Saturday, December 31, 2016

Books my friends have recommended to me

Middle of last month I was purchasing a few things on amazon to bring to the US for friends at Christmas, and was about 3GBP short of getting free shipping. So of course I did the sensible thing: I asked my FB friends for book recommendations so that I could spend an extra 20GBP buying books in order to save 3GBP in shipping. But instead of any old book recommendations, I asked people for the best book they'd read in the previous year (with the option of telling me why they were recommending it, but not required). I got a huge response (and within a few hours had purchased Ann Leckie's Ancillary trilogy which had gotten a number of independent recommendations; I'm nearly done with the last one, and if the rest of the books recommended me to are as good as these, I'll be quite happy), and since searching through old FB posts for book recommendations is inconvenient, I've collected them all here:

  • Achebe, Chinua, Things Fall Apart.
  • Anghelides, Peter, Warship (Blake's 7).
  • Archer, Jeffrey, The Clifton Chronicles.
  • Backman, Fredrik, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She is Sorry.
  • Barry, John M., The Great Influenza.
  • Beard, Mary, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.
  • Bergman, S. Bear, The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You and Blood, Marriage, Wine, and Glitter.
  • Blessed, Brian, Absolute Pandemonium.
  • Bronte, Charlotte, Villette.
  • Bryson, Bill, At Home: A Short History of Private Life.
  • Bujold, Lois McMaster, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen.
  • Bujold, Lois McMaster, The Warrior's Apprentice.
  • Bujold, Lois McMaster, Shards of Honor and Barrayar.
  • Butcher, Jim, The Aeronaut's Windlass.
  • Chambers, Robert W., The King in Yellow.
  • Clarke, Stephen, 1000 Years of Annoying the French.
  • Cline, Ernest, Ready Player One.
  • Cornell, Paul, The Lost Child of Lychford.
  • Doerr, Anthony, All the Light We Cannot See.
  • Eco, Umberto, The Name of the Rose.
  • Evanovich, Janet, The Stephanie Plum Series.
  • Fisher, Catherine, Incarceron.
  • Frey, James, A Million Little Pieces.
  • Gibson, William, The Peripheral.
  • Gradin, Temple, Animals Make Us Human.
  • Graebner, Debt: The First 5000 Years.
  • Hobb, Robin, Elderling Saga.
  • Hobb, Robin, Soldier Son trilogy.
  • Hope, Anna, Wake.
  • Ishiguro, Kazuo, The Buried Giant.
  • Jackson, Shirley, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
  • Jemisin, N.K., The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate [[Review of The Fifth Season]].
  • Kingfisher, T., The Raven and the Reindeer.
  • Kowal, Mary Robinette, The Ghost Talkers.
  • Leckie, Ann, Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy. [[Review of Ancillary Justice; of Ancillary Sword.]]
  • Le Guin, Ursula K., A Wizard of Earthsea.
  • Maguire, Seanan, Every Heart a Doorway.
  • Mason, Haven, Rainbow Gold.
  • Melville, Herman, Moby Dick.
  • Miller, Laura, The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia.
  • Moore, Alan, Jerusalem.
  • Novik, Naomi, Uprooted.
  • North, Claire, The Sudden Appearance of Hope.
  • Oates, Joyce Carol, Blonde.
  • O'Brien, Stacey, Wesley the Owl.
  • O'Farrell, John, An Utterly Impartial History of Britain: (or 2000 Years Of Upper Class Idiots In Charge).
  • Okorafor, Nnedi, Phoenix Rising. [[I started off with Binti, which has been elsewhere recommended to me. I reviewed it here.]]
  • O'Malley, Daniel, The Rook and its sequel The Stiletto.
  • Pushkin, Alexander, Evgeny Onegin.
  • Reynolds, Alistair, Blue Remembered Earth and sequels.
  • Riddell, Chris, Goth Girl.
  • Robertson, Al, Crashing Heaven.
  • Rovelli, Carlo, 7 Brief Lessons on Physics.
  • Samatar, Sofia, Winged Histories.
  • Scalzi, John, Redshirts.
  • Schiff, Staci, Cleopatra.
  • Schulz, Anne, Essen und Trinken im Mittelalter (1000-1300).
  • Simsion, Graham, The Rosie Project.
  • Smith, Patti, We Were Just Kids.
  • Smollett, trans., Gil Blas.
  • Stross, Charles, The Atrocity Archives.
  • Vermes, Timur, Er ist wieder da/Look Who's Back.
  • Walton, Jo, The Just City.
  • Wiesel, Elie, Night.
  • Willis, Connie, The Doomsday Book.
  • Woolfit, Susan, Idle Women.
  • Zeh, Juli, Treideln.
  • (author unknown), The True Story of the Pirate Long John Silver.

Whoa. That was a lot longer than it seemed when it was just a bunch of comments on an FB post.

Edited to add: I will add comments and links to my reviews of them over the course of the year. These comments will be [[in double brackets]].

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

New Year's Resolutions, 2017

2014 was the first year I ever made a New Year's resolution. It was thus the first year I ever broke a New Year's resolution, but the reason for breaking it is one that more than amply compensated for what I would've gotten by keeping it, so I don't mind.

2015 I was way too busy with a new job (coincidently, my reason for breaking the 2014 resolution) to even consider any resolutions.

2016 I resolved the same thing I did in 2014, and this year, I kept the resolution. In fact, despite it being a year-long thing, I'd already met the winning conditions by September.

2017, I'm going to resolve the same thing. Since academics look at me in shock and horror when I tell them this resolution, I thought I'd write about it. It's a pretty simple resolution, actually:

Submit one item per month, or 12 over the course of the year.

In 2014, I made it to 8 items by June, but then in early July I interviewed for my current job in Durham, and the rest of the year was spent moving, teaching, etc. In 2016, I hit 12 items by September. The secret is a combination of the productivity techniques I find useful and a flexible definition of "item". An "item" can be: a journal paper, a full-length conference paper, a significant journal paper revision, a book chapter, an edited volume, an edited journal issue, a book review, a grant proposal, a piece of fiction, a substantial job application. I don't generally treat abstracts sent to conferences as "items" (even if they are long/extended abstracts) or minor revisions. And an item has to be something that is being sent off to someone and can result in either a publication or money. In 2016, my 12 items were: four book reviews (January, February, March, August), two full-length conference papers (March), a book chapter (April), an edited journal issue (June), three journal articles (July, August, September), and a short story (August). Of these, three of the book reviews have been published and the fourth is forthcoming; one of the conference papers was accepted and has been published; the book chapter and the journal issue will be coming out early next year; the short story will be published in spring, and one journal article has received an R&R and has already been resubmitted (still waiting to hear on one journal article, the other has now been returned twice and will be resubmitted early in the New Year. If I revise it substantially -- and with a new venue I'd have the word count to -- then it might get counted as a new "Item"). It's because I'd hit my 12 by September that I felt free to spend the rest of the year writing a novel.

So why this resolution? I work better with arbitrary deadlines; it motivates me to actually finish things up and send them out. I also found this advice to set rejection goals (the author aims for 100 per year) to really resonate. I'm not sure that aiming for rejections really works in academia, but certainly the idea that the way to publish a lot is to submit a lot is true. Sure, I had two rejections last year (one conference paper, one journal paper rejected twice); and two would be a lot if I'd only submitted two things. But two out of twelve is a lot less of a sting: And the thing about rejections is they aren't final. You take the comments, you revise, and you try again.

I'm looking forward to 2017. I've got all sorts of plans for my 12 (or more!) items. And this year if I "win" by September, I'm not planning to write another novel...

Friday, December 16, 2016

How to teach introductory logic to undergraduates

Ian, this post is for you.

I've written recently about why we teach 1st year philosophy students logic; in this post, I'm going to talk about how to do so. We've just reached the end of the first term of my Intro Logic course this year, and my students have a take-home exam due at the beginning of next term. I am (as is clear from my post above) quite optimistic about the prospects for the students in my tutorial group, and at the urging of a friend, I'm going to reflect on the things that I've done that I feel have had positive impact.

First, a bit about the course: The course runs from Michaelmas term all the way through the start of Easter term, and has 1 hour lectures once a week and 1 hour tutorial groups (of 12-13 students) once a week. Thus, we get 44 contact hours over the course of the year. The course this year has six tutorial groups, of which I am in charge of one, and most of my comments in this post are going to be directed at things I do in my tutorials, because the one on one contact students get with me I think is just as valuable, if not more so, than what they learn from me in lectures.

