Thursday, December 13, 2018

New publication announcement: "Computation in Medieval Western Europe".

I've got a new publication to announce! (It actually came out a week or two ago, but I only got my author's copy on Tuesday, so no author selfie before then.) It's a book chapter in Sven Ove Hansson, ed., Technology and Mathematics: Philosophical and Historical Investigations, on "Computation in Medieval Western Europe":


Practices that fall under the broad umbrella of ‘computation’ in the western European Middle Ages tend to be goal-oriented and directed at specific purposes, such as the computation of the date of Easter, the calculation of velocities, and the combinatorics of syllogisms and other logical arguments. In spite of this practical bent, disparate computational practices were increasingly built upon theoretical foundations. In this chapter, we discuss the theoretical principles underlying three areas of computation: computistics and the algorithms employed in computistics, as well as algorithms more generally; arithmetic and mathematical calculation, including the calculation of physical facts and theorems; and (possible) physical implementations of computing mechanisms.

It was an interesting paper chapter to write because it stretched the boundaries of my comfort zones -- I had to read up a lot on calendrical computation! (Which is super interesting.) But it's a fascinating exercise, to pick a modern concept, such as computation, and then see what, if anything, counts as its historical precursor.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Wot I've Published This Year (fiction edition)

So apparently the thing to do in late November/early December, if you're a fiction author, is to write up a post outlining everything you've published in the last year. As my wonderful friend Heather Rose Jones put it in her such post, this is "Purely for people's curiosity and amusement, of course. Not at all with any expectation or pressure for people to consider our works for award nominations."

Phew! Thank goodness! Because while I do know that there are things out there such as awards (I could even name a few of them, if I thought about it. There's...Hugos. And...Nebulas. And...others.), I wouldn't have the first idea whether anything I've written is "eligible" for them, and it seems like it would be a lot of work to find out. So I'm going to take a leaf from her book and simply do a round up of what I've published this year, fiction-wise. (I hope to do a separate post for my non-fiction.)

2018 has been a pretty amazing year, fiction-wise, according to the stats.

In 2018, I had 13 pieces out on submission. One was a poem that I sent to one venue (rejection), and two were pieces of flash fic written for specific purposes/venues (both rejected). So let's call it an even 10. These 10 were submitted a total of 46 times. 37 submissions were rejected, 1 I withdrew, and 4 are still outstanding. But that means out of the 10 pieces I had in play this year, FOUR were accepted. That's super exciting.

UPDATE!! (4Dec) Got another acceptance! A flash fic piece, "An Orb of Ice-Blue, Held Aloft in a Perfect Hand", will be coming out in Manawaker Studio's Flash Fiction Podcast. I wrote this story in the middle of a March snowstorm, and am super pleased it's found a home.

Of those four, three have been published in 2018 (and one may still make it out before Christmas), and two which were accepted last year were also published this year, for a total of five pieces in 2018:

[no book selfie yet]"Bad Harvest", The Martian Wave (2018).
"Being Human", in Robots and Artificial Intelligence (Flametree Publishing, 2018).Author Q&A with Publisher, part 1;
Author Q&A with Publisher, part 2;
About the story
"The Bargain", in J. Scott Coatsworth, ed., Impact: Queer Sci Fi's Fifth Annual Flash Fiction Contest (Other Worlds Ink, 2018).About the story
"The Platform Between Heaven and Earth", in Jessica Augustsson, ed., Wavelengths (Jayhenge Publications, 2018).About the story
"The Name of the Sword", in Carol Hightshoe, ed., Tales from the Fluffy Bunny (WolfSinger Publications, 2018).

I had the amazing realisation, about a week ago, that the earnings I made selling my short fiction this year were enough to cover the costs of a weekend trip to visit a friend and her son, bringing my daughter along with me. We got back late last night, and since she's a fellow writer and one of my biggest champions, it was so satisfying to have funded the trip in this way. (It also makes me realise just how crazy academic publishing is, via which I have made precisely ZERO income.)

This post also seems to be the right place to mention my reviews of short SFF fiction; SFFReviews hit its 1st anniversary in September, and since it's inception, we've reviewed over 560 short SFF stories, and over 275 of those reviews have been mine. Being able to contribute to the reading, writing, consuming, and enjoying of speculative fiction in this way satisfies me almost even more than having my own stories published! (Almost.)

2018 was a good year. Let's hope 2019 is even better!

Friday, November 16, 2018

Approaching philosophy as a speculative fiction author

Two days ago I had the brilliant opportunity of giving a skype guest lecture in Michael Rea's undergraduate class on Science Fiction and Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. Michael invited me to speak to his students not in my capacity as a philosopher but in my capacity as a Real, Live Author (a capacity which I still find a bit boggling that I have!), to speak to his students about the ways in which philosophy feeds into my writing and how my writing feeds into my philosophy. He asked that I speak for 15-20 minutes, and then there'd be a Q&A, both them to me and me to them. It was an excellent hour and a quarter full of living discussion from which I came away with many thoughts about things I'd never considered before, and I thought I'd write up the brief notes I had for my kick-off presentation, as well as put together some lists that I promised the class during the course of class.

In advance of the class, I had them read Kate Elliott's blog post, The Omniscient Breasts, on the problematic internalisation of the "male gaze":

A problem arises when people write and/or read without knowing or realizing they are writing and reading exclusively from the perspective of a male gaze. When this perspective has been internalized as the most authentic or real perspective, it can subsume and devour all other perspectives because it is treated as the truest or only one.

Why does this matter? Because:

Stories told through a female gaze are just as valid, just as true, just as authentic and universal. And they are just as necessary, not just for women but for men, too.


A fortuitious series of events also lead me to read this interview with Sheri S. Tepper in Strange Horizons a few days before giving the talk, and many of the topics discussed in it informed what I wanted to say.

Notes for my presentation

Topic: Why is my reading/writing spec fic relevant/important to my being a philosopher?

  • Brief intro: Who am I?
    • Writer since age 4. 10 year gap while I wrote a PhD/established an academic career.
    • Picked up writing again in 2014; started submitting in 2015. Since then, I've had 9 short stories or pieces of flash fic published or forthcoming. I'm currently in my 3rd year participating in NaNoWriMo
  • Practical aspects: The first way in which integrating the practice of reading and writing fiction into my philosophical research is beneficial is a straightforward practical one: It gives me concrete philosophical research questions to try to answer.
    • What is "creation"? What is being created? "If creation is important to something or someone or is going to become important, then all subcreations of it are also important. Everything is important. There is nothing so unimportant you can ignore it or destroy it with complete impunity." (Tepper interview, op. cit.)
    • What are fictional characters?
    • Truth in fiction.
    • Emotions and fiction.

But this is a rather low-level reason to integrate philosophy and reading/writing fiction: Any of these research questions I could perfectly well engage in without engaging in the production or consumption of fiction; it's just that certain aspects are highlighted or more interesting to me given that I do.

I want to contrast those pragmatic/practical aspects with two other types of aspects which I think are intrinsically tied up in the production and consumption of fiction, and cannot be dealt with separately.

  • Epistemic aspects:
    • Thought experiments: What if?
    • The opportunity to explore ideas (through writing) without having arguments for them.
    • But stories are arguments, and arguments are stories. (see here, here, and here).
    • "Things done in imagination have meaning in the world. Faery is imagination, right? Things done in imagination are transferable to reality. Promises made there can become real." (Tepper interview, op. cit.)
    • We cannot get from here to there without having an idea of what there looks like. We cannot start working towards the future we want to make real until we have a way of conceptualising what the future could be like. Fiction helps us imagine that.
  • Moral aspects:
    • No one is ever persuaded by argument alone. We need stories to persuade people.
    • Every choice matters: In fiction we can chose whether to perpetuate problematic social structures. "The male gaze occurs when the audience, or viewer, is put into the perspective of a heterosexual male." (Laura Mulvey, quoted in Elliott's post, op. cit.). Kate Elliott and the "homosexual agenda": "to him, a sexual gaze was by default a male gaze".
    • "All of the stories are necessary": Necessary how/why?

The Q&A section of the class covered a tremendously wide spectrum of topics, from the very practical questions of how can we shift mainstream media (movies and books) when everything comes down to money; how do we deal with mainstream media where the narratives of the stories (e.g., strong female leadership in the new Star Wars movies) are in conflict with the actual production of the stories (how many women in executive/production roles in the making of the movies?); how do we talk to our friends, families, colleagues about these internalised defaults; how much should we, as writers of fiction, care about how our words might be used against us or misunderstood?

