Thursday, December 12, 2013

David Simon's Dangerous Idea

David Simon spoke at Sydney's Festival of Dangerous Ideas.

His speech was printed in the Guardian and is now being reported around the web.

I hope it starts a conversation.

It is something else, an excellent critique of what has brought Western society to the point it is at today.

Mistaking capitalism for a blueprint as to how to build a society strikes me as a really dangerous idea in a bad way. Capitalism is a remarkable engine again for producing wealth. It's a great tool to have in your toolbox if you're trying to build a society and have that society advance. You wouldn't want to go forward at this point without it. But it's not a blueprint for how to build the just society. There are other metrics besides that quarterly profit report.
The idea that the market will solve such things as environmental concerns, as our racial divides, as our class distinctions, our problems with educating and incorporating one generation of workers into the economy after the other when that economy is changing; the idea that the market is going to heed all of the human concerns and still maximize profit is juvenile. It's a juvenile notion and it's still being argued in my country passionately and we're going down the tubes. And it terrifies me because I'm astonished at how comfortable we are in absolving ourselves of what is basically a moral choice. Are we all in this together or are we all not?

It is a speech that demonstrates why Time Magazine chose Pope Francis for Person of the Year - why that choice was so important.

It is a speech that will anger some, go over the heads of others, and be ignored by those Simon is most critical of.

Read it or watch it.

Agree or disagree, but please engage in this debate. Don't dismiss it. This is the debate of our time.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Just when I thought I was out...

I've been trying to stay up-to-date with the ways online texts are composed and shared.

It's part of my work as a composition teacher and researcher, right?

Okay... and it's fun.

So, I recently started posting on imgur.

Naturally, on my first post that got any comments, the focus is on my word usage.

I'm one of the few people who might post about grammar or usage, but I didn't. I restrained myself, and what do I get for it?

A usage debate.

Thanks, Internet, you're the best.

Monday, December 09, 2013

GIFs and the Comp Classroom

This GIF gallery on Imgur has me thinking about my composition classroom.

GIFs have become an important part of the internet landscape, but it can be difficult to take them seriously.

These GIFs, however, are excellent examples of the format's ability to demonstrate things that would be difficult with a static picture and words alone. They even take advantage of the GIF looping feature.
How the Geneva drive — the mechanical step that makes the second hand on a clock work by turning constant rotation into intermittent motion — functions

I ask many of my students to compose at least one text intended for electronic publication, and most of the final exams I give are submitted as electronic portfolios.
How a sewing machine functions

I think I'll try to work this gallery into a lecture on document design, visual aids, and digital literacy.

Good stuff.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Would you Read a Pop Magazine about Language?

So a 'language geek' project went up on Kickstarter last week. It's a niche magazine about language.

The magazine is to be called Schwa Fire, and the Kickstarter site and video (below) seem to suggest something like Wired or Slate for language people.

I often feel that there could be a wider readership for some of the ideas from the scholarly journals I read. This seems like the place for that kind of work to happen.

I like the idea. I'd love to contribute as a writer.

But before I contribute as donor, I thought I'd ask people what they think.

Let me know in the comments, and if you dig it, feel free to go to the Kickstarter site and donate.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Trying to Answer a Question

So, let's say someone asks me, "Hogan, what are you studying?"

Here's my working answer:
You know when a person joins a new group - like a job, a college major, or a community group? I want to know how that person learns to write for the new group. 

For example, if a woman finishes school and gets a job in a for-profit environmental engineering company, how does she learn to write the memos, reports, proposals, even the everyday emails? 

How does she learn to write those things so that she "sounds" like a member of the company? 

How does she learn to not only "sound" like a member of the company, but also have her own distinct voice?

What do you think? How does that work as an answer?

I get the "What are you studying?" question a lot, and I always struggle to produce the clear and brief answer I know people are looking for. You know, the elevator pitch version.

What do you think of the current working answer? Do you think people might want to hear more after getting that answer?

Because, of course, I want to keep going. But I only want to keep going if people are interested.

Are you interested? Because...

The theory I'm working with suggests that people have to build new writing knowledge whenever they try to join a new group.

They reshape their old knowledge using resources around them: advice from others, writing samples, online examples, templates, criticism, praise, and the list goes on.

I think some people are called "good writers" because they move quickly through this process.

And I think those who move quickly have honed a specific skill: The ability to identify resources that will help them learn to write for a new group.

If I can produce evidence of that, I can argue that our writing classrooms should teach people how to spot and evaluate those resources.

So, what do you think?

Monday, November 04, 2013

Allowing Arguments

David-James Poissant wrote an excellent piece for the NYT Opinionator that explores why it is important to argue about our political convictions - especially important to argue with people who see things differently than we do.

His is a piece about real arguments, the kind that helps us explore the beliefs people hold.