Barriers to learning logic: Two common barriers to learning logic are (a) laziness and (b) fear. (a) Logic is a cumulative endeavour that cannot be done without regular practice. It cannot. A lot of undergraduate students do not have much experience with working hard, over and over, at something until they learn how to do it, and so do not realize just how important this is. A lot of people who do poorly at undergraduate level do so because they simply never devoted enough time to it. Because we have weekly tutorials in my class, there are correspondingly weekly assignments that students are expected to do, giving them ample opportunity to practice. But while you can lead a student to water, you cannot necessarily make them drink...We'll come back to this below. (b) Many undergraduate are negatively predisposed to anything that smacks of math. Maybe they haven't done math since GSCEs, or did poorly in math in high school. The method of learning something via definitions and rules is very foreign to the usual practice of philosophy, a practice which undergraduate students are predisposed to, because otherwise they wouldn't be doing philosophy at the university level. The use of unfamiliar symbols and things from the Greek alphabet can be very off-putting. (I made a point of telling all my students to go look up the Greek alphabet on wikipedia the first week of lecture, and to start learning how to recognize and draw the letter forms.) Both laziness and fear need to be counteracted in order for students to be able to succeed in a logic course.

Fear is a tricky one to tackle, and I have no bullet-proof methods for doing so. A few things that I do that I find useful: I regularly remind students that I am not a mathematician. In high school, I never got further than trigonometry: Geometry was (and still is) my nemesis, and I basically failed calculus (it's hard to fail a class when you're home-schooled, but eventually my parents just gave up and that class quietly fell by the wayside). The first actual course labeled "mathematics" that I ever took was when I was a grad student at UW-Madison and I took Math 770: Foundations of Arithmetic from the amazing Prof. Ken Kunen. Even that hardly count as a "math" course. In 6 years at Madison, I took precisely one "proper" math course: Abstract Algebra (also taught by Prof. Kunen, after he had already had me in 770, so he was aware of this weird anomaly in his midst. Somehow, abstract algebra didn't require linear algebra as a prereq, so he very kindly took any question about matrix multiplication off the mid-term exam, because I'd never learned that. He was an amazing teacher. But I digress.) So: One does not need to be a mathematician to be a successful logician, and it's worth reminding students of that. Also, the type of logic that is done in an introductory course is quite mechanistic in fashion: It can be done even if one doesn't exactly understand what they are doing. I also emphasize this over and over. It is about rules and definitions. If they are capable of learning definitions and following rules at a level at which they can play Monopoly or Clue (or even Clue-do, for my UK peeps), then they can pass an introduction to logic course. I will personally guarantee it (with the caveat that they come to all the lectures, come to all the tutorials, and do all the tutorial exercises...).

Regarding leading the student to water and actually getting them to drink it, it's all about the pay-off structures: You have to make it cost more for them not to do the work than to do it. They need to have the right motivation to it and they can get this from two things: care and expectation.

Care: You've got to care. It helps if you care about what you're teaching -- if you are enthusiastic about what you are doing, it will infect them. My students are in no doubt about my enthusiasm (a tutorial exercise on identifying whether English sentences are atomic, negations, conjunctions, disjunctions, or conditionals contained the example sentence "Sara does not like logic". When asked "What kind of sentence is this?" from the back of the room a voice answered: "A lie".) Even interesting content can be rendered awful by a teacher who doesn't care about their subject (as an undergrad I experienced this with Biblical Poetry in Translation, taught by a professor, whose name I've long since forgotten, who appeared to so viscerally hate her subject that we all felt sort of sorry for her having to teach it). And for many people, logic hardly counts as "interesting content". Now, unfortunately, a lot of times the people teaching introductory logic are not themselves career logicians, and they may not care about the subject as deeply and passionately as I do. But that's okay, because the subject matter is not the only thing you can care about. You can also care about your students. If they know that you are truly rooting for them to do well in this class, they will be more motivated to prove you right. (They'll also be more comfortable asking you questions, coming to your office hours, etc.) There is one very easy way to show you care about your students: Learn their names. In a class of 70, that may be difficult. But if you've got a group of 13, that's doable (even if it takes a few weeks). And don't just use those names in tutorial: Use them in lecture. When someone asks a question or volunteers an answer, call on them by name. Even if you don't know every student's name, they will see that you at least know some of them. They will see that you cared enough to learn them.

My method for learning the names of those in my tutorial groups is closely related to my method for motivating them to do the tutorial exercises. Each week, I assign at least as many exercises as there are people in the biggest tutorial group, sometimes with an exercise or two left over, ending up with ~13-15 per week. That's a huge amount of practice, especially since the exercises are cumulative and often repeat and build on what was done the previous week, and anyone who does all of them will become pretty proficient pretty quickly. So, how do you get them to do them?

Expectation. Make clear from the very first day your expectation that they do the work each week. How? By making a clear expectation that each week each person is expected to give their answer to one exercise on the board in front of everyone else. The first few weeks, I called on people randomly -- sometimes I went around the room, sometimes I went down my attendance list alphabetically, sometimes I picked names randomly. I did this until I had learned everyone's names, after which point the expectation was well enough established that I'd start letting them volunteer to answer; one advantage of this (which they quickly realized) was that they could volunteer to answer a question they were confident they had an answer to -- or which they had a specific question about their answer or their method -- and thus I basically never lacked for ready volunteers.

One extremely important thing to note: This expectation has to be tempered with another expectation, or rather, a lack thereof: your expectation that not everyone is going to be able to answer every question every week. Some questions may be harder than others. Some students may have external contributing factors some weeks and not others. They have to know that it is okay to fail and that it is okay to fail in front of their peers. This is a tremendously scary thing to do, and many have probably never done it before. My goal as the teacher is to ensure that no one ever feels uncomfortable for having tried but still failing to come up with the correct answer. The only time they should feel uncomfortable is if they never tried at all. When people are comfortable with the idea that it is not the end of the world to stand up in front of class and bumble around (heck, when it comes to my advanced course, I'll probably do that myself at least twice over the course of the year), they will become much more comfortable with attempting difficult things that they would otherwise have maybe thought previously "too hard". Thus, not only are they learning logic, they are learning how to go about doing something difficult, knowing that this is difficult, that I don't expect them to find this easy, and that I expect them to go wrong-headed sometimes because that's how you learn. One week I accidentally set them an unaswerable question. I told them to prove that a particular syllogism could be reduced to another, and the question had an error in it. I didn't know this until too late, but I turned it into a nice teachable moment. I asked them how long they spent working on it before they gave up. Answers ranged from "10 minutes" to "until I'd exhausted all the possibilities" to "until I heard from one of the other students that his tutor said it couldn't be done". And I let them know that my usual rule of thumb is 20-30 minutes. If I'm trying to prove something and after 20-30 min. of solid work I'm not getting anywhere, that's where I reverse and start trying to find a counterexample.

Today was our last tutorial of term. The exercises involved determining validity and invalidity of arguments and then deriving the conclusions from the premises of those which were valid. Before I could even ask if anyone had any general questions to start with, one student was at the board, marker in hand, saying "I think I have something that works but I don't know how to annotate it, can we go over it?" And for the next, uh, hour and 10 minutes (whoops. Tutorials are only supposed to be an hour long) I had numerous different people at the board, others working unprompted in groups with each other, and when half-way through I had to take an errant five year old to the toilet, they continued working extremely productively with each other. My clear expectations from the start have translated into their being motivated each week to have the work done, and that itself has translated into a deeper understanding of what they're doing, which in turn means that they care about it, too. They are beginning to understand the satisfaction that logic done well can give.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Things I wish I could do to my logic students but I can't, so I won't.

I *heart* BBC cooking competition shows, and watch them whenever they come around. Last spring I was watching too much MasterChef when it occurred to me one day that this could be fun to adapt to logic, so I introduced my students one day to MasterLogician:

  • "Today's challenge is the invention test. You can choose from the sweet axioms or the savory axioms from which to prove the best theorems you can. You have one hour and 15 min."
  • "These proofs were a little messy, you could do with cleaning up your presentation. But you know, I really like that theorem! This is good!"
  • "You've got four hours to produce your best proofs for the finest logicians in the land. They are expecting excellence."
  • "For your finals, we are sending you to Poland. You will be taught Polish notation, and expected to prove all your theorems using it."

I had way too much fun with this. I remembering commenting on twitter, "I wonder if there would be as much hugging on MasterLogician as there is on MasterChef."

Yesterday, a student visited office hours, and in the course of trying to prove one of the homework questions, we realized it would be easy if we had the associativity of multiplication. So we started to prove that. Realized that would be easy if we could prove that 0 was idempotent for + and 1 idempotent for *. At one point he commented that we've really proven a lot of number theoretic facts in class so far, and I joked that for the exam, I should simply set them "Prove every number theoretic fact." Now, even I know that that's not reasonable in three hours, but it made me think: Wouldn't it be interesting to sit them down and simply ask "How many number theoretic facts can you prove in PA in the next three hours?" Of course, not all facts are equal, so you couldn't grade it just on number. You'd need some sort of weighting system, so that "1+1=2" and "1+1=1+1" and the like would garner you only minimal points, whereas things like "x+y=x->y=0" would be worth more, and proving there are infinitely many primes even more, and, say, the Chinese remainder theorem would be worth a whole bunch. What would the right strategy be? Would you simply try to prove as many of the basic facts as quickly as you could, and try to garner lots and lots of little amounts of points? Or would you gamble on being able to do one big proof in three hours, facing the possibility that you might completely bomb out? Or would you do a handful of easy ones to start off with, the ensure you had some points, and then head to the big ones? Or simply aim for three-four midrange ones? Each strategy could pay off big, and each could end up bombing.

