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Why have classroom discussions anyway?

by Harry on September 19, 2016

A couple of people observed that, in this post about making classroom discussions actual discussions, I didn’t give any reasons why students actually should discuss. And, I have to say, that when I first started teaching I didn’t understand why, either. Here’s why.

I was a voracious reader and an intent listener. I used to (from age 4 at the latest) demand that my parents let me go to bed early so that I could listen to the radio (not music – but Radio 4: documentaries, comedies plays and, when I was 9, a 13×1 hour radio dramatization of Nicholas Nickleby, on Sunday evenings. By the time I was in college, listening to someone talk about philosophy for an hour was almost effortless – I did the reading, listened carefully, and took extensive notes. I also wrote a weekly essay… So who needed classroom discussion?

And when I started teaching, in the US, as a TA, leading discussion sections, I guess I assumed my students were much the same. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I lived a lot in my own head, and was not especially perceptive about people or the way they learned (despite having been to a good number of different schools, each with quite different demographic profiles; I even managed to attend two different colleges in my 3 years, the first one having closed down while I was there!). The first class I TA-ed had an excellent professor, who was friendly, engaging, and clear. And in section I supplemented her lectures, which more, mini-lectures, focused on details and, to be fair, allowing students to talk more than they could in lecture. The best students did the reading, and were on top of what was going on; and many of the rest remained confused, often because they hadn’t done the reading, but sometimes even when they had. This was clear in their writing, which I graded, and was often quite confused even though they had been in class and section.

How could this be? I have a much better sense of the answer 30 years later (as one might hope).

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1. Walking pneumonia is really not a big deal any more. I’ve had it maybe 10 times; it is very annoying indeed, but, normally, like HRC, I have not bothered telling anyone about it. Indeed, whereas she apparently told close friends and family, I sometimes don’t bother (its not as though anyone is going to have any sympathy—“Go get antibiotics and steroids, now, you idiot”). [1] Her failure to tell the world she has a minor ailment is not part of a pattern of secrecy.

2. Or maybe she doesn’t even have the ailment. Could it be that there is nothing wrong with her, and this is just a rumour spread by her campaign i) to make her seem a bit more like a normal person and ii) to panic people (like the Bushes, for example[2]) who think they can sit this out without having to take responsibility for the deranged performance artist becoming President, and move them into positive action?

[1] A tip—Since I started getting a regular 8 hours sleep the colds that previously would turn into pneumonia occur about 1/4 as often, and last about half as long. Another tip: avoid children.

[2] with apologies to the excellent senior Mrs Bush, who has made it clear that she is not going to stand by.

50 years and one day later…

by Harry on September 13, 2016

In this post I mentioned a time that I had my small (21 person) discussion based class recorded, and then watched the video with several colleagues (and 3 students I invited who were actually in the class). Someone observed, pretty quickly, that the discussion had a kind of ping-pong feel. The students were all willing to talk (event the student who told me in the previous class that she was ok with being recorded as long as she didn’t have to speak in the discussion), but they were all just talking to me. We were in a circle, so it was entirely possible for them to talk to the whole class, but something I was doing was preventing that, and doing it, anyway, was not what they were used to (all but one were first-semester freshmen). What I was doing, specifically, was affirming, or rephrasing, or gently correcting, or responding to, what each of them said, preventing a flow of conversation. And, of course, responding to interesting things each one said, with something else interesting for the whole class. So, it wasn’t wholly bad, and clearly my motives were good. But it was a failure, something like 21 separate and not that great tutorials, all happening at the same time – and I would say it was a fair representation of my classes up to that point.

