Monday, December 29, 2014

Observing the observed observations

My head is in a funny space these days.

I'm interviewing for jobs that would start in the fall, and to do so I have to focus on my past professional experience, the current project that is my dissertation, and my plans for the future.

And all of that needs to be considered from the rhetorical perspective of, "How could this make me look like the guy you all want to hire?"

It's fun, nerve-racking, exciting, tense... It's a lot of things. But like I said, it's put my head in a funny space.

You see, I've never really done this before.

The search for a long-term position as a Ph.D. is completely new to me, but a critical part of this process is appearing competent--appearing as though I know what I'm doing.

The result is a kind of constant 'stepping-back-to-reflect' habit, a non-stop metacognition combined with intense observation of the rhetorical environment, all intended to help me learn this process as I'm working through it.

It is enlightening, but it is also exhausting.

And that is interesting to me as a teacher, because this is what I ask my students to do.

I have sections of my lectures dedicated to describing the act of "reading for composition while reading for content." I tell my students that learning to write in a new setting means learning to read texts with an attitude of "How or why did the authors do that?"

The style of teaching works. I see students learn new genres without mimicking the model texts. It's great, but I don't think I have had to do this very often myself.

It's crazy hard.

Here is an excellent "Extra Credits" video on how aspiring video game developers can work on this process:
I like how that video acknowledges the effort it takes to do the kind of observation described. It is not enough to enjoy gaming if you want to learn how to create a successful game for an existing audience. The effort to learn the conventions and limitations of games - to consider the expectations of audience - to effectively utilize the tools at a developers disposal, all of that requires so much more than simply appreciating the genre.

Although, appreciation is where things start.

The same is true for students learning to write in new places. The parallels are striking.

I'll have to find a way to work this video into my courses.

Negative Transfer?

#teamedward - Imgur

Friday, December 12, 2014

How I Make Ed Tech Work for Me

From The Educators 

The content of this US News and World Report article on education technology in higher education is great.

Sadly the headline is not. 
Professors Grow Weary of Idea That Technology Can Save Higher Ed
Using the word "save" is inappropriate. Sure, higher ed in the US might have a cost control problem and a few other bugs, but suggesting that the whole system needs salvaging is way off base.

That said, I like this kind of critical coverage of ed tech in the university.

I think there's a lot of "silver bullet talk" when people discuss ed tech. But it's not enough to purchase new technologies or software.
[...] professors say they don’t have enough help to use this technology effectively, haven’t seen results from it, and fear that the cost savings administrators keep insisting that technology will bring could mean their own careers are on the line.
I've had some great successes using technology in my composition courses, but I'm always in hacking mode - using a tool in a way that is slightly different than what the designers intended.

I draw up a draft of my course before I ever look at my institution's ed tech toolkit. Once I have goals and student/teacher workloads sorted, I go to see if there are any tech tools that could help me meet my goals more efficiently or add a new dimension to what I had planned. Often there are.

But that order of events is crucial.

I do not open the course management software until after I have my term planned out. I use the software to get my students where I want them to go. I don't let the software frame the tasks or the objectives.

The problem a lot of people are running into is simple.
One of the most common complaints from faculty is that much of this technology creates more work, not less, a 2012 survey of 42 professors at three large universities by David R. Johnson, a sociology researcher at Rice University, found.
If that is happening, then you're doing it wrong. The goals and workloads need to be decided before we introduce learning technologies.

If we want efficiency, quality, and access, then we need to make those goal clear at the outset, only then should we explore what kind of technologies we can bring into our classrooms.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Truths Obscuring Truths

So this meme popped up on one of my social media feeds this morning.

Even though the statement is true, it's not really a fair statement.

It was posted by another writing instructor, and I certainly understand the sentiment, especially on those days when my students' writing is less-than-inspiring.

It's a nice example of how a little truth can feel right, but still obscure a larger and more important truth.

Or in this case, two larger truths.

My first response to this meme was based on the history of our education system. Because the other side of this fact is that in the past 100 years, we have extended the opportunity of education to a much larger part of the population. 100 years ago, most white people got an education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 5% of white people were illiterate in 1910. In comparison, 30.5% of non-whites were illiterate. By 1979, those numbers dropped to 0.6% and 1.6% respectively.

When compared to the one from 100 years ago, our education system today does more for more people. It is far from perfect, and no one should be complacent. However, just because rich white people used to know Latin, doesn't mean our society is sliding into disrepair.

And what about that Latin and Greek?

That question is what prompted my second response.

You know why we used to teach Latin and Ancient Greek? Because those languages are hard to learn. We used to think the brain worked like our bicep - if you make it work hard, then it will get stronger.

Then we realized that was incorrect. That argument was part of what led to the creation of the Modern Language Association. Today, the only people who need to study those languages are people who want to study the Classics. That's not a bad thing. It leaves more room for people to study languages that are still spoken today.

That response to the Classical languages is what led me to the other larger truth I think this meme obscures.

In the last few decades, researchers have demonstrated that direct instruction on grammar doesn't improve student writing.

Here's a quote from an concise summary of the research on this point:
Research over a period of nearly 90 years has consistently shown that the teaching of school grammar has little or no effect on students.
-George Hillocks & Michael Smith, 1991
Asking students to know terms such as subject, predicate, relative clause, appositive, or any other discipline-based term for describing text will not help them write. It will only help them describe texts in the same way scholars in writing studies describe texts.

