Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Advice to master's students writing seminar papers

Recently I marked two seminar papers written by master's students in my department, and despite the two papers being quite different in both style and content, at the end of my detailed comments I found I had comments to offer to both students that were virtually identical: General advice on how to go about writing a paper for a graduate seminar. This is advice that I never really got as a student, and I suspect many other philosophy graduate students haven't/didn't/won't get it either, because as a discipline philosophy seems remarkably bad at teaching people how to write. Given that in the span of a week I had cause to write up slightly different versions of this advice for similar contexts, I figured I'd write it up (with bits specific to the two papers I marked redacted because that content will vary from paper to paper) and post it here and then I can simply point students to the post. (Of course, this advice isn't only applicable to writing graduate seminar papers -- I'm sure some of it can be applied elsewhere!)

I'd like to make a few general comments about the structure of the paper and about the paper-writing process in general, that will hopefully be helpful for future essays.

A first draft is rarely (almost never) a final draft. The present paper is the sort of draft you need to write in order to figure out exactly what you want to say, but once you've figured that out, most papers then need to be almost completely overhauled. Once you've produced a draft like this, ask yourself:

1. What is it that I want to be able to claim?

This should already be articulated in the conclusion of the draft. Here, it seems that your primary conclusion is [conclusion redacted], which is quite an interesting conclusion, integrating a number of disparate topics and fields, one mark of good original and independent thinking.

Once you have this, then ask yourself:

2. What do I need in order to be able to make this claim?

This is a nuts and bolts questions: What are the tools and concepts you need/will use? A number of needs are immediately present from that conclusion: (a) a definition of [redacted], (b) information about [redacted], (c) definition of [redacted]; as well as the other pieces that you use in your argument along the way, such as the notions of [redacted], [redacted], [redacted], etc. Make a list of these, and make sure that every single one is clearly defined/articulated at some point in your final paper.

Once you have the list of things you know need to be defined at some point, then ask yourself:

3. How do all these pieces fit together into an argument for the conclusion I want?

The process of writing the first draft will help make it clear how you need to put the pieces together and structure your arguments; to find out if you've done it the way you need to in the draft, try reverse outlining: Construct an outline of the argument on the basis of what you've already written. Does it make sense? Are all the pieces in order? Are the parts defined before they are used? Is there a clear thread?

Once you have this, then you're in a position to write an introduction which clearly articulates your starting points, your conclusion, and how you will get from the one to the other, and from there, rewriting the paper should be straightforward.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Conferencing with a kid: An experiment

Last week I conducted an experiment.

When I contemplated the path of academic motherhood, I had starry-eyed dreams of traveling to exotic places and bringing my child with me, of giving her the opportunity to go to countries she wouldn't otherwise go to, and to build up some special mother-daughter experiences of a lifetime with me.

In slightly more rational moments, I knew that such dreams don't just come true on a whim, but need to be worked towards. G. has been integrated into my research activities from the start; her first academic event was Latin reading group when she was 11 days old, and her first conference was when she was a few days shy of one month. While I usually leave her behind when I travel, I have accepted some invitations to speak on the condition that accommodations for her be included in the accommodations for me. I've hired childcare on the other end, with the help of local friends. I've flown my mom over from the US to meet us in Portugal so she could watch G. for me; I've brought my husband with a couple of times; I once replied to an invitation to speak with the suggestion that if the budget covered it, they also invite him because we both worked on the same project and we could both speak on different aspects of it. But since she stopped being a sleeping babe in arms, I'd never brought her to a conference without any childcare provisions.

She's 5.5 now, and just finished up her first year of school, meaning she has a full year's worth of understanding of sitting still, being quiet, listening to others, and asking questions -- which is basically what a conference is. I'd already been away for three conferences since the beginning of June, so when I was making plans to go to the Time and Modality workshop in Bonn last week, it occurred to me that I should bring her with.

This seemed like a good venue for experimenting, a relatively short workshop with a smallish group of people, many of them I have known for a long time. If worse came to worst, I could skip a few talks and wander the city with G., but what I hoped was that she would be able to sit with me and learn how to be a conference participant. We had a long talk about proper conference behavior, and I asked her if she still wanted to come with, and she said she did. In exchange, I went armed with everything I thought would help make things go smoothly. We brought plenty of books, three brand-new new coloring books, as many stuffed toys as she could fit in her suitcase, and I promised that in the afternoons, she could watch a movie or two on my laptop.

