Friday, February 28, 2014

Using Sarcasm in an Argument


I spent the summer months of my time in college as a camp counselor. I worked at Camp Minikani. It was a great gig.

I learned a lot - as much or more than I've learned at any university.

One thing I learned at Minikani was that children do not understand when adults use sarcasm. There's science to back me on this, but my years working with kids had me convinced before anyone sent me the studies.

This was not easy to learn, because even the kids who could use sarcasm didn't understand what I actually meant when I said, "Yeah, setting up your tent on that rock is a great idea."

And to have to learn this lesson when I was 18 or 19 years old?

Those are the years when most people have finally gotten good at sarcasm - the years when sarcasm feels fun and extra-witty.

But I liked my work at Minikani, and that helped me learn to 'say what I mean' when working with children.

And I think that lesson is important when we engage in serious and contentious debate.

It is tempting (and often fun) to use sarcasm when debating with a person who holds a contrary view.

But does it help?

The New York Times ran an op-ed about Idaho's pending gun law today. The legislature is set to allow people to carry guns on university and college campuses.  Greg Hampikian, a professor at Boise State, expressed his opposition to lifting the ban, and he did so using a lot of sarcasm.

I really enjoyed reading Hampikian's piece. I thought it was funny. I thought it brought up some great points.

But my mind doesn't need changing. I completely agree with Hampikian. Allowing guns on college campuses is stupid. I say that as a proud member of a campus community where students reacted with non-violent anger after being assaulted by a police officer in 2011.

That would have been a very different incident on a campus where guns were permitted.

But what about people who don't agree with Hampikian? How are they going to react to the tone he uses here:
If two armed students are arguing over who should be served next at the coffee bar and I sense escalating hostility, should I aim for the legs and remind them of the campus Shared-Values Statement (which reads, in part, “Boise State strives to provide a culture of civility and success where all feel safe and free from discrimination, harassment, threats or intimidation”)?
There is a great tradition of using sarcasm for rhetorical effect. I love teaching A Modest Proposal, but people with strong convictions need to consider their goals when deciding to use sarcasm.

It is a very effective tool for strengthening the convictions of people who agree with you. If your aim is to move them to action - to press them to stand up and make their opinion heard, then sarcasm might be the right call.

The tone and implications may undermine your message, however, when that sarcasm lands on the ears of people who are are undecided or opposed to your view.

This demonstrates why people engaging in debate via the public discourse have to consider their intentions and goals before deciding on how to frame their argument.

Hampikian will get like-minded people speaking up about the gun issue in Idaho. His op-ed is a strong piece that's fun to read. The pending passage of the law makes it seem like the pro-gun crowd is already active and the pro-regulation crowd has not been active enough. So his strategy is sound.

But I don't think his tone would help him if he was trying to bring people around to his side of the issue.

That's where I think it's useful to look at Bill Nye's performance while debating Ken Ham earlier this month.
For people who think young Earth creationists are a silly bunch, the temptation to use sarcasm in such a debate would be almost irresistible.

But Nye didn't go there.

Nye went into that debate intending to speak to those who disagreed with him and those who were on the fence, and he was more successful than most anticipated.

Nye did so well because he considered the listeners he hoped to reach. Nye decided those people did not need to hear a man of science talking down to a man of faith. They needed to see why and how science moves and inspires so many.

In a discussion of why Nye won that debate, Josh Rosenau wrote:
Nye closed his presentation with an impassioned appeal to the values that made our nation great. The US Constitution exhorts our government and our people to promote the useful arts and sciences. That means promoting evolution, not Ken Ham's creation model.
In that situation sarcasm would have backfired. Nye went with sincerity and a heartfelt appeal.

