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.