Thursday, July 9, 2020

Farewell, blogger

I've been happily blogging here for many years, until a month or two ago I discovered that blogger doesn't keep back-ups of draft posts, and I lost January - April of my "Wot I Read This Year 2020" draft post. Not cool, blogger, not cool.

So you can now find me at See you there!

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Bob Ross and the Art of Learning Online

My 8yo and I both enjoy painting. She's a very enthusiastic artist, in all media, but is sometimes hampered by being eight. My painting experience is limited to medieval illumination, and has been very hard fought for over the last 12 years or so. (In particular, I'm utterly baffled by anything involving realism. And anything involving watercolors. Baffling, I tell you.)

A few weeks ago, we started watching Bob Ross on Netflix. After about 5 episodes, we were like "I bet we could do that!" -- despite the fact that (a) neither of us have any experience painting with oil paints, (b) we don't have any oil paints, (c) we don't have any canvases, and (d) we have almost none of the right brushes. But why let small hindrances like that stop us? I have a decent selection of gouaches, some high-quality watercolor paper that I was smart enough to purchase before lockdown started, and a decent selection of brushes for small-scale paintings. So we sat down one weekend to see what happens if you follow a Bob Ross episode and try to reconstruct it with entirely wrong materials and tools:

The results were quite literally miraculous. I have never painting anything (a) so large (6x9") or (b) so realistic in my life. G, for her part, was amazed that if she tried to do the same things Ross was doing on TV, she got basically the same results.

The best part was, each painting only took half an hour. So this was something that I was willing to not only do with G on weekends as a special treat, but it was something we could plausibly fit in between supper and bedtime.

We took the techniques we'd learned and applied them to fall scenes:

We tried out winter, too:

All the while we worked, I'd hear G repeating back to me things she'd learned: Thin paint sticks to wet paint; things get darker as you come forward, away from the light source; there's no such thing as a mistake, only a happy accident; every happy little tree needs a friend. In like 2.5 hours of watching TV, she and I had learned more about the mechanics of painting than I'd learned in 12 years of self-teaching and a variety of classes. We've continued to watch (so soothing!) and we've continued to experiment.

As should come as no surprise to anyone in academia, I'm facing the likelihood of having to teach remotely come fall -- and teach what is in many respects a highly visual subject (formal/symbolic logic). Teaching online/remotely isn't something I have any experience with -- my being dumped into the deep edge for the final week of term in March does not count as experience! -- and teaching logic presents unique complications that do not necessarily affect my colleagues in my department.

Which is the other reason why I found Bob Ross's shows so fascinating: How successful he was at teaching someone such a visual -- and physical -- exercise remotely in the way he did. It seems like this is something that should be enormously difficult. And yet, he did it effortlessly, and effectively. So what have I learned about the art of teaching/learning remotely/online from watching Bob Ross?

You don't need bells and whistles. The shows are Ross, his canvas, his palate (already prepped with paints) and his brushes, brush stand, and cleaner. The background is dull black. There is no background music. It's just him, doing his thing. Super effective.

Break the fourth wall. He's not teaching into a vacuum, he's teaching to a very real, very concrete (albeit not present) audience. When he asks his audience to send him photos of their attempts, he means it.

Care about your students. It is obvious that Ross does; when he says "so glad you could join us today," he means it. When he hopes that we're happy with what we're doing, he means it. That real audience that he's clearly talking to is an audience whose happiness and wellbeing he cares about, and his shows are opened and closed with an explicit statement of that care.

Slip-ups are part of the game. The shows were taped in one go, with no editing. Sometimes he misspeaks. He corrects himself and moves on. Sometimes he misspaints. He teaches the audience how to correct and move on.

Mistakes don't exist. Or rather, things can happen that you didn't want to happen or didn't plan on happening, but none of them are ever significant enough to ruin things. He spent a lot of time talking about how to deal with these hiccoughs, so that there are no mistakes, only happy accidents.