When and where do you think sarcasm is appropriate? Inappropriate? Effective? Ineffective?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Presenting the Debate on College Tuition

Planet Money took on the issue of undergraduate tuition in their latest podcast, and they give the debate a pretty evenhanded treatment.
College is expensive these days. Yet, most universities argue an undergraduate education is actually worth much more than what students pay for it. Clearly there is an emotional logic to this argument. But what do the numbers tell us?
In today's episode, Planet Money takes a behind the scenes look at Duke's costs and considers the university's case that $60,000 a year is actually a discount.
They give the people at Duke a chance to explain the sticker price of tuition at elite schools, and they present the arguments of those who cry foul when they hear such explanations.

If you're one to jump into this debate when it comes up (and boy, does it come up often), then the episode is worth a listen.

More Grammar! And It's Pretty Grammar


A friend sent this post from 22 Words my way.

It's a genius poster from the people at Pop Chart Lab.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Hey! Grammar!

The Atlantic has an article on teaching grammar!

And it's a good one.

Did you ever have to diagram sentences or memorize the parts of speech?

If you answered yes and you are fondly remembering those exercises, well, you're kind of weird.

It's okay, I like those exercises too. But as a writing teacher, I've become keenly aware of how much most people don't like those exercises.

Still, people insist that students should slog through them. "No pain, no gain, right?"

Funny thing, the brain isn't a muscle. We actually decided that a while ago. That's why we stopped asking college students to recite their lessons in Latin. That's right, schools used to have students recite in Latin and Ancient Greek precisely because it was so hard to do. They thought the work would make the brain stronger.

Except, that's not how it works. Not for learning the sciences and not for learning grammar.

The article by Michelle Navarre Cleary works to dispel the myth that students need to "learn grammar" before they can learn to write.
[One] well-regarded study followed three groups of students from 9th to 11th grade where one group had traditional rule-bound lessons, a second received an alternative approach to grammar instruction, and a third received no grammar lessons at all, just more literature and creative writing. The result: No significant differences among the three groups—except that both grammar groups emerged with a strong antipathy to English.
There is a real cost to ignoring such findings. In my work with adults who dropped out of school before earning a college degree, I have found over and over again that they over-edit themselves from the moment they sit down to write.
 I'm so pleased to see this article.

This is the information that writing teachers want to see in popular media outlets like The Atlantic.

Many of us know about what Cleary has presented, but we have trouble convincing people outside of our area that the old methods don't have an impact.

I often want to tell people, "Just because you hated learning grammar doesn't mean my students have to hate it too."

Monday, February 24, 2014

Is BuzzFeed an Authoritative Source?

The Chicago Tribune is the latest mainstream outlet to have a story on the changes happening at BuzzFeed.
BuzzFeed has come a long way from cat lists. This month one of its journalists was on the ground in Kiev reporting on the crisis in Ukraine, and last December it published an in-depth article on a Chinese dissident living in Harlem, New York.
Still, the site hasn't changed that much.
So, the question is this: If you were having a serious discussion about something like the events in Ukraine, would you feel comfortable bringing up something you read on BuzzFeed?

How would you answer if the people you were talking with asked, "Where'd you see that?"


Should We Be Frustrated Teachers Aren't Treated Like Professionals?

Everyone who works in the field of education has to bite their tongue on occasion when that guy at the dinner party says, "Oh yeah? You're a teacher, huh? You know what would really fix our education system? If we just..."

Earlier this month, Parenting the Core posted a provocative piece called The Teachers. This weekend the post got a second spin around the web when The Answer Sheet re-posted it.

The Teachers goes into a subject I've discussed often while studying at a School of Education: Since most people in the country have spent at least fifteen years in school, most people think they are experts on schools.

This frustrates teachers, administrators, and researchers; all of who are experts on different aspects of schools - all of who understand how complex the process of teaching is.

The Teachers voices that frustration particularly well when it switches over to the second-person point of view.
All of you former students who are not teachers and not lawyers, you have no more idea of what it is to teach than you do of what it is to practice law.
All of you former students: you did not design curricula, plan lessons, attend faculty meetings, assess papers, design rubrics, create exams, prepare report cards, and monitor attendance. You did not tutor students, review rough drafts, and create study questions. You did not assign homework. You did not write daily lesson objectives on the white board.
And while I think the frustration in The Teachers is merited, the frustration may undermine a more important message.