When Poissant allowed himself to have those kinds of arguments, he saw how important this kind argument is for friendships, for communities, and for ourselves.

He write:
Some say there was a time when Americans got along better by not talking politics or religion. But extending kindness doesn’t have to mean keeping your mouth shut. I want to be friends with Republicans, but I don’t want to be friends with Republicans if I don’t also get to talk about why I think food stamps and socialized medicine are good ideas. Sure, I like to fish, but I don’t want to sit in a boat with someone for hours if we’re forced to keep quiet on the subjects about which we care most.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

On Lou Reed's Passing

I don't have a lot of heroes.

I remember the writing prompt from elementary and middle schools:
Describe your hero.

Or later on in high school:
Write about one of your role models.

I remember struggling to write a response to these prompts. The concepts 'hero' and 'role model' seemed impossibly large. I suspected that no one I knew fit the bill. I always ended up writing about a person I respected, but I believed those responses fell short of the ideals I had about heroes and role models.

I was too young, too privileged, too comfortable in my middle class Midwestern world to know what heroes were for.

My dad introduced us to Lou Reed's Transformer, saying it was, in his mind, the best rock and roll album ever made. I listened to that cassette tape over and over. The music was what kept me coming back, but I have to admit, I didn't understand why it was a great album.

It wasn't until I found White Light/White Heat that I caught a glimpse of what made the Velvet Underground something extraordinary.

I was listening to "The Gift" for the first time. I was a teenager with an interest in girls and no concept of how to act on that interest. When I got to the end of the song, when the blade goes into Waldo's head, I felt the world crack open a little bit.

It would be years before I understood what that crack exposed, but it was an important moment for me. In that moment I started down the path that exposed so much of the world I believe in today: Sex is awesome, awful, ecstatic, selfless, and selfish. Drugs are great and devastating. Gender is confusing. People are messy. Our lives are made up by the words we invent.

Lou Reed was a guide on that path. He was one of the people who showed me the importance of dark humor, of an honest eye, of straight talk, of allowing people to be the kind of weird we are.

His music, words, and life demonstrated a kind of bravery and integrity that merits the word hero.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Report on Conflicts of Interest in the Media Released

You want to hear about a shadowy force that impacts how we argue?

Take a look at this report from the Public Accountability Initiative.

The report describes how often news outlets brought in commentators on the Syria debate without disclosing clear conflicts of interests.

The report opens with this example.
During the public debate around the question of whether to attack Syria, Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser to George W. Bush, made a series of high-profile media appearances. Hadley argued strenuously for military intervention in appearances on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and Bloomberg TV, and authored a Washington Post op-ed headlined “To stop Iran, Obama must enforce red lines with Assad.” 
In each case, Hadley’s audience was not informed that he serves as a director of Raytheon, the weapons manufacturer that makes the Tomahawk cruise missiles that were widely cited as a weapon of choice in a potential strike against Syria. Hadley earns $128,500 in annual cash compensation from the company and chairs its public affairs committee. 
The report doesn't make for happy reading, but if we are to become more critical consumers of information, it is better to know what this kind of spin looks like.

And let's be clear here: this is not only happening on Fox News or on talk radio. The people noted in the report have appeared on PBS, the BBC, CNN; they have written op-eds for the Washington Post.

This is a clear sign to me that today's news consumers must assume the responsibility of critically engaging with information that comes their way - for example, investigating the intention and background of the people who present expert opinions.

I think many of us assumed that the journalism industry would do that work for us, but based on this report, they are not up to the task.

Do you think you are rhetorically savvy enough to find these kinds of flaws before they start to sway your views one way or the other?

Do you think the majority of people in the country are?

My take: This is clear evidence that educators need to shift our concept of literacy to include critical rhetoric.

Let me be clear, I am not one of those people who wants us to throw up our hands and say, "Oh, you can't believe anything anyone tells you anymore!" Those people have an old fashioned sense of the information landscape. They believe that the media was designed to feed them objectively true information - which has never been the case.

I want my students and my community to know that information is shaped and influenced by the people who deliver it to you. That doesn't make the information bad; it just adds a dimension that we have to consider.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

When Yelling at a Brick Wall Gets Personal

This post from is simply fantastic, and because it is a rhetorical analysis and because it addresses the ways bias and blind spots impact arguments, I am happy to be able to post about it here.

In the post, Adrienne K. looks back at her 2011 post, Open Letter to the PocaHotties and Indian Warriors this Halloween. A post that made a lot of white people angry.

