Friday, December 18, 2009

What is Fair Play?


This article was in the Washington Post today.

GOP Senators tried to filibuster a military funding bill. If the filibuster had succeeded, Democrats would likely have to drop health care reform and find an alternative to funding the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The filibuster did not succeed, but only 3 of 36 Republicans voted to end the filibuster (and only after all 60 Dems had already voted 'aye').

I recognize that right now the GOP's number one priority is the defeat of the Dem's health care reform bill. Nevertheless, what does it mean when politicians are willing to betray one of their core values while in pursuit of a goal?

How is a soldier supposed to view of this event? "The GOP didn't really want to withhold support from the military; they were just using our troops as political capital."

Someone who is willing to concede "core values" in order to win the day does not have real core values. Maybe it sounds naive to hope politicians are guided by certain principles, but they're the ones claiming to have them in the first place.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Poorly Rationed Reasoning

So my new goal here at Hogs is to play around with some of the big arguments of the day. On Monday I dove into the troubles that erupted around the climate change debate after the computers were hacked at CRU. The most interesting comment for me was Karmavore's distinction between "Climate Change Skeptics" & "Climate Change Disbelievers." The difference is important, and it will affect the way I engage in that discussion in the future.

I hope that kind of thing will happen more often here. I want to look at the divisive issues that are too often cast in black and white and then seek out the gray areas.

The hot button issue for today is health care, more specifically last week's ruckus around the word rationing. The issue came into sharp focus after the results of a study on mammography were released by the Preventive Services Task Force. The study recommends that women do not need to start regular screenings for breast cancer until the age of 50. The previous recommendation had been to start screenings at 40.

Patients can ignore the study and get screened in their 40s anyway. However, the people signing the check for those screenings may object, and since most people do not sign the check for their own health care, there is a conflict. People are nervous that the check signers might listen to the experts and certain tests won't get paid for.

Of course that nervousness spilled over into the health care reform debate.

Last week the WSJ's opinion page suggested a lot of things that might happen if the government tried to reduce health care spending. The piece critiques how the government plans to decide what medical procedures to pay for? The idea is to put experts in place, experts like the ones who put out the study on mammography.

With that study out, suddenly we have a stand-in for "the bureaucrat that will get between you and your doctor." And that bureaucrat is advising us to reduce breast cancer screenings. I understand the uproar. Women have been told that regular screenings can save their lives. Now some acronym is telling them to forget about that. It is a powerful reminder of the fact that personal heath care decisions are not always up to the individual. And with the reform bill ready for debate next week, powerful reminders like that are explosive.

My concern is that such explosive material can be misused. Private insurers are also likely to take note of the mammogram study. No matter the insurance scheme, there is a limited amount of money in a pool, and someone needs to decide how to best spend it.

Peter Singer's July piece in the NYT Magazine asks readers to do the following: think about the spending limits you would put on another person's medical treatment if experts claimed that the treatment was not effective in most cases. Singer asks for a number. It's a tough call.

This is the decision any insurer must make. The pro-reform people have cast the private insurers as heartless for refusing service, but the measures up for debate in Congress will put similar decisions in the hands of government appointees.

And that is the heart of the matter: Who do you want making those decisions about rationing?

I like the government appointed panel of experts, because we can demand transparency. The debate over the mammogram study is an example of how a government panel's findings are open to the public and up for debate.

What do you think?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Why the CRU Leak Isn't the Biggest of Deals


I can't speak to the details around the leak at CRU, as the data is out of context. But at first blush it does look like the scientists at that facility are doing some less-than-ethical work. And less-than-ethical is not a euphemism here. It's an accusation. Data needs to inform the theory, not vice versa. When this all get sorted out, if the science was bad, then the results from that lab are tainted.

But CRU isn't the only body of scientists looking into climate change. Here's an article that cites data from 2 peer review journals. The data does not come from CRU, nor is it interpreted by the people at CRU. The results are not pretty: Even if we could cut greenhouse gases by tomorrow, the ocean levels look like they will rise a meter by 2100. If I have grandchildren, they will see coast lines and island nations disappear.

The movement to slow our contribution to climate change isn't going to stop this. According to most experts, however, we might be able to mitigate the damages.

So here's my question for skeptics of anthropomorphic climate change: Why/how would scientists from a variety of fields, policy makers, and business leaders collaborate to execute a hoax on a global scale?

The groups involved are not like-minded. What could possibly motivate them to work together to forward a false cause?

Job security? The scientists at UT studying "nearly seven years of data on ocean-icesheet interaction... collected by the twin GRACE satellites" do not need global warming to ply their trade. They have tremendous analytical and technical skills. They'll find work.

Political motives? Have you ever met a research scientist? Seen one on TV? Probably not. They are not political creatures.

Greed? Well, Gore is set to make a lot of money if the energy sector goes green. If his motive was just money, however, why not buy a drilling platform? That would produce faster returns that are more secure?

Stupidity? Are we to believe that a select few have convinced top scientists, world leaders, and savvy business people to believe in something that is baseless? Who are these evil geniuses, where is their secret underground base, and why are they doing this?

The CC skeptics are claiming that disparate groups of well trained specialists have either met in secret to dupe the world OR that they have themselves been duped by a group with a desire to transition the planet to clean energy for unspecified reasons.

The moon landing conspiracy theory looks rational by comparison. You'll have to excuse me for siding with the diverse group of experts who have found something to agree on despite it's challenging implications. While the other side's accusations of conspiracy allow me to comfortably continue my life unchanged, the accusations are asking me to believe in something much more unrealistic than greenhouse gases.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Our Voice is Changing, It's an Awkward Time


It took me a couple of days, but I got around to listening to the This American Life/Planet Money episode from last weekend.

If you want to listen to a couple of people working to change the tone and register of how the American public discusses economic issues, this episode is a great place to start.

I've learned a lot from the Planet Money team this past year. What strikes me each time I listen is this: That group is aiming to enlarge the audience of economic news - news that has a profound effect on all of us - and they are doing it by bucking the system that made economic news a "members only" club.

Average people of average intelligence have the right to this kind of information, and I'm happy to see a set of journalists acknowledge that. Here's a couple of other journalists acknowledging that acknowledgment.

