Rants

Planet de Botton

I’m all for popularizing philosophy in the right kind of way, and admire — not to say envy — the likes of A.C. Grayling and my colleague Simon Blackburn for their prose styles, their immense energy, good sense, ability to bring ideas to life, ability to engage with wider concerns. But I could certainly do without Alain de Botton pretentiously sounding off from whatever remote planet he inhabits. Here’s an excerpt from an interview in a Cambridge student mag.

Q: So, it’s the most obvious question to ask really: what exactly is philosophy?

A: 99% of people who call themselves philosophers are employed by universities, in the UK. And they’re really employed to teach the history of philosophy or the theory of philosophy but they’re not philosophers as such, they’re commentators on philosophy that other people have done, on the whole. …

What utter ignorant bollocks. When my colleagues wrestle as it might be with the philosophical foundations of set theory, or how we manage to think about the non-existent, or the foundations of political liberalism, or on the nature of moral judgement (to pick a few local enthusiasms), they are doing philosophy, trying to get it right, trying to push things on. Of course they engage with what others have said, but not as commentators-from-the-sidelines but as fellow participants in the ongoing conversation of philosophy. They are most certainly philosophers as such.

At a time when humanities disciplines are depressingly undervalued and misunderstood, and indeed under some threat, it does my blood pressure no good to have the likes of the crashingly ignorant de Botton trying to piss on us as well.

Routledge go mad

I have on my desk my copy of Hartley Rogers’s wonderful Theory of Recursive Functions and Effective Computability. I’ve been checking my memory that he says that, for effective computability, the steps in a particular algorithm must be idiot-proof at least in the weak sense of being executable by a computing agent with a “fixed finite bound” on his/her/its capacity. And yes, he does say that. Which is good, because that’s what I said he said in a talk last week!

Inside the front cover, there’s still the June 1970 pencilled stock date of Heffers (the wonderful warren of a bookshop that used to be in Petty Cury), and the price, 149 shillings. I guess it is, relatively speaking, the most expensive book I’ve ever bought. Going by the retail price index, that’s about £87: relative to academic pay, rather more. But it is a unique classic (and already established as such when I bought it a few years after publication); it is almost 500 pages; and the costs of production must have been enormous.

Zip forward to the present day. My young colleague Ben Colburn has just published an elegantly written and exceedingly interesting slim volume Autonomy and Liberalism. In pages, it is about a third of the length of Hartley Rogers, in words very much less than that: and the production costs were minimal given Ben had to send them an electronic file to their detailed specifications. Routledge are charging a quite absurd and shaming £70 (yes seventy pounds).

Which is, as the youff say, simply taking the piss.

Standing in King’s Parade, tearing up tenners

I had to go along  to a meeting today, ostensibly about the future of funding for graduate students. It lasted an hour, though it was fortunately held just fifteen minutes away. Still, that’s an hour-and-a-half out of my life. There were about thirty people there. So that’s at least forty-five hours lost by various academics and administrators. The meeting therefore in effect sopped up a thousand pounds‘ worth of time, at a conservative estimate of average salaries.

The content of the meeting (the take-home message, as they say ) could have been put in a five line e-mail.

If members of the university admin staff — of course, the one conspicuously growing body in the university — stood in King’s Parade tearing up tenners*, academics (and everyone else) would rightly be incensed. So why the hell do we put up with this kind of thing?

*For my mystified non-UK readers, a tenner is a ten pound note!

The end of civilization as we knew it

Well, that really takes the biscuit. The University Library tea room has stopped using china cup and saucers like a civilized place, and started using disposable paper cups.

Ye gods, what is the world coming to?

Once upon a time, when the world was a bit younger, there was a comfortable tea room in the basement, with proper wooden furniture, and proper tea, and proper home-made cakes (made, it seemed, by proper grannies). There you could while away the time, and meet friends, and talk philosophy, or plot the revolution, or flirt, or all three, as the occasion demanded.

