Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Internet Thinks Your Favorite Things Are Dangerous

Social media is a great place for unsolicited advice.

Were you looking for a list of parenting behaviors that will damage your children? Or maybe you wanted to know more about how your favorite food is poisoning you and the Earth?


Well, too damn bad.

If you want the perks of social media, then you have to listen to the crackpots.

Vacation pictures and engagement announcements come with chem trails and "How we're all parenting our kids into the grave" panic pieces. It's a package deal.

Sure, you can tailor your contact lists to keep some of the crazy out, but where's the fun in that?

There is an important lesson in modern literacy to be learned from the torrent of information spewing from your various feeds.

I talk about it a lot with my students.

When I was in college, the challenge of research was one of access. I had to go to a library or a newspaper for much of the information I needed to form a view or make an argument.

The one advantage to this was that the information I had access to was vetted for me. You can (and should) be critical of the institutions that did the vetting, but at least no one was trying to convince me that Congress had violated the 28th Amendment.

My students today face a very different challenge when researching. They can get a hold of all the information they want, but they need to learn how to tell the good from the... let's go with 'less good.'

They need to know the good from the less good.

My students need to create habits that make cross-checking and validation of claims feel like natural behaviors.

Social media is a great training ground for this.

When Jimmy Kimmel got everyone to believe that a woman set herself on fire while dancing, he was actually helping us learn an important kind of skepticism.
We need to be careful about what we believe.

If a video has all the elements it needs to go viral, then it may have been constructed that way intentionally.

Or, when someone tells you to "watch out for black kids, because they're punching random strangers in the face." You might want to pause for a moment before filing that away as "valuable advice." Take a moment. Maybe even ask the person, "Really? In the face? Where is this happening? How often is it happening?" Those are the kinds of answers you need to assess whether on not there is enough risk to change your behavior.

Or, if a media outlet claims that a hyper-left-wing professor was abusing her power by spreading propaganda, you might want to take a look at what the professor actually did.

Or, if your friend wants you to stand up in opposition to the Common Core, you should probably attempt to understand what the Common Core actually is.

I would hate to see healthy skepticism turn into cynicism. I'm sure it does for people who feel they've been duped one too many times.

But if we accept that there isn't much of a filter on social media and we practice the act of filtering for ourselves, we're likely going to get better at sifting and winnowing through the sea of information that is a fixture of modern life.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Listening Through the Noise

I hate this article on public discourse by Jon Lovett. I like it when I hate an article. It's a kind of high praise. It means the author says enough to elicit that kind of response from me. There is some smart stuff in the article, and it's funny in all the right places. But I do hate it.

Like the author, I am also afraid that our current public discourse is too black and white.

But I disagree with the solution presented here. The author writes:
We need to learn to live with the noise and tolerate the noise even when the noise is stupid, even when the noise is offensive, even when the noise is at times dangerous. Because no matter how noble the intent, it’s a demand for conformity that encourages people on all sides of a debate to police each other instead of argue and convince each other. And, ultimately, the cycle of attack and apology, of disagreement and boycott, will leave us with fewer and fewer people talking more and more about less and less.
It sounds nice. I agree part of the problem is a “cycle of attack and apology, of disagreement and boycott.” And I love this quote that describes the result of that cycle: “What’s left is the pressure to sand down the corners of your speech while looking for the rough edges in the speech of your adversaries.”

But the solution presented here is not an actual solution.

Lovett wants people to stop reacting so rashly to things that offend. He claims “we can live with the noise, even embrace the noise, without trying to drown each other out.”

But that won’t work, because the rash reactions he wants us to curtail – those are part of the noise Lovett wants us to embrace.

We can’t ask people to stop reacting – to stop being offended – while simultaneously supporting the right to offend. They are both speech acts, and if you want to support one, then you have to support the other.

I came to this realization while reading one of Lovett’s main supporting points. He uses the brief tenure of Brenden Eich as the CEO of Mozilla as an example of the “cycle of attack and apology.” It’s the most recent example of what Lovett describes as “people who were told [via the public discourse] to shut up.”

I’ll agree, there was a strong reaction to Eich’s appointment, but no one told him to shut up.

The CEO is the public face of a company. It is a position unlike other executive positions. That person is being asked to represent a company’s ideals and philosophy to investors and customers. It is a difficult and very public job, but that is the job you are giving to someone when you make them CEO.

