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. Feel free to use the link to do the same:

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


As someone interested in how debates take shape in the public discourse, this story has elevated stupid to the next level.

The amount of intellectual and ideological inconsistencies a person would have to hold in order to compose, revise, edit, share, and deliver the letter in question blows my mind.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

New Blog to Follow

Randal S. Olsen maintains a blog that looks at how to effectively visualize data, among other things.

One of his more recent posts looked at a visualization depicting how big pharma spends on marketing. He liked what he saw, but knew more information could be presented in an equally graceful way.

He came up with this (and others).

Like this example, his descriptions and reasoning are clear.

In a world where multi-modal rhetoric has become the norm, I think finding more writers like Olsen is bound to be helpful.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

You Don't Like It?

My advisor Professor Dana Ferris will sometimes point out a common teaching mistake.

Many composition teachers ask students, "How did you like the reading?"

This question invites students to respond with, "Meh. I didn't really like it." Which shouldn't be a surprise when it comes from an 18-20-year-old enrolled in a required writing class.

Still, many teachers take this response personally because they selected the readings, and teachers most often select readings they enjoy--selections they want their students to enjoy as well.

Professor Ferris explains why this opening question is a mistake: We as teachers do not assign readings in order to entertain our students.
When we select readings and course content, the objectives are first to teach, to challenge, and to expand our students' understanding of the writing process.

I like to point this out to students explicitly. I'll open a discussion early in the term by announcing, "Just so you all know, I don't care whether or not you enjoyed the reading."

Delivered just so, this opening can get a laugh and then lead to a teaching moment about the goals we have in the course (delivered wrong, it can lead to some shocked faces and then to an overly detailed explanation).

I derive no small amount of joy from telling students that I do not care about their opinions of the work of Lars Eighner. I go on to explain that a defense of that opinion might be interesting, but I tell them (and this is what I love doing), "Hearing that some college kid simply didn't 'like' an essay is completely uninteresting to me."

That joy of mine is derived from the demonstration that learning requires rigor and patience.
And that makes it difficult for me to understand so many of the recent attacks on education.

In Oklahoma there are politicians who want to eliminate Advanced Placement US History because they feel the course too often focuses on the negative parts of our nation's history. Pundits have grabbed this story and upped the ante, suggesting that such a course is cause for ending public education.

Then there is the governor of my home state of Wisconsin undermining the mission of the state's public university system because the "pursuit of truth" is too abstract a goal when our efforts should really be focused on job training.

And of course I've written several times about parents and pundits who think Common Core lessons are too difficult.

This is just to say, the goal of education is not to please people. Educators do not take up this job to entertain or 'take the stage.'

If you are uncomfortable with a history lesson, a research effort, or a math exercise, then deal with it.

Let me repeat that: Deal with it.

I can hear the response now: But, Hogan, this is different. The politicians in Oklahoma, Gov. Walker, and the GOP have the purse strings and the will of the people on their side.

To which I say this: No one has to challenge themselves. It is a conscious choice to face uncomfortable truths, set lofty goals, or take on difficult tasks.

If that's not for you, you can drop out. Drop out of the class, the role of leadership, the political race, or the effort. You can drop out, but you should not have the power to force others to drop out along with you.

You don't have to enjoy the reading.
Your personal beliefs and preferences will not always be taken into consideration.
Your opinion about 'the work involved' does not change the fact that work will be involved.

If you simply don't like it, I invite you to deal with it or leave.

If, on the other hand, you have an informed and intelligent response to the issues, then by all means, jump in and present your ideas.

Because cutting funding and eliminating programs are not constructive solutions. That's like showing up to class without having done the reading. It leaves us without history, without a mission, and without rigor.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

On Approaching a Hot Button

I like to ask students about the debates they try to avoid.

It's a question they always have an answer to: religion, abortion, politics, sexuality, race...

You know, the really fun debates. The delicate and dangerous debates.

These are the debates that end Thanksgiving early. They stop budding friendships cold.