If these are the kinds of lessons we are learning in the current shift to new media, then let the shift continue.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Public Discourse and Obama's School Speech


I need some help from any readers I may have left after a summer of sporadic blogging.

I enjoy following American politics, but I am not in America.

So the venomous nature of the current political discourse snuck up on me. At first I thought the public's intense emotions were a reaction to the size of the challenges we face with health care reform. Then I read about the resistance to Obama's speech to school children.

I read the views of those who feel the speech is too political. I read the views of people who think the President is intruding into the sphere of state and local school districts. My reactions to these points are,
A) The speech doesn't read as overtly or covertly political.
B) I don't think such a speech exerts nearly as much Federal influence as the No Child Left Behind program.

People can argue with me about those points. That's fine, but I'm worried about the way our political dialogue is being shaped. When I look at the tone and content of this 'school speech' debate through the lens of my current research, I'm left wondering this: What is the aim of such a discussion?

The President wants to give a "Stay-in-School" speech today, and people are acting very upset. Which struck me as odd until I posed this theory: People aren't really that upset about the speech. The objections are actually an attempt to hijack the process of public political discourse by objecting to any-and-everything the President does.

I wouldn't say this about the health care town halls. That is a deeply divisive issue, and while I think some people are out of line, I understand the passion behind the debate.

But parents have threatened to keep their kids out of school because the President wants to encourage children to do their best and set some goals. Really? What do those parents hope to achieve... other than truancy?

The school speech uproar casts a light on the strategy being used by some members of the opposition: "Raise hell every time Obama tries to do anything, and eventually we'll paralyze the Administration." It's straight out of the Rush Limbaugh "I hope he fails" playbook.

Added 9-9-09: In his article at Forbes.com, Tunku Varadarajan expresses a view close to my own, and he and I are not on the same side of the political spectrum. & Here's the WSJ's reaction to the speech objections. End of added material.

I think the flood of objections is ridiculous, and I'm upset such a strategy has been effective in any way.

My concern about these theories is this: I like Obama.

I've agreed with much of his policy thus far. So it is hard, if not impossible for me to be objective. And with that in mind, I forced myself to remember how often and how vehemently I opposed the policies of Bush 43. Is it possible that my ilk and I employed a similar strategy?

This is where I need some help. I'd like my readers to use the comments section to build a list of the topics/issues that non-extremists have objected to under the Bush and Obama administrations.

My goal is to evaluate those lists and see if the tactics have changed since Obama took the Oath. It isn't fair to evaluate the volume of dissent - Bush had more time in office.

I'll start things off:

Large-scale public objections the left had/has about Bush's policies:
* The rush to war in Iraq
* The detention of terror suspects
* The warrantless wiretapping
* The "over-politicization" of the Federal Courts
* The supervision at military prisons in Iraq
* The support of waterboarding as a legitimate interrogation method

Large-scale public objections the right had/has about Obama's policies:
* The auto company bailout
* The stimulus package
* The closing of Gitmo
* The push to reform health care (specifically with a public option)
* The speech to school children

If we get a good list together, I'll compile the comments in a new post and we can all evaluate it.

If you don't know how to sign in and leave a comment, just check the "Anonymous" box and click "Publish Comment." That is the easiest way to comment.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Theory in Practice



I've recently been involved in a lively email debate with a small group of friends and family over the health care issue. It's been interesting because we don't all agree, but the conversation has remained civil - for the most part.

Earlier this week I posted
a description of my current research project. When I started that post, I intended to present this debate as an example of an emerging discourse community (DC). For better or worse, I got a little wrapped up in trying to describe my academic work with non-academic language. It proved to be a good exercise for me, but as a result my example went by the wayside.

Like I said, i
t has been a lively debate. There have been carefully laid out arguments, jokes, jabs, sharp back-and-forths, and an ongoing balancing act as we try not to take ourselves too seriously while still addressing a serious issue.

The debate started with one of those video clip montages that show Obama on the campaign trail stating his support for single-payer health care and comparing those clips to his current line that the reforms do not represent a move toward single-payer health care.

The video was sent to a distro list along with the comment, "Hogan should love this one..."

I suppose now would be the appropriate time to say that I am the only person in the group who is for the eventual move to single-payer health care. I responded with my argument for such a plan.

Then the sparks started to fly. Below you will find a summary of the exchanges. You don't have to read it. I only include it here to illustrate the tools used in an emerging DC.

First a former Rear Admiral who will remain unnamed sent a set of statistics. Those were questioned.
Then a small business owner chimed in with how the current system's problems have been exaggerated, and the type of reform proposed is going too far.
These ideas received a lot of positive feedback from other group members.
There was a wise crack about the Obama administration surveilling our discussion.
The debate then turned to the movement resisting the current reforms. One member favorably contrasted the town hall disruptions with some protests held by the extreme left.
This was followed by the small business owner's call to leave the extremists out of our debate. In his request he pointed out that the freedom to dissent is a privilege, and he linked this to successes in the recent war in Iraq.
This was followed by the quip, "Amen! Or whatever the Islamic equivalent is."
Which led to me ranting about the oversimplification of the argument, in which I accused several people of demagoguery. I probably over-reacted.
We then got bogged down in the details of the difference between supporting the current reform proposals and supporting the eventual creation of a single-payer plan.
The nit-picking over semantics is probably what led to a group member sending this image with the caption: Very Important Finding this weekend!!! An archeological team, digging in Washington DC , has uncovered 4,000 year old bones and fossil remains of what is believed to be the first Democrat.


Things have trailed off since, but looking back, I learned a lot about how people exercise power and persuasion in a DC.

  • There was the use of authoritative quotes and statistics.
  • There were attempts to respectfully point out logical flaws in other arguments.
  • There was the use of sarcasm and humor to dismiss others' views.
  • People presented their own credentials in order to give more weight to their points.
  • Accusations were bandied about.
  • The group decided it wasn't interested in semantics.
All of these rhetorical tools were introduced and tested on the group. Some worked. Some didn't. Some members took the debate seriously. Others shoot spitballs from the back of the classroom. People's ideas were misunderstood, and they had to find ways to explain themselves without losing face. A lot happened.

Bottom line, we all spent time trying to discover how to best argue and persuade within a group where relationships of authority were fluid. When you take a step back from such an experience and examine the decisions people were making, there is a lot to learn about how we communicate within a community.

