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Harry

Best moment of the academic year

by Harry on August 19, 2019

I invite other teachers or students to submit their own best moment of the academic year past. Mine was this.

A small class—just 17 students. They had read Amia Srinivasan’s “Does anyone have the right to sex?”. Some of them hated it, because they thought (wrongly) that it expressed sympathy with incels. Others were more intrigued. During the discussion I made reference, as she does, to political lesbians, and as I was saying the word it occurred to me that they might not know what it meant. So I asked them what it meant. The blank faces indicated that none of them had looked it up, which I pointed out (I knew they’d all read the piece). So I asked them to guess, and several made wild guesses. The one who got closest was very uneasy in saying it, I think because he worried that he was being politically incorrect. I finally told them what it meant. Several of them looked concerned, wondering what they ought to think about this. A few knew that I am perfectly capable of making things up to bamboozle them. After an interminable 2 seconds of silence, though, one young woman hit the table, and cried, very loudly: “That’s AWESOME! Good for THEM!”. Her face had that look that a baby’s face gets when it has its first taste of chocolate.

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Who do I think I am?

by Harry on August 7, 2019

I can’t remember whether I have plugged this before—I suspect I have—but the radio version of Mark Steel’s autobiographical one-man show, Who Do I Think I Am?, is available on Sounds for the next 17 days. It is just brilliant. Its the story of Steel’s search for his adoptive mother, which involves so many twists, turns, and bizarre coincidences that at various points you think he must have added this or that (surely the details about the Socialist Party of Great Britain???) for effect but… no, its all, bizarrely, true. Mainly its hilarious, but it is also, in parts, serious and very poignant. If you have one hour to spare in the next 17 days, this is how to spend it, even if (maybe especially if) you have no idea who Mark Steel is.

Apparently cancelling all student debt under Sanders’s plan would cost $1.6 trillion, and would be funded by a wealth tax. $1.6 trillion is a lot of money. Sara Goldrick-Rab gently says: “There’s a piece of me that has seen how widespread the pain is, including among people you might say are financially fine. But there’s a piece of me that knows what the pot looks like, and says, ‘That’s not the best use of the money’”.

Think about other uses: There are about 100,000 public (k-12) schools in the US. I’ve tried dividing $1.6 trillion by 100,000 several times now and every time I do it the answer is $16 million (I find math using ‘billions’ and ‘trillions’ difficult, because the words have different meanings in UK and American English, and I’m not always confident which language my head is in. So maybe I’m off?) $1.6 trillion could endow every public school in the country with, or give a one-off capital grant of, an average of $16 million. An average endowment of $16 million per school would yield $800,000 in additional spending per school in perpetuity. Another way of thinking about this. There are 51 million public school children. $1.6 trillion yields about $31k per student. Create an endowment and you can spend $1.5k more per student in public schools than we currently do. Forever.

(Co-incidentally, if the government did spend $1.5k more per student per year in public schools, that would almost bring government spending per-student per year in k-12 up to the level of government spending per-student per-year in higher education!)

Another way of thinking about it. Sanders’ main spending proposal in k-12 is tripling Title One spending (Federal funds that go to schools with low income children in them). Title One spending is currently around $14 billion. (He adds $1 billion for magnet schools and unspecified amounts for universal free school meals, and for a few other things, which I’ll leave aside). Divide 1.6 trillion by 14 billion and you see that he’s proposing to spend 100 years of current Title One funding on a one-off cancellation of student debt. He could quadruple title one spending for 100 years instead. Or quintuple it for 50 years. Or sextuple it for 25 years. He’s proposing to spend 50 times more just on relieving student debt than to increase annual Federal spending in k-12.

Or: restrict your concern to access to higher education. $1.6 trillion would pay the current Pell Grant budget for 50 years. Another way of putting this: Endow the Pell Grant program with $1.6 trillion, and that pays for Pell Grants at 2.5 times the current rate. Forever.

Some defenders say that debt forgiveness would be good for the economy.

Student debt forgiveness would also help stimulate economic growth by freeing borrowers to buy homes and improve their credit, while primarily benefiting racial minorities, according to Steinbaum and researchers at the Levy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

Omar, who has student debt, said in a statement that the plan would “unleash billions of dollars in economic growth.”