So, how to change that? One commenter said “I would love to hear, either in the comments here or in a separate post, what strategies you’ve developed to get past (or to some extent deal with) this problem.” I held off partly because it was summer, but mainly because I wanted to wait till I had, as it were, watched myself in action, to see what I do now that makes class discussions real, full on, discussions, in which students are giving one another reasons, listening to one another (not looking for my approval) and improving as thinkers and talkers. So, the semester has started again and, luckily, I am teaching two smallish classes (one has 26 students, juniors and seniors; the other has 22 freshman).
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Spinoza’s Dream

by Harry on September 7, 2016

My friend (and former student) Dave Nachmanoff, has just released a philosophy themed folk-concept album called Spinoza’s Dream. I love it. The concept is pretty cerebral I suppose—each song is inspired by some philosophical idea or theory—but, as usual, Dave’s songs are nevertheless affecting and often personal. And the musicianship is fantastic: Dave himself is one of those musicians who somehow manages to make a single guitar sound like a whole band, and he is joined by various Al Stewart personnel (Dave has been Al Stewart’s lead guitarist for many years; the cover is designed by Colin Elgie, who designed the cover for Year of the Cat!), and Al himself on supporting vocals on one track. Here’s the great title track:

Regular readers know that I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about improving the quality of teaching and learning in universities like mine. I believe that instruction in research institutions is suboptimal. What I mean by suboptimal is something like “quite a bit less good than it could be without large investments of time energy and attention”. Why do I believe that it is suboptimal, given that we have neither the measures of learning nor an agreed benchmark against which to make judgments about optimality? Simply because i) I think teaching (by which I mean making students learn) is really pretty difficult and requires a complex set of skills that need to be learned and practiced; and ii) teachers in higher education receive little or no training, engage in little or no professional development specifically devoted to improving their skills as teachers, and are not hired for their skills as teachers. I also believe that we operate in a highly imperfect market that does not press us to become optimal, because one of the main revenue sources – state legislators – do not really understand our business so even when well-willed they are not very good trustees of the public interest, and the other – payers of tuition – are as much interested in prestige as they are in learning. I don’t mean any disrespect to plumbers in saying this, but I think that teaching is at least as difficult as plumbing, and in general it would be surprising if someone with no training in plumbing, and no professional development relating to plumbing, and who had not been hired for their skills as a plumber, turned out to be an optimally good plumber. I don’t see why teaching should be any different.

Mostly, on CT, I’ve written about things I’ve done, or others have done, that seem to improve instruction or, more precisely, to make more learning happen: offering ideas of what seem to me like good practices for people to adopt, adapt, or criticize. I’ve been trying to think lately, though, about what an institution, with the will, and the resources, might do to create more systematic improvement. When I say ‘more systematic’ improvement, I mean ‘more systematic than not systematic at all’, which is what most of my posts have been – i.e., what I’m trying to think about is something more than just blog posts sharing good practices, and which can reach people for whom improving their instruction is not already a high priority.

In addition to wanting to be more systematic, though, I have reasonably modest aspirations. I don’t see how any institutional leaders, however great, could change the incentive structure and the culture around instruction at institutions like mine overnight – or even over a handful of years. What I am interested in are initiatives that would raise the average level of instruction, without large expenditures, and without substantial changes to the way we hire or tenure faculty or recruit TAs. (Not, I hasten to add, because I think those shouldn’t be changed, but because changing them would take a long time, and I want initiatives that can have effects right now, and because I hope that some such initiatives would be effective, anyway, in a system where hiring, tenure and TA-recruitment had been changed).

So here are some scattered and incomplete thoughts, which I hope will improve with time, and with input from readers. I’m especially interested in examples of institutional initiatives you know of that you think have worked reasonably well. And pretty much everything here is conjectural, and I’m open to it being quite wrongheaded.

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Parris on the Brexiteers

by Harry on July 12, 2016


The day of the referendum result, I was waiting outside the tent where CNN were filming on College Green near Parliament. In front of the camera I saw two people shouting at each other and sensed the argument was out of control. Next up for interview, I sat down to watch. The interviewer was Christiane Amanpour, her interviewee the MEP Daniel Hannan.

I have never seen so violent an argument on TV. Nobody won but both lost their tempers. Amanpour indirectly* accused Hannan of trying to win the Leave campaign by inciting hatred of immigrants; Hannan insisted he had never done so, had never even argued against immigration, but simply for Britain to ‘take back control’. Shouting, he challenged Amanpour to cite any example of anti-immigrant language he had ever used.

