Posts by author:

Harry

The Magic Bookstore

by Harry on May 11, 2016

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

Nakul Krishna on Malory Towers

by Harry on April 28, 2016

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

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

Dilemmas of Educational Ethics

by Harry on April 21, 2016

I wrote last year about the Justice in Education project at Harvard, which has developed a series of case studies posing difficult moral questions concerning educational decision-making. Meira Levinson and Jacob Fay have just published a brilliant volume, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, containing 6 cases, with 6 responses to each case by a variety of authors – most of them academics (from a variety of disciplines, and including Howard Gardner, Mary Patillo, Diana Hess, Tommie Shelby, Christopher Winship, and Elizabeth Anderson) but also by teachers, administrators, and one legislator.

Last fall I based a course on the manuscript of the book. Its always hard to tell why a class works brilliantly well – this one was small (25), and had a great mix of students, who were as ideologically diverse as it gets at Madison (I loved the fact that two girls, one a very conservative Republican, the other a very liberal Democrat, became inseparable friends during the course), but also a perfect mix of science, social science, and humanities majors, and of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. And all of them seemed willing to work hard, and seriously. But the conception of the course was pretty good too. When I first thought about it I planned to spend the first half of the semester reading theoretical and empirical literature about education, and then spend the second half on the cases. But I quickly realized that would establish a bad dynamic (me talking too much) and would load a lot of reading upfront. So I scattered the cases throughout the course (and added a couple more).

The first case in the book concerns social promotion. It takes the form of a debate among a group of teachers, some giving reasons why a particular girl should graduate from middle school (appealing to evidence that children who are held back drop out at high rates; that her academic failure is not really her fault because i) her science class, which she failed, was taught by a sub who was, by his own admission, incompetent, for most of the year and ii) her family circumstances essentially made learning impossible); others giving reasons for holding her back (she’s not ready for the academic demands of high school; it sends a bad message to both her and other students if the school graduates students who are known not to have reached the minimum academic threshold needed to pass their classes). It doesn’t require a huge amount of background knowledge in order to generate intelligent discussion. So that was a good starting point, and, in fact, my students came up with good points on both sides that I had never thought about, despite having read the commentaries and discussed the case several times.

[click to continue…]

Victoria Wood is dead.

by Harry on April 20, 2016

Grdniaua here.

Sod it.

Leiter has an interesting post on why undergraduate women give up on philosophy. A senior female philosopher diagnosed the problem, and started with the following comment:

My assessment of the undergrad women in philosophy thing: undergrad women get sick of being talked over and strawmanned by their peers in and out of the classroom, and get sick of classes where the male students endlessly hold forth about their own thoughts.

Leiter adds:

I will say that over two decades of teaching, it has seemed to me that the students who speak out of proportion to what they have to say are overwhelmingly male.

My experience is exactly the same as Leiter’s. And I’ve heard from countless female students that they just got tired of being ignored, both by prof and male students, and also tired of trying to get a word in among the ramblings of boys who think that they are really smart. Even in classes taught by women. And in classes, I’m embarrassed to say, taught by me. To make things worse I think that such behavior can be a very good strategy for learning – it gets you the professor’s attention, and the professor will correct you or argue with you, even if they are extremely irritated, and you can learn a lot from that.

Leiter goes on that “Maintaining control of the classroom, and creating a welcoming environment for all student contributions, can probably go some distance to rectifying this—but that, of course, supposes levels of pedagogical talent and sensitivity that many philosophy faculty probably lack.”

I almost completely agree with this, but would substitute the word ‘skill’ for ‘talent’. I’d say that if you really feel you lack the talent to manage the classroom in this way, so do not think it is worth investing in learning how to do it, I advise that you avoid teaching in mixed male/female classrooms, or find a job that doesn’t involve teaching. But I think most of us have the talent, we just lack the skill because as a profession, at least at R1s, we are spectacularly complacent about developing our pedagogical talents into skills. We focus considerable effort on developing our talent as researchers, consuming the research of others, discussing their research, our research, and other people’s research in a community of learner/researchers, putting our research out for comments from friends and, ultimately, for review and publication. We ought to become pretty good at it. But as a recent paper by David Conception and colleagues shows, we receive hardly any training in instruction, and once we become teachers we might try very hard, but we invest very little in the kinds of processes that would enable us to learn from experts, as opposed to improving through trial-and-error. It is like trying to become a good violin player without anyone ever listening to you, and without ever listening to anyone who plays it well. Possible, I suppose, but hardly a recipe for success.

So, from my own trial and error (combined with some watching of experts, and employing coaches to observe me) here are some things that I have learned how to do which seem to me to make the classroom one in which women participate at a similar rate to men and seem to reduce the problem of particular male students dominating the room.

