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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!

I told you that in the coming days you’d be able to learn a lot about Erik’s ideas, if you wanted. Well, there are now 4 pieces at Jacobin by Erik’s former students and friends that, between them, tell you a great deal about his ideas, but also about how he was in the world. Vivek Chibber explains why Erik was a Marxist and, perhaps, more orthodoxly so than some people think. David Calnitsky gives you a sense of what Erik was like as a teacher. Elizabeth Wrigley-Field talks about how he conducted himself professionally around others. This story of David’s illustrates both his goofiness and his understanding that successful teaching depends, partly, on the right kind of relationship:

I attended an undergraduate lecture of his once, and at the beginning of class he reported that there was a student in his office hours who expressed being intimidated by him. He responded in class by showing childhood pictures – pictures of him at seven in a cowboy hat, pictures with his siblings.

And, having read that, this comment of Elizabeth’s won’t surprise you:

At the annual sociology meeting last August, when I knew he was sick but did not believe he would have so little time left, a few of us former students were talking about him. I commented that Erik was always exactly himself.

Then I thought about it a bit more, and I revised my remark. A lot of people — especially a lot of men — are “themselves” in a way that forces the people around them to conform: we all are supposed to contour ourselves around however they are. But Erik was the opposite of that: he was always really himself in a way that invited all of us to be ourselves, too.

And Michael Burawoy writes a long, beautiful, essay, combining an exposition of Erik’s ideas—his intellectual contribution—with the story of his life, and showing how well the two fit together.

And Here is a neat autobiographical essay with which Erik prefaced one of his later books. And, for that matter, here’s an enormous list of pdfs of his published writing.

Erik Olin Wright 1947-2019

by Harry on January 23, 2019

I’m sorry to report that Erik Olin Wright has died. He was diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia last spring, and, after various interventions, has been in decline for the past few weeks. He spent his last weeks mainly in the hospital, surrounded by his family, and plentiful visits from numerous friends and former students, socializing to the end. I apologize if what follows is a little incoherent: I wasn’t really ready for the news.

My own first memories of Erik long predate meeting him. The first is regular visits to the EOA bookshop on the Cowley Road when I was 16, and sitting on the floor reading Class, Crisis and the State, because it seemed kind of expensive to buy (John Carpenter was watching me and really not seeming to mind that I was reading an entire book though, I should say, without ever creasing it in the slightest). I later, in graduate school, wrote an essay on Analytical Marxism which I sent to Socialist Review only to receive a very kind rejection on the grounds that they were just about to publish an essay by Erik on the same topic (which seemed, entirely reasonable to me; even more so when I read the essay). When I later told these stories in graduate seminar we taught together he expressed disbelief that I was so much younger than him, something that might have been insulting except for the fact that, even then, he had twice the life force I have ever had. I met him on January 22nd 1992 just after my job talk at Madison: he kindly invited me to stay on for the subsequent 2 days to attend the conference on Associations and Democracy.

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Marina Hyde Competition

by Harry on January 17, 2019

For decades I have bought the New Statesman only occasionally, always feeling rather like Charlie Brown does when Lucy puts the football in front of him. I loved it when I was a kid, but certainly since I was 25 it has always seemed utterly dull when I actually have it in front of me. But, I recently discovered, and love, the New Statesman podcast—Helen Lewis is clever, funny, well-informed and a bit gossipy, genuinely likes Stephen Bush (who is not funny, but is clever, well-informed and very gossipy), and knows how to run a conversation. So, I recently thought I’d kick the ball again and…. same as ever. Except, to my horror, the one lasting saving grace of the NS, the competition, was missing. (Nor was there a letter from Keith Flett whom, to my regret, I have never met despite once being the head of a department in which he was, reputedly, a PhD student).

Still…. CT can have a competition.* Occasional commenter, dob, send me a link to yesterday’s Marina Hyde which contains these marvelous descriptions of Johnson and Mogg:

Here comes voluminously overcoated Jacob Rees-Mogg, who still resembles an 11-year-old Jacob Rees-Mogg sitting on Nanny’s shoulders for a nursery game called Disaster Capitalist’s Bluff.

And here comes the affectedly shambling figure of Boris Johnson – not so much a statesman as an Oxfam donation bag torn open by a fox – who could conceivably still end up prime minister of no-deal Britain.

One sentence descriptions, please, of politicians who are unsuited to office, in the style of Marina Hyde. (Johnson and JR-M are not off-limits)

  • I’m hoping that Richard Osman hasn’t copyrighted the idea of a competition—if he has, that might explain its disappearance from the NS. If his lawyers approach us, I’ll take this down forthwith. (Oh, and, the prize is as valuable as the prize for winning I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue, so don’t get excited).


by Harry on January 9, 2019

When I left home I didn’t have a phone for several years. I don’t mean I didn’t have a cell phone – I mean that nobody could contact me by phone. (This meant that each time I moved I had to find all the phone boxes within reasonable distance – all, because at any given time at least one or two were either not working or being used by someone to make an endless call). I also didn’t have a television most of the time. One year in college I lived in a shared house with a TV, and we did pay for a license, but it was dead cheap because the TV was a small black and white portable. I could listen to music because I had a small radio/cassette player and a few cassettes. (Some bugger walked into our house because a housemate left the door wide open all day and stole the radio/cassette player, along with Randy Newman’s Trouble in Paradise, my passport, and 30 quid’s worth of 5p pieces that I had for the electricity meter in my room but, mystifyingly, didn’t fancy any of my clothes). When I finally got a phone, it was fixed to an address, and I paid the monthly bill until I moved out.

