Friday, July 30, 2010

Kenneth Howell Update

According to this article in IHE (H/T Leiter), Kenneth Howell has been rehired for the Fall semester, but with no assurance that he will continue after that. Also, the bizzaro arrangement whereby the Catholic Newman Center nominates and pays for the adjunct who teaches Intro to Catholicism has been dissolved. All future Intro Catholicism instructors will be hired by the department in the usual way and paid by the University in the usual way.

I am mostly satisfied with this outcome. As I said before, I do not think the email was hate speech, and I don't think Howell should have been fired over it. I was also very suspicious of the arrangement between UIUC (or is it UICU?) and the Newman Center, and am glad to see it dissolved. And if the email is representative of Howell's teaching, this gives the department a chance to hire a competent instructor for the Spring.

However, Howell's lawyers make it sound like they're pretty convinced that Howell was a victim of anti-Catholic bigotry, and are ready to sue of his contract isn't renewed for 2011. So if they're going to fire him again, they should probably try to do so in a way that sends a clear signal that that's not what's happening. One way would be to make a clear case for some other cause. Another would be to just hire a different Catholic. But if it is bigotry (which I doubt--what are the odds that a Religious Studies department is full of anti-Catholic bigots?), they really should just keep rehiring him, and also they should fuck off.

--Mr. Zero

Friday, July 23, 2010

Dawn of the LaTeX

As you might be aware, I decided to give the LaTeX typesetting system a try last month. After a brief trial, I wrote about how I wasn't sure about it, but the ensuing conversation made me think that it was worth giving it a serious try. So I'v been giving it a serious try. Since Anon 7:31 asks for an update, here's an update.

There are things I like about it. I like the way the resulting documents look. I really, really like the way it handles bibliographies. I like using BibDesk to manage my references--I had been using a spreadsheet before, and this is way better. I don't mind the text-editor feel of the text editor. I set the thing to display in the same typeface I set the completed documents in, so it doesn't look particularly ugly.

I have a number of teaching- and research-related projects going right now, and I'm finding that the process of converting an existing document to LaTeX affords a nice opportunity to rethink my way through the paper in a deep and comprehensive way. There is so much nuts-and-bolts-type stuff you have to do in terms of retyping quotation marks and hyphens and reemphasizing and italicizing text that every sentence requires at least a little scrutiny.

Another of my projects is a first draft. So far drafting in LaTeX is not that different from drafting in Word.

I still kind of don't like the footnotes. I find it hard to see where they end, since it's just a relatively small green curly bracket. Using percentage signs, as was suggested in the previous thread, to interrupt the text makes them stand out more, but at the cost of breaking up the paragraph, which should be thought of as a single continuous unit.

It's still slightly weird that you read one document but edit another. Noticing a typo in your reading copy means you must open up another document, edit it, and then convert it to pdf. Of course, you have to do that in order to make a pdf out of a word document, too. But since the TeX documents are laid out in very different ways--one of them has lots of commands and stuff while the other one sort of obeys those commands--finding the place in the TeX file that corresponds to the same place in the PDF can be hard to do.

I also miss one thing about MS Word, and that is the easy insertion of comments into word documents and the way that these comments can be anchored to the editable bits of text they are about. I can do this to PDFs because I have the full version of Adobe Acrobat, but last I checked, the free version of the reader does not support the creation or the reading of this kind of comment. And not everybody has access to the full versions of Adobe. I'm sure that there's some free PDF reader that works almost as well, but not everybody has that, too, neither.

But I guess the main reason I'm likely to stick with LaTeX is that it is not MS Word. I did not and will not buy the "new" '07 and '08 version of Word, and my obsolete and outdated version is becoming more so. But as we transition from "Yeah, the new version is expensive and has a counterintuitive user interface" to "Really? You're still using that????!!?" I'll probably need to stop using Word altogether, or using it only in a very limited capacity.

