Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Follow up from post on Scholarship and Popular Media

So, last week I posted about John Oliver's segment and how it is related to the rhetorical analysis assignment I give my students.  

Then a friend posted this old PHD Comic


And then I saw this video about how maple syrup kills cancer. It's related to this study, which does not make anywhere near as bold a claim as that.



So, yeah, the essay assignment remains relevant.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Popular Science and Scholarly Science - An Assignment

For a few years now, I've been using a version of an assignment developed by Dana Ferris in which the students perform a rhetorical analysis of two texts:

  • A study from a scholarly journal 
  • The popular media's reporting on that issue. 

It's worth noting here (as Dana pointed out in an FB comment,) this assignment was inspired by an assignment from the first edition of Writing about Writing by Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs.

I enjoy the assignment because it's big and messy and it gets at the larger learning objectives a first-year writing course should aim for.

And now I have a reason to show John Oliver in class!

I wrote as much on Facebook after sharing that video this morning (it's work-related).

One of my colleagues asked me to share the assignment, and so, here it is.

On the day I introduce the assignment, the students have two readings to complete before class.

  • One is an online textbook chapter on A) how much of a pain in the ass it is to read scholarly journal articles and B) some tips on how to read those articles.
  • The second reading is a scholarly journal article by Ken Hyland about comparing popular media readings to scholarly readings. 
In class we consider the readings (and in future classes, we'll watch that Last Week Tonight video), and then we walk through the assignment. 








We then visit the library to A) meet with a librarian who shows us how to search for scholarly articles and B) search for a popular report on a subject that interests each student personally (maybe the topic is related to the student's major).

While they read, annotate, and analyze their two articles, they also read a textbook chapter on genre and another on rhetorical analysis.

The goal is to give the students language they can use in their essays, and that's a lot of what lecture is about before introducing an in-class activity that asks students to complete a table by comparing rhetorical features of the two articles.

Then they draft, get peer feedback, revise, get instructor feedback, and finally have the option to revise for their portfolios.

Again, it's a great assignment, and now with more comedy!



Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Emoji and Language

This week's Idea Channel video is about emoji, writing, language, discourse analysis, linguistics, composition, mediated speech, technology, and the larger question of what makes something language.

So, yeah, I was pretty into it.
The video goes out of its way to point us toward Gretchen McCulloch's blog, All Things Linguistic. It also shows the way to her SXSW talk on the subject (with slides!).

All of it is worth a listen.

Monday, April 18, 2016


I Won't Ignore a Lack of Smoking Guns

I admire Naomi Klein. She is an important voice in the climate change debate. She models an intelligent way to argue against globalization. Her book No Logo is immensely important for people trying to understand how the modern corporation has impacted cultures.

But my admiration does not mean I will unquestioningly accept everything she has to say. I expect a smart argument from Klein.

That is why I was disappointed when I finally got around to reading Klein's piece in The Nation from earlier this month. I expected a critique of Clinton, which I got. But more importantly, from Klein I expected a careful critique, which I did not get.

I'm proud of the debate the Democratic presidential primary has fostered. It's been invigorating to read and listen to arguments about criminal justice reform, environmental regulations, and economic inequality. Bernie Sanders deserves a lot of credit for bringing these issues to the fore.

But to put a new spin on one of Clinton's go-to lines from the New York debate: It is one thing to demand we debate an issue; it is another thing to debate that issue in a substantive way.

Klein spends the first third of her piece arguing this: We do not need to find any clear evidence that Clinton has been corrupted in order to argue that she is in fact corrupt.

I'm not exaggerating.

After admitting there "is no proof–no 'smoking gun'," Klein's argument effectively becomes "Clinton’s web of corporate entanglements is deeply alarming with or without a 'smoking gun.'” This statement is followed by two things:
1. A description of just how serious the climate change issue is (a description no one from the Clinton camp would deny).
2. An invitation to "forget the smoking guns for the moment."

At that invitation, I'm already checking out. Even though the rest of the piece includes some smart analysis of Clinton-style policy making, it is out of line for Klein argue we should accept Clinton as corrupt without clear evidence.

When we discuss Clinton, we are talking about a woman who has been the target of countless smear campaigns. By itself, that's not a problem; Clinton is a prominent public figure, which makes her a target for those kinds of attacks. She can handle it.

But for people who are critically engaged in public political discourse, the existence of clear evidence is the only way we can sort the smears from the substantive attacks.

When an intelligent public thinker such as Klein asks us to ignore the lack of evidence - even if only for the moment - she is asking us to suspend our critical engagement.

And where does that lead us?

Later in Klein's piece, we read this:
Books have been filled with the failures of Clinton-style philanthrocapitalism. When it comes to climate change, we have all the evidence we need to know that this model is a disaster on a planetary scale. 
Let's examine what Klein has asserted here.