Repetition works. Any individual show didn't have much repetition, either in techniques, composition, or verbal phrases, but by the time you've watched *cough* 20+ episodes in two weeks *cough* they start feeling like little puzzles, built from the same basic pieces but combined in different ways. This is particularly noticeable in the way that he says the same things over and over again; this really does help reinforce the more global techniques that he's trying to impart.

30 minutes is a good length if you are actively working alongside; if you're not either painting along, or paying very close attention, it's easy to zone out long enough to miss something crucial.

Is oil painting like doing logic? In many ways, not. The glory of his approach to painting is that so long as you're happy with the result, it's a success. That isn't the case with formal proofs. Another feature of his approach is that he's always encouraging people to work out their own idea of a scene, not slavishly copy his; what is true in his world may not be true in my world. That is another thing that isn't true of formal logic -- you don't get to decide what is right and what is wrong. But logic does benefit from lots of repetitions of the same techniques in different combinations; it benefits from starting in one direction and having it go wrong and needing to go another direction to recover. It benefits from having someone who cares about their subject, and their audience. It benefits from having someone convinced that just giving it a go will make you happier.

So there's a lot I've taken away from watching his shows that I intend to incorporate into logic videos that I'll be doing for fall.

If you had told me 10 years ago, I could paint a painting like this (inspired by a photograph the father of a friend took), I would have laughed at you. If you had told me 2 weeks ago, I could paint a painting like this, I would have laughed at you. If I tell you that you, too, can become a logician, and you want to laugh at me -- well, maybe you can follow along with my class remotely in fall.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Short story birthday! "Candace Swallowed the Sea"

Back in January, I wrote an ocean-themed drabble for an ocean-themed drabble collection put out by Black Hare Press. It was a strange story, in that it basically all came out in one go and was weirdly surreal in a way that I don't normally write (I want my fantasy to MAKE SENSE and have an INTERNAL LOGIC and have a COMPLETELY BUILT WORLD!). I was a bit disappointed when the story was rejected, because I quite liked it, and also, when you've written a 100-word story on a specific theme and it isn't successful, it's not entirely clear what else you'll ever be able to do with it. (But I wasn't so disappointed when they accepted the next three stories I submitted -- more about that later this month!)

Then, about two weeks ago, I saw this drabble contest hosted by Maura Yzmore. She was looking for 100 word short stories, not necessarily related to the pandemic. Hey, guess what! I had a 100 word story at loose ends! So I sent it off.

Three days ago, I was immensely pleased to be notified that "Candace Swallowed the Sea" received an "honorable mention" (and $10, making this story the highest-rate-paid piece I've ever sold :) ) in the realism/surrealism category. You can read the story here online or download all the stories in a single collection (PDF, EPUB, MOBI.)

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Things I said I'd never do

I was homeschooled from kindergarten until 12th grade. So was my sister (the elder by 3 years). In the US in the 80s and 90s, this was only moderately unusual; in the Netherlands, people used to find my story marvelous and strange.

It started out with my parents (both college-educated, but neither in education/teaching) decided they could give me sister a better education at home than the public school could. The plan had always been to educate us at home in primary school, and then as we got older give the choice to us, to be homeschooled or go to public school. I'd always thought, when I was young, that I'd be homeschooled all the way up to high school and then go to actual high school, so that I could experience the social side of things. By the time 9th grade came around, my answer was "oh, hell, no", because (a) I didn't really like people, (b) home-schooling took a lot less time, and (c) being available during school hours meant my sister and I were highly sought after babysitters; in the mid 90s, I was making between $6-$10/hour babysitting.