If the point of the plan is reducing debt loads, rather than being about education, why is the plan specific to college loan debt? People who didn’t go to college have debt too: and have worse earning prospects. Is there some evidence that cancelling student debt (a good deal of which is held by high earners) is better for the economy than cancelling other kinds of debt. Or just lowering the costs of living for low income families by, for example, enabling them to purchase new and efficient automobiles that have lower running costs than older cars that they currently buy because they are cheaper? $1.6 trillion would buy $53 million Chevy Volts, reducing automobile running costs for 53 million low income families. Or one could address the massive wealth gap between African Americans and whites by biting the reparations bullet: a mortgage down payment of $34k for every single African-American would increase dramatically home ownership among African Americans. Or whatever.

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Tactical Voting

by Harry on June 19, 2019

In the very unlikely event that you, a CT reader, will have a vote in deciding the United Kingdom’s next Prime Minister, and haven’t made up your mind, you could do worse than listening to various of the candidates discussing ‘political thinking’ with Nick Robinson. I don’t listen to the Today programme, and have no other real exposure to Robinson, and, in general, dislike the underlying premise of Political Thinking that looking at people’s childhood and youth tells you something useful about their political thinking. What is good about the podcast is Robinson’s other premise which is basically that in the long form interview it is very hard for politicians to disguise who they are. A typical pattern—Dominic Raab, Steve Baker and Esther McVey all comform—is that they start out seeming reasonable and perfectly decent but end up seeming either nuts (Baker), poisonous (McVey) or both (Raab). [Of course, plenty of interviewees (eg David Lidington, Stella Creasey, David Gauke) end up seeming exactly as they did at the beginning—smart, serious, decent]. It is no accident, as Robinson knows, that the most likely future PM has not yet chosen to appear on the show.

Anyway, down to business. There was talk at the second stage of the vote that the repulsive Johnson’s campaign might “lend” votes to Hunt so that Boris would face him rather than someone else in the run-off among the members, thus giving him an easier time than he might have against another contender. Simon Cotton on twitter says:

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Strangers on a Train

by Harry on June 12, 2019

I didn’t really know Charlotte: she was one of several women who seemed to flock around my quite eccentric friend Chris – several of whom I think had unrequited romantic interest in him. We were all 19, toward the end of the first year of college. One bright Monday afternoon in June 1983, after returning from lectures, I bumped into Charlotte (not one with a romantic interest) sitting with another Chris acolyte, Samantha, who had always struck me as rather dull, and cheerily asked how they were doing.

Samantha, it turned out, was not at all dull: she was dropping out of college, and had committed to working her way round the world on a sailboat with some unknown family. Sounded terrifying to me. As for Charlotte – well, according to Samantha “She’s not doing well at all. She needs to talk to someone, and not me. Do you have a couple of hours to talk to her?”. As you can imagine, coming from two people I had talked with for a total of about 10 minutes hitherto, this was bemusing, so I turned to Charlotte who confirmed the need to talk, and implored me to go for a walk with her.

Bedford College was beautiful – a large Victorian building that could have been a not very posh private school, sheltered in the Inner Circle of Regents Park. You could walk out of the grounds, into the park, and talk for hours, barely hearing the traffic at all. So we did, and Charlotte told me her story.

She was very, very, upset. Bedford was the first choice for a few students drawn to London but with a taste for comfort. But for most, I think, it was second choice to one or another Oxbridge college. I suspect Charlotte was in the latter camp, and, like many of the women (though few of the men) had a boyfriend from school – they’d been together I think at the Grammar school, not the Cathedral school, in Stourbridge—who had got to their first choice. Hers was at one of the Oxford colleges that you’d heard of if you knew the system, but not if you didn’t. She routinely visited him for the weekend: the previous Friday was no exception. Maybe the most shocking part of the story for me – and I suspect this says a lot about both my naivete and my political outlook – was the first part: he wasn’t there, so she let herself into his room and started tidying it and making his bed. It really had never occurred to me that girlfriends might deliver such a service, and, frankly, I was assaulted by its unfeminist character. She was nonplussed by my disapproval, but was keen to get to the next part.

“Making his bed I discovered that he had been having sex with another girl”

“How did you know that?”. At this point, perhaps she was thinking she should have chosen a less dull-witted confessor (though, I have to say, I am 99% certain that the one person in the college more clueless than I was our eccentric mutual friend, Chris).

“Well, you know. I found incontrovertible proof. Among the bedclothes”. I was still puzzled, but didn’t let on.