And she did brilliantly. I'm not sure I have ever been so proud of my daughter. Our plane was delayed so we didn't get to Bonn until the end of the first day of talks, but we joined the group for supper, and she sat and colored and didn't complain even though it was long past her usual supper time, and we didn't get back to the hotel until long past bedtime. (Repeat this refrain for the next two evenings!). The next day, she spent the entire morning sitting quietly next to me, or under the table, coloring, and during the coffee breaks she gave out colored pictures to each of the participants. In the afternoon, she sat in the anteroom of where we were, and watched movies, and then came and sat on my lap while we played pen and paper games that didn't involve any talking. Rarely did she interrupt me (e.g., for the bathroom), and she always slipped into the room and came to me as quietly as possible. The next morning, my talk was the second one of the day. It was an hour-long talk (including discussion), and she was an absolute star, sitting and coloring near the front of the room (and then eventually sitting next to one of the participants who kindly started coloring and making paper rabbits with her), once or twice come over for a hug. (I've long learned how to continue lecturing on logic in the midst of hug interruptions.). In the afternoon we settled her in the office of one of the organizers -- rather far away from where the workshop actually was, but because it was a weekend the building was empty, and we practised the trip back and forth so she knew how to come find me if needed -- and the quiet time (in a much cooler place than the actual venue!) was really useful as it perked her up enough to be able to survive another late night.

Some observations drawn from this experiment:

  • Having lots of conversations in advance with G. about what conferences are, what would happen at them, what proper conference behavior is, and what my expectations of her was really useful. She rose to the occasion admirably because she knew what was going on and what she needed to do.
  • If you miss the talks on the first day of a conference, and then show up to join the group for dinner with a child in tow, someone will assume that you're someone else's +1 (or +2 in our case!); I'm sure the fact that I was a woman contributed to this.
  • 5 year olds are very good at spotting gender disparities at conferences. That first dinner, there was ~15 of us, and G. loudly announced at one point, "Mummy, there's only THREE girls! You, me, and that lady!"
  • Things were a bit better during the days, with more women in the audience, but I had a startling realisation on the last day of the conference that I -- 35 years old, on the cusp of getting of the UK equivalent of tenure -- was the senior woman at the conference. That is the topic for another post, but when I realised this, I realised how much more significant it was that I was there with my child.
  • If you take a child to a conference, no matter perfectly well behaved they are, you will never be able to do enough to feel entirely comfortable. There is only so far you can go, and the other conference participants have to go the rest of the way in order to make things work. Luckily, people here did.
  • So, you're at a conference where someone else has brought their child. What can you do do go the rest of the way? Plenty:
    1. If you've ever brought your child to a conference, tell the parent this. It's amazingly reassuring to hear retired senior men recount stories of when they brought their child to conferences with them.
    2. Volunteer to read to the child during, e.g., lunch. Not only will the child love having someone read to her, the parent will appreciate the change to have an uninterrupted conversation with fellow participants!
    3. If the child is well behaved, tell the parent this. Though G. was always quiet as a mouse when she would interrupt me, it was hard not to feel like I was a distraction when I'd slip out to take her to the bathroom. Having someone say "My kids are her age, I don't think they would have done anywhere near as well as she's done" means a lot.

There were a couple of "above and beyond" encounters that also contributed to this being such a positive experience. One fellow parent happily colored with G. during my talk (he was also the one who then read to her during lunch; after this, G. announced to him, "I want to stay with you FOREVER!"), and he also said "next time you see my name on the programme of a conference you're going to with G., tell me, and I'll bring my kids." THAT is one of the best things that can be done, to help normalize such situations. Not everyone has the luxury of bringing their children with you; sometimes, it's a necessity (it wasn't a necessity for me, this time, but there have been other times). If you do have that luxury, exercise it. This helps make it more accepted for those who have to do it. Here's a place where using your privilege can actually benefit those with less privilege.

All in all, the experiment was a rousing success. I'm glad we did it, and look forward to when we get to do it again (because it will only get easier).

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"Grief should never be met with suspicion"

Yesterday, an article was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education which I am NOT going to link to, because I am saddened that it was given a voice in the first place and will not be party to giving it a further voice. Since then, there has been quite a bit of backlash on my twitter feed in response to the article -- thankfully -- and I tried to articulate my own feelings in 140 character capsules. I didn't succeed, so here's a blog post instead.

The crux of my feelings are summed up in the title of this post. These are not my words, but the words of someone who COULD articulate in 140 characters:

These words are worth saying again: Grief should never ever be met with suspicion.

Two further points:

  1. The assumption that a student is lying should NEVER EVER be the default.
  2. If students are lying about things like this we should instead be asking ourselves what's gone wrong that they end up in such a position.

