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Assume and Conclude

In the thick of grading papers here and I’m busy. Treading water busy and not drowning busy, still there’s a lot to do. My Intro students have just turned in their last short essay so I’ve got about 90 of those. Then there’s quizzes to grade and a final exam to write – followed by more grading – but it will be a relief to get this essay off my plate so I can be done with taking assume for conclude.

This is one of my pet peeves and it drives me batty. Another one is when students (let’s face it, it’s always young women) turn in long-hand exercises written in color ink other than black or blue. Red, pink, gold, silver, purple, glitter and don’t get me started on the one’s that dot their I’s with hearts.

I’ve spent my young career as an adjunct bouncing between a small liberal arts college and a large urban university. While my liberal arts students are uniformly stronger writers than my urban university students (who show a greater range of ability from quite talented to less than competent) both groups do this. Maybe its generational?

In the assignment students record their garbage for five days. I shuffle the lists, which are kept anonymous, and return them. Then they must write an essay in which they interpret their classmates’ garbage as if they were archaeologists.

If the trash data turns up tampons and make-up they will invariably write, “I assume this person is female.” Or if there are beer cans and liquor bottles, “I assume this person is 21.”

No, no, no! You assume that the person is not lying about their trash. You assume that those objects are present because the list-maker, through their own willful actions, put it in the rubbish bin and it didn’t just accidentally fall in. Or someone broke into their place and threw things in the trash. You are actually concluding based on your knowledge and experience that the presence of tampons and make-up indicate that this is a woman’s trash. You are concluding something about this person’s leisure time based on the presence of rolling papers and cigars.

I’ve noticed similar patterns with infer and deduce, which are often taken to be synonymous, and I have had some success in teaching students to tell the difference. Next semester I’ll include some notes on the difference between assume and conclude too.

What are your grading pet peeves?

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR 'hidden collections' grant to describe the museum's collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

15 thoughts on “Assume and Conclude

  1. . Another one is when students (let’s face it, it’s always young women) turn in long-hand exercises written in color ink other than black or blue.

    No grading pet peeves as of yet, but sexist professors really bother me.

  2. Then let it be known that I do not believe males are superior students because of their tendency to avoid using glitter pens.

    Nor do I perceive them to be inferior because males are far more likely to crumple up their papers or fold them into quarters so they fit in their hip pockets. I do find it annoying, however.

  3. Young women ARE a lot more likely than young men to use glitter or other coloured ink pens. It’s hardly sexist to point it out. Nor is it necessarily sexist to admit a gendered habit can be kind of annoying in a context in which it’s totally not appropriate.

  4. I just thought it would be fun to commiserate during grading season by sharing our pet peeves, which are by definition a little ridiculous.

    I’ll go again: a student who turns in all their work, gets good grades but never comes to class. I still take attendance so I know! I’ve got three of them this semester.

  5. Essays in which the student mixes up sex and gender. Even after I’ve devoted at least one full lecture to the topic and reiterated the difference over and over during the semester.

    Also, I hate the whole range of plagiarism. It becomes exhausting after a while to write little notes like, “You changed just enough words for me not to send you to Honor Court, but your next prof might not be so nice.” It’s not that hard to read, comprehend, and restate.

  6. “I’ll go again: a student who turns in all their work, gets good grades but never comes to class. I still take attendance so I know! I’ve got three of them this semester.”

    LOLLL! I was that undergrad. Sometimes I wish I could do it with my grad school classes that are lectures.

  7. I’m beyond grading papers, thank God. (Not that I’m actually retired, since if someone offered me a decent teaching job I’d take it, despite my advanced age and bad attitude.)

    But my pet peeve is when colleagues accuse me of “making assumptions” when as I see it I’ve drawn reasonable conclusions based on carefully compiled and assessed evidence. I’ve often claimed that I do NOT make assumptions, period, that all my work is based on reasonable inferences drawn from reliable data. What they really mean, I suspect, is that they’re skeptical, which is fine, I have no problem with that. However, to accuse someone of making assumptions when that person has gone to a considerable amount of time and trouble to carefully research a topic strikes me as insulting — and I’m wondering if anyone else has had this problem and is equally vexed.

  8. Grading pet peeve: Reaction papers that boil down to “I disagree with the author because I don’t like the article.” That is not a criticism–at least, not an informed or logical one. It’s a statement of personal preference.

  9. I’ve noticed similar patterns with infer and deduce, which are often taken to be synonymous

    I’m rather curious to hear Matt Thompson tell us the distinction he finds between deduction and inference, or, at least, between the verbs ‘deduce’ and ‘infer’. I know of no difference; the rules of deduction are also called the rules of inference; and a casual glance at Webster’s dictionary has not enlightened me as to Thompson’s meaning either.

  10. In my day, deduction was presented as one of two forms of inference, the other being induction. Inductive reasoning from data was distinguished from deductive reasoning from premises. More recently I have been seeing increasing numbers of references to abductive reasoning, described as follows by Wikipedia,

    Abduction[1] is a form of logical inference that goes from data description of something to a hypothesis that accounts for the data. The term was first introduced by an American Philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) as “guessing”.[2] Peirce said that to abduce a hypothetical explanation from an observed surprising circumstance is to surmise that may be true because then would be a matter of course.[3] Thus, to abduce from involves determining that is sufficient (or nearly sufficient), but not necessary.

  11. Yes, so looking more carefully at hose these terms are used, it seems that ‘to infer’ and ‘inference’ are used as terms applicable to both inductive and deductive reasoning, whereas ‘deduce’ and ‘deduction’ are terms properly applicable only to deductive reasoning. Thus we might speak of ‘statistical inference’ (an inductive form of reasoning) but not ‘statistical deduction’. At the same time, there is no substantive difference in meaning between: “So, what can be inferred from these premises?” and “So, what can be deduced from these premises, dear Watson?” Still, the differences between ‘infer’ and ‘deduce’ does not seem especially stark, or salient in most contexts in which it is used.

  12. @Jacob – I was taking inference to be what John McCreery calls inductive reasoning.

    @John – Abductive reasoning strikes me as something like intuition, but I’ve not read Pierce.

  13. @Matt

    I make no claims about what Pierce meant by “abduction.” Haven’t read the original. Where I see it a lot is in discussions of design and architecture, and I see promising applications in history and philosophy of science. Let me give you a practical example, designing an ad campaign.

    1. The client provides an orientation. These are the facts of the case.
    2. The facts do not determine the design solution. Induction alone isn’t enough.
    3. The designer develops hypotheses about possible solutions. These include assumptions, but the solution finally settled on is not deduced from them.
    4. This may sound like intuition, but it is, in fact, a systematic process by which intuition is controlled and focused.

    The solution must be consistent with the facts. There may be a good deal of debate about what the facts are, e.g., when the agency marketing department comes up with new data of which the client was unaware when the orientation was written—but once clients and designer agree on what the facts are, the solution cannot ignore or contradict them. The hypotheses in stage 3 organize the facts and become working assumptions with logical consequences that can be deduced from them. But these deductions are not the solution. Along with the facts they are only constraints on the field of possible solutions.

    In short, neither induction nor deduction provides an innovative solution. Abduction is how to proceed if you need an innovative idea and want to improve your chances of actually finding one. It also turns out to be a pretty fair description of how science usually works.

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