Monday, October 29, 2018

New publication announcement!

My paper "Names Shakespeare Didn't Invent: Imogen, Olivia, and Viola Revisited" is now available online from Names.

This paper has been in the pipeline least two years, possibly three, long enough that I can't really remember, but I'm really pleased that it's finally published online! Here's the abstract:

Just as Shakespeare’s plays left their indelible stamp on the English language, so too did his names influence the naming pool in England at the beginning of the 17th century and beyond, and certain popular modern names are often described as inventions of Shakespeare. In this article, we revisit three names which are often listed as coinages of Shakespeare’s and show that this received wisdom, though oft-repeated, is in fact incorrect. The three names are Imogen, the heroine of Cymbeline; and Olivia and Viola, the heroines of Twelfth Night. All three of these names pre-date Shakespeare’s use. Further, we show in two of the three cases that it is plausible that Shakespeare was familiar with this earlier usage. We conclude by briefly discussing why these names are commonly mistakenly attributed to Shakespeare’s imagination, and the weaker, but not mistaken, claims which may underlie these attributions.

If you do not have access to the journal and are interested in a copy of the paper, please drop me a line.

Monday, October 1, 2018

"What are the philosophy books that one needs to know to be a philosopher?"

The title of this post is a question one of our undergraduates asked, and which all members of staff were asked to answer. I wrote up my answer today, and thought it would be worth sharing why I think this is the wrong question to ask. (The answer below is written to my fellow colleagues who were asked to answer this question, not to the student who originally asked it.)

I do not think that this question is properly formed. Philosophy is not a discipline of authors and their works but of techniques and concepts and ideas. Putting the emphasis on books and philosophers misses the point, in my opinion, because it is predicated on the idea that our goal in an undergraduate philosophy programme is to teach students philosophy.

"But of course that's what we're supposed to be doing!" you reply. I'm not so sure it's so obvious, and I'll counter with a different proposal for what we should be doing, instead of teaching them philosophy: We should be teaching them how to be philosophers.

Equipping a student to be a philosopher is equipping them with a variety of philosophical tools stemming from different philosophical traditions:

  • The ability to write clearly and precisely.
  • The ability to read a complex article and understand it.
  • The ability to draw distinctions and reason from definitions.
  • The ability to recognise and create counterexamples.
  • The ability to ask appropriate questions.
  • An understanding of how we know things and what counts as evidence.
  • An understanding of what exists.
  • An understanding of what we ought to do.
  • An understanding of praise and blame.
  • (And other things; this list is not complete.)

How we get students to the point where we have all of these doesn't matter; we can do it with any texts and any authors that suit the purposes. Focusing on "required" or "canonical" books and authors reduces philosophy to a set of principles, a set of truths, a set of facts. In my opinion, this misses entirely the point of studying philosophy! Now, if you put concepts and techniques first, then it's likely that certain texts will fall out as "canonical", since certain texts are the first/clearest place in which a specific concept or technique is presented. But often the first place something is articulated is not the best place in which to introduce a student to the subject -- for example, I think students should know about the syllogism, propositional logic, and predicate logic. But I wouldn't advocate teaching any of these via Aristotle, the Stoics, or Frege (at least not as the primary texts!)

I've written more on the difference between teaching philosophy vs. teaching how to be a philosopher (since writing that post, my views have become rather more radical, in that I think the balance should be skewed much more towards teaching them how to be philosophers, even if this means that they end up with "gaps" in their education, e.g., because they haven't read Aristotle, or Descartes, or Russell. Also relevant to this discussion is why I think it is so crucial that we teach logic to our first year students, especially if our goal is to train them to be philosophers.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Advice to new students: Be brave

Dear new student,

It's your first year at university. You may have started classes already, or maybe you still have another week or two to go. But soon, if you haven't already, you'll find yourself in a huge room of people, most of whom you don't know, with someone standing at the front who you don't know and who doesn't know you. It can be terrifying. Everyone around you is nodding their head at what the professor is saying, they're taking details notes (some people even color code them!), while you're still sitting there wondering -- what was that thing the professor wrote on the board, five minutes ago? Is it a word, or a symbol? A mistake, a smudge? Now you've been thinking about that so long, you've missed what the professor said next, and you tune back in to hear, "...and that's why this concept is going to be crucial to what we're doing for the rest of the term." What concept??.