Those are the lessons I hope to bring to my composition classroom when I ask them to build their own DC.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

An Attempt to Put My Research into Words



So my research project this summer has focused on how students deal with the relationships of power when they present an argument or a controversial idea in an essay.

A lot of the previous research on this topic focuses on the student's relationship with the university. Instructors write about how the university is a institution of power, and as such, teachers need to be careful when we ask our students to adjust to how we speak, read, write, and reason.

The researchers illustrate the issue with examples of academic outsiders: minorities, first-generation college students, immigrants, and exchange students.

I see this tension manifest in both my professional and personal life.

Most of my students were educated by people who expected them to enter a European style university. Some students come from systems that more closely resemble the old Soviet-style education. I wouldn't disparage either of these systems. They each have their strengths, but they are very different than the American style of higher education. The sudden introduction of such a new style is a massive upheaval for many. Some resist. Some become confused. Some are too quick to give up on the system that brought them to this point. It's an exciting environment to teach in.

Closer to home, a few years back my brother-in-law gave me a book on Creationism. At first glance, I found the author's position on college education to be disturbing. I thought the author was accusing educators of brainwashing young people. Since then, however, I've come to terms with the man's anti-establishment views of the university.

After all, the university demands that people adjust if they want to participate in the university's discussions. It can be frustrating. There are rules to follow. Lots of them.

Actually, each discipline within the university has its own set of rules. For example, economists discuss issues in a very different way than chemical engineers. It's not just the content of their discussions that differs; the methods for presenting arguments and evidence are different as well.

The jargon used to describe these kinds of groups isn't too complicated: A group of people involved in a formalized ongoing discussion = a discourse community.

There are discourse communities everywhere. They come into and go out of existence everyday. If you belong to a club that has set channels of communication, then you belong to a discourse community. If you follow a blog and comment regularly, that counts too.

The theory I'm putting forth with my paper is this: It is important to teach students how to actively participate in new discourse communities, so we should use the classroom to help them recognize and control the forces that shape a discourse community.

Here's where I got the idea. In my classroom I teach students from all over the world. They enter the class with these wildly varied preconceived notions about each other's countries, about the academic world, about the professional world, about governments, religion, race...

When these students present an argumentative essay to one and other, the complexity of the relationships that develop between them is difficult to keep track of.

I argue in my paper, that if students treat my classroom as an emerging discourse community - a community where they keep track of how people react to arguments and assertions - those students will be able to pull certain skills out of the experience - transferable skills that will help them identify the ways people argue in a community, the ways people assert their authority, the ways people gain power and influence. These are the skills that will help them move from one discourse community to another.

I believe in a world where cultures and communities are interacting more than ever - in a world where the stakes are high in so many of those exchanges, this skill is invaluable.

My question for you, dear reader, is what are some of the discourse communities you belong to? What is the focus of the community? How do members participate?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Holding onto Agency


My favorite quote from the scene here is when Snoop gets in the car and explains, “Man said if you wanna shoot nails, this here’s the Cadillac. He mean Lexus, but he ain't know it.”

Despite the curse words, I plan to show this clip to my students this fall so I can introduce them to my research and my teaching objectives.

My students come from all over the place, and this makes some of the workshop sessions very exciting. The cultural divide is clearest when they are trying to explain or persuade. While that is interesting, what I really want to dig into this year are the relationships of perceived power during these exchanges.

In my summer reading about diversity in the classroom, all of the composition people are concerned about the relationship between 'fringe students' and the academy. A fringe student can be one of many types of student - first in the family to go to college, a minority, an EFL student, etc. The academics are worried that the overwhelming force of the academy will wipe out anything unique such a student might bring to a discussion. It's a very real problem, but in my classroom something more interesting is going on.

My students have fairly fixed ideas about each others' countries, cultures, and their places in the world. This means that when the expository essay of an Azeri student is workshopped by a Swede, the relationship between reader and writer is very complex. The expectations of the academy become just one element in a much more complicated exchange.

So, in a more explicit manner than in the past, I want to focus my students' attention on the cultural differences they deal with when presenting expository or persuasive texts to each other. I want them to notice when/how they jump from one style of communication to another. I want them to discuss who they feel is in control of a given discussion. I want them to learn how to navigate between different styles of communication without ever losing their sense of agency. You can see Snoop doing just that in the clip above.

Call it code-switching, code-meshing, negotiating World Englishes, or something else. I believe the skill is only going to become more relevant in the future. So I'm excited to take advantage of the unique make-up of my composition classroom.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Summer Break

I'm traveling and writing this summer. Working on a research paper, the novel, and PhD applications. So not much excitement to report, but here is an old video about the most popular Hungarian summer vacation spot, Lake Balaton.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Gazprom's New Venture


Teaching at a business school means it's helpful when one of the biggest corporations in the region makes a ridiculous mistake that inadvertently drives home the basics of Composition Studies. But it isn't always pretty.

One of the things I strive to teach in my classroom is this: Effective communication starts by attempting to understand your audience and then crafting a message that is appropriate for them.

When Gazprom announced its new venture in Nigeria, the executives in charge failed to anticipate how a global audience might react to the name Nigaz.

Nigaz is the name of the new Russian-Nigerian oil firm.

I thought maybe the Daily Mail article was a joke, but here's the BBC report.

I'm not outraged or angry. I don't think the naming was motivated by racism.

In a way, I'm happy about the misstep. This firm's name will make an excellent real-world example of how a writer's intentions can be obscured by the reader's frame of reference. Thanks, Nigaz.

(And thanks to Dan for spotting the story.)


Friday, June 12, 2009

Where we Fight our Battles Matters


This week at CEU there were several volleys exchanged in a debate over LGBT rights and homophobia. The debate took place through a series of mass emails - everyone kept hitting 'reply all'. I want to write about how frustrating it was to see this debate carried out via such an inefficient channel, but before I do, there is something that should be said:

The atmosphere in Hungary is odd right now. Tolerance of all kinds is on the wane.

