Posts by author:

Harry

Someone on Westminster Hour this week, discussing the idea of a people’s vote, mentioned the poor British voter who won’t be grateful to be drawn back to the polls for yet another vote. Brenda from Bristol was cited.
[UPDATE: in the first comment below Russell Arben Fox points us to this much better piece by the late Anthony King which says the same things and much more…]

Well, they should try living here. I voted this week in the primaries. I voted in only three of the races—Governor, State Assembly, and (because my wife was hovering over me and pressed the button herself), Lieutenant Governor (whatever that is—and I should add that I spelled it wrong 7 different ways before finally looking it up). But there were plenty more races, some uncontested (I don’t vote in uncontested races, unless I feel strongly negative about the candidate, in which case I write in the name of my most distinguished former colleague). Here’s a list of the other races:

Attorney General
Secretary of State
State Treasurer
US Senator
US Congress
County Sheriff
County Clark of Circuit Court

I have to vote again in November in the general election.

Every year we have one or two school board elections—primary, and general (in the spring—there are 4 elections per year in even years, and two a year in odd years).

Here’s a selection of other positions for which there is a primary, and a general, election (some are in the spring, others in the fall):
[click to continue…]

{ 52 comments }

Tales of Sporting Incongruity

by Harry on July 26, 2018

Tailenders is the best of the BBC’s proliferating podcasts about cricket. The star is a regular guest, Machin, who is in some obscure way related to Sachin Tendulkar (maybe) and professes (completely plausibly) to have no interest in cricket at all (you can listen to the best of Machin here). Among Machin’s roles is to invent features. These are usually games and quizzes, but the current, ongoing, feature is ‘tales of cricketing sadness’ in which listeners send in tales of their own failures, to amuse and to get catharsis. I don’t have any interesting tales of cricketing failure [1] and anyway I thought that for our audience cricket might be too restrictive. So, instead, it being silly season, can we have tales of oddness—incongruity—well, anything that might entertain us here at CT? Here’s mine, to set the tone.

[click to continue…]

Kate Manne on 12 Rules for Life

by Harry on May 24, 2018

If you were considering reading Jordan Peterson’s new book, and no doubt many of you were, here is Kate Manne’s review in the TLS (I think it is free). It is a brilliant piece of writing (Kate’s, not, I assume, Mr. Peterson’s): never uncharitable or ad hominem, starting out light and funny, but then gently drawing us into the darkness at the heart of Mr Peterson’s popularity. I’m not going to give you an excerpt because I want you to read it all (it’ll take 5-10 minutes—less time than a tea break in a test match) and I couldn’t figure out an excerpt that wouldn’t spoil the experience. It probably will make you reconsider your impulse to read the book, but that is probably, as I gather Mr. Peterson might say, not not good. Comment away though.

Undergraduate Instruction

by Harry on May 22, 2018

For once, this isn’t directly about undergraduate instruction, but about an event the Center for Ethics and Education is hosting in Madison about undergraduate instruction next Thursday (for locals: Fluno Center on May 31st at 11.30: please come). We were approached by the American Academy for the Arts and Sciences to do an event focusing specifically on undergraduate instruction, in association with an event the Academy is holding here (in Madison) later in the day around the report of the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education. I’ve never organised an event on instruction that goes beyond my own department before, but have been to plenty, and too many involve long talks that illustrate the low quality instruction they are attempting to combat. And—almost none actually deploy the voices of undergraduates. So my idea was to invite 4 faculty members (actually 3, plus a high school instructional coach) and 5 undergraduates each to give a very short talk about an instructional strategy that should be more widely shared. The undergraduate piece is work for me, as I want to avoid overlap, and ensure that they do it well (I have complete confidence in the people I invited, but some of them have less confidence in themselves than I have in them). Anyway, I’m sharing this partly because enough locals read CT that sharing it here might boost numbers (free lunch!), but more because I am curious whether others have arranged or attended similar events, and to invite suggestions for subsequent events. Here’s more on the event (with the details about the faculty panel—we have another poster with details of the student panel, but that needs to be updated).

