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:

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

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.