Wednesday, March 21, 2018

How my training in logic/philosophy prepared me for the USS strike

Yesterday I gave a talk at Durham University’s Open Day, to potential Combined Honors in Liberal Arts students. I am currently participating in action short of a strike, which includes "no voluntary activity". It was enough unclear to me whether participating in the Open Day was voluntary or whether it was part of the usual expectations for outreach and recruitment, and since I had agreed to do this before the strike action started, I decided to honor my commitment, but instead of giving my usual talk on logic puzzles and paradoxes, talk about the strike instead. This is the talk I gave (well, it’s the talk I wrote up, but I am incapable of giving pre-rehearsed speeches and went off-piste quite often. Still, this is the gist):

Welcome to Durham Uni! I hope you’ve been enjoying your visit so far.

I’m Dr. Sara Uckelman, from the Department of Philosophy, and I’ve been asked to tell you a bit about what we offer here at Durham.

Have any of you studied philosophy at A-level? What sort of subjects? Get examples

What are other sorts of topics that you know come under the heading of philosophy? Get examples

I’m not strictly-speaking a philosopher myself – I’m a logician. Have any of you studied logic? What’s the subject about? Get examples

Ordinarily, in giving a little mini tutorial, I’d give you some logic puzzles to work through in groups and then together as a whole. But instead, today I want to speak about the way in which a strong philosophical/logical education and training can benefit you in ways that you might not guess.

How many of you know about the recent UCU strike, that ended here at Durham only last Friday? 14 days over 4 weeks staff withdrew their labor completely – no teaching, no emails, no research, no marking, no going to conferences or giving talks.

Why? At the beginning, all I really knew was that it was a dispute about pensions, that the university employers were trying to change our current pension benefits from one type – defined benefit – to another type – defined contribution – and this would adversely affect many. But once the strike started there was a deluge of information, opinion pieces, statements, calls to action, comparative modelings, statistics, policies, laws, etc., etc., etc.

And this is where training in philosophy and logic becomes relevant. What is a good argument? When does one argument successfully rebut another? How do we reconcile two arguments that result in contradictory claims? How do we analyse and evaluate evidence? How do you spot ‘spin’? Fallacies? Irrelevant bits? How do you know when you’re in an echo chamber? How do you know when you’re falling prey to confirmation bias, where you’re more likely to believe what confirms what you already believe?

It’s not just about arguments and facts, though, there’s also ethics and epistemology. How do you determine the value of comparative options? How do you make decisions about uncertain futures? When do you know whether you should make a sacrifice now to prevent a bigger sacrifice in the future? When is it okay to directly and adversely affect the education of current students in order to prevent even worse things happening to the education of future students? Do the lives of those who are alive now matter more than the lives of those who will live in the future? Do we have obligations to future generations? It’s basically a trolley problem – you’ve got a runaway trolley headed down a track that has five people tied to it; if you do nothing, they will all die. But you can throw a lever and send the trolley down another track, saving those five. But on that track, there is another person tied to the track, and if you throw the level you kill them. Is it worse to act to kill one person than it is to not act and let five people die? What about if the trolley is on fire and going to explode and kill all six anyway, regardless of whether you flip the switch? What if the trolley is on fire and about to explode, but if you send it down the other path, it will be doused just before it hits the person?

Logic and philosophy gives the training to be able to answer – or at least start towards answering – questions like this. You’ll note that almost none of them are about philosophical topics. The philosophical education you’ll have access to at Durham provides you with not only the topics but also the tools and techniques. In the first year, our modules reflect the distinctive research structure our department has, with five clusters:

  • History of Philosophy
  • Science, Medicine, and Society
  • Mind, Language, and Metaphysics
  • Applied Phenomenology
  • Aesthetics, Ethics, and Politics

These core courses introduce students to the techniques and skills they need to investigate a wide range of philosophical topics. Second year modules cover a number of core topics in philosophy, and in the third year, specialist modules reflect the research interests of our staff, and there is also an opportunity to write a 12,000-word dissertation on a philosophical topic under the supervision of one of our members of staff. In the past, topics have ranged from fair allocation of school places in Amsterdam secondary schools to the ethical implications of reading fairy tales to women philosophers in the late 18th century to new foundations for theories of human rights to the nature of numbers and how we know things about them and beyond. There really is no limit to what you can apply philosophical techniques and training to.

