Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Last Week of Classes

I'm starting to get a sense of the rhythm of things here at Davis.  Of course, all of that will be tested next month when I start a new quarter.

My writing students presented on their Writing in the Disciplines papers yesterday, and I walked away very impressed.  They showed a deep understanding of both the task and the aims behind the task.  And they did that without much guidance from me.

I've worked hard in the past few years to reduce the amount of hand-holding I do in my classroom.  When I got to Davis I really stepped that up.  I put a number of task descriptions on the course website that I never spoke about in class.  I counted on the syllabus to speak for itself.  I used class time to teach, not to walk students through time-management exercises.  And the students rose to the occasion.  It's heartening to see students present thoughtful commentary on how the linguistically diverse audience of a hard sciences paper should dictate the grammar choices a writer makes.

Things were less heartening in another class - less heartening, but enlightening.  There was the lively discussion we had in pro-seminar yesterday.  Each of us presented a prominent scholar's take on Scientific Research in Education.  It is a booklet describing the research methods that a group of scholars deem to be the most trusted - and therefore the only types of research that should receive Federal grants.  We called the exercise "The Debate," because there is a wide spectrum of arguments surrounding the booklet.  However, the ship has more or less sailed on this "debate."  The winner is... quantitative research that uses randomized trials and yields reproducible results.  Loosely translated, the science of education should look more like the natural sciences.

I think studies that fit the above mold are excellent, but I do not believe it is the only kind of informative research in the social sciences.  I'm not alone, and that's what led to the lively discussion.  The group went round and round for a while.  It was a comment about intended audiences from our professor Rebecca Ambrose that led me to realize what was behind all this: when the government funds research, the researchers' intended audience is government policy makers.  I know, seems obvious, right?  It was less an "ah-ha" moment than it was a "duh" moment.  But it sure does muddy the waters that I dove into this fall.

I had a naive notion of pure research lingering in my head. Left over, no doubt, from my days in the humanities.  It was a bit foolish, I guess.  I won't claim to have been completely grounded just yet, but this article sent by my professor today helped that process along.

Yesterday, as I attempted to sketch the rhetorical situation that illustrates the relationship between all the education stakeholders, I got a sense of what kind of work I'm setting out to do.

This drawing here is what I came up with.  I want to make a sculpture on which the positions of the stakeholders can shift.  I won't have time, but it's a fun idea.

On what may feel like an unrelated note, can someone explain to me the economic thinking behind making the Bush Tax Cuts permanent?  Before jumping in, however, please take the following into account: These tax cuts may have helped us out of the 2002-03 dip, but they were still in place before and during the 2008-09 recession, making it difficult to argue that they have longterm beneficial effects on the economy.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


For this post I started with a Google Image Search: "Contention."

The cover of the 23rd Xanth novel (23rd??!!) caught my eye.

Piers Anthony's Xanth novels were the first books I read without any outside encouragement.  They were the first books for which I would actually go to the bookstore and spend my own money.

I don't think many would describe the books as serious literature, but they were fun, and they were more involved than anything I was being asked to read in sixth grade.  Xanth showed me how novels base themselves in intricate worlds with tremendous amounts of activity taking place off the page.  The books sparked my interest in long form reading and writing.

I owe a lot to the first eight novels in the series.  From there I moved on to Hitchhiker's Guide, then Dune, then Notes From Underground,  and suddenly a lot of books were on my self.  Somewhere in there I started writing.

The trend continued, and years later I was studying fiction writing here at Davis, and then I was in Hungary teaching writing, and now I'm back at UCD studying writing education

I've always felt a strong link between my love of literature and the act of writing.

That link is what came to mind when a debate broke out in practicum on Friday.  We were performing a dry run of portfolio grading.

We started discussing the first essay in the portfolio of a student-writer with a particularly strong voice.  That is when things got contentious. 

From what I read, a clearly talented student developed an effective voice for a piece, but unfortunately the composition fell short of coherent. My focus on composition left me wavering between Satisfactory and Unsatisfactory (portfolios can receive 1 of 3 grades, Meritorious, Satisfactory, Unsatisfactory).

Several people disagreed with me. Which was a good thing; unsatisfactory marks and meritorious marks deserve a discussion.  I was thankful to have the opportunity to discuss the case. 

But I was surprised to hear that some readers would have given the essay a Meritorious. These readers were impressed by the student-author's voice and wordplay.  They cited clever phrases, a playful tone, and the essay's ambitious thesis: a suggestion that strong writing is a subjective matter. They were impressed by some of the essay's literary merits.

As the debate developed, I cited the course rubric which states an Unsatisfactory mark should be given when “the organization of the text may be confusing or ineffective.” One of my peers argued that the organization was not problematic and then suggested what I had missed: The essay was strong because it was written in an unconventional mode

I was struck dumb for a moment. 

I wanted to be congenial. So I kept this to myself: the comment was insulting. It suggested I had misread a student essay at a very basic level, that I lack the capacity to interpret the modes of discourse explored in a draft UWP 1 essay. 