The 2011 letter opens with a salutation:
Dear Person that decided to dress up as an Indian for Halloween,
This year, the original author annotated that salutation with this:
Ok, pretty basic start. Notice it doesn’t say “white person,” it doesn’t say “racist person,” just person.
The 2011 letter continued:
I was going to write you an eloquent and well-reasoned post today about all the reasons why it’s not ok to dress up as a Native person for Halloween–talk about the history of “playing Indian” in our country, point to the dangers of stereotyping and placing of Native peoples as mythical, historical creatures, give you some articles to read, hope that I could change your mind by dazzling you with my wit and reason–but I can’t. I can’t, because I know you won’t listen, and I’m getting so tired of trying to get through to you.
And that opening is what prompted me to write about this post on my blog. That frustration that Adrienne K.
is dealing with is too familiar: The knowledge that the person who you're trying to reach will resist in ways that defy reason and rhetoric. What's worse, Adrienne K. is dealing with that frustration while discussing a deeply personal issue - an issue tied to her identity and culture.

My interest in rhetoric and argument has always remained professional. I like to get fired up, but the privilege I inherited along with my race, gender, language, and birthplace makes it easy to keep my personal sphere out of the arguments I follow.

Adrienne K. annotated her introduction as well.
That’s 100% honest. The person that decided to dress up as an Indian probably isn’t going to listen to me. But those links actually *go* places. Places where you can read about why this is wrong. Where you can educate yourself. So if you read that paragraph and were like “oh crap, I don’t know any of this”–maybe now it’s time for you to click those. I’ll wait.
I'm not going to pretend I have some deeper insight on this post. It's a great piece of writing, and I hope you go check it out.

Monday, October 07, 2013

A Troubling Trend

So, when I jump online with my coffee in the morning to read the news, a few blogs, and the last few minutes worth of social media, in the back of my mind, I'm always considering the question this blog attempts to address: How do we argue?

Three years ago, I wrote about my concern that the intentional spread of misinformation had the potential to taint what was already an unruly public discourse. Recently, a growing number of my posts have dealt with arguments based on misinformation seeping out of less rigorous parts of the blogosphere.

I'm starting to become more and more concerned about this.

It is no longer the occasional post by my crackpot friends (I know quite a few, and they are fun at parties).   People who I personally know to be smart and reasonable have used bad evidence to back up provocative statements about political debates.

The latest version of this was related to, which went offline for days due to the shutdown. It turns out that the service itself was still running, but the website was offline - which was a bad visual, but not really bad news (Note: was not offline).

But here's where it gets ugly: The Blaze ran a story about how the Amber Alert website was down, and in the headline, The Blaze's Oliver Darcy noted that the website for Michele Obama's Let's Move Campaign was still up and running. Here's how Darcy wrote up that comparison in his story:

It was immediately unclear when the website was taken down. However, it should be noted that First Lady Michelle Obama’s website for her “Let’s Move” campaign is still up, running and fully functional.
 The AMBER Alert program is a voluntary partnership between law-enforcement and broadcasters that issues urgent bulletins following cases of child abductions.

Darcy did not lie or twist facts in that section of text. Instead, he simply implied a lie. He suggested, by placing these two websites side-by-side, that is a federally funded program and that the maintenance of its website is performed by federal workers - supported by federal tax dollars.

The implication suggests that Michele Obama is running a federal program and that her programs get special treatment.

And that is how the "story" was presented to me when someone I know and respect posted about this on a social network. The suggestion was that the federal government values Michele Obama's project more than it values missing children.

Three years ago, I would have expected this from the fringe. But today I'm seeing it come from mainstream voters who are civically engaged.

It is a troubling trend.

I teach critical thinking, ethical debate, and rhetorical skills because I want my students to push back against this. I honestly don't care about their politics; I just want them to know how to argue their positions from an informed place.

I'll keep doing that work, but here's two questions for the interwebs:

  1. What can our connected and networked society do to push back against this trend?
  2. What skills do today's readers need to identify the kind of misinformation we're seeing?

Monday, September 30, 2013

Student Journalism Battle in Central Florida

The University of Central Florida was ground zero for a very interesting digital brawl about journalism, writing, the role of student newspapers, teaching and learning, and social media in the university this weekend.

A journalism professor commented on a lead story in the student paper The Central Florida Future. The comment was posted on the paper's public Facebook page. The comment thread that grew out of this is a fascinating - if sometimes heated - discussion.

I learned of this from a friend who teaches journalism. He shared this blog post from

Writing and rhetoric concerns abound: public writing versus academic writing, student writing versus professional writing, the role of public forums as far as students and teachers are concerned...

One of the questions I walked away with was this: When writing goes public, how does that impact the relationship between writing teachers and students?

I think this question is only going to grow in importance as barriers to broad publication continue to come down.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Good Questions

Just a quote today.
In the midst of [Claude] Shannon's career, some lawyers in the patent department at Bell Labs decided to study whether there was an organizing principle that could explain why certain individuals at the Labs were more productive than others.  They discerned only one common thread: Workers with the most patents often shared lunch or breakfast with a Bell Labs electrical engineer named Harry Nyquist.  It wasn't the case that Nyquist gave them specific ideas. Rather, as one scientist recalled, 'he drew people out, got them thinking.'  More than anything, Nyquist asked good questions.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Education 3.0 Blog Starts Up on Wired

The first post for a blog on Education 3.0 went up on Wired today.