But then the tea room was moved and it all went plastic. And the coffee-flavoured beverage became vile, and the cakes beneath description. Now even the Earl Grey has to be drunk out of horrible paper cups. What was a place of some homely comfort — a happy escape from the Borgesian infinity of bookstacks above — now has all the bleak charm of an airport waiting room in one of RyanAir’s more unlovely small destinations. No doubt it saves pennies. But it means you just no longer want to pop over to the Library for tea — and so those chance meetings, those happenstance conversations, those quick browsings, that leaven the academic grind and spark new ideas, won’t happen.

Heck, I’m coming over all Roger Scruton.

Ruse gets a beta minus.

Philosophers don’t get asked often enough to write for the newspapers and weeklies: so it is really annoying when an opportunity is wasted on second-rate maunderings. Michael Ruse writes in today’s Guardian on whether there is an “atheist schism”. And he immediately kicks off on the wrong foot.

As a professional philosopher my first question naturally is: “What or who is an atheist?” If you mean someone who absolutely and utterly does not believe there is any God or meaning then I doubt there are many in this group.

Eh? Where on earth has that “or meaning” come from? In what coherent sense of “meaning” does an atheist have to deny meaning?

It gets worse. Eventually a lot worse.

If, as the new atheists think, Darwinian evolutionary biology is incompatible with Christianity, then will they give me a good argument as to why the science should be taught in schools if it implies the falsity of religion? The first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America separates church and state. Why are their beliefs exempt?

That is so mind-bogglingly inept it is difficult to believe that Ruse means it seriously. Does Ruse really, really, think that the separation of church and state means that no scientific fact can be taught if it happens to be inconsistent with some holy book or religious dogma?

Ruse is upset by the stridency of Dawkins and others, and there is indeed a point to be argued here. But it is ironic that philosophers often complain that Dawkins misrepresents too many practising Christians (or Muslims, or whatever). For related misrepresentations — if that’s what they are — are to be found in more or less any philosophy of religion book. I blogged here a while back about the Murray/Rea introduction, and remarked then about the unlikely farrago of metaphysical views it foisted upon the church-goer, views which have precious little to do with why you actually go to evensong or say prayers for dying, and which indeed deserve to be well Dawkinsed.

Research Excellence Bullshit

So, there’s another consultation document on the Research Excellence Framework — “the new arrangements for the assessment and funding of research in UK higher education institutions that will replace the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE)”. A wonderful document indeed, literate and elegantly written, revealing much thought and reflection on the nature of the university in the best traditions of Arnold and Leavis. Of course. Still, perhaps it isn’t quite what we might hope for.

Ok, ok, I jest. It isn’t at all what we might hope for, though it is the sort of egregious crap we’ve come to expect. How about this, for example: “As an indication of our current thinking we propose the following weightings” (between different components of assessment); “Outputs: 60 per cent. Impact: 25 per cent. Environment: 15 per cent.” Hold on! Impact? Impact? What’s that?

Well, the document gives “a common menu of impact indicators” under various headings to help us out. Here are the headings …

  • Delivering highly skilled people [as evidenced e.g. by “Staff movement between academia and industry, Employment of post-doctoral researchers in industry or spin-out companies”.]
  • Creating new businesses, improving the performance of existing businesses, or commercialising new products or processes
  • Attracting R&D investment from global business
  • Better informed public policy-making or improved public services
  • Improved patient care or health outcomes
  • Progress towards sustainable development, including environmental sustainability
  • Cultural enrichment, including improved public engagement with science and research
  • Improved social welfare, social cohesion or national security
  • Other quality of life benefits

Right. Let me see if I understand. If you are a medieval historian, an editor of Euripides, a Shakespeare scholar, or indeed just a logician trying to understand the philosophical significance of Gentzen’s work on the consistency of arithmetic, then 25% of your score in son-of-RAE is going to be for “impacts” utterly irrelevant to your projects and concerns?

I’m being unfair, you say: arts subjects at least get into the frame under the heading “Cultural enrichment”. You might think so: but in fact we are told that possible indicators of that are — I kid you not — “Increased levels of public engagement with science and research (for example, as measured through surveys). Changes to public attitudes to science (for example, as measured through surveys). Enriched appreciation of heritage or culture (for example, as measured through surveys). Audience/participation levels at public dissemination or engagement activities (exhibitions, broadcasts and so on). Positive reviews or participant feedback on public dissemination or engagement activities.” Yep, and we are also told that impact does not include “we do not intend to include impact through intellectual influence on scientific knowledge and academia”.

