The Humanities Do Not Matter Because of the Capital They Create

Why do the humanities matter?

This question is at the root of the funding crisis the humanities has been experiencing for many years now. The market has decided that the humanities matter if and only if they produce good workers after graduation. And since they do not produce good workers, then they must not matter after all. Or so the argument goes.

Many humanists have responded with charts and diagrams showing all of the ways that humanities matter to producing good workers. Look at these writing skills! Look at these LSAT scores! Look at all of the ways that humanities graduates are valuable to the market after all!

While I don't want to ascribe anything other than good intentions to humanists who've tried to defend their discipline and jealously guard the scraps they are given, this response isn't enough. To respond to the crisis in the humanities by saying that the humanities can win grants and produce skilled workers after all is to already give up the terms of the game. We can not win by demonstrating that the humanities matter because they produce good workers. That is partly because they do not. It is also because that is not why the humanities matter.

So why do the humanities matter?

The humanities matter because they produce good people. Good people, however, are not good workers. Good people want to be paid a fair wage for their work. Good people want to have agency over the wealth they produce and to what ends that wealth is aimed. These are not traits of a good worker.

Good people are not good workers, but they are good citizens. They care about their fellow people, and they try to further the interests of others as well as their own. In other words, they cooperate.

The public good is served by creating more good people, not more good workers. That is why the humanities matter. And that is why the argument that the humanities must be constantly self-justifying by its appeal to the material goods it produces -- whether these are "research incentives" or "demonstrated value" or good workers -- will always fail.

Why We Unionize

On Tuesday, August 15th, 2017, the collective bargaining agreement between the University of Illinois and the Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO) expired.

On Monday, January 29th, 2018 - 168 days later - the GEO filed intent to strike paperwork that would permit a legal strike.

On Wednesday, February 7th, 2018 - two days before a strike would be legal - the University bargaining team declared a strike over tuition waiver protections would be illegal.

On Monday, February 26th, 2018 - 15 days from today - the GEO membership will strike, shutting down the better part of the University of Illinois campus.

During the term of this Agreement, Graduate Assistants and Teaching Assistants will not have their tuition waivers reduced while they hold qualifying assistantships, are in good academic standing, and are making proper progress toward graduation in the program in which they began.

There are many reasons to form a union. Solidarity. Protection. Stability. Here are a few of mine.

I am a member of the University of Illinois and also the GEO. Over the last six years I've taught hundreds of students at the University of Illinois. I've graded their papers, held office hours, and answered their emails. I've also discussed with them what it means to live a good life, showed them how to avoid lazy and fallacious reasoning, and helped them develop an authorial voice that they recognize as their own.

A lot has happened to me since I started grad school, both good and bad. One thing I've never had to worry about was whether I would lose my tuition waiver. I can be confident that I'll keep that tuition waiver only because of the 42 word sideletter to the contract quoted above that the GEO won in 2012. For many (and I suspect most) graduate students a tuition waiver is the only thing that grants them access to this level of education. Without a tuition waiver we would not be here. And so, without the GEO we would not be here.

I also recognize that the GEO protects a lot of people whose lives are significantly different from mine. To make graduate education accessible to everyone we must provide everyone with the foundational stability and ease that is necessary for academic pursuits. Call it σχολή or otium or whatever you want, but people can't be students, they can't be teachers, and they can't do research if they are hungry, sick, or destitute. Some of what the GEO fights for doesn't apply to me but it does apply to my fellow graduate students and that's enough.

So, if the University of Illinois really is "the pre-eminent public research university" with a mission to "enhance the lives of citizens in Illinois, across the nation and around the world through our leadership in learning, discovery, engagement and economic development" then the Administration should have no qualms about maintaining the promise they have made to anyone who wants to pursue a graduate education: that they can do it here. To do that we need healthcare, a living wage, and a guarantee (not just an 'eligibility') of a tuition waiver. They have 15 days to make their commitment to pre-eminance clear.

You can donate to the GEO Strike Fund here.

The Logic of Commands
rescher logic of commands.jpg

I picked up a cheap paperback copy of Rescher's Logic of Commands and have been enjoying it so far. In one of the chapters of my dissertation I'm arguing that Pearl's intervention operation - $do(X=x)$ - is best understood as an imperative. I think this has several theoretical benefits, from explaining why the language of probability is insufficient for capturing our causal judgments to helping settle problems in modal metaphysics involving the do-operator (such as the failure of modus ponens).

But imperative logic is a funny thing, and while many philosophers have tried to develop a logic of commands there doesn't seem to be the kind of consensus that we see in propositional logic, even about the basic parts of the language. Peter Vranas at UW-Madison goes in for a three-valued logic of 'satisfaction' in which imperatives are tuples of sets of propositions (roughly, sets of the propositions describing how the imperative could be satisfied or violated). These sets need not be mutually exclusive and exhaustive, in which case one can avoid the command altogether. Rescher represents commands as having a target, duration, description, and precondition. So, Jones, go to the store when you get back becomes [Jones! going to the store / Jones gets back]. These kinds of conditional commands turn out to be especially difficult to handle, and Rescher makes use of flow diagrams and operational scenarios in order to capture the complexity here.

One of my main interests in imperative logic is for the work it can do in supplying a logic of intervention and experimentation. If interventions of the $do(X=x)$ sort are imperatives, then experiments are (surprisingly!) imperative arguments. As are many other abstract objects like symphonies, recipes, algorithms, and many computer programs. I think this has consequences for the ontology of experiments, which will affect what we should say about the experimenter's regress, stopping rules for experimental design, and the difference between experiments and simulations.

Teaching Question

Here are some questions I have about teaching formal systems. Suppose I'm teaching an introductory logic course and as part of that course I'm teaching a unit on propositional logic. There is a standard notation for the logical operators, representing premises and conclusions, etc.

1) When (if ever) is it appropriate to change the standard notation? Suppose I think that representing something in a non-standard way is more intuitive, simpler, more easily graspable than when the very same thing is represented using the standard notation. Which notation should I teach? Do I teach the standard notation because students are likely to encounter it in lots of places, or do I teach the non-standard notation because I think it's better?

2) Similarly, when (if ever) is it appropriate to introduce wholly new notational systems in the classroom? Is it ever appropriate to do for pedagogical reasons, or should we make modifications or additions in research and only teach them once they become part of the established body of work that constitutes the field of study (by being published in at least one place)? Or not even then, but only once the non-standard notation starts to become assimilated into the standards of the field (at least once multiple people have published using the previously non-standard notation)?

3) Does it make a difference if the subject is classical logic, or something in a field with less agreement? It seems like the prevalence of classical logic would weigh against using a non-standard notation. And even when there is some persistent differences in notation, those are usually mentioned and then ignored. Many instructors will at least mention that the horseshoe and right arrow are both used interchangeably to represent the material conditional, for instance.

It seems to me that there could be some value in exploring alternative notational systems, especially in places where the notation could use updating.