I have since posted my reaction to this exchange on a course blog, and I hope it sparks a dialogue.  But I bring the story here for a different reason.  

The contentious debate I took part in last week is one aspect of a bigger issue, an issue being addressed in the academic journals and university departments that concern themselves with the teaching of writing.  In CCC's latest issue Melissa Ianetta has a great piece on the subject - the unclear divide between the study of literature and the study of composition. 

That divide is complicated, and it forces us to ask some uncomfortable questions: Is a literature scholar the best person to teach an engineering major how to write?  Shouldn't it be the responsibility of each discipline to instruct its students on its conventions of writing?  Does the teaching of introductory writing demand too much time/effort of literary scholars?  

These questions force us to consider delicate subjects, e.g. expertise, funding, labor, and academic priorities.
So it should be no surprise that a debate got contentious when a group of lit people and comp people statrted discussing an essay with strong literary qualities yet troublesome composition issues.  

One of my new goals here at Davis is to speak openly about the contention this subject inspires.  I think contention can be a good thing, if it helps people solve problems.  

So while I'm here, I want to ask lit people and comp people where they stand.  I want to develop my stance and write about it.  I want to speak to people from other departments who work with students who have gone through writing programs. I want to hear from students who have gone through such programs.  

A lot of these wants can be satisfied by a good literature review, but I think this kind of contention is going to call for open dialogue. I hope I can contribute.  

Thursday, November 04, 2010

"Babies are bad at math, and they have very little toes." - Martin

Today in intro to statistics for the social sciences, our professor Lee Martin was demonstrating that correlation does not mean causation. He asked the class if we thought there might be a correlation between math skills and toe length. Someone rightfully said there is a correlation, which prompted Lee's observation, "Babies are bad at math, and they have very little toes." I wrote that down.

The other line of Lee's that I had to commit to paper today was this: "In a real scenario you'd want to know what actually matters."

I like the way stats has asked me to bend my thinking.

Dora is amused to no end that I'm enjoying stats class. She knows just how nervous I was about dipping my longish toe back into mathematical waters. In high school I had come to believe my brain was missing something mathy. So when I started feeling confident in stats, I came home bragging. For this I was mocked. Dora has always seen me as a bit of a geek, and this new found pride in my math skills has driven that point even further home.

Anyway, reflecting on this reminds me of a student in my UWP 1 course. She has written two drafts of an essay about how she does not have the skills needed to write well. She is certain of this. She has family and friends who can write well with little effort, but no matter how hard she tries, she can't manage an A essay. She really wants to convince her readers that she isn't good at writing. She's put a lot of effort into explaining her frustration and failed efforts.

Looks like it'll end up being a good essay.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Response to Ryan

My good friend Ryan asked about the top 20 errors listed in The Everyday Writer. I found them on this link.

He also asked if there was anything he could do to help the high school students at his school avoid making these mistakes.

My first thought, make the students aware of the list.
After that, instructors should continue to stress that writing is a process. In relation to this list, that means we should stress that our students will make these mistakes on the first draft or two. The reason the list is valuable is this: When proofreading, knowledge of what to look for is going to be helpful.

One last note, this list is the result of an updated study conducted by Andrea A. Lunsford and Karen Lunsford. They did the research in 2005/6, aiming to update a 1986 study. Perhaps not surprizingly, there were a lot of changes, most of which are related to the rise of the PC. Students should be aware that the "where and how" of writing affects the whole process.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Getting Ready for Day Two

Just a quick note as I go into day two.

While reading the course material and the supporting material for this course I came to a harsh realization:

Over in Budapest, I was out in the composition-studies wilderness.

Until last year I only had access to embargoed journals and some dated texts. The only change I made last year was to join NCTE. That got me access to 2 up-to-date journals. It didn't exactly plug me into everything that's going on in the discipline. Now that I'm reading the student and teacher resources we have here at Davis, it's like I've traveled through time.

Reading our handbook has been an eyeopener.

For instance, the concept audience awareness has been made so much more accessible and easy to understand. The material I was working with framed this idea as more of an abstraction.

And then I read the list of the top 20 errors made by US college students today... Just that such a list has been compiled has me awed, but our text goes on to explain what kind of misstep a student is making when the errors get on the page. It's great stuff. If my students take advantage of this, I think it will make a huge difference in their work.

The challenge for me is to make these resources interesting for UWP1 students.

Of course I'm into it all; my area of study is making great strides. That is exciting for me, naturally. But how to convey that excitement is what I have to work on.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Morning of Day 1

This is my first Stateside post. I will no longer be Hogs in Budapest. As you may have noted above, I am now Hogs in Davis.

Here you will find the blog post I was asked to write in the days leading up to my first day teaching the University Writing Program 1 course, expository writing.

Of course I wrote it the morning of my first class. Some habits are hard to break.

Today is an odd combination of the familiar and the foreign.

The past few years at CEU Business School, and the years before that at
McDaniel College Budapest both help to make first days feel old hat.

There are, however, several things that have me nervous.
It's a good nervous. The same kind I got when I was an actor in high school theater productions. The kind of nervous that makes me focus. But the source of those nerves is new.

