first year college students and moral relativism

Justin McBrayer, a philosophy professor, wrote not long ago in The New York Times, “philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.” McBrayer attributes this situation to the Common Core, which recommends teaching young children a distinction between facts and opinions. Because values aren’t viewed as facts, they get put into the opinion basket. So the same basket that contains “I prefer vanilla ice cream” also contains “genocide is bad.”

I happen to be teaching a whole class of first year undergraduates in a philosophy course, and I asked them whether they shared the relativism attributed to their demographic group by McBrayer. About one third agreed that moral claims are “mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.” Roughly the same number disagreed. Many were uncertain. After about an hour’s discussion, it was evident that most students held quite complicated or nuanced views. Everyone’s position sounded different, but I think many would like to hold onto: 1) moral seriousness and the assumption that it makes a big difference what we conclude about moral issues, 2) an ability to decry certain horrible acts as evil, 3) a recognition of ideological diversity, 4) a distinction between moral claims and empirical claims, 5) falliblism and an acknowledgement that context affects, or even determines, everyone’s thought, including our own, and 6) tolerance, which they recognize as a value, not as an absence of values. Those assumptions are in some tension, but it’s possible to pull them together into a complex position.

I don’t want to generalize based on an “n” of 15 people at one college, but if anyone asks me for evidence that Kids Today are amoral relativists–or that they have turned into censorious absolutists–I offer this counter-evidence.

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CIRCLE identifies top 50 congressional districts for the youth vote

Medford/Somerville, MA – Will the youth vote help shape the next Congress? A new index ranks the top 50 districts where young people could have a significant influence on the outcome of Congressional races across the country. The Youth Electoral Significance Index Top 50 was developed exclusively by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) – the preeminent, non-partisan research center on youth engagement at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.

Taking into account the competitiveness of the Congressional races, as well demographic characteristics, the number of higher education institutions in the district, and historical youth turnout data, the index highlights the districts where young people are poised to have a disproportionately high impact this year.

“Young people can shape our elections and the make-up of Congress, but their potential is limited when campaigns don’t reach out to them,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Director of CIRCLE. “We hope this tool encourages campaigns, media outlets, and advocates in these districts – and in many others – to engage young people on issues that matter to them.”

Key findings include:

  • Iowa’s 1st Congressional District comes out on top due in large part to a large number of college campuses (31) and high percentage of young people enrolled in college in the district.
  • New York has six Congressional Districts in the YESI Top 50, the most of any state. Though New York tends to be reliably Democratic in presidential and Senate elections, many Congressional races are much more fiercely contested.
  • Colorado has four districts on this list, including the number 2 spot in the ranking: the Colorado 6th, which includes the eastern part of the Denver-Aurora metro area. This district ranks highly due to its competitiveness: in 2012, the election was decided by only 7,000 votes, young people cast a high number of ballots, and the seat is expected to be highly contested again this year.
  • Four Michigan districts make the Top 50, including two in the top 15: Michigan’s 7th District, which includes parts of Lansing, the western suburbs of Ann Arbor, and the southeast corner of the state; and Michigan’s 1st District, in which there are 12 colleges and universities with close to 20,000 enrolled students.

Throughout this election season, CIRCLE’s 2016 Election Center will offer new data products and detailed youth voting analyses.

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social justice should not be a cliché

We should strive for social justice. But what is it?

I fear that the phrase can be used to mean: “All the things that we’d like to see in a society.” In that case, anyone who doesn’t commit to pursue “social justice” (by that name) must be against at least some of these good things; and anyone who doesn’t agree with us about what’s good must be against social justice. Then it’s us versus them: the people who care about social justice against those who don’t. The result can be a warm feeling of righteousness and solidarity, perhaps admixed with some regret that our actions don’t live up to our words.