Ad (1). The entire student-teacher relationship is predicated on trust. My students trust me to give them the information they need -- to learn the course material, to do the exercises, to pass the exam. In return, I must trust that they are coming willing to learn and willing to work. Our relationship must be collaborative, not combative. We are not antagonists here. If I approach my interactions with my students from the assumption that they are lying to me or trying to pull one over me, the foundation for my entire relationship with them is destroyed. It isn't just a matter of whether or not family members die at inconvenient times. I don't assume that students are cheating until proven otherwise. Why would I assume that they are lying to me about something as important as a death in the family?

Ad (2). Suppose it is a lie. Suppose that no grandmother has died. Shouldn't that be far less a concern than understanding how a student could end up in a position where it seemed like the best thing to do was to lie?

So maybe they are lying. Drawing from that the conclusion that they are lying out of laziness or lack of organisation is, in my opinion, near the height of hubris. I do not know what my students' lives are like -- and I don't need to. I make an explicit point of telling students this, that they do NOT need to divulge more details than they are comfortable with, once I have fulfilled my duty of care and ensured that no one is in danger. On a principle of epistemic humility alone, I should not assume the least charitable explanation. I guess this is what bothers me the most about the original post -- that it should seem so difficult for the author to imagine that the situation is far more complex than the mere death of a relative at an inconvenient time.

Further, the fact that students can end up in a position where it seems like their best option is to lie happens points to structural problems in academia. I don't know how to address them, but I do know I don't want to participate in them any more than I have to.

Suppose it is a lie. Suppose I develop a reputation as the gullible bleeding-heart professor who is willing to be generous and lenient. You know what? I'm actually good with that. If my students can't come to me about a death in the family, why on earth would they ever come to me about anything more serious? And if I -- a responsible adult in a secure situation -- am not someone they can go to when they are in difficulties and need help, then, really, what good am I? There is no amount of logic that I can teach my students that would ever make up for me standing by the side and doing nothing when instead I could help someone.

Grief should never, ever be met with suspicion. That our students are lying to us should never, ever be our default position.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Writing like Hemingway...or not

I spent the last couple of days in Oxford at a Fiction Writing for Philosophers workshop (at which I gave a talk arguing that plot is argument and argument is plot; more on this in another post here within a few weeks, I hope). Thursday morning the keynote speaker was James Hawes, who gave us a brief writing assignment part-way through.

We were given the opening paragraphs of Heminway's For Whom the Bell Tolls:

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.

"Is that the mill?" he asked.


"I do not remember it."

"It was built since you were here. The old mill is farther down; much below the pass."

He spread the photostated military map out on the forest floor and looked at it carefully. The old man looked over his shoulder. He was a short and solid old man in a black peasant's smock and gray iron-stiff trousers and he wore rope-soled shoes. He was breathing heavily from the climb and his hand rested on one of the two heavy packs they had been carrying.

And then we were told to rewrite it, but using our own story and own characters. By "rewrite", we were instructed to follow the structure of the sentences one by one: The first one beginning with a pronoun (not a name! not a description!) and an action, with a specification of the action, and a description of the setting. The second sentence needed to be an expanding on the description, and involve a passive action on behalf of the initial character. The third sentence needed to be more description, but slightly more poetic and fancifcul, with a repetition of the action. Then the first character had to ask a question; an unnamed character had to answer; the first character reply; and the second elaborate. The first character then needed to do an action with a prop, and the second character act and then be described.

The point was to show how through quiet economy of language and setting of scene, one can evoke sympathy for a character by starting at a bird's eye approach and then zeroing in to the details, with some action.

I found the exercise infuriating.

My first thought was that I would try this task with one of my current short stories being drafted, because I have been struggling with it and thought maybe this might get me unstuck. But that was a resounding "no" from the very first word, when I would have had to decide between "He" and "She". See, one of the things I'm doing this story is seeing how far I can get without ever explicitly confirming the genders of any of the characters. So the Hemingway-route is right out for that story.

My next thought was that I would try rewriting the prologue of The Novel in this style, especially because the prologue already has some superficial similarity in initial structure. That was also very quickly a "no": First, because the prologue is in the present tense (for a very specific reason), and changing it to the past just isn't an option. Second, because there is no dialogue in the prologue, and this is again for a very specific, plot-governed, world-building reason.

Since the prologue didn't work, I figured I'd try rewriting chapter 1, since in that chapter things actually happen, there is a location and an action and two characters and a discussion. I followed the template, and what I came away with was so awkward and static and so unexciting. In the actual chapter, Luneta comes sweeping in to Duska's office and spreads her maps on the table with a flourish, announcing that they are finished before Duska can even inquire. There is a sense of vibrancy and action and vitality. We do not know why it is important that the maps are finished, but we do know that it is important that they are.