No one told Eich to shut up. People said, “If Mozilla is going to appoint a CEO who contributed money to a cause we think is discriminatory, then Mozilla is saying that is part of their company’s philosophy.” No one expressed that view while Eich was serving as the company’s CTO from 2005-2014, and that is because CEO is a very different position – a very public position in comparison to CTO.

People had a strong reaction because a person who holds a view they find offensive was elevated to a highly public position.

That reaction is part of the noise Lovett is asking us to embrace.

You don’t have to agree with Eich or the people at OKCupid.

But it is not okay to ask one of them to sit back and listen, to “live with the noise.”

The solution is not to halt the strong reactions. The solution is to pay more attention to the smart reactions.

The human act of perceiving sound is astounding, not because we silence extraneous noise, but because our mind is able to pick out and interpret one distinct sound while our ears are assaulted by a cacophony of noise.

That should be our goal as we listen to public discourse. 

Monday, April 07, 2014

Literature, Comp/Rhet, & Moral Panic

Great piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education on a topic that is quietly one of my favorites.

The article is about the tension between literary studies and composition & rhetoric.
One senior member of our English faculty took a look at this situation and published a response in the moral-panic genre, representing feelings widely held by his colleagues. By his account, literary studies is being "devalued and dismissed" as a result of English departments’ being "reconceived as being primarily in the business of teaching expository writing." Furthermore, he wrote, there’s an insidious rush "to make literary studies an outpost of ‘digital scholarship.’ "
Don’t ask me what that last part means, but it’s clear that the villains of the piece have spent their careers in rhetoric, composition, comparative media studies, and digital publication. The amazing thing about the panic at Emory? Most colleges like it have three to five graduate faculty members in those areas; Emory went a decade without even one, and it grudgingly broke that tradition only on the eve of accreditation and program review.
That a large percentage of tenure­-track hires in English is consistently allocated to composition and rhetoric reflects the rational, reasonable, and growing interest in fields specializing in the conditions of textual production at a moment when textual production is undergoing the greatest shift since Gutenberg. More people are doing more kinds of composition than ever before, and they want to learn to do it better.
I am quiet about my fascination with this topic because it is a touchy one.

The work people are doing in literature is important and valuable, but like so many disciplines in the humanities, there is a bit of an inferiority complex. The same is true in comp/rhet, but with the growing importance of composition studies, I can see how they might feel like someone is edging in on their turf.

Whatever you think of either discipline, this article illustrates how/where the interdisciplinary tension is developing now.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Visualizing Data Lesson Brought to You by Fox News

It's true. Fox News is too easy a target for anyone who is serious about critiquing public discourse.

So, I don't want to go into how horrible the network is or how they wear their bias on their sleeves while denying bias with their mouths.

I just want to point out a great potential lesson on visualizing data. It's a topic that should come up in most composition classrooms, and it's always nice to have a current event to drive a lesson home.

The story of this graphic is covered on the Huffington Post.

The basic story is simple: Fox News was reporting on enrollment in the Affordable Care Act, and they used this graph to demonstrate the numbers.

Some people on the internet noticed the scale on the graph made no sense at all. People declared the graph a clear attempt to make the numbers look a certain way.

The swift and angry response to that graph prompted Fox News to apologize for the mistake and show a version of the graph that was scaled correctly.

There are lessons here on how an author can manipulate data, on the ethics of authorship, and on audience awareness.

NOTE: It is a little weird that the source for these numbers changed, but I'm not sure how I would turn that into a teaching moment.

Friday, March 21, 2014

More Misleading Material on the Common Core

This image of 3rd grade math homework is making the social media rounds today.

It is yet another out-of-context Common Core math problem with a "witty" response from a parent.

I know I've been posting about this a lot lately, but this pic represents the ongoing effort to win a debate using misleading information. And 'debate technique in the public discourse' is one of the main things I want this blog to focus on.

So, what's wrong with this picture? It is a father complaining that his son's homework has over-complicated a simple subtraction problem.

He writes, he can solve the problem "in under 5 seconds"!

And I say:
Sure, it was easy for this father to solve his 3rd grader's math problem using the techniques he learned in the 80s. I bet that father would also do better than most of the kids in gym class. He probably runs faster and jumps higher than most 8-year-olds.

This is an exercise intended to develop math skills. The 3rd graders are not engineers. They are just starting to learn about math. It should not be about how quickly the problem can be solved at this stage - it should be about whether or not the kids understand what happens during the subtraction process.