But ask yourself: What are the things you’d like to see in a society? They are likely to be heterogeneous. For instance, equality comes in many forms, all of which may be attractive even though some are in tension (equality of opportunity, of outcomes, of status, of rights; equality for members of a community, for all adults, for all human beings, etc.). And equality won’t suffice, because no one wants to see a society in which everyone is equally miserable and oppressed. So even strong egalitarians also want some combination of liberty, peace, solidarity or community, human flourishing, excellence, and/or sustainability, for all those equal people. But liberty and equality-of-outcomes trade off, as do liberty and solidarity. In some cases, the means to achieve valuable ends are bad or they undermine the ends. For instance, I’d like to see everyone be able to work, but I worry that any policy that guaranteed employment would also undermine the value and dignity of the labor.

Once you spell out what you value with due attention to priorities, means, costs, and tradeoffs, it’s likely that your own view will be unique, or at least unusual. That chips away at the us-versus-them framework. You may begin to see other people’s views as attractive even as you continue to endorse your own. There are certainly selfish and foolish people in the world, but now it begins to seem that many of our fellow citizens also favor “social justice.” They just disagree about what it is, because that’s a profoundly hard question.

See also: we are for social justice, but what is it?on the moral peril of cliché and what to do about iton the moral dangers of cliché; and .

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three ways of thinking about fluctuations in polls

With the national presidential polls suddenly looking very tight, here are three ways of looking at the state of the election.

  1. An election is like a race. As in a race, the contenders stand in some relation to each other at any given moment. They can increase or reduce their speeds, but it’s an advantage to be in front, and more so as time passes. If an election is like a race, then it becomes increasingly important who’s ahead as the finish line approaches. A race course may have features that favor one or the other contender at a given moment. For instance, each presidential candidate gets a burst of speed after her or his convention, and a debate offers a chance for one of them to speed up or stumble, but the last stretch will be pretty level and even. In that case, it is bad news for Clinton that her lead had dissipated as we’ve moved through September. Much depends on whether that trend continues or reverses in the next few weeks, because by mid-October, a candidate who trails has little time to make up the gap. (That conclusion follows from the race metaphor.) It supports the idea that Trump has as much as a 40% chance of winning.
  2. An election is an event that occurs at one moment (although kind of a stretched-out moment nowadays, thanks to early voting). Polls ask people how they will vote once the big moment comes. It’s not clear when our predictions are most accurate, and accuracy may not necessarily increase over time. Instead, we might think of each of the many hundreds of polls taken so far as a measure of how the public will vote once the actual election comes. The best estimate, from this Bayesian perspective, averages all the polls taken so far. It does so not only to maximize the sample size but also to negate the random variations in competitors’ standing due to recent events. As Sam Wang says, “I still expect Clinton’s lead to increase again, on the grounds that she has led all year. Previously, I noted that the national Clinton-vs.-Trump margin in 2016 has averaged 4.5 percentage points. The standard deviation is 2.2 points, comparable to the four Presidential elections from 2004 to 2012. … Today, conditions seem right for regression to the mean.'” There is no such thing as regression to the mean in a race, where the leader accumulates an increasing chance of winning. But this second way of thinking about the election avoids the race analogy. Wang‘s own Bayesian prediction is a little more complicated, but it gives Trump only a 14% chance of winning.
  3. An election is an event that will happen at one moment in the future, and each poll is a prediction of what will happen when that moment comes–but the sample that responds to pollsters varies depending on recent events. Democrats, for instance, may have become marginally less likely to answer surveys in the last two weeks because of some generalized discouragement–or Republicans who were going to vote for Trump all along may have become more willing to answer the pollsters’ calls. If this theory applies, I think we should act as Wang recommends, because we should treat the variations in response rates as pretty random. But we might view the real vote as similar to a single poll and ask whether the experience of actually voting will encourage or discourage the people who have been favorable to Clinton or to Trump all along. We cannot tell the answer to that question from poll data, but we might propose reasonable hypotheses about it.

Since I don’t know which of these theories is true, I’m inclined to estimate the odds of a Clinton win somewhere between the Bayesian estimate (86% or so) and the horse race estimate of only about 60%.