--Mr. Zero

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Tale of Two Rejections

I had two papers come back with rejections last week. One had been under review for something like nine months; I submitted the other one the first week of July. One came back with two sets of relatively extensive comments; the other came back with literally no explanation whatsoever. It should come as no surprise that the fast decision was the explanation-free decision. This journal told me that they aim to make these decisions quickly, and that this makes it impossible for them to explain the reasons for the decision. But while I appreciate a swift decision as much as anybody, this is the third paper I've sent them in the last four years or so, and it's never taken them longer than eight days to come back with a rejection. That makes me wonder what editorial procedures they follow.

The other one was rejected for what I think are decent reasons. While I think (in my unbiased opinion) that an R&R might also have been appropriate given the stated reasons, it is clear that the paper should not be published in its present form. (Also, this wasn't surprising--there were several times during the wait that I found myself wishing for another an opportunity to revise the paper.) And I am grateful to this journal for a) putting me in a position to know that the reasons were good by sharing them with me; b) putting me in a position to change the paper in response to the criticisms by sharing them with me, and in so doing, to use this experience in a positive way.

I don't really have a larger point, other than that I wish it was more common to get helpful feedback with rejections, and that it was more common to get a decision in under six months (I really wish it were four, but let's not get carried away here).

--Mr. Zero

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

About This Kenneth Howell Thing

There's been some buzz on the intertubes about Kenneth Howell, an adjunct associate professor in the Religion Department at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana (or is it Urbana-Champagne?). Professor Howell's services were not retained after an email he sent to the students of his Introduction to Catholicism class drew controversy over his explanation of why the natural law theory of ethics implies that homosexuality is wrong.

See the email, a newspaper article about it, and commentary, at Pharyngula, Leiter, and What's Wrong With the World.

The relevant paragraphs of the email seem to be these:

But the more significant problem has to do with the fact that the consent criterion is not related in any way to the NATURE of the act itself. This is where Natural Moral Law (NML) objects. NML says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act. Consent is important but there is more than consent needed.

One example applicable to homosexual acts illustrates the problem. To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the "woman" while the other acts as the "man." In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don't want to be too graphic so I won't go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men. Yet, if the morality of the act is judged only by mutual consent, then there are clearly homosexual acts which are injurious to their health but which are consented to. Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body.

I don't see how the claim that this is hate speech could be supported. It's ignorant, offensive, and poorly thought-out, for sure. But not really hate speech, as far as I understand what the legal definition of hate speech is supposed to be.

But on the other hand, I would be very uncomfortable teaching the material Howell claims is the official position of the Catholic Church in the manner Howell presents it, out of a fear of being unfair to the Catholic Church. This line of "argument" is barely coherent, really stupid, factually incorrect about how homosexual relationships are often conducted, and relies crucially on basic logical mistakes.* The fact that there are "philosophers" who think this is a reasonable and fair statement of a cogent argument for a true ethical conclusion is disturbing.

If this email is representative of Howell's classroom behavior, it would be much easier to sustain a charge of incompetence than a charge of hate-speech. The second paragraph quoted above does not represent a single, unified line of thought. It's a mishmash of points about how homosexual relationships work, what "fits" with what, and some stuff about consent that goes unexplained. If I had written that paragraph and then showed it to someone, I'd be pretty embarrassed.

As another example, Howell's email raises this as the key problem for utilitarianism:

One [problem] is that to judge the best outcome can be very subjective [sic]. What may be judged good for the pregnant woman may not be good for the baby. What may be judged good for the about-to-cheat-husband may not good for his wife or his children.

Now, there is a clear sense in which the possibility of the inherent subjectivity of value is a problem for utilitarians. But all contemporary utilitarians know about this (though Bentham and Mill seem to be somewhat oblivious to it), and all contemporary utilitarians have adopted a set of value-theoretic assumptions that rule out such a simple-minded objection. The utilitarian acknowledges that (playing along with Howell's example) the mother may have an interest in obtaining an abortion, and that this may not be good for the baby. The idea that the utilitarian is now simply stuck is stunningly ignorant. It is a defining characteristic of utilitarianism is that there is a way to compare the interests of the various parties, and that the right thing is what would be best, with everyone's interests taken into account and where everyone counts as one and nobody counts as more than one. The mere fact that an action might be good for one person and not good for somebody else is not an objection to utilitarianism, and anyone who thinks it is should not be allowed in front of an ethics class.