A quick and dirty explanation: The ruling government has failed to govern, and some segments of the population have turned to extreme political parties as a result. "Hungary belongs to Hungarians" is the proud slogan of Jobbik, a party that recently won three seats in the EU Parliament. Jobbik is backed by the Magyar Garda, a militia that dresses its members in paramilitary fashion. Last month, the party's leading figure refused an interview with the Daily Telegraph because the paper reported that Jobbik can be linked to anti-Gypsy and anti-Semitic sentiments. Even if the party officials do not intend to enact xenophobic policies, the tone of their constituency is not very open minded. They are a small group, but they have the nation's attention.

The result: Debates most would deem offensive are taking place in the public sphere. The debate that took place over the CEU servers was not nearly as bad as what one might hear in a Budapest bar, but I got involved in the email battle because Hungary's growing lack of tolerance is making me angry.

Anyway, the whole affair reminded me of when I was younger.

Back when I first started writing, my motivations were horribly self-centered. I was absolutely certain that everybody would be interested in what I had to say. That was true of a lot of things in my life. It was an unattractive trait. It may have looked like confidence at the outset, but if I wasn't humbled on a regular basis, my head grew to unsustainable proportions.

I have to thank my friends here for being big enough pricks to knock me down a couple of pegs whenever necessary. I don't know how Dora does it without being a prick, but I love her for it. And of course living in a country where the language is as wily as Hungarian has kept me in check as well. Nevertheless, it's that "Hey, look at me!" characteristic that's guided me down many of the roads I've taken in life thus far.
Acting when I was younger
Working as a camp councilor
Much of my college-themed debauchery
Writing
And now as a teacher...
As a teacher I get up in front of people everyday and act like what I have to say is important .

My actions feel less self-centered now, and yet I'm more confident than ever that what I have to say is important. This may seem like a paradox, but I figured out why it isn't this week.

The confidence first took root when I got serious and started studying writing as a craft. When I was at UC Davis, I learned quickly that people were not interested in what I had to say - unless what I had to say was interesting. That sounds obvious, but I think it's a lesson a lot of twenty-somethings need to figure out.

I learned a lot while trying to put together that first novel. Then I got to Hungary and started teaching composition. My work was to help a diverse group of young people struggling to make their views comprehensible. The obstacles they encountered helped me break down the task of writing into much smaller tasks. It was exciting, but it was hard work.

I didn't know at the time that I was reinventing the wheel. When I got to CEU and started reading journals and textbooks my work became easier - and more interesting. And now, with experience and the concepts of a discipline at my disposal, I'm certain that what I have to say about composition and communication is valuable.

That certainty was tested this week after a Master's student sent out an email to everyone at CEU. She invited people to get involved in Budapest Pride 2009 - a film and cultural festival held by a LGBT rights group. That afternoon another student hit 'reply all' and scolded the university for allowing someone to distribute such an invitation. He called the invitation propaganda and then compared LGBT groups to the KGB.

The floodgates were open.

Over the next two days, there were more than 30 emails sent using the 'reply all' option. The few reasonable arguments forwarded were buried beneath ad hominems and outrageous statements. One person indirectly compared homosexuality to witchcraft.

I wrote up a standard reply for everyone who abused the 'reply all' option. Each time I replied only to the sender, asking him/her to recognize that no one was going to make any progress by batting insults back and forth. And to those asking for tolerance, I presented evidence that the use of the 'reply all' button was only driving the wedge in deeper.

I took the debate seriously because it is a very touchy issue in Hungary right now.

But I took the platform for the debate even more seriously because such an issue deserves a real debate. People told me that 'reply all' was forcing others to think about the issue. But from what I read, most of the people were not thinking very hard. People do not hit 'reply all' to generate awareness.

I know why people hit the 'reply all' button. That is the button you hit when you believe everyone is interested in what you have to say. That is the 'self-centered' button, the 'look-at-me!' button, the 'Watch-me-be-smarter-than-that-guy' button. It's an easy button to hit, but if people can stop themselves from hitting it and take a moment to find a more effective way to solve our collective problems, then both time and server space will be put to better use.

So, my challenge to you, readers, is to suggest a forum for such a debate in an environment as volatile as Hungary.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Good News from the Governmant

Yesterday the White House appointed Jim Leach to head the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The NEH is the nation's largest funding body for the humanities. The New York Times article that reported the appointment quotes Leach stating his support for the NEH.

Leach is described as a liberal Republican. He teaches at Princeton.

The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that Obama's choice of a Republican will likely help push through his proposal to increase NEH funding from $155 million to $171 million. If that proposal is approved, it would reverse the decades-long trend of real terms budget erosion for the NEH.

When I was an undergraduate in philosophy ('94-'99) and a Master's student in English ('02-'04), the outlook for people in the Humanities was bleak at best. People didn't talk about a lack of growth - they talked about how fast the discipline was shrinking. This appointment doesn't make all that go away, but it is pleasant to see those in power renew their appreciation for what people in the humanities have to offer.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Write Like a What Now?

We just finished a three-day weekend here. Dora and I got out of the city for most of it. That was very nice, but while in the country, our dog Dio got some kind of skin infection on his head. So today the vet had to shave his head and scrub the skin clean (read "raw").

So now when I walk the dogs I try to keep my mind occupied. If I don't, I end up fixated on the horrified looks of passers-by. You might find it hard to believe, but most people don't like looking at infected dog head skin.*

Anyway, as I walked my little Frankenstein monster along Andrassy ut, I tried to figure out what it is that keeps my students from writing clearly.

The subject brought me back to a mantra posted on the wall of my high school's expository writing classroom, "Read like a writer; write like a reader." I throw this idea up on the whiteboard during the opening and closing lectures in my first-year writing skills course. Many of the students latch onto it. They often quote it in the summary statements of their final portfolios. It's a nice phrase. It's got symmetry. It's got alliteration. And it makes you sound like you care about writing.

The problem with this advice is that it is easy to say, but it is exceptionally difficult to execute. This is the issue I tried to unravel a bit today. So while people gasped in horror at Dio's gory little head, I contemplated the challenge of 'writing like a reader.'**

The fact is, most of my students do not think about the reader while writing. They think about the rules of grammar, the due date, source citation, the word count, and (if I'm lucky) the content of their essays. These things ought to be the focus during the early stages of writing. They are important. Unfortunately, many students believe that once they can understand their own writing, then everyone else ought to understand that writing as well.

