I’m auditing a grad level logic course at the CUNY Graduate Center. The class – taught by Graham Priest, whose work I’ve discussed previously – is called “Vagueness” and deals with the famous sorites paradox (aka “paradox of the heap”). Taking a full class on a single thought experiment is bonkers. I used to think I had a favored solution for the sorites. As will happen with philosophy, I’ve now studied the problem enough that I have no idea what to think about it. The hope is that this is an intermediate stage followed by increased clarity and understanding. Fingers crossed.
Enough introductions. Auditing a class is awesome. Here are five reasons:
1. It’s free
2. It’s easy
This is how it happened for me: I had it in mind to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy. Meanwhile, I was studying the liar paradox and kept coming across this guy, Graham Priest. His most recent and compellingly titled book sounded super interesting and relevant to what I was researching, so I bought it and read it. I found Priest’s e-mail on the CUNY GC Philosophy Department website and sent him a message, asking if I could chat about his book and get his advice on Ph.D. applications. Right away he said yes and invited me to have a chat with him during office hours.
We had a nice chat where I realized I really don’t know any philosophy. Shortly after, I decided to forget the Ph.D. thing – I just don’t have the disposition for an academic career. But I still loved philosophy. I sent him another message asking if I could sit in on his upcoming class even though I was not a student anywhere.
He said okay. That was it. All I had to do was ask. He’s treated me like any other student since. I participate as much as anyone. I have my weekly assignments graded. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t remember who in the class if officially enrolled and who isn’t.
Many professors are like this. Send them a message and they respond. Ask if you can sit in on their class and they don’t care. This isn’t true of all of them, of course. But enough that sending a message in the dark is worth a shot.
3. No grade encourages risk and creativity
Back in college, I took Calculus II. I got a B. I was tempted to go on to more advanced math but decided against it. Most of my grades were A’s. Why hurt my GPA with tough classes outside my majors?
I’ve always regretted that decision. My high GPA has done very little, if anything, for me. But, as I get more into rigorous philosophy, I sure as hell wish I knew more math than I do.
Now, in vagueness class, I sometimes have to remind myself that my grades don’t matter. There was one assignment where I had an idea that I thought was interesting, but I also thought might be completely off base. Should I write it? What if it was ridiculous and got me a terrible grade? Oh, that’s right – I’m not enrolled. I am immune to grades!
Ironically, I got a higher grade on that assignment than anything else so far in the class.
4. No obligation gets you personally invested and builds the self-motivation muscle
Every week in this class, we have a weekly assignment: a one-page response to the week’s reading. You need to get a B or higher on 7 out of 13 of them to pass the class. They otherwise don’t impact final grade. If you do the first 7 and get a B or above on all of them, you can not hand in any more of them and be fine.
When I heard this, I asked myself what my attitude about these weekly writings should be. I obviously don’t need to do any of them, since I don’t need to pass the class. But then again, I’m taking the class even though I don’t have to, so I might as well make the most of it. So, then, why not do all 13 of them then?
I would be surprised if even half of my class does more than 7 of them. It’s natural. When you’re compelled to do something – even something you think is in your best interest – you push back. You test the limits of how much non-compliance you can get away with. When you’re not compelled, you experience responsibility for your own growth. This makes it natural to want to over-achieve rather than under.
Grade-governed school is designed to motivate from the outside. An arbitrary goal is imposed from on high, and this arbitrary goal serves as the reason to work. Sidestepping grades means leaving behind the artificial motivation. It has to come from within. You have to actually want to learn what you’re learning because there will be no punishment or reward other than learning or not learning. Which brings me to:
5. Discover your passion for ideas
This class is not easy. I’m reading incredibly technical papers written by philosophers who couldn’t care less about their readers’ comfort. It takes time and effort to get through this stuff. Why am I doing it? It’s not for a grade, a degree, a career, or a living. Indeed, this stuff takes time away from work I could be doing for my career.
So why am I doing it? For no other reason than that I love it.
I’ve always loved ideas. But I always had this nagging insecurity at school: do I really want to do this, or am I doing it to do well in school? Am I really passionate about this stuff or am I pretending to be to make the best of the situation?
When there’s nothing to be gained other than the ideas themselves, and you do it anyway, you learn something about yourself. Your learn you’re in it for reals. Or maybe you learn that you’re not. Either way, it’s valuable information. When you have the artificial ulterior motive of grades, that information is inaccessible.
PS: lol, I wrote a listicle.