Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Papers I want other people to write, Part 1

(Part 1, because I'm sure there will be follow-up posts.)

As I noted in my previous post, I keep a todo list of things I want to write on someday, no matter how vague or ill-formed. I'm quite liberal about what I put on the list, and only rarely do I take things off it unfinished. Nevertheless, there are still some ideas where I think "I'd love to READ that paper", but I don't think I'll ever get around to WRITING it myself, because I know there will always be other things higher up in the priority queue. So in this post I'm going to outline one of those -- a paper I'd love to read and am unlikely to write myself, so I'd love for someone else to write it (or for someone else to have already have written it -- please leave relevant citations in the comments!).

For a book chapter I was working on over Easter break, I had reason to get L. Sprague de Camp's Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy via ILL. Of course, I needed it for one tiny snippet, and that's all I read of it until the morning it was due, whereupon I started reading it while walking out to the library and was so caught up in it that afternoon I ordered a copy for myself. It came over the weekend, and I started reading it last night.

The first chapter discusses what comprises the genre of "heroic fantasy", along with a history of non-realistic fiction genres over the course of western history. He has a rather characteristic (and flawed) view of the so-called "Dark Ages", and notes:

After the West Roman Empire fell to the barbarians in the fifth century of the Christian era, literacy in Europe all but vanished. For several centuries, most fiction took the form of hagiographies. In these imaginary lives of saints, some martyrs, after being beheaded, went about carrying their heads in their hands (p. 8).

I want to read the paper that reimagines medieval saints' hagiographies as science fiction/fantasy. Heck, I also want to read the sci-fi/fantasy novel that builds upon a medieval saint's hagiography for its story/plot line.

Internet, go to it. Collectively, we all have far too much time on our hands. I'm sure you can make this happen.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

On productivity techniques I find useful

People think that I am quite a prolific writer -- for a philosopher at least. Objectively, I can see why this is the case, because I can compare my CV with the CVs of other philosophers at my career stage. But subjectively I find this perception very strange, because the view I have of myself, I'm rather haphazard and unorganized, and a lot less disciplined than I should be. I'm really good at starting things. I'm moderately good at getting things to about 90% finished. I'm really really bad at finishing things, unless there is a deadline involved. I'm also really good at justifying doing anything other than writing. Which is why when there was a suggestion in an academic FB group I'm a member of to form some summer writing groups, I decided to put my name forward. Maybe some external accountability will get me to be more organized and more disciplined. Our group just got going, and involved the five of us outlining what we hoped to get done over the summer, both the realistic goals and the pie-in-the-sky goals. I was nervous putting out my goals at first, because I'm sticking with the resolution I had in 2014 (which worked great for 6 months and then I interviewed for, got, moved for, and started a new job, and everything quickly changed), namely, to try to submit one item per month. Five months in, and I'm already up seven items for 2016, so things are going well so far -- but generally when I articulate this resolution to other people in my field, they react with shock: How on earth can I even imagine completing that much?! It makes me wonder if I'm being unrealistic, if my view of what is an appropriate level of productivity is somehow skewed. (So I was very glad when some of the other ladies in the group had similar goals to mine: I'm not (entirely) crazy.)

The truth is probably somewhere between my perception of myself and other's perceptions of me. I'm probably neither as prolific as they think, nor as unproductive as I think. I'm probably neither as unrealistic in my expectations of myself as they think, nor as realistic in my expectations of myself as I think (I would not be surprised if the system broke down around (a) July when I'm heading to Australia for two weeks or (b) October when classes start again, as I'm taking on yet another new course). But between some conscious articulations in the writing group about my goals and expectations, and the request from a friend on FB to say something about how I organize projects and get them done, now seems a natural time to sit down and say something about the productivity techniques that I find useful. Maybe some of them will be useful for you. Maybe some of them won't be. I don't know.

