a thick skin, or that having a thick skin isn’t valuable for philosophical work. But this sort of thing seems similar to what many here are recalling, with fondness, as “tough love.”

Michel
Reply to  Meme
10 months ago

“Do you think that frequent writing, editing, and feedback would help one develop a thick skin, in the sense I suggested?”

Yes. In particular, familiarity with the processes of editing and of publishing will help with that. By way of anecdata, I offer my own experience: neither of my supervisors was ever ‘harsh’ to me or my work. They were open and honest, and told me when things didn’t work. But there was no offhanded bullying bullshit like ‘is English your first language?’ or ‘you’re not fit for the profession’ or whatever else is being reported upthread. Instead, they told me what wasn’t working and why; they told me what was working and why; and they pointed me in directions I should look to fix what wasn’t working.

When I get a harsh referee–and I get them!–I’m unhappy about it. Sometimes angry for a while. But I don’t doubt my place in the profession. How could I? Several famous, well-placed philosophers–my advisors–think I belong. That sets a firm foundation with which to repel any nagging doubts and insecurities. Instead, I set the paper aside while I cool down, then I get to work addressing the concerns raised, forestalling similar concerns, and ignoring the mean-spirited jibes. And when I write my own referee reports, I stick to what’s working and why, what’s not working and why, and where to look to fix what isn’t working. Sometimes I get doozies of papers which look like undergraduate work, but nothing is served by going on a tear and saying as much. And sometimes, of course, what I produce isn’t very good. What matters in those cases isn’t being told it sucks–I know it does–but rather having avenues of improvement suggested to me.

“Why are you writing like this?” is not good feedback. On its own it’s not particularly abusive, but neither is it particularly kind. Nor is it particularly useful. The papers we write must strive to show rather than tell. The same, I think, is true of the feedback we give on one another’s work. And that’s especially true of supervisory relationships.

I’m pretty sure that I’m sufficiently resilient and skilled that, if you just said ‘garbage’ in response to something I handed in, I’d be able to keep refining it until you gave a grunt of approval. It would take me a lot longer to get there than it would if I was given substantive comments, however, and it would build some bad blood between us. That seems like a pretty shit style of ‘supervision’. Sure, I’d be learning essential skills on my own, and learning to count only on myself. But the point of supervision isn’t to have each student reinvent the wheel. That’s a colossal waste of time. Supervisors ought to mentor their students. They’re shortcuts to the profession, not hurdles for the student to leap over.

Meme
Meme
Reply to  Michel
10 months ago

Respectfully, I’m not sure that what you’ve described is a “thick skin.” Facing harshness and overcoming it because you know that others think you belong seems very different from facing harshness and overcoming it because you’ve done so before and therefore know that you are resilient enough on your own to do it again (your skin has been made thick, calloused, by past suffering). That you might get this from the editing and publishing process itself is a fair point, however.

As for my “why are you writing like this?” example, I agree that it isn’t particularly good feedback. My question, again, was specifically whether its harshness adds anything in its own right, independently of whether it’s (good or bad) feedback. I still think that it might: namely, a thick skin as I’ve described it.

That said, I’m beginning to feel as if we’re splitting hairs to some degree. We both agree that outright abuse is sadistic and useless. We both agree that constructive feedback is the main source of benefit. I think the only outstanding question is whether adding a slight “edge” to that feedback adds anything valuable on its own. Overall, I personally don’t like to include that edge. But that’s more because I’m a coward, I don’t like to be confrontational or risk hurting feelings, etc. If someone expressed (genuine rather than contrived) impatience or frustration with *my* writing, however, that might help me in the ways I’ve described above (over and above mere constructive feedback).

On the Market
Reply to  Meme
10 months ago

Possibly. I merely noticed that there’s examples where people went through something unquestionably bad and their retrospective reaction bears a striking similarity to what some is report here. I then gave a possible explanation of why that might be.

Also On the Market
Reply to  On the Market
10 months ago

I just find the initial argument here poor. If I want to be a good jogger I need to endure a few jogs. If I want to be a good Bentham scholar I need to endure his prose. Just because something difficult is endured does not mean it it inherently “toxic.” I think I might agree with your overall conclusion, but sometimes I read things like this and legitimately come away thinking my cohort is kinda weak.