Personally, I enjoy learning, using, and examining terms related to grammar and composition, because I like to analyze texts and talk about the writing process with people in my discipline. I think a lot of people who teach writing also enjoy that; which is probably behind the decision to make those skills the focus of so many writing classes.

But writing teachers should not be trying to teach students to talk about grammar using our specialized jargon. We should teach students how to compose texts.

I do think we should always push for higher standards, but I don't think making econ students diagram sentences is what those standards should look like.

So, while I think that meme is provocative, I also think it unfairly undermines what teachers, educators, and students are working to achieve.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Tiger Mike Memos

So, I was talking about my professional communication course with a friend.

He asked me, "Have you read the Tiger Mike Memos?"

I had not.

But now that I have read them, I must find a way to make these memos a reading task for my professional writing students.

These memos are amazing.

You really need to click here and read from the top. It just keeps getting better and better.

At times angry, at times rambling, and always at least a bit incoherent, these memos demonstrate so much about writing.

Do yourself a favor and check these out.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Speaking of Teacher Feedback

So this happened.

Posted on Happy Place.

It's a letter to the Speaker of the House on immigration reform that has been marked up by a former high school teacher.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Writing Feedback Online With Students

This fall I've been working on a new method for delivering comments on drafts of student papers.

I should mention, I'm not grading the drafts when I use this new method. I provide this feedback so my students can revise before turning stuff in for a grade. In my courses, this is the most extensive feedback I give.

This method-in-development has helped me deal with two issues I face when writing back to students.

Improving Feedback Clarity
Like many teachers, I have trouble knowing what students will take away from my feedback.
Some students read every comment. Some never read any at all. Some read too much into one comment and ignore the rest. Some misread the advice. Some think that they should get an A+ if they make each change suggested.

It's a messy exchange. The students have 'the-paper-they-think-they-wrote' in mind. I have a goal I want the students to aspire towards. The papers they write say one thing, but those papers are in the process of becoming something else.

It is a setting rife with opportunities for misinterpretation.

Getting Through Feedback
The second issue is more mundane. When I am sitting at home with a stack of papers to comment on, there is a temptation to spend the day on Reddit, or Facebook, or Kongregate, or anywhere else that isn't the next twenty drafts of essays waiting for comments.

My solution involves bringing the student in on the process.

Here's what I do
I ask my students to throw the text of their drafts onto a Google Drive Document. I tell them not to worry about lost formatting - as this is just a draft.

Then I ask them to pick a time when they can be online along with me.

At the appointed time, we both go to the document. The student can see my comments as I post them, and any edits I make happen in "real time."

I comment on their papers while they're watching, and I invite them to respond to my comments as we work.

...and that's it really.

It sounds simple, and it is. The initial set up is a bit tricky, but I have small courses this term. That's made the piloting of this a lot easier.

With a scheduling spreadsheet open to the group, sign ups are easy enough. I give most students about 20 minutes of time. I give 30 minutes to L2 writers (students writing in their second language).

And I let Google Drive do the the technical work. I'm sure there are other platforms that could support this, but I just went with what was easiest for my students to access.

I can see this becoming something I research and write about in the near(ish) future, but for now I'm just hammering out the details.

I'd appreciate any thoughts or suggestions from my friends in composition and rhetoric.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Why (Not How) We Cite

I spend a lot of time talking to students about how to cite sources. It is something they worry about. 

The thing I worry about is this: Do students understand why we cite sources? recently published this video that does a great job of showing us why citations are important to the people who originally wrote the stuff.
I think it is crucial for students to see citations as a social act.

When working with international students, I have them write a paper on the subject.
When teaching first-year writing, I devote a lot of discussion time to exploring the question.

I don't like the "Cite or Be Punished" approach to this issue.
I don't think it is productive to remind students that there is an academic integrity enforcement squad watching, waiting for them to trip up.

Sure, that technique might keep some from plagiarizing out of fear of punishment, but there is a larger goal in writing instruction: Students are supposed to learn about writing as a social act that helps them gain access to a community.

If that community is seen as a heavily policed minefield, then they are less likely to really engage.

So, in my classes, I first work to explain the value of good citations, how they help strengthen an argument.

Then I explain the way scholarly writers feel about having their work cited by others: That is what they are looking for when they write. They don't write to get paid; they write to get cited.

This is all meant to demonstrate how good citations are reinforced by a community's values, and to explain why professors think it's such a big deal.

I'm hoping to find a way to use this article and video from in that effort.

It's a great piece on why citations are important.
Citations, in which one paper refers to earlier works, are the standard means by which authors acknowledge the source of their methods, ideas and findings, and are often used as a rough measure of a paper’s importance. Fifty years ago, Eugene Garfield published the Science Citation Index (SCI), the first systematic effort to track citations in the scientific literature. To mark the anniversary, Nature asked Thomson Reuters, which now owns the SCI, to list the 100 most highly cited papers of all time. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Added a CV page 'cause I'm on the market

So, I added my CV as a page on this blog.

The link is over there in the sidebar.

I put it up here because I'm applying for jobs.

As someone interested in persuasion and argument, the job search process is fascinating.

In the professional writing class I teach, we do a few sessions on the job search, and I tell students to hold this attitude in their minds:
Remember, the person who gives you a job is not doing you a favor. If they hire you, it is because they expect you to make their operation run better or do more. No one hires an employee as an act of charity.