Now, as someone pointed out on twitter, one needn't be a fast logician to be a good logician, so this type of test could be argued to be inherently unfair -- and even apart from this I am sure that there is no way I could get such an exam past the exam scrutiny board, does sound like fun.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

So, I wrote a book

Back in May, I was thinking about writing a book. In October, I confessed that I was no longer just thinking about it, I was in fact writing three. In this post, I'm going to talk about the surprise book, the one that wasn't even on the radar back in May, and the one which is pictured above.

It started when I was at the IAPh conference in Melbourne, sitting in one of the keynote talks. It was my ninth day of conferences in a row, and my attention was lagging. I put a fresh piece of scratch paper in my clipboard, and started writing. No plan, nothing more than three scenes: The one I opened with, and two others which I knew would come later. How much later, who knew? I had no plan. I had no intention beyond seeing where things would get me. Two days later, on the taxi to the airport, I came up with a title, and four names of...things. Locations? Concepts? Mental spaces? I wasn't sure.

The rest of summer I would occasionally sit and write, such that at the beginning of September I had about 24 handwritten pages. And then I ended up at another conference (AiML in Budapest). I'd brought an embroidery project along for occupying my hands while listening to talks, but it ended up going way quicker than I expected, and I ended up the final day with nothing to occupy my hands. So I dug out more paper and began to write.

And write, and write and write. Returning home from Budapest, I gave myself leave to do nothing other than write for a couple of days. At the end of that week, I sent off a first fragment to a beta reader, who, to my surprise and delight, was extremely positive and wanted more. And I wanted more.

Very soon, I found myself in a position where all I wanted to do was write. Luckily, early in September I'd met my submissions goal for the year (12 items or one per month, whichever was met first), meaning I could take a few weeks off with some amount of impugnity. Term would start in October, and I figured if I spent three weeks solid writing, then I'd get back to "real" work.

October came. Term started. And the writing didn't stop. I wrote around class prep, I wrote during departmental and committee meetings, I wrote in the evenings. By the end of the month I was 55,000 words in and I couldn't see any of way of stopping until it was done.

Enter NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. The challenge: start from 0 words on November 1 and get to 50,000 words by November 30. Officially, you aren't allowed to do any writing in advance, other than prep work/planning that doesn't create words that directly go into the book. But of course, the best of challenges are designed to be adaptable to your own needs. I wanted to write 50,000, but I was going to count as my 0 the last word I wrote in October (which was in fact word 56,859). Getting 50,000 more words would get me comfortably into "reasonable novel" length, and my challenge was to figure out how to end the damn thing in that length of time. (Actually, I had a suspicion for awhile that this was going to be a 100,000 word novel. But October got away from me and I ended up with 55,000 instead of 50,000.)

And I did it:

Date      Start     End       Running total
Nov 1     56859     59142     2283
Nov 2     59075     61051     4259
Nov 3     61002     62712     5969
Nov 4     62633     64319     7655
Nov 5     64318     65699     9036
Nov 6     65699     67384     10721
Nov 7     67304     68811     12228
Nov 8     68773     70814     14269
Nov 9     70814     72531     15986
Nov 10    72531     74023     17478
Nov 11    73973     75583     19088
Nov 12    75583     75583     19088
Nov 13    75583     77245     20750
Nov 14    77245     78976     22481
Nov 15    78822     80658     24317
Nov 16    80658     82710     26369
Nov 17    82701     84432     28100
Nov 18    84346     85617     29371
Nov 19    85033     86805     31143
Nov 20    86796     88551     32898
Nov 21    88551     90562     34909
Nov 22    90550     92423     36782
Nov 23    92408     94158     38532
Nov 24    94152     96221     40601
Nov 25    96029     97828     42400
Nov 26    97740     99407     44067
Nov 27    99407     100900    45560
Nov 28    100352    102469    47657
Nov 29    102469    104812    50000

Or, if you like pretty pictures,

I wrote every day in November except November 12. I wrote while my daughter played at the playground, I wrote while preparing for her 5th birthday party, I wrote during meetings, I wrote during colloquium talks, I wrote while skyping in to a reading group, I scribbled notes on my hand while walking over to pick her up from school, I wrote from 8pm-11pm every night except Saturdays, I wrote while waiting at the dentist, (I once even wrote in the middle of a class...and I was the one teaching it!), last weekend I wrote through three cities, two countries, and four forms of public transport as my daughter and I took a flying visit to Amsterdam. I wrote the 50,000th word at the stroke of midnight last night, and today I printed off the official complete Draft One of The Mapping of Tula Mors.

144 days, almost 300 handwritten A4 pages, translating to 550 A5 pages when typed, 104807 words, (of which exactly 50,000 were written in November), and approximately 1000 hours worth of Nightwish (that's roughly 40 days). Not to mention numerous twitter polls to help me find the right word, or to report on how useful I kept finding wikipedia's article on Door, or to beg for floorplans of people's favorite small chapels.

And I was right. It is a 100,000 word story. About a week before the end of the month I'd found my ending, and wrote it, and then simply had to work backwards and forwards until the story met in the middle. And when that happened, there simply was no place left to insert any more chapters, so I ended up writing a ~4,000 word "This is not a chapter" at the end, in which I step back from the fiction and talk about what is actually fact in the book.

"So, what kind of book is it? What it's about?" people keep asking me.

That's a very good question. It started off as "fantasy" and, at its root, a love story. But it wasn't too far in that my mom first used the word "dystopian" to describe it (which caught me off guard, because I had thought that it was, fundamentally, a happy book, at least up to that point). So, I have no idea what genre it fits into. (I also have deep suspicions about "genres" as useful ontological categories, but this is just a product of my deep suspicion of metaphysics in general.) Other attempts at summarizing it that I have done:

  • It is about the relationship between language, being human, and being a person.
  • Two academics go on a summer job research trip to do archival work.
  • Dystopian future wherein Internet access is ubiquitous but bifurcated, people can change their skins at will, and the consequences of when this process is perverted.

Basically, it's my way of exploring a bunch of ideas I have that I don't yet have any arguments for, so I can't write about in an academic paper.

Writing it turned out to be surprisingly easy; and one of the best parts of it is I can now point to it and say "I can write a book." This will make writing a second book -- fiction or academic -- all that much easier, because I already know I can succeed. But of course, Draft One is only the start: Now comes the hard part of editing it, of making sure every word I've written is one that I like, making sure that everything that I only figured out in the last 15,000 words is actually accurately reflected in the beginning sequences. Surprisingly, given how much I hate editing my own academic work, I'm actually looking forward to this.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Why do we teach 1st-year philosophers intro logic?

Many undergraduate programs in philosophy have a logic requirement, and in many of these programs, that requirement is expected or even required to be fulfilled fairly early on in the program. My department is currently revisiting its core course requirements and looking at reducing the number of required courses in the first year, with the aim of making a more flexible program allowing students more ability to customise their courses to the topics that interest them. At the same time, we're planning to introduce a wholly new 1st-year course, which will be required, the Philosophical Skills course I've talked about earlier.

Right now, Intro Logic is a required 1st-year course for honors philosophy students, and one issue we're considering is whether it should remain one. Various suggestions are being put forward, including that it should remain one; that it should remain a 1st-year course but be an elective; that it should become a 2nd-year course; that every 1st-year student should know their truth tables and thus if Intro Logic isn't a required course, then basic propositional logic and truth-tables should be covered in the Philosophical Skills course; and more.

Of course, I'm a logician. Not only do I think Intro Logic should be a required course for all single honors philosophy students, I think it should be required for all joint honors students too. But this is just because it follows from the general claim that I think it should be a required course for all university students. Let's go back to the Middle Ages! :) So, I'm happy to admit that I have a biased viewpoint when it comes to discussing the question of whether Intro Logic should be a program requirement for philosophers.

Instead, I would like to talk about why we teach logic to 1st-year philosophers in the first place, because one thing that has come out of the discussion of the various options noted above is that I apparently have a very different view about what I want my 1st-year students to get from their Intro Logic class than some of my colleagues do.

It seems to me (and I hope very much I'm not grossly misrepresenting anyone) that many of my colleagues -- and probably lots of non-logician philosophers elsewhere -- think that one of the primary goals of an Intro Logic class is to teach students how to symbolise natural language arguments and determine whether they are valid.