I haven't worked with UC students in years.

I haven't taught a course built by someone else.

I haven't copied my handouts yet... okay, that's nothing new. I am going to have to work on having materials ready earlier, but that has always dogged me.

New students always get my blood going. I want to make a good impression, but I don't want to be that instructor who looks to be trying. That's the result of working with first year students; it's a age group deeply concerned with their environment's level of cool. I want to walk the line that gets me the respect of a friendly authority. I know how to do that in Hungary. I think some of those skills will transfer. We'll see.

The other thing that got me out of bed early was the question about how to make this class my own. Using Dana's syllabus is great because I get to try some new things, but I did develop a classroom rhythm while in Hungary. I hope I can cover everything without looking like I'm reading cue cards.

Well, I've got to go make some copies and get to class.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Farewell to Hungary

In two weeks Hogs will no longer be in Budapest.

On the 17th of this month, Dora, Elek, and I (plus the dogs) will get on a plane and leave Hungary behind.

We plan to come back when we can, but we will return as visitors rather than residents (the dogs actually don't plan on coming back).

I've lived here since August 2004. It's been a busy six years.

I got married and grew even closer to Dora.

I figured out the career I'd like to pursue, and I gathered some excellent experience in that field.

I got a dog, helped that dog whelp nine puppies, and found homes for all of them - gaining a second dog in the doing.

I worked with incredible students from around the world, learning more about our global culture than I ever thought I would.

I finished a draft of my novel that I'm happy with - no publisher, but now I'm working on some other stuff, and the experience of finishing a big project helps me understand what "working on some other stuff" really means.

And then this last May I had a son.
Elek is very excited about the big move to the US. He is a bit concerned about how divisive the politics have become. I told him not to worry... much.

These years have been very good to me, and I would like to extend my thanks and best wishes to all the friends, colleagues, and students who made this time such a rich experience.

I will keep up a small blog, much like this one. Either there or via other channels, I hope to hear from people who were a part of this chapter in my life.

Be seeing you.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Who is Wrong?

As this week has slipped by in a haze of diaper changes and late-nights, the world has continued to be a stupid place to hold a debate.

I've tried to keep up with the faux-scandal revolving around ex-USDA official Shirley Sherrod.

If this one slipped by you, here's a play by play:
* Sherrod gave a speech in which she spoke about racism.
* The right-leaning blog Big Government posted a portion of her speech, which out of context made Sherrod look racist.
Edit - I had placed the Fox report here. Fox did not report the story until after Sherrod resigned.
* The NAACP condemned Sherrod.
* Sherrod was pressured to resign her post - despite her protests that the comments were taken out of context.
* The "main stream" media picked up the story and suggested Sherrod is a racist... Well, Fox picked up the story and suggested as much.
* When the NAACP the took the time to view the whole speech, they realized that the speech was anything but racist. It was actually the story of a woman overcoming her own racist ideas.

This story has taken up a lot of space in the news world.
When that occurs, I stop and ask, "What happened?"
As far as I can tell, the answer to that question is this:
A polemic blog took a person's words out of context.

That's all that happened.
The blog Big Government twisted the truth for its readers, and in doing so they diverted the public's attention from real news and they hurt the career of a woman who helps farmers.

The news and the blogs are still trying to parse who was wrong, who over reacted, and who are the real racists here. What they have failed to realize is this: Nothing important happened.

Someone walked into the room and yelled "Racist!" and we all panicked.

I hope students of critical thought and writing can glean something from this story.
If I had a course in session today I'd use this as a teaching moment:
1) People don't always argue using respectable tactics.
2) You can gauge a writer's respect for their readers by the quality of the writer's evidence.
3) Buzz words and hot topics need to be handled with care.

The blog Big Government has once again sullied the reputation of right-wing blogs. Perhaps we can all stop paying attention to that particular blog. They are useless.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

"The Secret Powers of Time"

So much of argument and persuasion is about understanding another point of view.

This lecture by Professor Philip Zimbardo and a wonderful animated accompaniment helps us understand some of the cognitive tools we need to do just that.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Arizona is Lovely

I do not think the people of Arizona are racists or xenophobic - even if the Cuban government claims this is the case.

I do, however, think the uproar surrounding Arizona's new immigration law is merited.

From this blog's point of view, the most interesting back and forth has been about two words. I really enjoy a debate that can be broken down to the level of word choice. Popular examples of such debates are rare, but they make for great teaching tools.

Back when Arizona passed its immigration law, the initial uproar was over the words "reasonable suspicion." I have to admit, I never thought those words were problematic. Those words have a pretty clear legal definition.

My concern was whether or not Arizona cops could question a person without probable cause. They can do that here in Hungary, and it drives me crazy.

The words that left my 'probable cause' questions unanswered are Lawful Contact. Try as I may, I cannot find a clear legal definition of the concept, and the concept is critical to understanding Arizona's law (see line 20 of the law). And now the words have become the focus of many debating the law's merits.
Those who support the law claim that 'lawful contact' is what happens when an officer stops someone because they have broken a law, e.g. a traffic stop.
Critics suggest that 'lawful contact' could also include an officer speaking to someone who has not broken the law, e.g. a witness of a minor traffic accident. That is an example of an officer questioning an idividual without probable cause.