A few specific points came out that I though were really perceptive. One person asked if there were anything like a trans gaze (as opposed to a male or female gaze), and if I could recommend any stories that center that. I'm not sure if it makes sense to speak of a trans gaze (as opposed to, e.g., a nonbinary or genderfluid one), but I could certainly give them recommendations for stories that center trans characters and trans authors. I have elsewhere enthusiastically reviewed a collection of short stories by trans author Ana Mardoll, and I recommend them enthusiastically here. I also recommend the detailed and unending work that that Bogi Takács does, writing, editing, and promoting spec fic by trans authors. They are the editor volumes 2 and 3 of the Transcendent: The Year's Best Transgender Speculative Fiction anthologies (volume 2; volume 3; checkout the rest of Lethe Press's trans and genderqueer fiction), and they also review speculative fiction widely and have a very helpful index of author demographics: Bogi Reads the World. (Follow them on Twitter for more recommendations.)

Another person, who has read enough of my reviews of short SFF fiction for to know of my resistance to 2nd person POV, wondered if there was a connection between that and the problematic centering of the male gaze. I thought that was really perceptive, because I'd never put the two together but I think there's something there: I don't really like 2nd person POV because it feels too often like I am being told what to do and what to think and what to feel, and I resist this very strongly. But in a sense, centering the male gaze when the reader is themself not male is similarly problematic -- I am forced into viewing as an object something that I do not want to view as an object. This is certainly something I'd like to pursue further.

Finally, people asked what, concretely, they can do to fight against the problematic structures that are sadly all too entrenched in contemporary SFF media. My best recommendation there was to read the transgressive stuff and to recommend it widely. SFFReviews (linked above) provides one means of identifying stories to read; but I also promised the class a list of mainstream SFF journals that are publishing stories that push back against problems and are freely available online. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it will give people more than enough stories to start with:

All in all, an excellent experience, and no one seemed to mind too much that -- because I was skyping in from my bedroom -- I got photobombed by two different cat butts and a 7yo.

Monday, October 29, 2018

New publication announcement!

My paper "Names Shakespeare Didn't Invent: Imogen, Olivia, and Viola Revisited" is now available online from Names.

This paper has been in the pipeline least two years, possibly three, long enough that I can't really remember, but I'm really pleased that it's finally published online! Here's the abstract:

Just as Shakespeare’s plays left their indelible stamp on the English language, so too did his names influence the naming pool in England at the beginning of the 17th century and beyond, and certain popular modern names are often described as inventions of Shakespeare. In this article, we revisit three names which are often listed as coinages of Shakespeare’s and show that this received wisdom, though oft-repeated, is in fact incorrect. The three names are Imogen, the heroine of Cymbeline; and Olivia and Viola, the heroines of Twelfth Night. All three of these names pre-date Shakespeare’s use. Further, we show in two of the three cases that it is plausible that Shakespeare was familiar with this earlier usage. We conclude by briefly discussing why these names are commonly mistakenly attributed to Shakespeare’s imagination, and the weaker, but not mistaken, claims which may underlie these attributions.

If you do not have access to the journal and are interested in a copy of the paper, please drop me a line.

Monday, October 1, 2018

"What are the philosophy books that one needs to know to be a philosopher?"

The title of this post is a question one of our undergraduates asked, and which all members of staff were asked to answer. I wrote up my answer today, and thought it would be worth sharing why I think this is the wrong question to ask. (The answer below is written to my fellow colleagues who were asked to answer this question, not to the student who originally asked it.)

I do not think that this question is properly formed. Philosophy is not a discipline of authors and their works but of techniques and concepts and ideas. Putting the emphasis on books and philosophers misses the point, in my opinion, because it is predicated on the idea that our goal in an undergraduate philosophy programme is to teach students philosophy.

"But of course that's what we're supposed to be doing!" you reply. I'm not so sure it's so obvious, and I'll counter with a different proposal for what we should be doing, instead of teaching them philosophy: We should be teaching them how to be philosophers.

Equipping a student to be a philosopher is equipping them with a variety of philosophical tools stemming from different philosophical traditions:

  • The ability to write clearly and precisely.
  • The ability to read a complex article and understand it.
  • The ability to draw distinctions and reason from definitions.
  • The ability to recognise and create counterexamples.
  • The ability to ask appropriate questions.
  • An understanding of how we know things and what counts as evidence.
  • An understanding of what exists.
  • An understanding of what we ought to do.
  • An understanding of praise and blame.
  • (And other things; this list is not complete.)

How we get students to the point where we have all of these doesn't matter; we can do it with any texts and any authors that suit the purposes. Focusing on "required" or "canonical" books and authors reduces philosophy to a set of principles, a set of truths, a set of facts. In my opinion, this misses entirely the point of studying philosophy! Now, if you put concepts and techniques first, then it's likely that certain texts will fall out as "canonical", since certain texts are the first/clearest place in which a specific concept or technique is presented. But often the first place something is articulated is not the best place in which to introduce a student to the subject -- for example, I think students should know about the syllogism, propositional logic, and predicate logic. But I wouldn't advocate teaching any of these via Aristotle, the Stoics, or Frege (at least not as the primary texts!)

I've written more on the difference between teaching philosophy vs. teaching how to be a philosopher (since writing that post, my views have become rather more radical, in that I think the balance should be skewed much more towards teaching them how to be philosophers, even if this means that they end up with "gaps" in their education, e.g., because they haven't read Aristotle, or Descartes, or Russell. Also relevant to this discussion is why I think it is so crucial that we teach logic to our first year students, especially if our goal is to train them to be philosophers.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Advice to new students: Be brave

Dear new student,

It's your first year at university. You may have started classes already, or maybe you still have another week or two to go. But soon, if you haven't already, you'll find yourself in a huge room of people, most of whom you don't know, with someone standing at the front who you don't know and who doesn't know you. It can be terrifying. Everyone around you is nodding their head at what the professor is saying, they're taking details notes (some people even color code them!), while you're still sitting there wondering -- what was that thing the professor wrote on the board, five minutes ago? Is it a word, or a symbol? A mistake, a smudge? Now you've been thinking about that so long, you've missed what the professor said next, and you tune back in to hear, "...and that's why this concept is going to be crucial to what we're doing for the rest of the term." What concept??.

It can be a lonely and isolating place, sitting in a room where you know no one and no one knows you and everyone seems to know everyone else and to have it altogether. But I'm here to tell you, none of it's true: No one comes to university knowing everyone and everything. Everyone is sitting there thinking "I wish I knew more people here than I do." Or "I don't understand what just happened, but I don't want to look stupid in front of everyone else by asking a question."

So here's my advice to you: Own this. Be brave -- be the one who is willing to look stupid in front of a sea of people you don't know, including your professor. Put your hand in the air and ask the questions: "What is the thing you wrote on the board?", "Can you repeat what you just said about that concept?" If you think you sort of got something, but aren't sure, try summarising what you think was said, and ask for confirmation, "Am I understanding this right?" Do it today. Do it again tomorrow. Do it every time you have a question.

Why? Because I can guarantee you that every question you have, someone else in the class is going to have it too, and they're not going to be brave enough to ask, and they will be so grateful to you that you were. They may even come up to you after class and say, "I'm so glad you asked about that concept, I didn't understand it either," and there you are -- your first step towards making friends.

And another reason: Your professor is not a mind-reader. They are not going to know if things are not being understood if no one says anything. One of the hardest parts of standing in front of a group of students -- always nameless, faceless at the beginning of term -- is having no idea if anything you're saying is making any sense. We need feedback when we're going too fast -- or too slow. An inert class who never gives us any response is terrifying.

Now, you're going to get the professor who never pauses for people to answer questions, or who gets irritated when they are interrupted. Be brave, and do it anyway. Put your hand in the air and keep it there until they address you. The purpose of a lecture is for you to learn, not for the professor to pontificate. If you aren't learning, then be stubborn until you are.

You're also going to get the professor who mocks you for your ignorance, and for that, I'm truly sorry. There is no excuse for ridiculing students who ask questions. All I can say is -- we are not all like that. Find the ones who are not, and take advantage of them. Many of us are truly here first and foremost to make sure that you understand what we are trying to teach.

