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Thoughts about school openings

by Harry on July 14, 2020

The first is thought is just this: Gina’s post about parents and teachers prompted me to notice that I never posted about the white paper that Jake Fay, Meira Levinson, Tatiana Geron, Allison Stevens and I wrote for the Safra Center for Ethics series on the pandemic. Here’s the abstract:

Along with the economy and health care system, schools are an essential third pillar in promoting community resilience and rebuilding communities’ physical, economic, emotional, social, and cultural health in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Schools serve as sites and sources of community resilience in five distinct ways: they distribute social welfare services, promote human development, care for children, provide stable employment, and strengthen democratic solidarity. Yet long-term physical school closures—along with impending budget cuts driven by cratering state and local economies and tax revenues—make it extremely difficult for schools to perform any of these roles. We recommend three steps for restoring schools’ capacities to support community resilience. First, state and district leaders should set metrics for achieving access and equity in each of the five roles that schools play, not just in academic achievement. Second, to establish these metrics, policymakers should develop or strengthen mechanisms to engage diverse community voices, as local community members often best understand the specific ways in which their own schools support or impede community resilience. Finally, Congress should allocate significant increases in federal funding to support public schools and districts for at least the next two years; these allocations should include strong supports for high-needs districts in particular.

The second thing is less a thought than a request for the economists.

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My plan is to teach in person in the Fall.[1] Three classes: a small class for training TAs; a 10-person class (cap is 15, but for reasons that will become apparent I will not be recruiting to the cap) on teaching and learning; a 30-person upper level ethics class. All will be taught under strict social distancing rules (6 feet) and with everyone required to wear masks. [Needless to say, by September perhaps everything will be online anyway, and, regardless, we’ll have to be prepared to go online at the flick of a switch].

So. How will that work? For now, I’ve requested an additional timeslot for the 30-person class, so that I can do the following: one 75-minute meeting a week with all 30 of them which is more lecture/Q&A than I generally like, and then split the students into 2 groups of 15, each of which meets for a more discussion-intensive meeting. Still — even with 15 students it will be a huge challenge to run a discussion under social distancing rules with masks.

The best resource I’ve come across so far in helping think about the problem is this excellent post by Derek Bruff. He’s considering blended classes (in which some students are videoconferencing into the classroom, and others are in person in the classroom), but the suggestions also seem feasible with all-in-person classes. I have not been an enthusiast for the fishbowl in person, just because I tend to be in crowded rooms with poor acoustics and the moving around of chairs and tables makes it awkward. Well — that won’t be a problem this semester! and I can see fishbowls working well. I’m also considering a variant on his suggestion about pair work — Split the class in two, move them to opposite walls, and make them do the pair work by phone with the person they are standing opposite.

I’m going to be on a team to work up suggestions for our campus this fall. (My college’s team on online teaching already reported, and the results, which I think are both excellent and very well presented, are here). The challenge is that, as far as I know, nobody has actually taught under these conditions before. [2] I’m hoping that we will be allowed to convene groups of students sometime in the summer, go into classrooms and find out how things would actually work (and make films to illustrate various strategies for colleagues).

I would really appreciate other resources and suggestions!

[1] Our campus decided to move all large classes online for the Fall, and that the smaller classes would be split between online and in-person (with all classes online after Thanksgiving). Instructors don’t choose their mode of delivery, but my department at least has been able to match instructors preferences with modes pretty well (I was struck by how many colleagues said they would prefer to teach in one mode, but would accommodate to the needs of the department). Being reasonably fit, under 60, and, frankly, missing my students, I volunteered to teach in person.

[2] I have found exactly one picture of college teaching during the 1918-19 flu, and the students are all wearing masks, but are not physically distanced. Even if I’m wrong and plenty of physical distanced instruction during that pandemic, I’m guessing there’s limited social science about it.

My institution requires a Scholarly Activities Report every year, which includes subheadings for research, teaching, and service. There is no heading for pastoral work — indeed, pastoral work is so unrecognized officially that I don’t know if there is a word for it (“pastoral” is the word they use in Britain; I think ‘mentoring’ is the nearest equivalent in the US, but, for example, the only official recognition of ‘mentoring’ for undergraduates my institution has is an award for mentoring undergraduates specifically as researchers, which is not what I’m talking about here). But pastoral work is an essential component of keeping the enterprise moving — helping prevent students from dropping out, helping them deal with the stresses that inhibit their learning, or distract or demotivate them, and just sometimes being a friendly supportive presence at the edge of their lives.

