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Paying for the Party

by Harry on March 23, 2014

I’m currently running a reading group with a group of 7 seniors, all women, whom I’ve known, and have known each other, since the beginning of their freshman year. They have diverse majors (only one is a philosophy major—others include elementary education, human development and family studies, psychology…) and pretty diverse experiences, and my idea was to read a bunch of books about undergraduate life on the pretty much entirely selfish grounds that they might be able to interpret the books better than I can alone (I went to a college in London, never lived in a dorm, and had, generally, a very different experience). We’ve read Michael Moffatt’s classic Coming of Age in New Jersey, and Rebekkah Nathan’s My Freshman Year so far, and are now on to Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, recommended to me by a sociologist who is, I think, friends with the authors. Paying for the Party is just fantastic.

The authors lived for a year in a “party” dorm in a large midwestern flagship public university (not mine) and kept up with the women in the dorm till after they had graduated college. The thesis of the book is that the university essentially facilitates (seemingly knowingly, and in some aspects strategically) a party pathway through college, which works reasonably well for students who come from very privileged backgrounds. The facilitatory methods include: reasonably scrupulous enforcement of alcohol bans in the dorms (thus enhancing the capacity of the fraternities to monopolize control of illegal drinking and, incidentally, forcing women to drink in environments where they are more vulnerable to sexual assault); providing easy majors which affluent students can take which won’t interfere with their partying, and which will lead to jobs for them, because they have connections in the media or the leisure industries that will enable them to get jobs without good credentials; and assigning students to dorms based on choice (my students confirm that dorms have reputations as party, or nerdy, or whatever, dorms that ensure that they retain their character over time, despite 100% turnover in residents every year).

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Tony Benn is Dead

by Harry on March 14, 2014

Guardian obit here. I once had a whole obituary comment worked out in my head, but right now I don’t feel like saying anything at all, beyond just wanting us to mark his death.

My colleagues Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy will publish a book later this year called The Political Classroom, containing a study of high school teachers who teach controversial issues. Their presentation at a recent conference for philosophers made me think it might be a good idea to articulate my answer to one of the questions the book raises: whether teachers of controversial issues should disclose their views about the issues they teach about (their earlier discussion of disclosure is included in Hess’s book, Controversy in the Classroom). I’m articulating it not to try and persuade anyone, but to broaden the discussion – I’ve only ever discussed these issues with my students themselves, and with close colleagues.
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Stereotype threat and Philosophy’s problem

by Harry on December 3, 2013

On the topic of Philosophy’s uneven sex ratios: Gina Schouten has a really interesting paper about stereotype threat as a possible explanation of those ratios (PDF). Her paper is, as she says, an armchair reflection on the hypothesis, but I think it would be useful to anyone wanting to study the causes of the sex ratios empirically.

The reason she has to do an armchair reflection is that Philosophy is a small discipline, and one the composition of which does not have huge social consequences, so the incentives for empirical researchers to give it the kind of attention they give the STEM subjects, the subjects for which the stereotype threat hypothesis was formed, and has been tested, and for which treatments have been devised, are small (Kieran seems to do it as a strange sort of hobby – but I don’t think his discipline promises great rewards for this part of his work).

Her reflections, though, are interesting and useful. She points out that the main leak in the pipeline is between the first philosophy course and the major. It would be really handy if it turned out that stereotype threat explained the exit of students at this point in the pipeline, because psychologists have devised interventions to counter stereotype threat that are extremely cheap and easy to implement, and seem to be highly effective (see footnote [1]). We could adapt some of those interventions relatively easily to Philosophy courses. (Then we could continue to be completely insensitive and rude in the way we teach, without suffering the consequence of depriving our discipline of talent!)

Problem is that we don’t have a lot of evidence, and some of the features of stereotype threat seem to be absent. For example, the fact that girls get lower average grades in any given STEM course is prima facie evidence that they are underperforming (one indicator of stereotype threat). I don’t have data on how well girls and boys do in intro level courses, but anecdote suggests that girls do not get worse grades than boys (Ok, ok, I’m writing this, and realize I should just get someone to check for my dept, and I’ll report back if it’s legal to). Of course, “underperformance” means something like “lower performance than the student should perform given his or her prior achievement”, and given that girls at most institutions have significantly higher prior achievement on most measures, they could be getting higher grades than boys and still be underperforming.

Another problem with the idea that stereotype threat explains why girls leave after the first one or two courses is that they just lack the stereotype. After all, philosophy is a found major, and because they have no experience of it, our students lack the relevant stereotypes: girls don’t think that philosophy is the kind of thing that girls do badly, or that others think that, because they don’t know what it is. In so far as they do have beliefs about what philosophy is [1], those beliefs are usually quite wrong, and we disabuse them pretty quickly.