Our Underachieving Colleges

by Harry on May 14, 2018

At the end of the semester I ask students in my smaller classes to talk for 2 minutes about what they think they have learned. This semester, for the first time, I asked them to write out their reflections before we met, and then just talk for a minute or two in class. This produced a great deal more reflection than usual (and a lot of online interaction, which seems, among other things, to have committed me to hosting a couple of reunions next year). The class was on Values and Education, with the central text being Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries.

Ryan Michaelson asked me for a spring break reading recommendation about higher education and, as always when faced with that request, I recommended Derek Bok’s Our Underachieving Colleges. Here’s an excerpt from his reflection (used with his permission):


For the past 20 years, I thought that simply showing up to class and doing the assigned work would develop me as individual. It could definitely be said that I was being naive or ignorant but to be fair I feel that this how most children are raised. You go to school, get good grades, go to college, get a diploma, and then get a good job. That is the traditional story of development as a person. After reading Derek Bok’s book though, the inklings of doubt that many college students, myself included, have about college and education were finally put into words. Not to sound dramatic but reading Our Underachieving Colleges, for me, laid the final foundational pieces of a new outlook that had been slowly developed throughout the semester.

Not to sound dramatic, but a decade ago Our Underachieving Colleges had similarly powerful impact on me; it has been a major inspiration for me in my practice as a teacher ever since. I long ago promised CB that I’d write a review. It’s a bit late for that, but my student’s comment, especially coming at the end of that particular class, prompted me to give it (yet) another look and think about what I had learned from it. Here’s the somewhat stream-of-consciousness upshot.
[click to continue…]

Youth In Action

by Harry on March 8, 2018

I doubt I’m the only one here with a kid planning to join the school protests/walkout next week. As far as I am aware, locally it seems to have been put together largely by the schoolkids themselves, coordinating across the 4 comprehensive high schools in the district. Maybe its different in your city or town. Anyway, my friend Meira Levinson has helped put together a great resource for young people planning to take or considering taking their first political action (and there’ll be a lot of them in the next week or so). Here it is, please share it with your children or with your friends who have children. Meira’s description is below the fold:

[click to continue…]

I’m planning an event (mainly for faculty and administrators) about improving undergraduate instruction, and I want the voices of undergraduates to, in some way, inform what gets said. it would be helpful to me to hear from current or recent undergraduates answering the questions below. And, to be honest, I have been collecting stories about good and bad college instruction for years, but not in any systematic way and only, obviously, from students who tell them to me, so this is an opportunity to gather stories from other people. Now—I know that not many undergraduates read CT regularly. But lots of you know some undergraduates and recent undergraduates, and many of you teach them. So i) ask students or recent students whom you know, and give me their answers. And ii) I’d be really grateful if those of you who teach undergraduates could send them this link, and ask them to contribute.

Here are the questions:

1. Describe something that one or more of your professors does/did that you think other professors ought to do as well.

2. Describe something that more than one of your professors does/did that you think no professors ought to do.

I can give you a couple of examples that I’ve gathered from recent undergraduates, that seem sensible to me, just to give you a sense of the sorts of things I am looking for.

Do: make students discuss a question for a few minutes in small groups before opening the class up to discussion
Do: cold call, but only after warning the students that you are going to do that
(I do both of these).

Don’t: ever speak to the board with your back to the class
Don’t: simply read the powerpoint slides, and don’t also make the powerpoints the textbook
(I did the first of those occasionally till a student told me not to. The second one… well, I don’t know what to say).

Please, just answer one or both of the questions!