When I was first in grad school, one of the things that I found mysterious was how people came up with ideas -- not only for seminar papers (there at least we got guidance) but for journal papers. How does one come up with an idea for a journal paper? How does one know which ideas are journal-worthy and which aren't? I hadn't a clue, and also got very little guidance on the topic. Three years into my PhD programme, I packed up my cats and my husband and our lives and moved across an ocean to start in a different programme, and it was about a 6 weeks into that programme that I discovered medieval logic, and very quickly after that the ideas started flowing. This was one of the first hints that I had that this was the right field for me: Suddenly, coming up with paper topics didn't seem the mysterious and opaque process it had previously been. I took my first idea, and started writing it up over Christmas break, when my supervisor asked me one day a question that both surprised me and ended up becoming one of the most important encounters of my PhD trajectory. He asked me what I was writing the paper for, a conference? A journal? I looked at him blankly. I had no idea what he meant. I was just writing a paper. He pushed back on this. Never write without a goal in mind. Never write into the void. Always have a venue in front of you, to tailor the paper as you go. This had never occurred to me, and it has become the bedrock of my writing process: Every single piece I write is written with a specific goal in mind. (The flip side of this is that sometimes I can have a good idea, and want to write on it, but if I don't know where it's going to go, I can't get things going until I figure that out. As a result, I have a few things that have been languishing for far too long). So that's technique no. 1: Always write with a venue in mind..

One of the things I found endlessly satisfying about working in medieval logic is the diversity of material, and not only the diversity of material but also the diversity of techniques. Sometimes I'd be transcribing a medieval text and translating it from Latin into English. Other times, I'd be building formal models and proving results about them. The consequence of this was that whenever something was going poorly, I could switch to something very different and immediately (usually) become productive again. Stuck at the crucial stage of a proof, unable to get that necessary lemma proven? Set aside the logic and pull out the grammar book. Those pesky gerunds and gerundives causing you to weep over your translation? Set it aside and pull out the theorems again. Oh, look, the answer to how to get to that lemma is perfectly obvious, now that I've spent a few days or weeks away. This process of alternation has become an integral part of my process, and I have generalized it in two ways: (1) I always have multiple (say, 10+) projects going on at any given time; some may be somewhat less active than others, but they're all active enough that I can pick up any one of them and, in an hour or two, get back into the groove of working on them. This means that there is always something to do when something else is not working. (2) I have systematically incorporated a second, substantially different, research agenda into my ordinary life. This may be the diary of Doctor Logic (who, I'll have you know, is a superhero; her side-kick is the awesome Power Girl, the biggest cause of non-productivity in my life :) ), but Dr. Logic's alter ego is an onomagician (i.e., someone who does magic with names). The summer that I was finishing up my dissertation, worked on that hard-core during the day and came home and worked on onomastic projects in the evening; this was my way of feeling productive and accomplished without being drained by too much work on my main research. This was how I relaxed and recharged. The result of this is that I ended up with not only a 250 page dissertation in medieval logic, I also ended up with a concurrently completed 150 page draft book on bynames in Middle English. In the years since then, I've turned the onomastics from a hobby into a real research programme (i.e., I now allow myself to work on it during the day!). I was leery of doing so, because if it became part of the job instead of just a hobby, maybe it wouldn't serve the same purpose in providing me with a productive break from my day-to-day research. Two years or so in, I haven't found this to be the case. (Thank goodness!). So technique no. 2: Always have something else you can work on.. (See also Structured Procrastination, something which has resonated strongly with me. It works quite well. Look! I could be writing a journal paper, but instead I am writing this blog post. :).

But how do you keep multiple projects "fresh", or even kept track of? I have a relatively simplistic solution here. I have a word document called "projects" which has two columns: the first is for ideas that I've had, no matter how fleeting or how ill-thought-through. The second is for dates: Deadlines for things I've committed to writing, dates of completion, submission, acceptance, revision, publication. It helps me keep track of what I have in the pipelines at any given time, and it also gives me no excuse along the lines of "But I don't know what to write about". Some of the things on the list have been there a very long time. Some of them may eventually be removed without being acted on. But things go onto it with very little vetting. A few months ago, it had just over 50 items on it. As of the other day, it had 44, as a number of things in the pipelines have shifted to the "published" stage, at which point they're removed and put onto my CV. One drawback about the projects.doc method is that one has to go to the file, open it, and look at it. Last summer, I cleared off my white board and put everything from the projects file onto the whiteboard, and then spent three months looking at the list on a daily basis. This was highly motivating! Especially as I color-coded the dates and could see genuine progress over the summer. Unfortunately, this summer I think I will be using my whiteboard for logic purposes, but I'm toying with alternatives so that I can put the todo list up on my wall, large and easy to see. That's technique no. 3: Put anything that sounds interesting on your todo list. Don't worry about whether its feasible.

