Friday, October 09, 2015

Why do people opposed to gun control play the victim every time a group of innocent people get gunned down?

Why do people opposed to gun control play the victim every time a group of innocent people get gunned down?
A quote falsely attributed to George Washington with my less-than-clever speech bubble
So, I saw the uncorrected version this meme on social media. I checked the quote, because as a composition instructor I have a nose for quotes that seem a bit too on-the-nose.

Yeah. Turns out there is no record of GW saying this.

The meme is likely another example of someone realizing that no one is going to care about what some joker on Facebook has to say about the government or the right to bear arms. So, they falsely attributed it to someone with a bit more ethos.

It's kind of like when someone opens by saying, 'according to studies, gun control has...,' but when pressed for specifics, they fail to find the name of any studies.

Or something I see even more often in the work of novice writers:
'It is widely known that gun control is a...' Oh I hate it when people tell me something debatable is "widely known."

But you see, we all want our arguments to sound important enough to merit attention. And there are some clever tricks for making an argument sound important.

But an ethical argument doesn't require tricks. An ethical argument stands on its own merit.

Knowing this doesn't make it any easier to compose an ethical argument. Nevertheless, this issue of slippery rhetorical tactics is something I work to make my students aware of. These methods of argument are so common that students might not even know when they themselves are using them.

But these techniques have consequences. People start to misunderstand history, devalue the reliability of the sciences, or misconstrue public policy.

For example, when I pointed out in a comment that the above quote was not spoken by George Washington, the original poster responded by saying, "if it was up to non-pro gun owers, we wouldn't have anything. Anyway, yes we do keep our rights and as far as I'm concerned they have not EXPANDED they take more and more EVERY chance they get."

What's odd here (other than the unintentional support of my point via unclear pronoun usage) is this is a gun enthusiast who actually believes his rights are constantly being eroded.

That just isn't the case. As of 2013, people can now carry a concealed weapon in all 50 states. Assault rifles are legal in all but 7 states. States are changing laws so that formally gun-free campus allow students to carry weapons.

We live in country where gun control is being relaxed.

That does not seem to register with people who are are against gun control. Pro-gun folks roll out the rhetoric of the persecuted whenever gun violence is in the news. They talk about dictators and looming threats.

And whenever a mass shooting pushes the nation to question our decisions to continually relax gun control, the pro-gun crowd convinces themselves that they are the victims.

Don't talk about an assault rifle ban, or else you'll hear them gasp, "How dare you threaten the right our forefathers fought for and that we won in 2004."

The effort has worked. In the minds of many this modern policy debate is linked to a caricature of our forefathers, or else it is portrayed as an assault on the persecuted.

It's absurd, and it's in particularly bad taste to play victim every time innocent people have been shot.

And so, I call on you to stop putting up with it:

Gun rights advocates are not victims.

Don't let them act like they are.

If they start acting like victims, here's what you should do:

  1. Point out that they are acting like the victim when the real victims are the ones who got shot.
  2. Tell them to stop whining. It's just unbecoming.
  3. Ask them to describe how and when exactly their right to bear arms have been violated. Make them be specific. Ask them about their rights. Ask if they have been forced to give up a gun. Ask if they missed a hunting trip or a day on the range due to unreasonable waiting periods.
  4. And don't put up with any nonsense. Gun owners have their rights, and any suggestion otherwise is stupid. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A tiny and deeply contextualized victory

On day one I had a student get up in my face.

I had suggested the style endorsed by the MLA isn't particularly useful unless you're writing literary analysis (because it isn't).

The student was aghast. He was good humored about it, but he didn't like hearing anything but praise for MLA style.

While those are not exactly fighting words, I actually appreciated the challenge.

It gave me a chance to explain why I prefer the social-science-friendly APA style when writing papers in composition and rhetoric.

The student listened politely, but he was not convinced. He is an English major, and MLA has worked perfectly well all this time.

We agreed to disagree...
Until today!

The course is a senior seminar, and we're investigating questions about writing skill transfer. Today we read Wardle's article "Mutt Genres."

As has often happened in this course, the students began discussing the following: The style of writing that has served them well for years in literature courses does not transfer very effectively when writing for other disciplines. This discussion typically revolves around concision. Other disciplines want more concision than these students are accustomed to.

One student referred to how "Mutt Genres" was concise, but claimed even that article could be trimmed down.

I challenged the student to point out something worth trimming in the article.

From the other side of the classroom, the student who had scoffed at my criticism of MLA style chimed in: "You know what could be cut, all the names of all the authors jammed into every sentence."

The student was referring to all of the references in Wardle's well-research lit review.