I’m sure the record will bear Daniel out. I doubt he’s a racist or wants sharp reductions in immigration. He will have been fastidious in his language. But his rage was instructive. Beneath the furious denials and the angry demands for chapter and verse was the rage of a man in acute personal discomfort about the company he has kept and the currents in society whose cause it has become his lifetime’s work to champion, while carefully disavowing what drives them. Amanpour hardly landed a blow on Hannan because she did not put the most wounding charge: that he has ridden a tiger, and knows the tiger he rides. He — and I use him only as an eloquent example — raises his hands in repudiation of the destination he hears his followers bawl for, yet offers to take them halfway there.


I once asked Enoch Powell whether, no racist himself, he ever felt squeamish about some who cheered his speeches. He replied — to laughter from our audience — that in politics you take support from wherever it comes. The reply diminished him.

So, first off all, the main blame falls on Cameron and his friends. He called an entirely unnecessary, and for most of the electorate unwanted, referendum, which risked the Union (and how anyone can now resist a second Scottish independence referendum with a straight face now is beyond me) solely for reasons to do with the interests of his party. The result is exactly the one anyone would have predicted (and many of our pro-Brexit commentators did) after a Brexit campaign that has lasted about 25 years, and knowing the the Remain campaign would be led by a bunch of out-of-touch toffs with a history of public dishonesty. (Of course, the Brexit campaign was led by similar types, but had a 25 year head start).

Then, unsurprisingly, the Remain campaign, led by those toffs, started scaremongering in ways that were dishonest and implausible. No, this will not provoke war in Europe. This was always going to be a Tory-led campaign (because they are the government), and unfortunately the leaders were people whose every appearance rankled with anti-establishment voters. Corbyn could (if he were a different kind of person) have joined the chorus and campaigned in the same vein. But there’s no reason to believe that would have helped. From what I heard from Labour canvassers in pro-exit wards they were overwhelmed by the anti-EU sentiment on the doorstep. Of course they argued, but even when you ‘win’ an argument like that (which maybe you can if, as in some cases, they have known you as their councillor for the last 30 years) you cannot be sure they are going to vote your way.

When the Northeastern votes started coming in, commentators were blaming Labour for not getting out the vote. But the thing about GOTV operations is that it is they make a lot of sense when you expect your voters to vote for you but they are really quite spectacularly stupid you know they will vote against you. If Labour MPs and council members in the Northeast did sit on their hands, they did exactly the right thing—the thing that maximized the chances for Remain to win.

Imagine Labour had been led by a former SPAD, establishment, Oxbridge-type euro-enthusiast instead of Corbyn. Knowing what you know now, do you think that would have been better? (Don’t imagine, instead, that Alan Johnson had been leader—he was not on offer!). For much of the 25 years of the Brexit campaign, the Labour mainstream has been gently assisting it by expressing contempt for, and disregarding the interests of, exactly the kinds of Labour voters who have started defecting to UKIP, and who voted for leave. The ‘blame Corbyn’ movement says that it has been entirely irresponsible of Jeremy Corbyn, and shows his lack of competence, that he has failed, in his 9 months as leader, to turn the tide and win all those people back not just to voting Labour, but to supporting the EU with enthusiasm. No doubt Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall would have succeeded!

And now England has voted for Exit, and Scotland will, presumably, secede. And Corbyn’s enemies are seizing on this chance to do him in. But how will replacing Corbyn with a former-SPAD establishment, Oxbridge-type, euro-enthusiast help Labour’s position in this new environment? I’m curious what the sensible story is about this. Or, maybe, they are planning to replace him with McDonnell.

The New St George?

by Harry on June 24, 2016

I said to a student that the British were deciding whether to leave Europe and she said, with shocked puzzlement on her face, “But where will they go?” She’s quite funny.