This is supposed to remind students that the power dynamics in a job search are not as lopsided as we often feel.

That's really easy advice to give in the classroom, but it is a lot of work to maintain that attitude.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Five Fallacies Done Well

Too often in composition classrooms the logical fallacies are taught as a list to be memorized for a later quiz or exam.

They are taught because they feel like "content" in a course that can sometimes feel light on content.

That is something I don't approve of.

I first learned of these ideas in an intro to logic course in the philosophy department at Madison. In that class we spent time going over examples and exploring why such methods of argument are problematic. This led nicely into the course on sentential logic.

The video here does a lot of the same work. It spends time with each fallacy and shows viewers what the fallacy looks like "in the wild."

This is something I approve of.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Wow! Facts and Reasoning on Cable News?

This is a video of Reza Aslan undertaking the Sisyphean task of trying to engage in real constructive debate on cable news.

It's pretty awesome. He takes the reins just after the one-minute mark, and he demonstrates how facts and knowledge are better than assumptions and guesses.

For a while I thought the folks at CNN were in on it; that they were setting up all the bad arguments for Professor Aslan to knock down.

That would have been some genius journalism.

Sadly, I recently learned that the show brought in another guest the next day and told everyone that Reza's facts are not as important as your fear of "the other."

The Young Turks do a great piece on this.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Thoughts on Writing in English from International Students

Monday was day one for my composition class for visiting international students.

I asked them to hand write a brief statement about their experiences writing in a second language.

The results were so great that I started typing excepts into my teaching journal.

The quote that got me most was one of the first I read. It's from a biology student:
The English that I learned in school before going to university is very different from the one I started to learn as a college student, because even if it is the same language, they are in different contexts, demanding different knowledges.
I read that and had to pause to take a deep breath.

Here's the thing, that quote articulates the rational for one of the more important chapters in my dissertation. Sure, I'm working on the dissertation all the time lately, so it makes sense that I would see it in everything I read, but the spot-on nature of that quote is uncanny. 

I have an entire chapter dedicated to the idea that second-language students in biology are working with language conventions and scientific concepts that force them to reassess their own knowledge of English. But I didn't tell that to this student. 

So, I read the rest of my students' writing histories with my researcher's hat on, and it proved to be an enriching exercise. 

Take a look at some of the sentences I pulled from writing history texts generated by visiting international students at a research university. 

Writing in English is one action which makes me really nervous.

As I wrote papers more and more, I feel comfortable to write in English.
I also write in English sometimes to connect with people in the internet.

Sometimes I cannot find the exact word to express myself. 
I wrote my first essay in English when I was preparing for the TOEFL test. 
Korea’s [English] education system only focuses on reading and listening. 
I memorize a lot of sentences which called ‘template.’ The reason I did this is only for getting a good grade. 
My experience writing in a second language makes me feel a little nervous, because writing essays is not a great skill that I have even in my native language.

It was difficult in the beginning because American writing rules are different from Brazilian’s. 
I feel like I was basically translating Chinese essay writing skills. 
I had to write an application […] but it was very hard to me, because I had to write my experience.

Writing an essay in English was one of my favorite activity when I was in middle school […] In recent times, however […] I feel nothing. I cannot have that excitement and feelings of freedom I had in the past. 
I suppose it is pretty difficult to write in a foreign language. 
I’m not the perfect writer in English. 
I started to learn the way of writing an argument essays for an university entrance exam. It was a good opportunity for me to improve my writing skills because my English teacher checked my essay again and again. 
I’ve always listened to music and watched movies in English. 
Through the years I started doing more writings and feeling a little less afraid of doing them. 
The quotes paint an interesting picture of the way international students think about writing in the English language.

Oh, and if you are concerned about the errors in these quotes, don't be. Why you shouldn't be is a conversation for another time, but I will say this: These are very articulate statements, errors and all, coming from students writing in a second language without time to prep, without digital tools, and without time to revise.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Laziest Argument Online Right Now

I shouldn't be blogging.

I am trying to finish my dissertation this year, and it will require a lot of my focus.

But I could not resist. I just read the laziest argument I've encountered in years.

Christopher Denhart posted this on today, and I am shocked at how little respect he has for his readers.

Denhart presents his criticism of Germany's decision to stop charging students for tuition at university.

His argument rests on a few major points:

  • Germany's taxes are already too high
  • Systems that have students pay tuition help control the costs of education
  • There aren't enough jobs for college grads (in America)
So, German taxes are high... Sorry, but complaining about tax rates in Germany isn't a very smart move if you're looking to make the case for lower taxes elsewhere. We're talking about an EU country where unemployment is at 5.1% and the economy is a global superstar. 

Denhart goes on to assert that when students foot the bill, that helps control costs at universities. That's just a stupid thing to say. Even if I try to accept his argument that federal loans caused the spike in US tuition, the fact remains, tuition has increased steadily as public support for higher ed has decreased. Everyone knows this. And if you need evidence for the advantages of public support, look to the rise of the University of California, a system that came to global prominence while charging no tuition. 

Finally, Denhart trys to use the unemployment situation in the US to suggest that maybe it would be better for Germany to have fewer graduates. Which is interesting if you're able to ignore the facts that Germany doesn't have the same unemployment situation as the US, that the German economy depends on high-skilled workers, and that unemployment for US workers is worse for those without a degree than it is for those who have one. 

