Very little to say about Maths. Only doing Set Theory. Have been to a couple of lectures, skipped one or two others, and spent about three hours in total over last night and this morning doing the first rather easy problem sheet, so that’s a quarter of the term’s Maths signed off six days in advance of the deadline.

Interesting new experience yesterday in interviewing Prof. Nick Trefethen, a Balliol professorial fellow, who’s just released Trefethen’s Index Cards, a selection of cards from his collection of index cards upon which he has been type-writing his thoughts for the last forty years. I got asked to write 750 words on him and his book of cards for the college’s alumni magazine. I currently have about half of that and am not sure what to make of my second half. Most interesting thing that happened was when I quoted at him his line, ’[o]nce I’ve put an idea on a card, it becomes a piece of my mental framework, a principle I will refer to for the rest of my life.’ I said, is it truly the case that you’ve been writing these since you were fourteen years old and you don’t now disagree with some of them? The answer was that no, he doesn’t, aside from one or two but none of the important ones; he described the development of his thought as ‘additive’. This makes the cards are in a certain sense complete, allowing you a fuller insight into a modern scientific mind.

Trefethen said that this point had never occurred to him before whereas it was the very first thing I thought of when I read that sentence and considered his project; cool how people come up with different things like that.

Card project inspired me to write more concisely; index cards are small, and this taught Trefethen valuable skills in conciseness. Tutors Jessica and Rowland did too; more on that below.

Doing two philosophy papers this term, the first is the second half of Ethics with Rowland. Was great to find him critiquing my actual essay writing instead of just discussing the topic. The tutor I had in second year and the one I had in the first term of this year generally told me my essays were fine and didn’t critique the writing, so it’s nice to be told this term that there are still improvements to be made. Doing meta-ethics, which I am actually finding much better than the first-order ethics that I did last year. There are lots of very important questions here and answering them, with the blade of analysis, can give some insights that will stay with me.

Secondly I’m doing Plato’s Republic with Jessica. Jessica gives essay critique as well—she tells me to write shorter essays, in fact Rowland did too, with less focus on spelling out what the historical figures said. This is v. different to the advice I’ve had so far. Every tutor gives different essay writing advice and opinions and to a certain extent you have to accept that you’re going to have to side with some against others, but I think in this case there is middle ground and I’m looking forward to getting closer to it. I really do enjoy writing essays.

An important issue here from Jessica, though, that is an exciting if frightening challenge. This is a text-based paper (indeed, the exam is structured differently to all the other philosophy papers) so we’re supposed to stick to Plato, but she goes further than this, and plays down the importance of secondary literature significantly. She doesn’t give us much to read and almost says she doesn’t want us to read it at all—she says that she wants us to develop our own views of Plato, with the exception of certain tutorial topics in which the interesting thing is the debate between the secondary authors, when such a debate is long-standing and well-developed. This is very different to the attitude I got from my tutor last year. I asked if I should have my own ideas, he said, only if they’re any good i.e. don’t bother most of the time, it’s a waste of energy at this stage, focus on your opinion on the debate between the secondary authors.

I think in general I go along with the latter view. But this isn’t what I’m being asked to do this term, and I am not deeply intrenched in the view about not having ideas. Oxford philosophy teaching is so varied and randomised about this sort of thing. The History of Philosophy from Descartes to Kant paper, which I did last year, is one where I focussed on the secondary authors almost exclusively. A friend of mine at another college did the paper with not one secondary text. I need to remember to ask what her mark on the exam was (she took it last summer).

I’ve written before about my worry that I’ve abdicated the responsibility to think in studying this subject. It lets me down; I’m just not in the habit of doing it. I am hoping that this term where I’m being asked to put massive amounts of effort into having things to say in essays will help with this issue; that’s the challenge.

One thing that will need modifying to suit this is my fairly concrete and solidified workflow for studying. I read the reading, I summarise it into my own words as notes, I print these out, I go through these and add notes and cross-references and underlining, I write an essay plan out by hand on plain A4, I write the essay, I go to the tute, I summarise scribbled tute notes typed again, print these out, and put it all in a ringbinder in that order. I am always very unsure about note-making and worry that I write too much. There are parts of my notes that I rely on for essays and are useful but other parts I automatically scan over when I read through. If I could tell in advance which bits I’d scan like this, I then wouldn’t write them, and that would be very beneficial! Also I’m not sure how useful notes of this form are for revision, though hard to tell about that yet. For Plato this term I’m going to stop making serious notes like this for secondary reading. I’ll be making very few notes in fact, it seems, and just putting multiple hours into my essay plan. Scary, so, better get to it.

A technical thing related to this. All my work is typed into Org-mode files with a structure representing this workflow which in fact I have an automatic template (TextMate snippet-like) for. I originally wanted to type it all in and then at the very end do a massive export to PDF but this doesn’t work because I want it in the chunks described above, so I now have settings in the file to allow me to export the subsections. I think actually check the resultant PDF files into git along with the Org files. This is because while TeX was designed to compile to the same thing whatever version you use, I rely on included templates and Emacs settings which do get modified from time to time, and so I want to keep a copy of what the file actually looks like. But even then not everything is electronic, because on the printed version I write things in the margins. My point is that I can’t have everything electronic, however much I want to, at this stage of my education.