Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Value in BS

After talking about BS in class and reading students' papers, I have good evidence that many of them believe that they are expected to BS their way through most of the writing they do in college, including in the class I'm teaching, and that their professors (including me) can't tell the difference between BS and sincere conviction.

Frankfurt's analysis encourages the students' belief that it's all BS, all the way down. That's because Frankfurt identifies author intent as the marker of BS, and the kind of intent that a BS artist has is the intention of speaking something about a topic when she is not an expert, especially when she is not passionate about it or sure of the truth.

But that is inevitably the circumstance of a learner. Students take courses because they are not yet experts. They write papers to practice skills and to learn how to develop arguments. They don't have enough experience with a topic to have a stake in it. And yet, some papers are merely BS and others are creative and well-developed. So I think that Frankfurt is wrong, and that content and form do have something to do with BS.

I understand exactly the feeling that students are reporting--that they can't help but BS when they don't know how well their ideas will fly. But I think that feeling of producing BS is a necessary stage of doing original work. It's how I feel in the early stages of writing--not yet convinced that I have something new to say. Making it all the way through a rough draft and then rewriting and rewriting cures that feeling. Of course student writing usually is not put through multiple drafts. But just because it stinks doesn't mean that it's bull.


philosoraptor said...

Hi. This is really interesting, and I wonder whether you've read Kerry Walters' paper, 'On Bullshitting and Brainstorming' (Teaching Philosophy, 11, Dec. 1988, pp.301-313). If I've understood his discussion (and I hope that I have because I've used it in class several times!), then he is at pains to draw a contrast the sort of bullshitting that you're describing and the sort that Frankfurt is describing. (Now, don't ask me what the contrast is supposed to be, because I don't have my notes in front of me!)

Evelyn Brister said...

Many thanks for the reference! It sounds like just the sort of thing that I could use in class, too.

philosoraptor said...

Okay, I found my copy of the paper. From one of the footnotes: "Frankfurt's analysis differs from mine in that he focuses upon the distinction between bullshitting and deception. Moreover, his characterization of bullshitting allows for a greater degree of creativity and imagination than mine does."

Catherine Hundleby said...

Thanks for generating the tip on this book. I may use it myself for teaching!