I mean, this argument is so bad - like the "so bad it's good" kind of bad.

It is a bunch of talking points from the fiscal conservative playbook (which isn't all bad) pounded in the most ham-fisted of ways into a statement about funding higher education.

And here's why I couldn't resist writing about it: We need to reassess the way we fund higher education in the US. We do. The current system is broken, and this joker Denhart is trying to argue against that. He's arguing that we're doing it right. Well, not quite. We would be doing it right if only we removed more public support from the system. 

And he's doing it by making statements that sound smart until you start thinking about them. 

I know of strong counter arguments to what Denhart has put forward here. I actually know some good arguments in favor of what he's trying to say. But that's not what I wanted to post about. 

I just wanted to point to a lazy argument that is part of an important policy debate in our country and say this: Lazy arguments find readers, and some of those readers will feel informed by those lazy arguments.

When a person says, "I read this in Forbes," it sounds like they know a thing or two. 

In the interest of constructive public discourse, even the people who agree with Denhart should be upset that this got published in Forbes. It's embarrassing.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Rhetoric of Ice Buckets

I am subscribed to the excellent YouTube channel, Idea Channel.  

They posted a video about the value of social media posts, focusing on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. 

The video says a lot of what I've been thinking. Take a look.
After viewing, I scrolled through some comments, where I ran into the same argument I've been seeing since this challenge went viral.

Those comments prompted me to put on my Rhetoric Instructor Hat and write the following:

I've read the complaint that this challenge only went viral because it satisfies people's narcissistic desires; it feeds the ego, and according to those doing the complaining, that's shameful. 

I feel pretty comfortable saying this complaint is stupid. And my reasons for saying that address this question of value.

The ice bucket challenge is a call to action that leans primarily on appeals to ethos and pathos to make its case.

The ethos appeal, while it is not what people are complaining about, is important. It goes like this: You are a member of my social network and I am calling you out as a friend who cares about a cause. I believe our social ties should be enough to prompt you to act.

That's a familiar appeal on social networks, but by itself, this appeal often leads to token support and nothing more. A profile pic changes color for a week (or 8). A cause is "liked" or shared. 

In rhetoric, a strong call to action combines appeals, and that is what the ice bucket challenge did.

The pathos appeal (the one people are complaining about) goes like this: For many people, it feels good, exhilarating, fun, and satisfying when a bunch of people watch you perform a silly public act - even better when some of them praise you for that. After seeing a member of your social network enjoy those feelings, there is an emotional push to follow suit. That push is made all the stronger when you have been called out by name. The call out gives you permission to step across the socially constructed convention that tells us (well, most of us) not to draw too much attention to ourselves. 

Those are very strong appeals, and there is nothing wrong with them. Adding the appeal to pathos is what gave this phenomenon it's value. The combination of appeals drove, in part, the impressive raising of funds and awareness.  

And on a related note, we should not shame a person who vies for public attention through a silly act in the name of a cause. For many, it is fun to perform and it is thrilling when people approve of your performance. Even when it is something silly, those emotional responses are valid and worth seeking. 

The people who tsk-tsk that kind of behavior are frowning on any public displays that fall outside of what they have deemed appropriate. The term for such a person is "stick-in-the-mud." And I have very little patience for such people. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Politics and Close Relationships

I love arguing.

I enjoy the act itself.

I will argue with a person who I agree with if I think their argument needs a little work.

But it is too easy for me and many others to forget that the people we argue with represent a lot more than the arguments they make.

On his weekly blog for the Village Voice, Andrew W.K. offers this incredible reminder that we shouldn't allow politics and arguments to overshadow a person's humanity.
Human beings crave order and simplicity. We cling to the hope that some day, if we really refine our world view and beliefs, we can actually find the fully correct way to think -- the absolute truth and final side to stand on. People and systems craving power take advantage of this desire and pit us against each other using a "this or that" mentality. The point is to create unrest, disagreement, resentment, and anger -- a population constantly at war with itself, each side deeply believing that the other is not just wrong, but also a sincere threat to their very way of life and survival. This creates constant anxiety and distraction -- the perfect conditions for oppression. The goal of this sort of politics is to keep people held down and mesmerized by a persistent parade of seemingly life-or-death debates, each one worth all of our emotional energy and primal passion. 
But the truth is, the world has always been and always will be on the brink of destruction. And what keeps it from actually imploding is our love for life and our deep-seeded desire not to die. Our love for our own life is inextricably connected to our love of all life and the miracle of this phenomenon we call "the world." We must give all of ourselves credit every day for keeping things going. It's an incredible achievement to exist at all.
The whole piece is framed as advice to a young man who can no longer deal with his father's politics.

It's a great read. Check it out.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What's all this about Word Crimes?

Today and yesterday I have seen conversations about grammar and syntax on every social network in which I participate. More people and a wider variety of people are having conversations about the appropriate level of concern we should have when it comes to grammar.

Several of those conversations were about how Weird Al's new song might have been a bit out of touch or insensitive by using name calling to demean people who don't speak or write correctly.

There was this piece at Slate on how several of the examples of poor grammar that Weird Al sang about are actually completely acceptable. And there was the Facebook comment that spawned this post, in which a friend suggested that calling people "uneducated" because they use non-standard grammar leads to the kind of argument that systematizes racism in schools and universities.