So we have a poorly defined key concept bound up in those two little words.

It will eventually take a judge to decide which interpretation of 'lawful contact' is correct. That troubles me. The courts only comes into play after the law has been enforced - after a police officer has exercised her interpretation of the law. It is sloppy lawmaking for legislators to leave something like this for the courts to decide.

When I help students draft research papers, I ask them to be more careful than the Arizona legislature has been. I suggest they develop their understanding of their subject's concepts, context, and issues. The term "concept" often trips up beginning researchers. Students define a concept as 'a key term required to discuss a subject', and that's more than half right. The problem, however, is that students don't define their concepts clearly enough. They'll use a term like CSR, but they never develop it into a clear concept. So when they write "corporations must behave in a socially responsible manner", a reader is left to decide what exactly 'socially responsible' means. Some read that term differently than others.

The Arizona legislature has made that same mistake here, and it could result in police harassment.

So there you have it, a real life example of a composition classroom issue.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Planck's Constant Times Two

Both my first and my last name start with the same letter: H.

I like my initials. They have a symmetry and they look good together.

For several years I have signed my emails with my initials. For even longer, I have signed non-legal documents like this.

Recently I learned that white supremacists often use my initials, or the numerical equivalent of my initials as a short hand high-five. In chat rooms and text messages, these jackasses type one H and then another as an abbreviation of the Nazi salute to Hitler.

Let me just start off by saying that I hate Nazis and white supremacists. There is nothing more pathetic than white people complaining about the "raw deal" history has dealt their race.

If you think you are at a disadvantage because you are white, you are a stupid person.
You are actually at a disadvantage because of your stupidity. The color of your skin has nothing to do with how miserable a failure you have become. You have failed to achieve your goals because you suck at being a person.

Now, by calling white supremacists stupid miserable failures, I know that I have shut off any potential debate that might have led to a better understanding between myself and those who don't see these things the same way I do.


I do not want to share ideas with people who think the white race is superior to other races. I don't want to associate with people who believe Hitler had some good ideas.

When I hear the bile these idiots spew, I am reminded that some people cannot learn. There are people who are hopelessly stupid. There is no reason to even acknowledge their voices. We have to let them speak in a democracy, but we don't have to engage them.

Shut them out. Their ideas are not useful.

All that said, I do have to deal with something these hopelessly small-minded and insignificant people have shat out onto the internet. In some circles my initials are interpreted as a symbol of hate. I am not sure if I should react to that. Should I switch to HMH when signing emails? Should I just use Hogan? Should I ignore the connotation and stick with my old signature? I'd like to ask my readers what they think.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Messy Discourse

The aftermath of the Financial Crisis is finally beginning to take shape. The populist anger aimed at Wall Street and Washington has not not gone away. So with the SEC's lawsuit and the proposed Financial Reform Bill in the news, people are following stories that include terms like "collateralized debt obligation."

I am very interested in what it takes for a person to follow a debate when that debate involves unfamiliar subject matter. As a composition instructor, one of my goals is to teach students how to join a new and unfamiliar discussion. After all, most freshmen cannot tell you what professional community they plan to join when they finish college. So part of my job is to teach them how to evaluate the discussions of a community all by themselves - how to evaluate and then join those discussions.

The continued development of the debate about Wall Street and Washington has had my attention for a while. I've leaned heavily on two NPR outlets in order to stay informed. This American Life has done a bunch of shows on the subject, and they turned me on to the podcast, Planet Money - a bi-weekly show that explains economic issues in everyday language. I accept that NPR has a reputation for being left-of-center, but even the National Review has stepped in to praise the reporting coming from these shows. Anyway, they're the reason I don't click away when a news stroy mentions CDOs.

Now that CDOs are at the center of the Goldman Sachs lawsuit, however, it seems that a larger audience is going to have to come to grips with the term. That's no easy task. Jon Stewart had some fun on Monday showing pundits trying (and failing) to explain what Goldman is accused of. But all kidding aside, if the American public is going to try and follow this story, then the media has a hell of a job ahead. The story is bound to get political. The information involved is difficult to understand. The solutions are going to conflict with the interests of some powerful people. In other words, there is going to be a lot of mindless shouting and ranting. It's what they call a noisy channel in information theory.

The noise is already out there. In an effort to discredit the President, the Washington Examiner and bloggers have put together a lazy analogy comparing the Goldman suit to the Enron crisis.

Note to the Examiner: Trying to compare Goldman to Enron in order to score political points is not a good idea... unless your readers will believe a poorly constructed argument that omits relevant details.

The campaign donations from Goldman are there, true. But the SEC vote to sue Goldman was down party lines - 2 Dems voting to sue, 2 Republicans dissenting, & the Obama-appointed independent siding with the Dems.
The Examiner suggests that Goldman's connections/donations should get them preferential treatment, but it's fairly well-known that the practices at Goldman were happening elsewhere on Wall Street. Why is the SEC going after Goldman first? That does not strike me as preferential treatment.