Prior to these discussions, it would never have occurred to me that this could be one of the central goals of teaching logic. It's certainly a useful thing to teach, but I have always viewed symbolisation as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. The point of symbolisation is not to produce a symbolic representation that can be tested for validity, after which one then concludes that the argument in question is either good or bad (not the least of which because it completely ignores the soundness of the argument), but rather to hone the skills necessary to recognize when statements are ambiguous, and could be represented in more than one way, or where equivocal terms are being used, or what the scope of negation is, or what the suppressed premises are. It is the skills that you hone during the process by which you come up with your representation, not the end representation itself, that I want my students to learn. So that is one goal.

There is also the goal that I want them to be able to read contemporary analytic philosophy papers which use logical notation and understand what is being said, even if they don't have the means necessary to prove the statements or do anything with them formally. I just want them to be able to learn to read the language of logic, so that when faced with backwards E's and upside down A's, they can still extract content from the article. This is one reason why I make a point of alerting students to the different notation that is used for the same concepts, in hopes that they can develop a little translation vocabulary so that they can read Polish notation as well as infix notation, know what the horseshoe is as well as the arrow, know that the arrow can be ambiguous between strict and material implication. If that's the one skill they come away with from my course, I'll be happy. I'd rather they have this skill than know how to symbolise a propositional logic argument.

Another goal is, of course, directed to those students who might grow up to be logicians themselves. In an Intro Course, I feel it is a requirement of me as the teacher to ensure that I give them everything they need to gain a foundational understanding of the field -- where did logic come from? what is it aimed at? what is its historical development? -- as well as all the tools they would need to succeed in an advance course -- in particular, a clear understanding of the distinction between semantics and proof-theory, and an understanding of, if not yet the ability to prove, the importance of soundness and completeness. This is why 7 weeks into the term we've already read Aristotle and the Stoics, and bits from Roger Bacon and William of Sherwood, and why I hope to be able to include more of the medievals in future lectures. This is why I will regularly make side remarks about the narrowness of the scope of the logics we study in the Intro Logic so that they know what else is out there that they could go on to do -- everything we do is two-valued, but many-valued logics exist. Everything we do is non-modal, but modal logics exist. Everything we do is classical, but constructive logics exist. I want them to know that these things are out there.

But the primary goal, the one thing that I really want my students to come away with, is not any skill at symbolisation and truth-tables, but rather a method of thinking which involves minute and precise attention to detail and which involves an ability to reason from and manipulate definitions. When we did Aristotelian syllogistics a few weeks ago, I gave a relatively narrow definition of what counts as a syllogism. In last week's tutorial assignment, I then tested to see how well they'd picked up on just how narrow the definition was, by giving them a bunch of arguments, most involving categorical claims, to see if they could tell which are syllogisms and which are not. Many of them looked syllogistic, but failed for very precise reason: They had three premises instead of two; or had four terms instead of three; or had two terms instead of three; or lacked a quantifier on the subject term; or had the minor premise first. The logic you do in an intro course really is just an exercise in rule following -- I always tell my students that if they are able to read and follow the directions of a board game like Monopoly, they will be able to pass my intro course (and not only pass, but probably pass well). The thing with logic is that there is no room for error, you have to know what the rules and definitions are and when and where you can apply them. For a lot of students, nothing else have they ever studied required them to be this finicky about the details, and that is what I think is the primary goal of teaching 1st-year philosophers logic: To give them ample opportunity to develop and hone the skill of being a nit-picky finicky curmudgeon with a highly developed attention to detail. (We're grand fun at parties, you can well imagine.)

The first piece of philosophy that I ever read was Lewis Carroll's "What the Tortoise Said to Achilles", and what I remember thinking was "I want to do that. I want to learn to think like that." And that's what I want to teach my students.

That being said, I think it's clear why I'm in favor of retaining a logic requirement -- because these skills in precision of thought are transferable to every other area of philosophy. But more importantly, I do not think these goals can be obtained by simply having 2-3 weeks on propositional logic inserted into another general philosophical skills course: This attention to detail and level of precision is something that requires practice, lots of practice, over and over and over again until it becomes second nature. And practice simply takes more time than you get in 2-3 lectures.

Just as every logician ends up writing their own logic textbook because none of the ones out there do what they want them to do, I'm sure every logician has their own goals for teaching 1st-year philosophers introductory logic -- and I'm sure every non-logician philosopher who teaches the same course has their own goals. If you teach intro logic (as a required course or not), what do you think the point of it is?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

All writing is real writing

I find myself ranting on twitter on the same topic about once a month or so, and have decided to finally sit down and write up my thoughts, so that I can just post a link to this post rather than regurgitate the same things again and again.

The topic is quite simple, namely: All writing is real writing.

I've written before about tips for productivity, and about my New Year's resolution of submitting one item per month or twelve items over the course of the year. And I've written about how I write about writing rather than actually writing, sometimes. In the first of these posts, I sort of touched upon this topic when I said:

Technique no. 5 is simple: writing breeds writing. The more you write, the more you will write. I give myself a lot of low-stakes opportunities for writing, via blogs. There's this blog, of course; but I also write on a regular basis for the blog for the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources, the M-Phi blog (though less frequently there than I'd like), and to give myself a way to exploring some of the ideas on my list of projects that aren't necessarily going to end up as real papers, the newly created Medieval Logic and Semantics blog.

But this tells only part of the story. Writing breeds writing, and this covers not only writing for blogs but it covers writing conference abstracts, it covers writing fiction or poetry, it covers writing rambling emails to your parents. The more you do write, the more you will write: Yes, but that is only part of the story.

The other part is that All writing counts. All writing is real writing. Don't kid yourself in to thinking it isn't, that only the academic journal article or the full conference proceedings or the chapter in an edited volume or even the elusive actual book counts, and that anything else is somehow not writing. On the one hand, this dismisses the value that the process of writing has, regardless of what the outcome is, the way in which it forces you to clarify your thoughts and the way in which it keeps you in good writing practice. On the other hand, you never know what will come of this writing that "doesn't count". A few weeks ago I received an email from someone who had read a post I'd written on the DMNES blog back in spring, asking for permission to reprint it as an article in the newsletter she edits for an Australian organization that studies surnames. It's a non-profit thing, and she apologised that payment couldn't be offered, but she thought their readers would enjoy and benefit from reading my work. Since I'd already written the blog post, I knew it would take me only maybe an hour or so to convert it into something that could function as a standalone piece in print, and having it appear in this newsletter means my research will reach a much wider audience than it would if only academics read it. This is a win in my book!

Another win: Just over two years ago I set myself a challenge to write 400 words (exactly) of fiction per day. I made it about two months before the daily streak faltered, but I continued to write regularly until I reached 200 days/80,000 words. Over summer, I saw a call for submissions for a speculative fiction anthology; I rifled through those 80,000 words and found 7,000 that made a story and submitted it. Last week I received notification that the story was accepted and will be published next year sometime. So, it's not peer reviewed. So, there's no argument in it. (Well, except that there is...). So, there's no footnotes or bibliography or citations. That is no reason why this should not count as writing. It's writing, it's real, and it's going to be published (squee!).

It's all real writing. It all counts. (Even this blog post counts.) Never let yourself be fooled into thinking otherwise.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

No longer merely thinking about writing a book

A few months ago I was thinking about writing a book. Now, I'm no longer merely thinking about it, I'm doing it. Or rather, I'm writing three. Because why bother doing anything by halves?

But the book I'm writing about here is the book I was thinking about (in so far as you can think about nonexistent objects) writing in the linked post: A textbook to cover all my logic teaching needs from the 1st year intro course to the 3rd year advance course and (hopefully someday) graduate level courses. What I've got now is a mishmash of notes written for previous courses, so there is some incomplete material, some duplicative, and some things which are just purely missing. The goal over the course of this year is to rewrite sections as I need to teach from them, so that at least a large portion of the book is drafted by the end of the year.

If you are interested, you can following here: What Is Logic?, where new drafts will be posted as they are available. Today's substantial rewrite focused on Chapter 6, Aristotle's syllogistic.

Friday, September 30, 2016

What I did on my summer vacation (June 1 - Oct 1)

Summer is almost over. During it, I:

  • Gave talks in Cambridge, Durham, and Leeds.
  • Spent two weeks in Australia (three conferences, two talks).
  • Spent a week in Hungary for a conference (one talk).
  • Spent 10 days in Wales on holiday (and sewed eight new articles of clothing for it).
  • Sent off all the papers for an edited volume of a journal.
  • Submitted three journal papers, one book review, and one piece of fiction.
  • Was interviewed on BBC Radio Newcastle.
  • Was interviewed by a Guardian journalist.
  • Wrote the first ~34,500+ words of a novel.
  • Started another book, not fiction.
  • Did four pieces of original artwork.
  • Cured seven lamb bresaolas.
  • Transitioned my child from nursery to kindergarten.
  • Read more books than I could keep track of.
  • Discovered both Leaves Eyes and Nightwish.
  • Made lots of new friends.