Louis Zapst
10 months ago

The problem, of course, is that being a hard ass can easily shade into abuse, and that whether it does amount to abuse may depend in part on the resilience of the student, how the pedagogical relationship has developed, and the culture of the time, place, and institution (Max Black’s Cornell is probably not like anywhere today). In today’s climate at my institution, I would not dare be a hard ass to students (especially undergraduates when student surveys matter so much). It also seems pretty abusive towards graduate students. I should add that the temptation of philosophy professors to indulge in self-delusions about their own rigor makes it often rather unseemly. Professors should give their time and attention to those students they think are worth it, while gently diverting other students to sources of scholarly improvement that don’t burden the professor’s schedule (e.g., writing labs, peer study/writing groups).

Jason Kay
Reply to  Louis Zapst
10 months ago

Presumably professors should divert more resources to the students that are “worth it” because allocating resources that way will produce the largest number of truly great philosophers, right? I fail to see why that same rationale cannot be given for the hard-assedness that you called “pretty abusive”.

Of course, the production of great philosophers only justifies so much, and some cases might not rise to the level of abuse, but looking for the line between abuse and hard-assedness misses the forest for the trees. As others have noted, the behavior of professors who act as if it’s their sacred duty to separate the wheat from the chaff is problematic not just because it hurts graduate students, but because it perpetuates unhealthy behaviors, false expectations, and questionable assumptions about the point and purpose of going to graduate school in philosophy. We just don’t want the profession to be like that.

Louis Zapst
Reply to  Jason Kay
10 months ago

Most professors only have so much time to devote to students. It’s not just about separating the wheat from the chaff, which is independently defensible insofar as comparative evaluation is a duty of professors. It’s also about providing appropriate guidance to students based on their real, rather than their perceived, needs. Surely, most people (and not just academics) can tell the difference between emotional abuse and gently letting someone know they are better off looking elsewhere for a tutor or for help in improving their writing. That has got to be better than taking on students to feed one’s ego only to neglect them and write lukewarm recommendations for them.

Jason Kay
Reply to  Louis Zapst
10 months ago

> It’s not just about separating the wheat from the chaff, which is independently defensible insofar as comparative evaluation is a duty of professors.

Being a hardass goes far beyond comparative evaluation. It involves conveying to students a sense of their place in a hierarchy, scaring them into improving, and conveying to them a sense of their own inadequacy (of which, I assure you, they are already quite cognizant.)

Is the job of comparative evaluation less well achieved if the professor does not imply that you, and your work, are garbage?

> It’s also about providing appropriate guidance to students based on their real, rather than their perceived, needs

What need does being a hardass answer to? The same feedback can be delivered in a way that is compassionate and without abuse of any form.

> That has got to be better than taking on students to feed one’s ego only to neglect them and write lukewarm recommendations for them.

Not only is your claim that abuse is better than lukewarm support not true, but the idea that we must choose between one sad state of affairs and the other is preposterous. Professors can provide appropriate guidance, honest letters, discharge their duties of evaluation, and so on, without being abusive.

V. Alan White
10 months ago

I had a real hard-ass way back when–a nobody in the profession named Dr. J. W. Jones at Northwest Nazarene College (now University), a very minor school. I was once in an independent study where we–5 of us, all of his majors–wrote 10-page papers weekly on a book (Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, etc.)–the most trying course of my life. One paper we received–every one of us–no more than a C, each with criticisms that said, “Improve or drop the major.” We were angry–one of us was in fact his paid grading assistant who received that same message–but we stayed the course and improved. Later it became clear that he just wanted to let us know that if we were to get beyond the AB degree, we needed to sharpen our analytic and critical writing skills–and that we needed to care about our audience in our product. From those 5 four of us went on to professional careers. Anecdotal, but fossilized in my memory. And yes, David Sobel’s first post is probably dead-on in that regard.