Whenever I talked about being homeschooled, it was with nothing but positivity. I had the freedom to study what I wanted (in 9th grade, I discovered the Society for Creative Anachronism; my mom then assigned the Middle Ages for my history topic, and I had to develop my persona, research, design, and make clothing and food, and learn the history of my chosen period), I had the free time to do non-school things (cf. babysitting above; that's how I could afford my first year at university), and the self-teaching/self-organising skills it taught me were invaluable particularly during my PhD. But whenever anyone asked if I was planning to homeschool my own children, the answer was always "oh, hell, no". Because long before I ever had a kid, I knew that the optimal age of students for me to teach was 18+. I couldn't fathom trying to teach a child to read; my experience tutoring middle schoolers left me with a huge appreciation for people who could help those children navigate life and teach them something. Also, there was no way that I would give up my working life in order to properly homeschool a young child.

And yet, here we are...

As it happened, G was due to start Easter break the week the UK government shut down schools. So we're still in holiday mode and don't have to really think about schooling. Her teachers have already set up some online sites for remote teaching come April, and sent home a few workbooks. But in the meantime, I'm still trying to work and G does better with having activities, so here is what homeschooling looks like in the Uckelhaus:

  • English: She needs to spend some time reading every day. I'm hoping to direct her towards some slightly more sophisticated books than what she has been reading, but I'm also fine with her just reading something every day. Next month, I'm doing a prompt-a-day poetry course, and I'm going to encourage her to write with me, so that covers writing.
  • Science: A week or so ago, I opened up a notebook from my childhood, and discovered systematic notes I took 30 years -- almost exactly the same age G is now -- on observations made about the attraction of different insects to different types of baits. Monday we set up a bait jar in the backyard, and she built a bug hotel, and she's doing daily observations, in the same notebook.
  • Mathematics: Tracking distances via PokemonGo when we go out for our daily walk, measuring and calculating with measures for cooking, and plenty of discussions on various topics over dinner (the other day, I taught her the sieve of Eratosthenes). She has also been writing up word problems for her stuffed toys, and has access to Times Tables Rockstars.
  • History: If things continue, I'll add in some nonfiction/history books to her reading repertoire, but honestly, I'm fine if this slides a bit.
  • Music: After about a year and a half, we finally purchased a stand and a stool for her keyboard, and set things up. She has (voluntarily!) spent time playing each day, practising pieces she'd been set by her teacher and composing new songs.
  • Languages: She's been doing German on duolingo for quite some time, and a friend has offered to skype with her and talk French, which we'll start doing after the break is over. Also, the FrogPlay account school set up for her has quizzes tests in German, even though that's not a language they teach at school, so she's enjoyed trying a few of those!
  • Art: Every day she's spent some time drawing freehand or following a how-to-draw video, and yesterday we painted together. There's also plenty of sewing to be done.

This is more than sufficient education for an 8yo for the rest of the academic year. So, I guess I'm homeschooling!

Monday, March 16, 2020

Dear students: We're all anxious and uncertain too

Dear students,

With only a few days' notice, all your in-person classes were cancelled, with promises of online content delivery instead. Your last week of term is in upheaval. All your plans, gone. And you have no idea what's going to happen, not this week, not during the break, not next term. Everything is uncertain, everything is anxiety-making.

Dear students, we're all anxious and uncertain, too. Many of us have never done online teaching before -- we don't know the software, we don't have the hardware, we never imagined we'd be doing this without months of preparation -- and those of us who were on strike last week have either had no time to think/prepare or had to break our strike to do so.

We're sitting in our offices today doing our best, trying our hardest to ensure your education is not disrupted more than it has to, learning new software, sourcing new hardware. We're constantly emailing colleagues, taking advantage of the offers of those who have done online teaching before to help us through Blackboard Collaborative Ultra, or Panopto, or even just simple things like "use a headset if you're able to" (one colleague even offered to come in and video my whiteboard if I need her to), we're chatting in WhatsApp groups designed to share best practices and provide moral support, we're passing tips on in googledocs and Facebook groups and Twitter.

