Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"Grief should never be met with suspicion"

Yesterday, an article was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education which I am NOT going to link to, because I am saddened that it was given a voice in the first place and will not be party to giving it a further voice. Since then, there has been quite a bit of backlash on my twitter feed in response to the article -- thankfully -- and I tried to articulate my own feelings in 140 character capsules. I didn't succeed, so here's a blog post instead.

The crux of my feelings are summed up in the title of this post. These are not my words, but the words of someone who COULD articulate in 140 characters:

These words are worth saying again: Grief should never ever be met with suspicion.

Two further points:

  1. The assumption that a student is lying should NEVER EVER be the default.
  2. If students are lying about things like this we should instead be asking ourselves what's gone wrong that they end up in such a position.

Ad (1). The entire student-teacher relationship is predicated on trust. My students trust me to give them the information they need -- to learn the course material, to do the exercises, to pass the exam. In return, I must trust that they are coming willing to learn and willing to work. Our relationship must be collaborative, not combative. We are not antagonists here. If I approach my interactions with my students from the assumption that they are lying to me or trying to pull one over me, the foundation for my entire relationship with them is destroyed. It isn't just a matter of whether or not family members die at inconvenient times. I don't assume that students are cheating until proven otherwise. Why would I assume that they are lying to me about something as important as a death in the family?

Ad (2). Suppose it is a lie. Suppose that no grandmother has died. Shouldn't that be far less a concern than understanding how a student could end up in a position where it seemed like the best thing to do was to lie?

So maybe they are lying. Drawing from that the conclusion that they are lying out of laziness or lack of organisation is, in my opinion, near the height of hubris. I do not know what my students' lives are like -- and I don't need to. I make an explicit point of telling students this, that they do NOT need to divulge more details than they are comfortable with, once I have fulfilled my duty of care and ensured that no one is in danger. On a principle of epistemic humility alone, I should not assume the least charitable explanation. I guess this is what bothers me the most about the original post -- that it should seem so difficult for the author to imagine that the situation is far more complex than the mere death of a relative at an inconvenient time.

Further, the fact that students can end up in a position where it seems like their best option is to lie happens points to structural problems in academia. I don't know how to address them, but I do know I don't want to participate in them any more than I have to.

Suppose it is a lie. Suppose I develop a reputation as the gullible bleeding-heart professor who is willing to be generous and lenient. You know what? I'm actually good with that. If my students can't come to me about a death in the family, why on earth would they ever come to me about anything more serious? And if I -- a responsible adult in a secure situation -- am not someone they can go to when they are in difficulties and need help, then, really, what good am I? There is no amount of logic that I can teach my students that would ever make up for me standing by the side and doing nothing when instead I could help someone.

Grief should never, ever be met with suspicion. That our students are lying to us should never, ever be our default position.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Writing like Hemingway...or not

I spent the last couple of days in Oxford at a Fiction Writing for Philosophers workshop (at which I gave a talk arguing that plot is argument and argument is plot; more on this in another post here within a few weeks, I hope). Thursday morning the keynote speaker was James Hawes, who gave us a brief writing assignment part-way through.

We were given the opening paragraphs of Heminway's For Whom the Bell Tolls:

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.

"Is that the mill?" he asked.


"I do not remember it."

"It was built since you were here. The old mill is farther down; much below the pass."

He spread the photostated military map out on the forest floor and looked at it carefully. The old man looked over his shoulder. He was a short and solid old man in a black peasant's smock and gray iron-stiff trousers and he wore rope-soled shoes. He was breathing heavily from the climb and his hand rested on one of the two heavy packs they had been carrying.

And then we were told to rewrite it, but using our own story and own characters. By "rewrite", we were instructed to follow the structure of the sentences one by one: The first one beginning with a pronoun (not a name! not a description!) and an action, with a specification of the action, and a description of the setting. The second sentence needed to be an expanding on the description, and involve a passive action on behalf of the initial character. The third sentence needed to be more description, but slightly more poetic and fancifcul, with a repetition of the action. Then the first character had to ask a question; an unnamed character had to answer; the first character reply; and the second elaborate. The first character then needed to do an action with a prop, and the second character act and then be described.

The point was to show how through quiet economy of language and setting of scene, one can evoke sympathy for a character by starting at a bird's eye approach and then zeroing in to the details, with some action.

I found the exercise infuriating.