I think the author got to the core of the issue here:
The people I encounter out in the world now respect me as a lawyer, as a professional, in part because the vast majority of them have absolutely no idea what I really do.
At the root of the frustration expressed in The Teachers is the idea that teachers are not professionals. And I think that idea contributes to some of the systemic problems plaguing the education system.

We treat teachers like labor:

  • They are not involved in the creation of the standards by which they are measured
  • Districts often tell them what texts and materials to use 
  • We protect poor performers

And yet, we expect teachers to perform like professionals:

  • The students they work with arrive with varied skills sets that must be evaluated then adapted to
  • The workplace is a dynamic setting
  • The skills being developed do not develop in a standardized way
  • The work requires specialized knowledge of both content and delivery

Being treated one way and having a different set of expectations is a frustrating experience.

So why does the frustration expressed in The Teachers leave me feeling a bit uneasy?

Well, it's this sentiment, 'You have no idea what's it's like.'

I'm sorry, but that sounds like an angry teenager who hasn't yet figured out how to argue with parental authority.

If people don't understand what makes a teacher a professional, then shouldn't we try and show them?

What does it take to design curricula?
What do teachers do to plan lessons?
Why is attending faculty meetings so demanding (and it is, but why)?
What does assessing papers entail?
How do you design rubrics, create exams, or prepare report cards?
Is monitoring attendance difficult?
What does it mean to tutor students?
Why do teachers review rough drafts or create study questions?
How does a teacher assign homework?
What are daily lesson objectives, and why put them on the white board?

The Teachers claims that most people "have absolutely no idea what [the author] really" does as a lawyer, but how true is that really? Most voting adults understand how complex criminal law, contract law, and civil law are. Most people understand that lawyers have to do a lot of difficult specialized writing. Most people know that lawyers are expected to be familiar with tough professional standards and a broad spectrum of professional knowledge.

Where do we learn all that from? TV, the news, movies, books, school, any attempt to do business that requires a lawyer, etc. We learn it because lawyers present their work to the public and demonstrate that it is work that requires a professional.

I know teaching is work that requires a professional.

The Teachers did not have to convince me to change my views. So, when I read that frustrated tone, I thought, "Hear, hear!"

But when I think of that guy at the dinner party - the guy who thinks anecdotes from his life experience will "fix education," I can see how this argument requires more than a frustrated tone.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Foot in the Door

If you've got 60 seconds to watch this video, then I've got a question for you.
I get it, but here's my question: How would you make this happen in a single persuasive text?

If you were only able to compose and deliver one text, how would you use the "foot in the door" technique with a reader, a viewer, or a listener?

It's a pretty common constraint, having one chance to make your case.

So, what would you do?

Or what have you seen others do?

Is it Okay to Be Anti-Testing?

Today's piece in the Answer Sheet at the Washington Post is about an anti-testing alliance taking shape.
Assessment experts say that standardized test scores are not a reliable or valid way to make high stakes decisions about the effectiveness of teachers or the achievement of students, but education policymakers have ignored these warnings for years. This has led to situations that are nothing short of preposterous, such as teachers being evaluated on the test scores of students they never had. Meanwhile, the emphasis on testing has led to an explosion of tests being given to kids; for example, fourth-graders in the Pittsburgh Public Schools have to take 33 standardized tests mandated by the district or state this school year. It is this reality that has fueled the resistance.
I like the piece and I'm happy to see people continuing to question the proper role of testing, but there is something about it all that makes me uneasy.

This is an interesting issue, one that requires a bit of nuance, and the tag "anti-testing" is not exactly helpful.

Earlier this month I was listening to Asao B. Inoue talk about assessment and the writing classroom. The man has a lot to say on the issue, a lot of good stuff. He was saying that assessment should always come first; teachers should decide about what we are going to "measure" before planning a course. We need to know the destination we have in mind for our students; that is what should guide our teaching and planning. These ideas are particularly exciting when you learn that Professor Inoue puts a lot of stock in students' self-assessments. 