I understand that point of view, but let me repeat (and bold) the first line of this post: Today and yesterday I have seen conversations about grammar and syntax on every social network in which I participate.

That's kind of crazy.
And I think Weird Al's decision (or tendancy) to be a bit crass and insensitive is part of that.

Demeaning people and calling them names is bound to cause discomfort. It may even offend or disturb.

But I'm still happy Weird Al wrote "Word Crimes," because it's a goof. And people will talk about a goof. People will have a discussion about something presented as lighthearted.

Today, I've seen a few exchanges like this one:
"Oh, come on. Relax. Everyone knows what I mean when I say 'I could care less'"
"Sure, they know, but the words don't mean what you mean. Shouldn't words mean what they mean?"

That's an interesting conversation that normally only happens when I'm around comp/rhet people. It's a conversation that could lead a person to see the ways we construct language socially. But people need to have the conversation.

One way to shut down constructive conversation about sensitive issues is to bring harsh judgement into the mix.

Discussions revolving around race or class equality send people to their respective corners where they shield themselves in the armor of the political and cultural norms held by their communities.

If I tell a person that their emphasis on correctness can be linked to racism (even if that's true), that person is going to end the conversation. That person is going to go tell like-minded people that I think they're all racist.

Comedians poke and prod at sensitive issues and allow people to indirectly examine things that they would normally simply avoid. It's easy to name some who do this: Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Bill Hicks... But even lighthearted Weird Al has songs that push buttons.

If teachers play "Word Crimes" to their students, it should not be treated like the latest incarnation of Strunk and White. The song should start a discussion: What attitudes towards grammar have you experienced at school, online, at home, with your friends...?

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

The average American's concept of geopolitics should be at least as complex as the Marvel Universe

A friend who keeps me up to date on conflicts and issues in Africa sent me this story about a tragic pair of attacks in Kenya and in Arusha, Tanzania.

In the body of the email, my friend asked, "Why is the Oscar Pistorius trial the only Africa 'news' on CNN? Also: This situation is totally out of control."

One person responded to the story by condemning radical Islamic violence and then by asking why peaceful Muslims are not more vocal in the condemnation of extremist acts of terror.

I don't disagree with those sentiments. Radical violence should be condemned. Peaceful Muslims would benefit if they had a more visible leader speaking out against extremism.

Nevertheless, this reaction is off key, and it demonstrates a tendency I see in a lot of debates about geopolitics. And maybe more importantly, it strengthens my friend's point about media coverage.

The news story covers a pair of violent acts in locations associated with international tourism.

In response, one reader jumped to the conclusion that an Islamist group is responsible for the attacks. But we don't know that. In fact, according to the article "police have blamed the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC)."

The MRC is not affiliated exclusively with any one religion. An older piece describing the group explains that the "separatist message preached by the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) has spread through mosques, churches, markets, coffee houses, text messages and Facebook."

Of course, I'm not about to take the local police force's word for it either. They are not the most reputable police force in the world and they do have an ax to grind with the MRC. It very well may be a radical Islamist group who carried out the attacks. Such groups are active in the region.

But we don't know. That's the point.

And if my friend's updates about Africa have taught me anything, they have demonstrated how many intertwined layers there are to all of the conflicts.

To suggest that there is one group that is behind all the violence only makes the West less capable of engaging the region.

That makes my friend's question all the more important. "Why is the Oscar Pistorius trial the only Africa 'news' on CNN?"

Without any major outlets reporting these events, how can Americans make informed choices about what our country should be doing in Africa, or anywhere else for that matter?

The sad answer is this: We don't.

We look at violence in Africa and grumble, "F'ing terrorists." And we act like that label "terrorist" describes one homogeneous group. It's as though we live in a G.I. Joe world where the only people doing wrong belong to Cobra.

When I started that last sentence, I was going to use The Avengers and Hydra to complete the analogy. But I had to stop, because the Marvel Universe is actually a lot more complex than America's conception of foreign affairs. The Marvel Universe has a number of organizations and shifting alliances each dealing with conflicting purposes and goals (yes, knowing this is a result of having a 4-year-old).

I'm not saying the Marvel Universe should be the model for how American voters understand geopolitical events, but it would be nice if our conception of those events was at least as complex as the one presented in comic books.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Alexander Nazaryan's Op-Ed

The New York Times published an op-ed by Alexander Nazaryan today. It is a critique of the changes coming to New York public school's literacy instruction.
Carmen Fariña, has announced plans to reinstate a “balanced literacy” approach in English classrooms. The concept’s most vociferous champion is probably Lucy Calkins, a Columbia University scholar. In her 1985 book, “The Art of Teaching Writing,” she complained that most English teachers “don’t know what it is to read favorite passages aloud to a friend or to swap ideas about an author.” She sought a reimagination of the English teacher’s role: “Teaching writing must become more like coaching a sport and less like presenting information,” a joyful exploration unhindered by despotic traffic cops. 
Ms. Calkins’s approach was tried by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, but abandoned when studies showed that students learned better with more instruction. My own limited experience leads me to the same conclusion. But Ms. Fariña seems to be charting a course away from the data-driven Bloomberg years, perhaps as part of her stated plan to return “joy” to the city’s classrooms. 
I take umbrage at the notion that muscular teaching is joyless. There was little joy in the seventh-grade classroom I ran under “balanced literacy,” and less purpose. My students craved instruction far more than freedom. 
I'm going to have to do more digging before deciding where I come down on this.

