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.