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?