Economics Textbooks

by Harry on January 27, 2018

Henry will enjoy this piece by our friend Laura at the Atlantic, about the way that textbook companies (and authors) are succeeding in extracting rents from students. Especially this bit:

Greg Mankiw’s class, “Economics 10a: Principles of Economics” is Harvard’s most popular course among undergraduates, attracting 633 students this past fall. As is the case in many introductory classes, students attend a combination of large lectures and smaller sections led by graduate assistants and visiting faculty. Mankiw, who himself only gives a handful of lectures per semester, assigns readings from a loose-leaf version of his own extremely lucrative textbook, Principles of Economics, donating royalties from books purchased by Harvard students to charity.

In 2016, he started requiring students to purchase both the textbook and a code that gives them access to a digital platform known as MindTap. There, students complete their homework assignments and take exams, which are graded automatically on the publisher’s website. Students pay about $130 per year for the book and code, a discounted cost Mankiw negotiated with publishers for those at Harvard.

It was nice of him to negotiate on behalf of Harvard students who are, no doubt, among the neediest. And donating the royalties he continues to make specifically from their purchases to charity is awesome. (Maybe that’s why he didn’t negotiate a better deal for them by giving up royalties altogether on Harvard-student-purchased codes). Personally, with my students, given what I know about their circumstances and an eccentric attitude of respect, I wouldn’t feel great about donating money I had extracted from them to the charity of my choice, but, like so many students who pay full price for Mankiw’s codes, they are not Harvard students; maybe I’d feel differently if they were.

Actually this story hit home to me because I am, this semester, assigning my own new book (on which more in later post) in class for the first time (first time I’ve assigned one of my books). Its under $30 and not a text book, but still I felt that I should give them each a $1 which represents the royalty I’ll make on the book (there are three other authors), and couldn’t feel comfortable otherwise. (They think I’m ridiculous. I had a bunch of them over for dinner last night, with chocolate cake and treacle tart—they don’t think that’s ridiculous, and were very pleased by my son’s eerily accurate Trump impressions).

I have a rough rule: my undergrad students shouldn’t have to spend more than $75 on books for my classes: and, normally, it is much less (my large lecture class it is usually nothing). Philosophy is easy because we rely heavily on reading primary texts rather than textbooks, and most contemporary philosophy is done in journals not books, so we can put articles on the course page for downloading for free. My TA this semester has wisely requested that I insist that they print out papers to discuss in section (because of the no-laptop policy).

It must be so much more difficult in Economics. Because unfortunately a fantastic team of economists and communicators have not bothered to spend immense amounts of time in producing a stunningly valuable and well test, user-friendly, open access, online and free textbook with numerous curricular materials, underwritten by HM Treasury, The Bank of England, the Teagle Foundation, Azim Premji University, Science Po, the International Economics Association, Friends Provident Foundation, Santa Fe Institute, Open Society Foundations, UCL, the Institute for New Economic Thinking and the Nuffield Foundation. If some high powered team ever gets round to doing that, it will seriously mitigate the problem Laura’s written about. And Mankiw’s students will be able to decide for themselves whether, and how much, to donate to whichever charity they choose.

Clancy Sigal

by Harry on January 27, 2018

A couple of friends just gave my daughter a lovely-looking edition of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (which I have never read, but will do now if she forgets to take it away with her) for a graduation present. Seeing it made me look up Clancy Sigal, and I see that he, sadly, died last summer. I didn’t know Clancy well, but i knew him well enough to have a little story about him.

I started listening to Saturday Night Theatre (Saturday nights on Radio 4—and presumably, before that, The Home Service) before I went to infant school, and used to demand to be allowed to go to bed early on Sat nights so I wouldn’t miss it. If it wasn’t a thriller or a ghost story I would fall asleep, but if it was I’d be up till the news and often late enough to listen to the rambling talk show that Brian Redhead presented late night called A Word in Edgeways. 4 guests would just talk about whatever they felt like talking about, for 45 minutes, guided by Redhead. I don’t know how Clancy got on the show, but he was a regular and, to me, particularly fascinating probably because he was American and therefore had an accent (we didn’t have a telly, and there weren’t many Americans in small villages in Monmouthshire) but also because he was funny, an ex-communist and seemed to have read everything that had ever been written. I know A Word in Edgeways lasted many years, and maybe I stopped listening in college, but I am pretty sure Clancy stopped appearing sometime in the late 70’s.