It's loaded with good insights.
How do we help our people, who will work more in teams than as individuals, who will work on more projects at a single time than ever before, and who will interface with technology at a rate as of yet unseen? How do we encourage learning for these skills when our schools are still filled with individual projects and grades trumping all else, with instruction and assessment doing everything possible to hone concentrated focus as was required in industrial-aged work vs. multi-tasking required today, and when the majority of classrooms (K-20) still require students to put away their devices and stop using the web so that they can “learn?”
The post speaks to many of the concerns that prompted my move to e-portfolios, collaborative pre-writing exercises, a classroom that welcomes the use of phones, and open-web exams.

The author is seeking to widen the audience of an important discussion, and I applaud that effort.

I couldn't help but notice that the author Jeff Borden works for Pearson, a for-profit education publishing and assessment company. They make some good products and publish some great books, but I wonder how Jeff and his company feel about my believe that classrooms should use as much open source software and/or freeware as possible.

Don't get me wrong, private companies like Pearson should play a role in the advancement of Education 3.0. I am not one who thinks education is at odds with the private sector. I'm not against profit. In fact, I like profit. I just don't want to see the pursuit of profit trump the public mandate of education.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Popular Science is Cutting Comments


As of today, the website for Popular Science will no longer have a comments section.

Read their announcement here for reasons behind the change. 

The decision is backed, naturally, by some good social science, but those reasons do say a lot about... well, I have to say it... about how we argue.

It comes down to trolling, spam bots, and politically motivated commenters who seek to undermine scientific consensus. 

Suzanne LaBarre, who wrote the announcement, presents multiple studies that demonstrate how "even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story, recent research suggests." 

I know I get fired up when I get sucked into a volatile comments section. I can see those results in my own online activity.

Still, a major website pulling user interaction is no small thing.

What do you think?

A Fantastically Fun Dig at Academic Writing Submitted and Published

Retraction Watch has a great post about "a group of Serbian academics who, fed up with the poor state of their country’s research output, scammed a Romanian magazine by publishing a completely fabricated article."

The authors have an excellent grasp on how academic writing can make nothing sound like something.

The methods section includes this beauty:
Since, obviously, representative data is often expensive and difficult to provide, we conducted a multidisciplinary programming simulation, using World Wide Web and a statistical programming library to provide random, well-defined populations on which the various methods of data mining are used to discover a plethora of delicately-looking results.
I laughed.

I also love the key words: "data mining, randomness studies, hermeneutic heuristics , EU support."

I am trying to figure out a way to make it work as a reading on academic writing and the pitfalls of academese. Whether I succeed or not, it's just fun to know this is out there.

And if you do go and read the manuscript, don't skip the bibliography. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Battle for the Core of the Common Core

This video makes me nervous. 

I don't like seeing a person escorted out of a public meeting by security. I especially don't like it when that person is a concerned parent asking about school standards. 

But something stinks here. 

The Baltimore Sun and I agree, the district officials in this video are less-than-competent when it comes to holding public meetings. They dealt with Robert Small's questions in the most inappropriate way I can imagine (btw, all charges against Small were dropped). 

But what about what Small was saying? He leveled a false accusation. He misinterpreted the baseline Common Core standard that ‘all high school grads should be ready for community college,’ and instead suggested the schools won’t prepare students for anything but community college. Then when one of the speakers tried to answer that concern, Small started telling a story about where he grew up - speaking over any attempt to clarify the issue.

Let me say again, escorting Small out was the wrong move. But the precise nature of Small's misinterpretation - that subtle twist of the policy's intent - caught my attention. It is too much like the current anti-Obamacare adverting blitz, loaded with just-slightly-altered facts. 

The Common Core story has legs. It has made the rounds not only on conservative websites and conspiracy theory outlets, but also on more mainstream sites. The video and an accompanying story were originally posted on an explicitly conservative corner of the Examiner - a site with no editorial filters. The author Anne Miller is a good writer who identifies as a conservative and has an impressively long list of right-leaning articles on the site. The comments section of this article is loaded with calls to stop paying taxes and suggestions that the government is going to “rape us of us our rights and freedoms." 

Now, one YouTube video and an Examiner article are not enough to suggest the existence of a large misinformation campaign. But consider the recent conference “The Changing Role of Education in America: Consequences of the Common Core.” It was sponsored by the American Principles Project, in conjunction with the Pioneer Institute and the Heartland Institute. Those groups are big players, and all advocate for the privatization of education as well as the end to federal healthcare reform efforts.