There were other bits and bobs along the ways (some paper acceptances requiring revision, some course prep, some supervision of theses, some marking, etc.), too much effort to count explicitly. I'm quite satisfied.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Songs About Philosophers (and a few by philosophers)

Last night I was singing along to my music and realized, it's not often you get to belt out "philosopher" in a song (and even less often you get to sing "logician"). So I put out a call to twitter to see if they could help me create a playlist of #SongsAboutPhilosophers, either about philosophers (generically) or philosophers (specifically). I got some fantastic responses!

I also got recommendations of things by philosophers, including:

I also asked for songs about logicians; the best I can get is songs about logic:

As well as the Summer of Logic playlist.

And let's not forget all the songs that could be written in other possible worlds:

Monday, September 12, 2016

Writing fiction vs. writing nonfiction

The earliest career I can remember intending to pursue was that of a writer. My first stories were typed on my dad's DOS computer before was even able to write by hand. My first "novel", Cyclesta was written when I was 8 or 9. Around age 10, I wrote a sequel to The Lord of the Rings; I still remember the feeling of power when I discovered how plot works, that I, as the author, could make bad things happen to my characters. I could *gasp* inconvenience them! It was marvelous. As a teenager, I wrote copious amounts of terrible poetry (and one or two things that I still thing are good). At university, I was on the editorial board of the undergraduate literary magazine and the actual real literary mag, The Madison Review. I started off as an English major, which very quickly became a double major with philosophy, which very quickly became an "I'm only going to do the bare minimum required for the English degree and ALL THE LOGIC"; I learned that while I like reading and writing, I didn't actually like the analysis part of being an English major. And then I graduated, age 20, and started grad school three months later, and for most of the next decade, I didn't write -- fiction and poetry, that is.

Why not? Being a writer had been such an important part of my identity that even I was surprised at how easy it was for "being a logician" to usurp that space. Partly I didn't write because it felt frivolous, that I should be spending my time doing serious work, as befit a serious graduate student who hoped to become a serious researcher, and get a serious job. (I have since learned that seriousness doesn't work for me...). But as I got deeper into the dissertation writing process, the more I realized just how creative a process writing a well-crafted piece of research is, and this comes at many levels. It comes at the level of voice: Who is the narrator? Is it personal or is it impersonal? Is it abstract, or is it a person directed at another person? I, like many other philosophy students, started off trying to write like the papers I was reading. The results were, predictably, pretty awful to read. The voice that is most natural to me is much more informal, and when I use that voice for writing papers, the results are much better. It comes at the level of construction: How do the parts of your research hang together? What is the story? What is the final resolution you want to bring the reader to? A few years ago I reviewed Luca Castagnoli's book on self-refutation arguments, and one of the things I really enjoyed about it was that it read like a mystery story, where you keep being given clues as to what self-refutation arguments are, and are not, but you aren't given the final story until right at the end. It was an incredibly well put together piece of research. And it comes at the level of doing the research itself: Identifying interesting results and figuring out how to prove them is an immensely creative activity.

When I realized this, that I hadn't really given up my identity as a writer, I'd just changed genre, it suddenly became possible to see myself writing fiction again (probably not ever poetry, though. My tolerance for poetry in general has plummeted since high school, and I doubt I will ever meet my exacting standards). Bits and pieces got scribbled down, never more than a few pages at a time, until just over two years ago, I decided to capitalize on the fact that I am often motivated by arbitrary restrictions: I set myself a challenge of writing 400 words a day, exactly, on whatever topic I wanted, without any regard to whether it made sense or was "good" or any of those external measures of quality. If I missed a day, the words would roll over to the next day, so then I'd have to write 800. I made it 79 days before I fell behind never to catch up again, and in the end, it took me 742 days to write 200 days worth of 400 words/day. I may have "failed" in the challenge, but I also completed succeeded: In just over two years, I wrote an 80,000 word novel, and I was reminded of why writing fiction can be so useful.

As a logician, argument and evidence matter a lot. I sometimes struggle in the early stages of writing papers because there are things I want to say that I don't yet have an argument or a citation for, and without that I do not feel allowed to assert them. In fiction, there are no such constraints. I can assert things without having to justify them. I can lie. I can change the way the world is just to see what the consequences are. I used many of those 80,000 words to investigate philosophical ideas that are nascent enough to still be being merely entertained, not argued for. There is a lot more freedom for exploration in speculative fiction than there is in academic philosophy. You don't need a bibliography (but you can have one if you want!)

Writing fiction is also useful because it means that I am writing. I have long believed that writing breeds writing, and that one of the best ways to become a more productive and efficient academic writer is to write more. The problem is, people often think this means "write more academic stuff", but it doesn't. It just means write more. Write blog posts. Write letters. Write short stories. Write novels. Write notes that may or may not become academic papers. Write academic papers. Read books and write reviews of them. I have been incredibly lucky this summer to have had few external obligations, meaning I've had three months where I've done nothing much other than read and write. My 400 words challenge came to a natural ending when I hit 80,000 words, and also when a new writing project hijacked me the final day of the final conference I attended in Melbourne. For this, my challenge is to draft the first draft in long-hand, though every few pages I transcribe it into LaTeX and make emendations along the way. This project feels different from others I've begun; I can see how to get to the end.

Because despite my "ahah" moment about plot that I had as a child, one of the things I've always struggled with was the construction of a story line, of a plot where characters actually do things instead of just think and talk about them. This part of the process always seemed mysterious to me, no matter how many how-to articles on the topic I read in The Writer magazine. In a similar way, when I started off as a grad student, publishing journal articles, etc., seemed mysterious to me. How did people know when they had an idea that was worth publication? How did they write something that looked like a journal paper rather than a seminar paper? I spent three years rather confused and uncertain about these sorts of issues, and wondered how it was that everyone else seemed to know the answers without ever having been explicitly taught them. In my 4th year, I switched programmes, and lucked into a supervisor who did explicitly teach me; academic writing is now much less mysterious to me!

What's interesting is that while it was understanding the creative dimensions of my academic writing that helped me to become a better writer in that dimension, I'm now finding myself taking what I have learned about development, structure, citation, organization, drafting, redrafting, outlining, etc., from academic writing and taking it back to the fiction. I now pay much more attention to the minutiae of how published works are crafted. How long are the paragraphs? How long are the chapters? How does the author segue from one scene to another? How is dialogue handled? How does time pass? How are digressions handled, especially, how does the author get back from them to the original topic of the paragraph? I have also been extremely lucky in the last few years to have had a few friends who made the step from "I want to be a writer" to "I am a writer", who then wrote and published novels and along the way blogged about their processes. One of them, I have had the honor of being a beta-reader for two of her novels, and watching the process of construction while it is happening is incredibly helpful: It's the difference between reading the published version of a proof and watching someone go through it, step by step, on the whiteboard in front of you. You might understand the former without having any idea how you'd do it yourself; but the latter shows you, at each moment of uncertainty, what you can or should do next. I have recently (within the last few weeks!) become beta-reader for two more stories, one that a friend is working on, one by an author whose works I was introduced to by the friend I first beta-read for. It is an immense privilege to get to do this -- not only do I get first crack at a new story before everyone else, but I know how hard it is to let someone else read and judge your words. That amount of trust should not be treated lightly, and in one case, I am repaying that trust by offering my own new project in exchange -- today I will clean up the first few chapters and send them to her!

Last night when I was thinking out all these ideas, I felt I had some sort of point to make, about the contrasts between writing fiction and writing nonfiction, but if anything, I think the point of this post is to minimise those contrasts. They are not nearly as different as they might seem; both can be learned; both can benefit from the approaches/techniques of the others; and one should never feel guilty about doing either.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Personhood, AI, and my agnosticism about other minds

Philosophy of mind has never been a branch I've done much with, and I only did the most basic epistemology as an undergrad. But I've become more interested in Theory of Mind, especially the practical business of how children develop it and when, as I've watched the process occurring in my daughter. It's a fascinating process, and some moments really stick out as "wow" moments. I remember very clearly the day I managed to teach my daughter her name (because I have shamelessly documented her life, I even have a video of it!). Sshe was in the bathtub, and I pointed to her, and said "Gweni", pointed to me, and said "mommy", and pointed to the livingroom (where dad was) and said "daddy". After a few repetitions, she started pointing to herself and shrieking "Genni, Genni!" This happened on a Tuesday or Wednesday -- and on Saturday the word "mine" entered into her vocabulary. It was like having a name was the catalyst for differentiating herself (from me? from the rest of the world? I'm not sure) and now there was something differentiate to which things could belong. Fascinating. She'll be five in November, and has been meeting all the false-belief/Sally-Ann milestones appropriately along the way. I was gone for two weeks in July, and a few weeks later she was trying to tell me that the park near our house could be reached by turning down a particular street. This wasn't true, and I was trying to gently point out that I didn't think she was right, and she promptly squashed me, "You don't know! I went with dad! You weren't there! You don't know!" So she clearly can differentiate what I know from what she knows.