However, when a writer is focused on understanding the meaning of their own work, it's impossible to think about the reader - to consider how another person could/would/might understand a sentence or a paragraph. It's impossible because our brains can't build a strong enough wall between what we want to say and what the text says.

Whenever a writer tries to edit for clarity while still teasing out the meanings and concepts in a paper, there's a turf war in that writer's brain between the intended meaning and the text's possible meanings. Intended meaning is always going to win that war. So to write like a reader, a writer must have the firmest of grasps on the material before reaching the editing and proofreading stages. Once there, the writer then has to think about the material as though they have lost that grasp; they have to anticipate how their words could be misinterpreted.

The advice this challenge might spawn: "Stop thinking about what you want to do, and think about what you might be doing." Not quite as catchy as the adage from my high school, but it does get at the complexity of the task.

Such activity not only requires time and abstract thought - it also requires a powerful sense of insecurity. You have to be the type to worry and fret about all the ways your words might be misread. Most writers I've met have that kind of insecurity in spades. It make some areas of their lives more challenging, but it makes for some very readable prose.

Many beginning writers, on the other hand, believe that once the words are on the page, the task of deciphering an essay's meaning belongs to the reader. They seem to say, "If the paragraph isn't clear, why don't you read it again, stupid." While this kind of confidence might help a person in some situations, it often leads to poorly written papers.

So during my dog walk, while I was worrying about how strangers were reacting to my dog's head, the writing advice I generated was this: "Try being a bit more insecure about yourself and your work."

Mmm, maybe I'm a bit biased.

*Note to my students: "dog head skin" is an awkwardly long noun sequence. Just the kind of thing I've warned many of you against. Avoiding such a sequence is almost always a good point of style, but you will find writers who will break that 'rule' if the awkwardness of the phrasing compliments the meaning of the content. In this case, I used an ungainly and ugly collection of nouns to better get across how unpleasant my dog's head is when shaved.

**I'll leave the challenge of Reading Like a Writer to Francine Prose's lovely volume on the subject.

Friday, May 22, 2009

So What?

Yesterday I asked each of my Business Communication students to stand up in front of the class and say four specific things about the term papers they are going to turn in on Tuesday:

* State your thesis/findings/proposal.
* Briefly describe the evidence you used to support your assertions.
* Explain why your evidence supports your assertions.
* Tell us why your assertions are important.

Students saw the first three requests coming, but when I asked them to explain the importance of their work, several of them looked confused - enough of them that I decided to explain I meant by 'important.'

To do so, I borrowed a lesson from my one-time fiction writing professor, Lynn Freed. Back when I was walking the halls of Voorhies at UC Davis, Lynn's name evoked anxiety in many of the fiction writers. We liked hearing what she had to say, but what she said often hurt. She's not one to pull punches during workshop. If she thinks your being a lazy writer, she'll call you out on it. If she thinks you've lost control of the story, she'll tell you just that. But the reason she was feared - the reason people were nervous about enrolling in her workshop was not what she said in the classroom; it was what she wrote on the final page of so many people's submissions that scared us. She scratched two words across the whole page: "So what?"

A young man might be drawing on deeply personal experiences to write about how a girlfriend humiliated his fictional self in front of family and friends, and at the end of the story all Lynn wanted to know was, "So what?"

She explained that this is the most important question a writer can ever ask about his or her work. If a writer is going to take up a reader's time and energy, then there sure as hell better be a pay off. And Lynn carries herself in such a way that you know she probably has better things to do than read your short story. That really drives the point home.

And so, in my classroom I asked my students to explain why their term paper was important. "Why should I spend my time reading it? How will my life be affected if I accept or reject your assertion? In short, so what?" The class laughed. Then the presentations began.

Then just before the first break, I had to push one presenter a bit on the "so what" issue. I asked her, "Why should I read your paper?"

Before she could answer, one of the other students exclaimed, "I hate that question." He was adamant. I asked him why, and he told us that whenever there is a message, there is always a 'sender' and a 'reciever,' and that relationship is defined by pre-established positions of power. He suggested that you shouldn't compose a message if you are not in a position to make someone read that message. The relationship must be in place before the reader's eyes fall upon the first word: Boss & subordinate, journalist & news customer, politician & citizen, parent & child, and the list goes on.

It was a fascinating misconception of the reader-writer relationship, and I think it's one many students have. After all, many students only read because they are told to read. Reluctant readers get to school where they are told what to read, and if they fail to read the book, an authority punishes them. This 'teaches' reluctant readers that "We read because we have to."

Now, I don't want to do away with that system. I think teachers should force reluctant readers to read. The Great Gasby may feel like 'eating your vegetables' to a 15-year-old, but it's good for you AND eventually we all learn how delicious asparagus is (it's in season here, and soooo good).

But we also need to teach about the reader-writer relationship. The reader is giving time and thought to a writer's work. That writer better bring something to the table - something worth the time and energy - something that offers a satisfying answer to the question, "So what?"

Friday, May 08, 2009

Troubles Teaching Argument


It's been an interesting week. I'm reading a lot of Composition Studies literature for my research project, and that's got my head in an odd place. I keep thinking in jargon, which is uncomfortable.

Anyway, I was on the receiving end of a couple of interesting ideas this week, and it got me to thinking about the challenges of teaching effective arguments. I know from my reading and experience why it's a challenge:

* Many students often struggle in their attempts to understand the opposition's point of view.
* Many students have been taught to argue using vague or unsubstantiated evidence, a lesson imparted by various media and often by the family/community.
* Many students believe generalizations and emotional appeals are more effective tools of persuasion because they are easy to create.
* Many students don't hang out with people who disagree with them very often.

But what struck me this week is this:
* Many people often struggle in their attempts to understand the opposition's point of view.
* Many people have been taught to argue using vague or unsubstantiated evidence, a lesson imparted by various media and often by the family/community.
* Many people believe generalizations and emotional appeals are more effective tools of persuasion because they are easy to create.
* Many people don't hang out with people who disagree with them very often.

Let me offer this article from CBS News as an example. The article tells of the Hawaii State Senate's recent passage of a bill that established "Islam Day." My friend Dan sent me the article, and pointed out that someone in Hawaii had clearly forgotten about the separation of Church and State. And I'm with him on that, but to me the article is interesting for a different reason. There was partisan debate on the issue, and the way arguments were framed put both parties in a bad light.