[click to continue…]

The ethics of strategic voting.

by Harry on April 5, 2016

Mary and Ann agree on the following five judgments
1. Bernie would be a better president than HRC
2. HRC is more likely to beat any Republican candidate than Bernie
3. Trump would be a less awful president than Cruz
4. Trump is more likely to lose, and more likely to lose big, against either Dem candidate than Cruz
5. Because of coat-tail effects, the most important thing is the biggest possible Dem win in November.

They vote in an open primary State. The polls are all over the place, so there is no reliable information, and both think it is best to vote on the assumption that both races will be close.

Mary will vote for Bernie, because she believes in voting for what you actually prefer and believe in.
Ann plans to vote for HRC, because she is a strategic voter and believes you should vote so as to have the best chance of producing the best outcome. Mary claims that the logic of Ann’s position is that she should not vote for HRC, but for Trump.

I’m not interested in debating any of those assumptions, some of which seem plausible, others very dubious, to me. Please accept them for the sake of argument. I want to know whether Mary is right about what Ann should do (given Ann’s view about the ethics of strategic voting) and why, if she is right, so few people I know who hold Ann’s view, and accept the above assumptions, will vote for Trump in Wisconsin today.

And its goodnight from him.

by Harry on April 2, 2016


Even the Grainud obit underestimates him, I think. Sometime, before too long, I am sure that Radio 4 Extra will carry that lovely play from a couple of years ago about the relationship between the two ronnies. Til then, here Desert Island Discs. If anyone can find a clip of him on Crackerjack… please!

Pilgrim

by Harry on March 11, 2016

Sebastian Baczkiewicz’s Pilgrim is one of the best things in the past decade or so that I have been able to hear on Radio 4 regularly. William Palmer was cursed about 1000 years ago with eternal life, by the king of the grey folk (how does that work out at the end of the universe?), and wanders the country (he seems to be restricted to the British Isles) dealing with conflicts between the magical and the regular world, while longing for an end to his sojourn. A kind of Adam Eterno for adults. The final season starts here. For those who need to catch up…. you need to get a move on, but start here. It’s sublime.

A friend writes:

I am putting together a teaching workshop in my department that will focus on strategies for reaching out to students who have gone missing or are falling behind. Any suggestions of short things to read that I could circulate ahead of time?

I don’t know of any short readings, but thought that some CTers might and that, even if not, a post might generate a discussion worth reflecting on.

All I have are anecdotes and I’m inhibited from telling them because the people involved might recognise themselves—the more detailed the anecdote, the more useful, but also the more likely they are to recognise themselves. My main strategy, if you can call it that, is to write gentle emails to students who are persistently absent, in a tone that invites them back to class without bugging them or being harsh. This almost always elicits a response, and several students have observed, later, that the tone of the email was important because the student had missed enough classes that they were embarrassed to come back, and some of their absence was just caused by previous absences.
Here’s one that I feel confident the student in question will recognize, but will be fine with:

“Are you doing ok? I’m just writing because you missed class last week, and I wondered if you’re doing ok. Don’t worry, I’m not giving you a hard time: mainly I want to nudge you to be sure you’re in class on Tuesday because it will be fun, and you’ll make good contributions.”

Obviously, the final phrase is only there because it is sincere (I knew she would make good contributions if she came to class, and in this case knew that she probably knew that too). Occasionally such an email prompts much deeper interaction—obviously, some persistently absent students are just absent, but others have real problems that they are not handling well, and need help with. But even though such emails usually get a response, and always a friendly one, they are not all successful—in the class from which the above email is taken another student persisted in absenteeism, and wouldn’t get help.

Anyway—if you can recommend reading that’d be great, and if you can’t, but have stories that of things that have worked, or haven’t worked, that’d be great too.

Terry Wogan is dead.

by Harry on January 31, 2016

Gruaniad here.

Here’s what I said when he retired in 2009:


His was the first music show I was aware of on the radio, because once in a while our neighbour, Charles Lossock, would drive me to school listening to Radio 2. (Lossock was a “carpet salesman” who seemed to make regular trips behind the Iron Curtain, and was, I think, the first passionate anti-anti-semite I was aware of. A spy, I always figured when I was older). Later, I would pass Wogan’s house on the way to and from school, and every couple of weeks we’d meet, me on my bike, he in his Rolls that didn’t really fit the one-lane road, and I would be pushed into the hedge. It never bothered me. I never thought he suited TV, myself – Blankety Blank was, of course, great, but I always thought Wogan was not very good (though reading the wiki entry makes me wonder if I watched it enough)—talented as he is, it was impossible to find the dull-witted celebrities he interviewed half as interesting or amusing as he was (one of the most uncomfortable bits of TV I’ve ever seen was watching Wogan try to interview a monosyllabic (though wonderful!) James Bolam, who just had nothing at all to say, and nothing Wogan could do would get him to open up). During our stay in the UK early this decade I wrote most of a whole book while listening to Wogan on the X90 to London. And since he’s been available on listen again (I’m not about to wake up at 1 am to listen to him being streamed), I’ve listened twice a week or so, delighting in his flights of fancy. I suspect him of voting Tory his whole life; and surely the TOGs who correspond with him must be almost entirely Tories and UKIPers. Still, he’s brought me a lot of fun. My daughter, last night, became the only person in the history of the world to utter the following: “I hope that Terry Wogan’s retirement isn’t like Brett Favre’s retirement. Dad, we were made to watch Brett Favre’s retirement on TV at school. And it wasn’t even real. Oh, well, I suppose that means it would be good if Terry Wogan’s retirement is like Brett Favre’s”

