Monday, June 28, 2010


I started to write a post about how I began the process of revising my application materials in anticipation of the fall job market. I started to point out that there's some good news. My CV is better. I can move some stuff in my research statement from "future projects" to "recent projects," and I can add some stuff to "future projects." But I cannot tell you how much I wish I didn't have to keep doing this. This will be my fourth year on the market, and I guess I just didn't feel like writing a blog post about revising my research statement again. And I wasn't sure how much anyone would want to read the blog post when I was done with it. So I gave up on that post, decided to write this one instead.

--Mr. Zero

Monday, June 21, 2010


\documentclass{whiny blog post}


I spent some time this weekend thinking about the costs and benefits of switching to LaTeX. It seemed to me that it would make a better post if I got some empirical data concerning LaTeX, and so I downloaded MacTex and attempted to convert a paper. I followed Charles Tanksley's instructions, which were helpful.


It's nerdy.

The finished product looks super awesome. And you don't have to think much about how it's going to look; you just write the content and LaTeX automatically makes it look awesome. This is supposed to save you time and stress.

It is alleged to render equations and other symbols nicely. Perhaps I chose my conversion project poorly, but the paper I chose to convert to LaTeX did not contain many weirdo symbols or any equations at all.

Apparently it is easier to manage bibliographies and references. There's a heavy up-front investment, though. Also, question: suppose you have to reformat your bibliography to conform to some journal's idiosyncratic style. Does LaTeX make this easier or harder?

You can make 1 simple formatting change that instantly applies to the whole document.

You are not subject to the whims of the MicroSoft Corporation. Their decisions about the viability of the .doc format are not going to fuck up your shit. Nor is their decision to totally stupidify the user interface for Word.

Edit: In comments, Kevin Klement mentions several other pros:

But there are a lot of other reasons to prefer LaTeX you don't discuss. The maximum portability of plain text formats. The non-proprietaryness. Heck, even the fact that plain text formats are much less likely to be corrupted than encrypted binaries ought to be mentioned.

End Edit


You have to have Word (or something like it) anyways, because your students have word. You have to have something that will read their documents. Plain text editors won't do the job.

Frankly, I just don't see the point about how much time you'll save if you don't have to think about formatting. For one thing, I don't spend that much time thinking about formatting. Titles; paragraph breaks; blockquotes; offset definitions and principles; section headings; I spend almost no time thinking about these things. For another thing, you have to think about them in LaTeX, too, because you have to give a '\section{x}' command in order to get LaTeX to know to put a section heading in. You still have to write the code correctly.

Now, if you have to reformat something for a journal, say, you might save time by applying 1 simple formatting change that instantly applies to the whole document. But you can do that in Word, too, if you've been using your headings right (which is no harder than doing it in LaTex--anyone who could figure out LaTeX could figure out Word). And I bet I could just reformat the section headings by hand one at a time in less time than it would take me to identify the 1 simple change I have to make by doing a google search, finding the relevant information, applying the relevant procedure, testing it to make sure it worked, and then fixing any bugs that might have come up. (For example, I attempted to create subscripted text. I had to find instructions on google, and then implement the code I learned, and then identify and repair several coding errors--I have trouble remembering to hit curly brackets rather than parentheses, though I'm sure this will go away with familiarity. Then, when it still wasn't working, I had to do more googling in order to learn that the original set of instructions left out that I had to be in Math Mode in order for the subscript command to work properly, and that in particular I had to be out of math mode in order for the text after the subscript to look right. In Word, this would have taken at most 1 second, since I have a subscript button on my toolbar and I know the shortcut keystroke that results in subscripted text.)

It seems to me to be easier in Word to make 1 simple formatting change that instantly applies to exactly as much or as little of the document as you want it to.

Although I admit that equations are a problem with Word, regular logical symbols and notations are not. Although it could be easier to navigate, there's an insert symbols menu, and you can program shortcut keys for the ones you use the most.

It is easier to annotate a word document. This makes it easier for someone to comment on a draft, and also for you to connect the comment to the appropriate location in the paper.

And if your friend doesn't annotate your document, the page numbers will still be meaningful if she's looking at your Word document. But there seems to be no inherent connection between the pages in the typeset PDF file that LaTeX creates and the text in the .tex file. In fact, the document you print out does not look at all similar to the document you edit. All of its formatting and pagination characteristics are completely different. This makes it difficult to find and edit individual paragraphs and sentences. Much more difficult than simply going to page 12, paragraph 2, sentence 3, or whatever.