Those ideas have influenced the way I teach and the way I design a course. And I firmly believe they should be steering the way we think about education.

And, no, I don't think standardized tests are helping move education in that direction.

But I would still resist the label "anti-testing."

Standardized tests are flawed instruments. I'll concede that, but so is every assessment measure available to educators.

It's time we fess up: Educators do not have a tool that allows us to see exactly what students know and understand.

But that doesn't mean we should pack up and go home.

That means we should keep working to better understand how learning happens and how to measure it.
Keep the tests, but don't treat them like a window into my students' brains.
Allow self-assessment into the process.
Allow peer-assessment into the process.
Allow external-assessment into the process.
Let's measure everything we can, and find new ways to measure things we can't.

We should not ask people to buy into a false choice of "You either like testing or hate it."

We should treat education like the complex process that it is.

Pathos and Persuasion

I have learned a lot from the people over at Planet Money.

I've been listening to their podcast since the economic crisis struck in 2008, and the team has made me feel like I can hold my own in most friendly debates about economics.

This week they dipped into my territory a little bit with a podcast on the tools of persuasion when the incentives of economics are not at your disposal.

The podcast explores how to best get people to sign up as organ donors. In the doing, it becomes a discussion about the strengths, weaknesses, importance, and challenges involved in emotional appeals.

Writing teachers and rhetoricians talk a lot about different appeals in persuasion. Logical appeals (logos) and appeals to authority (ethos) get a lot of attention when we teach writing for academic purposes, and that makes sense. The professors my students will write for are not going to value emotional appeals (pathos).

But this week's podcast on Planet Money demonstrates just how important emotional appeals can be when asking people to make deeply personal decisions.

The podcast opens with how delicate and unpredictable emotional appeals can be by showing how focus groups respond to different organ donor campaign messages.

Then it starts to seem like emotional appeals might be a waste of time, because the numbers from organ donor campaigns are so easily beat when the request is shifted to a DMV clerk simply asking, "Would you like to be an organ donor?"

And in a final turn, the power of emotional appeals make a comeback. Because organ donation is not just a checked box. Your family has to sign off as well, and for that to happen they need to believe you really wanted to be an organ donor.

It's a great listen. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Fiction, Science, and Science Fiction

A couple of folks on YouTube got together and posted a set of videos, all with H.G Wells in mind. The result is a lot of fun.

We get some questions about the nature of fiction, a few nice examples of when sci-fi writers got the future right, and a gorgeous short film.

The inquiry into the work of Wells coming from all these angles has a nice effect. It reminds me of what I want to do when I introduce an idea in the classroom - that I want to make room for students to find relevance.

It's easy to think students will find one of my favorite topics interesting, because... well, "I'm interesting, right?"

This collection was a enjoyable reminder, however, that an idea can be approached in many ways, and for most, one approach is going to be more interesting, more relevant than another. That highlights the importance of a good classroom that allows all the students to access the material in ways that are meaningful to them.

Idea Channel asks "What is Fiction?"

It's Okay to Be Smart goes into how science fiction often predicts science fact.

And there's a short film inspired by Wells from PBS Digital Studios.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Thinking Statistics

A few weeks ago I was writing about the Humanities and STEM disciplines when I mentioned a problem being reported in the sciences. An increasing number of peer-reviewed journal articles are not reproducible, even though they claim to be just that.

I really enjoyed reading Michael Suk-Young Chwe's take on the issue (scientists should turn to the disciplinary practices of Humanities to avoid confirmation bias).

But it is worth noting that the kind of thinking that goes into statistical reasoning does not come naturally, and that is why statistics are so easy to abuse in an argument. This SciShow video does a nice job of demonstrating why.
I never thought I'd be the guy pushing statistics on people. Before coming to study here at Davis, I'd spent a decade and a half steeped in the Humanities. But after taking three stats courses for my program, and I am increasingly of the opinion that a strong understanding of statistics is one of the basic ingredients for modern literacy.