Matt L
Reply to  V. Alan White
10 months ago

Off topic here but I’m interested to hear you studied at Northwest Nazarene (in Idaho, I assume – is there another one?) The very first philosophy course I took (at Boise State) was taught by a guy who was a professor at Northwest Nazarene, who was adjuncting the course at BSU – philosophy of religion. It was a great course, but he was a sort of softy (except in grading). Sadly, I can’t remember his name anymore. If not for him… More on topic, I was very grateful for the hard ass professors I had (not just in philosophy) because I (like many students at BSU) wasn’t really ready for university study in the sense that I wasn’t used to working very hard or seriously, and I needed someone to come down on me a bit to make me take my work more seriously. Quite a lot of my students could use that today – they do not want to do the work, and are mostly not made to do it. I am not convinced this is to the benefit, but it’s things that are much more basic than having a paper criticized several times.

Hard-Ass Postdoc
10 months ago

Much of this discussion seems to be assuming that to decide what styles of teaching are best, or at least permissible, we should hold fixed the students (their abilities, temperament and so on) but treat the possible teaching styles as completely unconstrained. I don’t think this is the right way to think about the issue.

Teaching doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Academics are hired to be researchers and teachers. Or at the very least to be teachers who have particular expertise in their field. And that means there may be interactions between what teaching styles we value and promote and the other goals of universities.

At least if standard stereotypes have any truth, then there may well be a correlation between being a good philosophy researcher/expert and being a bit of a hard-ass teacher. And, if so, the calculus of whether to prefer soft- or hard-asses must take into account not only the outcomes for the students, but the effect of choosing soft-asses on the research side of things.

Perhaps we should instead try to soften the hard-assess? But then we have to take into account the potential costs of doing so. I am myself a bit of a hard-ass teacher. And that is largely due, I believe, to growing up in a hard-ass house. Where even the children are expected (by my mother, not my father) to have evidence and arguments to back up their claims in dinner table discussions had almost every night. To change my ways now (early in a career, but not so early in a life) would be very costly. It would cost time, it would cost effort, it would cost self-esteem (hard-asses have feelings too), it would cost offending my identity (as much as I hate to use those terms they seem right here), and for all that it might never work.

If the benefit to students of my being a bit softer outweighs all this then so be it. Or if the benefit to students is so great to outweigh the cost to me of never getting a permanent job then so be it (I am a hard-ass consequentialist after all). But I don’t think it is obvious that either of those is true, even if I grant that the students who benefit from my hard-ass comments are largely already doing well and the bulk of students don’t find them helpful (at least to judge from my student evaluations).

Perhaps I just need to toughen up and realise that the problem is all with me. But that is what a hard-ass would say.

William D'Alessandro
10 months ago

Yeah, as a first-gen college grad I’ve found it much more psychologically useful to hear “Yes, you are actually as good as you think, keep at it”. (Of course good honest criticism is also important, and I’m happy I got lots of that too. But the more basic need for some of us is confirmation that our mentors see us as potential future peers.)

mark wilson
10 months ago

Seems ironic. Did Max Black himself ever write anything that couldn’t be torn apart in about 5 minutes by a reasonably competent graduate student? As far as I can tell, the answer is no.

Justin Kalef
10 months ago

The term ‘hard-ass’ is rather nebulous. Some people seem to be using it to mean needlessly critical, or perhaps taking pleasure in humiliating others. But it also seems intended to cover any instances of holding students to a high standard.

Suppose I’m teaching a logic course. The students have turned in ten proofs. Some students have got all ten right, some students have got all of them wrong, and most are somewhere in between. If I accurately tell the students which ones they got wrong, and indicate the total of the correct answers, am I therefore a ‘hard-ass’? I have, after all, pointed out all the erroneous proofs, which might make some of the students feel (accurately) that they are not yet where they should be in the course.

Or perhaps being a hard-ass comes one step earlier, when I am preparing the assignment. Students typically enter my logic course with no prior exposure to the material. I inform them at the start that they should expect to put in 2-3 hours of study and practice for each scheduled classroom hour. But in fact, as they admit, most of them only put in about a fifth of that time, or less. I can therefore anticipate that most of them will not be able to do most of the proofs correctly, even though nearly all of them would have succeeded if they had put in more work and even though I went out of my way to provide them with as much additional help as they asked for, at more or less any time. Knowing all this, I give them the same assignment, and (predictably) many of the students do not pass that time. But I’m not insulting to them, and don’t rub it in. I only encourage them to do the work. Does that make me a hard-ass, on whatever definition is intended here?

