Contrarianism at the University

On Monday, Tom Woods reproduced an email a reader had sent him, asking if he should take the contrarian position at the risk of a worse grade. This is a common fear amongst students, but for some reason non-students continue to perpetuate the myth. The fact is, most professors don’t grade those who disagree any worse than those who agree. They grade on quality of argument. The student who agrees with the professor can borrow from the lectures and the reading — the substance of the paper is developed in class. The student who disagrees has to either develop his position on his own or read material outside of the class. Consequently, students who take contrarian positions tend to have worse argued papers. But, the problem is the quality of the argument not the subject matter.

Here’s my advice. Let’s say that you’ve read an article on the civil war written by Tom Woods or Tom DiLorenzo and you’re convinced. But, this is pretty much the only literature you’ve read and your knowledge is generally limited. I don’t suggest you write a paper defending this position, largely because the scope of knowledge determines the quality of the argument. Now, if you’re one of those students who gets extremely involved with a topic and explores it in relatively more depth than your peers, then go ahead and write the contrarian paper. Note, none of this presupposes truth. One side or the other could be wrong, or both sides could be wrong, yet they both can advance good arguments.

If, for some reason, your professor gives you a worse mark than the one you expected, then stop by his/her office hours. If the professor included margin notes and you disagree with his judgment (of your argument) more likely than not that professor will be willing to discuss it with you. I took a womens’ studies course as an upper division elective once and I got a C or a B on a paper. I approached my professor after class and pleaded my case: she bumped my grade to an A.

The point is, very, very few professors will fail a student for taking an unpopular position. If you do poorly in a paper or an exam where you take such a position it’s probably due to problems in your argument and writing, not a problem with the position you decided to defend (assuming the position is relevant to the prompt, of course).

2 thoughts on “Contrarianism at the University

  1. Bardhyl N. Salihu

    Well, yeah true to a certain extent, but don’t forget that the “quality of your argument” is judged based on the professor’s views–not always independently. I had a very statist professor in university and although I don’t claim to have been given a B- solely because of my contrarian position, he couldn’t really see past my arguments. There was always a “But” following my reasoning. I’m not saying my line of argumentation was entirely sound, but I could see clearly how his views affected the way he judged my argumentation.

    As for the question, I mulled this issue many times as an undergraduate. I started as a contrarian and quickly realized it wasn’t worth it because for one thing no professor will ever admit that he changed his views based on the arguments of his student. But boy oh boy was it difficult to hear a huge amount of horseshit being spouted.

    1. JCatalan

      Yea, the likelihood of persuading your professor is low (and, I agree, sometimes it can be hard to listen to some of the stuff your professors say in lecture — my intermediate macro. professor talked more about his political views than about intermediate macro.). And, yea, I can see how the contrarian may have to have a better argument than his non-contarian peers, because the professor is more likely to scrutinize something he disagrees with. But, this should even out since the contarian should be better read (otherwise he wouldn’t be a contrarian).

      The way I see it is that there’s a lot of young Austrians who think they know better, but they really don’t. I was (and still am, in some ways) that Austrian, although surprisingly it didn’t land me bad grades.


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