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The racist incidents I mentioned in the this post have, probably rightly, absorbed a good deal of administrative time and energy. One response has been to go a bit more deeply into climate and, more generally, equity issues on campus. The provost’s office recently asked departments (very nicely!) to plan events around the rubric of ‘equity and diversity’.

But, what should a department do, when asked to plan a response to equity and diversity issues? A number of colleagues went straight to talking about the racist and hate and bias incidents themselves. Fair enough, although if every department ran events on how to deal with racist incidents that might produce a fair bit of redundancy. I wanted at least some departments to focus on addressing what I think is an unduly neglected equity issue: the uneven, and in a significant number of cases downright poor, quality of instruction on the campus. I also believe that high quality instruction (with instruction broadly understood to include mentoring) can even counteract some of the effects of the kinds of incidents under the spotlight, by affecting the climate within which students encounter those incidents.

Let me give you three examples.

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All Around My Hat

by Harry on December 24, 2016

Weird memory. 1985, in some sort of lecture room in Kings College overlooking the Strand. A song starts to fade in, seeming to come from the road below. “Whatever You Want, Whatever You Need….etc”. It gets louder and LOUDER. A new song begins, using the same chords… “Again and Again” maybe? It’s impossible to ignore. We look down at the street and there they are, moving along slowly on a flatbed truck. The lecturer has no idea who the band is. In fact, some of the kids at Kings then are so posh they don’t seem to know. Impressive. I guess that’s the only time I’ll see Status Quo live.

Welcoming the new boy at school

by Harry on December 21, 2016

When I was 13 a new boy called Matthew Arnold arrived at my secondary school. It wasn’t the beginning of the year, just some random autumn day—not even a Monday. 15 minutes before the bell went for school Ms. Bolton brought him to me through the drizzle, told me his name, and told me to look after him and introduce him to people. He wasn’t in my class, and Ms. Bolton had never taught me, so God knows why she asked me to do it—I was not the friendliest, or the most socially adept, kid, by a long shot. He was taller than me, gangly, with big NHS specs, and more socially awkward. Being the new kid could be a cruel experience, as I later discovered myself.

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Racist incidents on campus

by Harry on December 20, 2016

My campus—like, no doubt, a good number of others—has been afflicted over the past 18 months or so by what seems like a rise in the number of racist incidents. We made the headlines recently, when someone attended a football game with an Obama mask on and a noose around his neck. (Oddly enough, the football stadium did not have a standing rule against people attending with nooses round their necks – and I am not sure how you can reasonably introduce such a rule frankly when you are about to introduce a rule that people can attend carrying guns). But there have been other, to my mind nastier (because anonymous) incidents. Nazi and other white-supremacist symbols scrawled here and there; “Heil Hitler” salutes in the face of two girls leaving sorority known (by those in the know which, bizarrely, includes me) to have a preponderance of Jewish members; racist graffiti in the bathrooms, etc. I say it ‘seems’ like a rise, because we don’t know how well reported incidents were before we introduced a specific mechanism for distinguishing racist and other ‘hate and bias’ incidents from general bad behaviour a couple of years ago. If there has really been a growth in incidents, that would be easy to explain. But one point of the post is to ask what the evidence suggests about whether there actually has been an increase on other campuses.

The other is to tell a little story about one of the lesser-known incidents. I tell the story because it is mildly amusing, but also because it hints at a different response to such incidents than that which has been publicized so much by the anti-coddling brigades. (I should say that students on my campus do not seem to demand coddling, though you might think that my response in the vignette below was a coddling response).

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New-ish Crime Writers — the East Coast

by Harry on December 16, 2016

Well, the big news is that the new Tana French (The Trespasser) and the new Peter Robinson (When the Music’s Over) are both out and both brilliant.

Now to the East Coast; a study in contrasts. First we have Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels. The heroine is an archeologist at what seems like a rather shambolic new University on the Norfolk coast; her cases all involve old bones of some sort, but the murders are, mostly, reasonably recent. The world is about as cozy as you’ll find in new crime fiction; people basically like each other though you may not like the central cop, a self-absorbed Lancastrian who is partly redeemed for the reader by the mysterious liking that an oddly named Druid who works in a technical capacity at the University (yep) has for him. The plots are satisfying, the writing fluent, the characters predictable but (with the exception of the cop) broadly likeable. They’ll each take you a few hours to read—frivolous fun, like a Cosmo. Warning (which MIGHT be a minor spoiler): as with Sophie Hannah, but more so, the first book will make you anxious that the supernatural is going to play some sort of explanatory role—its ok, it doesn’t. Start with The Crossing Places .