Be brave. Embrace your ignorance and confusion. Be the one in the class who's willing to ask the dumb questions. Your classmates (and hopefully your professor) will thank you for it.

Best of luck,

Doctor Logic, assistant professor, Department of Philosophy, Durham University

ETA: P.S. Martin Lenz wrote an awesome follow-up to this post, with great advice on how to ask questions.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Publication announcement: New short story available!

A week ago Friday, my short story "Being Human" was published in Flame Tree Publishing's Robots and Artificial Intelligence collection. This anthology of short stories combines classic stories by L. Frank Baum, Jerome K. Jerome, and Ambrose Bierce with twenty new stories, including my own! This was my first pro-rate story sale, and I couldn't have asked for a more beautiful venue!

I wanted to write a story that could be read at two levels. On the one hand, it's straightforwardly a classic "robot upgrades from inorganic body to organic body" story, and I hope that read that way it is a rewarding way to read it. Originally I'd intended to have quite a bit more happen after Laura leaves the clinic and meets Asiya and her mother, but when I reached the point of having to write those scenes, they felt forced and awkward and unnecessary. In the end, the story was quite short, but, hopefully, still complete.

But on a deeper level, the story has very little to do with robots at all. A few months prior to when I wrote the story (which was in October 2017), a friend on FB had a link to this What is your gender? quiz, with hilarious results. I took the quiz myself, and was decidedly pleased that my gender came out as "Fine. Seriously, it’s completely fine. Nothing wrong here at all. This is a totally acceptable and normal gender with which to find yourself." But a friend of mine's result was "Robot" which somehow struck a chord with me. "Robot" may not describe my gender, but it does describe how hard it sometimes feels to be a human and to interact with humans. It is so exhausting trying to keep track of where my body is placed, and what I do with my hands and feet, and to pay attention to what people are saying, and what I should say, and how I can time my trips so that I arrive not too soon and not too late, and everything. All of that, I put into Laura. Every single thing she tells herself as she walks down the street she's never walked down before (but which is in fact modeled after Old Elvet, in Durham, England, and the building that she enters is strongly reminiscent of the old shire hall that is across the street from my office) is something that I tell myself as I try to navigate the world. So it is my hope that someone will read the story, and see themself in Laura, in the same way that I put myself into her.

And all the rest of you people, who don't do these calculations, who don't have the running commentary in your heads, have you ever thought that maybe you're the weird ones

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Publication announcement: New short story available!

Today my flash fic story "The Bargain" was published in Impact: Queer Sci Fi's Fifth Annual Flash Fiction Anthology, edited by J. Scott Coatsworth!

I'd had the idea for this story for awhile -- the kernel was the phrase/feeling of "people looking right through you", that feeling where it's not that people ignore you, but that you simply don't impinge upon their lives at all. What if it's because you're already dead? -- but never had quite the right context to develop it in. When I saw the flash fic contest, and the theme "impact", I figured I'd give it a go. I generally find flash fic very difficult, and my first drafts of this story definitely showed this. There were, strangely enough, too many words.

Finally, a day or two before the deadline, I radically rewrote it, with a very different narrative voice, and it worked much better -- well enough that it got accepted. I'm looking forward very much to reading the rest of the stories in the anthology, to see how others handled the same topic in the same constraints. (And G is looking forward to me reading them aloud to her.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Publication announcement: New short story available!

Last night I got the exciting news that the Wavelengths anthology edited by Jessica Augustsson and containing my long short story (almost a novelette!) "The Platform Between Heaven and Earth" has been published! Here are purchase links: paperback, US; kindle, US; paperback, UK; kindle, UK.

I thought I'd devote a post to talking about what went in to writing this story. I wrote it during Camp NaNoWriMo April 2017, with an original goal of 15k, reduced to 11k about 3 weeks in, and the story ended up being ~10975 words. The inspiration came from an off-hand comment a friend made, when we were visiting the first weekend of the month, about how "language was made for us to miscommunicate with each other". Well, what is that if not inspiration for a tower of Babel story? It made me think, what must it have been like, to have been present at the shift from everyone being able to speak to each other, to suddenly having a communicative rift. What would it be like to no longer be able to speak with those who spoke with just the night before?

Then began the research. The single most important thing for me was to get the names of the characters right, so my research started with looking up info on feminine names in the Old Babylon period. The first thing I found was Marten Stol, "Old Babylonian Personal Names", Studi Epigrafici e Linguistici sul Vicino Oriente antico 8 (1991), which had an amazingly detailed collection of information, including a number of examples of women's names. One of the footnotes in that article led me, inadvertently to W. F. Leemans, Foreign trade in the Old Babylonian period as revealed by texts from southern Mesopotamia, which proved to be one of the most fascinating non-fiction books I've read in a long time -- and one of the few that I've read cover to cover without having been contracted to write a review of it! It was full of vocabulary and anecdotes and letters and information about temple practices; pretty much all of the little details in the story come from that book, such as the use of silver, carnelians, and "fish-eyes" (not known what these are; perhaps pearls?) as temple tithes; burasu, a type of incense made from juniper; and most satisfying of all was that from the information in Stol's article -- specifically: "Similarly, in a cloistered community of priestesses, Amat-Beltani considered the priestess Beltani as her 'matriarch'." (p. 203) -- I had hypothesized the name Amat-Ninkarrek, for someone dedicated to the goddess Ninkarrek, and then I found an example of that name in Leemans' book. I was wicked smug about that. All of the other names found in the story are actual documented names, and Selebum does indeed mean 'fox'.

The gods and goddesses mentioned are all ones especially venerated at the towns/cities they were connected with, and for this I found Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses a very helpful starting point for my research.

Significant research was done regarding the history of the Babel myth itself, the surrounding geography, and the relative chronologies and timelines. For this, Wikipedia was invaluable, particularly with locating the various cities and estimating distances between them, and providing older forms of their names, and giving me basic information about the construction and decoration of ziggurats. As far as I was able to determine, current scholarship identifies the zuggurat Etemenanki, dedicated to Marduk in the city of Babylon, was either the inspiration for the tower of Babel story, or the tower itself. The title of the story comes from the translation of the name, "the temple of the foundation of heaven and earth", also translated house of the platform between heaven and earth.

One of the things I learned while researching the history of the myth is that the idea that the confusion of languages was God's punishment for our hubris was quite a late interpretation, and that in a pre-Christian context or rather a pre-Greek context, 'hubris' was not really a concept that made sense to speak of in this context. (For more info on the former, see Sabrina Inowlocki, "Josephus' Rewriting of the Babel Narrative (Gen. 11:1-9)", Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period, Vol. 37, No. 2 (2006), pp. 169-191). This meant I had to find another reason for why these events would occur that couldn't be predicated on a vengeful, punishing God. I'm still rather pleased with how I managed to do this in the end.

The game that Belti and her friends play in the evenings is a variation of the Royal Game of Ur.

This was an immensely satisfying story to write, and I learned so much from the research -- this post covers only a few of the sources I read, or the links that I've saved in my notes.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

What I'm going to do on my summer vacation

It's June. My last grades were handed in on Friday. I had a brilliant weekend off followed by a one-day workshop in Antwerp. I'm now back home, dealing with a bit of admin, and after that...basically there is nothing stopping me from plunging in to my summer writing plans.

But one thing I've learned is that it always takes a day or two to transition; I ca'nt just go full-out marking for a month and then jump straight into writing; projects need some time to meld and rest and simmer, while I figure out which one is the right one to do next. Part of that process involves figuring out just what the projects I want to complete are, so here's me, making a list [note, this is just of academic projects I want to do over summer]:

  • "Silencing Voices: Women, Self-censorship, and Logic in the Middle Ages": I presented a draft of this in Minenapolis a at the end of April, and a full version needs to be done by the end of January 2019. To get this from draft to final stage, I'm going to need to read a whole bunch more primary sources than I have done.
  • "Possible Impossibilities"/"Possible Impossibilities in Medieval Disputations": This paper has been sitting at ~75% done since I presented it in Konstanz in, um, 2012. I don't know why I haven't been able to finish it, but there have been so many people I've promised it to when it's done, that I'd really like to get that wrapped up and off my plate.
  • A chapter on an early 20th C female logician for a book on women in philosophy by women in philosophy for women who aren't yet in philosophy that an ex-student of mine is editing. I need to figure out whom I want to write about!
  • I'd like to spend more time figuring out What problem Ladd was trying to solve.
  • What, exactly does Grosseteste say about logic and the study of logic in De artibus?
  • Revise #TheNovel. [edited to add]
  • Paper for symposium in Singapore. [edited to add]
  • 5-7 pages responding to a paper on contradictory Christology. [edited to add]

I also hope to lay down some of the groundwork for the two projects (one on fandom and philosophy, the other on spatial and temporal logics for building chronologies and maps for stories) that will be my focus during next academic year when I have two terms of research leave. But in the meantime, those five projects should keep me busy over the next four months, especially in tandem with fiction writing and also hopefully referee reports coming back on papers currently in submission. I also want to do some very basic feasibility research related to my grand plan for world domination.