Watching the process by which a child becomes a person is strange in that I can see it happening but it's hard to point out what it is that is happening: What, exactly, is my evidence, other than little anecdotes like the above, that she is indeed developing a mind, a mind distinct from my own? The more I think about it, the more I've come to the conclusion that my personal stance towards the existence of other minds is party agnostic and partly pragmatic: I don't have any evidence that they don't exist, but I also don't have any evidence that they do. However, life goes much smoother if I act as if other humans are in fact persons; it's a convenient fiction to adopt.

But then this makes me think: What if that is what "having a mind" really is -- people acting as if you do? If everyone is adopting this practical fiction, then does it make a difference whether other minds (or even our own minds) exist? That other people are persons too? What happens, then, if we extend this from human persons to non-human persons? I was recently co-writing a paper with a friend on concepts of 'rationality' as it appears in AI, cognitive science, game theory, and philosophy. He's on the AI side of things, and a lot of our skype conversations consisted of me throwing up my hands and wailing "But what is it they think they're doing? How can they know if they've succeeded if they haven't even defined their success conditions?" It frustrated me to no end that it seemed to me, as an outsider, that AI people don't even know how to identify if they've succeeded. But perhaps that doesn't actually matter: Maybe AIs achieve personhood/acquire a mind at the point in which we treat them as if they have achieved personhood/acquired a mind. I was in Prague last year for a one-day workshop, and had a free day which I spent wandering the city. I spent a good twenty minutes at one of the castle gardens watching a small robotic lawn mower. It was operating according to a pretty crude algorithm, in that it would go straight forward until it bumped into a wall or tree or other obstacle, then it would back up a few feet, rotate a set number of degrees, and continue forward. At one point, it had gotten boxed in between two corner walls of the garden and a tree. All it needed to do was shift a very slight amount and then it could've gotten out around the tree. But instead, it kept shifting by too large an angle, and then running into one of the obstacles. I watched as a growing crowd of people gathered to watch it, and then they started offering it encouragement. "Come on, little guy, you can do it! Keep trying! Oooh, so close! Try again!" It was really bizarre how easily they personified it. I was reminded of this encounter yesterday when I saw the headline "People will lie to robots to avoid 'hurting their feelings'". Does it matter if the robot has feelings that can be hurt? Or is what matters that we treat it as if it does? Does it matter if other humans have feelings that can be hurt? Or is what matters that we treat them as if they do?

Maybe there's nothing more to being human than being anthropormorphised by other humans.

Logic textbooks written by women

A conversation on twitter yesterday made me realize I couldn't name a single logic textbook written by a woman (other than my own draft book), where by "logic textbook" I intended to capture "book I could use as a primary text for an intro logic or advance logic course". Twitter to the rescue, I got lots of suggestions. So I've decided to collate them here. If there are any missing, please share in the comments.

I also received a couple suggestions for linguistics books:

Finally, someone else mentioned this, which isn't quite logic, but since it's logic-adjacent I'll happily include it:

(Last updated 22 April 18).

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

What is fanfic, and why should philosophers care about it?

As an undergrad, I double majored in English and philosophy. While I ended up swerving firmly towards philosophy by the end (I discovered that I enjoy reading books way more than I enjoy writing about them, and ended up doing only the bare minimum to get the English degree, as opposed to philosophy where I took more than double the required number of credits), philosophy of fiction was a natural place for my two sets of interests to overlap. I went into grad school planning to do something on possible worlds and fictional discourse, before logic captured me and took me away for more than a decade. One of the things I love about teaching undergrad courses is that it has allowed me to get back to those interests and rekindle them.

Unfortunately, if you look at philosophy of fiction rather cursorily (and from a distinctly philosophy of language view, which is the route I come into it from), it's hard to tell how it differs much from the general problem of the semantics of non-denoting words/names/phrases or the problem of nonexistent objects. There seems to be a disproportionate amount of time and pages spent on these topics, and I've become increasingly convinced of the utility of rooting out aspects of fiction that have been overlooked or ignored. In particular, I think there is a lot to be gained at looking at the practices of fiction, by which I mean the production and consumption of it. How do people interact with fiction(s)? Can our philosophical theories, whether specifically aimed at fiction or whether more general, explain what underpins these practices? If that is too much to ask, are these theories at least consistent with our practices?

Now, I don't want to make it seem like no one else has asked any of these questions. One good example of an area of philosophy of fiction that takes seriously our practices w.r.t. fiction is the paradox of fictional emotion. [1] What I am saying is I want more! More like this, more things that go beyond discussion of Santa Claus and Sherlock Holmes, Pegasus and phlogiston. Don't ask merely "how can we say meaningful things about fictional objects?", go one step further and ask "how can we say meaningful things in fictional languages?" [2] Don't ask merely "How does the operator 'truth in the story' work?" but rather "How does the operator "true in the story" work when there is more than one story?" And that brings me to an aspect of philosophical practice which has to date been almost wholly ignored by philosophers: fanfiction. [3]

So, what is fanfiction, and why should philosophers care about it? As Thomas defines it:

The term fanfiction (sometimes abbreviated as fanfic) refers to stories produced by fans based on plot lines and characters from either a single source text or else a 'canon' of works; these fan-created narratives often take the pre-existing storyworld in a new, sometimes bizarre, direction. [4]

The largest repository of text-based fanfic is available online at, and when people refer to 'fanfic' it is usually in reference to this sort of production. However, as we'll see below, some of the interesting philosophical questions surround precisely what counts as fanfic and how it should be defined.

But let's take this definition and start picking out topics that are of philosophical interest in connection with it. Whenever my students are struggling to come up with good paper or thesis topics, my advice to them is to pick something interesting, whether it is philosophical or not, and (a) see how it intersects with a particular philosophical theory or topic or (b) start asking the big questions (What are the building blocks at play? How do we have epistemological access to them? How can we speak meaningfully about them? How can we reason about them? What are the grounds on which we can discriminate one answer to these questions from the others?). When you do this with fanfic, you get a plethora of interesting questions. I recently wrote about some of them, namely the nature of the relationship between the source text and the fanfic, and what the relationship to the stories therein is, whether fanfic should be seen as derivative or constitutive. <- This post contains rather nascent ideas, which I have since developed into a more fully-fledged investigation [5] which was directed at question of type (a): How do two different possible worlds accounts of fiction, Lewis's and Kripke's, account for or explain fanfiction? During writing, I found myself continually coming up with questions I wanted to address but couldn't within a limit of 6500 words. The first group stem around how to define fanfic in the first place:

  • How are we to define fanfic? Should it be defined so that it only encompasses text-based works, or should it include things like comic books and films?
  • What is the relationship between fanfic and fandom more generally?
  • Is vidding ("an art in which clips from television shows and movies are set to music to make an argument or tell a story" [6]) fanfic? Is cosplay? (On the topic of cosplay, what are the cosplay contexts in which counterfactual accounts can be expanatory?)
  • Where does LARPing fit into this?
  • Historical fanfic: Is Paradise Lost Bible fanfic? What about the various Irish mythological tales?

A central notion in discussions of fanfic is the notion of 'canon', a standard of measure against which the newly created stories are measured; the existence of canon is "particularly important for the creators of fan texts because they are judged on how well they stick to or depart from canon" [7], and this brings with it a plethora of questions too:

  • How much canon can you violate and still tell a legitimate story?
  • How does something move from noncanon into canon?
  • Can something go the other way?
  • Who has the authority to say what is canon and what is not?
  • Where does that authority come from?
  • What is fanon, and what is its relationship to canon?

Many people writing on the sociological and anthropological aspects of fanfic stress the transformative, and often subversive, nature of fanfic, which are closely tied to the questions of canon and authority. Without authority, there is nothing to subvert; without canon, there is no way to say that one story is a transformation of another. And this leads us to questions that focus on the created stories and characters themselves:

  • How do we identify characters across fictions? Is the Sherlock Holmes of Conan Doyle the same as Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock? (These are questions already discussed in philosophy under the heading of 'intensional identity') How about Adam Smith's Batman and Christian Bale's?
  • How does "interfictional carry-over" [8] work?
  • In what are The Taming of the Shrew and "10 Things I Hate About You" the same story? Is the latter fanfic of the former? Or is it just an adaptation? Are adaptation and transformation different things?
  • How do we understand the metaphysics of cross-over fiction (which takes characters from one story and transplants them into another)?

Some people reading these questions might object that I've betrayed my principles and swerved from philosophy back into English, and that these are questions literary theorists, rather than philosophers, should be answering. I disagree. I think that many of these questions can probably benefit from engaging with the literary, sociological, and anthropological work that's been done on fanfic already, but that philosophers bring with them a special way of asking and answering questions that, when applied to fanfic, can provide material both of interest to other philosophers and of relevance and interest to not only people in other academic disciplines but outside academia altogether. (Most of my FB friends who asked to read my draft [5] were writers (both of fanfic and of other work) or readers (of fanfic or sci/fantasy more generally), rather than philosophers. Who wouldn't want to write philosophically robust material that is actually of interest to the general public? Besides, writing on these topics means I get to watch and rewatch all the versions of Pride and Prejudice and call it research!)