David Mark’s Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy books do not resemble a cosmo at all. Set in Hull, they are as dark as you imagine the worst winter day being there—in fact, I only know Hull through these novels, and I don’t think that I have once imagined sunshine there. It’s noir, without relief. The villains are evil and ruthless and some of the cops no better. McAvoy starts the series as an officer suffering the consequences of whistle-blowing on some sort of corruption in the force. He’s lucky to be under the protection of a capable senior officer, Trish Pharaoh, and also to have a spouse who is (I think implausibly) adoring and understanding. But the plots are satisfying, and after the first novel, The Dark Winter, McAvoy grew on me quite a bit. Through several of the novels we see the emergence of a shadowy and apparently invincible organized crime syndicate, which Pharaoh and McAvoy are required to deal with, if not defeat. Mark is excellent with minor characters and subplots, and presents a world which, despite (or maybe because of) the prevalence of evil, is much less black and white than most crime writers prefer. Highly recommended if you have a reasonable tolerance for particularly vicious murders.

IS there a series set in Lowestoft? Or Southwold?

Charles Paris

by Harry on December 10, 2016

I’m a pretty enthusiastic fan of Simon Brett’s Charles Paris mysteries—they are light, charming, and funny, rather like Simon Brett, if a little bloody and boozy (which, for all I know, Simon Brett is too) Decent Interval, his comeback appearance, is a good place to start.

The Charles Paris Mysteries on the radio, however, are simply exquisite. Bill Nighy is, as you’d expect, brilliant as the down-at-heel irresponsible, formerly philandering, lush. Jon Glover is hilarious as his neglectful agent, and Suzanne Burden makes his long-suffering estranged wife with whom he often lives as believable as anyone could. The scripts are terse, witty, and filled with in-jokes (I love his ring tones for his wife and Maurice, his agent). And, as in the books, nobody seems to have noticed the a very large fraction of all the murders in the UK seem to have happened with Paris in the next room. Radio 4’s Christmas present to us all is The Cinderella Killer. I haven’t listened to it yet, because they only just broadcast episode 2, and my preference is to wait for them all, and then binge (its only two hours—I’ll listen while shoveling snow some day). But I guarantee it will be perfect.

Oh, and incidentally, what is going on with Brian Protheroe? He seems to be in everything on the radio these days. When’s the next album coming out? Has anyone other than me heard of him?

Arrest help sought

by Harry on December 9, 2016

The first time I was arrested, I had to cancel a meeting with one of my professors The police officers who arrested me had given me a beating between the arrest and the processing (in the van—this was 1985 during the Miner’s Strike, and police officers felt a fairly general permission to be fairly randomly violent to arrestees; they put the boot in while openly concocting the false stories they were going to tell about us). I was let out of Bow Street Station at 3 am, so that I could not get back to Herne Hill. In the morning I walked from the house of the friend I had woken at 4 to give me somewhere to sleep to campus, and informed my professor that I wasn’t going to be in a great condition to meet, and asked if we could postpone. He immediately asked what he could do to help, and asked whether he could testify at my trial (which he duly did, story here; great hilarity ensued). Some might call that coddling I guess, but it meant and still does mean a huge amount to me, and I always do the same (even if the charge is not related to politics and, to be clear, although I probably have some limit, I would support students who were arrested in causes I disagree with; something not at all unlikely to come up because by and large students don’t know my politics).

Knowing about this, a colleague (different college, different state) called yesterday to ask my advice. One of her students, an 18 year old African American woman, was arrested at an anti-Trump demonstration. This is in LA (I’ve also been beaten up by cops and arrested there! Thrill a minute, my life. Story here). Much of the charge sheet is illegible but it is a misdemeanor, and what I can make out is “Willfully and maliciously obstructing free movement or [illegible] for others public [illegible]’. The hearing is next week, and apparently neither the protest organizers nor the college have provided legal support. I’m trying to find my one lawyer acquaintance in LA with relevant experience (of the two lawyers who have worked for me, one is a judge, and the other is a labor lawyer and too fancy and famous for me to feel comfortable approaching him). In the meantime though—my colleague plans to attend the hearing with the student, and to record it and take notes. My advice is to ensure that 2 or 3 other students come along for support (it is enormously more tolerable to go through these experiences with support from friends than alone). But—should the student have a lawyer present? And if so, any suggestions of where to find one? (Again, its LA).

Greg Lake is dead

by Harry on December 8, 2016

Whither Opportunity?

by Harry on December 7, 2016

In the light of the discussions of charter schools in the poss below, and given that I attended a graduate seminar of education policy students last night at which none of the students had read it, it seems worth re-drawing your attention to Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane’s edited volume Whither Opportunity?: Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances. Its already 5 years old, but it is really a brilliant achievement, drawing together numerous experts (if we’re allowed to listen to experts any more) with the task of summarizing everything we know about the relationship between economic inequality and educational disadvantage in the US. The take home is fairly simple: there’s a very strong relationship between economic inequality and educational disadvantage and after reading the whole book you might still believe (as I do) that it is possible to improve educational outcomes for poor children through improved schooling but you cannot believe that we could get large changes in outcomes without corresponding changes to the environments poor children grow up in—which would require massive reductions in both inequality and poverty.