I do have to be careful with what I'm asserting here, because I think parents and community members are right to demand answers about the coming changes associated with Common Core  I think the concerns of people like Robert Small should be heard. After all, if implemented correctly, Common Core will take years to address its mandate, and every stakeholder ought to be involved in that process. That means lots of constructive dialogue along the way. 

But this video and the way it's being reported will not lead to constructive dialogue. It presents charged misinformation about the Common Core.  It suggests that everything about Common Core's implementation has been decided, and it suggests that the Common Core will intentionally not prepare any students for university-level education. Those are misrepresentations created by slight adjustments of the policy's actual language. 

Rhetorically it's a great move if you are actively trying to turn public opinion against Common Core. Ethically, it is dubious, because it relies on the intentional spread of misinformation. 
Like I said, something stinks. I think we are seeing the flames fanned in another misinformation campaign like the one coming to a head right now with the Affordable Health Care Act.  

I don't think Anne Miller or Robert Small or anyone else are the masterminds of some massive conspiracy. The misinformation about Common Core has been out there for a while. If the people who have read that misinformation come to believe that a socialist Federal government is trying to dumb down our schools, then they should stand up and ask questions. 

And school boards should not forcefully escort those people out of public meetings. 

But the problem that remains is a tough one: How do reformers fight a misinformation campaign that paints reformers as a dishonest enemy within? 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Ben Swann Headline: 8th Grader Fibs, Setting Right Wing Blogs Ablaze

Earlier this week, the people over at Ben Swann reported that a South Carolina teacher told a student to change an answer on a pop quiz about the US Constitution.

They have since retracted that story. Their source was lying about the incident. Their source was an 8th grade school girl.

The quiz in question asked if it is constitutional for a police officer to confiscate a gun from a law abiding citizen. According to the young student, the teacher saw the answer "No," and then told the student to cross out that answer because the correct answer was "Yes." Here's the photo of the quiz.
Now, I don't know about you, but when I give a quiz, I rarely walk around the room and tell students when they have an answer wrong. So, right off the bat the story sounded fishy. But I wasn't in the classroom. Maybe that's the way they give quizzes in South Carolina.

No matter the case, the people over at Ben Swann jumped on this story, and the story went viral on the conservative blogosphere. If you go to Swann's site, the only thing you see is the retraction, but if you go to other outlets, you'll have to scroll to the bottom of the page to find the retraction - or at other outlets you may not find the retraction at all.

So, the story is out there, despite it not being true - the story that was not investigated beyond the accusation of an 8th grade student.

I am pleased to see the people at Ben Swann admit their error, but does that make it all okay?

The reporter Joshua Cook didn't even contact the teacher or anyone at the school. It was the parent of the student who thought to call the school and find out more details, and that's when the story started falling apart. The child's parent out-investigated the reporter.

And once a story like this gets released by these non-news outlets, the story becomes evidence in dinning room arguments around the country: "You know what I heard, the Common Core teaches kids that guns are unconstitutional! I read about it in the news."

The retraction won't work, and the editors at Swann know this. This kind of sloppy reporting is intentional. It puts these stories into the mouths of voters, into the email chains, into the fringe blog posts, into the conspiracy theories, and eventually this story will just sound true to people.

I heard about this in a roundabout way. This morning, a friend of mine posted a Slate story about the effort to get evolution out of the curriculum in Texas. The Ben Swann story was posted as a rebuttal from someone trying to make the point that both sides are messing with education. The classic "They did it first" defense.

Interesting timing: Just as the 'fringe religious right' is making news with their efforts to undermine the education of our kids, the 'fringe conspiracy theory right' reports a false story about a government effort to corrupt children's understanding of the Constitution.

That timing suggests a concerted effort to spread the right kind of misinformation at the right time.

If it wasn't such an unethical disservice to the public, it'd be a pretty smart strategy.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Conservative TEXT Conventions!!!!!! ! ! !

I'll admit it. I like my Facebook. It is a safe little digital playground, a guilty pleasure more often than not. 

But occasionally Facebook provides an opportunity to dive down the rabbit hole of rhetoric. 

This exchange of comments shows how the use of ALL CAPS can demonstrate one of the more philosophical concepts that makes rhetoric such a fun area to study.
I don't see ALL CAPS abused in my classrooms very often. While there were a few years when students tried to use them in early drafts, that has all but disappeared. 

I do occasionally receive conservative chain emails from relatives, and that is a genre where ALL CAPS is alive and well. Those texts also incorporate changes to color, font, and font size to emphasize parts of the message. 

I have yet to spot a pattern or convention for what gets highlighted, bolded, or enlarged. It makes for some weird reading.
I've seen these conventions spill over into the explicitly conservative news/commentary outlets. The image here on the right is from the Breitbart website

The editor's choice to bold "Warned" and to make "Impotent" orange are examples of the spillover I'm taking about. 