Or perhaps we have to look another step earlier. Suppose that I have good inductive evidence that my next logic course will involve students who will enter with poor work habits, and who will either need plenty of encouragement and one-on-one help to reach the high standards of the course to succeed. I also know that many of them will not request that help, and will do little work and skip many of the classes. But I refuse to dumb down the course, because I want instead to raise them to the level of good students. This works for some students but not for others. Does my refusal to lower the level of the course material to the point where none of my students could follow in my own footsteps count as being a hard-ass?

Jaime Escalante is a famous example of a teacher who saw great potential in students that everyone else had written off. He held them to high standards and achieved very impressive results. Does he deserve to get written off as a ‘hard-ass’ for doing this?

There is a great difference between caring enough to find ways to get your students to achieve great things, and making it a point of pride to belittle and insult people to boost your own ego. But those two things seem to be run together in many of these comments.

Keegan
10 months ago

I’ve had an utterly useless advisor – comments that were confirmed as suspect by a separate more senior faculty member, after a successful defense – I spent well over 50+ hours honing a defense, with a full course load, that my advisor failed to comment on and failed to know who was actually on the committee of my own defense, until 2 days prior they gave me “permission” to defend. The paper is trash, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever written.

This mightier than thou approach is useless and empirically demonstrated as such, leave your “ego” at the door like every professor thinks they do

doris
10 months ago

Vaguely germane to the relative contributions of Frankfurt and Black:

In 1960, Judith Rich Harris, independent scholar and author of the important The Nurture Assumption, was kicked out of the Harvard psychology department by George Miller, on the grounds that she displayed insufficient academic promise. In 1998 she received the APA’s George A. Miller Award for an outstanding recent article in psychology.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/01/obituaries/judith-rich-harris-dies.html

Dr EM
Dr EM
10 months ago

It’s just a mystery that so many women leave the profession isn’t it?

Nat S
Reply to  Dr EM
10 months ago

What is the premise of this snark?

That women like myself can’t make it in philosophy because men are too mean? I really bristle at these “the womenfolk are so fragile, we must pad the department’s walls” type comments I hear everywhere.

Kav
Kav
Reply to  Nat S
10 months ago

The contrast to being a hardass isn’t necessarily padding the walls or treating students as fragile. Perhaps instructors who pride themselves on being hardasses treat some students more severely than others, in which case it wouldn’t be surprising if certain students left the profession as a result of being on the receiving end of extra severe treatment, or have their confidence shot as a result of comparing their treatment at the hands of prof X to their peer’s. Maybe something like that is the premise?

Last edited 10 months ago by Kav
Meme
Meme
Reply to  Nat S
10 months ago

I would criticize your account of the premise, but I don’t want to hurt your feelings.

Kav
Kav
Reply to  Meme
10 months ago

You’re thinking of the lazy professor, not the kiddie gloves prof or the diligent hardass. Close cousins though.

Last edited 10 months ago by Kav
Meme
Meme
Reply to  Kav
10 months ago

Interesting how they all blend together… (by the way, my first reply was a joke in case it was unclear—I agree with your comment).

Meme
Meme
Reply to  Kav
10 months ago

Oops, I meant that I agree with Nat S’s comment. My bad, Kav. Argument foul on my part.

Ian
Ian
Reply to  Nat S
10 months ago

My two cents: the kind of hazing the original post discusses is simply ineffective for marginalized students. As has been noted again & again here, hardassedness has a not in & of itself problematic. Nor is anyone here, AFAIK, asking to be treated with kid gloves. At the same time, the petty games of male-dominated academia are both well-documented & bullshit. Marginalized folks who already feel as if they are lucky to be where they are, ie “diversity candidates,” waitlisted students, first-gen students, returning students, perhaps many females in philosophy, will not on the whole profit from being humiliated & treated disrespectfully. To help such students be better in a useful way, by yes pushing them, can be absolutely formative.

