Thursday, June 15, 2006

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny

I read this funny post today about how to cheat good, and it reminded me of an instance in college wherein I did not cheat but got accused of it in amusing ways.

I was taking freshman Philosophy 101, which I didn't really like, and which was one of only four big lecture-hall classes I had during my college career where my primary contact was with a TA rather than a prof. My TA was an ASS. His name was something kinda pretentious (like Cassius or Pretentio or something), so I suppose he was pre-doomed to a life studying philosophy. He once threw a temper tantrum in class when his demonstration (this was hilariously and unintentionally ironic and it speaks to his personality that he didn't get the joke) of how effect follows cause didn't work. He threw the chalk at the wall to show us that chalk always shatters when it hits the wall, except the chalk didn't. He threw it over and over and the chalk wouldn't shatter. Then he started yelling at it and jumping up and down on it. I think he was a little unbalanced.

So I wrote this paper on St. Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God. I was feeling clever and a bit pretentious myself, so I titled it "Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny," a phrase I had learned in biology and was so inordinately fond of that I wrote a poem about it when I was 17ish and knew everything. Ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny means that the development of the fetal organism resembles the evolutionary development (in the adult members of prior species) of the species of the whole. (In its original form this argument is largely discredited, but development of specific organ structures in fetuses typically follow the sequence of the evolution of those structures in time and can provide important clues to evolutionary sequences.)

In this case I wrote about how the sequence of logic in Anselm's ontological argument reflected his overall intellectual development as reflected in his writings and biography, thus the ontogeny of his ontological argument (ha ha!) was recapitulating the phylogeny of his overall learning process during his life. Whether this argument is crap or not I have no idea. I probably just really wanted to title the paper "Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny" because it sounds smart, it rhymes, and it puns on "ontological."

Okay, got all that? (Clearly, this is a nerd post.) So I turn in my shiny smart paper with shiny big words, and promptly get it back with a D MINUS. I had never received a D minus in my ENTIRE LIFE! EVER! This was appalling. The lowest grade I had ever received on an essay before - which I am still mad about - was a C in freshman high school English on an essay on Julius Caesar (my favorite Shakespearian tragedy) about how Brutus wasn't an honorable man. My teacher totally had a thing for Brutus being, like, the most honorable man in all of literature and so simply remarked on my paper that my interpretation was wrong: C. (Insert important life lesson about subverting your own ideas to the prejudices of your superiors here.) But back to my ontological argument paper: Because it was one of our first papers as college students, we had to meet with the TA to get the paper back and receive the grade. I didn't know until I sat down at the cafe table with him that I had a D MINUS. I was shocked. I asked him what I had done - or not done - to receive a D minus.

"First of all, you used words you don't understand," he said.

"WHERE?" I demanded, incredulous. "I don't use words I don't understand!"

He pointed to the title.

"I understand those!" I protested.

"There's no way you understand those; I had to look them up in the dictionary!" he informed me. There was a wealth of ego and inadequacy in that lonely emphasized "I".

I explained to him off the cuff what they meant, to prove that I KNEW what they meant, and protested I learned the theory in high school biology.

He said, "You may have been having fun with a thesaurus rather than a dictionary, and I'm sure you can memorize definitions, but using the dictionary is a cheap academic trick and it's cheating. The rest of your writing is not bad, but since you cheated, I can't give you above a D minus."

I was utterly gobsmacked. I protested I hadn't cheated, nor used a dictionary, nor a thesaurus. He said, "The alternative is that you flat-out plagiarized it." At that point I was literally speechless. I took my D minus paper and left, and went right to the prof's office.

She read the paper while I sat there and said, "This is a B paper." And changed my grade. But wouldn't switch me out of Pretentio's section. So I got to watch his chalk-tantrum-throwing, plagiarism-accusing antics all semester at 8 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

This may be why I never cottoned to philosophy.

While I get that he obviously couldn't deal with a student using a word he didn't know, what I never, ever understood was a) How was I supposed to be ignorant of the word "ontogeny" when we'd been reading the ontological argument for two weeks? and b) HOW IS USING THE DICTIONARY TO LOOK UP WORDS CHEATING IN ANY UNIVERSE EXCEPT DICTIONARY-WRITING????


HeartShadow said...

Eyebrows, my friend, you miss the crux of the argument.

Being smarter than the TA is COMPLETELY illegal, and showing it is cheating. :D

Alexander said...

Ugh! That is really aweful. I wish I could say that it is an anomoly, but in my short teaching career, I've run into some *really* bad TAs, and quite a few profs who are just as bad. Makes me mad just to read it.

Tony said...

Heartshadow, it's not illegal. It's IMPOSSIBLE. Remember, the TA is the Being that which no greater can be concieved.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to know what became of that TA later in life.

C. J. Summers said...

Anonymous, my guess is the TA became a customer-service rep at AT&T....

bondgal_rulz said...


Teachers and their big inflated egos!! I wonder how many students have fallen prey to their nastiness.

Was looking up this phrase and tumbled across your blog.

Nice write - up. :)


NILIGOAT said...

I've loved the idea of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, however flawed, since reading The Naked Ape in junior high. You're the man for writing this post.

Anonymous said...

happens all the time ...TA in philosophy trying to use Darwin ... totally misquoted him, his contributions and his life ... student of Anthropology tried to correct her ... she'd have none of it .. well certainly because she was a grad student and I the lowly undergrad .... just the way it is :) idiots .. laugh it off ... some people just have nothing else but their perceived intellect.