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how schools teach about political parties

According to a new paper released today by CIRCLE:

  • Forty-three states require students to learn about political parties; however, the language in the standards nearly always promotes a simplistic understanding of the role that political parties play in a democracy.
  • Only eight states ask students to study the ideological underpinnings of the two major political parties.
  • Only 10 states ask students to study controversial political issues and their relationship to political parties.
  • There is very limited support for learning about political ideology. When states do include language about ideology, it is most commonly mentioned in history/social studies standards and very rarely linked to contemporary political parties.

“This generation has grown up in a vitriolic and polarized political climate. In order to sort through the noise, young people need to have a deep understanding of the ideological values that divide us and how those values do, and do not, map onto political parties,” reports Paula McAvoy, lead author of the study and program director for the Center for Ethics and Education at UW-Madison, who completed this study with Rebecca Fine and Ann Herrera Ward.  “Our team’s findings show that state standards stop short of asking students to make meaningful connections between partisanship, ideology, and the issues of the day.  If schools are to fulfill their mission of preparing young people for political participation, teachers need to be encouraged to bring these ideas into the classroom.”

“Understanding what major political parties are and what they stand for is essential in navigating politics and elections in the U.S., but very little support exists.  These findings emphasize the need to strengthen standards and support teachers in U.S. civic education,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Director of CIRCLE. “Encouraging this type of learning about politics, elections and voting is a major reason why we are collaborating with other organizations to support teachers during this election year via the Teaching for Democracy Alliance.” For more on this Alliance see here.

For CIRCLE’s full briefing, please see here or the interactive map here. More research and background on youth civic education can be found on CIRCLE’s Quick Facts on Civic Education page.

CIRCLE’s 2016 Election Center will continue to offer data products and analyses providing a comprehensive picture of the youth vote, including the Youth Electoral Significance Index, which offers insight into key states where young people have the potential to shape the 2016 general election.

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credentials for specific skills and their implications for liberal education

Potential employers of young workers tend to value degrees (high school and college), courses, majors and grades, and previous jobs. Those are all experiences that a person completes, rather than direct evidence of one’s capacity to do a given task. In a tight market, employers can raise the bar, so that–for example–65% of new openings for executive assistants and executive secretaries now require a BA, even though only 19% of the people who now hold such jobs have college degrees. This is bad news for the two-thirds of young people who have not attained at least a bachelors degree. It’s also a potential loss for employers, who may be missing the people who would do the best work although they haven’t accumulated the most highly-valued experiences. One widely promoted solution–getting everyone through college–seems both unrealistic and needlessly expensive.

Why do employers use college degrees and other major experiences to select employees? I would propose these explanations:

  1. Employers are actually looking for concrete skills, such as the ability to write a coherent memo or schedule a meeting. In the absence of direct measures of such skills, they use college completion as a rough proxy. That is unfortunate because it isn’t a precise measure, it can discriminate on the basis of social class, and it drives colleges and universities to advertise highly concrete skills as their outcomes even though that distorts their real educational mission.
  2. Employers have a more general theory of “merit,” which may encompass broad literacy and numeracy, self-discipline, social skills, critical thinking, etc. Employers may feel, furthermore, that the competition to enter and then complete a selective college is a measure of such merit. They need not believe that merit is innate to use it as a selection criterion. Success in school could result from investments in the home, community, school, and college, and still be an indicator of value for an enterprise. The content of the education may be fairly unimportant to the employers; the point is that school/college is a difficult competition, and those who get through it are more likely to contribute to their enterprise. By the way, if this theory applies, then getting everyone through college would only raise the goalposts; employers would start looking for graduate degrees. The idea of general “merit,” however, is highly problematic–not only morally, but also because completing a fancy college may not show that you are well suited to a particular job. Once again, the most truly qualified candidates may be left aside, which is waste of human potential as well as an injustice.
  3. Employers may value the goods that liberal education explicitly promises: genuinely critical thinking, reflection on the good life, sensitivity to culture, truth about nature and humankind, etc. This explanation may apply in a few workplaces, but I must say I am cynical about it. Most organizations have fixed ends or objectives and are really only interested in critical reflection about means (if they’re open to criticism at all). But the heart of a liberal education is critical reflection about ends: about the nature of a good life and a good society. Starting with Socrates, some have concluded that if you are seriously critical of ends, then you must be independent of institutions, although that might make you a poor employee in most organizations. In the classic text that first defined “the liberal arts,” Seneca wrote, “I respect no study, and deem no study good, which results in money-making.” To be sure, Seneca was a slave-owning aristocrat who had plenty of money to start with. One can find a compromise between the highest goals of a liberal education and the need to put food on the table. But the two objectives at least seem in tension.
  4. A variant of the previous theory is that employers seek a certain kind of cultural capital that results from a liberal education. When they choose employees from colleges like the ones they attended, it’s not because they prefer radical thinkers. It’s because they want to work with people who know and appreciate the same body of culture. This variant of the theory requires less idealistic assumptions than #3, but I still doubt that it applies in most organizations (other than small white-collar enterprises).