In the end, I wasn't all that surprised that my Hemingway-esque rewriting fell so flat, because I actually think the original opening is pretty flat. What I found most useful about the exercise was articulating why Hemingway just doesn't do it for me. (It's not just this chapter; I haven't read Hemingway since university, but I remember being mostly unmoved by him then. A Moveable Feast I remember being better than the others, though.) (1) The omniscient perspective doesn't allow me any access to the character's heads, what they are thinking, what they are feeling. I am not intrinsically motivated by the actions of men, so simply having them converse does not make me interested in them. (2) Description. All the description. The light glinting on the water and the wind blowing through the trees and the brown leaves...I don't need it. I realized at one point while drafting The Novel that there was a marked lack of description in it (unless we are talking about ecclesiastical architectural details). One of the main characters has zero physical description; the only thing that is ever said explicitly about him is that he is young and he is male. When I realized this, and I realized I wasn't writing it because I didn't know what to describe or where to put the description, I started paying attention to where and how description appears in the books I like to read, to see if I could get guidance from that. And I found something very interesting: I don't actually read description. If it's more than a sentence or two, I just skip over it until I'm back to the characters. It just doesn't interest me, and there are two reasons for this: (a) I just don't see it. For the most part, the sort of details that are being described in descriptive passages are details that I just do not see when I navigate through my (actual) world. (You can ask my husband about the sheer quantity of things that I do not notice about household details -- whether we have skirting board, what color it is, what type of profile it has, what color the door frames are, etc., etc., etc. I just don't see it). (b) I can't generally reconstruct a mental picture from a spoken description, whether this is a description of a person or a place. So both coming and going, description doesn't do it for me, for the most part. (3) The general lack of urgency about any of it. I have been given absolutely nothing in this opening to make me excited about the characters, or to make me worried about them -- which is funny, because this was given as an example of an opening that gets the reader emotionally invested from the start.

The final interesting thing that came out of this exercise was the number of other people who participated in it who also said that Hemingway does very little for them!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Continental philosophy of math

I am about as far from the continental tradition in 20th-21st C philosophy as you can get. Some of my students, however, are not, and they keep asking me questions about what various continental people would say in response to issues coming up in our philosophy of math discussions.

So I've done what any self-respecting academic would do: I've gone to twitter to ask for recommendations on continental philosophy of math

I've now gotten enough recommendations that it makes sense to collate them all in a blog post. Note that that is all this is: a collation. I haven't read any of these texts, don't even recognize many of the authors, and thus inclusion here is not any indication of quality or agreement!

Another useful note:

And now I want to teach a class where I can use this as an essay question:

I'll continue to update this page as further suggestions come in.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

How did we know things before the internet?

Last night re-reading ch. 5 of Shapiro's Thinking of Mathematics, preparing for this morning's seminar, I realized that my students might not actually be familiar with the import of his example of Fermat's Theorem.

I remember very distinctly the progress of Wiles's presentation and the final published proof. It is a vivid memory, in that I followed the development day by day, catching the excitement as people suddenly started speculating, is he going to prove that I think he's going to prove? And then he did! This centuries-old "theorem" had finally become a theorem! It was amazing, and the process was a definitive moment in my scientific upbringing.

I thought back on these memories last night, and tried to triangulate exactly when it happened. My edition of Shapiro's book was published in 2000, and I figured it had to have been not too much before that, '97 or '98. (But in retrospect, writing this now, even '98 would've been rather early for me to have been so interested in the result; that was the year I took my first logic class, and prior to that I was still very much a math-phobe). Then I did the math and realized that there was a very good chance that not only would my students not know about the importance of Wiles's proof, but that they might not even have been born. #waytomakemefeelold.

Earlier this evening I decided to find out exactly when Wiles's proof was, and looked it up, only to find that the presentation was in 1994, and the proof in 1995.

Nineteen Ninety-Four. NINETY-FOUR. I was TWELVE.

But relative chronology and whether I feel old or young isn't the point of this post. The point of this post is that if Wiles's proof happened in '94-'95, I have no idea how I knew anything about it. Part of the reason I assumed it had to be '97 or '98 was that surely I followed the progress of it via the internet. Surely. 1994, we didn't have internet at home. We didn't own a TV. (Well, we did. But it was stored in the basement, unplugged.) We didn't subscribe to any newspapers, and I lived in a small town in central Wisconsin so I'm pretty sure I didn't hear about it over the radio.