When my daughter left home she took her phone with her, her monthly bill paid by us on the family plan. She could watch television on her computer with our Netflix and Willow TV subscriptions (regrettably she has still never used the latter). She could listen to music with our apple music account, and had access through itunes to whatever music and television shows we have purchased (including many of the Dr Who episodes I missed the first time during the long period of not having a telly). She’s now moved to another country, so she’s off our family phone plan but, conveniently, is on my dad’s instead (and, for complicated reasons she doesn’t cost him anything at the moment). Otherwise, she still has the Netflix, itunes, apple music access (though, as a new secondary school teacher, she works nearly every waking hour, so doesn’t have time to watch much – except the wonderful The Mighty Boosh, to which she has introduced us).

As things stand, her use of our Netflix, apple, and itunes (and Willow TV should she ever come to her senses) costs us nothing: and some of the itunes purchases are hers in the sense in which the cassettes I owned were mine, and, as far as I can tell, not transferable to separate account. I haven’t looked into it, but if she moves back to the US, I imagine it will make more sense financially for her to go back on our family plan and pay her share than to get her own individual plan. And the same for the second child when she leaves. And the third.

At what point do young people get their own Netflix, apple music, itunes accounts and phone plans? Just to be clear, the question isn’t about our subsidizing her: we can stop subsidizing her (well, we have: as you all know, beginning secondary school teachers earn a fortune) but it will still make sense for her to be entangled with us in this way that was unimaginable to me as a young person. And, also to be clear, this isn’t a complaint – I don’t think it’s bad, it just seems like a big change from the past.


by Harry on January 8, 2019

A while ago I was helping a couple of students decide what to register for the following semester. One of them had discovered a class in Religious Studies called “Sex and Cults” which the other student and I thought sounded thrilling, and were very disappointed to discover we had been mishearing, and it was in fact just “Sects and Cults”. Even so, I’ve long had an interest in cults (and sects), so I’d like to recommend a couple of great podcasts about cults (partly in the rather forlorn hopes of someone being able to offer me something else equally good).

End Of Days is a BBC documentary about the Branch Davidians, told from the British perspective: 24 Brits, all recruited from the Seventh Day Adventists, and almost all of them Afro-Carribean in origin, died in the conflagration. The reporter seems particularly incomprehending that Brits could end up in a cult in Waco, as if there is something in the national DNA that immunizes us from such gullibility, which might irritate some listeners, as might the slightly superior attitude toward the Americans they meet. And he is exceptionally unsympathetic to the cultists and, for example, is remarkably uncritical of the idea the idea that the cultists were brainwashed. The phrase “Whackos of Waco” is repeated much too often! But it is well worth listening all the way through: its a compelling story, well told, you get a real sense of the ways in which it was tragic for those left behind. They trace the role of, and interview, a remarkable and rather sinister character, Livingstone Fagan, who helped Koresh recruit and whose wife and mother, whom he refuses to mourn, were killed in the fire. They deal particularly well with the siege and conflagration: as with all accounts I’ve heard its hard to escape the conclusion that the ATF and FBI were spectacularly irresponsible.

Better still is Glynn Washington’s series about Heaven’s Gate. Washington was, himself, raised in a cult which, I think, helps him understand the state of mind of the cultists much better than the makers of End Of Days. The end is, of course, the starting point for the investigation, but whereas the BBC documentary maintains consistent focus on the conflagration, for Washington the end is just the end. He traces the whole history of the cult, interviewing people who knew Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles before they became cult leaders, and many former members and friends and family of those who died. Whereas Koresh lived very differently from his followers (he, and they, believed he was the second coming of the Messiah and, oddly given what we read in the Bible, thought that entitled him to sex with any woman, or girl, that he wanted). Applewhite lived just like them—he was one of the several men who underwent voluntary castration to affirm their ascetic lifestyle. (Nettles who, it becomes clear, was the true leader, pretty followed rules that all were expected to abide by while she was alive, with one notable exemption that Washington teases out). Nettles and Applewhite were clearly in love with each other but seem to have remained celibate. Washington goes much deeper into the psychology of cult membership, and devotes an entire episode to the ethics of deprogramming and whether brainwashing is real. Much more than End of Days, Heaven’s Gate gives you a feel for what life was like for the followers.

If you can recommend other long form podcasts about sects and cults (or even sex and cults), go ahead!