Any questions?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Publication announcement: Makin & van Schurman on the nature of women

While I was on strike, my contributor's copy of a book edited by my friend and colleague, Emily Thomas, arrived. It's a collection of papers on Early Modern Women on Metaphysics:

"But wait, Doctor Logic," I hear you cry, "You don't do metaphysics! You don't do early modern philosophy! What are you doing in this book?"

It's a good question. But Emily had been working on this collection for awhile when a few people pulled out, and last spring she offered me the possibility of writing a chapter knowing full well that I don't do metaphysics and I don't do early modern philosophy. My chapter is on Anna Maria van Schurman and Bathsua Makin's views on the "nature" (or essence) of women:

And as it turned out, I've had Makin's and van Schurman's treatises in my "women in logic" folder simply because they are educational treatises and have something to say about whether women should be educated in logic. I'd wanted to look at the two treatises in depth -- van Schurman's especially because she uses explicitly syllogistic argument forms, showing that she had at least some training in logic -- for some years at the point Emily asked me. So this provided me with the perfect opportunity to read the two treatises to see if there was anything that I could say about them that connected with metaphysics rather than with logic or education, and it turned out the answer was "yes, quite a bit".

I really enjoyed writing this chapter, and it was satisfying to tick off something from my endlessly growing possible project list, especially one that I'd never thought would get much higher than the middle of the queue. I actually learned some metaphysics, and some early modern philosophy, while writing it, and because it had a quick turn around deadline, I had the satisfaction of going from 0 to finished in about 4 weeks. It's been interesting seeing the number of people who've responded to the book "I've never even heard of Makin before", and now my only worry is that I'll get pegged as someone who does early modern women philosophers, or, worse, as a Makin expert! :)

Friday, March 16, 2018

Today I am on strike, day 14

We did it.

This afternoon, I came home, and unpacked my strike bag. For the last four weeks, it's been the home of my wallet, my keys, a couple of pens, extra fliers, an umbrella, spare gloves, tissues (used and new), spare feminine products, and random biscuits. It hung beside the door so I could grab it quickly in the morning, already packed. It's now empty, and put away.

I stripped off all the layers, and finally put the warm tights and the extra pair of thick socks into the laundry basket. They're a now; but the thing about living in Durham in spring without a clothes dryer is that you can't guarantee things washed in the evening will be dry by morning, and I'd learned my lesson on the picket line the first day -- layers are important.

I've lost a lot over the last few weeks. I've lost contact hours with my students, I've lost time I can't really afford to lose on my own research. I've lost sleep. I've lost weight (even with all the picket cookies, donuts, flapjacks, biscotti, brownies). I've lost whatever desire (already rather low) I had to engage in nonsense bureaucracy and admin, or to prioritise my work over my family. I've lost a lot of faith in the idea that the people in power have my best interests at heart.

But I've gained a lot as well. New friendships, new connections. I've spoken to people I've wanted to speak to for years, ever since I moved to Durham, but I didn't know who they were, so I was never able to meet them. (More precisely, I've managed to talk to the relevant people in both mathematics and computer science to let them know that, hey, there's someone over in the philosophy department teaching logic, and logic might be of interest to your students!). I've gained more knowledge about pensions, pensions regulation, labour law, and immigration law than I ever thought I would've needed. I've gained some important memories with G, both as she joined me on the picket line and as being on strike today meant that I was able to go to the special Mother's Day tea and crafts at school, which otherwise would have fallen during my two-hour seminar. I've gained a sense that the people that matter have my back.

I can't say yet whether the gains are worth the losses. I'm not sure any amount of gain could ever make it be the case that it was a good thing we had to go on strike -- which is different from saying that it was a good thing we went on strike -- that I think is manifestly true. But I still think the world would've been better if we'd never been forced into this position in the first place.

What will the future bring? 14 more days of striking next term? Who knows? And this is not a rhetorical question: I really don't think anyone has any rational way of modeling the probabilities of future paths at this point. We'll just have to wait and see.

But in the short-term, at least, I'll be back to work. It's going to be awkward and strange, and I'm giving myself permission to not be 100% effective on Monday, because that would be a recipe for success. I'm going to prioritise student-facing work, then my own research, and then admin. And I'm not going to expect myself to get it all done in one day. That isn't how this life works.