Two quotes struck me:
"...objections of [Republican] lawmakers who said they didn't want to honor a religion connected to Sept. 11, 2001."

Okay, there are a ton of arguments against "Islam Day." Dan's Church/State point is the strongest, but there are others. The 'holiday' should've been shot down before before leaving the lips of whatever ass-head thought of it.

But, if you're a Republican forced to argue against Islam Day by a power-drunk member of the far left, the best way to expose the left's folly is to retaliate from the center. Even if you don't want to bring the Church/State debate to the table (Don't upset the base!), I think a toned down version of "Islam Day is a stupid idea, and we are wasting time and oxygen talking about it," ought to settle the issue.

But that is not the tactic the Hawaii Republicans chose. Instead they went with the one argument that makes them look either obtuse or mildly racist: "Some members of Islam are evil (those who carried out the 9/11 attacks), so we shouldn't celebrate Islam." That's the stupidest argument I've ever heard. Aside from being poor inductive reasoning, the only people who would rally behind that argument are already loyal to the position of 'No Islam Day.'
If you want change people's minds, then you argue from a position they can identify with. That's Rhetoric 101, people.

And at the end of the article, there's this gem:

"The lone Democrat voting against the bill opposed it on church-state separation fears."

Really? Just one Democrat remembered that the separation of Church and State is important? One? Come on, guys. The First Amendment is a pretty good amendment. I actually think it's one of the best (although 23's granting of presidential electors to DC is a close second). Defending the 1st is a principled position that helps support other Democratic views. Most Democrats, Independents, and many Republicans would like to keep law makers out of our bedrooms and religion out of the science classroom; the 1st Amendment is the best protection against the many clamoring at those gates. Focus, people. Focus.

This article illustrates with disturbing clarity how poorly people reason. These senators have a job that is largely concerned with having, holding and defending positions in an argument.

So my question to readers this week is this: Where can we find examples of people constructing and delivering well composed arguments?

Two of my answers:
Intelligence Squared US
George Orwell

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A More Interesting World


Playing For Change | Song Around The World "Stand By Me" from Concord Music Group on Vimeo.

davidbraun93 threw this onto Twitter. It touches on the ideas behind the post I put up Monday.

I think I'm going to enjoy seeing the global culture that emerges from the cultural, economic, and environmental crises we're enduring right now.

If my classroom is any kind of indicator, it won't always be as pleasant as this video makes it seem, but it has this kind of potential. And that's exciting.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Futile Attempt to Hold onto 'Politically Correct'

My friend Dan and I spent the last week arguing over email about the term 'politically correct.' I was foolish enough to step in and defend the often reviled term. I knew I was getting myself into trouble. There are few phrases more loaded than, "That's not PC."

Dan was unhappy about what happened at the Miss America Pageant (That sentence, taken out of context, puts Dan in an odd light, but it is true.). Dan suggested that Miss California had lost because her stance on gay marriage is not politically correct. That's where our debate began, but to be clear, we did not get into a debate over gay marriage.

I took issue with Dan's assertion that it is politically incorrect to oppose gay marriage. He was suggesting that the ideas behind PC are motivated by a political agenda - an agenda that favors gay marriage. He had both history and examples of 'PC-gone-wild' to back him up.

Despite that, I argued that a more useful definition of political correctness suggests this:
If an issue is still open for debate in the public discourse, then the various sides of that debate are all valid - none of the views are politically correct or incorrect.
The distinction between correct and incorrect is actually as follows: If your language pushes a stakeholder out of an active debate by marginalizing him/her based on sex, race, creed, religion, sexuality, or socioeconomic status, then you are being politically incorrect.
I went on to say that anyone arguing in a debate can cross the line of political correctness. As a hypothetical example, I said if Miss California had been in favor of giving gays the right to marry, and she had phrased her answer using words like 'homo' or 'Jesus-freak', then she would have crossed the line. She would have been politically incorrect.

Which means the pageant "judge" responsible for the question that started this debate crossed a line at the end of his recent interview.


You see what he did there? He used two gender-specific slurs to marginalize a woman's view on same-sex marriage. It's offensive, and it is politically incorrect. Not to mention, he just helped the same-sex marriage movement take several monumental steps backward.

It's frustrating because that video really helps Dan's side of the debate on how we understand political correctness. And that drives me nuts because my understanding of political correctness is very helpful in the classroom. In fact, that is why I engaged in the debate in the first place.

In my composition course we discuss and write about cultural diversity. In that classroom I have students from over 15 different countries, at least 6 different religious views, a wide array of political ideologies, and many different temperaments (often changing from one day to the next). In order for such a class to function, I need to both abide by AND enforce the brand of PC I argued for. I've had students sit out of discussions because of the offensive way a peer has expressed an opinion. I actually need political correctness as a teaching tool.

Of course, I don't use the term in class because it has become a parody of itself - especially here, where Europeans see PC ideology as a pointless debate about "manholes versus people-holes." Nevertheless, I need to keep in mind that I am an American teaching non-Americans via an American system of education. The ideas behind political correctness help to remind me of the lack of balance in that power structure.

So my question for readers today is this: Can we invent a term that avoids the baggage of PC while describing the act of avoiding "expressions or actions that can be perceived to exclude or marginalize or insult people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against?"

Monday, April 20, 2009

Dreams and Dreaming of Fiction

I'm working hard to make up for some lost time at work. I got sick last week. It's still lingering, but I'm back in the office, which is good. On top of that, the week's fitful sleep has resulted in some exquisite imagery from my dreams, some of which I hope to incorporate into my creative work.

I don't keep a dream journal in a strict sense, but I do keep a pen at my bedside. It was 3am last night when I woke up coughing. The image I held onto from the dream was of a nude, hairless, sexless, gray humanoid with bulging black eyes. It was shivering beside an iron bed frame covered in a pile of bloodied bandages stacked so high it was impossible to tell if there was a mattress underneath. The room was padded, lined with a mildewed polyurethane fabric. There was a porcelain sink in the corner, with rust stains and a leaky faucet.

The trouble with dream images is the difficulty of transcribing the mood from a dream. What I wrote above fails to deliver the simultaneous feeling of dread and excitement that was in that room during my dream. There was also a sense of altered states woven into the whole thing. And those bloodied bandages were unpleasant to look at, but there was a kind of relief in that they were no longer in use.

