Using History to Teach

From a recent news article:

“A high school English teacher could face disciplinary action for giving a writing assignment that asked students to make a persuasive argument blaming Jews for the problems of Nazi Germany, Albany school district officials said Friday.”

The assignment, first reported Friday by the Albany Times Union, asked students to research Nazi propaganda, then assume their teacher was a Nazi government official who had to be convinced of their loyalty. The assignment told students they “must argue that Jews are evil.”

My first reaction was, this could have been a poignant exercise on rhetoric, logic and history, but didn’t take into account the current existence and legacy of antisemitism.  Though, whether that is a valid reaction might depend on what one thinks of things like The Third Wave experiment.  The more I read over the article though, the more I’m baffled about what the teacher in NY was even trying to accomplish. (Were they just trying to be edgy?)

“It Stands to Reason, Skeptics Can Be Sexist Too”

I spoke out about sexual harassment among atheists and scientists. Then came the rape threats.

Blogger and podcast co-host Rebecca Watson has a piece up at Slate about the sexist backlash she received in the skeptic community when she talked about feminism and her experiences as a woman.  Sadly, her story resembles others you’ve probably heard:  threats, accusations that she’s lying or exaggerating or can’t take a joke, more threats, etc.

Her piece is somewhat cathartic, especially with snappy observations like this:

What I said in my video, exactly, was, “Guys, don’t do that,” with a bit of a laugh and a shrug. What legions of angry atheists apparently heard was, “Guys, I won’t stop hating men until I get 2 million YouTube comments calling me a ‘cunt.’ ” The skeptics boldly rose to the imagined challenge.

John Corvino on the moral worth of gay sex

Corvino is speaking on the 29th at Rice U, and in looking for some background I discovered he’s got a DVD on GLBT sex and its morality. (Thanks to John in comments for the correct date!) There is also an extended trailer; see below.

In fact Corvino is a very experienced speaker, and though I didn’t see new arguments in the trailor, the presentation is great.

However, the point for me of putting this up is really connected with the thoughtful post here about civility. Unlike a number of people commenting on that post, I do not think of philosophical discourse as particularly calm and reasonable. Somewhat relatedly, I am wondering what people would expect from students who were asked to watch the DVD in class. Here in Houston I wouldn’t count on all my students remaining calm. Also, I’d probably be protecting myself by giving those who found it upsetting permission to leave. I’d probably cast it as asking people who cannot respect the humanity of LGBT students to leave.

What would you expect? And what would you do?

No doubt my view about philosophy’s civility was shaped in part by seeing some fairly volatile philosopher commenting on blatant and culpable philosophical error. I do remember remarking on US seminars when I first returned to the country that they were interestingly different from Oxford’s. The bullwas still forced to its knees, but no one was insisting in spilling blood.

Can Humor Make Us Better Thinkers?



This picture (cropped from here) doesn’t prove anything, but it exemplifies a thesis I’ve had rattling around in my skull for a while.   There are certain ideas out there, such as, “There is this thing called systematic racism exists and if you don’t have to deal with it on a daily basis, that’s a privilege you have no real right to brag about.”  Now, a lot of people can be really obtuse about these this kind of idea if it’s presented as an argument.  However, I’ve seen a bunch of situations where someone comes up with the right joke and suddenly a switch flips–people get it.  (i.e. They understand what you’re trying to say…and they seem to agree with most of your premises.)

tl;dr When I look at the kind of humor people are able to pick up on, I suspect that more people understand basic issues of kyriarchy than I realize.


(Go here if you want to browse more of these jokes on twitter.)


More rambling after the jump.

Read More »

Critical thinking webpage, input welcome

From Cate Hundleby:
I have just launched a critical thinking webpage with the express purpose of guiding instructors in their choice of textbooks, but with larger pedagogical and liberatory purposes in mind.  The implicit feminist approach and the express goals of helping novice instructors in the field may make this site useful for women and feminist philosophers.  If women tend to do the part-time and temporary work they are likely also to be assigned to the (inappropriately) low-prestige work of teaching critical thinking at the first and second year levels.
I welcome input. (Note: I hope to expand the “feminist and liberatory” discussion. ) Feel free to email:

The Orvillecoptor

Here’s the story, from the Guardian: After his cat Orville died, Dutch artist Bart Jansen decided to give him a new lease of life … by having him stuffed, attaching propellers to him and flying him around as a radio controlled helicopter. He’s now on show at an art festival. Apparently Orville was hit by […]

Nice juxtaposition

1.  Larry Summers, who certainly encountered problems after he conjectured about innate limitations on women’s ability to excel in science, supports free speech. From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Lawrence H. Summers, the former president of Harvard University, has joined the Board of Advisors to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the free-speech advocacy group announced today. Mr. Summers certainly knows a thing or two about controversial speech: He stepped down from Harvard’s presidency in 2006, shortly after making much-criticized comments about women’s intrinsic abilities in the sciences.