I honestly wish this kind of pedagogy had been in place when I was younger. I used these kinds of techniques when I was a kid in math class, but I was told I had to "Show my work." Which meant I had to do the problem the way the teacher showed me. As a result, I started to dislike math in second grade, and that relationship only got worse.

Later, when I wanted to pursue my interest in science, I was told that my weak math grades were going to get in the way.

I look at this problem and see two things: 1) a demonstration of mental math 2) a question that asks a student to think about how they think about math.

Sure, that's a little confusing for someone who doesn't teach using this method. I can understand how a parent would prefer for their kids to "just do the math," but I would prefer my teacher work on helping my kid understand the math.

I don't follow prescribed instructions very well - never have. I do much better when I am asked to consider a problem before solving it.

That is what this problem does: "Take a look at how one person solved this problem. What would you do differently? Maybe you would line the numbers up and subtract like the boy's father and then tell Jack how you solved the problem in 5 seconds. But remember, he's an adult telling an 8-year-old that he is better at math. Is that really the kind of person you want to be?"

Monday, March 17, 2014

Good Anecdotal Evidence and the Common Core

If you are interested in the Common Core debate, the Answer Sheet has a great post today.

It presents the accounts of three K-12 teachers who are implementing the Common Core.

It is an eye-opening read.

And if you want to see how and why anecdotal evidence can be useful in an active debate, it's a great post to examine.

Anecdotal evidence is tricky. It's often tempting to tell students to avoid using it.

All too often, students new to evidence-based argument will make claims like: 'The Common Core is good/bad because I know a person who had this good/bad experience. And that is why we should support/get rid of the Common Core.'

But today's Answer Sheet post makes clear the value of a relevant anecdote.

Allow me to demonstrate:
A mental math lesson that got under the
skin of many Common Core opponents
In the Common Core debate, many of the arguments are rooted in assumptions about how the Common Core impacts teachers or students at the classroom level. For example, people have presented textbooks or homework assignments to me and claimed, 'This is what the Common Core looks like.'

Let's say you want to demonstrate that the impact of the Common Core is more nuanced than that - that it requires more context to get at the actual impact.

Well you could just say as much, but you're going to come off as a jerk. The other person is likely to hear some version of this: "Sure, I see your evidence, but I am not impressed. You're understanding of this issue is too simple."

This is where presenting anecdotal evidence as a counter-narrative comes in handy.

If a person presents a math lesson they don't like as proof that the learning of mental math is useless or confusing or pointless, I can respond with this account from a forth-grade math teacher:
One of the most defining features of the Common Core is how it introduces concepts to students through different modes of comprehension. By the end of a six-week Common Core unit on fractions, my students were talking about, writing about, drawing, and playing with fractions. When they encountered the above problem on a quiz, some students drew a picture, while others found common denominators. A few used a strategy called common numerators, which requires a deep understanding of the denominator of a fraction. One student drew the fractions on a number line. The takeaway: The students in my class were able to compare these fractions in no fewer than five different ways.
Now, I haven't proven that the Common Core is great with that anecdote, but I have shown that the debate is more complicated than how it had been presented earlier.

That is the value of the anecdote. It helps to ground abstractions and statistics.

You have to be careful. You can't assert too much based on an anecdote, but they do have a function.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

American Universities as International Universities

The New York Times has an article on the challenges students and universities are facing as international enrollment is on the rise.
English is just one of numerous challenges for the foreigners that must be addressed in the transition year. Many say they are used to classes in which only the teachers speak, they do not call on students, students have few choices about what work they will do, and grades are based entirely on a few written exams.
This was the challenge I faced at the beginning of my career when I was teaching at American colleges over in Hungary, and it has become the challenge I face here at UC Davis. All but one of the courses I teach this year are for international students.

I love this challenge.

My classroom is tremendously interesting, engaging, and dynamic. My students talk about how different the learning style is here (sure, it's because I make them, but once they start, they do get going). In the doing they are actively reflecting on the learning process - linking it to their own experience.

The language issue is real, and it does require more work, but I like my work (even when I don't).

A diverse classroom should not be seen as a burden. It is a learning tool. Transitioning and crossing boundaries are important stages in the learning process.

The NYT article covers how private companies are stepping in to help international students make the transition.

There are some ethical issues to weigh there. And there are some educational issues there.

Worth the read and worth some serious consideration.