These are debates that people avoid because of deeply held convictions, emotions, and issues tied to personal identity.

I love these debates because they present an interesting rhetorical challenge. How do you engage the issue without emotions clouding the field?

The latest widespread incarnation of this kind of debate is the vaccination debate.

I'll admit, I've shied away from this one (for the most part) because my emotional response is right at the surface. With a nine-month-old at home, the measles outbreak in California makes this debate too raw for me to engage.

But that hasn't stopped me from reading many of the entries into the debate.

One important point that has been made is this: If you harshly condemn your opponent's view on an issue that reaches this deep, then you are going to push your opponent away from constructive debate.

And we know this.

If you don't know this, you're being willfully ignorant. So, stop it.

When you argue that someone is stupid because they can't see things your way, you have failed to engage in debate.

Worse yet, you have failed to understand your role in a debate.

If a person can't see your point of view, blaming them is not a solution, nor a victory, nor a strategy.

If a person can't see your point of view, blaming them is a failure with excuses.

If the constructive outcome to a debate means anything, then your primary task is to find a way reach your opponent - find a way to illustrate your point in terms they can accept.

You give up when you suggest that a person is too dense, obtuse, or stubborn to understand your point of view.

So I was pleased to read Paul Offit's op-ed in the New York Times today on religious objections to vaccination. He is firm about his stance, but he presents evidence that is clear and speaks with respect to his opponents. That clarity and respect is expressed best in two parts of his argument.

First, Offit's argument is based in his very relevant experiences during the 1991 measles outbreak in Philadelphia.
Between October 1990 and June 1991, more than 1,400 people living in Philadelphia were infected with measles, and nine children died. The epidemic started when, after returning from a trip to Spain, a teenager with a blotchy rash attended a rock concert at the Spectrum. By Nov. 29, 96 schoolchildren had been stricken with the illness; a week later, it was 124; by the end of December, the number had risen to 258, and the first child had died. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent a team to determine whether the strain of measles was particularly virulent. It wasn’t. Investigators found that the deaths had nothing to do with the strain that was circulating and everything to do with the parents.
Second, the argument is expressed in a way that acknowledges his opponents' beliefs.
It seems to me that if religion teaches us anything, it’s to care about our children, to keep them safe. Independent of whether one believes in Jesus, or that the four Gospels are an accurate account of what he said and did, you have to be impressed by the figure described. At the time of Jesus, around 4 B.C. to 30 A.D., child abuse was the “crying vice” of the Roman Empire. Infanticide and abandonment were common. Children were property, no different from slaves. But Jesus stood up for children. In Matthew 25:40, he said, “Verily, I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of my brethren ye have done it unto me” — a quote that could be emblazoned onto the entranceway of every children’s hospital in the world.
I am not a religious person, but Gospel quotes like that one are what keep me from becoming anti-religious.

Offit is effectively asking people to consider what is at the core of their beliefs before considering the facts and settling on a conclusion.

It's a graceful yet very firm approach to an debate that requires this kind of skillful approach to argument.

Monday, January 12, 2015

This Post is Probably about Hedging

I'm working on a lesson plan I thought I'd share.

You see, there's this thing people do when writing academic texts, and if I can teach it effectively, that thing will help student writers sound more like the professors and TAs they are writing for.

That thing is the academic hedge.

It is a writing technique used to express "medium certainty."

The hedge is common in academic writing because of an important value academics hold: Everything is up for debate.

We are allowed to argue any and all points in scholarly work, and this means writers often hedge when making a claim most would normally state as a pointed fact.

For example:
"Everything is up for debate" might become "Academic language suggests that most claims are up for debate."

This is not an easy thing to teach, because many students read examples like that and conclude: Academic writing is more wordy.

And that's actually wrong. Academic writing doesn't want to be wordy, but some claims need a hedge. So we add words, but adding words alone does not "sound academic." The added words have to perform a specific function.

There's another reason this is hard to teach. It's boring. Hedging is a boring lesson.

There are charts of words you can use and examples of hedged claims, but those resources by themselves, while important, are not terribly engaging.