This is mystifying. How on earth did I know things before the internet? And isn't it weird that I remember distinctly the process of receiving this information, but not the means by which I received it?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

How I run my advanced seminar

The topic of how to run seminars came up tonight on twitter:

I chimed in with some 140 character summaries of how I do things, and given some of the responses figured it would be worthwhile to lay things out in more detail here.

Last year I introduced a new 3rd year elective logic module at Durham. Over the course of 22 weeks I wanted to cover both basic model and proof theory of modal logic (essentially, the first half of Hughes & Cresswell's book) and Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem(s), and I was given the option of either one 1-hour lecture a week plus a 1-hour tutorial every other week, or a 2-hour seminar every week. You do the math; the seminar nets me more face-time, so that's what I went for.

One of the most important lessons I learned about learning logic I learned in my very first logic class. I was a senior in high school, enrolled at my local two-year university as a special student, and I was taking intro logic along with 8 other people. By the end of the semester, 6 of the other 7 had come to me for tutoring, because I was the only one who had any idea what was going on. And this is when I learned that the single best way to learn logic is to teach it to someone else. It's easy enough to read a textbook, read a proof, listen to someone go through a proof on a board and at each step go "yeah, okay, I buy that. Seems reasonable to me." It's a totally different story to be forced to understand the content well enough to be able to explain and justify it to someone else.

With this knowledge in hand, I went into the seminar with a plan, one that I figured would either work brilliantly or go completely pear-shaped: I would do the first seminar or two, to get everything going, but after that, we were going to treat this as a proper seminar, which means active student participation, which in my specific case meant: Every student was to be responsible for two of the seminars over the course of the year. And by "be responsible", they'd take the assign material and learn it well enough to be able to present it to the rest of the class, handling any questions. My primary role in the course was to (a) be available while they prepared for their presentations, in case they had any questions or needed clarification in advance; (b) to answer any questions that arose during the course of the presentation that the presenter couldn't answer; and (c) to add information or supplementary material that wasn't present in the textbook so I couldn't expect the presenter to know anyway. A secondary role was to be the back-up, so that if something went terribly wrong, I could step in and finish off the seminar.

When I explained the plan to the students, I specifically said that I didn't want to assign seminars, that I'd much rather take volunteers on a rolling basis; this way, people could pick weeks that worked for them in terms of content and their other workloads. And you know what? Only once or twice did I have to suggest to someone "Hey, you haven't yet done a seminar on this topic---" (since there were two broad topics, and each student had to do two seminars) "---why don't you do next week?" The first year I also had a number of auditors, and I, of course, didn't require that they do the presentations---but even some of them volunteered (some more than once!) The presentations are not assessed, and they do not contribute in any way to the student's final mark.

And it worked great. This was clear both from the capability of which they handled their responsibilities, giving clear and well-thought-out presentations, but also from the informal feedback I got---one student said that there is a lot more pressure to really understand the material if you are to present it, and thus he felt he learned it a lot better, and that of course gives them a better foundation for receiving the content they aren't presenting on.

Last year, the course was primarily technical in nature, so the extent of the content to be presented each week was pretty well circumscribed: We'd set a number of pages we hoped to get through---always a number that if we didn't get through them all, there was space in the schedule to let them roll over to the next week. This year, the course is half Gödel and half philosophy of math, but with the same seminar-presentation principle, I expect each student to do one technical presentation and one philosophical. We had our first of the philosophical ones last week, and I'll admit, I wasn't sure how it would go: On the one hand, it's relatively straightforward to take two hours worth of technical material, learn it, present it, and answer clarification or explanatory questions along the way. It's a completely different thing to, on the other hand, summarize and explain philosophical concepts and stimulate a good discussion. I was bowled over by how well it went. Because each of them has already been the person in the spotlight at least once in the course already, everyone knows everyone else and everyone is happy to talk to everyone else, so it meant that when discussion did get going, they were talking to each other (or to the presenter) and not to me, which is the thing I find most difficult about running a good discussion; as soon as I say something, they all turn and focus on me and try to answer to me, rather than to just talk.

So, 1.5 years into using this technique in my advanced seminar, and I have found it an utterly resounding success, and everything I have heard from my students has been positive. If you've got the right number of people do do it (I've 15-18 students; occasionally two will present jointly, either one doing the first hour and the other doing the second hour, or both doing it in tandem---and this reminds me of a important point which is that given that it's two hours, and logic is hard, we ALWAYS take a short break half-way through), I highly recommend this approach.