My first thought was that I would try this task with one of my current short stories being drafted, because I have been struggling with it and thought maybe this might get me unstuck. But that was a resounding "no" from the very first word, when I would have had to decide between "He" and "She". See, one of the things I'm doing this story is seeing how far I can get without ever explicitly confirming the genders of any of the characters. So the Hemingway-route is right out for that story.

My next thought was that I would try rewriting the prologue of The Novel in this style, especially because the prologue already has some superficial similarity in initial structure. That was also very quickly a "no": First, because the prologue is in the present tense (for a very specific reason), and changing it to the past just isn't an option. Second, because there is no dialogue in the prologue, and this is again for a very specific, plot-governed, world-building reason.

Since the prologue didn't work, I figured I'd try rewriting chapter 1, since in that chapter things actually happen, there is a location and an action and two characters and a discussion. I followed the template, and what I came away with was so awkward and static and so unexciting. In the actual chapter, Luneta comes sweeping in to Duska's office and spreads her maps on the table with a flourish, announcing that they are finished before Duska can even inquire. There is a sense of vibrancy and action and vitality. We do not know why it is important that the maps are finished, but we do know that it is important that they are.

In the end, I wasn't all that surprised that my Hemingway-esque rewriting fell so flat, because I actually think the original opening is pretty flat. What I found most useful about the exercise was articulating why Hemingway just doesn't do it for me. (It's not just this chapter; I haven't read Hemingway since university, but I remember being mostly unmoved by him then. A Moveable Feast I remember being better than the others, though.) (1) The omniscient perspective doesn't allow me any access to the character's heads, what they are thinking, what they are feeling. I am not intrinsically motivated by the actions of men, so simply having them converse does not make me interested in them. (2) Description. All the description. The light glinting on the water and the wind blowing through the trees and the brown leaves...I don't need it. I realized at one point while drafting The Novel that there was a marked lack of description in it (unless we are talking about ecclesiastical architectural details). One of the main characters has zero physical description; the only thing that is ever said explicitly about him is that he is young and he is male. When I realized this, and I realized I wasn't writing it because I didn't know what to describe or where to put the description, I started paying attention to where and how description appears in the books I like to read, to see if I could get guidance from that. And I found something very interesting: I don't actually read description. If it's more than a sentence or two, I just skip over it until I'm back to the characters. It just doesn't interest me, and there are two reasons for this: (a) I just don't see it. For the most part, the sort of details that are being described in descriptive passages are details that I just do not see when I navigate through my (actual) world. (You can ask my husband about the sheer quantity of things that I do not notice about household details -- whether we have skirting board, what color it is, what type of profile it has, what color the door frames are, etc., etc., etc. I just don't see it). (b) I can't generally reconstruct a mental picture from a spoken description, whether this is a description of a person or a place. So both coming and going, description doesn't do it for me, for the most part. (3) The general lack of urgency about any of it. I have been given absolutely nothing in this opening to make me excited about the characters, or to make me worried about them -- which is funny, because this was given as an example of an opening that gets the reader emotionally invested from the start.

The final interesting thing that came out of this exercise was the number of other people who participated in it who also said that Hemingway does very little for them!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Continental philosophy of math

I am about as far from the continental tradition in 20th-21st C philosophy as you can get. Some of my students, however, are not, and they keep asking me questions about what various continental people would say in response to issues coming up in our philosophy of math discussions.

So I've done what any self-respecting academic would do: I've gone to twitter to ask for recommendations on continental philosophy of math

I've now gotten enough recommendations that it makes sense to collate them all in a blog post. Note that that is all this is: a collation. I haven't read any of these texts, don't even recognize many of the authors, and thus inclusion here is not any indication of quality or agreement!

Another useful note:

And now I want to teach a class where I can use this as an essay question:

I'll continue to update this page as further suggestions come in.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

How did we know things before the internet?

Last night re-reading ch. 5 of Shapiro's Thinking of Mathematics, preparing for this morning's seminar, I realized that my students might not actually be familiar with the import of his example of Fermat's Theorem.

I remember very distinctly the progress of Wiles's presentation and the final published proof. It is a vivid memory, in that I followed the development day by day, catching the excitement as people suddenly started speculating, is he going to prove that I think he's going to prove? And then he did! This centuries-old "theorem" had finally become a theorem! It was amazing, and the process was a definitive moment in my scientific upbringing.