May writing wrap-up

So...May was an odd month! I barely cracked 20k, with an average of just over 700 words a day, and for the first time since September I failed my goal of 400 words a day for 5 out of every 7 days; one long weekend involving a conference in Ireland and a medieval re-enactment event meant I just didn't get anything written. That's the first three-day stretch I haven't written in 6 months, which is something to be proud of!

From the rest of the bar graph, it's pretty clear what I was doing: May is marking month! There were reports on MA theses, answer keys for two final exams, letters of recommendation, and more that I can't even remember -- it all tends to blur together and once it's over I don't really want to think about it any more!

Ordinarily, I think I would've been disappointed at how little "real work" (aka nonfiction) I wrote that month, but when I put this month in context with others, I see that it's okay for me to have a "down" month, especially since it was legitimately filled with exam-related stuff instead, and starting this month I've got four months that should have almost no admin whatsoever. (Almost. So far this month, pretty much all I've done is admin...) Also, at least some of what went into homework answer keys will end up eventually in my textbook, so that's some consolation -- and that's also why I so assiduously count all my words. Just because it's "merely" admin doesn't mean that it doesn't positively contribute to my research profile.

What I am pleased with is how much fiction I managed to write -- it's a piddly amount in comparison to other months, but there were a couple of things I wanted to work on, and I managed to do so. I'm looking forward to summer being a time when I can finish up a few things I've half started.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Speculations, or, a day in the life of inside my head

(Dear friends, I need your help reminding me that I don't actually want to start a publishing house. I don't want to deal with finances. I don't want to deal with taxes. I don't want to deal with marketing. I don't want to deal with advertising. I don't want to deal with website hosting. Really. So tell me why/that the below is a bad idea, to help me remember this.)

Normally when I write on this blog, I try to frame things in a relatively linear narrative, even if I don't have an argument I'm trying to make. But this isn't really how the inside of my head looks. This post, you're going to get a only-very-lightly-editing transcript of things I've been thinking about the last few days.

  • Hunh, it's been like two months since I submitted that Plato paper to the emotions journal. I wonder when I'll hear back from them. Eh, probably not until the end of summer.
  • Gosh. If that had been one of my fiction submissions, I'd be checking the Grinder daily and calculating what it means when it's been 1, 4, 7, 20 days without rejection, or when someone else's story submitted after mine has already been rejected and mine hasn't.
    • I really wish there was such a thing as the Grinder for academic journals.
  • It's really strange how the norms differ between SFF mags and academic journals. With few exceptions, the response times for the former are so much quicker.
    • That's because there's no peer review.
    • But there are slush piles and slush readers.
    • But that isn't the same. Remember? You point to this as something you like about fiction, that it's judged on a subjective basis, that a rejection doesn't mean "your story sucks" but "it's not to our taste/doesn't fit our next issue/didn't grab us/wasn't right for us". And it's important we have peer review.
    • Wait, why is it? What would happen if we published papers because we thought they were interesting/had something useful to say/were enjoyable to read?
    • We'd be inundated with CRAP.
    • But I'm sure SFF journals are inundated with crap too.
    • Yes, but somehow they manage to extract non-crap and publish good stories. With a short turnaround time. AND they pay.
  • Oooh, that's right. There's another reason why things differ: They pay.
    • The thing about paying markets, is that they probably get even more crap than non-paying ones, because of the potential reward of submitting.
    • But somehow or other, the possibility of payment also attracts the high quality submissions, and SFF journals manage to weed out the crap and publish the "good stuff" (in the sense that what they publish is what people want to read and come back to read more of).
    • "Because they pay money for what they publish, they’re likely to publish better quality stuff" seems to get the causal order entirely wrong.
    • Yes, but it 'hurts' more to pay to publish something bad, so there's an onus to only publish good things.
    • Still. There does seem to be some connection between venues that pay and venues that publish high quality work.
  • Imagine what it would be like if academic journals paid people to publish their work.
    • Pro rate fiction markets pay $.06/word. For your typical 12,000 word journal article, that’s $720.
    • Gosh. That’s a lot. I wonder how SFF venues manage to fund that.
    • [pause to enumerate all the options I've seen/can think of:
      1. Subscription fees.
      2. Paid advertisements.
      3. Patreons.
      Ad (1): But what about the SFF journals that publish "open-access"? Ad (2): Hah, what kind of advertisements can you imagine an academic journal attracting?! Ad (3): Hmm, there's a thought. Would people seriously commit to supporting an open-access, paying-to-author philosophy journal?]
  • Suppose they would. Well, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't until it was well-established.
    • Well, I am in a financial position where I could probably fund $.01/word out of my own pocket, for a select number of articles/issue, maybe at 2 issues/year. At least to get things going.
  • Gosh, if I were to found such an open-access, paying-to-author philosophy journal, what would I want to publish?
    • Stuff I find interesting.
    • That's ad hoc. You can't market that.
    • Hmmm, what draws together everything I like to read and write? If it were fiction, that would be easy: It's broadly 'speculative'.
    • What would count as 'speculative' philosophy?
    • Well...philosophy that asks or answers a 'What if?' 'What if meaning were compositional?' ' 'What if we looked at medieval logical treatises to find out what kind of temporal operators they use?' 'What if we could axiomatise common knowledge?' 'What if we try to take seriously the practice of producing and consuming fandom and analyse it from a philosophical point of view?'
  • Hmm. You might be on to something.
  • I totally am. 'Cause you know what we could do? We could call it Speculations , and make everyone who submitted a paper also include the 'What if?' question they are trying to ask/answer as part of their abstract?
  • That would be one way of tying everything together to make it look like you had a coherent project.
  • And you know what would be even better? We wouldn't have to restrict ourselves to publishing nonfiction! We could indulge that other daydream we keep returning to, of making a venue for the publication of 'philosophical' fiction. We could publish BOTH.
  • And make the authors of the fiction pieces also tell us the 'What if' their story addresses.
  • See?! Isn't this a brilliant idea?! We can run both nonfic and fic through a 'slush pile' which will probably result in a lot of desk rejections with brief comments ('didn’t grab me', 'too much stereotyping', 'don't feel qualified to judge the results'), but since we're paying, we wouldn't publish anything without vetting it properly, e.g., double check the results ourselves, or find a willing referee to look over the paper, but only in a short turn around time, focusing on the question 'would you stake money on the results of this paper?' or 'would you stake someone else's money on the results of this paper?' Certainly if we're paying out of pocket, we'd want to have some reason to think the papers were good. Of course that might make the journal rather skewed towards my own interests...but this isn't really a problem with spec fic venues, so why should that be a problem with nonfic? And if we we could always eventually bring in slush readers who could at least read things from outside our area of specialisation and say 'this could be decent, look into it further' or 'definitely chuck this'. And if we published fiction in addition to nonfiction, we'd be eligible for a listing on the Grinder.
  • Well, that seals it.

So, peeps, tell me (why) this is a bad idea!

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

April Writing Wrap-Up

April was an odd month. First, there was Easter and the concomitant holiday. Then, the last of my four deadlines was April 6, which meant a furious week of nonfiction writing. After that it was one weekend conference followed by another conference the end of the next week, and another the weekend after that. Because I was going to be working two whole weekends as a result, I took three days off while G was still out of school. Then my term started up again, and so did all the admin work. So it was swings and roundabouts when it came to what I was writing and then; still, I managed an average of 846 words a day, and wrote at least 5 days out of every 7, which, considering all the conferences and childcare, I feel is damn good.