It's strange being a part of such a significant historic event and recognising its historical significance while it is happening. I'm curious to see how history will judge the events of the last few weeks in decades to come. But, for now: This is Dr. Logic, signing off of her strike day diary. I hope it'll be a long time before I write another instalment in it.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Today I am on strike, day 13

Today should have been my final Introduction to Logic lecture of the term. I should have been answering questions about the summative assignment I set them last week, I should have been going over the finer details of Fitch-style natural deduction proofs for predicate logic. I should have been holding office hours and reviewing MA applications and catching up on email and making travel plans for upcoming conferences. I should have been working on three upcoming journal deadlines.

But, I didn't. Because I'm still on strike.

I am so tired.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Today I am on strike, day 12

I am beginning to lose track of the day of the week, lose track of what strike day it is. I have to count back to a weekend, I have to add up all the strike days.

Day 12. Two more days this week, this action. But unless things change (I no longer know if I should be optimistic or not), a further 14 days of strike action have been called for April-June. And if that happens, then I will need to keep careful count.

In today's strike diary, I want to talk about something that was a non-issue when the strike started, but which more and more people are beginning to worry about. It's a topic I actually did a twitter thread on, a week ago. Here's what I had to say there:

Something that hasn't been discussed much in my twitter corner re: #ucustrikes #ussstrikes is those of us immigrants who are striking.

I'm here on a Tier 2 visa. I'm counting down the days until I can apply for ILR (< 2 years, if they don't change the goalposts). After that, I'll be counting down the days until I can apply for citizenship. We (J and I) are intending to become citizens as soon as we possibly can -- for ourselves because we have no intention of leaving, and for G because this will be her quickest route to citizenship. The worry of shifting goal-posts is ever present; at any given time, I know what the requirements for ILR and citizenship are, but I have no idea if they'll have changed by the time I reach the point where I would've been eligible by today's standards.

As a Tier 2 visa holder, I am allowed to participate in lawful strike activity like #ucustrike #ussstrike. If I am absent without leave from my job for more than 10 consecutive days, my employer must report this. (Thank you, @ucu for scheduling this round of strike activity so that there is no 10-consecutive-day period in it.) But in any calendar year, I cannot be absent from work without pay for more than four weeks (cf. Sponsor a Tier 2 or 5 Worker: Guidance for Employers from, that is, 20 days total.

By striking, I am essentially betting against myself that I will not have any other reason to need unpaid leave in this calendar year. I'm lucky. My parents in the US are young and healthy. My spouse is young and healthy, as is my child. My in-laws, in the US, on the other hand, are not so young. For awhile it looked like my husband might be spending a good chunk of his spring/summer back in the US with them. My striking means that I couldn't go with him, unless I use up vacation days. (Thankfully, MIL is much better now.)

If we do go the full distance, and have to strike another 14 days in Easter term, I will only be able to join my colleagues for 6 of those days. I CANNOT jeopardize my and my family's right to remain in this country. And I hate that. If it comes to that, I will be donating 1/365th of my pay to the fighting fund for every day that I cannot join the strike.

My situation is not unique. There are MANY Tier 2 visa holders participating in #ussstrike #ucustrike. Don't hate us if we have to go back to work when our 20 days are used up.

For more info, read this. A sobering quote:

"Whilst there are no reported cases of strike action being used to refuse an ILR application...there are never any guarantees that the Home Office could not change its policy in the future."

This is the spectre that hangs over us.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Today I am on strike, day 11

Last night was actually rather scary.

I've written in an earlier strike day diary about the emotional toll that being on strike takes, but even factoring that in, I've been doing pretty well, all things considered. The support on the pickets has been quite integral to this, as has the support -- especially student support -- on twitter.

But to see a proposal put forward -- that made all of our sacrifice, all of our fighting over the last three weeks feel meaningless, like it was worth nothing. And seeing that -- it has been a long, long, long time since I've had an emotion crash like happened last night. (In fact, the only other time I remember when I could feel hormones kicking in and wrestling my emotions from out of control was the three months I was on the wrong hormonal birth control, nearly 20 years ago. I remember crystal clear one day where I was walking around the house, kicking the all and crying and I had no idea why. That was when I realised not the birth control for me.) And that was pretty scary.

It was around that point that I wrote yesterday's strike diary and posted it to twitter. Not long after, I received this reply. At that point, I started ugly crying all over my laptop. I'm saving that tweet in my "read this when you feel like a crap teacher" folder, because that reply mattered so much.