Discuss away. Please be civil and polite to those you disagree with (and those you agree with, for that matter)— unless you are a Tory addressing another Tory, in which case I guess that bird has flown and you should just enjoy yourself.

Lesson Plan

by Harry on June 6, 2016

I recommend William Bowen and Michael McPherson’s new book Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education to anyone who wants a better understanding of the problems in higher education in the US, and especially to anyone who is working in higher education and wants to contribute to improving it.

Among its many virtues are that it is short, and an easy read; but, despite that, it contains lots of useful information, well-organized, and although they are sketched rather detailed, its recommendations for change should be part of the debate on your campus, whatever your campus is like. I don’t think it is eccentric of them to take the 3 central challenges to higher education in the US as being raising attainment rates, reducing disparities in outcomes relating to socio-economic status, and controlling costs, and they have a good deal of interesting and useful things to say about all three. I’m not going to provide a comprehensive overview of the book (its short enough that you should just read it yourself), but will divide the post into a section on several points they make that seem not to be well understood in the public debate, including by a lot of faculty, and then a section on a couple of their recommendations for improvement in controlling costs.

First, the five points:

1.Administrative bloat does not explain rising tuition, contrary to popular myth. You’ll see figures saying that whereas in the 1970s faculty outnumbered administrators 2:1, now there is one administrator for every faculty member; one much quoted NYT article claims that “administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60% between 1993 and 2009”. Just seeing that claim should make anyone who works in a university suspicious – where are all these people? The NYT figure leaves out of the equation that enrollments grew by 42% in the same period, so that at worst administrative positions grew 1% a year faster than enrollments. And a very large part of the change in the ratios of ‘administrators’ to faculty is a result of changes in non-faculty needs of the institutions, and the tendency to classify more jobs as ‘administrative’ than in the past. More menial jobs (like typist, gardener) that were never classified as administrative have declined because of mechanization, computers, etc. At the same time a need for more professional jobs (most obviously IT people) that are classified as administrative has increased. The ratio of “executive, administrative and management” staff to students actually decreased slightly between 1991 and 2001 from 1.1:100 to 1:100.

2.Nor, in fact, does reduced state appropriations explain increased tuition. The pattern with state appropriations for higher education is pretty predictable: they decline as tax revenues decline (in recessions) and grow as they grow. We are in a long recession right now, so we have seen an 8-year decline, as with funding for other discretionary items in state budgets. The real kicker is not declining appropriations per se, but declining per-full-time-equivalent student appropriations. As larger numbers of students attend college, stable state appropriations mean reduced per-student appropriations. Its fine to say: “oh, well, we should be funding higher education more”, but that money has to come from somewhere – either from other parts of the State budget, or from increased tax revenues. Suppose for a moment that we can get the extra money from increased tax revenues or from the department of corrections or of transportation (I just assume nobody will propose taking it from k-12 or from medical assistance, which are typically the biggest parts of State budgets). I will not be popular for saying this, and I should emphasize that Bowen and McPherson do not say this, but it is hard to see why a sensible legislator concerned with improving education, or with improving fairness in education, would prioritize additional funding for higher education. Why? It’s not a priority if you care about fairness, because higher education is not a universal program, but one which less than 2/3rds of the cohort participate in, and is not even available to those who have received the worst education up to that point, who are almost exclusively among the less advantaged people in society; and nearly a half of those who DO participate do not get qualifications, and they, too, are disproportionately among the less advantaged of those who do use it. It’s not a priority if you just care about getting an educated population because we know that investments in early childhood and k-8—the education levels in which everyone participates, are more cost-efficient up to some saturation point which we are still quite far from.

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Dave Swarbrick is dead

by Harry on June 3, 2016

Gdnrad obit here.

This is fantastic. Glastonbury 1971:

And (not great quality, but I had a hard time finding a version of this with Swarbrick playing) obviously:

My department held our first ceremony for graduating philosophy Majors this spring, and my chair kindly asked me to speak at it (immediately after 2 graduating seniors, whose speeches were, I suppose not surprisingly, on a fairly similar theme to my own). I kept it short (ish), and thought I’d post the text from which I talked here. I’m posting partly because it was fun, but partly as a resource for others, who are welcome to use whatever they like, without attribution, except for the joke about my office (I know 2 political philosophers whose offices are reputed to be similar to mine—they can use the joke).