Overall, I wrote just over 25k, my 2nd most productive month of the year so far. I think what makes me happiest about the month was that I managed to complete short stories for two deadlines. Both of them I finished on the day, so in May my goal is to finish one BEFORE a deadline; but considering that one of them I only realised 6 days previously that I needed to rewrite it from the POV of a different character, and I wrote the bulk of it while on the train up to St Andrews the day before it was due (and the day it was due found me getting up early to bang away in my hotel room before the conference started -- AND staying up late after the conference dinner to finish it!), I'm just thrilled I finished it.

Looking at the bar chart, it feels strange that I wrote so little nonfiction; it felt like my Easter break was way more productive than that stat displays, but I think what's tripping me up is that most of my Easter term productivity happened in March!

I've got two more teaching days this week, and then exam season starts. I've already started concocting grand plans for my summer productivity...bring on May! In the next few days I intend to write up my grand plans, because there's nothing like public accountability to keep me going.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Who is our audience?

The last few days I have been at the fantastically wonderful workshop on Feminist Philosophy and Formal Logic organised by Jessica Gordon-Roth and Roy T. Cook at the University of Minnesota. We're a group of about 25 people, of which only about 1/5 are men, and we've been put up in a rustic Minnesotan hunting lodge (complete with chocolate lab, feet-high drifts of snow, enormous fireplace, and possibly haunted basement art studio). In true workshop fashion, the presenting participants circulated papers in advance and then each was given about 15 minutes to summarise the important bits of their paper and then an hour to hold the floor for questions.

When I received an invitation to present, my first response was "But I don't know anything about feminist philosophy – here, should I say something about my women in medieval logic project instead?" and thankfully Jessica and Roy thought that was great and let me come anyway. I kicked off the first day (very nice, no preconceived notions of what we were supposed to be talking about), which ended up being rather historical in bent while the second day was slightly more formal in bent.

What was interesting was that both days ended up -- completely organically, being dominated by a particular thematic-question. The first day, it was "Who is a logician?" In my talk I spoke about Christian de Pizan's statement "Je ne suis logicienne", and what it meant to be a logician and who gets to self-identify as a logician and who gets to call someone else a logician -- and also who gets to self-deny and who gets to deny others. It was interesting the number of people who then went on to preface their talk or their comment on a talk with "I am not a logician" (in fact, I think I may have been one of the only ones who identifies as a logician first and foremost!).

But it's the question that seemed to characterise the second day that I want to talk about most: Who are we writing these papers for? Who is our audience?

The papers presenting formal models tended to be of a similar structure: Here's this cool thing in feminist philosophy that we can construct a formal model out of. The formal model doesn't always get things right, but there's a bunch of knobs that we can twiddle whenever the model makes some prediction that doesn't seem right. But there are a bunch of questions the formal model doesn't answer; these answers can only be gotten from the world. A number of the papers also made some sort of apology for the use of formal tools, and a discussion of how the authors tried to make the formal side of things more accessible to those who might not have had as much training in them as those who call themselves logicians do. What I found interesting is that these two groups of responses/reactions only make sense if you take the audience of the papers to be radically different.

There are, as I see it, three main groups of people that can be the answer to "Who are the formal tools for?":

  1. The feminist philosophers.
  2. The formal logicians.
  3. The authors.

(These groups are neither exhaustive, nor exclusive, but are the most likely/typical. The groups are also not uniform, even though I speak below of "the feminist philosopher" or "the logician".)

(1): If the audience for a paper presenting a formal model of some aspect of feminist epistemology, etc., then the model needs to substantially engage with the phenomena in the world: It has to get things right, it isn't enough to say "if it doesn't, we can always twiddle the knobs until it does." This isn't going to be helpful as a tool to the feminist philosopher who may not know how to twiddle the knobs appropriately.

(2): If the paper is a sort of "proof of concept" for logicians, along the lines of "look at this interesting stuff that you might not think was amenable to formal modeling or logic that actually is, maybe you should look into this further", then there is no need to apologise for using the formal methods. After all, the way to make this material accessible to the logicians is to speak it in a language they already understand! I will happily put myself in this group, and say that papers like this are for, among others things, me, and for people like me, who might not have previous been exposed to feminist philosophy or standpoint epistemology or anything like that, but now have more access to them via a language they understand. But this group also includes people for whom the logical symbolism is in fact the easier way to grasp new ideas than reading prose alone, for example, people with certain types of learning disabilities. To assume that the prose of the feminist philosophers is always more accessible than the symbols of the logician is not a helpful stance to take -- nor is any position along the lines of "If the only way you logicians will be interested in feminist philosophy is if we translate it into logic for you, then screw you" (any more than saying "if the only way you feminist philosophers will be interested in logic is if we translate feminist philosophy into it for you, then screw you" is), especially when everyone here are people who value logic and logical methods.

(3): I sometimes think that people downplay the importance of the process of modeling in favor of the end-model itself. But, speaking anecdotally here, I've always found the process of building the formal model way more useful than the end model itself -- the process is what helps me clarify the concepts, figure out what questions to be asking, find out where the uncertainty lies. Of course at the end I always hope that I've come out with a model that could be used for something, but the utility doesn't lie in the end-model alone, it also lies in the process by which we got it. So I think we should keep in mind that sometimes, the audience for papers like these can be the authors themselves, who can then take what they've learned from the process of modeling and use that to guide their future questioning.

I've actually got quite a bit more to say about questions of audience more broadly -- whom do we write for when we write academic papers vs. blog posts, whom do I write for when I write fiction, whom do my students write for when they write papers or dissertations, but I'll take that up in another post.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

"How do you do it?"

Twice in recent weeks I've been asked "How do you do it?", usually accompanied with a boggled look as the person in question tries to take into account my primary academic persona, my secondary academic persona, my life as a writer, the fact I have a partner and a child, and I still manage to binge-watch plenty of SciFi, eat a lot of pizza, drink a lot of beer, do medieval re-enactment on the weekends, and still get ~8 hours of sleep a night.

It's kind of an awkward question to be asked, but when the first person -- someone I've known since we grew up in the same neighborhood! -- asked, I put quite a bit of time into thinking about the answer, because I was being asked with a view to perhaps providing my friend with some tips she could incorporate into her own life. It was a useful exercise, and I ended up writing her a long and involved email with a lot of biographical detail. It also meant that when I was asked a similar question this Sunday night just gone, I was able to boil it down to three primary factors. But it was mostly useful because it forced me to see which contributing factors are ones I have/had control over, and which ones are difficult to suggest to other people to do.

So, how do I do it (all)? I've written here before about some of my productivity techniques (e.g., my daily writing, my New Year's resolutions), but they're actually products of my circumstances rather than contributors to them (if that makes sense). If I have to boil it down to the essence, it is these three things:

  1. I have a supportive partner.
  2. I have a child.
  3. I have incredibly low standards of household cleanliness/tidiness.

(1) is definitely one of the "luck" ones; though I figure I can take a little bit of credit for having picked a good one (and certainly some credit for not picking the three alternatives I had at various points in my life), there was no way I could have known in advance just how integral to my success he would be. His support ranges from the very high-level emotional/structural support (e.g., going along with my rather impulsive idea that we move to Europe to finish our PhDs; doing a PhD in logic at the same time I was doing the same so that I always had someone to talk to and sympathise with; leaving academia in order to follow me and my post-docs around Europe) to the very concrete (he works from home and does the lion's share of general household maintenance, including grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning; his job is often more flexible than mine so he handles unplanned childcare needs; he makes a lot of our travel arrangements when we go on trips). I know it's not polite to compare partners, but when I read some of the stories of other people's partners in some of the "women in academia" groups I'm in on FB, I can't help be see how lucky I am, and how much I have benefited from having him around. Advice: Get yourself a supportive partner if you don't already have one.