Word's GUI is (somewhat) intuitive and doesn't require you to memorize a bunch of codes. However, the new version of word is substantially crappier. I don't want to be the guy who defends MicroSoft Word or anything, because I have spent a huge amount of time so angry with MicroSoft Word that I wanted to kill the balls off of it. But a lot of the problems with Word that I see people saying contributed to their abandoning it in favor of LaTeX are easily solved and seemed to me to stem from not knowing how to use it.

Although, you can make 1 simple formatting change that instantly applies to the whole document, it is often not particularly easy to know how to make that change. Suppose I don't want my paragraphs to indent, and I want to demarcate paragraph breaks by adding an extra space between them. How?

Footnotes in LaTex are kind of a pain. And although I'm no Kripke, I use a lot of footnotes.

Quotation marks are kind of a pain. And because I'm no Kripke, I use a lot of quotation marks. (Zing!) (Just kidding.)

Word count. As I was writing this, I realized that Word has a pretty sophisticated word count utility. My LaTeX editor has a "statistics" utility that counts words. I hope it counts only the words in what you intend to be the text, and not all the extra formatting junk. I know that Word's does this, and Word's utility allows you to exclude footnotes easily. Does LaTeX's? Also, Word's word count allows you to select blocks of text and get stats on the selection. My LaTex editor doesn't seem to. The word count utility on MS Word seems to be pretty superior.

In conclusion, although there are some cool features here, I don't think there is enough to compel me to switch.

--Mr. Zero


Friday, June 18, 2010

Passing Typesetting Costs On To Authors

A couple of weeks ago, Brian Weatherson had a post at Thoughts Arguments and Rants about how to reduce typesetting costs incurred by journals. Apparently, the costs associated with typesetting are one of the most substantial costs associated with running a journal, and so cutting down on these costs would have a profound impact on a journal's bottom line. One of his proposals involved making the author either typeset the article herself in LaTeX (or get a friend to do it), or else pay two hundred dollars to cover the cost of hiring a professional typesetter.

In the ensuing discussion, a bunch of people said stuff like, "I don't know LaTeX; are there any online resources that could teach me how," and "yes, this."

Nobody said what I was thinking when I read this, which was "there is no way in hell I would ever submit to a journal that will charge me two hundred dollars to publish my paper." I don't use LaTeX (I started to explain why not, but now I think that this should be its own conversation), and I'm not going to take time to learn it in the foreseeable future—I have a lot of demands on my time, and LaTeX doesn't make the cut. And I definitely don't have an extra two hundred bucks laying around for this. Two hundred bucks is a lot of money for me, and if this model were to catch on, it would transform what should be an important career success—getting your paper accepted—into a significant financial burden. Maybe established philosophers who have tenure-track jobs with funding for research could get their departments to pay these costs, but people in VAP-type positions normally have no research budget and would have to use their own money. And this cost would simply be prohibitive for graduate students.

We provide the content for the journals. They can sell subscriptions to the journal only if philosophers write papers and then offer to let the journal publish them. We yield our copyright to them. And we do it for free. We do not get paid. We do not make any money for writing these articles that we then give to the journals for publication. And that's fine—I'm not in it for the money. But they cannot start charging us for this.

Why is it that whenever anyone proposes some way to fix what's ailing the journals, it's always something that would fuck over people who are just starting out?

--Mr. Zero

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Intro Ethics versus Regular Intro

In my current job, I teach a lot of sections of Introduction to Ethics, and a lot of sections of Intro to Philosophy. I've noticed a general trend in my teaching whereby my Intro Ethics students generally do almost a full letter grade better on average than my regular Intro students (e.g. a B+ to the Intro's B-). I don't think it's because my Ethics class is easier, because the pattern extends to individual test questions concerning material that I include in both classes, such as the meaning of the word 'valid.'

One possible explanation is that students who take Ethics rather than Regular Intro tend to have a prior interest in the subject matter, and are not taking it only to satisfy a requirement. Since interested students do better, ethics students do better. This suggests that I need to do a better job getting my intro students interested in philosophy.

I'm doubtful of this explanation for a couple of reasons. For one, my ethics class is pretty theoretical, and I'm not sure where an 18-year-old public-school-type person would pick up a prior interest in theoretical ethics. If my students are interested in ethics, they're interested in applied ethics. Second, I spend a bunch of time in intro on the theism/atheism debate, which I know many of my students have a prior interest in. But it's not obvious that this isn't it.

Another possible explanation is that I am more interested in my ethics class, and this is affecting my students. This is definitely possible. But I'm pretty interested in e.g. the theism/atheism debate and other topics I cover (although I do not publish in these areas, and it is easy for my students to discover my publication record. However, I doubt that many of my students take the initiative to discover the details of my publication record.). And I've talked to a few other people, LEMmings, who report the same phenomenon as me.