And I had him!

You see, in MLA style, the first time you use an author's name in a sentence, you are expected to use both the author's given name and family name. When writing about literature, this convention is actually kind of nice. But that same convention is cumbersome when writing for a community that expects a paper to be loaded up with citations (looking at you, social sciences).

Mutt Genres" was published in College Composition and Communication, a journal that (frustratingly) requires authors to abide by the conventions of MLA style.

And I made a show of winning this battle.

I let the student know with a, "So, you're saying that there may be some scholarly genres that don't suit the MLA style?!?!?"

He conceded defeat, and I actually raised my arms in triumph.

Yes. It is a tiny and deeply contextualized victory, but it is my tiny and deeply contextualized victory.

Friday, September 18, 2015

On a Graceful Description of a Crucial Aspect of My Discipline

About a month before my graduation ceremony last June, my dad finally got around to asking a
potentially awkward question: "So, what exactly does it mean to be a professor of composition & rhetoric?"

It sounds worse than it actually is - that my dad only got around to asking about my discipline as I was closing in on a Ph.D.

It's a question practitioners of my discipline should be actively answering more often.

A lot of people have this question about comp/rhet. In fact, on day one of the comp/rhet seminar I'm leading this semester, one student had the wisdom/candor to ask the same question.

I think I did an okay job of answering the question on both occasions.

I described the Aristotelian roots of rhetoric as a discipline. Both my dad and my students understood that. As a starting point it particularly pleased my dad, because it vindicates my choice to major in philosophy as an undergrad (a choice he always supported).

I went on to describe a still-growing appreciation for the study of how different communities compose texts.

I used that to situate my interest in how students learn to write for various academic and professional communities.

I finished by explaining my dissertation's examination of resources in biology courses that help students learn to write like biologists.

My dad got it, and that felt good. My students actually seemed interested, which was important.

I'll tell you what I didn't describe: I didn't go into the four decades of upheaval and dramatic change that have impacted the teaching of writing at colleges across the country. It's an important part of the conversation, but I often steer clear of the subject. It seems too fraught with the pitfalls of university politics and endless arguments about the function of a college education.

This summer, however, Ed White demonstrated how to tackle this complex issue with grace and concision. I shouldn't be surprised. Everything I've read by White has led to a deeper understanding of my discipline. "What on Earth Has Happened to Freshman English?" however, is especially impressive. In under 800 words, White explains a massive shift in the approach to teaching writing in college. He does not oversimplify, but he also avoids getting bogged down by potentially distracting details.
The first-year course, no longer freshman English and more and more removed from English literature (in some institutions, from the English department as well), is now first-year composition (FYC) and often only one part of an extensive writing program extending from placement testing of entering students and a range of required first-year writing courses to upper-division writing requirements—often under the purview of a writing across the curriculum or a writing in the disciplines program and supported by a university writing center—and senior capstone courses usually involving writing in the major. The teaching of writing has recognized that most writing in this century is done in a technological environment and many classes submit work online, where peer review of early drafts is common, revision is routine, and e-portfolios determine final grades. And that first-year writing course, now well correlated with student success in college, is much more concerned with helping all students succeed than with getting rid of the unprepared.
 I can't recommend the entire essay enough.

Thursday, August 27, 2015


So, I think I finished the course description for my College Composition II course. I've finally gotten to a place where I am comfortable writing the syllabus I've always wanted to write. Let me know what you think.

Course Description 

From the Course Catalog: “An advanced writing course that builds upon the critical thinking, reading, and writing processes introduced in English 1A, 2, 5, or 10/11. This class emphasizes rhetorical awareness by exploring reading and writing within diverse academic contexts with a focus on the situational nature of the standards, values, habits, conventions, and products of composition…”

Oh, wow, are you asleep yet?

Look, I’m going to drop the academic tone for a second here. Don’t get me wrong, I like academic writing, and I sincerely hope you develop enthusiasm for the work we do in this class, but I don’t think all of my students are as into the “situational nature of the standards” as I am. And that's fine. You don't need to be enthusiastic about composition to get at the purpose of this course.

I’ll admit, this attempt at straight talk in a syllabus is a ploy. I’m breaking the rule of a familiar genre in an attempt to establish my voice, generate a rapport, and deal with the elephant in the room: A lot of my students would not be in my class were it not for a university requirement. In my discipline, this kind of obstacle is referred to as a constraint – a factor that makes it difficult to achieve my goal.

And what is my goal here? I’m going to answer that in this paragraph, but before I do, you should try and answer the question. Take your time. Got an answer? Okay. Here’s my purpose: I want this section of the syllabus to introduce the goals of this course and then demonstrate the methods we’ll use to achieve those goals. So, how’d you do? Do our answers match? If so, why do you think that is. If not, why? That was your first course activity. Achievement unlocked!