However, as she points out, their first encounter with the subject might easily introduce a stereotype to them:

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The Night of the Doctor

by Harry on November 18, 2013

My plan, for the day itself, since we do not have cable, is to go round to my daughter’s friend’s house and watch it there, without a wife to make fun of it or a 7-year-old to interrupt it. Then back to my house to make a dinner for my daughter’s said friend, who wants to celebrate her birthday a day early by having my fondue with numerous other friends. Then, on Monday my daughter and I will go to the local movie theater to watch it again, this time in 3D. We’ve been waiting for this for about 3 years (whenever it was that I realized that November 23rd 2013 is a Saturday).

I have been avoiding the trailers, and any information contained therein—I have already learned more than I want to know. But, apparently this is a prequel, so I watched it; and it does seem like it is worth watching before Saturday (but on your own head be it if you regret it—if it helps, I didn’t regret it).

Oh, and I quite liked the Big Finish special, more for the obvious delight the actors are taking in it than the implausible plot.

How are you celebrating?

Web of Fear 2.0

by Harry on October 30, 2013

The Web of Fear: Episode 4, at 1.13, you get the first, known, extant, moving image of Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart. At 8.13, he establishes why he will be with the Doctor for the rest of his life.

What are you doing on November 23rd (assuming you are not in the UK)? I’m considering buying basic cable for a single month. The eldest daughter is pushing hard, and time is ebbing away.

Can you get students to read your comments?

by Harry on October 30, 2013

I’m in the middle of grading papers. I started, a while ago, grading the electronic files using Word’s reviewing capacity (track changes and comments). This results in i) it taking much longer, because I make many more comments and ii) my comments and editing being potentially useful because they are actually legible (which they never were before). So, this is potentially very good for the students. But: I have no idea whether they actually read the comments (especially because I make it fairly clear that I am not interested in what their grades are, only in whether they learn a lot, so very rarely get to listen to students who challenge their grades). I just had an idea: I could withhold their grades until they return the paper to me, with a response to every single comment I made. The comment could just be: “ok”. I simply want a mechanism for making them read the comments. Has anyone else done this? Or does anyone have some reliable mechanism for making them read comments?

Summer of the Cat

by Harry on October 23, 2013

Johnny Walker’s Sounds of the Seventies has an interview with Al Stewart this week!

The rest of this post is a complete ramble, full of enthusiasm and entirely lacking in insight and you’d be better off just listening to Johnny and Al. You’ll learn, what you probably already knew, that Al used to be in Tony Blackburn’s backing band!

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The Web of Fear

by Harry on October 11, 2013

has been found! And in pretty good shape by the looks of it. Fantastic news.


“Ralph Miliband taught me and I can say he was one of the most inspiring and objective teachers I had. Of course, we had different political opinions but he never treated me with anything less than complete courtesy and I had profound respect for his integrity.”

“He had come here as a refugee, done his duty to his adopted country by serving in our Royal Navy during the war, become a great academic and raised a good family.

“I saw him week after week and it beggars belief that the Daily Mail can accuse him of lacking patriotism. I never heard him ever say one word which was negative about Britain – our country.

“The Daily Mail is telling lies about a good man who I knew. The people of this country are good and decent too. They do not want the Daily Mail attacking the dead relatives of politicians to make political points.”

Apparently, there is some question now about whether Paul Dacre’s father served during WWII. Unlike Ed Miliband’s father.

Whoever invented the Daily Mail

by Harry on October 2, 2013

ought to be cut down to size.
Pulped and reduced to a nauseous juice,
and dried out at flattened ‘til ready for use,
Then covered in newsprint and lies.

And whoever edits it could do with the same treatment.

If, contrary to the truth, Ralph Miliband had had any sympathy with Britain’s enemies during WWII, of course, the Daily Mail would no doubt have offered him a column!

Taylor Swift and Kacey Musgraves

by Harry on September 19, 2013

My daughter’s friend thinks I am incredibly cool. Part of the musical cognoscenti. I have to find a nice way of disabusing her.