I don't know how to teach logic without access to a whiteboard. I'm lucky enough that I (a) have a whiteboard in my office and (b) am (for the time being) still allowed into my office to access it. (If (b) changes before I can do my videos, I'll take my whiteboard home with me.) Over the weekend, I googled "how to take videos on linux", because so many of the options that are offered are for Windows computers only. I've found a programme that I'll test out this afternoon, figuring out where I can perch my laptop so that it's got a full view of the board but is still close enough to me that I don't accidentally topple it by being connected to it with a headset! If I can't do my videos in my office, I'm already mentally planning where there's space to set up at home...and how to keep random cat-butts out of the video. Whatever I end up with, it won't be pretty. It won't be flashy. It will not be optimal. But it will be as close to sitting in class with me as I can get, because I owe you that.

And then there's exams. We don't know what's going to happen with exams, any more than you do. Will we be given a chance to revise the exam questions, set way back in January? Is it possible to change the modes of assessment for a module -- to drop an exam or make it a take-home one instead of a timed one? If this were any country other than the UK, doing either of these would be easy -- of all the countries that I've worked in higher education in, only the UK is so bureaucratic about its exams and assessments. The lack of flexibility is stifling. I want to be able to examine my students on the material they have been taught, in a format that will best allow them to demonstrate to me what they have learned in my classes. Between the strikes and now Covid-19, I don't see how that is going to happen. No wonder I'm anxious.

The situation is so fast-changing, there's no way to say now what things will be like at the end of this week, much less at the start of next term. Which research deadlines will be postponed, and which ones won't be? When will schools and holiday camps and clubs be closed, and I have to start juggling all of this along with taking care of my child? How can I do my best by her in this difficult and uncertain time? How can I do my best by my students? I want to be able to give you all reassurances, but I can't. I can't say everything will be all right or that we'll figure it out or that in the long run it'll all work out.

Dear students, I wish we had more answers for you. I wish you weren't in this situation, especially those of you in your final year, who've had far more disruption to your education than any other cohort in at least a generation. We're doing our best, and will continue to do so. I know you're anxious and uncertain; we are too. We're all in this together.

Take care, and wash your hands!,
Doctor Logic

Dr. Sara L. Uckelman
Assistant professor of logic and philosophy of language
Durham University

Saturday, March 7, 2020

The most pernicious fallacy

UK Higher Ed loves metrics. REF. TEF. KEF. QS rankings. (I've written before about other types of rankings we might consider...)

Of course, there is no easy way to collate and evaluate the data necessary to make these different type of ranking systems robust. The QS rankings are made by surveying academics about their perceptions of other departments. I received a request to participate in this manner a few years ago, took a look at the survey, realised how entirely inadequate my knowledge was to allow me to give informed responses, and promptly decided to never contribute to these surveys ever again. Plenty has been said about how graduate earnings and employability are no indication of the teaching quality of the course the person graduated from, and neither is student satisfaction, and yet these are all factors that are taken into account in the TEF. I don't know enough about KEF to say anything about the methods it uses, but I'm sure they're just as problematic.

But in this post, I want to talk about REF and the proxies it uses.

The point of REF is to grade the research outputs of individual departments as a means of determining how to allocate money to departments, rewarding ones that are good and punishing ones that are bad. In an ideal world, the research produced would be read carefully and evaluated by panels of experts who have sufficient time and expertise to do this, and are commensurately recompensed for it. We all know that we're not in an ideal world, and that this doesn't happen: There are insufficient experts on the panels and they are given insufficient time to be able to read and evaluate all the work they're given in a careful and calm manner. This isn't something unique to REF and REF panels too -- it's the case any time research has to be evaluated, e.g., by promotions and progression committees, or on grant evaluation panels, or on hiring panels.

As a result, proxies have to be developed. Even though people are not supposed to take publication venue into account when determining the research quality of a piece, the fact remains that venue matters. After all, Philosophical Quarterly is a highly prestigious journal, accepting only a very small percentage of submissions it receives -- so if a paper has managed to jump that high bar, it must be a good paper, right?