Ah, there’s a chink of light perhaps: not everyone is to be ranked for impact, if I’ve got it right? — a department’s return will rather involve a series of “case-studies” of impactful individuals. Well, yes, you can just see the guys and gals in M&E sitting around trying to find a smidgin of impact somewhere between them.

Brilliant. Well, I know will happen; you know what will happen; HEFCE no doubt know what will happen when traditional humanities departments come to fill in the impact case studies on which 25% of their overall rating is going to depend.

They’ll have to bullshit.

Added later. My jest about the M&E contingent having a bit of difficulty cooking up an impact statement was truer than I realized. Eric Schliesser, currently at Leiden, writes in a comment on the Leiter blog that “in places where ‘impact’ is already playing a prominent role (say, in Netherlands and Flanders), certain subjects (e.g., analytic metaphysics,) have very little chance to receive coveted research grants (now almost the sole source for PhD funding). Yesterday, Michael della Rocca gave a terrific talk on the three-dimensionalism vs four-dimensionalism debate. It generated great discussion. But the people in attendance were hard-pressed to name a sole Dutch philosopher who is working on the topic … Of course, other subjects (e.g., philosophy of technology, applied ethics, decision theory, semantics, logic, normative ethics, etc) have an easier time in articulating the impact factor and are generously funded.”

Student evaluations

I remember, quite a few years ago, giving the same introductory logic course two years running, as far as I could tell doing as a good a job each time. But my student evaluations plummeted between one year and the next. Why? I could only put it down to the fact that the first year I gave the course in relaxed casual dress; the next year (because a committee was scheduled the same afternoons) I wore a rather serious suit. So I supposedly came across as remote, unhelpful, and harder to understand.

I was reminded of that experience — which made me permanently a tad sceptical about the worth of student evaluations — when I read these two scepticism-reinforcing pieces*, by the philosophers Michael Huemer and Clark Glymour. I was particularly amused (in a world-weary sort of way) by this excerpt from the former:

[There was a] study, in which students were asked to rate instructors on a number of personality traits (e.g., “confident,” “dominant,” “optimistic,” etc.), on the basis of 30-second video clips, without audio, of the instructors lecturing. These ratings were found to be very good predictors of end-of-semester evaluations given by the instructors’ actual students. A composite of the personality trait ratings correlated .76 with end-of-term course evaluations; ratings of instructors’ “optimism” showed an impressive .84 correlation with end-of-term course evaluations. Thus, in order to predict with fair accuracy the ratings an instructor would get, it was not necessary to know anything of what the instructor said in class, the material the course covered, the readings, the assignments, the tests, etc.

Williams and Ceci conducted a related experiment. Professor Ceci, a veteran teacher of the Developmental Psychology course at Cornell, gave the course consecutively in both fall and spring semesters one year. In between the two semesters, he visited a media consultant for lessons on improving presentation style. Specifically, Professor Ceci was trained to modulate his tone of voice more and to use more hand gestures while speaking. He then proceeded, in the spring semester, to give almost the identical course (verified by checking recordings of his lectures from the fall), with the sole significant difference being the addition of hand gestures and variations in tone of voice (grading policy, textbook, office hours, tests, and even the basic demographic profile of the class remained the same). The result: student ratings for the spring semester were far higher, usually by more than one standard deviation, on all aspects of the course and the instructor. Even the textbook was rated higher by almost a full point on a scale from 1 to 5. Students in the spring semester believed they had learned far more (this rating increased from 2.93 to 4.05), even though, according to Ceci, they had not in fact learned any more, as measured by their test scores. Again, the conclusion seems to be that student ratings are heavily influenced by cosmetic factors that have no effect on student learning.

So now you know: bounce in optimistically, wave your hands around confidently, and you can sell the kids anything …

And I should say that these days I always wear a suit to lecture (so I’ve a cast-iron excuse for any poor evaluations, of course).

Added For a bit of judicious balance, do read Richard Zach’s second contribution (Comment 12 below), and the linked paper.

*Links from twitter, thanks to John Basl and Allen Stairs

Grumpy old man, #42

I think I’m turning into a grumpy old man …

[Cue suppressed laughter off stage, murmurings of “Turning? Turning? Happened years ago”, etc. But I shall ignore these scurrilous interruptions.]