To the extent that the first theory applies, it would make sense to measure a diversity of concrete skills, one at a time, and provide portable certificates for individuals who can demonstrate them. That would allow people who demonstrate a given skill to win relevant jobs even though they may not be on a path to college. It would allow employers to choose more appropriate workers, and perhaps with less invidious bias. It would allow colleges that actually teach specific skills to gain credit for doing so. It would make space for organizations like my own to certify concrete political and civic skills that might lead to jobs or leadership roles. At the same time, it would relieve colleges from having to sell their bachelors degrees as indicators of concrete skills. Instead, they could offer genuine liberal education.

I acknowledge the risk. If prospective students only care about jobs, or are forced by economic circumstances to put employment first, and if employers only care about concrete job skills, then organizations that teach and certify job skills could put the liberal arts (k-16) out of business. But I think that maybe the liberal arts would be better off claiming that they enhance the soul and the community, instead of living off an inefficiency in the labor market.

See also: Bourdieu in the college admissions officegames, digital badges, and alternative assessments in civicsthe controversy over badges.

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two kinds of populism

Last May, at a campaign rally, Donald Trump said, “the only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything.” Jan-Werner Müller quotes that phrase both in his book What is Populism? and in a useful summary article that he wrote for The Guardian. Müller defines “populism” so that it describes Trump, Hungry’s Viktor Orbán, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Britain’s Nigel Farage, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but not Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn. The difference isn’t their placement on a left-right spectrum but their attitude toward diversity. In his book (p. 101), Müller writes:

Not everyone who criticizes elites is a populist. In addition to being antielitist, populists are antipluralist. They claim that they and they alone represent the people. All other political competitors are essentially illegitimate, and anyone who does not support them is not properly part of the people. When in opposition, populists will necessarily insist that elites are immoral, whereas the people are a moral, homogeneous entity whose will cannot err.

Müller thinks that populists despise actual participation because the bestpolicy can already be deduced from a correct understanding of “the people.” If populists support referenda, it’s only because they expect their view to win. When they lose elections, they are prone to declare them illegitimate. Their fundamental stance is inconsistent with immigration and an independent civil society, both of which threaten an imagined uniformity of identity and beliefs.

The results are very dangerous (p. 102):

Populists can govern, and they are likely to do so in line with the idea that only they represent the idea of the people. Concretely, they will engage in occupying the state, mass clientelism and corruption, and the suppression of anything like a critical civil society. These practices find an explicit moral justification in the populist political imagination and hence can be avowed openly.

Note that Müller’s account avoids attributing views to populists that they would dispute. It doesn’t assume, for instance, that Trump is a representative of “deplorables,” defined by their racism and sexism. It takes his explicit views at face value and explains their dangerous implications.

That said, “populism” can have a different meaning. It can be explicitly and fundamentally pluralist. In her recent book Populism’s Power: Radical Grassroots Democracy in America, Laura Grattan writes:

Radical democratic actors, from grassroots revolutionaries, to insurgent farmers and laborers, to agitators for the New Deal, Civil Rights, and the New Left, have historically drawn on the language and practices of populism. In doing so, they have cultivated peoples’ rebellious aspirations not just to resist power, but to share in power, and to do so in pluralistic, egalitarian ways across social and geographic borders.

