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?