Then I re-heard a favorite comedy song.
The song is by Flight of the Conchords, and it is called The Most Beautiful Girl (in the Room).

The title alone might clue you into why this is a good song to demonstrate hedging, but even if you already get it, the song is worth a listen (it starts at 1:30).

Getting a grasp on hedging might be a bit more fun with gems like this:
And when you're on the street, depending on the street//I'll bet you are definitely in the top three//Good looking girls on the street//Depending on the street
I like to think it would be fun to have students identify the hedges and write out the more direct claims the singer is hedging against.

From there I'd ask students to look at some examples of hedging in news reporting. Then we could look at examples of hedging in academic writing. We would finish up by revising some of the claims the students wrote in drafts for the class.

So, I'm working that up, and I wanted to throw it on the blog for two reasons:

  • First, I like explaining that hedging demonstrates the value scholars put on debate.
  • Second, I like showing how a community's values impacts the writing done in that community.
  • Third, I... 
Three! There are three reasons I put this on the blog.
  • Third, I wanted to post a Flight of the Con---

Friday, January 09, 2015

I would like to be Charlie

David Brooks wrote up a thoughtful column on issues surrounding Charlie Hebdo. His title is a reversal of the popular symbol of solidarity.

His piece is titled “I am Not Charlie Hebdo,” and it opens by pointing out that many places in America would shut down a magazine like Charlie Hebdo – he specifically calls out college campuses. Campuses like the one where I work and study.

Brooks’ title and introduction, I think, are more provocative than the rest of the piece, which goes on to demonstrate the delicate balance we must observe to maintain the vital role of satirists.

But that introduction did hit home for me.

I work with people who, as Brooks puts it, “would have accused [Charlie Hebdo] of hate speech.”

Working in a university environment, I’ve become a person who is quick to empathize with a small group deeply offended by something I would otherwise judge to be harmless thanks to my white bread Midwestern upbringing.

I like having that level of empathy, but I often find myself privately rolling my eyes as I defend the righteous indignation of yet another person who has found yet another reason to be offended.

It does get to be a bit much.

We get upset a lot on college campuses.

Each of those cases I just listed is a real example I’ve encountered, and in each case I simultaneously get it and find it absurd.

And I think Brooks’ column deals with that conflict effectively, especially here: 
Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.
Yet, at the same time, most of us know that provocateurs and other outlandish figures serve useful public roles. Satirists and ridiculers expose our weakness and vanity when we are feeling proud. They puncture the self-puffery of the successful. They level social inequality by bringing the mighty low. When they are effective they help us address our foibles communally, since laughter is one of the ultimate bonding experiences.
And I am a firm believer in bringing the mighty low for a laugh – a thing I think folks on college campuses could work on. I am often frustrated by a humorless assertion that grad students and professors speak with the underprivileged. Sure, the best of us might speak for the underprivileged, but if you’re up for an advanced degree or working on tenure at an American university, then you enjoy privilege on a scale that few in the world can comprehend.  

And if pointing that out makes people uncomfortable or offends, well, all the better.

That makes me think of the work of a different Brooks. I remember watching Blazing Saddles and not knowing how to react to the word nigger. I was too young to see that Brooks was exposing how
firmly racism was entrenched in the Western genre. So I just uncomfortably waited for the fart jokes. But now that I get what that is all about, the entire movie is changed… well, except the fart jokes. The fart jokes retain the same value they had when I was a teenager.

But there is no question, that discomfort and the fart jokes make for biting social commentary you can watch with your racist uncle. And that’s no small thing.

I think David Brooks nails this when he writes:
In short, in thinking about provocateurs and insulters, we want to maintain standards of civility and respect while at the same time allowing room for those creative and challenging folks who are uninhibited by good manners and taste.
So, here’s to bad manners and poor taste. May they always have a seat at the table – even if it is the kids table. 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Charlie Hebdo

I don't know what we would do without satire.

If you hold a belief that cannot endure mockery, then your belief has a weakness no show of strength can overcome.