November, 2016
November 26, 2016
Working in the Humanities if English isn’t your first language

I’ve spent six years in English-speaking academia now, and in many ways I’m thoroughly assimilated into it, culturally, philosophically, linguistically. As a German, the culture and language barriers are comparatively low, but there still are some. Whenever you write, talk or present yourself in English in the Humanities, there are many implicit assumptions as to how you should express yourself, how you should write, and most importantly, how you should sound. Failing to adhere to these norms is likely to activate various implicit biases: it will make your work appear less sophisticated and precise, more exotic and irrelevant, and so on. This will sometimes put you at a small, but noticeable disadvantage.

This topic is rarely discussed—perhaps because it justifiably pales in comparison to more pressing dividing lines, such as race and gender—but it is real nonetheless. (For some discussion, see an article by Sarah Ayala in the APA Newsletter, this article in Nous, the Blog “what is it like to be a foreigner in academia?”, Gabrielle Contessa’s blog, and discussion at the Philosophers’ Cocoon.) I hasten to add that being German has barely any significant disadvantages, at least none I’ve experienced; Germans are one of the big, accepted non-English groups in philosophy, and German is even associated  with philosophical profundity for historical reasons.

So I’m not interested here in tracing the political and social facets of the issue, though there are a couple of interesting questions to ask (are non-native speakers underrepresented in high-profile journals and jobs? what accommodations should audiences, journals and supervisors make for non-native speakers? what level of English can be demanded of everyone? etc.). Instead, I wish to focus on recounting my personal learning curve of doing philosophy in English, and give some practical advice. I’ve routinely taught German undergraduates at a German university in English, so I have a good feeling for the characteristic errors, especially of German speakers; lastly, I’ve been to various philosophy conferences “on the continent” where I have seen a variety of non-native speakers present. In short, I’ve seen a rich diversity of good and bad.


November 22, 2016
LaTeX or Word?

I have worked with LaTeX for a significant amount of time — most of my undergraduate, and some of my Master’s — and while I haven’t delved into its deepest recesses (though it did get to the point that I fiddled with the source code of a package), consider myself an advanced user. Many of my friends are adamant that LaTeX is superior, and recommend it to others, especially for academic writing. I have become convinced that LaTeX is overvalued, and that it offers few functions beyond Word which are useful to the average user; in fact, modern versions of Word do almost anything that LaTeX does, and often better and in a less cumbersome way.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that LaTeX is a terrible choice. If you have LaTeX set up and running for you, then you can skip this article, as I won’t try to convince you to change; and for those having the time, and who like to fiddle around, LaTeX can be a very satisfying choice. But for those who are constantly nagged by their friends that LaTeX is the superior choice, or who find themselves torn between both, I’ll argue that you shouldn’t make the mistake of investing time into learning LaTeX.

There are some tasks for which LaTeX is clearly superior, which is Math typesetting, and more generally, any kind of writing in the natural sciences or which otherwise includes lots of formal notation. LaTeX is more convenient to use in this respect, and usually better looking as well. But this point should not be overstated. If your average writing will contain at most a few formulas, or some light technical notation, Word can deal with those equally well, and its overall benefits still outweigh any math-related benefits LaTeX might have. And if you really think the LaTeX math fonts so beautiful, then you can just install them in modern versions of Word. Most recommendations of LaTeX, I think, come from people who use it as a great tool for some specific purposes, but then mistake it as a useful all-purpose means.

Some people have suggested to me that LaTeX is also better for longer documents, especially if you want to typeset a thesis or a book. It’s quite unclear to me what these advantages are supposed to be, and I have written both a Master’s and doctoral thesis in Word. Word has, if you just look closely enough, just the same functionality that LaTeX offers for longer documents (e.g., different page counts or page styles for different parts of a book).

A last word on OpenOffice. I have been using OpenOffice for several years as well on Linux, but I found it inferior in virtually all respects to both Word and LaTeX. OpenOffice has less functionality, is more cumbersome to use, and usually more buggy, than Word. At least compared to Word 2010 (which will be my main focus), OpenOffice lags several years behind.


November 20, 2016
A Story of a Philosophical Outsider

In 2013, I helped with a small student society, the Ockham Society, which organised talks by and for graduate students at Oxford. Our only real aim was to put up a talk every week, and to get a decently sized, interested audience. This proved hard enough; we sometimes had vacancies which needed to be filled on short notice, in which case we would put out a call for papers. It is a reply to one of these which gets this story started.