And the News-Gazette article also contains this passage (slightly snipped), focusing on what he says about academic freedom:

"My responsibility on teaching a class on Catholicism is to teach what the Catholic Church teaches," Howell said. "I have always made it very, very clear to my students they are never required to believe what I'm teaching and they'll never be judged on that." ...

"I tell my students I am a practicing Catholic, so I believe the things I'm teaching," he said. "It's not a violation of academic freedom to advocate a position, if one does it as an appeal on rational grounds and it's pertinent to the subject."

There's some tension here. For one thing, it's a little hard to square his contention that he doesn't require his students to believe what he's teaching with the way he characterizes himself as an "advocate" for religious and ethical positions that he lets his students know he holds. When I teach controversial ethical or religious material, I specifically do not tell my students which side of the controversy I stand on. For one thing, my classes are not about me; my classes are about the views and the arguments. For another thing, if they don't know which side you're on, it's harder for them to accuse you of being unfair to the other side. Howell says he is merely trying to hold them responsible for knowing what Natural Moral Law says about the moral status of homosexual sex acts and why, and is specifically not trying to get them to see things his way—it won't affect their grades, anyway. But he simultaneously lets them know that he accepts NML, believes what it says about homosexual sex acts, endorses those arguments, and is serving as an advocate for that position. If you do that, you are guaranteed to have some confused students on your hands. Maybe he wasn't proselytizing, but he was skating a fine line that would be invisible to someone without a lot of intellectual sophistication.

Secondly, it is not obvious to me that academic freedom gives us the freedom to literally advocate controversial religious and/or ethical views in the classroom. Formulating the views is fine. Stating and explaining the arguments that proponents of those views give is unquestionably our job. Showing how someone would offer a counterargument is obviously part of the job, too. But I don't think of my job as involving the advocation of my own ethical or religious views.

--Mr. Zero

* For example, Howell writes, "NML says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same." In my own writing, I restrict the expression 'in other words' for situations in which the words that come after it are literally a restatement of the content that precedes it. In other words, I use that expression to indicate that I am clarifying, and that I am not adding on to, extrapolating, or inferring. That's not what Howell is doing here. Howell is drawing an inference, and this inference is valid only on the assumption that a bunch of controversial auxiliary premises are true.

Howell also writes that "Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act." This is a non sequitur. It is not a sequitur at all.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Slightly Bigger Deal than that APA Thing From a While Back

As you may have heard, a federal judge has struck down some provisions of the controversial Defense of Marriage Act, on the grounds that it unconstitutionally interferes with the right of the States to regulate and define what a marriage shall be within their borders. In particular, the judge found that "it is clearly within the authority of the commonwealth to recognize same-sex marriages among its residents, and to afford those individuals in same-sex marriages any benefits, rights and privileges to which they are entitled by virtue of their marital status. The federal government, by enacting and enforcing DOMA, plainly encroaches upon the firmly entrenched province of the state.”

While that is terrific news, this is not over. The federal government can attempt to have this decision overturned on appeal. Via Feminist Philosophers, we learn of a petition asking the government not to exercise its right to appeal. Please take a moment to sign.

--Mr. Zero

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Here's something I didn't expect when I first became a teacher: you get more guff from students over A-minuses than you do over Ds or Fs. I would have thought that the worse the grade, the more likely you are to get guff over it. But it turns out that I get literally no guff over grades in the D-plus to solid-B range, and two to three times more guff over A-minuses than I do over failing grades.

Of course, it actually makes a lot of sense. A person who gets an F usually doesn't care about his grades--or, if they do, they know how much work it takes to earn a passing grade and they know they didn't do it. A person who gets a D thought he was going to get an F, so he's happy about he D. But a person who gets an A-minus cares about her grades and wanted to get an A. The person who gets an A-minus doesn't see it for what it is: an extremely good grade whose literal meaning is "near excellent" or some such thing. All they see is "not-A+" and they freak out.