So I'm not sure what's going on. What say you, Smokers?

--Mr. Zero

Monday, June 14, 2010

Send Me a Postcard—Drop Me a Line—Stating Point of View

An interesting fact about last fall's job search is that I have heard back from most of the departments I applied to. An email; a letter; a postcard; something. But I haven't heard anything from the departments I actually interviewed with. Not a peep. Not even a response to an email I sent letting them know about how I got a new publication after they interviewed me.

I mean, I get it. I know I didn't get the job. I didn't get a campus visit, and here it is Flag Day already. I know they hired somebody else. It's obvious.

But that's exactly why they owe me the courtesy of a kindly-worded PFO. They expressed an interest in me. They said, "We think you might be a good fit here; we'd like to interview you." If the people who were never interested in me can let me know that I didn't get the job (like, duh), why can't the people who were, kind of?

--Mr. Zero

Monday, June 7, 2010

"Are There Any Questions?"

I forget where, but I once read somewhere that simply asking whether there are any questions is the worst way to discover whether your students have any questions. That can't literally be right: telling them you'll destroy their genitals if they ask any questions is surely a worse way to elicit questions. So it must be hyperbole or something.

Anyways, my problem with the people who say that simply asking your students if they have questions is a poor way to elicit questions is that the admonishment is never accompanied by positive advice. If I'm not supposed to say, "does anybody have any questions," what am I supposed to say? It's as though eliciting questions is some sort of incommunicable skill; like you have to be some sort of classroom whisperer with a magical gift of getting the students to ask the questions they have. The rest of us can never hope to get to that level.

So I've been asking my students what, if not asking whether there are any questions, I should be doing. They don't know. I ask them if they ever had one of these classroom whisperers who could really elicit the good questions. None of them ever have. One guy says he had a math teacher who elicited lots of questions by being obscure and never explaining anything. Obviously, that's not a good way to elicit questions. Another guy says he doesn't ask many questions because he doesn't find me confusing. I already explained the stuff he was going to ask about, he says.

But the weird thing is this: whenever I have this discussion with a class, it leads seamlessly to them asking a bunch of good, penetrating questions about the material we were covering right before this digression. It's really bizarre. The best way I've found to elicit questions is just to claim that you have no idea how to elicit questions.

--Mr. Zero

Friday, June 4, 2010

Online Student Evals

My school recently announced that in the fall we will switch to a system where evaluations will be conducted online. I am against this for several reasons. For one thing, it means that students who barely attend class have the same chance to evaluate me as students who attend every class. But since students with poor attendance records have a poorer basis for evaluation and are likely to be doing poorly in the class, so their evaluations of my teaching are likely to be both bad and based on insufficient information.

For another thing, it means that I cannot control when evaluation day occurs. As an anonymous commenter recently pointed out, you should never conduct evaluations right after you return a major assignment. I no longer have any influence over whether my evaluations are conducted right after I have returned anything.

It also undermines my ability to more directly control their mood on evaluation day. Before I pass out the eval forms, I like to say a little bit about how much I enjoy teaching, how I approach my role as teacher, and how much we've accomplished so far in the class--I try to emphasize that we've accomplished a lot. I also emphasize that I take my evaluations very seriously, and how helpful I have found them to be in the past. I point out that on several occasions, suggestions that appeared in evaluations have directly resulted in clear improvements in the class, and I give an example of one such change. Then, in keeping with anon 9:43's suggestion, I tell a joke. Unlike 9:43, I make no effort to smoothly integrate this joke into the lecture. I say, "and now, here's a joke!" and then I tell the joke, get a big laugh, and leave the room.

Now I can't do any of that.

--Mr. Zero

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fitting in Fitness versus Mothra

A few months ago, I wrote about how I was having trouble finding time making use of my many opportunities to engage in activities that enhance physical fitness. I am happy to report that these problems are behind me. A couple of months ago, I bought a new bicycle, which has served as a generator of enthusiasm about cycling. Since then, I've been getting up at dawn so I can squeeze a ride in before work. Dawn is a good time for several reasons: 1. I wasn't using that time very well before. 2. I don't have to knock off work early, so I don't feel like I'm gypping myself out of time for writing or course prep. 3. I don't get home late, so it doesn't take away from time in the evening that I want to spend with Mrs. Zero.

It seems to me that I look and feel a lot better lately. It is hard to tell what impact it's had on my writing; I've had one of the busiest end-of-semester/start-of-summer-school transitions I can recall, so I haven't been doing much writing lately. Time will tell, I guess.

--Mr. Zero