Beyond that, the Enron analogy has other holes:
1) Enron's rise and its push for deregulation were both aided primarily by Republican administrations. Goldman's rise, by comparison, has utilized political connections from both sides of the aisle.

2) Back in 2001 - the year the Enron scandal took shape and unfolded - Enron representatives consulted with the Bush Administrations' Energy Task Force on multiple occasions at the White House. Compare that to the new scandal - Goldman (et al.) assembled the high-risk CDOs, mislabeled those investments, and sold them to unwitting investors somewhere between 2005 and 2007. The President, while not shrinking from the politically difficult task of cleaning up the mess today, didn't serve on any Senate committees that oversaw financial regulation, nor did he preside over any regulatory bodies while Goldman (et al.) assembled those high-risk CDOs.

3) Finally, the Examiner seems to have forgotten an important detail in its update that connects key people at Goldman to key people in the Obama administration. Hank Paulson was Bush 43's pick for Secretary of the Treasury AND a one-time partner at Goldman.

I am all for a vigorous investigation into what happened on Wall Street leading up to the Financial Crisis, but I don't want to see that investigation get mucked up by cheap shots out of the blogosphere or a free Daily with a narrative to sell.

I don't suppose I'll have much of a choice though. Here's to hoping.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Close Encounter of the Meme Kind

Misinformation is thick on the interwebs today.

This morning I was invited to a Facebook Group called "Proposed 28th Amendment to the U S Constitution."

I also got a viral email suggesting the 28th Amendment has already been ratified and that the Congress is in violation of the Amendment via health care reform.

The note on the email said, "something to remember in November."

At my own peril, I will ignore the Guy Fawkes reference, but I feel compelled to use my tiny blog in an effort to shut this meme down.

The Proposed 28th Amendment is a hoax/falsehood. There is no need for this proposed amendment. Civil servants and elected officials are citizens. They enjoy the same rights and have the same responsibilities as everyone else in the country.

Looking into this meme brought me to some of the web's crazy places.

The Facebook group's page refers to "Now the End Begins." They have a web page. They are a special kind of kooky. Here's their banner.

I want to believe this group is a hoax - a spoof of sorts, but I'm afraid someone assembled that banner without satire in mind.

These people are on the fringe, and their ranting should be considered harmless. But this 28th Amendment meme makes me a little jittery. The Facebook Group has +100,000 members. The email went viral. These ideas have gained an odd kind of traction. The arguments in each message are based on blatant falsehoods and crackpot ideologies. People should dismiss this stuff out of hand, but the messages have seeped into two of my inboxes somehow.

I hope people will realize how silly these ideas are and stop proliferating this kind of garbage.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Muddied Waters

Yeah, yeah, I know. Last week's post was far too long, but the issue of a functioning public discourse is important to me. My little rant was an attempt to illustrate two things I strongly believe:
1) Informed public discourse is crucial in a democracy, and...
2) The current output of the US media is doing little to help keep the public informed - if anything the large media outlets have muddied the waters.

Today point number 2 was made clearer. The image above actually made it depressingly clear.

I woke up this morning to learn about the leaked video out of Iraq. The screen shots here show that I should have learned about this last night when I checked the top US headlines before going to bed.

It was at about 10pm CET, and I remember reading about Tiger's return. That's embarrassing to admit, but it was the most eye-catching headline (this coming from a reader who closely follows news about the wars).

As a consumer of news, I would now like to know why Tiger was the top story last night. How is it that a sporting figure's return trumps the kind of military misconduct that costs innocent lives, fuels the anger of our enemies, and puts our troops at greater risk?

How can Americans have a real conversation about the wars we are engaged in if we are not informed of the implications those wars have?

We deserve a better media.

To Reuters' credit, they have been attempting to get access to this video for some time - two members of their staff were killed in the attack. Their efforts to expose this were very public, and I count them as part of the mainstream media. Nevertheless, the story has already disappeared from Google's top headlines.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Stay on Target. Stay on Target.

People do not argue about politics today. Instead, they pick sides and snipe at each other without ever engaging in a real argument. As a guy who teaches students how to write strong arguments, this is frustrating.

Last week, my friend Dan and I got into a discussion about this problem. We were taking a look at events surrounding an appended column by Paul Krugman. Bloggers were making a big fuss over a piece of Krugman's supporting evidence, but they were ignoring his actual point. This was extra frustrating because no matter how you interpreted the supporting evidence, Krugman's larger point remained valid.

One of my roles as a composition instructor is to help students read, interpret, and eventually write complex arguments. Instructors are charged with this task because universities believe that for any community to tackle big issues, the members of that community need to be capable of expressing and analyzing complex ideas.

It might be helpful here to look at an example a bit less complicated than US politics. There's a fun essay on wired.com about the great geek debate, Star Wars versus Star Trek. It illustrates how a strong discourse community functions. Participants are informed and enthusiastic. Opinions are respected, but they are not the end of the debate. Members of each camp do not hold a homogenized view (Who is cooler, Han or Lando? Kirk or Picard?) And most importantly, good arguments do the following: organize evidence into larger points that support one side or the other. Participants in the Great Geek Debate do all these things.