The website doesn't bold all of the active verbs in headlines. Nor does the site change the color of text regularly. 

At first I assumed that the style changes indicated a hyperlink, but that's not the case. Here's the link that uses an orange impotent: DC's Gun Control Impotent. 
It's all one link. 

It's like the editors just got a new word processor and they're experimenting with the style features. But they're publishing those experiments. 

Some might be tempted to write this off as the errors of amateurs, but I think there's something else going on. 

This unique style is a signature of conservatives writing on the margins. It is a signal to readers: "If you are used to this style, you know you're in a safe place where your opinions will be validated." 

It's fascinating, and I think it developed like most writing conventions, without the conscious effort of the participants. 
For those who are curious, here's the video that started that Facebook exchange. It's great, and it helps explain why I have access to conservative email chains. 

Update (9/19/2013): A friend of mine brought this article from The Economist to my attention. In it, the author quotes the comment of a person who is upset Starbucks has requested that people do not bring guns into the chain's stores.
As one commenter on the Blaze writes, "It is my God Endowed Unalienable Individual Right, secured by Our Constitution, to take any firearm I please anywhere I please. Shall not be infringed, means exactly what it says."
The friend who sent me this was wondering about the use of capitalization, and if that fits into what I'm trying to describe here. My feeling is that it absolutely does, and what's more exciting is that a mainstream outlet like The Economist decided to preserve the style of the comment even though that style violates the style of their magazine.  

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Fall of Lehman Brothers, How We Argue, and the Study of Composition and Rhetoric

Five years ago tomorrow, I wrote up my reaction to Lehman Brothers filling for bankruptcy.

I had (have) relatively little knowledge of how the finance industry functions, but I still managed to not sound like a complete idiot:
...[The collapse is] not like any of the world events we've experienced in my lifetime.
It doesn't have the feel of an attack or a war. It's not like a government falling. I'm tempted to link it to a natural disaster, but I'm afraid that's disrespectful because tsunamis and earthquakes take lives. I just can't place where this sits in my understanding of current events. 
That natural disaster analogy held up pretty well, if I do say so myself.

Of course, I hope no one took any of my predictions too seriously:
I'm not invested in much of anything beyond my apartment [in Budapest]. So the fall of Lehman Bros. is not going to reach into my pocket much. 
Yeah... That apartment I mentioned... Let's just say, its value was impacted a bit by the global financial meltdown.

In fact, later that year, I wrote about how my apartment-as-investment was impacted. I described my experience as a real estate owner in a struggling EU economy in a response to a National Review piece by Mark Steyn. That post led to some of the most spirited debate I've seen on this little blog (note to self: if you're looking to bring in readers, poke the hornets' nest).

The commenters that were sent my way by The National Review made some good points (after taking a few cheap shots at my degree in creative writing - which I thought was cute) . It was exciting to be involved in a debate of real substance with people who really disagree with me. And it's worth noting that (aside from one person) the debate was respectful - people thoughtfully disagreeing with an argument's premises or finding faults in logic.

The exchange flew in the face of stereotypes I held about political debate on the blogosphere. There was even one commenter who, before laying into my arguments, praised my decision to cite an article by an ideological opponent.

I don't think we solved any issues or even changed each others' minds very much. But I was impressed by the willingness to engage and listen (to anything under 2000 words, @directormovies). That defied my expectations and helped shift the focus of this blog towards public discourse and debate. I started asking questions about how the different styles of writing and rhetoric influence the way I react to arguments.

That shift impacted my teaching and started me down this path I'm on today. This fall I start collecting data for a dissertation that explores the learning environments of novice writers in a new community.

The kind of writing and thinking that went into that debate five years ago - it happens because people are engaged with a topic and a community. Their writing processes take cues from all over the place. People writing in that kind of dynamic environment learn from every interaction and from all the prep and scheming that goes into each interaction.

It's an exciting "place" to study.

My family may have taken a financial hit in the aftermath of the fall of Lehman Brothers, but we're hardly alone in that. Five years on, however, I can see how my reaction to those events led me in a positive direction. As an individual, I examined what had happened and sought out lessons and a new path.

So, that's me five years after. Where are you at?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Reading for Pleasure and Learning

So, a longitudinal study out of the University of London's Institute of Education shows that children who read for pleasure do better in school.

It sounds obvious, right?

But the news is the range of benefits. Students' math scores improved alongside their reading and spelling scores. (Should I say maths scores if it's a UK study?)

And what's more, the study's design controlled for socioeconomic backgrounds. And then there's this: "Perhaps surprisingly, reading for pleasure was found to be more important for children’s cognitive development between ages 10 and 16 than their parents’ level of education."

I'm a big believer in the not-very-radical belief that school is only one part of a young person's learning environment, and it's always nice to have data to backs that up.