2. The New York Times announces the winners of the prestigious Kavli Prize, decided by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters; 7 winners, five of them women:

Mildred S. Dresselhaus, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, won the nanoscience prize for her research on carbon nanotubes…

Cornelia Isabella Bargmann of Rockefeller University, Winfried Denk of the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany, and Ann M. Graybiel of M.I.T. will split the neuroscience prize for work aimed at elucidating how the brain processes information from the environment.

The winners of the astrophysics prize … David C. Jewitt of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Jane X. Luu of M.I.T.’s Lincoln Laboratory discovered the Kuiper Belt in the form of a slow-moving (meaning it was very far away) object in 1992.

The third winner of the astrophysics prize, Michael E. Brown of the California Institute of Technology…

critical thinking class assignment: Left tolerant of misogyny?

(Thanks to EM for alerting us to the Slate blog post.)

Evaluate the following argument from a slate blog:

Conclusion:  the left is showing that it’s just fine with misogyny and violence against women as long as the women in question aren’t card-carrying liberal feminists.

Premise One: Donna Dewitt, the outgoing president of AFL-CIO South Carolina, bashed a piñata bearing a photograph of Gov. Nikki Haley, while men and women in the crowd shouted “Whack her harder” and “hit her again.” Dewitt continues to smack the piñata long after it’s knocked down, which is a nice touch.

(See the video below for a idea of the size of the crowd urging Dewill on.)

Premise Two: Elsewhere, Hustler has published an image—“a composite fantasy” in the magazine’s description—of conservative commentator S.E. Cupp with a phallus in her mouth.

Premise 3: … incidents like this happen with such frequency and casualness that it’s clear people think there won’t be any pushback if they attack a conservative woman.

With regard to the first premise, note Dewitt and the crowd:

With regard to the third premise, consider this from The Nation:

Feminists: Time to Stand With S.E. Cupp
Katha Pollitt on May 25, 2012 – 10:34 AM ET
Earlier this spring, Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a “slut” for arguing that contraception should be covered by health insurance. This week, Larry Flynt PhotoShopped a picture of conservative pundit S.E. Cupp to look like she had a penis in her mouth and published it in Hustler as “satire’—Cupp wants to defund Planned Parenthood, you see. No? I didn’t either. This degrading image has nothing to do with political satire and everything to do with wanting to put an outspoken woman in her place—on her knees with a dick in her mouth to shut her up. It’s a pornographic version of “Iron my shirt” and “Make me a sammich.”

Hustler may not be a beacon of the liberal media, as conservatives are gleefully claiming—but it’s all too maddeningly true that misogyny can be found all over the political spectrum, and needs to be denounced, by both men and women, wherever it appears. When it comes to women exercising their right to participate in public debate, we are all Sandra Fluke, and we are all S.E. Cupp as well.

What you can do:

Sign The Women’s Media Center statement of solidarity with Cupp, e-mail it to your friends, and post it on your Facebook page.

Tweet your support at #IStandWithSECupp.

Let the media—left, right, center—know that the crude sexualization of women who voice their opinions in public is not “satire.” It’s misogyny.

“Reading between the Lines”

Games with Words is a web-based laboratory run by a grad student at Harvard. With some of the games one gets feedback, and with some not. I’ve just taken one, The Communication Game. One is told:

Words are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding what someone says. Much is left unsaid.

Read sentences and try to figure out what they mean. How good are you at reading between the lines?.

It is very short, and the results are interesting. You may even want to write to the experimenter to comment. In any case, I suspect a gaggle of philosophers will change the statistics some.

Do try it. Considering telling us your score. And I’d love to know what you think “the well known theory” referred to at the end is. Do you think you were reading between the lines?