At the same time, you try writing a teaching philosophy which you endorse humiliation as a pedagogical strategy and see how that works in the market.

Adam Patterson
10 months ago

If done in the right way, it can be valuable and even formative.

I was quickly foundering in my first semester as a graduate student. So, it was suggested to me that I spend an entire summer doing an informal, remedial writing seminar-essentially doing what Frankfurt did with a faculty member at my department. There was one different: I spent a *long time* just writing *summaries* before we even attempted revising anything of my own. (As my mentor said at our first meeting: “you don’t get to have views yet.”)

I never felt put down, less-than, stupid, ignored, insulted, like I was getting the “kiddie gloves”, etc. I *constantly* felt affirmed, supported, cared for/about, and taken seriously.

Everything else aside, if you can get the Max Black treatment (or as my mentor called it “The Judy Thomson Treatment”) and feel like I did throughout (and after) that’s very valuable, I think.

Charles Pigden
10 months ago

I really like the way that some of the apostles of humanity and a caring and non-abusive style of education immediately denounce anyone who claims to have benefited from the ministrations of a hardass professor as the deluded survivors of an elitist hazing ritual, as suffering from Stockholm syndrome, or as supporting or at least sanctioning a racist and sexist style of teaching. I am sure that we can rely on these people never to denigrate students who might disagree with them and to totally avoid personalised put-downs.

Sam Duncan
Reply to  Charles Pigden
10 months ago

I think you’re right that we should leave ad hominem arguments aside. But it is clear that if these posters mean this to be a defense of this as a pedagogical style, then they’re offering an exceedingly poor arguments. Just because you *think* that the “hardassed” style was good for you hardly proves that it really was any more than someone attributing his health to taking a handful of garlic pills every morning proves that garlic pills are a key to health. But let’s suppose that they’re right that they did really get something from that style. That hardly proves that it worked better for them than a less bullying style would have. The less bullying and abusive style may have worked just as well or better and without the nastiness and stress. And the harm that such styles do must be taken seriously. Arsenic compounds work as antibiotics in the sense that they kill bacteria, but there’s a reason no doctors prescribe salvarsan any more. And even if this style worked for a few individuals that’s no proof that it’s generally effective at all much less more effective than other strategies. It’s all very annoying to see philosophers offering “arguments” that, while not a hardass myself, I’d give C’s in a 100 level class, especially since there is a lot of actual research on what works and what doesn’t in teaching that people could consult rather than throwing around their intuitions. This isn’t a bad place to start with said research:

https://www.amazon.com/What-Best-College-Teachers-Do/dp/0674013255/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2NBWJNNLT73LH&keywords=what+the+best+college+teachers+do+by+ken+bain&qid=1690636050&sprefix=bain+best%2Caps%2C151&sr=8-1

There’s even a whole chapter on the question so many here want to pronounce on from the armchair.

Charles Pigden
Reply to  Sam Duncan
10 months ago

Well actually the pro-hardass posters do have a decent argument For what they usually say is something like this: ‘I had a lot of kindly or indifferent teachers but on reflection the one that did me the most good was the hardass.’ If this is true (and we have no strong reason to think that it isn’t), then they *do* give a reason to think that the hardass would not have been as beneficial had he not been a hardass, namely that the non-hardasses were in their experience less beneficial. If they had not experienced non-hardass teachers, then perhaps we could discount their opinions but this is not the case. All this is based anecdota of course, however but anecdota are not the same thing as armchair speculation . Moreover the book you recommend – Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do – also deals in anecdota, some of it of the same kind.  (Indeed, one academic reviewer commented ‘I did find the book’s informal anecdotal approach rather irritating’.)  The author selects teachers who have achieved good results as assessed by relatively objective criteria, and then analyses what they do. These criteria included such things as the professional successes of their students  – for instance getting high scores in exams – but also the (reported) fact that they stand out in their students’ memories as making a life-changing intellectual difference. Now this thread began with a reminiscence from Frankfurt – a highly successful philosopher, who has, so to speak, passed all the relevant exams with distinction – about which of his teachers stood out in his memory as having done him the most good. Many of the other pro-hardass posters have also been professionally successful and are also reporting on teachers who stood out in their memories as making a life-changing intellectual difference.  Thus we have evidence based on *the same kinds of criteria*  as those employed by Ken Bain – the professional successes of their students and what those students thought about who had had made a a beneficial intellectual difference to them – that at least in *in some cases* the hardass teachers have achieved good results. Almost everybody admits that this style of teaching would not work for everyone. So the claim is not that the hardass approach is a panacea. The claim is that that the hardass teacher can sometimes be good for some people. And for this claim we have reasonably good evidence. 
Caricaturing somewhat the debate goes something like this. 