But the fact is, the prestige of a journal is a supervening property, not something endemic to a journal. A journal receives its high prestige from the quality of the papers it publishes. That this is the case can be clearly demonstrated: If a currently high-prestige journal started publishing rubbish, then the consequence of this would be that the prestige level of the journal would decrease, rather than the quality of the papers increase (to match the quality/prestige of the journal).

And yet, because the prestige of the publication venue is all too often taken as a proxy for the quality of what is published in that venue, too often people become susceptible to what I have entitled in this post the most pernicious fallacy: The way to demonstrate the quality of your research is not by writing high-quality papers, but to publish them in prestigious journals. Because if your paper was in a prestigious journal, it must be a good paper, right? We have gone from journals deriving their prestige from the quality of the papers in them, to papers deriving their quality from the prestige of the journal that published them.

Why is this problematic? Because it treats publication as an end in itself rather than a means to an end, that end being the dissemination of research. When I am doing research myself, in preparation for writing an article, where do I go to find relevant papers? Not to the high-prestige journals, in general; no, I go to the journals that specialise in the area that I am working in, because these are the papers that are going to be relevant to what I want to do. Similarly, when I publish, I want to publish in venues that tend to publish other papers on the same sort of topics -- because this increases the chances that the people I would like to have read my paper will actually do so.

As a result of this, I have tended to publish papers in specialist journals in my field -- journals which, quite rightly, have a high prestige in their respective fields because of the quality of the specialist papers they publish, places like the Journal of Philosophical Logic for logic and Vivarium for medieval philosophy. But because these are specialist journals, rather than generalist journals, if these venues are taken as proxy for the quality of my papers that I've published in them, they get ranked lower than the generalist journals -- because if my paper were truly high-quality research, then of course a generalist journal would want to publish it. Now, that may be true: Maybe Philosophy and Mind and Philosophical Quarterly and the like are equally likely to publish philosophical logic or medieval philosophy as another subarea of philosophy (I have my doubts about this, but I'm happy to suppose that it's true for the purposes of example here). But is it equally likely that people interested in philosophical logic or medieval philosophy will go first to those journals to find the new, relevant research for their own projects? No.

And that's what I meant about publication becoming an end in itself rather than a means to an end. If the publication venue prestige determines the quality of the paper, for the purposes of rankings/evaluations such as REF, promotion, grant applications, job applications, etc., then getting a paper published in, e.g., Mind is an end in itself, even if the paper then dies a lonely, unread death because no one would ever think to look there to find a paper on that topic. If it is the journal that endows high quality upon the papers it publishes, rather than the papers published in a journal endowing high quality upon that journal, then whether anyone reads or uses the research becomes irrelevant: the actual research, and its actual quality, becomes irrelevant.

When we tell junior colleagues, ones applying for jobs, or applying for promotions, or trying to put together a good REF package, that they should be submitting their work to the high prestige journals, because those are the ones that will "count", then we are falling prey to this pernicious fallacy. We should never forget that the quality of a research paper lies in the paper itself, not in the venue that publishes it.

Friday, February 21, 2020

New publication announcement!

My short story, "What Lies Beneath the Waves", was published yesterday in With Painted Words, an online magazine with an unusual modus operandi: "every month a new image is chosen as a prompt and, for that month, all submissions must have used it as their inspiration – no matter how slight, vague or metaphorical it is there must be some form of link between the image and the work." The prompt for January 2020 was a couple of brightly covered starfish beneath rippling waves. During January, I took part in Wendy Pratt's daily poetry prompt course, on the theme of Beginnings and Endings. Despite being a poetry course, short flash fic was also encouraged, and the prompt one day was to write a story about a childhood game gone wrong. This story is not the sort I usually write, but I enjoyed the double challenge – to write a story inspired by the image and to write to a specific topic/brief.

The best part about the starfish image is that it also inspired my daughter – I explained to her what I was doing, and she too wanted to write a story inspired by that picture. It turned into a joint effort, and we have Big Plans afoot for it. Watch this space!

I'm definitely going to be writing more for WPW.