Well, we’ll all miss him. But I, myself, wouldn’t have missed him for the world.

Silver Machine

by Harry on December 29, 2015

Lemmy is no longer with us.

But he’ll never really go away.

A brief conversation with 2 students crystallized for me why two things I have been doing in my classes for a while work well, and I want to recommend them to other teachers; and also make a recommendation for students.

Background to the conversation. The class is very small, just 14 people (this is unusually small—my normal class sizes are around 25, 80-100, 150-170). R&M live together; G, who is also in the class, lives with them. They have a 4th roommate, MA. Class was once a week on Wednesday nights.


R: “MA might come to class on Wednesday. I mean, it’s like she’s in the class, so she might as well just come along”
Me: “What do you mean?”
M: “Well, we all just argue about class in our apartment for half the week, and she can’t really avoid it”
R: “Yes, as soon as the memos start coming in on Sunday, we start reading them to see what everyone says”
M: “We always look to see what S [a very poised, provocative, freshman] says, because at least one of us will disagree with her”
R: “And even if M and I agree, G always disagrees with us. Our apartment is just full of argument from Sunday through Wednesday”

So what are the two things I do?

[click to continue…]

No Hiding Place

by Harry on December 15, 2015

A friend asked me last week how I watch cricket. Do I sit for 8 hours at a time, or watch highlight reels, or what? So I explained that when possible I watch live during breakfast when the kids have left the house, and actually take a short lunch break if there is live cricket to watch. If I am cooking, or cleaning the house, I have it on, turned up loud, in case anything unmissable happens (only if my cooking is uncomplicated enough to . But, if I know a game is likely to get tense and exciting, and will not be able to see it at all—teaching, days of meetings, etc—then I try to avoid learning what happened, and watch either highlights or, sometimes, long parts of innings, later (sometimes much later). He scoffed. How hard can it be to avoid learning what happened in a Test match when you’re in Wisconsin? [1] He, much more impressively, has to avoid learning the scores in a Packers game (I didn’t say that, in fact, this is something I manage to do all season every season, with no effort at all). Anyway, he told me that when he was a kid, on days that his dad couldn’t see a game, he (the dad) would come home and say “We’re in the cone of silence. Nobody say anything” and expect complete cooperation from everyone in his herculean effort to avoid learning the score.

Well, every Briton over the age of 40 knows what comes next. But surely there must be an episode from an American sitcom with exactly the same plot, no?

[1] During the World Cup I had the misfortune of teaching a class with a smart and lovely Indian lad, who did his absolute best to keep results to himself, but…well, his best often wasn’t good enough.

Sir Henry at Rawlinson End

by Harry on December 9, 2015

Here. You have a few weeks to listen. You can celebrate Viv Stanshall day every day for a while.

Our friend Erik Olin Wright has s long essay on How to be an Anti-Capitalist at Jacobin. Read the whole thing here.

An excerpt:


The Four Types of Anticapitalism

Capitalism breeds anticapitalists.

Sometimes resistance to capitalism is crystallized in coherent ideologies that offer both systematic diagnoses of the source of harms and clear prescriptions about how to eliminate them. In other circumstances anticapitalism is submerged within motivations that on the surface have little to do with capitalism, such as religious beliefs that lead people to reject modernity and seek refuge in isolated communities. But always, wherever capitalism exists, there is discontent and resistance in one form or other.

Historically, anticapitalism has been animated by four different logics of resistance: smashing capitalism, taming capitalism, escaping capitalism, and eroding capitalism.

These logics often coexist and intermingle, but they each constitute a distinct way of responding to the harms of capitalism. These four forms of anticapitalism can be thought of as varying along two dimensions.

One concerns the goal of anticapitalist strategies — transcending the structures of capitalism or simply neutralizing the worst harms of capitalism — while the other dimension concerns the primary target of the strategies — whether the target is the state and other institutions at the macro-level of the system, or the economic activities of individuals, organizations, and communities at the micro-level.

Taking these two dimensions together gives us the typology below.

EOW1