Sam Duncan and his allies:  
‘The evidence suggests that the hardass approach is not beneficial’ 
Successful philosophers:
‘My experience suggests that the hardass approach benefited me.’
Sam Duncan and his allies
‘Your experience does not count as evidence’ (and by the way, you are the deluded survivors of an elitist hazing ritual, are suffering from Stockholm syndrome, and are supporting or at least sanctioning a racist and sexist style of teaching.) 

Well no, it DOES count as evidence because it is *the same kind evidence” as the evidence to which Bain appeals in What the Best College Teachers Do when sorting out the excellent teaching wheat from the ho-hum teaching chaff. 

Sam Duncan
Reply to  Charles Pigden
10 months ago

Bain has a pretty extensive bibliography in that chapter so your summary of the case is either willfully dishonest or simply inaccurate. Nor did I ever suggest that Bain was the be all and end all here, but instead it’s not a bad place to start. So again you’re either willfully misrepresenting my own position or can’t be bothered to get it right. Feel free to tell me which in each case. I’d also add that given the prevalence of hardassedness or plain old bullying as a pedagogical style for a long time in philosophy the people for whom such a style works, or at least isn’t wildly counterproductive to their success will be overrepresented in philosophy. Do you not know what selection bias is or again have you not bothered to think about how it might be relevant here? If you And of course a lot of us are telling you that the style doesn’t work for us and our students. Our anecdotes count for just as much as yours. I suppose in light of this you’ll fall back on some arbitrary criterion where you cherrypick philosophers you count as great who have some quote about how much they enjoyed and profited from the intellectual spankings some equally great man or men gave them.

Sam Duncan
Reply to  Charles Pigden
10 months ago

I’ll add that at least one of the studies Bain cites focuses on how various teaching approaches correlate to scores on math tests. Would you grant that whether students can do some mathematical operation or not is a more objective measure of teaching success than whether or not a philosopher you deem successful gets a warm feeling thinking about his old teacher?

Charles Pigden
Reply to  Sam Duncan
10 months ago

‘Would you grant that whether students can do some mathematical operation or not is a more objective measure of teaching success than whether or not a philosopher you deem successful gets a warm feeling thinking about his old teacher? 
No, not for the claim under discussion which is that *some* people *sometimes* (and in a rather restricted range of contexts) have benefitted from the ministrations of a hardass teacher. If a *professionally successful philosopher* – that is somebody who has passed a rather demanding set of ‘tests’ – who has had both hardass and non-hardass teachers says that the hardass teacher did him the most good, then that’s evidence that the hardass teacher did him the most good. And it is evidence, furthermore, that had he not been a hardass (like his other teachers) the teacher in question would have done him *less* good. Furthermore , if other successful philosophers say much the same thing, then this is evidence that for some people some of the time the hardass approach pays off.  Since this is the claim, the issue of sample bias simply does not arise. If either I or anyone else were claiming that the hardass approach was the best or that it worked for most people, then sample bias would be an issue. I would be generalising from a biased sample. But since I am making no such claim it is simply irrelevant. Maybe the testimonials to the beneficial effects of hardass teaching are coming from the small minority for whom it has worked. That does not cast doubt on the claim that it *has* worked for them (which of course, entails the it *sometimes* works for *some* people).  