After a couple of years as a graduate student at USC in the second half of the 80’s, I became friends with a journalism student who told me about this amazing journalism professor Sigal, and I twigged at a certain point that it was my (as it were) Clancy Sigal. At her behest he started turning up at political meetings I was organizing for the group I belonged to, often accompanied by other ex-communists also from LA. We were not, I hasten to add, stalinists, or in any way sympathetic to stalinism, but Clancy was ecumenical, and we became.. well, not friends… but very friendly acquaintances. I was impressed with myself at the time that I never let on how in awe of him I was, although I did, at some point, tell him that I grew up listening to him on the radio.[1]

He once wrote a terrific piece in the LA Times about the Young Americans for Freedom on campus at USC. He first noticed them at anti-apartheid rallies, which they loyally attended, despite the early morning starts, to counterprotest. Like Clancy, to be honest, I rather liked them, because they were genuinely interested in ideas and in politics and, like the lefties on campus, knew that they didn’t belong, either politically or culturally (the two that I knew were, like a lot of the handful of lefties, not from the social class that a lot of the other undergraduates were). Clancy understood all this, and identified with them: his piece (here) was a lesson to me in how to see—and treat—people with whom you are at odds politically.

USC was a very conservative campus—nearly the most conservative in the area—so it was a surprised that on the day that gulf war broke out it hosted the largest demonstration in Southern California—about 1500 people. This was newsworthy, and Clancy wrote a piece in the LA Times about how it happened. But his story didn’t tell the whole truth.
[click to continue…]

Dream Hoarders

by Harry on December 4, 2017

If you’re looking for a passive-aggressive Christmas gift for your upper middle class friends, whatever their politics, you could do worse than Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It. I have to admit that, despite the fact that my poverty-researcher friends have been recommending Richard Reeves to me for a long while, I read it sooner than I might have otherwise because of this Observer piece, drawn from the book, which discusses one of the arguments in my and Swift’s book Family Values. I’ll be giving it to my recalcitrant (and definitely not liberal) father-in-law, along with The Color of Law.

Reeves isn’t interested in the 1%, but in the 20%. The starting point is Obama’s aborted plan in January 2015 to abolish 529 plans. For those of you who don’t use them, 529s are tax sheltered college funds. The funds grow tax free. They are a complicated enough instrument that (almost) no one outside the top 20% uses them and, like all tax-shelters and deductions, are more valuable the higher your tax rate. Ted Cruz inserted a provision to the Senate bill which expands 529s so that rich people can pay for elite private k-12 schools with tax-exempt savings. A particularly wicked feature is that anyone – grandparents, uncles and aunts, family friends, etc – can contribute. So the more relatives with large amounts of disposable income you have, the more your college fund will grow, and the greater the cost to the taxpayer. In 2009 23% of households in the top quartile of the income distribution hold 529s, with an average balance of $32,000; just 2% of households in the bottom quartile had 529s, with an average balance of less than $1k. 529s are estimated to cost the federal government only about 5.8 billion in the next 5 years, but almost all of that will benefit families in the top quartile of the distribution (and those estimates do not account for the possibility that 529s will be useable for private k-12). And its not just that 529s effectively reduce the cost of college for affluent families but not for lower-income families: by increasing the higher education spending power of the affluent they, presumably, raise the price at the more selective end of higher education; thus rendering it less accessible to less affluent families.

Obama’s plan to abolish 529s, and replace them with a stronger and broader version of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, a credit for educational spending which is unavailable to families earning over $180k, was defeated not by Republicans, but by Democrats.
[click to continue…]

New(ish) Crime Writers: Benjamin Black

by Harry on November 27, 2017

Benjamin Black has one thing in common with Sharon Bolton.

