Sunday, August 31, 2008

Philosophically speaking...

Published August 31, 2008
St. George Spectrum & Daily News

Way back in my Junior English class in high school, there was an inside joke among students that if you didn’t quite understand the essay topic you had been given (or hadn’t actually done the reading to fully answer the question) you could get through the assignment by writing a “Bob Smith” essay. A Bob Smith essay was just a jumble of words that sounded highly intelligent, had some sort of flow, and focused more on concepts surrounding the essay topic than on the actual topic itself (for clarity, note Bob Smith’s initials).

The rest of the story is that the teacher knew exactly what those students were up to, and Bob Smith was quickly abandoned and replaced by actual work. I never wrote a Bob Smith essay. I enjoyed wowing the teacher with my own highly intelligent writing, thankyouverymuch. That is to say, I never wrote a Bob Smith essay until today.

I wrote my Bob Smith essay in response to my first reading in the Philosophy class I’m taking at my new university. I’m having a really hard time with this class. I am a practical, logical human being, and I’m taking a college course that tells me it’s going to teach me to think about thinking without actually telling me anything about anything. There are no answers, only questions that lead to more questions. I’m lovingly referring to the class as Bob Smithology, though I will never tell my instructor that (but I’m thinking about thinking about it).

The instructor’s intro to the class told us that the readings will be the most difficult we’d ever encounter and we’d probably all have to read each assignment twice. Me? Not understand something I read? Ha! He was wrong. I had to read it 3 times, and I still don’t think I know what it said.

And then it was time to write my response and share it with the other students on the online discussion board where we’re supposed to hang out and think about thinking. I read a few of the responses already posted and felt my head swimming in the hazy, Bob Smithian word-soup of 20 philosopher wannabes. I would only get credit for my response if my response was as convoluted as theirs.

I wondered briefly if I could get away with just quoting “They Might Be Giants” lyrics and call it a day, but the plagiarism policy at the school is pretty strict. I finally settled on something about quantum physics questioning scientific certainties that ended with, “For all we know, in 500 years, people will have questioned and hypothesized and tested until they realize the earth is a conglomeration of balanced energy and matter doesn't actually exist...”

Now, either my instructor or classmates will call me to task on my lack of sincerity or they’ll completely miss the fact that I’m not really serious about what I’m saying and we’ll all have a rousing discussion about the questions inherent in questioning the thoughts we think about thinking and the logic of logically questioning the thinking of asking…and I’ll get full credit, and my inner sense of what’s right and wrong will overheat until it implodes.

I really don’t know which scenario I prefer. I don’t want to fail the class over my stubborn desire to write what I really think, but can I accept credit just for “playing the game” and pretending I care about arguments I find ridiculous and meaningless? It’s an incredible conundrum, and I’m really annoyed to be facing it.

Of course, this has the makings for one heck of an essay for my Intro to Ethical Dilemmas class, so all in all, it’s not a total loss.