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I’ve been delighted to take up my new full-time job as educational technologist at Boston University. It’s been great to use my background in scholarship and teaching in a way that, unlike faculty work, actually makes a living.

My specialty as a technologist has been to help faculty adopt ePortfolios – electronic collections of student and faculty work, typically with the intent of making student learning visible to an outside audience. There are a variety of purposes to ePortfolios, but one of the most common is assessment – figuring out whether students are really learning what they’re supposed to be learning.

Educational institutions have come to emphasize assessment more and more in the past decade. Assessment is sometimes resisted in the humanities because of an emphasis on quantification – often with good reason, as in the case of the UK’s catastrophic RAE and its relentless insistence on quantity over quality of scholarship. But there’s no reason for humanists to be opposed to assessment in principle. We always claim that our students come out of our classes better than they were when they began – better writers, more careful readers, more thoughtful, more critical, more knowledgeable, more engaged citizens, whatever. If they didn’t improve in some such ways, there would be no point in our teaching them. And surely at least some such improvements can be observed, even if we resist attaching numbers to that improvement beyond the grades we give. Moreover, some of those who have tried to observe whether students do indeed improve in these ways in their college classes – notably Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa – have found that in many cases, in the US at least, they don’t. This fact, if true, would be disastrous, considering that US students typically go tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for their educations. Surely we cannot merely assume that this is money well spent. And so assessment of some sort seems to me quite a valuable task.

Working professionally with assessment has led me to think more about the question: how do we assess philosophy? It is this question, I think, that may have contributed the most to the notorious divide between analytic and “continental” philosophy.

It has been a commonplace for some time that the concerns of analytic and “continental” philosophers overlap considerably. In the past couple decades, philosophers in the two traditions have started reading each other’s work considerably more than they had when the divide was at its peak. Yet the gap endures – a student trained in the continental Boston College philosophy department is unlikely to be offered a job at analytical NYU, and vice versa.

It’s understandable to bemoan such a gap; I’ve done my share of this bemoaning myself. And yet I’d also like to suggest that the gap currently exists for good reason. It is not, as partisans on either side usually have it (and as I have thought in earlier periods of my life), because one side does philosophy so much better than the other. Rather, it is for the related reason that the two sides disagree on what good philosophy is. They disagree, that is, on assessment – right down to the matter of assigning marks (grades) to student essays and exams.

I saw this difference firsthand as a teaching assistant at Harvard. I taught in two courses, Michael Sandel’s “Justice” and Jay Harris’s “If There Is No God, All Is Permitted”, which I think exemplified the divide. Both courses were offered under the now-defunct rubric of “Moral Reasoning”, in which all Harvard undergrads at the time had to take a course. Neither course was taught by a philosophy professor – Sandel taught in the department of government, Harris in Near Eastern studies – and yet the courses still effectively managed to reproduce the analytic/continental divide, evidence that this divide is not merely a matter of the parochial turf wars of philosophy departments.

In Sandel’s course, argument was all. Students were given a specific question on which to take a position (e.g. “Should governments torture terrorists to gain information about future attacks?”) We marked the papers on whether they had a clear thesis; gave clear, logical and relevant arguments to demonstrate the truth of that thesis; and anticipated potential objections and responded to those. If you did that, you got a good mark; if you didn’t, you didn’t. Kant and Mill and Rawls and Aristotle were on the reading list, but as resources for arguments about the particular cases, deeper theoretical sets of reasons to underlie the arguments students made. Whether you interpreted them correctly was of secondary importance.

That wasn’t the case in Harris’s course. I had a bit of difficulty adjusting to that course, because after two semesters with Sandel, I expected to continue marking on the basis of argument. But for Harris and my fellow TAs in that course, argument was secondary. There was a wide variety of topics to write about, some of which would barely even require the students to have an argument, just explore an interesting position. Much more important was interpretation – and not merely a correct interpretation, but a deep interpretation, one that could explain not merely what Kant said, but why he said it.

Harris’s approach here was much closer to that typically taken in continental Europe. I found it very enlightening to read a short piece in a Harvard magazine by a student who’d gone on a study-abroad program in France. She noted that in French humanities classes – not merely in philosophy – students were expected to open their papers not with a thesis, but with a problématique, an explanation of the various aspects of the problem to be explored.

I’m not even talking here about the difference in content taught between the two classes – but about assessment. The two professors effectively disagreed about what constitutes good philosophy. And it’s that disagreement, I think, that makes the analytic-continental split so enduring.

Now couldn’t one say that both rigour of argument and depth of interpretation are important, and get over the dispute that way? Well, sure, and I would argue that that’s the right way for philosophy to go. The trick is that doing it is not as easy as it sounds. Pedagogically, it’s easier to focus on teaching students a single skill than multiple ones. And I might be tempted to argue that there’s a deeper problem – that the two goals can in some respect interfere with each other. But that’s a topic for another post.

[EDIT: Earlier version of the post didn’t have links to the BC and NYU philosophy departments, just notes to myself to include them. Whoops. Thanks to Jeff for pointing that out!]