In my experience, the students Nazaryan is most concerned about are looking for more direct instruction, but there are studies that show, when it comes to advanced language acquisition, direct grammar instruction is less effective than engaging in literacy acts.

It's a messy but important problem. One worth weighing carefully.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Nick Hanauer on the debate over economic inequality

I have enjoyed following the debate over economic inequality for some time now, but I will admit to being baffled at times by the arguments coming from those who claim, 'economic inequality isn't a big deal' or worse, 'there is not an economic inequality problem.'

I was never able to engage those people in debate, because it seems their view is so divorced from reality that the rules of debate do not apply.

That is why I was so pleased to read this piece by Nick Hanauer today.

It's a bit long, and he does repeat a few of his points. But it is clear, it speaks directly to the misconceptions of people who would argue against him, and it's a fun read.
The most ironic thing about rising inequality is how completely unnecessary and self-defeating it is. If we do something about it, if we adjust our policies in the way that, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt did during the Great Depression—so that we help the 99 percent and preempt the revolutionaries and crazies, the ones with the pitchforks—that will be the best thing possible for us rich folks, too. It’s not just that we’ll escape with our lives; it’s that we’ll most certainly get even richer.
I especially like his use of examples to support his points. 
Most of you probably think that the $15 minimum wage in Seattle is an insane departure from rational policy that puts our economy at great risk. But in Seattle, our current minimum wage of $9.32 is already nearly 30 percent higher than the federal minimum wage. And has it ruined our economy yet? Well, trickle-downers, look at the data here: The two cities in the nation with the highest rate of job growth by small businesses are San Francisco and Seattle. Guess which cities have the highest minimum wage? San Francisco and Seattle. The fastest-growing big city in America? Seattle. Fifteen dollars isn’t a risky untried policy for us. It’s doubling down on the strategy that’s already allowing our city to kick your city’s ass.
Find the time this weekend to take a look.It's a great study in how to engage in a debate.

The Economist on Higher Ed

This article in the Economist is a must read if you are interested in higher education, the cost of college, and/or the impact technology is going to have on universities.
For most students university remains a great deal; by one count the boost to lifetime income from obtaining a college degree, in net-present-value terms, is as much as $590,000 (see article). But for an increasing number of students who have gone deep into debt—especially the 47% in America and 28% in Britain who do not complete their course—it is plainly not value for money. And the state’s willingness to pick up the slack is declining. In America government funding per student fell by 27% between 2007 and 2012, while average tuition fees, adjusted for inflation, rose by 20%. In Britain tuition fees, close to zero two decades ago, can reach £9,000 ($15,000 a year).
The article goes on to describe how these trends are likely going to impact higher education.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Greenhouse is a Gas

If you like to argue about politics, you need to install the plugin Greenhouse for your browser.

With Greenhouse, when you roll your mouse over the name of someone serving in the House of Representatives, a window pops up and tells you what kinds of campaign donors the person has.

Here a screenshot of me using the plugin on a story published today.

Education Technology and the Achievement Gap

I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on the achievement gap, but it is a topic I find very interesting.

While doing my course work in the School of Education, it was often the go-to example for data sets and sample studies, because... well, because it's a school of education.

Something I have spent a fair amount of time examining is the use of technology in the classroom. I have an open-device policy in my course - yes, even phones are allowed. I helped implement the use of electronic portfolios in the first year writing course here at Davis. I accept some writing assignments in web-based formats and encourage students to write and produce vlog/podcast scripts. Our workshops are performed on shared digital documents. We analyze the vocabulary of texts using Lexical Tutor and the readability index calculator.

I like me some ed tech.

Which is why I was so interested in Slate's piece on ed tech and the achievement gap. Reporting on Susan B. Neuman and Donna C. Celano's research done in Philadelphia (and corroborating that with other studies), the piece points to the following findings:
While technology has often been hailed as the great equalizer of educational opportunity, a growing body of evidence indicates that in many cases, tech is actually having the opposite effect: It is increasing the gap between rich and poor, between whites and minorities, and between the school-ready and the less-prepared.
 And this increasing gap isn't about access - which is what I would have suspected.
This has to do, rather, with a phenomenon Neuman and Celano observed again and again in the two libraries: Granted access to technology, affluent kids and poor kids use tech differently. They select different programs and features, engage in different types of mental activity, and come away with different kinds of knowledge and experience. 
In my experience, introducing technology to a classroom means introducing new material to learn. Students have to learn the interface, the way the software frames problems, and the extra steps the technology introduces.

Students who come from households that have stressed the US style of schooling from an early age are more likely to have the "cognitive space" to take on some of that extra learning.

All too often, technology is treated like another tool that can be thrown into an existing curriculum. The thinking is, "Hey, this should make things easier for the students, because that's what technology does, right?"

I think this article points to how and why that kind of assumption needs to be examined closer.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Stop Abusing the Science

The folks over at io9 posted this great list of "10 Scientific Ideas That Scientists Wish You Would Stop Misusing."

Here's the list:

  • Proof
  • Theory
  • Quantum Uncertainty and Quantum Weirdness
  • Learned vs. Innate
  • Natural
  • Gene
  • Statistically Significant
  • Survival of the Fittest
  • Geologic Timescales
  • Organic

It's worth clicking through to read what they have to say.