I think its fair to say that the headline study was Sean Reardon’s finding that the achievement gap (measured by standardized tests) between rich and poor students has increased during the same 50 years during which the black-white achievement gap has decreased, as shown in the following graph:


Other findings include Meredith Phillips’ finding that between birth and age six, wealthier children will have spent as many as 1,300 more hours than poor children on child enrichment activities such as music lessons, travel, and summer camp, and the contribution by Waldfogel and Magnusson showing that the gap in ‘enrichment spending’ between rich and poor has expanded massively in the past 40 years—and that affluent families spend more than $8000 a year per child on enrichment activities. A child from a poor family is two to four times as likely as a child from an affluent family to have classmates with low skills and behavior problems – attributes which have a negative effect on the learning of their fellow students, and the rich=poor achievement gap in k-12 is accompanied by a growing income-based gap in college completion.

One of the studies shows that local job losses can lower the test scores of students with low socioeconomic status, whether or not the students’ parents have suffered the job losses; another that and students learn less math if they attend schools with high student turnover during the school year (one count against school choice, but also against allowing landlords to evict tenants with children mid-year).

Of course, to most readers none of these finding will be shocking (though, the Reardon finding is quite noteworthy). But they are worth bearing in mind. I am startled by local school officials for example, who say that citing poverty as a reason for low achievement is an ‘excuse’, and also by academics in education I come across who are reluctant to admit that poverty has seriously detrimental effects on the poor and the ability of poor children to learn (if poverty doesn’t have bad effects on those who are subject to it, elminating it might still be nice but doesn’t seem morally as urgent as it, in fact, is). As I say, I’m only mentioning Whither Opportunity again now after meeting a whole group of grad students who are concerned with educational inequality and didn’t know of it, and being prompted by the discussions of charter schools. Also I’d recommend going to Leo Casey’s comment on one of the threads which gathers together some other useful links.

Charter Schools in Perspective

by Harry on December 5, 2016

The thread following Henry’s post responding to Tyler Cowen’s comments about school choice reminds me that people might find this site—Charter Schools in Perspective—useful. It contains valuable and well contextualized summaries of the basic facts on the ground and of the research as of about a year ago, and resources for journalists, academics, and the general public who want to know more. It emerged from a project that I was involved with (along with one of our occasional commenters Leo Casey) a couple of years ago, supported by the Spencer Foundation and Public Agenda. Maybe it would be helpful for the incoming Secretary in the Department of Education.

Richmond Park and North Kingston

by Harry on December 3, 2016

Rachel Reeves was on Westminster Hour at the weekend and sounded like a perfectly sensible person with whom one might have reasonable disagreements, until she was induced, as she should have anticipated, to talk about the by-election, at which point she defended Labour’s decision to stand a candidate not as if she was a loyal party member willing to say something stupid for the sake of unity, but as if she really believed that it was sensible and morally defensible behavior. This piece by Neal Lawson of Compass, if what it says is true—that some local party members preferred to refrain from nominating a candidate, but were told that the London Party would impose a candidate if they didn’t choose one) is… bemusing?

The fact that it was retweeted by Clive Lewis (I gather from my students that the phrase “I retweet that” means “hear, hear, old chap (or chap-ess)”, so I assume he approves, but what do I know?) is maybe a hopeful sign.

An aside, again on language use. I heard a Tory on the Jeremy Vine show this morning commenting on Tim Farran’s interview by saying that “I think Tim Farran has lost the plot”. “X has lost the plot” used to mean “X is disoriented and doesn’t know what they are talking about”. Said Tory MP, though, seemed to mean “I am disoriented and have nothing worth saying so will say something offensive about Tim Farran who seems to have had a great success, and is being pretty sensible and modest about the whole thing”. Is that what “X has lost the plot” has come to mean, or is it a phrase that now has many meanings?

Letters of Recommendation

by Harry on November 29, 2016

It’s letter-writing time.

I enjoy writing letters of recommendation. I enjoy it more than I used to because I have more practice, because I have had plenty of positive feedback, and because I have learned to get to know more of my students better than I used to. But I also enjoy it because of the opportunity it gives me to reflect on the students, their skills, and their characters. Sometimes I am a bit surprised by the letter—last year a student asked me for a letter for Law school, and I knew it would be a good letter, but articulated, during the writing of it, aspects of her as a thinker and as a person that I really admire and hadn’t fully appreciated before having to write them down. It turned out to be better than merely very good, as I had anticipated.