I thought back on these memories last night, and tried to triangulate exactly when it happened. My edition of Shapiro's book was published in 2000, and I figured it had to have been not too much before that, '97 or '98. (But in retrospect, writing this now, even '98 would've been rather early for me to have been so interested in the result; that was the year I took my first logic class, and prior to that I was still very much a math-phobe). Then I did the math and realized that there was a very good chance that not only would my students not know about the importance of Wiles's proof, but that they might not even have been born. #waytomakemefeelold.

Earlier this evening I decided to find out exactly when Wiles's proof was, and looked it up, only to find that the presentation was in 1994, and the proof in 1995.

Nineteen Ninety-Four. NINETY-FOUR. I was TWELVE.

But relative chronology and whether I feel old or young isn't the point of this post. The point of this post is that if Wiles's proof happened in '94-'95, I have no idea how I knew anything about it. Part of the reason I assumed it had to be '97 or '98 was that surely I followed the progress of it via the internet. Surely. But...in 1994, we didn't have internet at home. We didn't own a TV. (Well, we did. But it was stored in the basement, unplugged.) We didn't subscribe to any newspapers, and I lived in a small town in central Wisconsin so I'm pretty sure I didn't hear about it over the radio.

This is mystifying. How on earth did I know things before the internet? And isn't it weird that I remember distinctly the process of receiving this information, but not the means by which I received it?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

How I run my advanced seminar

The topic of how to run seminars came up tonight on twitter:

I chimed in with some 140 character summaries of how I do things, and given some of the responses figured it would be worthwhile to lay things out in more detail here.

Last year I introduced a new 3rd year elective logic module at Durham. Over the course of 22 weeks I wanted to cover both basic model and proof theory of modal logic (essentially, the first half of Hughes & Cresswell's book) and Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem(s), and I was given the option of either one 1-hour lecture a week plus a 1-hour tutorial every other week, or a 2-hour seminar every week. You do the math; the seminar nets me more face-time, so that's what I went for.

One of the most important lessons I learned about learning logic I learned in my very first logic class. I was a senior in high school, enrolled at my local two-year university as a special student, and I was taking intro logic along with 8 other people. By the end of the semester, 6 of the other 7 had come to me for tutoring, because I was the only one who had any idea what was going on. And this is when I learned that the single best way to learn logic is to teach it to someone else. It's easy enough to read a textbook, read a proof, listen to someone go through a proof on a board and at each step go "yeah, okay, I buy that. Seems reasonable to me." It's a totally different story to be forced to understand the content well enough to be able to explain and justify it to someone else.

With this knowledge in hand, I went into the seminar with a plan, one that I figured would either work brilliantly or go completely pear-shaped: I would do the first seminar or two, to get everything going, but after that, we were going to treat this as a proper seminar, which means active student participation, which in my specific case meant: Every student was to be responsible for two of the seminars over the course of the year. And by "be responsible", they'd take the assign material and learn it well enough to be able to present it to the rest of the class, handling any questions. My primary role in the course was to (a) be available while they prepared for their presentations, in case they had any questions or needed clarification in advance; (b) to answer any questions that arose during the course of the presentation that the presenter couldn't answer; and (c) to add information or supplementary material that wasn't present in the textbook so I couldn't expect the presenter to know anyway. A secondary role was to be the back-up, so that if something went terribly wrong, I could step in and finish off the seminar.

When I explained the plan to the students, I specifically said that I didn't want to assign seminars, that I'd much rather take volunteers on a rolling basis; this way, people could pick weeks that worked for them in terms of content and their other workloads. And you know what? Only once or twice did I have to suggest to someone "Hey, you haven't yet done a seminar on this topic---" (since there were two broad topics, and each student had to do two seminars) "---why don't you do next week?" The first year I also had a number of auditors, and I, of course, didn't require that they do the presentations---but even some of them volunteered (some more than once!) The presentations are not assessed, and they do not contribute in any way to the student's final mark.

And it worked great. This was clear both from the capability of which they handled their responsibilities, giving clear and well-thought-out presentations, but also from the informal feedback I got---one student said that there is a lot more pressure to really understand the material if you are to present it, and thus he felt he learned it a lot better, and that of course gives them a better foundation for receiving the content they aren't presenting on.