A 44 item todo list can seem overwhelming. If I didn't add anything to the list and continued at my "1 item a month" rate, it would take me four years to get through all of it. And this is where technique no. 4 comes in: Collaborate. This is something that is becoming more common in philosophy than it had been, but it's still viewed with some trepidation. (Thankfully not really in logic treated as a scientific discipline, which is the context in which I got my PhD, so it's the context I'm comfortable with.) Co-authoring is a great way for foisting all the bits that you either don't like doing or don't have the time to do onto someone else. I recently completed a book chapter on how (and how not) the names in the Game of Thrones books and TV series are medieval; I co-authored it because I knew I didn't have the time to extra the relevant onomastic data from the books and shows myself (I haven't seen any of the series, and it's been a decade since I was caught up on the books), so I put out a call for collaborators and got two excellent co-authors who fed me all the data I needed. This sort of partnership is unheard of in some circles of the humanities, and is really, really useful. There are also more informal ways of shedding the burden. A few years ago I started a Facebook group for Medieval Logic -- I did it out of purely selfish reasons, wanting to have a place where all my medieval logician friends on FB could be accessed in one place for translation help, questions about secondary literature, etc. The group now has more than 1000 members -- how amazing is that? I also joined twitter about a year ago, and regularly making use of the #logicians, #twitterstorians, and #medievaltwitter tags to solicit recommendations for readings, etc.

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. The latter has been an interesting exercise; it's a group blog, but I've committed to having a post on it every Thursday, so if someone else hasn't, I have to. This discipline has been a useful one for me, so far. Blogs are great, because the stakes are much lower. You can explore ideas without having them fully formed. You can think of your ideas as you write, instead of having them in advance. This post has been a good example of this: I wasn't entirely sure what I had to say on the topic before I got started, and now I've written more than 2000 words. (That along with 1000 on a new draft paper, 1300 on feedback for an essay, and 5000 on beta-reader comments for a novel coming out in fall means that today was TREMENDOUSLY PRODUCTIVE.)

Finally, technique no. 6: Take your breaks without any guilt.. Doctor Logic is signing off, because it's time for her to go and fetch Power Girl from nursery. No more writing! (For now.)

Friday, May 13, 2016

Thinking about writing a book

I've managed to arrange my teaching for 2016-17 to be basically perfect: I'm doing the first-year introduction to logic course (mandatory for certain degree programmes involving philosophy) and a repeat, though with variation, of this year's third-year logic seminar (completely elective, and advertised also to math and computer science majors). So I've been thinking a lot lately about textbooks.

This year, for the seminar, we did the first seven chapters of Hughes and Cresswell's New Introduction to Modal Logic, and chapter four of Goldstern & Judah's The Incompleteness Phenomenon. Before teaching, I was familiar with H&C since that's the book I learned my modal logic from initially, but G&J was new to me. It, however, fit the bill of being relatively self-contained and something that could allow us to cover the first incompleteness theorem in half a year. We just had our final meeting yesterday, and while the book certainly wasn't awful, we all came away with a distinct feeling that it could've been better -- more explanation, fewer typos, that sort of thing. We collected two pages of errata from that one chapter alone, and in the end I decided their coverage of recursive functions in the final section just didn't do what I wanted it to do, so I scrapped it entirely and wrote my own material for them.