It turned out that Steve, the boyfriend, had been having sex with an American student whom he knew through their political group at Oxford. Subsequently, I have to say, I met the woman to whom I’ve now been married for 27 years in a political group, but at the time I was sufficiently puritanical to disapprove of meeting romantic partners through politics. Though, if I had been more approving of that, I still would still have balked at the organization in question: they were members of the Oxford University Conservative Association. I was somewhat more outraged with his behavior to her than his being a member of OUCA: I’m even now quite pleased with myself that I didn’t even hint that how much I disapproved of someone having a Tory boyfriend, and focused entirely on his treatment of her. He, of course, shrugged off the sex as a one-night stand at first, but over the course of the weekend it became ever clearer that in fact they’d been having it off for weeks. (Yes, the weekend: she had stayed all weekend, and had only returned to London for lectures that very morning). But this was June, and, as the boyfriend pointed out, the American girl was only there for the year: she’d be leaving early in July, so there was really nothing to worry about. They could continue as usual.

I’d never really had this sort of conversation before. I did a lot of listening, expressed a lot of sympathy, and, where appropriate, outrage. We walked the whole time, side by side, so we didn’t look at each other a lot. Now I’m old, and am very comfortable hearing people’s distressed stories, and am good at making people feel at ease when they are sobbing; at the time I had no such skill. I’m sure that I helped, but suspect that pretty much anyone with a sympathetic ear would have been as much good for her.

And then… nothing. I don’t mean that badly, but no-one had phones, and our paths didn’t cross naturally, and she went home at the end of June: then, in October, her course had been moved to Royal Holloway College (with which most of Bedford College was merging), while I was left at Bedford.

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Roy Orbison and Judith Thomson

by Harry on June 7, 2019

To oldster’s dismay I casually referred to a story about Roy Orbison that I relate in class without actually relating it. So… here it is.

In her paper A Defence of Abortion Judith Thomson makes an argument that “the right to life”, although everyone as it, should not be interpreted as involving either the right not to be killed, or the right to the bare minimum needed to sustain life. Her argument against the latter is a thought experiment. Suppose that I am dying, on the East Coast, and the only – literally the only – thing that will cure me would be the cool touch of Henry Fonda’s hand on my fevered brow. That would be the bare minimum needed to sustain my life, but I, clearly, have no right to it. It would be lovely of HF to fly from the West Coast and save me, but he is doing nothing wrong by staying put – he is not obliged to save me, so I have no right to the bare minimum needed to sustain my life.

What does this have to do with Roy Orbison? Well, this is a story I remember from my teens. A girl of about my age was in a coma in a hospital in Scotland. The coma lasted a long time, and it got into the press, which also reported that she was a Roy Orbison fan (this is why it stuck in my head – it seemed so odd to be a Roy Orbison fan then whereas, now, it seems entirely normal). It was one of those news stories which persisted, and you’d get updates about how she was doing. Anyway, the story is that Roy Orbison (whose own life was, itself, replete with tragedies) got wind of the situation, and made a cassette tape in which he personally talked to her and played some of his songs. And, as I remember it, the girl came out of the coma very soon after her parents started playing her the tape. Of course, we don’t know that Roy Orbison’s voice was the bare minimum needed to sustain her life, nor did Roy Orbison actually cross the channel to save her; but it helps students to think that the example isn’t quite as fanciful as it seems.

Inconveniently I didn’t cut the story out of a newspaper and put it in a scrapbook because I didn’t, for some reason, anticipate that it would serve me well as a way of rendering a thought experiment more real and intuitive. (When teaching Singer for the third time I remembered suddenly that I once saved a toddler from drowning, albeit rather inadvertently and at an age barely older than the toddler myself). In fact I think I got the final part of the story from a TV news report, so couldn’t have cut it out anyway. I’ve gone to very modest lengths to verify the story, and I can’t (I tell the students that, too—conceivably, I suppose, it is a figment of my imagination but that seems very, very unlikely).

And… I often tease them about the fact that they don’t know who Roy Orbison is. But, every time I teach it, by the end of the class someone has told me that they have become a fan.

A team working on developing a short handbook for professors about how to manage TAs – this being, like so many other teaching-related matters, something we have little training and guidance in – asked me to come up with a few comments to start of the process. Below the fold are the initial thoughts which, with your help, I can revise to provide them with a starting point. Please comment away as you see fit – most of you have either managed, or been, or had, TAs, and have some sort of insight into what goes well and what goes badly, and what might be good advice for the professors who supervise them.

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This is as much a request for information as anything else, and I imagine that it is information that other academics want too!