Letter requests rarely come as a surprise these days, and for a good number of students I have little passages written in my head while I am teaching them in anticipation of the request. But this is a part of my job that I was not trained in at all. Just like teaching, you might think, but at least when I started teaching I had watched other people do it, whereas I had never even read letters of recommendation when I started. I have, by now, read thousands of letters of recommendation: even so, most of them have been for Philosophy graduate school applications, which is not what most of my letters are for, which tend to be for professional programs and (to a much lesser extent, because letters are used much less) for entry-level jobs. (When students put me down as a reference for a job I insist they give out my cell phone number, because I know I tend to respond rapidly to a voice mail (because I still, every time, expect it is going to be from the school telling me one of my children has done something awful! – and although I am basically phone-phobic, I have really enjoyed the many brief chats with Human resources people, which often seems more efficient than letter writing.

So, below, this is I write letters for students about to graduate. Please comment in whatever way seems useful – advice for me, or other letter-writers, especially if you are a consumer of such letters.

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New(ish) Crime Writers: Sophie Hannah

by Harry on November 28, 2016

After the last post in this series (what, a year ago?) a reader wrote to me enthusiastically about Sophie Hannah, assuming I’d have already read her. In fact I hadn’t: amazon had recommended her to me, so I had bothered to look her up and note her lineage but, to my embarrassment, the fact that she is a poet put me off a little bit. Still, a reader bothers to email me with a recommendation, I should try, right? I ended up doing something unusual: I read the Zailer/Waterhouse novels in order without a break, starting with Little Face. Hannah has a unique talent. Most of the books are psychological thrillers, and involve multiple deceptions among the characters, including between various of the detectives; in fact, in both Little Face and The Truth-Teller’s Lie (the first two) I occasionally worried that something supernatural was going to be involved (which would have been a cheat – as an aside I am curious what readers think about James Oswald’s crime novels, which I find completely addictive, but worry that I am being conned by). They are far from straightforward police procedurals, and the relationship between Zailer and Waterhouse is deeply unhealthy (and for a long time it’s hard to tell whether Waterhouse has some sort serious mental illness or is just extremely unpleasant). Yet there’s a sort of coziness to them – none of the plots are predictable (to me anyway), but the characters around Waterhouse (including Zailer) are stable and mostly likeable, the invented local geography is consistent and becomes familiar over the course of the novels, and the domestic lives of the characters involved in the labyrinthine plots are detailed lovingly – Hannah loves and cares about middle class English mothers who get the short end of the stick, but she shows her love by putting them in unbelievable (though possible) and awful situations!

I’m not sure I’d recommend reading all 10 in a row, but I’d certainly recommend reading them all over the course of a couple of years. So, thank you, unnamed reader!

Additional Comment
I haven’t read her Hercule Poirots, but hear they are terrific, so probably will read them after Christmas. I did decide to read The Orphan Choir, to see how well she did the actual supernatural. Now, I don’t really like the supernatural, and I didn’t really like The Ghost Choir but I could see that if she decided to write 3 more, the 4th would be outstanding. Still, I hope she sticks with crime.

WARNING: For reasons that I can’t imagine Sophie Hannah seems unusually prone to having her titles changed: most books are published under one name in the UK and an entirely different one in the US. So, beware duplication!

Teaching Logic with Presidential debates

by Harry on November 8, 2016

My excellent colleague Michael Titlebaum told me about an exercise he did with his Logic class. (It’s a First Year Interest Group class—20 first years who take 3 thematically linked courses, the composition of the program is disproportionately first generation, low income, and minority students—the idea being that students will get connections with each other around academics, and develop relationships with faculty early). I asked Titlebaum to write the exercise so I could include it here: mainly because it is an excellent example of the kind of pedagogy we should use more with our students in large public institutions like mine [1], but also, partly, because it is funny, and might entertain you on election day… Here’s his story:

I’m teaching introductory logic to twenty first-years in a special small-format class this semester, and the political season offered an opportunity too good to pass up. In class on October 18 I spent the entire lecture going over with them various logical fallacies and illicit rhetorical strategies. Then on October 19 I had all the students over to my house for pizza and debate-watching. I divided them into two teams, then had them score points by calling out instances of fallacies as they happened in the debate in real time.

The first astonishing thing was how many fallacies we found. 45 minutes in, my students had called out over 60. (And that was only on the two candidates—we ruled out scoring points off the moderator, despite Chris Wallace’s many loaded questions.) At that point we took ad hominem, red herring, hyperbole, and smokescreening off the table, mostly because I couldn’t count them fast enough. (Smokescreening is responding to a question by piling on related points or complications until everyone forgets the original question and the fact that you haven’t answered it.)

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I (still) believe

by Harry on November 8, 2016

The best election song of 1980…..Or maybe ever.

Good luck, everyone!