Sadly, when we tackle issues of arguably larger significance, there is a lot more interference. Political debates are all too often a hotbed of cheap rhetorical tricks that keep people away from the real issues.

Yesterday Dan sent another example of this. Krugman is involved once again. A blog targets one item within a Krugman column, contests the truth of the item, and presents the item as though it represents the entire argument.

1) Krugman objects to violence-themed rhetoric from the mainstream right, including a Sarah Palin Facebook post. He states that the mainstream left does not do such things.
2) People on both the left and right reacted to Palin's post (btw, whoever does her PR is an ace).
3) The blogger found examples of diagrams used by the mainstream left that are similar to the diagram Palin used.
4) Hah ha! The left uses similar rhetoric!
5) But there are differences between the diagrams.
6) Wait, what were we talking about?

This is what gets me. The Palin Facebook post is one piece of supporting evidence Krugman used to make a larger point. Pundits (on the left and right) have jumped on this one item, only to ignore Krugman's larger point.

It's gotten to where no one can assert a complex argument. And let's face it, Krugman's argument was not terribly complex. Here it is: An image of Nancy Pelosi in flames, stating that Pelosi is on "the firing line," or putting cross hairs on congresspeople are all examples of violent rhetoric characteristic of the current mainstream right.

Is that true? Well, no one cares, because now we are having a semantic battle over Palin's Facebook page.

And speaking of semantic battles, the blog post even acknowledges its own flimsy logic: the image of a target is different than cross hairs. That seems like splitting hairs, but there's actually good reason to split that hair. Allow me to put on my language geek hat.

To target something is not necessarily a militant expression. Corporations target certain markets. Teachers target certain students. Media outlets target certain demographics. Are these militant expressions? Well, I say no, but... Damn it!

You see what happened there? I got sucked into that stupid argument. I found myself wanting to explore the difference between the image of a target and the image of cross hairs. I even went off to the OED and read all the definitions of 'target' just now. Can you believe that?

Without even noticing, I am no longer focused on Krugman's analysis of the public discourse. Arrgh.

I want to find effective ways to keep my students from following these kinds of tangential arguments, but I have to acknowledge, once you get into debate mode it's hard to distinguish between the issues. To stay focused, one needs to take time for reflection. That is what makes the act of composition all the more important today. Reflection is an essential part of the composition process, and as channels of communication continue to speed up, writers and thought leaders need to emphasize that portion of the process more than ever.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Props to 'Tiny Art Director'

I found "Tiny Art Director" after reading a Boing Boing post about the author's book.

Dora and I are expecting our first child in May, and I know the urge to include my son in every aspect of my life will be irresistible. I plan to do just that, but I do worry about Vacation Slide Show Syndrome.

It is a common condition. Sufferers of Vacation Slide Show Syndrome exhibit the following tell-tale symptom: Sharing pictures and stories that they find endlessly entertaining, while failing to realize that their audience only comprehends the 'endless' qualities of that which they are sharing.

New parents are at high risk of contracting Vacation Slide Show Syndrome, as it most often targets people in the weakened state brought about by unique and powerful life-changing experiences.

In my efforts to avoid Vacation Slide Show Syndrome, I have done some research. I found that the condition can be avoided by incorporating a regimented approach to tasteful sharing. That's no easy task, but I think "Tiny Art Director" is an excellent example of success.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Support for Assault Victim from CEU

Early Saturday morning Edward Cuneo was assaulted by three attackers near a major public transit hub. Edward is from the US and is here in Budapest pursuing a degree in gender studies.

I want to extend my best wishes to Edward and his family and friends.

CEU has done an excellent job keeping the community informed about the situation. According to internal communications, Edward is recovering from his injuries. Again, I wish him all the best.

It is worth noting that in the most recent update on the assault, the Rector of CEU suggested that in the weeks leading up to Hungarian elections "it is advisable to exercise caution when facing situations where the diverse views of others might result in volatile actions."

Sadly, that is good advice today in Hungary. I can't help but feel ashamed that such advice is required in the country I have called home for the past six years.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Banned Words

Wordle: Hogs
My friend Dan sent me this story about an exec at the Tribune Company who has banned 119 cliched words and phrases from the newsroom.

I also read a fun take on the story on an NPR blog.

My first reaction was, "Banning words is bad." But then I thought of all the words and phrases I would like to ban from my students' writing. The first few that come to mind?

"It is true that..."
"In my opinion..."
"In olden times..."
"Many people would tell you..."
"At the end of the day..."
"In this paper I am going to..."
"It can be said that..."

And there's so many more.

You see, it's not a set of useful words that the Trib exec is banning, it is the lazy filler words we've heard so often that we now unthinkingly incorporate them into our speech and writing.

I'm all for listing such phrases, and while I won't ban anything outright, I'll certainly think twice before using these words. And more often than not, thinking twice is a good thing.