Recipe Corner: Nut Roast with Stuffing

by Harry on November 24, 2018

I don’t eat meat, but I like to have something special for Christmas lunch/dinner, so this is what I make. We had it for Thanksgiving this year too, and all the guests ate it as well as the turkey, so we don’t have much left. It is straight from Rose Elliot with very little modification, and, as long as you have a food processor, is dead easy. The proportions are very forgiving. I find that adding a couple of eggs to the roast helps it keep its shape but… well, although it helps, it doesn’t help enough, so I can rarely get it to look like a loaf, and tend to serve it directly from the loaf pan. The stuffing is fantastic, so I sometimes double the stuffing, which yields roughly equal volumes of roast and stuffing.

For the roast:
2 oz butter
1 large onion
8oz cashews
4 oz bread crumbs
2 large cloves of garlic
7 oz of vegetable stock
Salt and pepper, a small amount of grated nutmeg
1 tblsp lemon juice

For stuffing:
4oz bread crumbs
2 oz softened butter
1 small onion
½ tsp each of thyme and marjoram
1-3 oz of chopped parsley

For the roast.
Chop the garlic and onion small, and sautee in the butter for 10 mins
Grind the bread and cashews, add to the onions and garlic, then add the stock, seasonings, and lemon juice, and mix it altogether.

For the stuffing. GRATE ((do not chop) the onion, then mix all the ingredients together.

For cooking:
Liberally butter a 1 lb bread pan. Place half the roast mix in the bottom, then put the stuffing mix on top of that, and then the rest of the roast mix on top of that.

Cook at 375F for 40 mins
Double the amounts to make a 2lb loaf, which should cook for about 70 minutes at 375F.

A question about referendums

by Harry on November 15, 2018

If you want to discuss Brexit, what’s going on, etc, please go to JQ’s thread. I have a question for those of you who know about referendums (referenda?) and/or surveys either through study or experience.

Several times recently, I’ve heard politicians say that it is obvious that a 3-option referendum is impossible. The obvious reason they say this is that they want to ensure that the (from their point of view) worst option is off the table: Brexiteers want “this deal or none” and Remainers want “This deal or stay”. Sensible enough. But, is there any other reason not to have a 3-option referendum, in which people rank their preferences, and if no option gets a majority, the second preference of those whose option comes third get redistributed?

Obviously its possible. I can think of actual reasons why it might be undesirable (eg, maybe people can’t cope with three options, or maybe there’s a reason to think that there’s something undemocratic about it, or that Current Deal would lose against either No Deal or Remain in 2-way votes, but would beat both of them in a 3-way vote even with 2nd-preferences redistributed), but have no idea whether these reasons have any basis in reality.

Improving instruction on campus: concrete ideas.

by Harry on September 4, 2018

A while ago I promoted this event, slightly anxious that no-one would turn up. Contrary to my fears, it was packed, and a huge success. I asked 5 students to describe and motivate a pedagogical practice that they had experienced, and that they think should be more widely shared among faculty. Inside Higher Education has run an article today containing the text of all the student contributions—which are great! Please feel free to add your own tips, ideally there, but here if you like; and do me, and the students, a favor, by sending the story to people you know! Also, think about replicating the event on your own campus (if you have one).

The soft bigotry of low expectations

by Harry on August 26, 2018

Adam Grant offers excellent advice for students and administrators, and lets professors completely off the hook. Observing that the expert academic is often not an expert teacher, he advises students to look for professors who are good teachers, and advises administrators to create separate career tracks for researchers and teachers (something that, as we’ve talked about before, can work well only if the teaching faculty have equal governance rights and clear pathways for career advancement). So far so good.

But why are so many expert professors not good teachers? Well, it’s not in any sense their fault. Talking about his incompetent professors at Harvard he says:

It wasn’t that they didn’t care about teaching. It was that they knew too much about their subject, and had mastered it too long ago, to relate to my ignorance about it. Social scientists call it the curse of knowledge. As the psychologist Sian Beilock, now the president of Barnard College, writes, “As you get better and better at what you do, your ability to communicate your understanding or to help others learn that skill often gets worse and worse.”

Maybe, just maybe, that’s true of his professors. But its probably not. I would guess that, in fact, they didn’t care about teaching, or if they did they cared about it in the way that I care about the fate of the red squirrel: I really do wish it the very best but I am not going to do anything to help it. Most of his professors were probably good learners, and my educated guess is that they didn’t put a lot of that learning effort into learning how their students learn, or how to be effective instructors in the classroom. I do agree that being an expert in the field and having been top of the class when one was a student oneself are handicaps in acquiring and maintaining the complex skills that a teacher needs. But many can overcome them: observe excellent teachers; get others to observe you, talk to your students a lot, and especially to those who struggle with the material. Practice communicating effectively with students; keep practicing it. Talk to good high school teachers about how they motivate weaker students (I sat on a train yesterday while a 75 year old former headteacher gave my about-to-start-teaching daughter a brilliant refresher on how to approach her first 3 weeks in a secondary school—most of my colleagues, like me, are sufficiently good as learners and sufficiently limited as teachers, that sitting eavesdropping would have been as a fruitful use of their time as it was of mine). Establish formal mechanisms for discussing and improving teaching in your department. I can believe that one of his professors would have remained dreadful in the face of such effort, but not that all of them would have.

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):
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