Next year will be my first time doing the intro logic course at Durham, which has previously been taught using tableaux. I am unconvinced of the utility of teaching tableaux in a first year course: Yes, they are easy; yes, students figure them out pretty quickly; yes, they are easy to grade. But, no, they don't really help students understand what it is that logic is. They blur syntax and semantics in a way that can make what logic is and what logicians do utterly opaque -- as I discovered last year when I had a second-year logic class inherited from that first-year one, and I found they didn't understand the difference between syntax and semantics, and thus didn't have a good grasp on concepts like soundness and completeness. My preferred proof-method is natural deduction (again, it's what I first learned, so there is some bias towards it in that respect), because it is somewhat mechanical but also somewhat requiring of imagination, and it makes it easy to do non-trivial soundness and completeness proofs. Now, over the years, I've collected quite a few intro logic books, and I also asked on twitter for suggestions:

I got a wide range of responses, including Tim Button's forallx, which looks really interesting. Still, nothing has quite fit the bill, for either the intro class or the revised version of the seminar, despite the plethora of options. In fact, I think there is a connection here: There is a plethora of options because teaching logic is such a personal thing, every person who does it has specific ideas about how to do it, and eventually they reach the point where they are frustrated enough with the teaching materials out there that they decide to write their own.

I think I'm nearing that stage, especially because I've got not one but two courses neither of which have perfectly suitable material already out there. I've already got lecture notes from a second year class on modal logic (mostly applied, little theory); lecture notes from a master's level temporal logic class; and lecture notes from parts of this year's seminar on modal logic and incompleteness. Wouldn't it be nice if I could kill two birds with one stone, and develop a book that would work for both the intro class and the upper level class? (They'd be using different parts of it, of course). But it would give intro students a view towards where they could be going, and it would give advanced students a handy place to refresh their memories -- especially since the math students coming into the third-year seminar probably haven't had any logic before.

Yesterday I took those disparate notes and combined them into a single document. It's got the following table of contents:

    • What is logic?
  1. Formal argumentation
    • Classical Buddhist dialectics
    • Aristotelian dialectics
    • Medieval dialectics
  2. Classical logics
    • Term logic
    • Propositional logic
    • Predicate logic
  3. Extensions of classical logic
    • Peano Arithmetic
    • Modal logic
    • Temporal logic
    • Dynamic logic
  4. Non-classical logics
    • Intuitionistic and constructive logics
    • Paraconsistent logics
  5. Exercises, Glossary, and Bibliography

I'm trying to figure out what to call it. I'm very attracted to the Summa Logicae titles of medieval logic texts, because I do want this to be a sum(mary) of logic. I've thought about Summa Totius Logicae Modernae, except people might think this is "the sum of the whole of modern logic" when I really want it to be "the sum of the whole of logic available modernly". Also, I probably can't get away with titling a textbook in Latin.

So, dear readers, what should I call this book, that demonstrates that this isn't just an introduction to logic, it isn't just an advanced logic text, it isn't merely symbolic logic, it has history and depth and breadth and everything?

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Anonymity, teacher-training, and cronyism

In this post I want to bring together a couple of disparate threads that I've come across recently in social media, each of which may individually seem plausible (though regarding the first one I already have my doubts) but which are jointly inconsistent.

The first thread is anonymous hiring practices, in which applicants submit a wholly anonymized CV, an anonymized 5000 word writing sample, and an anonymized 1 page outline of joint projects/papers the applicant envisions conducting with his/her new colleagues, if successful. I don't know the whole story behind it, because I was introduced to the notion via a single tweet:

Now, maybe in some fields this would work. Maybe some fields are big enough. But in my field, at least, I bet it would be awfully hard to wholly anonymize a CV: If the CV contains (a) the primary area of research; (b) the year the applicant received his/her PhD; (c) the institution from which he/she received the degree; and (d) publication info, then the chances that this already identifies the applicant is very high. Even if you didn't provide the full publication details, but only a list of what journals the applicant has published in (perhaps with years), this is still going to narrow things down quite a bit. And once you add in previous employment history (which would be needed to provide evidence of teaching qualifications, etc.), and I just don't see how people can think this really gives any guarantee of anonymity.

From this, I have two thoughts. First: I don't think it's really possible to sufficiently anonymize applications in many fields. But more importantly, second: I don't think it's necessarily a good idea to do so.