Klein, who writes primarily about climate change, would have us believe the model used by The Clinton Foundation is a disaster on a planetary scale. She doesn't say the model has contributed to the planetary disaster of climate change. No. The "model is a disaster on a planetary scale."

Klein's language is placing the blame for climate change on The Clinton Foundation

Of course I know Klein doesn't think the climate change crisis began in 2001 when the Bill Clinton started the non-profit foundation.

That's silly.

But when we expect readers to accept arguments (or accusations) without evidence, we are allowed to say some silly things.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

The Forest, Trees, and Tax Plans

Last week I composed an argument for why I won't vote for the very likable Bernie Sanders.

I struggled while writing that.

I didn't struggle because it was a difficult argument.

I struggled because I knew I was going into the weeds. I wanted to bring evidence from Bernie's website into the discussion. I wanted to show where and why his plans are flawed.

That choice demonstrated a lack of audience awareness on my part.

Like many scholars and teachers before me, I want my students to research, critique, and consider their intended audience whenever they compose a message.

I have a theory of writing ability; it informs how I teach. Based on that theory, I decide what kinds of activities will improve a student's writing. An important part of my theory suggests that developing audience awareness leads to improved writing.

And while reflecting on this during discussions in my Composition Pedagogy course, I thought back to my post on Bernie.

Going into the details was the wrong path. The arguments driving this election are not about the details.

I want people to vote based on policies and platforms that will impact their lives, and that's why I construct arguments based on proposed policy.

For example, my family cannot afford Bernie's $4k-$9k increase in our federal taxes.

But there I go again.

That's not a picture of Bernie getting arrested in the 60s. Nor is it a video of Clinton's uncomfortable reaction to a protester interrupting a fund raising event.

No. It's just me citing policy analysis produced by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center.  It's just me considering how two candidates' proposals would impact me personally.

And I'm silly enough to believe that is what should drive people to the polls.

So, I guess that's the argument that needs to be made first. Before I can use real policy analysis, I need to make this argument:

When considering who to vote into any elected office, we each as individuals need to consider what evidence is the most valuable in the argument for our vote.

Is it enough for candidates to tell us what they want in the future, or should we expect them to respond to expert critiques of their plans?

But then we get back into the weeds again, don't we?
Who is an expert? Is any group truly non-partisan? How much would I save on healthcare or college if Bernie gets his way? And----

Hey, did you hear what that dummy said about his johnson in the debate?

I don't know.

I do love to debate politics, and I enjoy the ways election season tests my convictions.

I try to use these experiences to help me develop professionally and personally.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Who I'm Not Voting For - An Argument

This morning a relative of mine posted an old picture of Trump and Hillary at an event. The first comment says that the system is broken and we should vote for Bernie.

I've stayed out of politics during these primaries because of work and the insanity of these primaries.

But this social media post got me writing.

I really like what Bernie has to say. A lot.

And I think he could beat many of the GOP candidates in the general election (probably not Rubio or Kasich).

But I will not vote for Bernie for two important reasons.

First, Bernie's promise of a political revolution - the revolution that would allow him to overcome opposition to his agenda - is deeply problematic.

The Tea Party made a similar promise and sent a bunch of idiots to Congress in an attempt to overcome Beltway gridlock. To be fair to them, I'll cite two examples to support calling Tea Party representatives idiots.
1) They shut down the government and
2) They threatened to defaut on the nation's debt.
Many Tea Party people actually still think those were good ideas, and when you ask them why, they'll tell you it's because "the system is broken."

Bernie wants to sweep aside any opposition to his bold plans by ushering in a political revolution that will put new like-minded people in Congress. So, who are those people?
Seriously. I'm asking. I don't know who will fill those seats.

Is Bernie planning to bring in the Left's version of the Tea Party? That's what it sounds like, and I want no part of that.

Governing is challenging and complex work that requires compromise. The revolution Bernie is calling for fails to see that. It is uncompromising in its vision. I don't like that.

When I think of Obama's greatest achievements, I see bold plans that were blunted and bruised by the process, but they moved forward.

Second, even if Bernie's economic plans work in the long term (which I don't think they will), they will cause so much economic disruption that my generation will live in a very insecure economic environment. I'm raising kids. I have a great union job working for the State of California. The level of upheaval Bernie is proposing at the national level would create stress that might lead to backlash at the state level.

Now, I recognize some people in the US are struggling more than I am, and I understand this is a serious issue - one that should drive the decision about how we all vote. But when I look at Bernie's supporting evidence for his argument about how he'll pay for all this, I am not convinced.
From how Sander's will pay for College for All

Here's a screenshot from a white paper on how Sander's would use a tax on Wall Street to pay for his 'college for all' plan. In it, the economist assumes trading volume would fall by 50%. Ummm... That's kind of a big deal. If you were looking for a way to fuel income inequality, this unintended consequence is an excellent way to do that, because it would make it so only the wealthy could afford to invest in the US economy.