Of course at American universities over time faculty outsourced a lot of pastoral work to student services professionals. And some of the work – mental health counseling, financial aid counseling, and some academic advising – is so specialized that it would be inefficient for faculty to learn the relevant knowledge and skills.[1] But faculty still have a lot of pastoral work to do – typically, on a residential campus, a teacher is the main adult that a student regularly interacts with, and is the best placed employee to notice if something is going wrong, at least when it is affecting academic performance. And teaching is an intimate activity: successful teaching requires a certain level of individualization and mind-reading that inevitably requires and results in getting to know the student somewhat, and in healthy relationships of that kind students are at least somewhat liable to seek support beyond the academic. If this wasn’t happening at all something would be seriously wrong. And if it is happening, it is time-consuming.

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Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

by Harry on May 18, 2020

CB’s visit to Madison a couple of years ago coincided with a concert by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, which I had managed to convince my entire family to attend, so he came too. Also in attendance were the only two undergraduates whom I’d convinced to come along. They both said, later, that they only came to humour me, and had assumed it wouldn’t be very good. But during the interval they were both wide-eyed and one said “why doesn’t everybody come to this? Why aren’t they really famous?”.

Both those students graduated this month, having both taken the smaller class referred to here. They, and I, convinced a remarkably large number of their classmates to get tickets for a performance in late March. (I think they were more persuasive than I was: one of them insisted that “Harry Brighouse told me to go to this concert and now I know that I should always do what he tells me to do, and so should you”). The plan was to all go to dinner beforehand, and then attend the concert as a kind of field trip. On the final occasion we all met in person nobody was quite sure whether we’d meet again (maybe that’s not true — I think I knew, because I asked one of the seniors if it was the last time I would see her) but we all knew that the concert was vanishingly unlikely, and in subsequent zoom class sessions several people said, several times, that was one of the things they regretted.

I know that plenty of people deserve more attention than my students (though — while all of them are healthy, several of them have been through awful things this semester). But when I noticed that the UOGB was producing some wonderful lockdown performances on youtube, I thought I’d just contact them and ask if they’d consider dedicating something to my students, just to cheer them up. In my letter I gave them ample opportunity to decline — indeed, I deliberately wrote the letter so that it would be easy to ignore. But after a couple of weeks their manager got back to me saying she’d talked to several members and that although they never do request they were considering doing something. Then last week she told me that something would be posted online on Sunday and I should watch it. It did seem slightly awkwardly phrased and cryptic, but I just thanked her and prepared to watch it and send the link to my students. And its not exactly what I had expected. I got a text from a student after the video went live saying: “Hi wait I can’t believe you had already emailed the orchestra!!! I emailed them last week to give you a shoutout in the video! you were one step ahead of me!”

Reflections on moving to teaching online

by Harry on May 13, 2020

Nobody knows what will happen with US colleges and universities in the fall, but it’s a fair guess that at least some, probably most, and not unlikely all, teaching will be online. Whatever is online in the fall will be unlike what was online in the spring: on the one hand people will have had a chance to prepare and train; on the other, classes will lack the glue that in-person meetings prior to going online made possible.

I’ll post some thoughts soon about how we might think about going forward in the fall, but for now I’m just assuming that some or much of our teaching will be online. In the spirit that learning about what seems to have worked and what seems not to have worked for different people will help us prepare, here are some reflections on my experience. I’d welcome your advice, but also your reflections on your own experiences!

I taught two classes last semester. One was 150 students, with 2 TAs, the other was 30, no TA’s. Let’s start with the smaller one.

