Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Let STEM be

Today is the birthday of one of the STEM movement's major proponents, Sally Ride. She is a hero of mine because she went to space, and I think that is badass.

Ride was an important part of the successful movement to encourage greater emphasis on the STEM disciplines, STEM being Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

I am a proud fan of that movement. I hope to watch my kids build robots and computers for fun in the not-too-distant future. 

And I am not alone. Policy makers, educators, and producers of educational materials have shown their support for an increased emphasis on the STEM disciplines. 

But now people are upset because they believe this increased emphasis takes away from instruction in the arts. And they aren't really wrong. 

As has been the case with many education reforms, a policy rooted in a good idea slowly gained too much inertia and grew unwieldy. 

When Sally Ride began advocating for more emphasis on STEM education, she was mostly focused on reaching students who are under-represented in the STEM fields. STEM was sorely in need of new points of view. It still is. For this reason (and others) the continued emphasis on STEM learning outcomes remains a laudable goal.

But once people start buying into an argument, they sometimes can't stop. And the new-found love of all things STEM has led some to odd conclusions. There are those who have convinced themselves that the only valuable education is a STEM-based education. 

From that leap of logic springs the inevitable backlash against STEM education goals.

That backlash, however, is not a reaction to the STEM movement; it is a reaction to the oversimplification of the STEM movement. People have pitted the STEM disciplines against the arts with a silly false dichotomy: science good = arts bad.

One result is people calling for policy that replaces STEM with STEAM - making it Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math. 

While this does undermine the false dichotomy, the movement for STEAM is misguided.

I never thought I'd be one to dismiss an argument for better representation of the arts. I studied theater and fiction. I support the arts in my community. I want more arts in school.

But changing STEM to STEAM is the wrong way to go about that. 

STEM education goals are great, but they are not the only goals in our schools. 

And no intelligent STEM advocate is calling for that. 

If a school cuts art programs, we should not blame the STEM disciplines. We should blame the school for such cuts. 

The STEM movement was never supposed to be about bashing the arts or replacing the humanities with "more practical" skills. This is not a zero-sum game. 

But that is the suggestion made by the effort to change STEM to STEAM: 'If we jam an 'A' in there, we've got all of the goals of schooling in this one acronym.'

Not only is that is a misrepresentation of the work done by Sally Ride and others like her, it is a disservice to the broader goals of education. Where is history in that acronym? Where is philosophy or civics? 

STEM disciplines exist alongside the arts and humanities. They are complementary ways of looking at the world.

We should not try to insert the arts into STEM. We should teach the STEM disciplines more effectively. We should also teach the arts more effectively. Our civics classrooms should foster more active participation in governance. Hell, I think every high school kid ought to take an intro to philosophy course.

We should teach our children the many ways to examine the world in an effort to foster scientists who value aesthetics, artists who value systematic inquiry, politicians who can grasp the nuance of a scholarly debate on climate change, pundits who can hear another point of view, and the list goes on. Our goal should be to foster innumerable ways to see the world.  

Let STEM be. 

If you want better outcomes in the arts or the humanities, look to what Sally Ride did, and reach out to the kids who need it most. Show them the beauty of viewing the world through many lenses. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

It is creepy that an algorithm can flatter me so effectively

Had an uncanny valley encounter with an algorithm on the interwebs today.

A while back I signed up for this thing called Klout. It counts your social media interactions and gives you a number that makes you feel popular. I figured why not.

So, they send me an occasional email when I'm having a good run on social media. 
I often read these emails, because the service only sends ego-boosting news: Your score went up!
Anyway, this week when I clicked, their website informed me that I have earned the credentials of "expert" in several categories. 

Now, I know these badges of expertise are just more ego boosting in an effort to keep me coming back, but... and maybe it's just because the Turing Test is in the zeitgeist right now, but...
It is creepy that an algorithm can flatter me so effectively. 

According to a bot, I am an expert in the starred categories listed above.

It's not an entirely accurate list, but even the 'mistakes' make me feel like the bot knows how to say just the right things... or almost just the right thing.

I mean, what does it mean to be an expert in comedy? That's a weird thing to say. Is that to say I am funny, or I know about things that are funny, or I can identify funny things? 

I don't know. It's just weird enough to know that a robot is involved. 

How do you all feel about robotic flattery? 

Friday, May 08, 2015

Grating, know-it-all, killjoys with no sense of humor

Yesterday, after a long day of writing, I read two short think pieces that were well written but wrong-headed. They forced me to confront an uncomfortable truth:

Many writers who have a progressive worldview (similar to my own) are likely perceived as grating, know-it-all, killjoys with no sense of humor.

The first thing I read was a post about Cards Against Humanity by Leigh Alexander over on Boing Boing. The post directs readers to a fun and snarky review of the intentionally offensive board game. The review argues there is nothing funny about the dirty/racist/offensive jokes constructed during game play.