On the face of it, anonymization seems like a good thing because it's one way to help counteract implicit biases arising from gender and racial stereotypes. (Note, though, that it doesn't counteract all biases: Prestige bias will still be an issue if the applicant includes his/her university/education information.) The thought, so I assume it goes, is that with these potential triggers for biases removed, hiring committees are better able to make an assessment of who is, objectively, the best qualified purely on the basis of their research/teaching/publication merits.

But this missing the point about what it is hiring committees are looking for. A hiring committee is, in general, not looking for the objectively best philosopher in field X. They are looking for someone who is good at what they do, but also for someone who will be pleasant to work with. Will this person pull their weight in the department? Will they fill a niche that needs to be filled? Are they a right fit for our specific needs? Two departments hiring in field X may judge person Y to be the objectively best philosopher of X, and yet this does not mean that Y is the best person for both of these departments to consider offering the job to: There is so much more to being the right person for the job than simply the objective measures. But even if you disagree, and wish to maintain that anonymity in hiring practices is, on the whole, a good thing, I'd like to show that it conflicts with the pursuit of other, equally admirable, aims.

So, hold those thoughts, as we switch to the next disparate thread, and this is teacher training for philosophy PhD students, particularly in the UK. A colleague of mine at Durham and some co-authors recently wrote a paper on The State of Teacher Training in Philosophy (you can read some discussions of this here.) The results of the paper are basically that philosophy PhD students are given very little explicit training in teaching while PhD students, despite the fact that the vast majority of them who go on to get academic positions will be getting ones that involve teaching, or indeed are teaching focused. There is a disconnected here between the education departments provide their students and the education departments need to provide their students to make them competitive, and it would be good to see it addressed.

Keeping this in mind, pop over here to read about the typical career trajectory of a UK philosophy PhD, where the issue of teaching experience is again brought up. The first comment on that post says:

There seems in the UK to be a gap in the training process from PhD to permanent position. PhD programs here don't provide the kind of professionalization that US programs do. Yes, you can get some seminar teaching, but it is difficult to get the responsibility to design and run your own course. You are just a TA for one of the lecturers.

Let us agree that (a) departments are not giving their PhD students adequate training and (b) this should be remedied. Newly minted PhDs usually gain the necessary teaching experience through fixed-term teaching fellowships, usually lasting between 1 and 3 years. There are not many of these, in the UK, and one commenter on the post linked above commented on the nepotism and cronyism that seems to occur in hiring for these fellowships: "1-2 year teaching gigs often go to friends and colleagues, graduating PhDs".

Now, another reason to be in favor of anonymous hiring practices is that they can help reduce nepotism and cronyism, so one might think that one way to address the concerns of that commenter would be to adopt such anonymous practices (though, if a department at University of X gets an application, name removed, that says "graduated from University of X in 2016 with a dissertation in Y", again, this is unlikely to be anonymous!).

But this assumes that nepotism and cronyism are necessarily bad things, and I'd like to advance an argument that it is not. We've already agreed that UK philosophy departments are not doing enough to train their PhD students in teaching and that this should be addressed. In the US, this is often addressed by giving PhD students the opportunity to design and implement their own courses, an opportunity that UK students don't get. The problem is that it is not that they are not given the opportunity but often they it is not possible to give them this opportunity -- and by "not possible" here I mean "constraints at the university level (or higher) prevent it". University regulations, at least at my university, require that all summative course work (i.e., work that counts towards the student's final grade) be marked by someone who has a PhD, which means that graduate students can only mark 1st year work or formative 2nd and 3rd year work. I don't know what the official policy is regarding letting people without PhDs be module leaders, but I suspect that this is likewise not possible given that the module leader is generally expected to be the first marker of summative work.

So then, what options are left for giving one's own PhD students more experience in teaching? Why, by hiring them on as teaching fellows after they've finished their degrees. One could argue that not only is cronyism not problematic in this situation, it is in fact something to be sought. We, as a department, have a responsibility towards our PhD students to equip them for their future careers (many of which will be in academia). If we cannot do this while they are still students, then we have an obligation to do it when we can, i.e., when they are no longer students. Far from calling out cronyism as a bad thing, I think that in the case of temporary teaching fellowships, UK philosophy departments should be actively supporting and promoting their own students for these positions.