This misuse of science and statistics is a huge part of what drives bad arguments.

Nice to see some folks trying to keep the interwebs informed.
From xkcd

This gif has lost control again

They threw this up over at Boing Boing. I enjoy it too much not to repost.

Friday, June 13, 2014

That's a Place to Start

As a person who teaches writing, I have a lot of these moments:

'Okay. I see what you're trying to do here. In fact, I think most people will probably understand what your intentions are when they read what you've composed. And that... that's good. That's a place to start.

'But I am troubled, nonetheless, as you do not seem capable of predicting the impression that this combination of words is going to make.'

I was reminded of this when I saw this sign on a recent outing to Muir Woods with my family.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

A Math Teacher Loses It When Students Want a Right Answer

I've had a few people respond to my posts about common core with Louis C.K.-style objections:
"I don't understand why they went and changed the math."

One of the more personal responses was from an old friend who explained how her daughter was very frustrated with some math homework that was asking the students to use different techniques to get to a problem's answer. My friend told her daughter to ignore the instructions and just do it the old-fashioned way;
the way my friend was happy to show her daughter.

The child was very pleased to have an answer, and everyone in the house was relieved, because everyone knew how to get the right answer.

The problem with this story is treating math like a simple answer-finding exercise is what holds kids back later when the math gets difficult.

This blog post by teacher Brook Powers gets at that and asks a provocative question: Who broke our kids?

When did we brainwash kids into thinking that math was about getting an answer?  My students truly believe for some reason that math is about combining whatever numbers you can in whatever method that seems about right to get one “answer” and then call it a day.  They rarely think about what they are doing as long as at the end of the day their answer is “correct”.  
Go check out the post. It does a lot to demonstrate why they went and changed math.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Come on, Economists, Let's Settle Something with Seattle!

I would love to see a policy debate settled using actual data, and today the city of Seattle is giving us that chance.

Today, Seattle raised the city's minimum wage to $15. Way to go, Seattle, btw.

Now, there are far too many op-ed pieces about the impact of the minimum wage for me to list here (here's one I like), but needless to say, it is a major talking point and policy fight.

From Wikipedia
But today we have a chance to examine the impact of a minimum wage hike in the real world, and we can compare what happens in Seattle to 12 other cities with similar populations (one of which is in the same region).

Let's stop citing theories or regurgitating our party-line talking points.

Let's let the data do the talking!

I'm looking at you economists. Get on this.

Commenting on the FCC's Internet Proposed Rule Changes

As an educator, a parent, an internet user, a website owner, and a concerned citizen, I decided to visit the FCC's page and leave a comment concerning moves to change the way the internet treats data.

Here's how that went.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Well... This is... Awkward...

Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston was asked to speak at the Harvard Graduate School of Education's convocation this year.

Nearly 150 students and alumni have now signed a statement of protest asking the HGSE to rescind the invite.

You can read the statement here.

Digging into this protest provides a glimpse of just how messy the debate on education is.

Here's how the statement of protest begins its objection to Sen. Johnston.
As a state senator in Colorado, Sen. Johnston has pushed through education reforms that we believe work against educational justice for Coloradoan students, teachers, school leaders, and communities.  Sen. Johnston often claims to have been inspired by Dr. King and other civil rights leaders.  However, we believe his vision and policies have been informed far more by conservative economists like Eric Hanushek, who promote policies where teachers are churned in and out of the profession based primarily on test score production.   
I like this debate because it demonstrates opposing sides that want the same outcome but believe in strikingly different paths.

I seek out examples of this kind of debate for classroom discussions because they are the kinds of debates my students don't think of. My students are very good at naming debates where the opposing sides want different outcomes: Abortion, nuclear power, two-state solution, cap and trade, and the list goes on.

Those are all interesting debates, but this education debate asks students to think beyond zero-sum games. Both sides want a more effective education system for the US. So, then what's the debate about?

And we're off! It's about testing, students, teachers, poverty, corporate interests, the size of government, regulation, the role of parents... and now we are so much closer to grasping the scope of conflict in public discourse.

So, I like the debate.

The protest? I'm a little less certain about that.

Sen. Johnston is HGSE alumni. He has a successful career. He has gained a position of influence and made decisions on policy.

There are going to be plenty of people who disagree with the decisions the Senator made. I am actually one of those people.

But it seems a shame to turn away successful alumni because their politics don't align with your own.

Taken to its logical extreme, this kind of protest would lead to convocations inviting only apolitical speakers. And in a field like education, I'm not sure what an apolitical speaker even looks like.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Sometimes the "big important thing" isn't about me

A friend of mine asked the right question about #BringBackOurGirls.

Is this hashtag being abused?

I want the answer to be a clear and resounding "no."

Nigerian girls are being kidnapped, raped, tortured, and sold into slavery. These girls are targeted because they are seeking an education. Anything that creates more awareness of such a despicable set of events is a good thing. So, if the First Lady or a movie star tweets the hashtag, it's all for the win, right?

This is an easy issue. Kidnapping, rapist, slavers are on the wrong side of this and we all hate those guys.

We do.

Let's just be clear. It's not just Michelle Obama who is appalled by the actions of Boko Haram.
While I don't think very highly of Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter, I know that they would stop these kidnappings if they could.