Only moments later, after I breezed through James Franco's sappy look back at a time when he worked at McDonald's, I was directed to Joanna Rothkopf's response. Rothkopf has a good time skewering Franco (it shows in the writing, which is fun from one sentence to the next). The skewering is all about how Franco shouldn't write about McDonald's unless he is willing to go into all of the injustices served up by the fast food giant.

Before I explain why these pieces get on my nerves, let me say this: There is a real problem with misogyny, racism, and classism in modern media.

  • We don't see women portrayed in thoughtful or realistic ways in the movies, video games, comic books, or on television nearly enough
  • Popular media do not portray gender, race, sexuality, or consumer lifestyles in a healthy way. 
  • And why the hell isn't the Wasp part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? 
So, yeah. This is a real issue, and it deserves rigorous scrutiny from fans, social critics, and the media at large, 

Oh, and would you look at that!

That's where this debate has taken me. I just wrote a long version of "I'm not racist, but..."

Regardless of the cliche, however, I don't think what I want to say next is racist or sexist or reactionary or pro-corporate or whatever other horrible label you want to apply.
Here goes:

Because of the systemic nature of racism, misogyny, and pro-consumerism values, nearly everything we see can be critiqued harshly as racist, misogynistic, and/or classist.

For a person who wants to write those types of critiques, it is too easy to sit back and wait for a famous person to speak up, or a movie franchise to become successful, or an independent board game to make millions. And the people who jump on those instances and cry foul are not wrong. 

But pointing it all out is not helping.

Look at the targets I found yesterday. A self-aware board game played among friends (do not play Cards Against Humanity with people you don't know very well... EVER!). Or a celebrity's sentimental throw-away about his time struggling to pay the bills.

And there are so many other examples. Less than a year ago, I responded to a very intelligent argument about Weird Al Yankovic reinforcing racial bias in college writing courses.

But look at what we're objecting to.

It's all ephemeral. It's bubblegum. 

Maybe more importantly, the stuff we're objecting to is the symptom of a much larger problem - a problem that won't be solved by hating on James Franco or trashing a board game. 

When progressive think pieces tear into these light, fluffy bits of pop culture, at a certain point, it all starts to sound like people bragging about how they don't watch TV: "Oh, I don't enjoy the things you enjoy because I'm better than that."

That alienates people. That makes people think progressives live in a world where everything is offensive and there is no fun. The people who tune out are often the people who need most to hear about the bigger problem, who need to see that privilege and inequality are eating away at the social fabric needed to make communities work.

But then... if pointing out the symptoms doesn't help, what should we do?

Well, when my students workshop each others' writing, I tell them to share positive feedback and constructive feedback. I make sure we all understand that 'constructive feedback' is not negative.
Don't tell people what they are doing wrong. Tell people how you would improve what you see.

I think that's the advice I'd give here. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

They Don't Do Any Writing Here presentation for #4C15, now in poster form!

For a small lunchtime event next week, the UCD School of Education invited students and faculty to share posters from presentations made at national conferences this year.

I was fortunate enough to be selected to present at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Tampa. I used my Prezi presentation to work up this poster.

As I am finishing up drafts of my final chapters of the dissertation, I thought I'd share this overview of the work. It's not very blog friendly, as it is a 56" x 35" poster. If you really want a good look, you have to click here and zoom, but still, this felt like a good place to share.

The Prezi presentation might be more web friendly.

Anyway, I should get back to writing.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

What if a computer was grading your work for this class?

The students in my hybrid first-year writing course read and responded to Doug Hesse's Can Computers Grade Writing? Should They?

The prompt for their response was this question: How would you react if you learned a computer was responsible for grading most of the material you composed for this course?

The answers were nothing short of fantastic. These students started thinking about the reasons we write, the reasons we read, and the reasons we endeavor to improve our writing.

I placed some of the highlights in the Prezi embedded above. Click through. It's worth it.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Dealing with Stupid

We have to deal with some absurd stuff once in a while. It's often best to ignore that kind of stuff, but sometimes we have to deal.

Below is a video produced using hidden cameras and strategic editing to make it seem like a university in Florida is about to approve a student group that supports the Islamic State terrorist organization. Don't watch it unless you are uncertain about my credibility (they don't deserve the 'views').

I have so many problems with this video.

  • The title slide uses a cross-hairs for the "O" in college, which is more than a little messed up.
  • The administrators in charge were already expressing doubts and concern in the earliest stages of approval for the proposed student group.
  • The student "investigator" uses fast talk techniques to intentionally confuse 'humanitarian efforts' and 'supporting terrorism.' And while that is something a person seeking to fund terror might do, the "investigator" still would need to write a 'student group constitution' to get approval, so all this vague talk would have to be nailed down.
  • The video is intentionally edited to make the administrators look bad, and even with those edits, administrative concern about the actual intent of this student's proposal comes through.

Now, I'll be honest, I approach this kind of video with some biases. I think the people who produce these videos are the worst kind of trash. These people are lower than those YouTubers who troll using homophobic slurs.