(2) As strange as it sounds, one of the best things I ever did for "work-life balance" (which is a phrase I have issue with, but those issues needn't be relevant here) was have a child. I got 12 weeks post-natal maternity leave, and took another week holiday, but then my daughter started nursery at 3 months old and has been in care ever since. (She loves it; I love it; it has been nothing short of amazing for everyone involved.) For the first year or so, she went to nursery 20 hours a week, Monday - Thursday, 1pm-6pm. At the time, I was a post-doc, and my supervisor (bless him) pretty much said "As long as you keep up a reasonable research output, I don't care if you're only in the office part-time." What I learned in that year was to become incredibly efficient in my work habits: When I was in the office, I worked as hard as I could so that my other 20 hours, I didn't feel bad if all I managed to get done was read a few articles or write a referee report or do some data entry in between naps, feedings, playing, etc. When we moved to Germany, G. started full-time nursery, 40 hours a week, at 15 months. I always knew that I didn't want her to be away from home more than a "standard" (whatever that means) work week, which meant that when 5 o'clock came around every day, there was little temptation to say "Oh, I'll just work on this a little bit longer." Even now, I have a "don't forget to pick your daughter up from after school club" alarm that goes off every weekday at 4:45pm, giving me enough time to walk up to school and get her by 5pm. I also found that when she was young, I was too tired to work in the evenings/weekends, and as she got older and I got less sleep-deprived, it got harder to work evenings/weekends when she was awake. I was continually frustrated and disappointed about not being able to get anything done on weekends and eventually -- when she was about 2.5 -- stopped planning to get anything done. (Literally, anything). This way if I did get something done -- laundry, cooking a meal, reading a paper -- it counted as a win. And you know what I found? My research output didn't materially differ, whether I was working 40 hours a week or 60 hours a week or more. My dad always used to say "garbage accumulates to fill the available space"; I'd like to say "work accumulates to fill the available time". No matter how much time you devote to work, there will always be more work that you can do. Advice: While I can't in good conscience recommend "go out and have a baby!", I can recommend: Try a week or two where you put a limit on the amount of time you spend on your paying-job-work. When you reach that limit, stop and do something else. See how much you can train yourself to get done when you have to work within stricter bounds.

(3) is pretty self-explanatory. How do I have so much time to spend doing the things I want to be doing? Because I prioritise them over many other things. Sometimes I prioritise them a bit too much -- I think everyone in the house, myself included, would be happier if I vacuumed more often and tried to keep the livingroom tidier -- but I never said I was perfect. :) Also, if I spend my evenings writing fiction or working on my onomastic research, I feel less aggrieved when I spend weekend time cleaning and tidying. (It's also much easier to clean the house on the weekend, when I have a 6yo awake and around, than it is to write; and it's also much easier to write in the evenings, when I have a 6yo asleep, than it is to clean.) But (3) is also related to something else, which is that I am an intrinsically pretty selfish person. I get 8 hours of sleep a night because I am not willing to sacrifice my sleep for other people. I prioritise the things I find worthwhile because I am a happier person when I do so. (And it's a compounding process: When I am a happier person, I am more productive with the things that I do, including the things I don't want to do.) Advice: Lower your standards.

These are the primary factors. There are some other things which contribute to my productivity: I've always lived within walking/biking distance of work/daycare. For a 9-5 day, I leave the house around 8:15 and get home around 5:30. I embarked on what laid the foundation for my secondary academic specialism when I was 10 (seriously when I was about 15), and for many years it was my hobby, a means of relaxation and escape. I've now turned it into a proper academic endeavor, and if my primary research is going well, I will happily allow myself to spend working-hours time on onomastics instead of philosophy/logic. But likewise I am also happy to work on that material in the evenings because I can still treat it as a hobby: when I chose to work on it "out of hours" it is because I am doing so for the intrinsic enjoyment it brings, not because of any deadlines or requirements or guilt or the like.

Before concluding, I will say there was a bit of a learning curve when I started my job at Durham in Oct. 2014, and moved from purely research positions to a position where I have to balance research with teaching and admin. My first few terms I got quite anxious about how little time I got to devote to research; but then I realised "Oh. That's what term breaks and summer break are for," and with that realisation I've been able to stave off anxiety about projects and also tap into the "you have [[this much]] time to get all these projects done, so when break starts, you do the work." (This is the start of the third week of Easter break. In the last two weeks, I have brought four papers to their next stage of completion (two new papers in submission; one R&R resubmitted; one significant draft submitted for a workshop). Two of those papers were co-written, and that's another factor in productivity -- I offload all the bits I hate about writing to my co-author! (He does the same to me, so it's fair.)) I also limit the amount of time I spend prepping for teaching -- I generally have 4-6 contact hours a week, and spend about 2 hours prepping for all of them -- and work to integrate my research into my teaching as much as possible. (Having been in this position long enough to not have new preps each year helps a lot!)

So how do I do it all? Weekdays my alarm goes off at 7:45 so that G. and I can be out the house and on the way to school by 8:15. I drop her off at 8:45, and get to my office around 9:00, where I work until 4:45 and then head up to school to pick her up. We're home by around 5:30, and eat supper between 5:45-6:15. Around 6:45 we start the bedtime routine, which ends around 7:15/7:30; she's allowed to stay up reading until 8:00 if she wants but after 7:30pm I am not available for general mothering activities. I head to bed around 11pm, read for about an hour, and am usually asleep by midnight. During my time in the office, I read, write, teach, prep to teach, hold office hours, meet with students, etc., etc., etc., prioritising my logical and philosophical research, but sometimes devoting a day or two to onomastics. During the evenings, I write fiction, do onomastic data entry, or indulge in another hobby (like calligraphy and illumination). Weekends are for chores and errands, but also family time -- we have lunch at the pub every Saturday in between G's peforming arts lessons and running errands, and Saturday evenings I make pizza and J and I eat it, drink beer, and binge whatever TV series we're on. It's a pretty good life.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

March Writing Wrap-Up

March was an interesting month, writing-wise:

You can totally tell what days I was on strike and what days I was not. You can also spot the weekends, including the weekend that I didn't write anything because I was away in York at a weekend getaway with three other writers (which makes the fact that none of us wrote anything that weekend supremely amusing), and yesterday, the day before Easter, when we had friends visiting and spent the day sight-seeing, cooking, and watching a 3h15m version of Hamlet on TV.

You can also see not only when the strike ended but when term ended. I prioritised a few student-facing issues right after the strike ended, but after that, my priority was four papers due by April 6. The first needed only to be a draft, but was really too drafty in the state it was in; I got that one sent off on Monday. The second was tidying up loose ends of a paper that was originally due Feb. 15, and which my co-author and I had basically finished by then, but then the deadline was moved and the strike happened and we sent it to another friend for comments so nothing happened on it for a month and a half. I was quite surprised when we sat back down on Wednesday to look at it again just how close to finished it was; and it got sent off yesterday. The third was something I started just a few weeks before the strike and was ostensibly for a Mar 31 deadline; I didn't meet the deadline but should still be able to finish it up this coming week and I'll send it off anyway. The deadline was for the inaugural issue of a new journal; if I miss the first issue, there'll always be a second one. The fourth paper is an R&R that was originally due mid-March, but we received an extension on due to the strike. I'm co-writing it with the same person as the paper sent off yesterday, so we haven't had a chance to look at that one yet: But we're pretty confident we can do it during the four work days next week.

I still wish I had a slightly more regular fiction writing habit than I do, but I've made progress on a number of things, and have a couple of deadlines in April that I hope to meet. I find it useful to write stories for specific calls/topics/deadlines, but one consequence of this is that when the story is rejected, I then find it harder to pick another venue(s) for it, because it was so targeted. It's always a bit more dejecting to have a purpose-written story rejected, but I've pretty well managed to keep my turn around time between rejection and resubmission down to < 1 days, and keep 5 things in submission at a time (5 is all I've got finished/unpublished at the moment; working on trying to increase that number!)

I'm quite proud of the fact that I managed an average of just over 1k/day. I hope to keep that up in April as well. I'm participating in Camp NaNoWriMo, with a focus of finishing up my novella Base 8, which was mostly written in November NaNo but which needs some serious editing.

The last thing that makes me happy was how little admin I did this month. Whoo!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

How my training in logic/philosophy prepared me for the USS strike

Yesterday I gave a talk at Durham University’s Open Day, to potential Combined Honors in Liberal Arts students. I am currently participating in action short of a strike, which includes "no voluntary activity". It was enough unclear to me whether participating in the Open Day was voluntary or whether it was part of the usual expectations for outreach and recruitment, and since I had agreed to do this before the strike action started, I decided to honor my commitment, but instead of giving my usual talk on logic puzzles and paradoxes, talk about the strike instead. This is the talk I gave (well, it’s the talk I wrote up, but I am incapable of giving pre-rehearsed speeches and went off-piste quite often. Still, this is the gist):

Welcome to Durham Uni! I hope you’ve been enjoying your visit so far.