It's a cut and dry issue.

But then, why is my friend's question such a good one? Why must we be concerned with whether or not this hashtag is being abused?

Allow me a brief digression:
As a heterosexual white American male, I often have to stop and remind myself of this:

Sometimes the "big important thing" isn't about me.

If you are not a heterosexual white American male, you probably already know that, because there is often something nearby to remind you that the world does not revolve around you: news anchors, magazines, movies, drug store cashiers, police officers, teachers, DMV paperwork...

But heterosexual white American males don't have those reminders. Almost all of the things we consume were developed (or delivered) with a prototypical consumer in mind, and that prototypical consumer looks a lot like me.

And that is why I often have to stop and remind myself, "Sometimes the 'big important thing' isn't about me."

This past week, I have been presented with several opportunities to jump into debates about the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.

Some people are criticizing the hashtag or the people using it.
Some people are criticizing other people for criticizing the hashtag.
Some people are arguing about who started the hashtag.

It is tempting to join these debates. These are lively arguments about how issues are resolved in the new media landscape, and those kinds of arguments are my favorite ones to jump into, but I have to remember: Sometimes the "big important thing" isn't about me.

Nigerian girls are being kidnapped, raped, tortured, and sold into slavery. The girls are targeted because they are seeking an education.

That is the big important thing, and it isn't about me. It is about those girls in Nigeria.

Don't get me wrong; I should care about what is happening to the girls in Nigeria.
I should try to help in any way I can.

It does not matter how I feel about it.
It does not matter how I feel about my political opponents' views on this issue.
It does not matter how I feel about the use of hashtags or Twitter.

That's a difficult kind of exigence to communicate.
Nigeria is far away and unfamiliar to many. So it is easy to get upset about a clear injustice and then shift those feelings towards something closer and more familiar.

It is easy to be upset about something horrible and then turn those feelings on Rush or Michelle.

And so, yes, the hashtag is being abused. People are using this issue to make their opponents look bad. People are insisting that the "big important thing" is all about them and their pet issues.

That's a shame, because brave girls are suffering.

Monday, April 28, 2014

How Not to Respond

It brings me great joy when an effort to ban books backfires.

Here's a great story on the effort to ban Sherman Alexie's book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Police told local news channel KBOI they had been called by “someone concerned about teenagers picking up a copy of the book [from a local bookstore] without having a parent’s permission.”
Even police seemed to have no idea what they were doing there, and let the book giveaway proceed as planned.
Not only did it go as planned, but when Alexie’s publisher Hachette got word of the incident, they sent Rediscovered an additional 350 copies on the house. So while the book may still be banned in the school curriculum, it’s available free of cost for any kid who wants to stop into Rediscovered and pick one up.

I found this on the front page of Reddit today, and I am just so pleased to read a story that demonstrates how fruitless it is to keep ideas away from people through force of authority.  

Truth told, I'm stunned whenever I read about banned books.

It is just such a wrong-headed thing to do.

Anyway, this one goes in the W column.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Internet Thinks Your Favorite Things Are Dangerous

Social media is a great place for unsolicited advice.

Were you looking for a list of parenting behaviors that will damage your children? Or maybe you wanted to know more about how your favorite food is poisoning you and the Earth?


Well, too damn bad.

If you want the perks of social media, then you have to listen to the crackpots.

Vacation pictures and engagement announcements come with chem trails and "How we're all parenting our kids into the grave" panic pieces. It's a package deal.

Sure, you can tailor your contact lists to keep some of the crazy out, but where's the fun in that?

There is an important lesson in modern literacy to be learned from the torrent of information spewing from your various feeds.

I talk about it a lot with my students.

When I was in college, the challenge of research was one of access. I had to go to a library or a newspaper for much of the information I needed to form a view or make an argument.

The one advantage to this was that the information I had access to was vetted for me. You can (and should) be critical of the institutions that did the vetting, but at least no one was trying to convince me that Congress had violated the 28th Amendment.

My students today face a very different challenge when researching. They can get a hold of all the information they want, but they need to learn how to tell the good from the... let's go with 'less good.'

They need to know the good from the less good.

My students need to create habits that make cross-checking and validation of claims feel like natural behaviors.

Social media is a great training ground for this.

When Jimmy Kimmel got everyone to believe that a woman set herself on fire while dancing, he was actually helping us learn an important kind of skepticism.
We need to be careful about what we believe.

If a video has all the elements it needs to go viral, then it may have been constructed that way intentionally.

Or, when someone tells you to "watch out for black kids, because they're punching random strangers in the face." You might want to pause for a moment before filing that away as "valuable advice." Take a moment. Maybe even ask the person, "Really? In the face? Where is this happening? How often is it happening?" Those are the kinds of answers you need to assess whether on not there is enough risk to change your behavior.

Or, if a media outlet claims that a hyper-left-wing professor was abusing her power by spreading propaganda, you might want to take a look at what the professor actually did.

Or, if your friend wants you to stand up in opposition to the Common Core, you should probably attempt to understand what the Common Core actually is.

I would hate to see healthy skepticism turn into cynicism. I'm sure it does for people who feel they've been duped one too many times.

But if we accept that there isn't much of a filter on social media and we practice the act of filtering for ourselves, we're likely going to get better at sifting and winnowing through the sea of information that is a fixture of modern life.