Most of the courses my department teaches fall into one of four categories. There are large and small courses, and there are courses aimed at majors and courses not aimed at majors. Plenty of small courses are not aimed at majors; most large courses are not aimed at majors (the exception, sort of, is 101, which is aimed, partly at least, at attracting majors). In our context, large means 80-100 (with, occasionally, 160); small means 15-30.

I suspect, as do most of my colleagues, that more learning-per-student occurs in the small than in the large classes. This is far from certain, because we lack high quality measures of learning. We also assume that some teachers are better than others in large courses, and some are better than others in small courses, but we don’t know a great deal about who, because…. we lack high quality measures of learning.

We are not going to engage in a wholesale reform of our curriculum (that’s a prediction, not an insistence). Like most departments, though, we have some latitude in deciding how large our courses will be. The key choice that we can make is in how big to make the big courses, and how small to make the small courses. So, for example, we could keep our large courses as low as 80, and pay the cost in terms of allowing caps on our smaller courses to rise to (say) 30. [Of course we could decide to teach all, or nearly all, of our classes, as mid-sized, and if you could find me research that convinced me that was optimal I would share it with colleagues and try to persuade them, but I am putting that possibility aside to simplify things]. Because we lack high quality measures of learning, and because sample sizes are anyway small, we can’t make those decisions on the basis of what we know about our own situation, so it would be handy to have research that could tell us something useful.

But the research I have seen doesn’t tell me anything useful.

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Is Warren’s college plan progressive?

by Harry on May 6, 2019

Ganesh Sitaraman argues in the Garun that, contrary to appearances, and contrary to the criticism that it has earned, Elizabeth Warren’s college plan really is progressive, because it is funded by taxation that comes exclusively from a wealth tax on those with more than $50 million in assets. Its progressive, he says, because it redistributes down. In some technical sense perhaps he’s right.

But this, quite odd, argument caught my eye:

But the critics at times also suggest that if any significant amount of benefits go to middle-class or upper-middle class people, then the plan is also not progressive. This is where things get confusing. The critics can’t mean this in a specific sense because the plan is, as I have said, extremely progressive in the distribution of costs. They must mean that for any policy to be progressive that it must benefit the poor and working class more than it benefits the middle and upper classes. This is a bizarre and, I think, fundamentally incorrect use of the term progressive.

The logic of the critics’ position is that public investments in programs that help everyone, including middle- and upper-class people, aren’t progressive. This means that the critics would have to oppose public parks and public K-12 education, public swimming pools and public basketball courts, even public libraries. These are all public options that offer universal access at a low (or free) price to everyone.

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I teach a standard Contemporary Moral Issues/Applied Ethics course once a year, usually in the Spring, in lecture format, usually with 80-100 students (but this year with 170). Normally about 70% of the students are seniors, and about 70% are business majors (it meets an ethics requirement in the business major). We discuss topics such as abortion, inequality in education, parental licensing, the gendered division of labor. I have added two new topics this year—sex on campus, and speech on campus. Each semester I get them to take a long survey which includes questions about what their beliefs are about the topics, prior to studying them in class. A few years ago I started getting them to take a survey at the end of the class, about their post-study beliefs, whether they have changed their minds, and whether they think they know what I believe.

I want to know whether they have changed their minds because I am curious about whether they have really done the thinking I want them to have done. Most are encountering, and having to consider seriously, intelligent arguments for the “other side” for the first time, so at least some of them should have their confidence somewhat shaken. I want to know whether they think they know my beliefs because I am a reasonably strict non-discloser, and want to know whether, in fact, I succeed in not disclosing. If they all believed they know what I think, and were right about what I think, that would indicate that I fail!
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Whipping

by Harry on March 13, 2019

If you were an MP, and your party was in government, and it proposed a motion, but promised that you could have a free vote on that motion, but then at the last minute whipped you to vote against a slightly modified version of that same motion (the motion it, itself, had proposed, minus one statement of fact which, though removed, everyone knows still to be a fact), how long would it take you to get back to your constituency and prepare for a general election? And, more generally, what would you be thinking?

And, does this count as a victory for May? The motion she proposed passed, after all, despite her orders for her party to vote against it.

Discussion Boards

by Harry on March 4, 2019

Here’s another contribution to the ACUE website, this time about how I use online discussion boards to hold students accountable for doing reading. As you’ll see it has been trasnformative in my smaller classes, though less so in my large classes. Still, even in the larger classes, it seems to have had some effect, especially in the class I am currently teaching in which I have used canvas for the first time, and have worked out how to prevent them seeing other people’s posts till after they have posted their own, and also how to organise them so that their online discussions are with the members of the their brick and mortar discussion sections. It’s pretty obvious to me that I wouldn’t have landed upon this device without having experienced Crooked Timber which, in turn, I wouldn’t have participated in but for CB leaning on me quite heavily when we started out. The final paragraph is true—I am basically a technophobe, and a late adopter, so I am still surprised, when I describe this, that everyone isn’t doing it.