Black (the second of the ‘only counts as British because all Irish people who accomplish impressive things get claimed as British unless, of course, those impressive things involve some sort of successful military or political action against the British’ crime writers) is, in fact, John Banville. He seems to have shifted more or less whole hog from literary fiction to crime-writing under his pseudonym. The main series is about Quirke, a pathologist with a labyrinthine family life, and who seems to be a magnet for murder (Now I think about it I suppose pathologist is a job to avoid if you want to avoid all contact with murder). Christine Falls starts us off in mid-fifties Dublin, which is exactly the way that Henry and Maria sometimes suggest in their posts, and proceed chronologically. They are noir-ish in the extreme – it always seems to be grey and drizzling, and Quirke is depressive and not particularly likeable (his daughter is, but it is hard to see her growing toward a happy fulfilled middle-age, much as he would like that for her). They’re well-plotted, but that’s not the reason to read them – the characters and the mood, and the outlook on the world are what make them so compelling. Black actually has a wry sense of humour, but he chose the pseudonym for a reason: they are dark books. (I haven’t yet read the more recent—books).
[click to continue…]

At the APA blog Steven Cahn says:

The term “hidden curriculum” refers to the unstated attitudes that are often communicated to students as a by-product of school life…. [At graduate school]

[One] message is that faculty members are entitled to put their own interests ahead of those of their students. Consider how departments decide graduate course offerings. The procedure is for individual professors to announce the topics of their choice; then that conglomeration becomes the curriculum. The list may be unbalanced or of little use to those preparing for their careers, but such concerns are apt to be viewed as irrelevant. The focus is not on meeting students’ needs but on satisfying faculty desires.

Similarly, in a course ostensibly devoted to a survey of a major field of philosophy, the instructor may decide to distribute chapters of the instructor’s own forthcoming book and ask students to help edit the manuscript. Whether this procedure is the best way to promote understanding of the fundamentals of the announced field is not even an issue.

I think he exaggerates a little: certainly in my department more thought than that is given than he describes to graduate course offerings. But I don’t think he exaggerates a great deal. A piece of evidence: I was struck, in my several years on my university’s curriculum committee (which vets all new course proposals and all proposed course deletions in the university—at least several hundred a year of the former, and a handful of the latter) how often the rationale for proposed undergraduate courses in the humanities and (to a lesser extent) social sciences was something like this:
[click to continue…]

New(ish) crime writers: Sharon Bolton

by Harry on November 21, 2017

I can’t remember how I came across Sharon (SJ) Bolton, but I do know that Sacrifice sat by my bedside a long time before I read it, possibly because it looked like it could genuinely be awful. Her output falls into main two groups: a series about Lacy Flint, a completely screwed up female cop in London (mainly) and several sort-of stand-alones. The first 3 stand-alones are mostly published under the name SJ Bolton, and the blurbs of those make a big deal of her fascination with, and use of, local folklore (which is maybe what kept making me delay reading Sacrifice). Accordingly the crimes have a mystical character – part of the trick is teasing you about whether the crimes have actually been committed by real people or whether there is some element of the supernatural. They are all in rural, closed, settings, and all involve strong female protagonists, and some element of romance. Now, they are not really sequenced, but they do all take place in the same fictional world, and a few characters recur, so you should read Sacrifice and Awakening in whichever order you prefer, then Blood Harvest (which is my favourite, despite a LOT of blood). They’re all genuinely creepy, and Awakening and Blood Harvest had me scared (be warned – Blood Harvest has a couple of scenes in which people might fall from great heights – and I’m the kind of person who breaks into a cold sweat when I see Road Runner go off the edge of a cliff).