This post barely scratches the surface, but I hope I've whetted at least a few appetites, and would love to see some work on these questions forthcoming in coming years!


[1] Cf. Colin Radford, “How Can We Be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina?” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 49 (1975): 67-80; Kendall L. Walton, “Fearing Fictions”, Journal of Philosophy, 75, no. 1 (1978): 5-27. Also, one of my students, Andrew Thomas, is writing his master's thesis on a fictional realist solution to the paradox.

[2] Sara L. Uckelman and Phoebe Chan, "Against Truth-Conditional Theories of Meaning: Three Lessons from the Language(s) of Fiction", Res Philosophica 93, no. 2 (2016): 1-19.

[3] At least, as far as I have been able to find. The only discussion I've found is Roy T. Cook, "Canonicity and Normativity in Massive, Serialized, Collaborative Fiction", Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 71, no. 3 (2013): 271-276. If you know of any other philosophical work that discusses any aspect of fanfiction, please leave a comment!

[4] Bronwen Thomas, "What is Fanfiction and Why are People Saying Such Nice Things About It?", Story Worlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies 3 (2011), p. 1; cf. Rebecca W. Black, "Fanfiction Writing and the Construction of Space", E-Learning 4, no. 4 (2007), p. 385.

[5] Sara L. Uckelman, "Fanfiction, Canon, and Possible Worlds", in preparation. Email or comment if you'd like to read a draft.

[6] Francesca Coppa, "A Fannish Taxonomy of Hotness", Cinema Journal 48, no. 4 (2009), p. 108.

[7] Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson, eds. Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006), p. 10.

[8] David Lewis, "Truth in Fiction", American Philosophical Quarterly 15, no. 1 (1978), p. 45.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Developing a Philosophical Skills undergraduate course

I was recently handed a very interesting project, and one that aligns nicely with my pedagogical interests. Durham has a fantastically diverse syllabus for its philosophy programme, but one consequence of having such a diversity of topics, approaches, and methods is that one can sometimes lose sight of the forest for the trees. Or, to put it another one, we sometimes run the risk of teaching philosophy rather than teaching how to be a philosopher. So I've been tasked to develop a new 1st-year course on "Philosophical Skills" which focuses on the latter rather than the former. Topics covered will include things like:

  • Reading philosophical articles.
  • Writing analytically.
  • Coming up with paper/thesis topics.
  • Giving a philosophical presentation (of either your own or someone else's work).
  • What is plagiarism?
  • Finding and identifying appropriate scholarly resources.
  • Implicit bias, stereotype threat, good seminar dynamics, etc.
  • Writing essays for philosophy exams.
  • Collaborating on written and oral work.

Ideally we'd like something that is writing intensive (because the best way to learn how to become a philosopher is to practice!), with clearly identifiable assignments that don't require that much effort to grade. Though one person will be the main course coordinator, the different topics (and perhaps the different assignments that go with the topics) will be handled by different lecturers, hopefully both spreading out the work and allowing 1st-year students to get to meet many more of the staff than they would just taking the basic courses.

Building a course like this from scratch -- and making it a good one -- is going to be a lot of work. I would love to know of other courses similar to this -- if you know of any, can you share syllabi? topics covered? what worked well and what didn't? Even if you don't have a course like this, what would you want to see in such a course? What did you wish you'd been explicitly taught about how to be a philosopher as an undergrad? What do you want your students to know about being a philosopher that you aren't able to teach them in a course with dedicated content?

Friday, July 29, 2016

How I write book reviews

Wednesday I finished up a book that I've been asked to review -- just over two weeks before the review is due! (Of course, in those two weeks, I'm going to be on holiday for 10 days). If I were to capitalize on this virtuousness, I'd start writing the review right away. Am I going to do that? No....instead, I'm going to write about writing book reviews.

When I was in grade-school, my mom assigned me a set number of book reports to write every year (usually around six, so it wasn't very onerous), and I hated it so much. (One year, I even wrote a report on a book I had written. Ah, Cyclesta, a triumph of 8-year-old authorship. It had a character in it named after my dentist.) I remember railing against the assignment as being useless for adult life: Never ever ever will I ever need to write a book report as an adult ever ever.

Ahem, yes.

I have had the pleasure the last couple of years to have had a steady stream of requests to review books, all of which are books which I would have otherwise purchased myself and for which I appreciated very much having a concrete deadline to ensure I actually read them. (With rare exception, it seems like nowadays the only philosophy or logic books I read cover to cover are ones I've been asked to review.) Writing a review of them is a small price to pay for a free book and the actually having read it, and I've developed a pretty good system for writing reviews that I am now going to share.

Most books I'm given for review come with a 4-6 month deadline. The first thing I do is wait until about 1-2 months before the review is due, go "oh, geez, I really need to read that book!", count up the number of days (either working days or working days + weekends) I have left before the deadline, subtract 2-3, and divide the number of pages in the book (the complete number, including introduction and all bibliographies, indices, etc.) to find out how many pages I need to read per day to finish it on time. I keep two post-it notes in the book while reading, one for where I am at, and one for where I should be at (sometimes I read ahead, and then get to feel quite smug). While I am reading, I take detailed notes about content:

(Notes for a review of a 180p book)

This is for the "summarize what is going on in each chapter" part of the book review." I also used this to highlight any questions I have or things that were said that I want to follow up on because I'm not sure if I disagree with them. It also allows me to start drafting fragments of the review; these fragments usually go on the back of the pages with the notes.

Once I've finished reading the book and writing these notes, then it's time to start drafting. What is it that you want to put in a review? Depending on the book, I include answers to a subset of the following (often, but not always, in roughly this order):

  • What is the main argument or goal of the book? (In generally 2-3 sentences.)
  • How is it organized -- does it have an introduction? What is in the introduction? How many chapters does it have and what are the contents of each? Does it have a bibliography? How long is it? Does it have an index? What is it an index of? Is there more than one index?
  • If the entire book is a translation of another text (e.g., a translation of a 14th C treatise on logic), how good is the translation? If I don't have access to the original Latin, can I at least say something about the readability of the translation, and whether technical terms are translated uniformly?
  • If the book is a translation, does the introductory material provide commentary on the content, or only on the context of the translated text?
  • If foreign language sources are quoted, are they translated into English? Is the original also given?
  • What criticisms do I have of the content?
  • Did I enjoy reading it? Was it pleasantly written or awkward? Are there problems with the English?
  • Are there any problematic typos?
  • Are there any other relevant comments about the publishing?
  • Who is the book's audience? Is it for specialists, non-specialists, students? Would it work as a textbook?

And answering those questions, I find, generally fills up my word count pretty quickly.

Did I miss anything? Is there anything that you look for in a book review that I've forgotten/neglected to to mention?

Friday, July 15, 2016

What it's like to be THIS woman in philosophy

Gather 'round and make yourself comfortable, because this is going to be a long one...

Tuesday afternoon I got back from 10 days in Australia, a trip which involved three back-to-back conferences and which gave me three very different views of being a woman (or at least, being THIS woman) in philosophy (let me make it clear, here and now, that this post is going to be about ME and MY experience, not generalities about "what (all) women do/be/are in philosophy"; in fact, these generalities are precisely one issue I will be railing against). The first conference was the annual conference of the Australasian Association for Logic, and the primary reason for the trip, as I was invited to give the keynote (you can read a summary of the talk over on the Medieval Logic and Semantics blog). The second conference was the annual conference of the Australasian Association for Philosophy, a generalist conference which basically accepts all abstracts submitted. I figured, since I was going, I might was well present, and submitted a non-logical abstract. The third was the annual conference of the International Association for Women in Philosophy, which I did not present at because the deadline for abstracts was long before I made any of my plans to go. All three conferences took place in the same city, with the second two being at the same campus.

The AAL conference was great -- a passel of fascinating talks, getting to see some friends I haven't seen in years, getting to meet in person people I've previously only known over the internet, and getting to meet new people. It was small enough that everyone got to talk to everyone, and the talks were long enough to really be able to say something, and have time for good discussion. It was basically everything I want in a conference. One sad part was that a friend I'd been looking forward to seeing was unable to come at the last minute, which had an added consequence that the number of women speaking at the conference went down from 3 to 2. Luckily, the organizers were able to find a replacement for the talk, and because gender imbalance in logic is something the organizers care about, they made sure it was a woman. So, there were three of us speaking, and another three women in the audience (out of around 20-30 people total). These are not good numbers, but they aren't horrible.