… and the latest cross-making irritation (especially galling for a long-time Analysis editor) is the effort by some OUP copy-editor to improve a forthcoming Analysis paper by Luca Incurvati and myself, by inter alia, removing all the contractions, replacing “don’t”s by “do not”s etc.

Now, it is one thing to replace American spelling by English spelling (or vice versa), or to replace “…ize” by “…ise”, for example. But to replace “don’t” (one long syllable) by “do not” (two short staccato syllables) is to change the rhythm of a sentence. The use of “don’t” can smooth the reading of a sentence, slightly modulating the emphasis. Has the OUP editor being paying attention to such matters? Somehow I think not. My bet is that the changes have been made without thinking, slavishly following some semi-literate “style book”.

And to make such changes wholesale is to arbitrarily change the authorial tone of voice: which is just impolite (to put it mildly — especially when some of us put quite a bit of effort into getting the tone we want).

Harrumppph.

Lies, damned lies, and references

I’m in the midst of reading through a pile of applications for the Analysis Studentship. There are some impressive looking candidates. But I’m frankly not too impressed with some of my colleagues in various universities who are writing references. Indeed I’m pretty damned irritated. For two reasons.

First, the advert for the Studentship plainly says the “the successful candidate will have a CV which would make him or her a strong contender for a Junior Research Fellowship”. How come then that too many colleagues are agreeing to write references for people they must know perfectly well wouldn’t haven’t a snowball in hell’s chance in a JRF competition. They should just have the honesty to say straight out “Sorry, you are batting out of your league here; I don’t think you should waste your time or the time of the Studentship Committee in applying; so I can’t support you on this.”

Second, it can’t be that every PhD student is one of the top 5% of students the referee has taught, etc. , etc., etc. The inflationary guff that you get in too many references is now just ridiculous. And prompts in this reader the sceptical response “Oh yeah?”, so is in fact counterproductive. Irritating your reader is not a good way to promote your students.

Fools, damned fools, and the designers of online forms

I’ve a sabbatical coming up next Lent term, and I really ought to apply for matching “double your research leave” funding from the AHRC to have another term off. Not that I hold out much hope of getting it rather too near retirement, but it Looks Good with the powers that be to make the effort. But I’m struggling with the idiocies of the on-line application form, which seems purpose designed to raise your blood pressure to the point where you decide that it would be better for your health to give up and bang your head against a wall instead.

I’m planning to write a shortish book on matters to do with the consistency of arithmetic, which is just underway now, and should be very well-advanced by the end of next Lent term, given I’ve promised to talk about the stuff in various places in the meantime. But “if you are seeking funding for the completion of a monograph, you need to identify the chapter headings and contents in the Case for Support.” Eh? Am I just supposed to lie? How best to organize and chunk up your material might only become clear pretty late in the game, especially if — like me — you favour rather short snappy chapters. I haven’t a clue what the chapter headings will turn out to be. Have the people designing this form ever written a book? The hell they haven’t.

Oh well, set that aside for the moment: let’s try to tackle the easy stuff. “You must state the reason why relief is required from the teaching, administration, examining and/or managerial duties detailed.” Ah, that’s straightforward: because I can’t do two things at once. But then they know that, and my reason is exactly the same as everyone else’s. So why the hell are they asking? Are they idiots?

Ah, now I have to list my current teaching. Fair enough. Make a list of current lecture courses. “Hours per week?” And what on earth does that mean? Official contact hours? Contact hours plus preparation time? Contact hours plus preparation time plus time going to grad seminars that aren’t exactly duties but it would be a Very Bad Thing if no lecturers turned up to? Contact hours plus preparation time plus grad seminar time and background reading to be able to talk informally to various grads? Where do “teaching” hours stop? Who is to say? I press “Help”. Which doesn’t give any clue at all. More idiocy.

Well, I’ll just have to see if our Faculty admin officer — who is of a very calm and reasonable disposition, and knows about such things — can hold my hand through the process tomorrow without me blowing a gasket.

Fortunately, I guess the dolts at the AHRC responsible for these forms don’t read academic blogs.

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