It can be a lonely and isolating place, sitting in a room where you know no one and no one knows you and everyone seems to know everyone else and to have it altogether. But I'm here to tell you, none of it's true: No one comes to university knowing everyone and everything. Everyone is sitting there thinking "I wish I knew more people here than I do." Or "I don't understand what just happened, but I don't want to look stupid in front of everyone else by asking a question."

So here's my advice to you: Own this. Be brave -- be the one who is willing to look stupid in front of a sea of people you don't know, including your professor. Put your hand in the air and ask the questions: "What is the thing you wrote on the board?", "Can you repeat what you just said about that concept?" If you think you sort of got something, but aren't sure, try summarising what you think was said, and ask for confirmation, "Am I understanding this right?" Do it today. Do it again tomorrow. Do it every time you have a question.

Why? Because I can guarantee you that every question you have, someone else in the class is going to have it too, and they're not going to be brave enough to ask, and they will be so grateful to you that you were. They may even come up to you after class and say, "I'm so glad you asked about that concept, I didn't understand it either," and there you are -- your first step towards making friends.

And another reason: Your professor is not a mind-reader. They are not going to know if things are not being understood if no one says anything. One of the hardest parts of standing in front of a group of students -- always nameless, faceless at the beginning of term -- is having no idea if anything you're saying is making any sense. We need feedback when we're going too fast -- or too slow. An inert class who never gives us any response is terrifying.

Now, you're going to get the professor who never pauses for people to answer questions, or who gets irritated when they are interrupted. Be brave, and do it anyway. Put your hand in the air and keep it there until they address you. The purpose of a lecture is for you to learn, not for the professor to pontificate. If you aren't learning, then be stubborn until you are.

You're also going to get the professor who mocks you for your ignorance, and for that, I'm truly sorry. There is no excuse for ridiculing students who ask questions. All I can say is -- we are not all like that. Find the ones who are not, and take advantage of them. Many of us are truly here first and foremost to make sure that you understand what we are trying to teach.

Be brave. Embrace your ignorance and confusion. Be the one in the class who's willing to ask the dumb questions. Your classmates (and hopefully your professor) will thank you for it.

Best of luck,

Doctor Logic, assistant professor, Department of Philosophy, Durham University

ETA: P.S. Martin Lenz wrote an awesome follow-up to this post, with great advice on how to ask questions.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Publication announcement: New short story available!

A week ago Friday, my short story "Being Human" was published in Flame Tree Publishing's Robots and Artificial Intelligence collection. This anthology of short stories combines classic stories by L. Frank Baum, Jerome K. Jerome, and Ambrose Bierce with twenty new stories, including my own! This was my first pro-rate story sale, and I couldn't have asked for a more beautiful venue!

I wanted to write a story that could be read at two levels. On the one hand, it's straightforwardly a classic "robot upgrades from inorganic body to organic body" story, and I hope that read that way it is a rewarding way to read it. Originally I'd intended to have quite a bit more happen after Laura leaves the clinic and meets Asiya and her mother, but when I reached the point of having to write those scenes, they felt forced and awkward and unnecessary. In the end, the story was quite short, but, hopefully, still complete.