In the examples that Grattan explores, populists who celebrate “the people” (in contrast to corrupt elites) do not merely tolerate diversity or accommodate themselves to it. They are actively enthusiastic about pluralism, inventing “alternative” spaces and styles of engagement, inviting disparate actors to join in their festivals and parades, emphasizing freedom of speech and assembly as core values, and usually preferring to retain some distance from the state. In fact, one of their political liabilities is their tendency to splinter because they fear uniformity.

In the US context, being populist in that sense requires a concern for racial and ethnic inclusion. However, traditions of pluralist populism go back to Old World countries that were more ethnically homogeneous. Mikhail Bakhtin recovered the medieval spirit of carnivals, of special feast days, and of places set aside to be fairs. In the carnival, all social strata, deviant groups, odd individuals, and exaggerated behaviors were welcomed and expected to mix on terms of equality. The spirit of carnival was populist in the sense that it encompassed the whole people and undermined hierarchies and distinctions, but at the same time it celebrated differences, novelties, and creativity. It was part of what Grattan calls “the language and practices of populism.”

The carnival was a world apart. It didn’t reliably improve the everyday world of authority and control except by giving people circumscribed times and places in which to escape and create ephemera together. Democratic revolutions drew on the carnival tradition, but not in sustained or satisfactory ways. I think that countering Trumpian populism requires liberal norms: limited government and individual rights guaranteed by written laws and independent courts. These protections are necessary but not very vibrant and participatory. We also need a dose of pluralist, carnivalesque populism to answer the grim version on offer from men like Donald Trump.

Here is Grattan’s talk at this year’s Frontiers of Democracy Conference.

See also: is Trumpism akin to the European right?; the word “populism”why the white working class must organizeGerald Taylor on property, populism, and democracyagainst a cerebral view of citizenshipSt. Margaret of Cortona and medieval populism; and a darker As You Like It.

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join us at the National Conference on Citizenship, Oct 13-14

The National Conference on Citizenship is always an important gathering of Americans who strive to improve our nation’s civic life. This year, the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University is an equal partner in sponsoring and planning the conference. It will be highly interactive and will focus on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I urge allies and colleagues to join us there. The official invitation follows:

Are you concerned about civic life in America?  Are you frustrated by fractured communities, divisive politics, and processes that exclude many of our people?  Do you feel we can do better?  Do you have solutions you want to share with others?

Then join fellow citizens, government leaders, and innovative entrepreneurs who are working to design and support engaged and resilient communities at the 2016 Annual Conference on Citizenship in Washington, DC.

The 2016 conference is Co-hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University and will specifically focus on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in civic life. Unless we make progress on these issues, we cannot move our country forward. 

Click here to view the agenda at-a-glance.

The 2016 conference will be highly interactive. Participants will help shape the agenda for civic renewal in America and will leave with contacts and practical ideas to strengthen their own work. There will be opportunities to address unresolved and contested issues in civic life.

The National Conference on Citizenship draws practitioners in fields like; democracy and political participation, service, civic education, community development, community organizing, public deliberation, health and wellness, youth development and workforce development, public arts and humanities, collaborative governance and work with government agencies, civic technology, and social entrepreneurship, and people from other fields interested in improving America’s civic life.

Please join us for this important convening and invite other colleagues whose voices need to be heard. Register today!

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information, news, and meaning

Walter Benjamin was a radical social theorist in the high Continental tradition. John Dewey was an American pragmatist and a democrat. T.S. Eliot was a political reactionary. Despite their differences, they lived around the same time and sometimes made a very similar point: information is replacing wisdom or meaning.