The Lacey Flint books also take place in the same fictional world, and though they are not continuous with the others, again a couple of characters from the other books pop up, so if you really want to avoid (mild) spoilers, wait till after you’ve read the others. Flint is really a terrifyingly damaged person, for reasons that emerge slowly in relation to the plots. The books all (like Bolton’s others) have a ‘strong female protagonist in jeopardy’ element: partly due to Flint’s own extraordinary own recklessness and partly due to the irresponsible behavior of her bosses. All but one are set in London, which appears as a sort-of extra character (especially in A Dark and Twisted Tide). As with Tana French, they’re complex thrillers, and as with Sophie Hannah part of the joy is the author’s defying you not to suspend your disbelief. For what it’s worth, I love the non-Flints, and my daughter loves the Flints. Start at the beginning with Now You See Me; if you start later, the first book will be ruined for you, but you’ll still want to read it in order to get a grip on Flint.

Personal Statements

by Harry on November 20, 2017

When I’m writing a letter of recommendation for an undergraduate applying for graduate school (one of the many parts of my job for which I have received no training and my skill in which has never been assessed by anyone), I pretty much always want to look at the personal statement (or, their answers to the program-specific questions which many professionally-oriented programs ask). If I don’t know the student really well, the personal statement helps me write the letter, just because it keeps them fully in my head; and if I do know the student really well it seems wrong not to offer to comment on/offer editorial advice, especially if I know (as I often do) that the student doesn’t have a parent who will be able confidently to do this. For all I know my own confidence is misplaced, but I don’t think it is – I have read thousands of personal statements over the years {mainly for nursing school, clinical psych, teacher ed, school counseling, medical school and law school and, of course, philosophy), and although I only know directly what other people (my immediate philosophy colleagues) think about the statements of students who apply to Philosophy PhD programs, I have observed the fate of those students whose statements I’ve looked at.

The main thing I want to say about personal statements is that in my experience many candidates agonize over them and spend far too much time trying to get them exactly right. In philosophy the main purpose of the personal statement is to convey that you know what you are doing, that you are genuinely interested in the program you’re applying to, and that you are not a complete flake. Some people, it is true, have genuinely interesting stories behind their desire to X, whatever it is, but most really don’t.[1] But they usually seem compelled to tell a story as compellingly as possible. Here’s a quote from a recent email (used with permission):

Hi Brighouse, I hope you had a nice weekend and that you have a good week ahead of you! I wanted to email you to ask for your help with my personal statements. I have spent a lot of time attempting to write some of them and I am really struggling. They feel very cliched to me and I am not sure how to make myself stand out as an applicant in so few words!

[click to continue…]

Clerihew corner (sport edition)

by Harry on November 15, 2017

Clerihews explained here.

This week, we have a sporting edition. Now, there is a slight problem here: I am only interested in one sport. However, my son’s irrational obsession with American Football has at least provided me with one subject (and my son, to my surprise, approved).. And I think I may have composed the first ever clerihews about women cricketers. You, the readers, are entirely welcome to write clerihews about one of the lesser sports—indeed, I hope you will!

Football:

Ha Ha Clinton Dicks was cursed
With a name that made him burst
Out with laughter whenever it was said
So he changed his name to Fred instead.

Cricket:

Elyse Perry
Makes Australians merry
As she dashes
England’s hopes to regain the Ashes

Than Moeen Ali, the spinner
Few cricketers were ever thinner;
Beefy and Freddie in fact
Were, not infrequently, fat.

Boycott was never out
But he wouldn’t clout
A ball for six
Even when his team was in a fix. [1]

Geoffrey never scored runs too fast
In matters of style he was often outclassed
But with steely rumination
He went about accumulation

When considering Alex Blackwell
The selectors have not checked their facts well
She scores tons of runs, so in the absence of Lanning
Why the hell isn’t she Australia’s captain? [2]

[1] He actually did hit eight 6s in Tests, half of them in 1973.
[2] This one was, obviously, written before the start of the Ashes series.