This is a video that creates a fake story out of real footage in order to make racist people think that college is a bad place to send children, and it's all an effort to fire up a base seeking to de-fund investment in public education and research.

The video is not intended to hold up to any kind of scrutiny. It doesn't need to, because the only people it's intended for already believe that colleges are terrorist mills staffed by socialists seeking to undermine an imagined version of America-the-Motherland.

And if you think I'm reading too much into this, look at Governor Walker's comments on how 'professors should just teach more classes,' or North Carolina's bill to require UNC professors to teach a larger course load (UNC, btw, is one of the top producers of viable research in the country). There are people attempting to ride into the halls of power by convincing voters that the education sector is a parasite that does nothing but detract from American greatness.

And I am tired of it. I'm tired of politicians suggesting they are more qualified to craft university policy, or that they are more qualified to decide what makes a professor valuable. I am tired of people suggesting that the existence of gender studies makes the entire enterprise of the university a waste of effort. I am tired of the suggestion that there is something unpatriotic about young people exploring different political viewpoints (Statistics show they don't vote, after all. It's the safest time for people to toy with their political identity).

And yes, I'm months away from becoming a professor (hooray), so I have a dog in this fight. But this should not even be a fight.

People know college is a good thing. People know that an education opens doors. People know that the research done at universities has a direct benefit on communities, the nation, and the world. Anyone who doubts that has only to do some very basic investigating.

This is a stupid argument, and I feel bad that I have to engage it as an argument. It makes me think of what I wrote yesterday, about how the nation's love of argument has sidelined the value of truth.

But I can't ignore this. Because this manufactured story is going to end up on talk radio, and the blogosphere, and even a few real news outlets.

So I encourage you to call it out. Call it stupid. Make sure that the creators and promoters of this video know that you hold them in the lowest esteem. It needs to be recognized that reasonable people think these video producers are not only liars, they are liars who lack skill and intelligence. We see what they are trying to do, and we are sick of it.

People are proud of their college degrees and the achievements of their local universities and alma maters (Go Badgers!), and these lame attempts to undermine that very justifiable pride should not stand.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Should We Argue?

Paul Krugman wrote about the Affordable Care Act today.

In his column, Krugman pointed out that the law is performing very well.

He also pointed out that a lot of people don't know the law is doing well. Many believe the ACA is killing jobs (despite improving job numbers) and costing absurd amounts of money (despite the bill costing 20% less than had been predicted).

Krugman pointed to what he believes is the cause, something I've been writing about for a few years on this blog. It's something a lot of people have been talking about. He writes:
At a deeper level [...] we’re looking at [...] the impact of post-truth politics. We live in an era in which politicians and the supposed experts who serve them never feel obliged to acknowledge uncomfortable facts, in which no argument is ever dropped, no matter how overwhelming the evidence that it’s wrong.
I'm not here to suggest that one party is more guilty of this than the other. I think there is an interesting discussion to be had on that question, but I'll leave that to the more political blogs.

My concern is the relationship between "post-truth politics" and our cultural love of argument. The win-at-all costs approach that's emerged has an impact on public discourse, civic engagement, and the knowledge of argument young people bring into my classrooms.

I've been a booster for teaching argument. I teach deductive and inductive reasoning, the Toulmin Method, critical analysis of arguments, and I suggest my students all enroll in a course on sentential logic. I do all of that to encourage better practices when my student engage in arguments.

I began to question my ideas on argument last week, however, when I sat in on an interview with Kathleen Blake Yancey; the interview will appear in Writing on the Edge, and it promises to be a good one.

I have tremendous respect for the contributions Yancey has made to composition studies. So when she told us that she doesn't like to emphasize "argument" when she teaches, I leaned in to hear more.

Her ideas are going to be in the WOE interview, and I'd rather let her words do the talking. But I will say this: She got me thinking about our cultural emphasis on argument.

Why do we believe any issue that isn't easily resolved must become an argument? Why don't we contemplate such issues, or engage them, deliberate over them, consider them? The list of ways to approach an issue goes on.

But we prefer to argue. We prefer to draw a line, pick sides, and see who emerges a winner.

That approach to contentious issues has certainly contributed to the rise of "post-truth politics" Krugman describes. When an issue spurs competition instead of inquiry, people are going to look for a competitive edge. Like any competition, the higher the stakes, the more likely people are to play loose with the rules.

As I ready myself for a new phase in my career, I aim to chew on the questions this poses while developing new courses.

I wonder what you think would be a more constructive approach to issues.

Monday, March 23, 2015

What are you doing here?

This is a little online space I've created so I have a destination to send people when I build a fake clickbait post.

Think about why you clicked on the post that led you here. It was an intentionally manipulative post, and you're better than that. Think before you click.

Feel free to use the link if you think of a good fake clickbait post: http://bit.ly/1CjpFrt

Oh, and while you're here, why not check out the rest of my blog.