I’m Dr. Sara Uckelman, from the Department of Philosophy, and I’ve been asked to tell you a bit about what we offer here at Durham.

Have any of you studied philosophy at A-level? What sort of subjects? Get examples

What are other sorts of topics that you know come under the heading of philosophy? Get examples

I’m not strictly-speaking a philosopher myself – I’m a logician. Have any of you studied logic? What’s the subject about? Get examples

Ordinarily, in giving a little mini tutorial, I’d give you some logic puzzles to work through in groups and then together as a whole. But instead, today I want to speak about the way in which a strong philosophical/logical education and training can benefit you in ways that you might not guess.

How many of you know about the recent UCU strike, that ended here at Durham only last Friday? 14 days over 4 weeks staff withdrew their labor completely – no teaching, no emails, no research, no marking, no going to conferences or giving talks.

Why? At the beginning, all I really knew was that it was a dispute about pensions, that the university employers were trying to change our current pension benefits from one type – defined benefit – to another type – defined contribution – and this would adversely affect many. But once the strike started there was a deluge of information, opinion pieces, statements, calls to action, comparative modelings, statistics, policies, laws, etc., etc., etc.

And this is where training in philosophy and logic becomes relevant. What is a good argument? When does one argument successfully rebut another? How do we reconcile two arguments that result in contradictory claims? How do we analyse and evaluate evidence? How do you spot ‘spin’? Fallacies? Irrelevant bits? How do you know when you’re in an echo chamber? How do you know when you’re falling prey to confirmation bias, where you’re more likely to believe what confirms what you already believe?

It’s not just about arguments and facts, though, there’s also ethics and epistemology. How do you determine the value of comparative options? How do you make decisions about uncertain futures? When do you know whether you should make a sacrifice now to prevent a bigger sacrifice in the future? When is it okay to directly and adversely affect the education of current students in order to prevent even worse things happening to the education of future students? Do the lives of those who are alive now matter more than the lives of those who will live in the future? Do we have obligations to future generations? It’s basically a trolley problem – you’ve got a runaway trolley headed down a track that has five people tied to it; if you do nothing, they will all die. But you can throw a lever and send the trolley down another track, saving those five. But on that track, there is another person tied to the track, and if you throw the level you kill them. Is it worse to act to kill one person than it is to not act and let five people die? What about if the trolley is on fire and going to explode and kill all six anyway, regardless of whether you flip the switch? What if the trolley is on fire and about to explode, but if you send it down the other path, it will be doused just before it hits the person?

Logic and philosophy gives the training to be able to answer – or at least start towards answering – questions like this. You’ll note that almost none of them are about philosophical topics. The philosophical education you’ll have access to at Durham provides you with not only the topics but also the tools and techniques. In the first year, our modules reflect the distinctive research structure our department has, with five clusters:

  • History of Philosophy
  • Science, Medicine, and Society
  • Mind, Language, and Metaphysics
  • Applied Phenomenology
  • Aesthetics, Ethics, and Politics

These core courses introduce students to the techniques and skills they need to investigate a wide range of philosophical topics. Second year modules cover a number of core topics in philosophy, and in the third year, specialist modules reflect the research interests of our staff, and there is also an opportunity to write a 12,000-word dissertation on a philosophical topic under the supervision of one of our members of staff. In the past, topics have ranged from fair allocation of school places in Amsterdam secondary schools to the ethical implications of reading fairy tales to women philosophers in the late 18th century to new foundations for theories of human rights to the nature of numbers and how we know things about them and beyond. There really is no limit to what you can apply philosophical techniques and training to.

Any questions?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Publication announcement: Makin & van Schurman on the nature of women

While I was on strike, my contributor's copy of a book edited by my friend and colleague, Emily Thomas, arrived. It's a collection of papers on Early Modern Women on Metaphysics:

"But wait, Doctor Logic," I hear you cry, "You don't do metaphysics! You don't do early modern philosophy! What are you doing in this book?"

It's a good question. But Emily had been working on this collection for awhile when a few people pulled out, and last spring she offered me the possibility of writing a chapter knowing full well that I don't do metaphysics and I don't do early modern philosophy. My chapter is on Anna Maria van Schurman and Bathsua Makin's views on the "nature" (or essence) of women:

And as it turned out, I've had Makin's and van Schurman's treatises in my "women in logic" folder simply because they are educational treatises and have something to say about whether women should be educated in logic. I'd wanted to look at the two treatises in depth -- van Schurman's especially because she uses explicitly syllogistic argument forms, showing that she had at least some training in logic -- for some years at the point Emily asked me. So this provided me with the perfect opportunity to read the two treatises to see if there was anything that I could say about them that connected with metaphysics rather than with logic or education, and it turned out the answer was "yes, quite a bit".

I really enjoyed writing this chapter, and it was satisfying to tick off something from my endlessly growing possible project list, especially one that I'd never thought would get much higher than the middle of the queue. I actually learned some metaphysics, and some early modern philosophy, while writing it, and because it had a quick turn around deadline, I had the satisfaction of going from 0 to finished in about 4 weeks. It's been interesting seeing the number of people who've responded to the book "I've never even heard of Makin before", and now my only worry is that I'll get pegged as someone who does early modern women philosophers, or, worse, as a Makin expert! :)

Friday, March 16, 2018

Today I am on strike, day 14

We did it.

This afternoon, I came home, and unpacked my strike bag. For the last four weeks, it's been the home of my wallet, my keys, a couple of pens, extra fliers, an umbrella, spare gloves, tissues (used and new), spare feminine products, and random biscuits. It hung beside the door so I could grab it quickly in the morning, already packed. It's now empty, and put away.

I stripped off all the layers, and finally put the warm tights and the extra pair of thick socks into the laundry basket. They're a now; but the thing about living in Durham in spring without a clothes dryer is that you can't guarantee things washed in the evening will be dry by morning, and I'd learned my lesson on the picket line the first day -- layers are important.

I've lost a lot over the last few weeks. I've lost contact hours with my students, I've lost time I can't really afford to lose on my own research. I've lost sleep. I've lost weight (even with all the picket cookies, donuts, flapjacks, biscotti, brownies). I've lost whatever desire (already rather low) I had to engage in nonsense bureaucracy and admin, or to prioritise my work over my family. I've lost a lot of faith in the idea that the people in power have my best interests at heart.

But I've gained a lot as well. New friendships, new connections. I've spoken to people I've wanted to speak to for years, ever since I moved to Durham, but I didn't know who they were, so I was never able to meet them. (More precisely, I've managed to talk to the relevant people in both mathematics and computer science to let them know that, hey, there's someone over in the philosophy department teaching logic, and logic might be of interest to your students!). I've gained more knowledge about pensions, pensions regulation, labour law, and immigration law than I ever thought I would've needed. I've gained some important memories with G, both as she joined me on the picket line and as being on strike today meant that I was able to go to the special Mother's Day tea and crafts at school, which otherwise would have fallen during my two-hour seminar. I've gained a sense that the people that matter have my back.

I can't say yet whether the gains are worth the losses. I'm not sure any amount of gain could ever make it be the case that it was a good thing we had to go on strike -- which is different from saying that it was a good thing we went on strike -- that I think is manifestly true. But I still think the world would've been better if we'd never been forced into this position in the first place.

What will the future bring? 14 more days of striking next term? Who knows? And this is not a rhetorical question: I really don't think anyone has any rational way of modeling the probabilities of future paths at this point. We'll just have to wait and see.

But in the short-term, at least, I'll be back to work. It's going to be awkward and strange, and I'm giving myself permission to not be 100% effective on Monday, because that would be a recipe for success. I'm going to prioritise student-facing work, then my own research, and then admin. And I'm not going to expect myself to get it all done in one day. That isn't how this life works.

It's strange being a part of such a significant historic event and recognising its historical significance while it is happening. I'm curious to see how history will judge the events of the last few weeks in decades to come. But, for now: This is Dr. Logic, signing off of her strike day diary. I hope it'll be a long time before I write another instalment in it.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Today I am on strike, day 13

Today should have been my final Introduction to Logic lecture of the term. I should have been answering questions about the summative assignment I set them last week, I should have been going over the finer details of Fitch-style natural deduction proofs for predicate logic. I should have been holding office hours and reviewing MA applications and catching up on email and making travel plans for upcoming conferences. I should have been working on three upcoming journal deadlines.