There's a character in my project that gets guidance from spirits while hallucinating, and I think this dream might contribute something to her story. But trying to get all the elements on the page will undoubtedly change the original moment several times before the elements are all just right.

And there's the part of fiction that's hard to describe, the aspect of fiction writing that I can't explain to some people. These people suggest, "You ought to write some journalism stuff. Like some 'life in Hungary' bits." These people mean well. They feel I'd be better off if I cast a wider net in search of publishers. But if I just wanted my words in print I'd go into journalism (or I'd keep a blog). It's not the act of writing that's got its hooks so deep in me. I enjoy composing a killer paragraph sure, but that is not what brings me back to this work. It is the fiction that I get a kick out of. It is the attempt to capture a moment taking on a life of its own.

My work on Miffland was exciting as long as it felt like the manuscript was more in control than I was, and the same is true of this fantasy story I'm working on. I guess it's kind of like dreaming that way.

So my question this week is this: What have you read or seen that creates a dreamlike state for the audience?

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Unpleasant Violence


I still enjoy a good kung-fu movie from time to time, and I know the cartoon violence of big-budget action flicks can be fun. For me, however, the portrayal of violence is much more interesting when the violence is an unpleasant experience for the audience. Violence is horrible in real life. So, when art portrays violence as horrible, I find that engaging. I find this rings even more true when the audience is expecting the more cartoonish variety of violence.

Don't get me wrong, I like the over-the-top stuff. When I mentioned kung-fu movies as a source of exaggerated and exciting violence, I was thinking of classics like this:

No doubt, that's a great scene. Many would argue it's one of the highlights of Chan's career. But there's something 'Three Stooges' about it. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but when the audience gets excited because a guy is on fire, then the audience has cut yet another connection between themselves and the fictional world on the screen (I hope). And I think those connections - the uncut connections - help us experience fiction in a more interesting and more engaging way.

Staying within the kung-fu genre, here's one of the best fight scenes of all time:

While it maintains the excitement of an old Jackie Chan film, that scene is infused with the pain and dread of both inflicting receiving bodily harm. And I think the fight has more of an impact on the audience as a result.

This is the issue I'm currently exploring in my fantasy story. I'm dealing with a lot of violence: ranged attacks, massive flooding, soldier-eating beasts, and other forms of violence that are common in fantasy fiction. My aim is to bring those fictional moments as close as possible to a reader's experience with real violence - I want cringe-inducing violence, like the end of that Bruce Lee fight when he kills Bob Wall's character.

I think I'm going to re-read "The Iliad." I remember a lot of battle sequences that seemed awful in that.

My question for today is this: What else should I see or read to get a sense of how to portray violence in a less-than-romantic way?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Congrats to Dave, Anna, & Joni!

In a departure from the usual content, I want to send out my congratulatory wishes to my old roommate and longtime friend Dave Burck, his wife Anna, and their newborn baby girl Joni.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Well Said


I guess this thing is all over the cyber-place. It lays out a lot of the basic concepts I try to instill when I teach persuasive writing. Good stuff.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Rock and Roll, Sisyphean Style



I sent a message to my family the other day, and in it I used the term 'Sisyphean task.' I worried for a moment that using the term might come off as obnoxious. I thought to myself, “Perhaps that’s a bit much. Can people still allude to Greek mythology in everyday conversation, or will that go over some heads?”

I dismissed the thought for two reasons:
1) My family is a smart group of people.
2) The term suited the situation far too well.
You see, my cousin Kim is working very hard to organize a Hayes family reunion. There are two words in that last sentence that should give away the interminable and thankless nature of her task, 'Hayes' and 'Organize'.

So I used the term, but my brief hesitation highlights an issue I deal with in the classroom.

At Davis, I took a seminar on how to teach creative writing. It was led by Jack Hicks. He gave us all a very good piece of advice, “You’ve got to take them where they are.” Meaning, as teachers, we get students of varied skill levels, varied backgrounds, varied temperaments, and varied intelligence. This fact, along with the challenges it presents, is part of the job.

I understand and accept that. My issue is not that some students arrive in my classroom with subpar writing skills. I can fix that. My issue is that the world they come from, and the world they’ll go back to when they leave my classroom is...

A) Full of dumb people...
AND
B) Those dumb people are often in positions of power and influence.

This seems to suggest that the pursuit of knowledge is a waste of time. Now, I know that's not true, but I am just one quiet voice. And the dumb are loud and many.

Here’s an example from my area of instruction.
The headline from USA Today's top story reads as follows: “Suspected NY shooter may have lost job.” I don’t wish to make light of the shooting, but that sloppy bit of writing suggests that since the shooting, the suspect might have lost his job. In other words, after killing 13 people and then himself, the shooter may no longer be employed.

As a grammar issue, it's an interesting problem. The auxiliary verb 'have' is used to place the modal 'may lose' in the past, and you get 'may have lost.' But the word 'have' can also make a verb present perfect, which means the verb's action affects the present moment (the cause of my gripe). Introducing the past perfect would solve this, but then the headline would read 'NY shooter may have had lost job.' Yuck. The headline could have added a time indicator like "NY shooter may have lost job before rampage." It's certainly not as catchy a headline, so I can see why they didn’t go with that. The headline they chose, however, is sloppy to the point of blurring the meaning of the intended message.
(And why is a newspaper speculating about past events in the first place? I don't want to read about what might have happened. Tell me what did happen.)

How am I supposed to convince young people that the rules of grammar are there to help craft precise meaning when the editors of a major national newspaper print a headline that ignores those rules?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Spring Break in my 30s


When I was 21 years old I went on spring break with John Andonov, Andy Gehl, Mike Kodner, and Perry LaRoque. Our aim was to drive down to the southern end of the Appalachian Trail and backpack north for a few days. We arrived in Chattahoochee in a downpour of cold miserable rain. There was no opposition when someone suggested we continue to drive south until the sun came out.

We ended up in Daytona Beach, and though we felt like outsiders looking in, our spring break did meet many of the benchmarks of an Mtv spring break.

Note for the ladies: During the wet T-shirt contest, we're not laughing with you.

Note for the guys: Chanting doesn't make it so.