So, we’re going to examine how writing does the things it does. More specifically, we’re going to look at the things writing needs to do as you work on general education requirements and courses for your major.

Back to the catalog: “Students will research and analyze different disciplinary genres, purposes, and audiences with the goals of understanding how to appropriately shape their writing for different readers and demonstrating this understanding through various written products.”

Monday, August 24, 2015

Metacognition and the Hook

As of today, I have joined a new department at a new university, and as is often the case, the politics of the place are messy and daunting. And that was where my head was at after day one of orientation.

But as Hemingway once had one of his drunk characters say, "Never be daunted."

And in that spirit, I had a few beers, went on a dog walk, and sketched out part of the opening week in my advanced composition course.

I'm looking to get my students to break down some of the core concepts needed to talk about writing. I want them to use their experience and prior understandings to define terms like "discourse community," "genre," "rhetoric," "audience," and "metacognition."

But I won't pretend those are easy terms to define. Like any abstract concept, these terms will only take root if the denotative definition can be paired with concrete examples, right?

And that is what inspired me to start off a lecture with Blues Traveler's 1994 song, Hook.
Okay, I'll admit it; the song came up on a Spotify playlist, but it does work as a point of entry for a lesson on metacognition.

And it's fun to use a song from my freshman year of college to introduce my students to one of my course's core concepts.

Well, whatever prompted the song's use, it is shaping up to be a nice little intro to the idea of thinking about your own process.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Punchy as Things Wrap

On Wednesday I taught the last lecture at my current institution before I move on to Sac State. So, I might be a little punchy. But for the most part I've been holding myself in check.


Well, it's a three-lecture series for visiting international students doing research in the STEM disciplines. The students are all exceptional and have expressed interest in graduate studies.

Today the students should submit a draft statement of purpose (SOP) for grading (this is after Wednesday's peer-review workshop).

One student wrote today and explained that the SOP task required too much time and he likely wouldn't be able to complete it. Five minutes later he wrote and asked for an extension.

I replied:
As of today, you've had 10 days to do the work of researching the school and writing the PS. How much more time do you think you need? 

The student wrote back:

Ok I will turn in the homework. But I want to emphasize that I need to spend most of my time doing the lab work. Do you think your writing is so important? I'm not incapable of doing any courses or homework you have. I'm just uncomfortable with your attitude.

So, here's what I had to say about that:
[Student's first name],
 If my attitude caused you some discomfort, please know that was not my intention.
I was asked by the organizers of the ****** program to develop two assignments along with lectures/workshops to accompany those assignments:
1) An abstract
2) A statement of purpose 
The organizers of the program that you signed up for decided these tasks were important. 
They probably decided this because familiarity with those two writing tasks can be useful for undergrads seeking to pursue graduate studies in the STEM disciplines.  
Do I think these writing tasks are "so important"?
No. Not really. Your personal statement for admission to graduate school is not important to me. If you don't complete the task, it will not impact my life at all.  
Do you think writing a strong personal statement is important?
Do you think the grade associated with this assignment is important.  
If the answer to either of these questions is yes, please complete the task. If not, forget about it. You seem to have more important things to do. 
If you just need extra time, please take a few extra days. I did ask how much time you needed, but since you didn't answer, here's my schedule: I won't be done grading these until next week. I'm not going to penalize late submissions, but I will not accept submissions after 8/18. Like I said, if you decide not to write it, that's fine. I'll just score the task as a zero. Not a big deal. 
If you decide to write the personal statement, please consider this advice:
Think about your writing situation more carefully than you did when you wrote your last email. Let me explain; you had recently asked me for an extension of a deadline. I responded by asking how much time you needed. In your follow-up email, you questioned the importance of the task I assigned and then suggested my attitude made you uncomfortable. That's a pretty antagonistic stance to take after making a request. If I had a personal stake in your request, your tone might have led me to deny it. But that's not the attitude I have about this situation. It is, however, the attitude a member of an admissions committee might have when deciding whether or not they want you to join their department. So, for your personal statement, you should probably work on developing a tone that demonstrates a bit more respect for your reader.  
Let me know what you decide to do. Or don't. I also have other priorities that rank higher than this.  
I wish you the best, 
Just before posting this I received an apology from the student. He explained his research project isn't going as planned and he's under a lot of stress as a result. I think our instructor/student relationship is back on track... So, maybe my snarky response is what this situation called for?

I don't know, but please don't judge the student too harshly.