Now as to the ‘warm feelings’ issue. Unless the reviews I have read radically misrepresent Bain’s book, his criteria for the selection of stand-out teachers, included their memorability. Good teachers in his book are ones whose students got good grades or were otherwise intellectually successful AND who stood out in the memories of their charges as having made a big and beneficial difference to their lives. These criteria seem entirely sensible to me. But note that these are criteria that *for a minority of students* SOME hardass teachers seem to have met. Some of their students did well by the relevant professional standards and they stand out in *some* of their students memories as having made a big and beneficial difference. If you choose to discount these ‘warm-feelings’ then you are effectively rejecting Bain’s selection criteria for teaching excellence. The difference between the hardasses and the excellent men and women whose teaching styles he analyses is that the excellent teachers inspired ‘warm feelings ‘ in LOTS of people rather than a perhaps idiosyncratic few. But that does not mean that warm feelings don’t count or that they did not count for Bain. 

Bain, of course, is making the eminently sensible (though perhaps a trifle banal) suggestion that *for most students* a style of teaching which treats students with respect and encourages them to be active participants in their in their own education rather than passive recipients of information tends to work best. (More interesting, if the reviews are right, is Bain’s slightly sotto voce thesis that it is the underlying *attitude* that makes the difference rather than the details of the teaching techniques, since the teaching techniques vary quite a lot between his chosen paragons.) I have neither said nor suggested anything to the contrary. (Indeed over a thirty-five year teaching career this is what I have tried to do myself though I would not claim be either as talented or successful as a teacher as Bain’s exemplars of teaching excellence.) Belittling and savage criticism does not work for most people. But that does not mean that it does not work for anyone. Some people say that it worked for them. Instead of simply accepting this as a minority report or arguing that it represents of the experience of a very small minority, or arguing that however beneficial it may have been in a few cases, it would be a disaster if applied as a general model (all of which are reasonable things to say), you and others like you have chosen to belittle, doubt and disparage those who made this this claim. And that it is what I objected to a) because you have no warrant for this scepticism (certainly not the work of Bain) and b) because your polemics display the very vices against which you inveigh.

Fail Fast, Succeed Faster
10 months ago

I had a supervisor whose style was all about ample criticism and frequent redrafts. However, they were always good at separating their criticism of my work from their opinion of me, and they always made clear that sending them criticisable work was acceptable during the writing process. That helped me get out of perfectionism about writing, and it was probably the single most useful thing that a supervisor ever taught me.

It also helped me (forced me!) to develop skills in learning to deal with criticism (founded and unfounded) which has been extremely helpful for the many rejections and frustrations of publication markets.

Cecil Burrow
10 months ago

I guess I have opposite intuitions to some here. Being a hard-ass is easy; by the time you get through graduate school, pretty much any philosopher knows how to tear apart or cast doubt on pretty much any argument. Doing so to graduate-student work is generally very easy and not any sort of accomplishment.

The much more subtle task is recognizing a good idea buried somewhere and helping someone to uncover it and present it in a way that makes it compelling to many. That takes open-mindedness and genuine skill, and being good at that is a real accomplishment.

Hearing that someone like Max Black was good at tearing apart graduate student work does not impress me at all, unless he was also good at reconstructing exciting ideas out of the ashes of what remained. Looking at the quality of Black’s own work, I’m doubtful that he was good at the later task. All these other stories in the comments about hard-asses who demolished graduate student work also strike me as unimpressive (or even juvenile) unless they also had the later positive skill.

michael lavin
michael lavin
8 months ago

My guess is that philosophers have less control over how they teach than one might think. No doubt you can teach a student to give clear lectures on Descartes Meditations or Hume’s arguments against the idea that causality includes the existence of a necessary connection. What a philosopher becomes when teaching a tutorial to a single student is, for better or worse, himself. Black had singular gifts. Frankfurt got from him what Black was. I think it is telling that Black translated Frege with Geach. From what I observed after a talk Geach gave in Leicester, he, like Black, had no patience with loose-think. He seemed ruthless with very young undergraduates, but I also thought those bold enough to challenge him got a full blast to Geach’s personality. As much as I disliked direct experience of hard philosophers, I knew what I was getting when I sought tutorials from them. By happy contrast, I would hold out James Urmson and Jack Smart as models of kindness to students. It was, I think, also who they were as men. Alas, I know of no way to train somebody to become a mensch.