It's a bad plan. I'd love to see 'college for all' happen, but this is not a workable path to that idea.

This op-ed from Fareed Zakaria gives a sense of what the broader community of economists think of Sander's plans. The entire set of plans "assumes that per capita growth would average 4.5 percent (more than double the rate over the past three decades), and that the employment-to-population ratio would suddenly reverse its long decline and reach 65 percent, the highest ever. Even more magically, productivity growth would rise to 3.18 percent. As Kevin Drum has pointed out in Mother Jones, 'there has never been a 10-year period since World War II in which productivity grew by 3.18 percent.'"

These are not viable plans.

So, why are we listening?

Because these plans are what we want to hear. We want someone with bold ideas to come and fix a deeply flawed system.

But here's the thing. The system always has been and always will be deeply flawed, because it is a human system. We don't get to fix that without some kind of Skynet event.

The rise of Bernie's vision and others like it have been fueled by a belief that our system's flaws are leading us to some kind of destruction.

I get nervous when a politician tells me we have to follow his plan or else our world will fall apart. That's a desperate rhetorical trick.

Our world is not ending; it's changing.
The system is not broken, it's imperfect.
And no, Bernie, it is not a disgrace to live in an America with imperfect healthcare.

Sure, it might be a little embarrassing at times, but it is not a disgrace.

I wish we took better care of the poor. I wish we supported a stronger education system. I wish we did more to fight economic inequality.

But those are stars to navigate by; they are not policy goals for a first term.

And the thing is, we are actually doing an okay job... if you're willing to take the long view.

Our large and diverse nation is navigating changing times as well or better than the rest of the world.
We have 4.9% unemployment with some upward pressure on wages.
Our investment markets have been crazy, but they are functioning despite uncertainty out of Europe, China, Japan, Russia, and Brazil (to name a few).
At the end of last year we passed a huge infrastructure bill.
More people have healthcare.
It looks like people might start buying homes again.
Marriage equality is here to stay.
We've ended No Child Left Behind.
I could keep going, because we are moving in the right direction. It takes time, work, and patience, but that's how progress works.

The argument that we need a major upheaval is an appeal to emotion with very little basis in fact, and that is why I won't vote for Bernie.

And the length of this post is why I've been trying to avoid political conversations for the last few months. If you've stuck with me this long, thanks

Monday, February 15, 2016

That Thing We Do [fixed]

There's this thing many composition teachers do. I do it too.

We share our students' particularly egregious writing errors or silly writing constructions with friends, spouses, peers, and really, anyone who will listen. We do so looking for a laugh.

We need to do this. We read a lot of mistakes, and finding humor in some of those mistakes makes the difficult work easier.

I have no problem with this practice, although I'm not crazy about seeing student errors shared in big public spaces. I see a lot of it on Facebook, and sometimes feel like those post are exploiting our students. Regardless of what I think, however, this stuff does get out into the social media landscape and onto click-bait websites.

The problem isn't the sharing; it's the responses I often see when people read these errors. 

It's always some version of this: 
How did that student get into college? 
or
How did that student get out of middle school?

The follow up goes one of two ways. People either suggest A) kids today are dumber than they should be or else B) our teachers aren't doing their jobs.

There are so many things wrong with these reactions, but I only want to get into two of the problems here.

First, composition instructors don't share examples of average writing. The stuff that works in a composition class is not amusing to outside readers. The only thing we're going to share are the hilarious mistakes (maybe the occasional moments of graceful writing), and it seems a bit unfair to judge an entire generation (or their teachers) based on such a biased sample.

Second, let's not decide if a student deserves a university education based on a poorly-worded attempt at a writing task. I mean, if the instructor is any good, the task should be challenging, making mistakes all the more likely. 

Keep in mind, the entire discipline of composition and rhetoric has been defined and redefined by the continued expansion of access to a college. We owe much of our livelihood to people who believe the opportunity to attend college should be extended to a larger portion of the population. 
Here's some of that history:
Yes. We should admit veterans to college.
Yes. We should admit economically disadvantaged students to college.
Yes. We should admit minorities to college.
Yes. We should admit people who grew up with families that don't speak English to college.
Yes. We should admit students from other countries to college.
And the list will continue to grow, because knowledge is valuable. 

It doesn't make the job easier. So, we'll probably continue to share the funny mistakes our students make. Just don't allow those mistakes to be taken out of context. 

EDIT: When I first posted, I was in a rush and used images and links to some fictional student errors. I was trying to illustrate how this stuff gets out there - beyond the first Facebook share. But that wasn't really important, and the lazy link undermined the larger point - as my friend Aaron pointed out with some glee on Facebook. I've pulled those links and images, but here's the Snopes article on it.