It's also nice to think that my love of pulpy fantasy novels and non-fiction accounts of the paranormal might have helped me in school.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Thrun's Take on Teaching and Technology

Sebastian Thrun speaks up/out on innovation in education in The Guardian.

"The biggest principle is to go at your own speed – eliminate this very strong synchronicity. It is the main obstacle for technology, to overcome the belief that a teacher and group of students have to go through the same thing at the same time," he said. "Education should learn from the positive side of gaming – reward, accomplishment and fun. An online environment would be able to use data about students' performance to more scientifically assess their progress, and how successfully a certain course is engaging students."

I like his take on the interaction between teachers and technology.

In writing education especially, the arguments always seem to pit teachers against technology. That's likely going to hold us back as a profession.

Thrun's critique of current testing models goes a long way towards explaining the reasons for the adversarial relationship between writing teachers and technology.

But if we take control of the tools (rather than passively hand control over to testing incorporated), I believe our discipline could move forward fast.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney's Passing

I didn't know poetry very well before I read Heaney.

I didn't understand its challenge or its role. Then some poets in California introduced me to Heaney.

Since then I've found The Stolen Child, At the Fishhouses, and The Red Wheelbarrow... to name a few.

He changed the way many listen to words.

Lovecraftian Pre-writing

A "page" from Lovecraft's notes on At the Mountains of Madness was posted on Slate's Vault yesterday.

A lovely - if not slightly disturbing - reminder of how much chaos goes into pre-writing.
 Fun stuff.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Assessing the Professors

This TechCrunch article has its flaws, but it prompts an interesting question: 

If we were able to devise an assessment of the quality of a university professor's teaching, what would that assessment look like?

I know we'd mess it up if we designed the measures in today's political atmosphere - one that stresses a very limited version of job-readiness. 

But what if we scholars were able to devise their own assessment system for how well we teach?

Side note:
I followed the link to this TechCrunch article, because its title suggests the existence of a labor union for professors.

That seemed unlikely.

Turns out that the author mislabeled the American Association of University Professors, which is a professional association. There is a union component called the AAUP-CBC, but that is not the group that issued the statement on performance based funding

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Rhetoric at the Airport

At the airport after a great CWPA Conference, and my head is in just the right/wrong place to deal with these texts.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Closure Rule in Critical Discussion

The US is going to pay off down $35 billion of debt in the third quarter.

You heard that right. Despite our decision early in the recession to go with stimulus instead of austerity, the US is going to reduce its debt this year.

This flies in the face of the predictions conservatives made during the 2012 election.

I was told by the conservatives around dinning room tables, on internet forums, and over the airwaves that Obama's re-election was going to lead to increased debt and deficit.

There was no doubt. Obama's policies, in the eyes of conservatives, would lead to nothing but more debt.

I was told he wasn't cutting spending - he was increasing spending. Any claim the President made about cutting spending was trickery according to those with whom I argued.

When I told these conservative I thought they had it wrong, they told me I didn't understand the math. I suggested those conservatives were bending the truth, and they told me the President and the media were bending the truth.

Now we are paying off a portion of the debt.

This is happening around the same time the economic argument for austerity has been exposed as shoddy, and around the same time research has demonstrated the very rich have done just fine despite accusations of Obama's policy being class warfare.

According to the Closure Rule from Pragma-Dialectics rules of critical discussion, "A failed defense of a standpoint must result in the party that put forward the standpoint retracting it".

I'm waiting... but I'm not holding my breath.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Now We're Cooking

The tremendous and undeniable benefits of cooking your own food were on display in Mark Bittman's recent piece on Michael Pollen. But it was Pollen's call to bring back Home Economics Class that prompted me to write today.

I cook. My wife cooks. Sure, we occasionally go out or grab take out, but most nights we spend an hour or so preparing a meal. We enjoy it. We often talk about food and cooking.

But here's what struck me while reading Bittman's piece: My wife and I don't think about cooking as an optional activity. We assume that 4-6 nights of our week will involve cooking. Most of our breakfasts and lunches are made at home.

For us, cooking is an essential skill, and we have trouble understanding why anyone would think otherwise. It is, after all, the ability to prepare you own food. 

It's true; we know people that don't cook, but we cannot understand how they live in the world. We are baffled by the economics, the health, and the lifestyle brought about by an inability to cook. In this way, it is not all that different from illiteracy - different, sure - but not as different as I thought before I started writing this. 

When I stumbled over that analogy I realized what Pollen's call means.  
 Teaching young people to cook is something society has done for thousands of years. It is considered, historically, one of the most basic of skills. 

For today's young people, however, for whom only academic skills are evaluated and/or rewarded, where education is about creating a "job-ready" population, cooking as a skill has lost its essential status. 