Last year, the course was primarily technical in nature, so the extent of the content to be presented each week was pretty well circumscribed: We'd set a number of pages we hoped to get through---always a number that if we didn't get through them all, there was space in the schedule to let them roll over to the next week. This year, the course is half Gödel and half philosophy of math, but with the same seminar-presentation principle, I expect each student to do one technical presentation and one philosophical. We had our first of the philosophical ones last week, and I'll admit, I wasn't sure how it would go: On the one hand, it's relatively straightforward to take two hours worth of technical material, learn it, present it, and answer clarification or explanatory questions along the way. It's a completely different thing to, on the other hand, summarize and explain philosophical concepts and stimulate a good discussion. I was bowled over by how well it went. Because each of them has already been the person in the spotlight at least once in the course already, everyone knows everyone else and everyone is happy to talk to everyone else, so it meant that when discussion did get going, they were talking to each other (or to the presenter) and not to me, which is the thing I find most difficult about running a good discussion; as soon as I say something, they all turn and focus on me and try to answer to me, rather than to just talk.

So, 1.5 years into using this technique in my advanced seminar, and I have found it an utterly resounding success, and everything I have heard from my students has been positive. If you've got the right number of people do do it (I've 15-18 students; occasionally two will present jointly, either one doing the first hour and the other doing the second hour, or both doing it in tandem---and this reminds me of a important point which is that given that it's two hours, and logic is hard, we ALWAYS take a short break half-way through), I highly recommend this approach.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

What interdisciplinarity looks like

I had a very varied day today.

A colleague in classics and I hope to become the co-directors of a new Center for Ancient and Medieval Philosophy in Durham (the meeting to approved the center will be next week, and we've been assured it'll happen, but it isn't official yet). We met this morning for our first "directorial" meeting, to discuss what we want to do, assuming we get approval, to launch the center in fall. There was a lot of discussion of what sorts of philosophy cut across both the ancient and medieval periods so that we can truly get our two departments (plus history and theology) all involved.

In the afternoon, I'd arranged to meet someone in the algorithms and computation group, who is interested in having Durham host Computability in Europe here in 2019. I haven't been to CiE since 2010, but when he approached the governing board of the conference series, someone on it suggested he get in contact with me, as someone who wants to promote the profile of logic in Durham. So we had a lively discussion about model checking and logics for verification and descriptive complexity.

In between the two, I popped by the library to pick up an ILL book, containing the diary of an early 15th century Florentine shipping captain.

Afterwards, it was back to my office to do some quick fact checking in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for a student of mine working on logical models of time-travel, and then prepare to give a seminar on recursive sets and recursive functions.

Yeah. This is what interdisciplinarity looks like.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Norms of publication

As Draft Two of my novel continues percolating with my beta readers, I've been thinking about publication. Not because I have any concrete plans (perhaps my ontology only allows for plans to be abstract) in that direction myself, at the moment, but because I hang out in an FB group for NaNoWriMo participants and many of THEM are interested in publication and write about their pursuit of it. And there's a number of ways in which the whole "publication of a novel" business is so different from the whole "publication fo a journal article" business.

Join me for a moment in putting on Idealist Glasses, and take a look at the academic publication process -- for journal articles, book manuscripts, conference proceedings, etc. Seen through those glasses, the (or maybe an) ultimate goal of publication is to Promote Truth. How do we decide what gets published, in academia? At one point, we decided that Truth was what mattered. So many artefacts of the academic publication process can be traced to an attempt to realize this goal: Anonymity. Peer review. Retractions. How do we determine whether something is true? We get other experts to read it and give their opinion on it. (In some fields, they may also give their opinions on other things, such as novelty, importance, linguistic beauty, and many, less relevant, aspects.) How do we ensure that it is Truth we are promoting, and not some lesser virtue such as Nepotism? We make the reviewing system anonymous, not only for the people doing the reviewing but also (though not always) the authors. If sufficient doubt is cast on The Truth of an academic publication, there are means in place to issue corrections or even to retract the piece altogether (though that doesn't seem to prevent some people from still acting as if the retraction never happened.)