Although it is a 3-credit class, we had 4 full hours (120 minutes) of class time per week. This proved fortuitous: I scheduled 4 hours for 2 reasons. 1) The class involves a group project, and in my experience students find difficulty coordinating out-of-class time to work together, so this provided them with that. 2) The cap was 22 but I anticipated (correctly) that it might be raised to 30 and wanted to be able to meet with them in reasonable-sized groups. So my plan was really that I’d meet them for 4 hours most weeks, but most of them would meet me for only 3 hours most weeks.
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Guitar advice sought

by Harry on April 10, 2020

I have a child who has declared they want to learn the guitar. NOW! And it does seem a rather good time to have him do that. He has an exceptional singing voice and wants to accompany himself because… well, because currently I’m his only accompaniment, and he is gradually realizing that I lack both talent and ability — including, importantly, having no sense of rhythm at all. But. My own guitar is too big for him, and the guitar stores round here seem to be closed for some reason. So, I want to buy him a inexpensive guitar over the internet that will sound ok and, just as importantly, will work with his small hands (he’s about 4 ft 8 inches, with hands that match). What should I get for him? In return for good advice I’ll endeavor to convince him to make some uplifting music recordings for us all….

Few colleges are talking opening about what instruction will look like in the Fall, and my prediction is that it will be a while before they do. There is an elephant in the room, which college administrators are well aware of, but most college faculty and the general public are oblivious to.

Here’s what we are all aware of. A decision about whether to continue with ‘alternative’ delivery (i.e., online teaching) in the fall may affect acceptance rates for selective colleges. A student may have her heart set on attending College X, but probably her heart is set on actually being there in person, and if she thinks that her first semester there will be online she may well choose, instead, to go to College Y, which also seems pretty good, if she thinks that College Y will be in person. (For simplicity’s sake I am ignoring the possibility that sophomores etc might decide just to skip a semester or a year, if we stay online in the Fall — that possibility matters a lot for the financial stability of the institutions, but not for what I am going to tell you). So, assuming that we are allowed to make choices about whether or not to be open in-person, there will be huge pressure to go in-person.

Here’s the complication.

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Some tips for running online discussions

by Harry on March 13, 2020

As instruction moves online — largely to be taught be people who have no experience teaching online (like me) and mostly with very limited technical support — people are going to need to share experiences and tips, not just about the technologies they are using but about general principles and practices — they will even, I hope, share curricular materials. I plan a post early next week with some preliminary thoughts and to provide a space for people to share ideas, but for now The Discussion Project, a UW-Madison project that trains instructors to manage in-class discussion better, has shared a 2-pager with some tips for managing on-line discussions. And, for those for whom this is new, maybe my ACUE post on how I use online discussion in my face-to-face classes will be useful too.

I gave a keynote speech at the annual conference of the Center for Enrollment Research Policy and Practice last month, and it occurred to me that some of you might find it interesting. The following is the text I talked from (with one joke that I extemporated added to the text because I remember it – there was several others that went down well, but they are lost to posterity).

I should start by saying I’m not an expert on the admissions process or on enrollment management, although thanks to my association with the Center and attending this conference a few times I know much more than a normal professor would. Or should. I’m not an administrator.. I’m a college teacher and a philosopher, and those roles each give me different reasons for humility when addressing the people who take real responsibility for managing our institutions. So please don’t take what I am going to say as criticism or as telling you how to do your jobs. It’s neither. (I know when people say that you shouldn’t take what they are going to say as criticism that usually means they are going to criticize you but…. well, I’m not). What we try to do as philosophers is offer intellectual resources to people to help them see problems slightly differently, and thereby perhaps to find better solutions – not to tell them what the solutions are. And it’s a good thing our job isn’t telling people what the solutions are since I don’t know what they are. As you’ll see.

I was asked to talk about transparency in admissions, and I’m going to do that, but I am also going to talk a little bit about transparency in other areas of our shared enterprise.

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The truth about the Badger State

by Harry on February 14, 2020

The Badger State does, in fact, have a state animal. It is the badger.[1] (We also have a state bird, a state tree, a state flower, and many other state things – in fact, a former student of mine is responsible for us having a state pastry which he says, with a mixture of bemusement and regret, was the legislative achievement for which he received the most plaudits from his constituents).