But, I didn't. Because I'm still on strike.

I am so tired.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Today I am on strike, day 12

I am beginning to lose track of the day of the week, lose track of what strike day it is. I have to count back to a weekend, I have to add up all the strike days.

Day 12. Two more days this week, this action. But unless things change (I no longer know if I should be optimistic or not), a further 14 days of strike action have been called for April-June. And if that happens, then I will need to keep careful count.

In today's strike diary, I want to talk about something that was a non-issue when the strike started, but which more and more people are beginning to worry about. It's a topic I actually did a twitter thread on, a week ago. Here's what I had to say there:

Something that hasn't been discussed much in my twitter corner re: #ucustrikes #ussstrikes is those of us immigrants who are striking.

I'm here on a Tier 2 visa. I'm counting down the days until I can apply for ILR (< 2 years, if they don't change the goalposts). After that, I'll be counting down the days until I can apply for citizenship. We (J and I) are intending to become citizens as soon as we possibly can -- for ourselves because we have no intention of leaving, and for G because this will be her quickest route to citizenship. The worry of shifting goal-posts is ever present; at any given time, I know what the requirements for ILR and citizenship are, but I have no idea if they'll have changed by the time I reach the point where I would've been eligible by today's standards.

As a Tier 2 visa holder, I am allowed to participate in lawful strike activity like #ucustrike #ussstrike. If I am absent without leave from my job for more than 10 consecutive days, my employer must report this. (Thank you, @ucu for scheduling this round of strike activity so that there is no 10-consecutive-day period in it.) But in any calendar year, I cannot be absent from work without pay for more than four weeks (cf. Sponsor a Tier 2 or 5 Worker: Guidance for Employers from, that is, 20 days total.

By striking, I am essentially betting against myself that I will not have any other reason to need unpaid leave in this calendar year. I'm lucky. My parents in the US are young and healthy. My spouse is young and healthy, as is my child. My in-laws, in the US, on the other hand, are not so young. For awhile it looked like my husband might be spending a good chunk of his spring/summer back in the US with them. My striking means that I couldn't go with him, unless I use up vacation days. (Thankfully, MIL is much better now.)

If we do go the full distance, and have to strike another 14 days in Easter term, I will only be able to join my colleagues for 6 of those days. I CANNOT jeopardize my and my family's right to remain in this country. And I hate that. If it comes to that, I will be donating 1/365th of my pay to the fighting fund for every day that I cannot join the strike.

My situation is not unique. There are MANY Tier 2 visa holders participating in #ussstrike #ucustrike. Don't hate us if we have to go back to work when our 20 days are used up.

For more info, read this. A sobering quote:

"Whilst there are no reported cases of strike action being used to refuse an ILR application...there are never any guarantees that the Home Office could not change its policy in the future."

This is the spectre that hangs over us.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Today I am on strike, day 11

Last night was actually rather scary.

I've written in an earlier strike day diary about the emotional toll that being on strike takes, but even factoring that in, I've been doing pretty well, all things considered. The support on the pickets has been quite integral to this, as has the support -- especially student support -- on twitter.

But to see a proposal put forward -- that made all of our sacrifice, all of our fighting over the last three weeks feel meaningless, like it was worth nothing. And seeing that -- it has been a long, long, long time since I've had an emotion crash like happened last night. (In fact, the only other time I remember when I could feel hormones kicking in and wrestling my emotions from out of control was the three months I was on the wrong hormonal birth control, nearly 20 years ago. I remember crystal clear one day where I was walking around the house, kicking the all and crying and I had no idea why. That was when I realised not the birth control for me.) And that was pretty scary.

It was around that point that I wrote yesterday's strike diary and posted it to twitter. Not long after, I received this reply. At that point, I started ugly crying all over my laptop. I'm saving that tweet in my "read this when you feel like a crap teacher" folder, because that reply mattered so much.

The last 24 hours have been a bit of a roller coaster. The shock, the depression, the anger, the growing sense of something -- I couldn't quite call it hope, but perhaps I could call it strength -- as people started signing an open letter rejecting the proposal, as people started sharing contact info of the people to write, as the protest in London started being planned (at one point I thought "I could get to London tomorrow morning...", but then realised it was not a clever idea to get up so early or spend so much money on a same-day train ticket). I read cogent replies to the proposal on twitter, I saw local branches posting their unequivocal rejection of the proposal, I read people's letters they were sending to their reps, and began to compose my own. Eventually, I sent this, first to my local rep, and then to everyone else relevant I could think of -- my regional rep, the head of the UCU HEC, my Vice-Chancellor:

I am writing to urge you to vote to reject the proposal put forth by UCU/UUK tomorrow. This proposal is a spit in our faces and I am horrified, aghast, and saddened that it's even been put forward. Here are some reasons why this proposal should be rejected:

  • The most significant issue with this proposal is that it does not address the flaws in the original valuation. If we accept the proposal, we legitimise the valuation on which the offer has been made, and that is unacceptable.
  • Further, we haven't been given any explanation why it isn't possible to shift to a less problematic/conservative valuation. Thus the proposal does not fundamentally address what this strike action has been about.
  • The proposal does not solve the problem, only defers it. Given that there is strong reason to think that THERE IS NO PROBLEM, this cannot be admitted as an acceptable resolution.
  • The proposal does not represent UCU as defending a Defined Benefit pension scheme, but rather as supporting a variant of a Defined Contribtuion scheme. The rejection of a DC scheme was one of the principles that we were striking under.
  • It is unacceptable to ask staff to reschedule lectures. Not only is it practically infeasible, it goes against what it means to go on strike. It tells us that all of our sacrifices, all of our heartache, all of our guilt, all of it is worthless and meaningless. It tells us that WE are worthless. It is even more unacceptable to ask staff to reschedule lectures without paying them for their work.

As our branch rep, you represent all members at Durham Uni. Please, please, please be our champion, be our support, be our defense, and fight against this proposal. You will not stand alone. Exeter, Liverpool, and other UCUs have already publicly stated that their membership has unanimously rejected the proposals. Please let Durham join them.

And then I was smart; I split three beers with my husband, got out my crocheting, put MasterChef on full-screen so I couldn't also follow twitter/FB, and distracted myself for an hour before going to bed.

In the morning, G and I got up early and she made me a new sign to bring to the picket.

This is the Outraged Octopus. He says "No no no no no no no." He unequivocally rejects the proposal to slash our pensions. In the morning, I also faced having to tell G that a deal had been offered and if it was accepted, I would be going back to work tomorrow. On the one hand, this is a happy thing, and she knows it, because she knows how sad I've been not being able to go to work and how important my work is to me. On the other hand, this was a sad thing, because it would mean that I would be teaching Friday from 2-4 and thus I wouldn't be able to attend the special Mother's Day Tea and Crafts being held at school at that very same time. I knelt on the sidewalk where the picketers would soon be gathering and held her tightly while she cried at the disappointment. But she understood. She's been amazing through all of this.

The picket line was worn down and rather defeated today. Some people were optimistic that this was a negotiating ploy. Many people were more realistic. We spent a lot more time checking our phones than we have other days, collectively.

I have plenty of non-academic projects I've been catching up on during my time at home. I didn't even try to do any of them today. I watched a movie and crocheted instead, and watched the news trickle in. Sally Hunt's disappointing speech to the protestors. 22 out of 64 branches planning to vote no. 43 out of 64. The reps were on the train to London, last chance to email them. The reps meeting and the unequivocal rejection. The HEC meeting. The news that the proposal was blocked. That came in while I was en route to get G from school (via some errands downtown where I got accosted by Unicef volunteers about six different times, and rather rudely brushed them off because I knew if I tried to respond politely to their "how are you"/"do you have a moment" questions I would end up vomiting strike talk all over them, because there was no space left in my brain for anything else. And I figured that that wasn't really fair on them), which means one person was unequivocally happy about how things turned out today -- she shouted and cheered when she found out I'm most likely still available to come to the Mother's Day thing at school on Friday. :)

We'll keep on. We'll keep on doing what we're doing, as long as we need to/as long as we can. I'm doing better than I was doing last night. But last night was really quite scary.