As someone in education, I once again have a spring break coming up. It will probably pale in pop-culture comparison to that week in Florida. I'm going to catch up at work, write, finish Master and Margarita, and train Dio to fetch properly (he gets the ball, brings it back, and then runs away with the ball).

So... Can I get a "Spring Break! Yeah! Whoooooo! Badgers rule! Spring Break! Spring Break! Spring Break! Whooooo! Yeah! Spring Break! Dude I am so wasted..."

Okay, so maybe the connotation has changed, but I'm just as excited.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Midterms? Midterms? We don't need no stinking midterms.



Last week I wrote that I wanted to share the challenges of writing fantasy fiction.

This week I'm finding the biggest challenge to be my work here at school. I guess that shouldn't be a surprise.


I'm administering two midterms this week. I'm normally not a huge fan of the in-class exam (nor are my students), but I do like devising tricky questions. And that's what's keeping me from the creative writing work.

I think I have to start keeping one of those crazy creative-person schedules where I get up extra early for my labor of love, and then spend the rest of the day here at school. I do enjoy the teaching, but if you've ever corrected 56 midterms, then you know why I hesitate to call it a labor of love.

Anyway, my question for people reading this today is as follows: How do you maintain a balance between 'the work you have to do in order to keep money in the bank' and 'the work you have to do to stay sane?'

Oh, and Brad, you are incorrect about BSG. Start over and try harder this time.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

My Inspiration to Teach



I first heard this skit/song by The Frantics when I was very young (11?). And hearing it again today, I can't help but think that this recording is what inspired me to one day become a teacher.

There are just way too many parallels between this and my experience in the classroom.

Enjoy.


dr. demento - boot to the head -

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Vampires versus Radicals


My good friend Dan sent me an article by Ron Charles from the March 8th issue of the Washington Post. The article is about the kinds of books being read on college campuses today. According to Charles and his sources, lighter pop fiction has usurped the more radical literature we typically associate with campus reading.

I remember when I was in the English Department at UC Davis, there was a debate that riled both my peers and teachers: Should Harry Potter have been considered in the same category as Seamus Heaney's "Beowulf" for the Whitbread Book of the Year Prize. Smart people came down on both sides of the issue.

I like Harry Potter, and I think it's great YA lit, but I don't take the books too seriously outside of that category. Don't get me wrong, YA is a serious category with a lot of talented writers who are performing an essential and difficult task. They are writing for young readers, helping those readers sort out the issues important in a young person's life. It's hard to do that.

But if these are the books you read when you move into adulthood, then you're not engaging with literature as an adult.

I was toting around Tom Robbins and Kurt Vonnegut when I was an undergrad. Not because I was trying live up to an image of campus radical, but because those were great books for me to read while I was cobbling together my adult identity. I want my 20-something novels to illustrate how sex and drugs are more complicated than rock and roll. That's what I was dealing with, and my books helped me do so.

But according to Charles's article, that not the case for many college kids today. Now it's the Twilight books that have moved in to take Harry's place. More YA books in the hands of non-YAs.

This addresses both of the topics I want to write about here.

In the classroom, I encourage my students to read in English. They all speak English very well, and they can keep up with university lectures in English. However, the best thing for developing one's writing skills is reading. So I tell them to read. Read anything, as long as it's in English. They like spy novels, thrillers, newspapers, and sports magazines. And I tell them, "Great. Just keep reading." And when they tell me they are working on the last Harry Potter book, I am pleased, because it's a long book and the writing is good.

However, if I picked the books my college-aged students should read, Harry would be left out in the cold. The Sun Also Rises. Still Life with Woodpecker. Lolita. Crime and Punishment. How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. Tropic of Cancer. Catch-22. And the list goes on.

I like the trouble makers in books and in the classroom. It's the students who give me a hard time that really engage me. As long as there's mutual respect, the students who challenge me, who challenge the institution I represent - they get the best I have to offer in the classroom. Consequently, I want my students to read books that raise hell, and I want them to bring that attitude into the classroom.


(Note to my students, you have to actually read the books.)

So, in my writing, does this undermine my decision to write a fantasy genre novel for adult readers? I don't think so. I think there's enough genre work that either challenges the status quo or comments on the issues of the day. 1984, Brave New World, TLotR, Hitchhiker's Guide, Stranger in a Strange Land, and everything by Phillip k. Dick...

Yeah, I'll be okay

What about you all? What do you think of the trend that's had adults reading YA literature for the last 10 years or so?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Seeking Motivation to Move Forward



Eight years ago I thought I had an idea for a story - maybe even a novel. The idea I had back then never made it to the page. But I did start writing. I had been reading Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and all those pretty sentences got me fired up. Suddenly I didn't care where the story was going, I just wanted to write. In the process my idea took on a life of its own. Eventually the pages came together and turned into the manuscript for Miffland. An earlier draft, titled Mifflin, served as my Master's thesis. Since completing that draft, I've revised several times, a painfully joyfull process. I'm happier with the product each time I go through that; the story still feels like a living thing to me, but I've wanted to move on for some time.

I figured getting excited about a new story is what it would take. I've tried to start a project based on my time here in Budapest. I also wanted to write something based on working in New York from 1999-2002. I have started and re-started those projects several times, but each time I failed to get any forward momentum going. I think those ideas will eventually take on a life of their own, but I need that spark before I can really get behind something. I need to feel like the story will take me somewhere, rather than feeling like I'm taking the story somewhere.

The good news is recently I started writing about a fantasy world that has been rattling around my head for a few years now, and I think I've found that spark once again. This project is very different from Miffland, but I'm having the same kind of fun while I write. I grew up reading sci-fi/fantasy. The first fiction I wrote was a post-apocalypse mutant superhero story. While I love literary fiction, I do miss spice worms and swordplay.

Interestingly, the urge to push past the outlining stage and get ink on the page came as I was reading more Chabon. I finished Gentlemen of The Road last month, and once again those sentences of his got me back to the keyboard. It also didn't hurt to read a well respected author who can dip into genre without the critical commuinty biting his head off. That and The Road have confirmed my suspicions that serious readers can see past the label of genre.

So, I'm back at it, and hoping to share the challenges of writing fantasy fiction here. But my question to readers is this:
What are some examples of fantasy/sci-fi that rise above the stereotypes of genre fiction?