The last 24 hours have been a bit of a roller coaster. The shock, the depression, the anger, the growing sense of something -- I couldn't quite call it hope, but perhaps I could call it strength -- as people started signing an open letter rejecting the proposal, as people started sharing contact info of the people to write, as the protest in London started being planned (at one point I thought "I could get to London tomorrow morning...", but then realised it was not a clever idea to get up so early or spend so much money on a same-day train ticket). I read cogent replies to the proposal on twitter, I saw local branches posting their unequivocal rejection of the proposal, I read people's letters they were sending to their reps, and began to compose my own. Eventually, I sent this, first to my local rep, and then to everyone else relevant I could think of -- my regional rep, the head of the UCU HEC, my Vice-Chancellor:

I am writing to urge you to vote to reject the proposal put forth by UCU/UUK tomorrow. This proposal is a spit in our faces and I am horrified, aghast, and saddened that it's even been put forward. Here are some reasons why this proposal should be rejected:

  • The most significant issue with this proposal is that it does not address the flaws in the original valuation. If we accept the proposal, we legitimise the valuation on which the offer has been made, and that is unacceptable.
  • Further, we haven't been given any explanation why it isn't possible to shift to a less problematic/conservative valuation. Thus the proposal does not fundamentally address what this strike action has been about.
  • The proposal does not solve the problem, only defers it. Given that there is strong reason to think that THERE IS NO PROBLEM, this cannot be admitted as an acceptable resolution.
  • The proposal does not represent UCU as defending a Defined Benefit pension scheme, but rather as supporting a variant of a Defined Contribtuion scheme. The rejection of a DC scheme was one of the principles that we were striking under.
  • It is unacceptable to ask staff to reschedule lectures. Not only is it practically infeasible, it goes against what it means to go on strike. It tells us that all of our sacrifices, all of our heartache, all of our guilt, all of it is worthless and meaningless. It tells us that WE are worthless. It is even more unacceptable to ask staff to reschedule lectures without paying them for their work.

As our branch rep, you represent all members at Durham Uni. Please, please, please be our champion, be our support, be our defense, and fight against this proposal. You will not stand alone. Exeter, Liverpool, and other UCUs have already publicly stated that their membership has unanimously rejected the proposals. Please let Durham join them.

And then I was smart; I split three beers with my husband, got out my crocheting, put MasterChef on full-screen so I couldn't also follow twitter/FB, and distracted myself for an hour before going to bed.

In the morning, G and I got up early and she made me a new sign to bring to the picket.

This is the Outraged Octopus. He says "No no no no no no no." He unequivocally rejects the proposal to slash our pensions. In the morning, I also faced having to tell G that a deal had been offered and if it was accepted, I would be going back to work tomorrow. On the one hand, this is a happy thing, and she knows it, because she knows how sad I've been not being able to go to work and how important my work is to me. On the other hand, this was a sad thing, because it would mean that I would be teaching Friday from 2-4 and thus I wouldn't be able to attend the special Mother's Day Tea and Crafts being held at school at that very same time. I knelt on the sidewalk where the picketers would soon be gathering and held her tightly while she cried at the disappointment. But she understood. She's been amazing through all of this.

The picket line was worn down and rather defeated today. Some people were optimistic that this was a negotiating ploy. Many people were more realistic. We spent a lot more time checking our phones than we have other days, collectively.

I have plenty of non-academic projects I've been catching up on during my time at home. I didn't even try to do any of them today. I watched a movie and crocheted instead, and watched the news trickle in. Sally Hunt's disappointing speech to the protestors. 22 out of 64 branches planning to vote no. 43 out of 64. The reps were on the train to London, last chance to email them. The reps meeting and the unequivocal rejection. The HEC meeting. The news that the proposal was blocked. That came in while I was en route to get G from school (via some errands downtown where I got accosted by Unicef volunteers about six different times, and rather rudely brushed them off because I knew if I tried to respond politely to their "how are you"/"do you have a moment" questions I would end up vomiting strike talk all over them, because there was no space left in my brain for anything else. And I figured that that wasn't really fair on them), which means one person was unequivocally happy about how things turned out today -- she shouted and cheered when she found out I'm most likely still available to come to the Mother's Day thing at school on Friday. :)

We'll keep on. We'll keep on doing what we're doing, as long as we need to/as long as we can. I'm doing better than I was doing last night. But last night was really quite scary.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Today I am on strike, day 10

I don't even know what to say. I read the news half an hour ago, and the sharp downturn my mood has taken scares me.

I feel like our work and our effort and our actions are worth even less than nothing. This is not a resolution, this is a postponement.

It feels like a betrayal.

I just don't know what to say. I'm not even sure I know what to feel.