People are weird animals.

--Mr. Zero

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Post-tenure academia

Article in the Chronicle via Brooks Blog.

The highlight: The % of faculty with full-time tenured positions has gone from around 56% in 1975 to 31% in lovely pre-recession 2007.

The less emphasized number: the % of faculty with part-time positions has gone from 30% in 1975 to 50% in 2007.

This is nothing particularly new, though it does give us a few things the think about: the importance of newer faculty members on job market committees with first hand experience of the less-tenured job landscape or giving an accurate picture of market expectations (read: future life expectations) to new graduate students. Blah, blah blah.

I wanted to toss something else out there. Tenure's on the decline and part-time jobs are on the rise, but almost all the jobs I've applied to are tenure-track or one year positions. If tenure is realistically becoming less and less the goal, fine. The benefits of tenure aside, I don't really mind being subject to the same level of job security as most of America. That said, part-time contracts and one year gigs won't cut it. The bad part about not having tenure isn't not having tenure, it's not knowing what's coming next. Solving that problem doesn't depend on solving the tenure situation. If we're not going to have tenure, we need more multi-year and continuing positions. At a minimum a lot of part-time and one year spots that are de facto continuing positions should be formalized. You know, so that we can think about quality of life issues like houses and families, things where it helps to know that money's coming in and where you're going to live. I know that all this is easy to say when I'm not begging for my university to fund a one year position, but we're smart people (with the degrees to prove it!). Certainly we can look at the reality of academia today and work to help the system make sense.

-- Second Suitor

Friday, July 2, 2010

St. Anselm

Hat tip to PZ Myers:

(original at Bob the Angry Flower)

But this seems to me to get Anselm exactly backwards. Anselm would say that for any slice of bacon that existed only in the imagination, a slice just like it that also exists in reality would be more perfect. The views Bob attributes to Anselm seem to me to be unsuitable for use in a proof of the existence of bacon, and to owe more to Plato.

--Mr. Zero

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Multiple Choice

I have some friends who employ multiple choice tests in their philosophy classes. The primary motivation seems to be that such exams are much easier to grade, and I must admit that sometimes, when I'm about to dive into a pool of poorly organized, poorly thought out, illegible bluebooks, I am tempted to follow suit. For multiple choicers, exam day is no big deal; for bluebooksters, it is very very bad. With four classes, I lose an entire week. One friend got on the multiple choice track by giving exams where half was multiple choice and half was short answer/essay questions, and then noticed that scores were highly correlated with one another. So she cut out the essays. She says, "so why am I busting my balls to grade these fucking essays?" She was getting the same information from the multiple choice questions.

I dabbled in multiple choice once back in grad school, and it seems to me that the drawbacks of multiple choice are decisive. For one thing, they require a heavy upfront investment. It is much more difficult and time-consuming to write a multiple choice exam than it is to write an essay exam. You need at least four possible answers per question, where exactly one is definitely the right answer, and the other three are definitely not right, but they have to be close. I find I don't have the knack for this. I found that I ended up mostly writing questions where there was a trick or which were otherwise unfair.

And the other thing is, and this is more important, I worry that multiple choice tests emphasize the wrong things. While I think it is important for someone with training in philosophy to know, for example, what Descartes did and did not say, and to be capable of picking the thing he didn't say out of a lineup, it's just as important for that person to understand why Descartes said that stuff. And I think this is where philosophical training becomes useful to non-philosophers. Being able to understand what the arguments are, how they work, how their authors defend them, and what their critics think is wrong with them is a fundamental part of a philosophical education. And gaining a sufficiently deep understanding of how arguments and patterns of reasoning work that it is possible to apply the lessons to non-philosophical situations is an important benefit of success in philosophy classes. And it is more difficult to demonstrate this understanding in a multiple choice test, and students who are preparing for a multiple choice test are less likely to thereby develop these skills. I'm not saying it can't be done; I'm saying it has to be a very well-written exam, and it would be very difficult and time-consuming to write such an exam. And I've never seen a multiple choice exam that I thought would be effective at this.

--Mr. Zero