The discussions about education have become focused on such a narrow set of skills and learning environments, that we need a progressive 'food thinker' to remind us that grownups should know how to make their own dinner. 

We should probably be embarrassed. 

In a Facebook comment about the Bittman piece, I wrote that cooking should be considered an essential part of the most basic set of competencies: Reading, writing, math, exercise, music, creative problem solving, and cooking.

Are there any other skills you'd add to that list?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Hypocrisy in Blue

Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee has gotten people even more fired up on the issue of gun regulations with his recent post on the Tea Party Perspective. He opens his piece with these sentences: "Shame on liberals for exploiting tragedy once again in our country and try (sic) to use tragedy as a reason to take our rights away.  Liberals are shameful."

Then, two paragraphs later, he writes, "All of these suggestions about the need for gun control are the mindset of sheep.  Once the wolf is at the door, you’re helpless.  Sure, run and hide from a sociopathic killer.  See how far that gets you.  You know where that ‘ll get you?  26 dead at Sandy Hook School."

I'm all for public figures speaking their minds on issues like this. The Sheriff is in a unique position of authority on the subject, and his voice ought to be heard.

That said, I didn't even have to use the scroll bar to find the most blatant example of hypocrisy in Sheriff Clarke's post.

He writes "shame on liberals" for using a tragedy to further their cause, and then he turns around and uses that same tragedy as evidence that we should further his cause.

Rarely do I see such a horrible abuse of rhetoric in public discourse. This is one for the books.

If you agree with the Sheriff, I suggest you volunteer to proofread his next rant.

If you disagree with the man, talk slowly as you explain the concept of hypocrisy to him and those who have rallied behind his post.

Monday, January 21, 2013

My New Five Disk Playlist

Once upon a time, I listened to music using compact disks.

I know, right?

When I wanted new music, I would head out to the record store and sort through racks and racks of CDs in jewel cases, sealed shut with that sticky security tape, then wrapped in plastic and clamped into plastic theft-prevention/display racks. It was like the dark ages.

But I loved my CDs. The collection was growing at its fastest rate during those years in which I was sorting out my identity. The collection was one of the first things I composed that said something about who I was.

As an undergrad, my favorite time of day to listen to my CDs was as I cooked and ate dinner.

I had a five-disk carousel CD player.  I would load it up and hit "Shuffle All."

I had friends who bemoaned "the end of the album," who worried that shuffle mode and playback programming meant there'd never be another


But I couldn't keep myself from enjoying the five-disk shuffle option my stereo afforded me. I got to pick five favorites. Each new song was a pleasant half-expected surprise. And oh, the suspense at the end of each song as I listened to the spent disk drop, the carousel turn, and the next disk spin into action. 

More recently, I've been uploading all my digitized music to a cloud service.

When the whole library finally loaded today, as a celebratory gesture, I created a '5 Disk Playlist.' Just like the old days, I dropped all the tracks of five albums into the list and hit shuffle. I'm listening to the playlist now. I have to wear headphones because my wife and son are sleeping, but other than that, it's a very 1996 listening experience. 
Except, I can listen to the list anywhere I go. And I can make another list for every month until I'm 50 years old, and I'll be able to listen to every one of those lists anywhere I can access the internet. Beyond that, I can allow an online service to read the contents of my collection and generate a playlist that combines my music with music suggested by what my collection says about me. 
I don't think this kind of change is bad. In fact, I love this kind of change, but I do miss mix tapes, album art, lining up at midnight to buy a new release, the clunks and clicks of record players. There is nothing wrong with technology changing the way we listen, but I would like to go on record saying this: There is also nothing wrong with being reluctant to let go of the quirks that a fading technology  imparted on our experience.
I'm working on a paper and a presentation about introducing electronic portfolio software in writing classrooms. E-portfolios have been around for a while, and people a lot smarter than me have demonstrated how effective they are as a learning tool. But it is still difficult to get programs and teachers to adopt the technology. 

The project I worked on at school went smoothly. Last quarter nearly 500 students composed electronic portfolios using open source software and online sharing tools. I'm thrilled with the results. Students developed their digital literacy. The reflective portions were displayed in a more authentic reading space than a series of 8" x 10.5" sheets of paper. Teachers delivered the tools to students effectively. Good stuff, sure, but I'm not going to pretend it was easy. There was a ton of trouble shooting. There was a fair amount of resistance from teachers and students alike. The days leading up to the end of the quarter were brutal.
When I took on the e-portfolio project, I hadn't yet considered the long and tortured route of music recording technology as an analogous cultural process. All the lost conventions, anachronistic jargon, obsolete equipment, and the bitter late adopters - it's all familiar. 

Tonight I gained access to my music through a new and exciting technology, and what did I do? I tried to recreate the listening experience shaped by the specifications of a stereo component from the mid-1990's.