One of the few issues on which my parents both took the same, apparently unwavering and absolute position was that of the sanctity of the secret ballot. Vote, my father said. No vote, no voice, he said. People died for your right to vote, he said. If you don’t vote, he said, don’t complain.
Imagine my shock, then, during the 1997 United Kingdom General Election. My school staged a Mock Election. Sixth formers represented the different (Mock?) parties. Campaigning took place over the course of a week. To my memory, the Mock Green Party campaigned vociferously, and used green balloons; the Mock Tories campaigned barely at all.
On Mock Election Day, the School Library became the polling station. Library users were turfed out. For one day only, these were not study spaces but voting booths. I recall the whole exercise being undertaken with a sense of gravity, but that might just have been me, ever mindful that people had died for my right to vote.
I do not remember whether or not there was an exit poll.
When the Mock Results were announced, the Mock Tories had won. If I remember rightly, despite campaigning the least of all the Mock parties, they won by a 75% majority. The announcement of the winning party was one of those coming-of-age moments. It dawned on me that my parents are, on certain matters, really quite different to other Surrey parents.
As regards the upcoming referendum, I watch Stephen grapple with both sides in a very public way. The CEO of my employer set out the position of the industry I work in, in a letter to the Observer. At that Mock Election nearly twenty years ago, I learned that not everyone applies the principle of the sanctity of the secret ballot in the same way that my parents do. I wonder, is there a word for that feeling when someone tells you, “I voted X, how about you?” and in that moment, your whole understanding of what is at stake becomes a fraction more blurry at the same time as you duck out of the debate, quietly, self-conscious about how supercilious you come across: “I believe in the sanctity of the secret ballot”.
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The Coursera course Think Again: How to Reason and Argue started again on Monday – there’s still time to sign up! I took the course in the second half of 2014, making me a Think Again alumnus. If you are looking to learn something new this new year, then Think Again could be the course for you. Read on for a review.
Reasoning is important, and Think Again promises to teach you how to do it well. I have blogged before about public speaking, and when I signed up for the course I had in mind that this course would help me to take my public speaking to a new level, beyond delivering information and into the realm of persuading and debating – having conviction and the courage to match. Whilst the course does indeed discuss
how to identify, analyse and evaluate arguments by other people including politicians, used car salesmen, and teachers
it stops short of turning you into one of those characters. This course was not about rhetoric per se. It was about the logic underlying arguments, about how arguments are constructed and deconstructed, and how to identify and evaluate arguments – what makes a good argument? The course had connections to linguistics, logic, and, yes, statistics.
The course was taught by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Chauncey Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics in the Department of Philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, and Ram Neta, Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is co-author (with Robert Fogelin) of the course textbook Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic. Walter and Ram present the course as a humorous double-act, Walter’s clownish humour alternating with Ram’s deadpan wit.
The course was twelve weeks long, structured as four three-week long units, taught alternately by Walter and Ram. The course material was delivered each week as a series of bite-sized lectures. Students could check their understanding using multiple-choice exercises that follow each lecture, and read the accompanying chapters in the course textbook. Online discussion forums on the Coursera website enabled students to check their understanding and clear up misunderstandings – and to help fellow students to do the same. At the end of each three-week long unit was a graded quiz, and if you achieve an average grade of 70 or above on the four quizzes you will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the professors. An average grade of 85 or above will get you a Statement of Accomplishment With Distinction also signed by the professors!
An outline of the course syllabus is given on the Coursera website, and you could get a more detailed idea about what is covered in the course by looking at the table of contents for the course textbook. Key learnings from the course include one from the very first week:
An argument is not a verbal fight
Useful to remember if a difference of opinion gets heated, online or off. I studied truth tables, the difference between deductive and inductive arguments, and logical fallacies. When I was not studying, it was fun to spot, uniting and reconstruct arguments in everyday life. Or, fun for me at least – I mused out loud that this Coursera course was changing the way I think, only for my husband to retort that it was making me “really annoying”. Oops.
Some students on the course – Courserians as we are known – went further than just observing the structure of arguments in their everyday lives We were encouraged by the course teachers to upload our own arguments to the discussion forums, and to comment on the arguments uploaded by other students. Some students created their own short videos to illustrate the course material, and a few of these videos were incorporated into future editions of the course.
This was my second run at a MOOC – earlier in the year I took Statistical Learning, also starting again soon, at Stanford Online. I learned from that first MOOC experience and when I took TA:HTRAA I made more of a conscious effort to set aside the time to study. A MOOC, with its lack of lecture theatre or exam hall, requires a different sort of commitment compared to bricks-and-mortar study. It can be challenging for students to set aside the time each week. One student in the discussion forums suggested watching the videos twice to aid understanding – a great idea but of course taking twice as much time. I used the Coursera app to download the video lectures, and studied on my commute, with a few binge-studying sessions to catch up on weekends.
I would recommend Think Again: How to Reason and Argue to people working or studying in a wide range of fields. Regardless your day job, the information, tools and techniques taught in the course will help you to reason in everyday life. If you would like to stretch your mind an a different direction this year, or are considering taking a MOOC perhaps for the first time, then signing up to Think Again would be a great move! And, if you do not agree with my endorsement, I would be interested to hear your counter argument.
Over on the sister blog, I have written about why images of women in science are important, in reference to #thatothershirt.
About the sister blog:
Belle Jar is a collaborative feminist project, committed to smashing patriarchal norms, one day at a time.
Belle Jar has been shortlisted for the Guardian Student Media Awards 2014 – Student website of the year.
One of the advantages of being “Beyond the PhD” is having enough time to do all of those things I used to want to do when all of my time was taken up by writing up. After handing in my corrections, and spending a few months mostly resting, I felt the urge to learn something new. In the time since I was awarded my degree, I have learned, variously, to drive, to rock climb, to reason and argue, and to Olympic weightlift. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which of these is the least plausible.
One of these very things I had been meaning to go to for some time is Book Slam. Book Slam is billed as London’s first/best/only Literary Club Night. I like books, and I like London, and I even like books about London. I am more ambivalent about club nights, but Book Slam promoter Elliott Jack describes Book Slam as clubbing for grown-ups. October’s Book Slam had an inspiring line-up so I though I would give it a go.
I had a great time – you literary types should keep an eye out for the next Book Slam! The October event was compered by Felicity Ward. Shami Chakrabarti spoke about the proposed abolition of the Human Rights Act in the UK, and her book On Liberty. Laura Bates talked about the evolution of the Everyday Sexism project, and read excerpts from the book. Both spoke with power and anger. At this performance event, though, the acts that struck me most came from two artists who were new to me. Poet Chimene Suleyman drew audible gasps and laughs from the audience when she read from her collection ‘Outside Looking On’. And author Salena Godden was a commanding presence reading from her book Springfield Road. Hundreds of literary clubbers in the Clapham Grand sat silent at she weaved a story that went from her childhood to her adulthood to her childhood again.
I thought about these powerful women, and their strong voices and the clarity of their messages, and I thought about my blog post from some years ago, about convictions and courage. In all the blog posts in between where I have blogged about public speaking, my main concerns were communicating clearly and quashing nerves. These days, I am required to go beyond that – to convince and to compromise, to reason and persuade. This requires a new set of skills – and skills that were not taught during Transferable Skills Training at Graduate School. Fortunately for me, I have lots of examples from fellow Occam’s Typists who have spoken, and continue to speak, with both passion and conviction. And fortunately for me, old habits die hard, and I like to learn new things.
Quiz question: where were these two photos taken?
For bonus points: add a photo of yourself in the same location to this nascent collection…