The badger is not a significant part of our local fauna. There’s one in the local zoo, called Buckingham (when one Buckingham dies, another takes its place, forever. Why Buckingham? I haven’t looked that one up, maybe there is some link with the Palace). And through googling I learned to my surprise that there are some in the wild, though nobody’s ever seen them (unlike possums, raccoons, chipmunks, opposums (whatever they are) and bloody squirrels that my UK visitors think are cute, but are in fact, like the other buggers I’ve mentioned, bloody pests). It is natural, but wrong, to assume that the Badger State is so-named after the badger. On the contrary, the badger got the honour of becoming our state animal because we were already the Badger State (and nobody had the imagination to think it would be funnier to have a different animal, like the chipmunk, or the cockroach, as its state animal). It was the Cornish miners who gave our state its nickname. When they came to the Western part of the state to mine tin, or lead, or something (they named town which they used as the base for mining “Mineral Point”, and if you go to Mineral Point it is still full of people with names straight out of a Daphne Du Maurier novel) were forced to live in holes dug into the hills which they recognized as being like badger setts. The nickname originates in the exploitation of workers, or the dignity of labour, depending on your preference.

You can see below (if I’ve managed to load the images correctly) the Wisconsin coat of arms (Yes, we have a coat of arms, as well as a bird, an animal, a flower, etc) followed by the Cornish coat of arms.

This was a public service announcement for the benefit of the President of the United States of America. And, to be fair, nearly everyone who lives in Wisconsin.

[1] Not, unfortunately, a cricket badger. That’s me.

A way of Reforming the House of Lords

by Harry on January 19, 2020

Rebecca Long Bailey is proposing an elected Senate to replace the House of Lords (one, presumably, without John Bercow in it). I haven’t seen much detail so won’t comment (if someone can point me to published details, I’d be grateful). But it reminded me of something that Erik Olin Wright and I talked about many years ago when the Tories were carrying out moderate Lords reform but didn’t seem to know what it would look like. We wrote up a short paper which we never published. From the fact that we never published it you should be able to infer that we didn’t feel strongly that this was the best possible option: but we did think that a proposal like this should be on the table.[1] Link to pdf is here. The text is below the fold.

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Teaching a 10 year-old to read.

by Harry on January 5, 2020

My then-18 year old daughter was home with her friends when I opened my author-copies of Family Values. After they left she said “My friends are really impressed that you’ve written a book. But I’m not really. I mean, it’s just part of your job, isn’t it? It’s just what you’re supposed to do. I mean….it’s not like you taught a third grader to read, or something like that“.

If you’ve read the book, or simply know its main theses, you’ll see many layers of irony in that exchange, and probably further layers of irony in the sense of pleasure and pride I got from it.

But actually I did teach a kid to read, a 5th grader actually, though just one, when I was 18.

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Neil Innes is dead.

by Harry on January 1, 2020

Gaurniad Obit here.

My music collection contains a small number of perfect albums. Perfect in the sense that every track is entirely welcome, and all are in the right order, yielding a brilliant effect. Three are by Richard Thompson, one by Joni Mitchell, one by Crosby Stills and Nash, and maybe one by the Beatles. Innes shares responsibility for two of them. The Rutles Archeology is much better than the original Rutles album, full of gentle pastiche and including a couple of songs that have you straining to remember that it really isn’t The Beatles.

But the best is Keynsham. I bought it at Our Price for 99p, remaindered and warped, 40 years ago and have listened to it maybe more than any album not by the Beatles or Dylan (I no longer have a record player, but have replaced it a couple of times since). It is the one Bonzos album on which Stanshall and Innes combine perfectly — Stanshall’s dark madness disciplined and tempered by Innes’s kind optimism, allowing their shared sense of the absurd to shine through — not a collection of songs, but a single album, all the notes in the right order.

40 years on

by Harry on December 11, 2019

Here’s a moving, brief, piece by Paul Cotterill about his dad, who flew over Germany in WWII, loved Eurovision, voted to stay in 1975, and died 40 years ago. It’s lovely.

And it reminded me that the old people in my life (none as old as Paul’s dad would have been, and none would be pleased to be designated old, but they’re older than me, and at this point that’s enough) all voted to stay, and I know that tomorrow they’ll all be voting to prevent a Tory government, and some have been working tirelessly to that end for weeks…well, decades, come to think of it.

I wrote a pamphlet for the Fabian Society in 2000, arguing for reform of the private school system, based on the assumption that it was impossible to abolish them (I still think it unlikely, and am quite curious what will end up in the manifesto). If you feel like reading it, here it is.