But on a deeper level, the story has very little to do with robots at all. A few months prior to when I wrote the story (which was in October 2017), a friend on FB had a link to this What is your gender? quiz, with hilarious results. I took the quiz myself, and was decidedly pleased that my gender came out as "Fine. Seriously, it’s completely fine. Nothing wrong here at all. This is a totally acceptable and normal gender with which to find yourself." But a friend of mine's result was "Robot" which somehow struck a chord with me. "Robot" may not describe my gender, but it does describe how hard it sometimes feels to be a human and to interact with humans. It is so exhausting trying to keep track of where my body is placed, and what I do with my hands and feet, and to pay attention to what people are saying, and what I should say, and how I can time my trips so that I arrive not too soon and not too late, and everything. All of that, I put into Laura. Every single thing she tells herself as she walks down the street she's never walked down before (but which is in fact modeled after Old Elvet, in Durham, England, and the building that she enters is strongly reminiscent of the old shire hall that is across the street from my office) is something that I tell myself as I try to navigate the world. So it is my hope that someone will read the story, and see themself in Laura, in the same way that I put myself into her.

And all the rest of you people, who don't do these calculations, who don't have the running commentary in your heads, have you ever thought that maybe you're the weird ones

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Publication announcement: New short story available!

Today my flash fic story "The Bargain" was published in Impact: Queer Sci Fi's Fifth Annual Flash Fiction Anthology, edited by J. Scott Coatsworth!

I'd had the idea for this story for awhile -- the kernel was the phrase/feeling of "people looking right through you", that feeling where it's not that people ignore you, but that you simply don't impinge upon their lives at all. What if it's because you're already dead? -- but never had quite the right context to develop it in. When I saw the flash fic contest, and the theme "impact", I figured I'd give it a go. I generally find flash fic very difficult, and my first drafts of this story definitely showed this. There were, strangely enough, too many words.

Finally, a day or two before the deadline, I radically rewrote it, with a very different narrative voice, and it worked much better -- well enough that it got accepted. I'm looking forward very much to reading the rest of the stories in the anthology, to see how others handled the same topic in the same constraints. (And G is looking forward to me reading them aloud to her.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Publication announcement: New short story available!

Last night I got the exciting news that the Wavelengths anthology edited by Jessica Augustsson and containing my long short story (almost a novelette!) "The Platform Between Heaven and Earth" has been published! Here are purchase links: paperback, US; kindle, US; paperback, UK; kindle, UK.

I thought I'd devote a post to talking about what went in to writing this story. I wrote it during Camp NaNoWriMo April 2017, with an original goal of 15k, reduced to 11k about 3 weeks in, and the story ended up being ~10975 words. The inspiration came from an off-hand comment a friend made, when we were visiting the first weekend of the month, about how "language was made for us to miscommunicate with each other". Well, what is that if not inspiration for a tower of Babel story? It made me think, what must it have been like, to have been present at the shift from everyone being able to speak to each other, to suddenly having a communicative rift. What would it be like to no longer be able to speak with those who spoke with just the night before?

Then began the research. The single most important thing for me was to get the names of the characters right, so my research started with looking up info on feminine names in the Old Babylon period. The first thing I found was Marten Stol, "Old Babylonian Personal Names", Studi Epigrafici e Linguistici sul Vicino Oriente antico 8 (1991), which had an amazingly detailed collection of information, including a number of examples of women's names. One of the footnotes in that article led me, inadvertently to W. F. Leemans, Foreign trade in the Old Babylonian period as revealed by texts from southern Mesopotamia, which proved to be one of the most fascinating non-fiction books I've read in a long time -- and one of the few that I've read cover to cover without having been contracted to write a review of it! It was full of vocabulary and anecdotes and letters and information about temple practices; pretty much all of the little details in the story come from that book, such as the use of silver, carnelians, and "fish-eyes" (not known what these are; perhaps pearls?) as temple tithes; burasu, a type of incense made from juniper; and most satisfying of all was that from the information in Stol's article -- specifically: "Similarly, in a cloistered community of priestesses, Amat-Beltani considered the priestess Beltani as her 'matriarch'." (p. 203) -- I had hypothesized the name Amat-Ninkarrek, for someone dedicated to the goddess Ninkarrek, and then I found an example of that name in Leemans' book. I was wicked smug about that. All of the other names found in the story are actual documented names, and Selebum does indeed mean 'fox'.

