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.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Happy New Year!

As we get started on 2015, I wanted to look back at some of what I wrote here during 2014.

I created 70 posts in 2014, by far the most since I started this blog in 2006.

That feels good. I like maintaining this blog. It keeps me writing, and maybe more importantly, it keeps me writing in the way I would like to see my students to write:
Find something you enjoy and explore the ideas that inform that thing in order to create your own view.

Today I wanted to link to my top five, the posts that I think best reflect what I am trying to do with this blog.

These are in chronological order, from earliest to latest.

In February I wrote a post about teachers and how they are perceived by the public. I like this one because whenever I step into the education debate, I keep coming back to the idea I expressed here: Teachers are treated like labor but expected to perform like professionals.

In March I posted something on the Common Core. I did that a lot last year. I was often frustrated by the way that debate has been shaped by misinformation and special interests. This post was the one where I think I kept my focus on why so many of the arguments are flawed.

In May I responded to a friend's tweet about #BringBackOurGirls. For this post I stopped to examine how my identity gets in the way of my message when I write about certain issues. It felt personal, and I am glad I got some of these ideas into this blog.

I was pleased to be able to write about Weird Al in May. I've been listening to that guy since the Doctor Demento days. But what's better, I was able to write about a very real debate that grew up around Weird Al's song on grammar.

Then in November I posted about some of the work I'm doing in the classroom. I think it is exciting work, and I was pleased to get some positive feedback about it.

So, those are the highlights for my year as a blogger.

Here's to the new year and all the possibilities it brings. I hope we can use this time to argue, teach, and write with even more enthusiasm.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Observing the observed observations

My head is in a funny space these days.

I'm interviewing for jobs that would start in the fall, and to do so I have to focus on my past professional experience, the current project that is my dissertation, and my plans for the future.

And all of that needs to be considered from the rhetorical perspective of, "How could this make me look like the guy you all want to hire?"

It's fun, nerve-racking, exciting, tense... It's a lot of things. But like I said, it's put my head in a funny space.

You see, I've never really done this before.

The search for a long-term position as a Ph.D. is completely new to me, but a critical part of this process is appearing competent--appearing as though I know what I'm doing.

The result is a kind of constant 'stepping-back-to-reflect' habit, a non-stop metacognition combined with intense observation of the rhetorical environment, all intended to help me learn this process as I'm working through it.

It is enlightening, but it is also exhausting.

And that is interesting to me as a teacher, because this is what I ask my students to do.

I have sections of my lectures dedicated to describing the act of "reading for composition while reading for content." I tell my students that learning to write in a new setting means learning to read texts with an attitude of "How or why did the authors do that?"

The style of teaching works. I see students learn new genres without mimicking the model texts. It's great, but I don't think I have had to do this very often myself.

It's crazy hard.

Here is an excellent "Extra Credits" video on how aspiring video game developers can work on this process:
I like how that video acknowledges the effort it takes to do the kind of observation described. It is not enough to enjoy gaming if you want to learn how to create a successful game for an existing audience. The effort to learn the conventions and limitations of games - to consider the expectations of audience - to effectively utilize the tools at a developers disposal, all of that requires so much more than simply appreciating the genre.

Although, appreciation is where things start.

The same is true for students learning to write in new places. The parallels are striking.

I'll have to find a way to work this video into my courses.

Negative Transfer?

#teamedward - Imgur

Friday, December 12, 2014

How I Make Ed Tech Work for Me

From The Educators 

The content of this US News and World Report article on education technology in higher education is great.

Sadly the headline is not. 
Professors Grow Weary of Idea That Technology Can Save Higher Ed
Using the word "save" is inappropriate. Sure, higher ed in the US might have a cost control problem and a few other bugs, but suggesting that the whole system needs salvaging is way off base.

That said, I like this kind of critical coverage of ed tech in the university.

I think there's a lot of "silver bullet talk" when people discuss ed tech. But it's not enough to purchase new technologies or software.
[...] professors say they don’t have enough help to use this technology effectively, haven’t seen results from it, and fear that the cost savings administrators keep insisting that technology will bring could mean their own careers are on the line.
I've had some great successes using technology in my composition courses, but I'm always in hacking mode - using a tool in a way that is slightly different than what the designers intended.

I draw up a draft of my course before I ever look at my institution's ed tech toolkit. Once I have goals and student/teacher workloads sorted, I go to see if there are any tech tools that could help me meet my goals more efficiently or add a new dimension to what I had planned. Often there are.

But that order of events is crucial.

I do not open the course management software until after I have my term planned out. I use the software to get my students where I want them to go. I don't let the software frame the tasks or the objectives.

The problem a lot of people are running into is simple.
One of the most common complaints from faculty is that much of this technology creates more work, not less, a 2012 survey of 42 professors at three large universities by David R. Johnson, a sociology researcher at Rice University, found.
If that is happening, then you're doing it wrong. The goals and workloads need to be decided before we introduce learning technologies.

If we want efficiency, quality, and access, then we need to make those goal clear at the outset, only then should we explore what kind of technologies we can bring into our classrooms.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Truths Obscuring Truths

So this meme popped up on one of my social media feeds this morning.

Even though the statement is true, it's not really a fair statement.

It was posted by another writing instructor, and I certainly understand the sentiment, especially on those days when my students' writing is less-than-inspiring.

It's a nice example of how a little truth can feel right, but still obscure a larger and more important truth.

Or in this case, two larger truths.

My first response to this meme was based on the history of our education system. Because the other side of this fact is that in the past 100 years, we have extended the opportunity of education to a much larger part of the population. 100 years ago, most white people got an education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 5% of white people were illiterate in 1910. In comparison, 30.5% of non-whites were illiterate. By 1979, those numbers dropped to 0.6% and 1.6% respectively.

When compared to the one from 100 years ago, our education system today does more for more people. It is far from perfect, and no one should be complacent. However, just because rich white people used to know Latin, doesn't mean our society is sliding into disrepair.

And what about that Latin and Greek?

That question is what prompted my second response.

You know why we used to teach Latin and Ancient Greek? Because those languages are hard to learn. We used to think the brain worked like our bicep - if you make it work hard, then it will get stronger.

Then we realized that was incorrect. That argument was part of what led to the creation of the Modern Language Association. Today, the only people who need to study those languages are people who want to study the Classics. That's not a bad thing. It leaves more room for people to study languages that are still spoken today.

That response to the Classical languages is what led me to the other larger truth I think this meme obscures.

In the last few decades, researchers have demonstrated that direct instruction on grammar doesn't improve student writing.

Here's a quote from an concise summary of the research on this point:
Research over a period of nearly 90 years has consistently shown that the teaching of school grammar has little or no effect on students.
-George Hillocks & Michael Smith, 1991
Asking students to know terms such as subject, predicate, relative clause, appositive, or any other discipline-based term for describing text will not help them write. It will only help them describe texts in the same way scholars in writing studies describe texts.

Personally, I enjoy learning, using, and examining terms related to grammar and composition, because I like to analyze texts and talk about the writing process with people in my discipline. I think a lot of people who teach writing also enjoy that; which is probably behind the decision to make those skills the focus of so many writing classes.

But writing teachers should not be trying to teach students to talk about grammar using our specialized jargon. We should teach students how to compose texts.

I do think we should always push for higher standards, but I don't think making econ students diagram sentences is what those standards should look like.

So, while I think that meme is provocative, I also think it unfairly undermines what teachers, educators, and students are working to achieve.