I'll keep trying to add to the list this week, but I'd love suggestions from other teachers and any old students of mine. Leave them in the comments.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pee Tram

Pictures are of the view from the 4/6 tram as it passes over Margit Bridge, which is undergoing a major renovation.

The 4/6 tram smelled of urine this morning. While this is not the normal state of affairs, it is not as rare as it should be.

Oddly enough, riding along with that smell was something of a learning experience for me. I like to think that speaks to my career choice - I tend to see everything as a teachable moment. Once upon a time, I thought that was how most people saw the world.

Anyway, the pee smell wasn't overpowering, but there was no doubting its presence. I scanned the tram for drunks and layabouts. That's where you normally find the most urine. I was standing near a guy who might have been homeless, but he seemed well-kept enough. I didn't lean in for a good sniff or anything, but I was pretty sure he wasn't the offender, regardless of his housing situation.

When the tram stopped at Nyugati and the crowd thinned a bit, I moved to another spot.

I could still smell the urine. That was curious.

For a moment, I wondered whether or not I was the one who smelled like pee. Could I have had an accident, forgotten about it, and then decided to wear the soiled garment? That seemed unlikely. Perhaps one of the dogs had peed on me during the morning walk. Stranger things have happened. But I'm in jeans, so the wetness would still be visible.

It was at this point that said to myself, "Maybe I should ask one of my friends at work whether or not I smell of pee."

Then I got mad at Perry LaRoque.

You see, on a spring day back in 1999 Perry decided it would be funny if he could convince me that I was a smelly person. I was rather impressionable that day, and after a while Perry had me believing that everyone I knew thought of me as "Smelly Hogan." In fact, according to Perry, that was the name people called me when I wasn't around. The real killer in Perry's little act was this: He seemed surprised by my reaction. I was not happy, of course, and he said, "Wow, Hogan, we all thought you knew. We thought you just didn't care."

For a bit of time there, I thought I was the smelly friend. I thought the people who I had surrounded myself with were tolerant enough to ignore my odor, and now I had to change. I had to show them that I did care. I had to rid myself of the stink. The problem was I didn't know how. Even when I was an undergrad, I showered, I brushed, I laundered, and so on. Was I going to have to invest in some kind of heavy-duty soap product?

Fortunately, it didn't go that far.

Perry let me off the hook after only a few minutes. That wasn't easy. At first, I though maybe he was just being nice. "Oh, Hogan, don't worry about it. You don't really smell... (that bad)." But he eventually convinced me that it was all a joke.

Still, the fact that I fell so hard for the prank exposed a kind of insecurity in me. I first noticed its existence that day in '99, and the feeling resurfaces every once in a while. It did today for a moment on the tram. I don't think I'm alone in having this insecurity: In my weaker moments I can convince myself that I have failed to notice a weakness or fault in myself that is painfully obvious to the rest of the world.

I should probably have more confidence in myself. I should know that the odor of urine says more about the city of Budapest than it does about me. But I don't like to simply dismiss these moments. You have bad feelings for a reason. So I thought about it for a while, and this is what I came up with: Even if I'm not the one who stinks, I am riding to work in a uric cloud. I should probably do something to change that circumstance.

That got me thinking of the old advice "surround yourself with excellence." If you want to know something about a person, you look at the environment they choose to live in and the people they associate with.

Spring weather is arriving. Maybe I should starting riding my bike to work again... and I should clean my office.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Communication Was on the Radio This Weekend

I’m a bit of a science geek. The hobby rarely results in anything directly related to my area of interest, but this weekend the Science Friday podcast dedicated 45 minutes to a panel discussion on the task of communicating science. The show was a goldmine of practical examples of the concepts I try to teach in first-year composition (FYC). Some examples: what constitutes noise in the rhetorical situation; audience-centered approach versus message-centered approach; the importance of balancing concepts, context, and issues; the barriers to entry for many academic/professional communities; source evaluation; breaking down a complex message into its component parts; and my favorite, most academic and professional communities are meritocracies not democracies.

I hope some of my students will take the time to listen to the panel discussion. It is an interesting discussion on communication, science, and the intersection of the scientific community and the public sphere.

The show was of particular interest to me because of the paper I am working on.

The impetus for one of my paper’s main points is this: FYC occupies a particularly awkward moment in the development of many student writers - before they have dug into the college-level discourse of any specific discipline.

This awkward moment presents an obstacle that we must contend with in FYC. Our goal is to give students the skills they will need to contribute effectively to the communities they eventually join, but we must accomplish this before we know exactly what those communities are going to be.

Let me name just a few of the career paths my undergraduate students have expressed an interest in: manufacturing, consulting, finance, fashion, marketing, automobiles, NGOs, government work, entrepreneurship, and the list goes on. As the students advance into upper-division courses related to their individual interests, they will be expected to learn how increasingly-specialized academics communicate about those industries. Then most of the students will step out into the industries and engage in communication processes unique to each community. On top of that, within those industries there are so many different roles. During a recent seminar on communication, members of the MBA class were quick to point out that even within the same company, different departments use vastly different methods of communication.