Here it is:

First, we want to congratulate you all on graduating. It’s a time for you to enjoy, and celebrate, though we hope you feel at least some sadness at leaving the rhythm of college life, and the thrill of going to class every day knowing that you’ll encounter, as one of my non-major students put it, ideas that you didn’t know were there to be thought.

Second, we want to thank the parents here for encouraging, or tolerating, or merely not having the strength of character to stop, your children in their choice of major. And, in many cases, you have been for paying for most or all of it. We know that your children are entering a labor market that is soft at best, much worse than the labor market we entered at the same age, and that majoring in Philosophy may have seemed like a risk. I’m going to explain why it was less of a risk than you might have thought.

Most of us research and teach philosophy because we love it – as one student, trying to get the balance right between philosophy and sociology, put it: “Philosophy is just so much more fun; you get to think almost all the time that you are working, rather than only about 20% of the time”. We’re excited about mapping out conceptual space, making very fine grained distinctions, looking at arguments and seeing where they go wrong, and figuring out how to repair them. We revel in abstraction. And we hope we have communicate some of that enthusiasm, and fostered it, and the skills needed to fulfill it, in you.

But that’s not all.

Last year Governor Walker and our legislature added to the mission of the UW that it should “meet the state’s workforce needs”. Some people on the campus were not enthused about this addition. But as a professor loyal to the College of Letters and Science, and especially as a professor who wants to see Philosophy thrive, I was thrilled. Speaking simply for myself, if studying philosophy did not contribute to society, it should be like sports, a leisure activity that people don’t get paid for and that no sane person would think the government should be subsidizing. I mean, nobody, surely, would think that the government should be using tax revenues to fund high school football or hockey teams, or to subsidize building sports stadia, right?

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The Magic Bookstore

by Harry on May 11, 2016

A lovely vignette at the Chronicle by Christopher Phelps about a late night encounter with a bookstore. Which reminded me that somewhere in my office I have a first edition of Spartacus, signed by the author, that I should give to Phelps next time I see him (don’t tell him).

Nakul Krishna on Malory Towers

by Harry on April 28, 2016

I was a late reader (late enough to cause considerable worry, I now understand). But when I did read, it was all I wanted to do. I read every comic I could get my hands on (I stayed with the Beano till I was 13 or so—my dad let me get a weekly delivery of Thunder [1] (which quickly merged with Lion, which quickly merged with Valiant, which…) on condition that I also get Look and Learn (which I devoured as enthusiastically as I did Thunder, so it was a smart move). Jennings and William were the cordon bleu of children’s writing, obviously, and later on I got to Geoffrey Trease, Henry Treece, John Rowe Townsend, Penelope Lively, Jill Paton Walsh, Peter Dickinson; and all of those were, rightly, approved of by all adults. But I read everything Enid Blyton wrote. Including the Malory Towers books which, I vaguely realized, must have been aimed at girls (being books about girls in a girls boarding school), but just didn’t care. They were so embedded in my head that when, in my teens (early, not late, I’m glad to say), I graduated from the Beano to Marvel comics, I wondered (and still do) whether Peter Parker’s girlfriend was named after the awful (but pitiable) Gwendolyn Lacey. What was so appealing about them? Nakul Krishna has a wonderful, contemplative and adoring, but sharp analysis, at Aeon, which explains it all. Read it there, but feel free to discuss it here (I am really curious how many of our readers read the Malory Towers books in childhood).

[1] Link is to a site with almost every single Adam Eterno strip. Mergers of comics were frequent, but Lion and Thunder was a rare case in which the junior, second billed, comic, provided most of the stories to the new title—several survived into Valiant and Lion, even after Lion’s name was off the masthead. Most notably, the brilliant Adam Eterno.