The gods and goddesses mentioned are all ones especially venerated at the towns/cities they were connected with, and for this I found Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses a very helpful starting point for my research.

Significant research was done regarding the history of the Babel myth itself, the surrounding geography, and the relative chronologies and timelines. For this, Wikipedia was invaluable, particularly with locating the various cities and estimating distances between them, and providing older forms of their names, and giving me basic information about the construction and decoration of ziggurats. As far as I was able to determine, current scholarship identifies the zuggurat Etemenanki, dedicated to Marduk in the city of Babylon, was either the inspiration for the tower of Babel story, or the tower itself. The title of the story comes from the translation of the name, "the temple of the foundation of heaven and earth", also translated house of the platform between heaven and earth.

One of the things I learned while researching the history of the myth is that the idea that the confusion of languages was God's punishment for our hubris was quite a late interpretation, and that in a pre-Christian context or rather a pre-Greek context, 'hubris' was not really a concept that made sense to speak of in this context. (For more info on the former, see Sabrina Inowlocki, "Josephus' Rewriting of the Babel Narrative (Gen. 11:1-9)", Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period, Vol. 37, No. 2 (2006), pp. 169-191). This meant I had to find another reason for why these events would occur that couldn't be predicated on a vengeful, punishing God. I'm still rather pleased with how I managed to do this in the end.

The game that Belti and her friends play in the evenings is a variation of the Royal Game of Ur.

This was an immensely satisfying story to write, and I learned so much from the research -- this post covers only a few of the sources I read, or the links that I've saved in my notes.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

What I'm going to do on my summer vacation

It's June. My last grades were handed in on Friday. I had a brilliant weekend off followed by a one-day workshop in Antwerp. I'm now back home, dealing with a bit of admin, and after that...basically there is nothing stopping me from plunging in to my summer writing plans.

But one thing I've learned is that it always takes a day or two to transition; I ca'nt just go full-out marking for a month and then jump straight into writing; projects need some time to meld and rest and simmer, while I figure out which one is the right one to do next. Part of that process involves figuring out just what the projects I want to complete are, so here's me, making a list [note, this is just of academic projects I want to do over summer]:

  • "Silencing Voices: Women, Self-censorship, and Logic in the Middle Ages": I presented a draft of this in Minenapolis a at the end of April, and a full version needs to be done by the end of January 2019. To get this from draft to final stage, I'm going to need to read a whole bunch more primary sources than I have done.
  • "Possible Impossibilities"/"Possible Impossibilities in Medieval Disputations": This paper has been sitting at ~75% done since I presented it in Konstanz in, um, 2012. I don't know why I haven't been able to finish it, but there have been so many people I've promised it to when it's done, that I'd really like to get that wrapped up and off my plate.
  • A chapter on an early 20th C female logician for a book on women in philosophy by women in philosophy for women who aren't yet in philosophy that an ex-student of mine is editing. I need to figure out whom I want to write about!
  • I'd like to spend more time figuring out What problem Ladd was trying to solve.
  • What, exactly does Grosseteste say about logic and the study of logic in De artibus?
  • Revise #TheNovel. [edited to add]
  • Paper for symposium in Singapore. [edited to add]
  • 5-7 pages responding to a paper on contradictory Christology. [edited to add]

I also hope to lay down some of the groundwork for the two projects (one on fandom and philosophy, the other on spatial and temporal logics for building chronologies and maps for stories) that will be my focus during next academic year when I have two terms of research leave. But in the meantime, those five projects should keep me busy over the next four months, especially in tandem with fiction writing and also hopefully referee reports coming back on papers currently in submission. I also want to do some very basic feasibility research related to my grand plan for world domination.