All of these seems sensible provisions to put in place when seeking The Truth. But when that is not the ultimate goal, some of these provisions seem downright weird. Can you imagine someone retracting a novel? We can all imagine someone prohibiting or banning a novel (and there fiction does not differ from nonfiction, for Aristotle's works were routinely banned and their study prohiited), and we can also imagine someone issuing a new and improved edition, one which takes into account certain infelicities which arose when the narrator did not want his traveling companions to know just exactly he had found that magical ring -- but on what sort of basis would someone retract their novel? "I'm sorry, I made a mistake, what I said was wrong." One of the deliciously freeing parts about writing fiction is that it is difficult to actually write anything wrong. You can write something badly, or you can write something self-contradictory, or you can write something offensive, but (and this is basically the problem of fictional entities and fictional discourse in a nutshell) in what sense can a novel be described as wrong, in the way that academic publications can be wrong in failing to adhere to The Truth? It's certainly not clear to me. Maybe I just haven't thought about it enough.

One might think that anonymity would still be a good thing, because it is there not because it promotes Truth directly but because it helps demote other things, such as Nepotism or Cronyism. One might think that even if promoting Truth is not the aim of the publication process in fiction, reducing cronyism might be. Which is why I find it so weird, coming from a well-entrenched position in the academic side of things, the requirements of certain publishers. For example, the "Rules for Submitting" for one Australian publisher include:

In the body of your email, tell us about yourself:

  • 100 words about you
  • Where in cyberspace we can find you (links are good)
  • What you've done, including any previously published or self-published works
  • Whether you're part of any writers groups
  • Whether you have any media contacts/a blogger profile

If you're an academic, I'd like you to pause for a moment and reflect on what you'd feel like being asked to provide this information before sending off your next journal article or book manuscript. If you're like me, you're probably thinking "why the hell should any of that matter??"

It's because the aim of fiction publication is not The Truth but The Readers. The point of publication is to be read -- either as an end in itself, or as a means to money. One may complain about the failings of academic peer review and publication processes in the early 21st century, but I have to admit, I am really really glad that whether my work gets published does not depend solely on whether the publisher thinks its worth their financial while to publish it. [Note: I am going to completely avoid the issue of predatory academic publishers whether they be genuine scams which take payment and provide no guarantee of quality of publication or whether they be things like Springer and Elsevier, whose bottom line is money. They are not -- yet -- the ones making the individual decision on my individual publications.] Of course, for many academic presses, financial matters do matter, and not every book that says true things is going to be published. But there is still much more space out there for academics books which say true things but will not generate much money than there are for non-revenue-generating fiction.

Which brings up another norm where the two fields differ significantly, and that's the legitimate possibility of self-publication in the fiction side of things. Sure, there is a lot of self-published dross out there, but there are also some really good things, and increasingly (but not universally), saying a book is self-published is not taken as a slur. While blogs, et al., are all plausibly construed as "self-publishing" venues in academia, I think very few people would, upon having their academic book turned down by press after press after press, decide that the thing to do was to self-publish. And I would be surprised if such a book would carry much weight when it came to the author's annual review, or tenure/promotion. (Maybe I'm wrong. If anyone has any good examples of recent -- last 10-15 years -- self-published academic books which are treated as legitimate in their fields, please comment, I'd love to know.) The academic alternative to self-publication is perhaps the setting up of academic small presses (College Publications, I'm looking at you), but these are still rare, and few people have the wherewithal (including the clout!) to establish a new one.

There are plenty of other differing norms. Simultaneous submissions are often acceptable unless otherwise stated in the fiction side of things, whereas they are seriously and significantly frowned upon in academic publishing. In academic publication, we generally have the luxury of submitting without having to pay for the right to have our submission be read by the referee/editor -- not so for many fiction venues, particularly journals. But there is one norm that I look at from my comfortable academic seat and wonder -- wouldn't that be nice? or at least how would it work in academic context? -- and that is the literary agent. You convince an agent your work is worth representing, and they promote you and support you. They are your go-between with the publisher. And they only get paid if you get paid (Oh. There it is. That's why it wouldn't work. When was the last time you got paid for a piece of academic writing?). I find the idea of having one's own personal cheerleader, essentially, someone who believes enough in you to be your champion, a really attractive idea. Too often academic publishing is a horrible and horribly isolating process. Wouldn't it be nice to have someone whose job was to be on your side -- but since you aren't paying them to be on your side, you know that they're on your side because they think you can do it? (Sort of like Your Personal Penguin for academics.)

But, I'm really not sure at all how one could adapt the idea of a literary agent to the academic realm. Until then, I guess I'll just have to keep Believing in Myself.