I quote some passages to that effect below. I won’t supply a lot of commentary–let alone any solutions–but I do want to underline the urgency of their point. It’s estimated that people now produce and exchange 2.5 billion exabytes of data every day. All the words that people have spoken since the origins of the species amount to roughly 4 billion exabytes. That means that between now and Friday afternoon, we will create and share about as much new data as we have had time to speak since the early Paleolithic. I’m not assuming that speech is better than text or images, but this comparison underlines the astounding growth in volume. Meanwhile, wisdom seems more or less flat. We hope that increasingly powerful analytical tools can make sense of all the new data, but perhaps they just add another level of transient information.

1.  In “The Storyteller” (1936), Walter Benjamin argues that traditional storytelling took two forms: reports from far away and versions of local tradition. Both forms were oral and social, the storyteller interacting with a live audience. Both were intended to be useful, conveying a moral message or practical guidance and building a community.

The novel, Benjamin argues, undermined storytelling. It existed for many centuries but only grew into an important institution with the rise of the bourgeoisie, for whom information is a commodity with economic value. The novel’s rise was simultaneous with the development of the news media as purveyors of information, epitomized by the French center-right daily newspaper Le Figaro:

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 10.45.40 AM
From our perspective, the nineteenth-century novel might seem a repository of profound meaning. For Benjamin, it was already a way-station on the route from meaningful stories (which were concise, ethically demanding, and social) to information as a commodity.

2. T.S. Eliot, “The Rock” (1934):

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness …
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

3. John Dewey, from The Public and its Problems (1927):

The physical agencies of publicity [of communicating with the public] which exist in large abundance are utilized in ways which constitute a large part of the present meaning of publicity: advertising, propaganda, invasion of private life, the ‘featuring’ of private incidents in a way which violates all the moving logic of continuity, and which leaves us with those isolated intrusions and shocks which are the essence of ‘sensations’ [pp. 168-9] …

‘News’ signifies something which has just happened, and which is new just because it deviates from the old and regular. But its meaning depends on relation to what it imports, to what its social consequences are. This import cannot be determined unless the new is placed in relation to the old, to what has happened and been integrated into the course of events. Without coordination and consecutiveness, events are not events but mere occurrences, intrusions; an event implies that out of which a happening proceeds. … The catastrophic, namely, crime, accident, family rows, personal clashes and conflicts, are the most obvious forms of breaches of continuity; they supply the element of shock which is the strictest meaning of sensation; they are the new par excellence, even though only the date of the newspaper could inform us whether they happened last year or this, so completely are they isolated from their connections [179-80].

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Call for Papers: Facts, Values, and Strategies in Citizen Politics

Tufts’ University’s Tisch College of Civic Life and the journal The Good Society seek proposals for papers to be presented at a conference at Tufts on May 18, 2017 and then published in The Good Society as part of a special issue edited by Tisch Associate Dean Peter Levine. Tisch College can offer travel and lodging for presenters at the conference.


Current global crises of democracy raise fundamental questions about how citizens can be responsible and effective actors, whether they are combating racism in the United States, protecting human rights in the Middle East, or addressing climate change. If “citizens” are people who strive to leave their communities greater and more beautiful (as in the Athenian citizen’s oath), then their thinking must combine facts, values, and strategies, because all three influence any wise decision. Mainstream scholarship distinguishes facts, values, and strategies, assigning them to different branches of the academy. Many critics have noted the philosophical shortcomings of the fact/value distinction, but citizens need accounts of how facts, values, and strategies can be recombined, both in theory and in practice. John Dewey, Hannah Arendt, Mahatma Gandhi, Jürgen Habermas, Amartya Sen—and many other theorists of citizenship—have offered such accounts.

Actual civic movements also combine facts, values, and strategies in distinctive ways. For instance, the American Civil Rights Movement used the language of prophesy, and Second Wave Feminism strategically advocated new ways of knowing. This special issue invites theoretical, methodological, historical, empirical, and case-study articles related to the question: how should citizens put facts, values, and strategies together?

Paper proposals of up to 300 words should be sent to Peter Levine at and to Good Society editor Trygve Throntveit at by November 1, 2016. Prospective authors must be willing to present drafts by May 1 2017, attend a one-day conference at Tufts on May 18, and revise for final publication by September 2017.

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