The soccer run was a major locus of conflict last year. The drive is far enough and frequent enough that the 12-year old girls want to listen to “their” music, and enough of a bore that I don’t want to be assaulted by rubbish. A modus vivendi was eventually established, in which their ipods were the inputs, but I got to veto anything I couldn’t stand hearing. (As soon as the truce was signed, their taste (magically!) improved, and we started hearing more Buble than Beiber, because basically they are nice kids and, having won their battle, were magnanimous). Taylor Swift is pretty easy on the ear, so I know a lot of the songs (and in fact took the 12 year old to see her for her 12th birthday. In Des Moines!). Sometime in early spring I heard a review of an album called Same Trailer Different Park by Kacey Musgraves which really appealed to me. Musgraves has a very similar voice to Swift’s, is more country, less pop—and the songs are, really, for grown ups rather than teens (or tweens). Very catchy melodies, they are about stagnation, fear of risk, and the risks of being paralysed by fear of risk. So I started playing it in the car, and, to get my way, just told them it was Taylor Swift’s earliest album, that had not had wide release. They believed me for about 2 weeks—until they decided that, really, this was too good to be Taylor Swift (it is, no disrespect to Taylor Swift, who is multi-talented, but Kacey Musgraves is really something). “The words are too clever for Taylor”. Now they’d much rather listen to Musgraves than Swift.

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Who got to design our uniforms?

by Harry on September 17, 2013

Maria’s post reminded me of this.

Three Cheers for the Token Woman

by Harry on September 16, 2013

Anca Gheaus has a really nice paper up on her website (I think you need to join, but it is easy and free) called “Three Cheers for the Token Woman”. She observes that lots of people feel uncomfortable, or think that something is wrong with, being the token woman (at a conference, as a contributor to a volume, etc), whereas many of those same people think that it is important that positive steps be taken to ensure that, for example, conferences and volumes not have exclusively male participants and contributors. Her discussion is not exactly philosophy-specific, but is written in a context of the Gendered Conference Campaign, which, if it works, should result in more women being invited to conferences that they would not have been invited to in the absence of positive self-conscious measures. Here is how she poses the central question:

Now imagine that you, a woman, are invited to speak in a conference whose organisers openly subscribe to the gendered conference campaign. The mere fact that some people decided to do something about women’s inclusion in the profession has of course not changed the profession overnight; you may still be one of the very few women around, whose presence is primarily meant to signal an intention to change things. In less happy cases, the organisers may be motivated by an intention to conform to mounting social expectations of female inclusion; often you cannot be sure whether this is the case. And you may not be taken as seriously as you would should you be a man. In these senses, you are a token woman.

Moreover, you know that in the absence of the GCC you would probably not have been invited. Someone else – most likely a man – would now be speaking in your place. Your sex most likely played a causal role in you being invited and in this sense, too, you are a token woman.

Should you feel embarrassed, humiliated or otherwise unhappy with this situation?

Gheaus’s answer is a straightforward “no”. and she makes lots of interesting points – its really well worth reading, especially if you have ever been or expect to be in the situation she addresses.

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Income Inequality and College Tuition

by Harry on September 15, 2013

Catherine Hill, President of Vassar, at the Washington Post explaining the rapid increase in tuition at elite colleges:

Increased access to higher education would help moderate the expansion in income inequality over time. Yet the increasing inequality itself presents obstacles to achieving this goal.

Real income growth that skews toward higher-income families creates challenges for higher education. The highest-income families are able and willing to pay the full sticker price. Schools compete for these students, supplying the services that they desire, which pushes up costs. Restraining tuition and spending in the face of this demand is difficult. These students will go to the schools that meet their demands.

Hence the proliferation of climbing walls and luxury dorms at selective and highly selective colleges (one college president told me that the climbing wall is a highlight of the college tour at both the private colleges he has led). Highly selective education is a positional good, and wealthy families have become enormously wealthier over the past 30 years and have been having fewer children: what are they going to do with all that money? Compete with each other to get their children into the best possible position, thus bidding up the price of highly elite colleges, making it unaffordable for others. In fact, elite colleges respond by using some of the revenues from those who cheerfully pay full price to subsidize students whose families cannot:

At the same time, many schools are committed to recruiting and educating a socioeconomically diverse student body. At private, nonprofit institutions, this commitment has been supported through financial aid policies.

Telling elite schools to keep down tuition doesn’t help:

Ironically, some of the proposed “solutions” to make higher-education finances sustainable would exacerbate future income inequality rather than address the trends that are creating financial challenges for institutions.

For example, in his 2012 State of the Union address, Obama called on colleges to slow down tuition increases and threatened to reduce public support. “If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down,” he said. But slow tuition growth not tied to offsetting expenditure savings can result in reductions to financial aid. This is playing out in the private, nonprofit sector. Lower tuition combined with lower financial aid benefits higher-income students and hurts lower-income students.

Of course, public institutions, which are the main resort for lower income families, are different. They are the main resort partly because they have traditionally had a low-tuition, low-aid, model, and I cannot tell you how many students I have talked to who were deterred from applying to more selective private schools by the sticker price, applied only to Madison because it had low tuition, but who, I know, would be in much less debt than they are if they had applied to and attended the more selective, elite, private schools that they spurned because of the sticker price (which they would not have had to pay). Anyway, well worth reading the whole piece.