Brexit top of the pops.

by Harry on February 3, 2019

I’ve pretty much accepted that brexit of some form will happen, and the task for responsible MPs now is to make it as soft as possible. That includes leaving in name only—thus preserving free movement of peoples. If the brexiteers want to end immigration let them propose a referendum on that. I’ll do a separate post on the plot to split to leave the Labour Party (soonish, maybe).

So, if it is going to happen, can we have a campaign for an appropriate song to campaign for being #1 on March 29th? The problem is, which one? My suggestions reveal when I stopped listening to new music, which revelation will surprise no-one—but your suggestions can widen the scope.

I do have a genuine, serious, suggestion, which I’ll make later, and maybe someone will bring it up here, but for now, let your imaginations run away with you.

A few of my suggestions (some are obvious, some are ironic, some quite oblique, but the British are renowned for their enjoyment of enigmatic tests, so they’d be able to work them out—think of it as a large-scale version of Round Britain Quiz):

Sex Pistols: Anarchy in the UK
TRB: Power in the Darkness
Pink Floyd: The Post War Dream
Pink Floyd: We Don’t Need No Education (one of exactly 3 songs I can remember my dad singing around the house in my youth).
The Double Deckers kids: Get On Board
Flanagan and Allen: Underneath the Arches
Leon Rosselson: Palaces of Gold
Stiff Little Fingers: Alternative Ulster
Bucks Fizz: Making Your Mind Up
Queen: We are the Champions
Bruce Springsteen: Born in the USA
Jake Thackray: The Brigadier
Wings: Band on the Run
Deep Purple: Smoke on the Water

Well, you get the idea….

Jeremy Hardy is dead

by Harry on February 1, 2019

When I reached my late thirties I became very anxious about the possibility that I would never find anyone my age or younger funny. At the time, all the comedians I loved were considerably older than me and, for the most part, I’d liked them for years. I did, always, hold in my head that slender woman with long hair who had driven me and a bunch of Trots into fits of laughter sometime in the late 80’s and who had to be around my age.

I had missed the comedy boom in the UK (driven by people around my age) because I was out of the country, and foreign media culture was inaccessible in the States. (And, I’m sorry, but I struggle to think of an American television or radio show that I find funny—even Roseanne, which was entirely brilliant, wasn’t really brilliant because it was funny). Of course, now, I’ve learned to my relief that young(ish) people can be really funny, and I feel entirely relaxed about living a long life if that’s what fate has in store. The first step was first listening to Jeremy Hardy on The News Quiz, and, after a long time of finding him hilarious and lovable, discovering that he was about 15 years younger than his comic persona—only a couple of years my senior! And then that he was friends with Linda Smith who was also 15 years younger than her comic persona! I sometimes wondered whether you had to (roughly) share his politics to find him funny: my evidence against this is that my friend from secondary school who says she’s voted for every major political party loved him as much as I do and, now, Hugo Rifkind’s charming twit.

Here are two of my favorites. FIrst, Jeremy Hardy singing Hallelujah in the style of George Formby.

And here he is chatting with Mark Steel. A long, rambling, chat about fame.

If, as I doubt, there is an afterlife, it has become a much more realistic utopia, much funnier, and enormously less tuneful, in the past couple of weeks.

Classroom Discussion

by Harry on January 31, 2019

I’ve started writing occasionally for the Association of College and University Educators. The posts will probably recapitulate a lot of themes from my blogging about teaching and learning here at CT, but for a different audience. Here is the first post, about making fruitful classroom discussions happen. Here’s a taster:

All teachers experience a tension between the need for engagement and the need for rigor. Without rigor, the students won’t learn what we want them to; without engagement, they won’t learn anything at all. In the classroom, the best way to guarantee rigor is for the professor to do all the talking—this is how they delude themselves that the class is going well. Unfortunately, this is also the best way to ensure complete disengagement, leading to torpor when we do try to stimulate discussion.

I decided to write it because I said something to the effect of the above paragraph in class recently, and a student stared at me, as if having an epiphany, and said “Do you explain this to students?”; it occurred to me that I don’t even say it to other teachers!