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Harry

My department just held its second annual ceremony celebrating our graduating majors and, again, the chair was kind enough to ask me to make some remarks (you can find last year’s remarks here). Again I followed two of our majors, whose talks were excellent.

I’m posting the comments here, again, partly because it was fun, and partly as a resource for others. Last time I invited people to use whatever they want without attribution and, again, feel free though in this case the two personal examples make that a little more difficult.

I have omitted four jokes that went down particularly well, three of which don’t look quite right in writing, the other of which was spontaneous. But the video of the speech is up on facebook and shouldn’t be hard to find (it’s public) so you can watch/listen there, and critique my delivery. Maybe someone else can figure out how to embed it here (I can’t).

A tranche of about 10 students graduated this year, all of whom took a class with me in their first semester as freshmen, and who have taken (or attended without taking) classes with me on and off throughout. I saw 9 of them (plus a boyfriend) the night before the event, and realised that not only are none of them Philosophy majors, but none of them are even graduating from my college (Letters and Science). But two of them (and a mum) kindly attended the Philosophy reception, non-awkwardly. The comment about liking, admiring, and respecting at the end—well, that’s how I feel about lots of our majors too, but it was formulated with those others in mind.

Here are the comments:

First I want to congratulate the students who are graduating, and thank the parents, friends, and supporters who are here to celebrate with you. And to thank especially whoever has been paying tuition the past few years. We’re all sad that we don’t get to teach the students any more, but somebody at least is glad that the paying is over.

Last year I reassured the parents about how well prepared philosophy graduates are for the labor market. That was an exercise in futility – if you are here, you either know that they are well-prepared for the labour market, or you don’t care or, perhaps, you are just really pissed off with them, and going through this whole weekend with gritted teeth; and nothing much I say will convince you otherwise.

So this year I thought I’d explore how well-prepared they are to be leaders in our democracy. Now, in saying that, I don’t want you to think they have a high chance of being elected. Probably not, in fact. But they are well-trained and well-prepared to contribute to changing the way the culture of our democracy works.

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Geoffrey Bayldon is dead

by Harry on May 11, 2017

In my properly aspiringly middle class household we were allowed to watch ITV, but we were mocked for it. So when Catweazle was first shown, I never saw it. I knew about it, though, and for a while I bought Look In, solely for the Catweazle and Timelsip strips. I did watch it in repeats when I was a bit older, and more willing to endure the mockery. But when Network put out the DVDs I got them immediately, and have now watched every episode several times, with each of the kids and lots of the their friends. The second series is great, but the first series is sublime. Packed with character actors, many yet to become famous; stupid—and brilliant—sight gags and puns; short, and sweet, episodes. But, at the core, is Bayldon; dirty, ragged, mischievous, bewildered. Its hard to imagine anyone else—maybe not even Jon Pertwee—succeeding in the role. And, for me, seeing him in anything else is bizarre (his presence makes it as hard for me to take To Sir With Love seriously as Leonard Rossiter’s makes 2001 A Space Odyssey). You don’t have to get the DVDs, by the way. Every episode seems to be on youtube.

Here’s the evening standard, because I can’t find a BBC or grauniad obit. Nothing works.

Alan Simpson is dead

by Harry on February 8, 2017

My dad lost a lot of blood a couple of years ago. Enough to have us all quite worried. I knew he was getting better when I asked him how much he’d lost and he said “very nearly a legful”.

Listen to the lead up to the punchline. Listen to every word. Of course, ‘very nearly’ is perfect—better than ‘nearly’ or ‘almost’ or… any other word. But every word Hancock says is perfect—chosen to emphasize all the features of the real Hancock’s personality that make the fictional Hancock so grotesque, pitiable, but loveable. For some reason, Pinter won a Nobel prize for literature, but Galton and Simpson didn’t. And now they won’t.

Alan Simpson obit here. (My dad’s fine—he got refilled thanks, presumably, to someone who had ‘a body full of good British blood’ [1] and was ‘raring to go’).

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Doctor recommendations needed.

by Harry on January 31, 2017

Forgive the momentary frivolity. I’m as exercised as anyone by what is going on. But Capaldi’s leaving. Give us a moment of your distracted time to provide recommendations for his replacement, ideally with reasons. Personally, I am such a fan of Toby Jones at the moment that I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. Except maybe Sean Pertwee. Still, I can listen.

GF Newman’s The Corrupted is back, this time covering the 1970s. (As of today, you have 11 days to listen to the first episode, 12 to listen to the second, etc: here). I think you can find the first two decades on youtube pretty easily. It is a masterpiece—mingling a fictional crime family with harsh but believable portrayals of real historical figures they interact with (Driberg, Thatcher, Robert Mark, Slipper of the Yard and more!). I thought it would wear out a bit after the first, riveting, decade, but it hasn’t. Each episode is punctuated by brief clips of pop songs from the year in question, and each musical selection is so perfect for the narrative that at one point I wondered whether GF Newman had selected the songs first and written the drama around them. But even he couldn’t be that good.

The Corrupted came back just after we started binge-watching (or the closest we get to it—12 episodes in 4 weeks or so) detectorists (on netflix). This has had the strange consequence that pretty much every day I see or hear Toby Jones playing either the monstrous Joey—sorry, Joseph—Oldman, or the utterly delightful (as Sophie Thomson says in the penultimate episode, ‘and you’re lovely, Lance’) Lance. detectorists is as different from The Corrupted as Toby Jones’s character in detectorists is different from his character in The Corrupted. It, too, is a masterpiece—sparsely written, perfectly cast and beautifully acted. The casual in-jokes are adorable—if you’re over 40 you’ll grin in delight when the Simon and Garfunkel characters tell the police their real last names (Garfunkel brilliantly played by that bloke off Horrible Histories!). In common with the best sitcoms (is it a sitcom though?) the characters don’t really develop over the course of the show—instead they reveal themselves. Even Terry and Sheila, who appear to be objects of ridicule in the first few episodes, become understandable and real without actually changing. If you don’t shed a tear at the end of the 12th episode, there’s something wrong with you. And Diana Rigg and Rachel Stirling play mother and daughter. Again!

Apparently Alan Ayckbourn used to direct radio dramas. A lot of them! So, if you feel like a radical change of pace, try Roy Clarke’s The Events at Black Tor from 1968. Very much of its time, anticipating The Wicker Man, Children of the Stones, etc. A great way to spend three hours.

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

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

Let me give you three examples.

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All Around My Hat

by Harry on December 24, 2016

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

Welcoming the new boy at school

by Harry on December 21, 2016

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

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Racist incidents on campus

by Harry on December 20, 2016

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

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

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New-ish Crime Writers — the East Coast

by Harry on December 16, 2016

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

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

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

IS there a series set in Lowestoft? Or Southwold?

Charles Paris

by Harry on December 10, 2016

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

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

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

Arrest help sought

by Harry on December 9, 2016

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

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

Greg Lake is dead

by Harry on December 8, 2016

Whither Opportunity?

by Harry on December 7, 2016

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

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

se_graph

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

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

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

Charter Schools in Perspective

by Harry on December 5, 2016

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