The AAP conference was huge, and I was glad I went into it with a core group of friends collected from the AAL, including one of the other women speakers. The first evening of the conference, there was scheduled a reception for Women in Philosophy at one of the local pubs, and upon viewing this on the schedule, she and I had one of those "Are you going?" "I dunno, are you going?" "I don't really want to go if I'm going to be the only one." "I'll go if you go." sorts of conversations. Neither of us had an inherent desire to go to the event because of the type of event that it was, but we both felt that, as women in philosophy, there may have been some sort of obligation on us to attend, because it's an event that's organized specifically for us -- and wouldn't it be a bit churlish not to go? But as the afternoon waned on, we talked more, and we agreed: Neither of us really fancied the idea of going and hanging out with a bunch of people we don't know simply because they're the same gender as us (especially when, given our druthers, we'd rather hang out with people of the opposite gender). So we instead went out to a different pub with a mixed group, and proceeded to have a very interesting conversation about whether or not we actually had an obligation that we were shirking by not going to the Women in Philosophy reception -- a very interesting conversation that included both men and women, something that almost by definition could not have happened if we had gone to the reception, and which had two interesting results. One, one of the men involved relayed how in previous years, the reception has explicitly excluded men, which meant that while it was going on, the men gathered in another room of the pub, and there -- without the tempering effect of women -- conversation degenerated into the worst of belligerent agonistic philosophy. Thus, while women only events in philosophy may be beneficial for women in philosophy, one might wonder whether they are beneficial for philosophy. Two, we came to the conclusion that neither of us had an obligation on behalf of ourselves to attend the event: If we did not think the event would be beneficial for us, then there was no obligation on us to attend. (Whew! That meant I could enjoy my company and my beer and not feel guilty). However, there remains the issue of whether we might have obligations towards others to go -- to other women in philosophy. In particular, it is unlikely that there would've been any other female logicians at the event (which was one of the reasons we weren't that interested in attending in the first place); however, what if there were a young female graduate student interested in doing logic, but unsure of the advisability of pursuing it, perhaps because of gendered reasons, and who would perhaps have benefited from going to such an event and seeing some more senior (how on earth have I moved into the "senior academic" category? I think it's the grey hairs) women logicians? I know that I personally never felt the lack of senior female role models -- all my best teachers and role models were men, and this never bothered me or seemed problematic -- but I also know that I cannot consider myself typical (in fact, I think I am extremely atypical, and also a combination of extremely lucky and extremely oblivious. I have followed What's it like to be a woman in philosophy? for years, and I have read the stories there with a sense of disconnect with (my) reality: I could not identify with a single story written there. I finally submitted my own a few days ago. Take a look at the title they gave it. Isn't that sad?). Since I cannot assume that my case is typical, I should assume that there are others out there who would benefit from having someone like me around. Do I have an obligation to them to attend such events? In the end, the group had a strong argument to the conclusion that "while members of oppressed groups may have a responsibility to resist their own oppression, they don't have a responsibility (simpliciter) to resist the oppression of others in the oppressed group". Even though that conclusion excluded me of any responsibility to attend the event, I'm a little bit hesitant to assent to it. I think I do have an obligation towards these amorphous, indistinct others, but I don't have a good sense of how this translates into concrete action, i.e., which women in philosophy events I can skip and which I can't. (In the end, I did have one good reason why I was not obligated for this particular one, at least not as strongly as maybe for some: Events like this are often about networking, and given that the network most useful for young philosophers there to be plugged in to was the Australia/New Zealand one, since I'm not a part of that network, I wouldn't be able to contribute much.)

Hold that last thought, because it's important later on. The AAP itself was pretty well gender balanced, at least from what I could tell of the composition of the coffee breaks, and also all the keynote talks and special lectures were given by women, which is pretty cool. Given that, it's interesting that at least three of the contributed talks I went to (there may have been more, but I only noticed/counted in these three), I was the only woman in the room; usually, one out of 8-10, but in one of them, it was one out of 20. All three talks were on topics in logic and philosophy of language, reinforcing my belief that if I had gone to the reception, I would've been unlikely to find anyone doing what I do to talk with.

The final day of the AAP was the first day of the IAPh, and the two conferences shared a round table, "30 Years of Women and Philosophy", to be live-streamed on a radio station. Still being somewhat uncomfortable about having opted out of the reception, I figured I would go to that, especially when a friend said he thought he'd go. It was a bit awkward, though, because we weren't sure if this was something like the reception -- was it a women only event? would he be excluded, implicitly or explicitly? -- but when we poke our heads in the room, there were a handful of other men, so he gamely followed me in.

The discussion was actually focused on the 30th anniversary of a special issue of the Australasian Journal of Philosophy on Women and Philosophy, with a number of the contributors to the journal there to reflect on how things have changed (or not) for women in the discipline in the last 30 years. I ended up finding the entire event profoundly uncomfortable. There were a number of times in which "areas that women work on in philosophy" was equated with "feminist philosophy". Hello! What does that make MY work? Or what does it make ME? Once one of the speakers trotted out the "men are mind/thinking/rationality, women are "body/emotion/irrationality" trope in order to rebut it, but the way she rebutted it was not by saying that women can be mind, but by saying "women have brought the body into philosophy!" -- while I sat in my chair shrinking into myself and thinking "but what if I want to be mind?" As my discomfort grew, I started posting about it on social media, e.g., a quote from FB:

I came away from this roundtable with a profound feeling that if this is what Women and Philosophy is, then the only logical conclusion is that either I am not a woman (or the right kind of woman) or what I do is not philosophy (or not the right kind of philosophy).

By the time the IAPh fully got going the next day (Friday), I'd been conferencing for more than a week with only 1.5 day break over the weekend, so I fully recognize I didn't go into the conference in as charitable mood as I might have, but even so, I found the first day that there was basically no intersection between what was going on and what I was interested in. Almost no one that I knew from the AAP stayed on for the conference; there was no logic at all; and the history of philosophy track started off with one talk that briefly named a few people from the 15th and 16th C, and then everything else was early modern or modern. And again and again the equations of male = rational, female = irrational came up:

Now, in each case, they were brought up to be rejected, but I experienced that perverse psychological effect whereby simply bringing something to attention, even if it is to be rejected, has the consequence of reinforcing it. Maybe (some) men act as if male = rational and female = irrational, but if so, their actions never affected me in the way that women saying these things did. (Cf. comment above about obliviousness. I don't want to say that misogyny didn't/doesn't exist in any of my academic homes; but one advantage of being socially awkward is that transgressions of social norms sometimes simply don't even register.) The tipping point came the second day, during the Q&A of one of the keynotes. The talk was on women in the history of philosophy and the entire period from 400-1500 was basically skipped with one throwaway mention of Hildegard of Bingen and one of Christine de Pisan (Eloise didn't even get a name check!!), because these were the "Dark Ages", there was no education, there was no development in philosophy. I tried to push back against these ideas (not the least the fact that "Dark Ages" as a term is highly deprecated amongst medievalists!), and had my very first experience in academic philosophy of being talked over by a senior academic. Even when I said quite explicitly "May I please finish my question?", that didn't work. I have never been talked over like that before, ever, and really didn't know how to respond. A number of people came up to me afterwards and offered support, and in the end I ended up sitting with some very excellent women at the conference dinner, and had a good time. The final day was also better than the previous two -- there was actually two talks on philosophy of language (one of them given by the sole male speaker, and one of only two men who attended the conference), and a few people I'd struck up conversations with during coffee breaks the day before seemed keen to continue engaging, and I ended up having a very interesting discussion with one until the end of the final reception.

One other way in which the conferences differed, which may seem a minor thing but in fact I think is not so minor at all, was that there was a distinct lack of beer involved with the IAPh:

With the AAL and the AAP, every evening after the talks were over, a group of us would gather for beer and food, or food and beer, depending on the time we got started, varied up one night with a trip to a whisky bar and capped off with karaoke until 2am after the AAP conference dinner. I like beer. I like drinking it, I like talking about it with others (during the pre-conference-dinner beers, I ended up sitting next to someone from Australia who was at the same beer festival in the Netherlands that I was at in 2014), I like hanging out with people who like beer, and I like the opportunities to hang out that beer involves. It gave us a common purpose -- as the sessions wound down for the day, we'd gather in the common lobby, wait for a critical mass, and then go out and socialize. That didn't happen at the IAPh, and I can't really imagine how it would. Now, I know that the presence of alcohol is often a problematic factor in mixed-gender-social-philosophical gatherings, but I also think it can play a very valuable role in bringing people together.

It was interesting, following up some of the conversations started by posts on twitter and FB, particularly with a few other women (mostly of the logical bent, unsurprisingly!) who have experienced similar feelings of alienation or discomfort. A few of us decided we needed to start a club for women philosophers who are not "women in philosophy":

I don't have any grand thoughts or conclusions, but I did think it important to write all of this down and document it. If I didn't, I would continue to stew about the experiences, but hopefully now I can put them behind.