So the skill set our students obtain in FYC needs to be a combination of

A) the basic tools of written communication and

B) the analytical skills required to evaluate and meet the needs of a discourse community.

Science Friday’s discussion puts a lot of that into a practical context by flipping the challenge on its head. The discussion participants talk about how the science community is struggling to adjust to the expectations of an outside audience. My hope is that students with a strong understanding of the how discourse communities function can go out into the real world and address the issues that beset both outsiders and insiders of any community.

As a final note, I believe it is easy to show the parallel between the scientific community’s issues and the business community. I’ll offer the most obvious example before signing off:

Climate Change: The scientific community has had tremendous difficulty relating complex ideas that involve uncertainty, probability, and complex computations to a public that is hungry for easy-to-digest practical applications. This has resulted in tremendous confusion about how to use information to make policy decisions.

Derivatives: The finance community has had tremendous difficulty relating complex ideas that involve uncertainty, probability, and complex computations to a public that is hungry for easy-to-digest practical applications. This has resulted in tremendous confusion about how to use information to make policy decisions.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sorry about the new security

Hey all (three of my readers),
I didn't ever want to add word verification for comments. I didn't want to cut anonymous comments. But the blog spammers have found me, and their bot comments are popping up all over.

It's annoying, I know, but it could be worse.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Great Material From Acephalous

My friend and coworker Eric sent this my way. As the post states, it is aimed a very specific audience, but speaks very directly to my work. Enjoy.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Race in Hungary

Just before the holidays Dora and I were eating dinner when we heard a man yelling down in the street. I went to open the window. We could then hear the clearly drunk man chanting the Hungarian equivalent of "Jew go home."

How can you respond to that - especially when you live in the 7th District, the traditionally Jewish district of Budapest?

I've used this space in the past to vent about Hungary's troubled relationship with the minority communities in its borders. It's a topic that gets me riled for two reasons:
1) The worst of examples are violent and motivated by little more than demagoguery.
2) As an outsider, more often than not my views on the issue are dismissed out of hand.

That's a frustrating place to be when you would like to seek a deeper understanding of a problem - perhaps even engage in a constructive effort to improve things.

That frustration is very much related to the paper I'm working on. Much of the reading I've been doing for this project is about young people who do not fit the profile of the typical college student. The effort to bring their views into the academic community seems like a noble cause, but like so many noble causes, it's complicated. In order to interact with an established community, a person must learn and accept the methods the community uses to interact: who is considered an authority, what gives a person the right to challenge an idea/argument, what beliefs are held as truths. These kinds of interactions are dictated by culture and values. So if you want to bring an outsider in, you sometimes have to challenge the person's culture and values. Like I said, it can get complicated.

I hadn't thought of myself as the outsider in such a situation until last week. Dora's extended family got together to celebrate a collection of birthdays and an anniversary. At dinner I sat next to Mate (say "Ma-tey"). He's a law student. He's very smart and very opinionated. He and I don't see eye-to-eye on every issue, and that's okay. But I always try to challenge his take on the Roma (Gypsy) population. He believes that many of Hungary's problems stem from the Roma. Last week I spent at least fifteen minutes listening to Mate explain how the Roma are destroying his country.

I have very little patience for this kind of talk. I believe Hungarians who hold Mate's view are trying to shift the responsibility for the nation's many serious problems to a minority population - a population that has very little political or financial power. The issues that have hampered Hungary's growth are rampant corruption, the public acceptance of tax fraud, and a bloated bureaucratic government that provides very little when you consider people are supposed to pay 50% of their income in taxes. It is absurd to blame these kinds of problems on a group that composes no more than 10% of the population (and that figure is considered a gross overestimate by many).

I've tried to confront Mate's view directly. I've tried to question Mate's assumptions. I've tried acting stupid and forcing him to explain what it is that the Roma have done to make his life so difficult (his life is not very difficult btw). Whenever I get anywhere close to making a point, my views are dismissed. Since I am not Hungarian, I cannot understand how serious the problem is. So my questions and arguments are moot.

My beliefs keep me at arms length from this debate, but it's frustrating because I live here. I am a part of the community - but not really.

Strange as this may sound, I'm thankful for the experience. As a white heterosexual male with a stable family background, it is difficult for me to understand what it means to be a member of a community who lacks certain rights or abilities. This is a rather minor example of that, but it provides some insight.

Monday, January 11, 2010

I like this take on the Sen. Reid thing

Frank James' take on the gaffe by Senator Reid speaks to a lot of my frustrations with manufactured controversies.

In it, James gets at how people are willing to twist the facts in a debate. Often participants get so worked up about an issue that they grab at anything resembling evidence in their support. In such haste, however, the issue often get lost and people end up simply shouting insults at each other.

I'm not in the States to see how intense this "issue" is getting, but I was surprised to hear people compare Reid's comment to Lott's 2002 comments supporting the breakaway segregationist party of 1948. That seems to be a lopsided analogy at best...
A tasteless and politically incorrect description of Obama
A 2002 statement of support for a party with this in their platform: "We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race."

It may not be apples and oranges, but one is certainly more rotten than the other. Don't you think?