Vonnegut and the Shape of Stories

In 1998, when Kurt Vonnegut spoke at the Distinguished Lectures Series at UW-Madison's Memorial Union (Go Badgers!), this infographic is a lot of what the talk was about.

He spent much of his time comparing Cinderella to Hamlet.

It was an incredible couple of hours.

Kurt Vonnegut - The Shapes of Stories
by mayaeilam.
Explore more infographics like this one on the web's largest information design community - Visually.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

On Being Wrong

Started listening to a new(ish) podcast today. It's called Hello Internet. It's hosted by CGP Grey and Brady Haran.

The first episode is called Being Wrong on the Internet. It was an insightful discussion that touches on a few of my favorite topics: multimodal composition, the way errors impact a writer's authority/credibility, the nature of 'being wrong,' and what it means to compose an argument for the public.

That MFing MFA

The Chronicle of Higher Education published a great read on the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I found it engaging because I studied creative writing, but there's a lot more to it than that.

The author goes into the highly esteemed program's roots and how CIA efforts to influence American culture played a role in the rise of creative writing MFAs.

Great stuff.

That and some great writing. Take this very skilled switch to the second person, its jab at workshopping creative work, and its self-deprecation.
Because you yourself attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop before deciding to enter a Ph.D. program. At Iowa, you were disappointed by the reduced form of intellectual engagement you found there and the narrow definition of what counted as "literary." The workshop was like a muffin tin you poured the batter of your dreams into. You entered with something undefined and tantalizingly protean and left with muffins. You really believe this. But you can also see yourself clearly enough: unpublished, ambitious, obscure, ponderous. In short, the kind of person who writes a dissertation.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Quite the Intro to Researching People and Behaviors

I've been following the Crash Course series on YouTube for a while now, and I was very happy to see Hank take on psychology.

Before I started grad school, I was steeped in the humanities - an area of inquiry I still think is important. But as I'm now interested in education, I've turned to the social sciences.

The transition hasn't been an easy one, but it has been eye-opening.

I have new ways to approach problems now, and I like that.

This video demonstrates the way I've learned (am learning, really) to approach problems.

Serling on Censorship, Self-censorship, and Writing for Multiple Audiences

This is an excellent excerpt from Mike Wallace interview with Rod Serling. I was struck by the insights into systemic roots of censorship and into how writers think about audience.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

If Their Were a Spell Check for Memories

Nearly every writing teacher has a speech about spell check.

"Don't rely on spell check to proofread your document. It is a dumb machine..."

A lot of teachers will pull out one of the many clever "poems" that demonstrate how dumb spell check can be.  

It is an important lesson. Technology gives us tools that help us work; those tools cannot do the work for us.

I love that lesson.

I think of it whenever someone complains about how much their Facebook feed sucks or how stupid Twitter is or how Microsoft Word is horrible.

I just want to shake those people and tell them what their complaints sound like: "Why won't this screwdriver cut like a saw?"

But I don't shake those people. I get it. People often want software to do things it was not designed to do.

That is not unusual.

But I never expected the people who build that software would be the ones to overestimate what the software can do.

Facebook is 10 years old, and to celebrate they have created a program that mines your account to create a little slideshow.

If you use Facebook, I'm sure you've seen it. The program uses data from your Facebook account and assembles the first posts, the most liked posts, and a set of shared photos. Then it sets all of those images to a nice little tune.

The intention, I assume, is to walk users down a digital memory lane.

But there's a problem. Memories, much like words, do not always behave the way algorithms expect them to.

My Facebook movie, for example, reminded me that my "most liked post" of all time was this.
Three months after posting that, my wife and I lost the baby we were expecting. I didn't post anything about that on social media. It was a deeply personal loss that was already difficult enough to communicate about.

The few people who I did tell had to walk with me through an awkward etiquette-less exchange. Some people were incredibly helpful. Some people, understandably, fumbled for what to say.

It was a moment that had to be slogged through with messy human interactions.

We all worked together to understand how seven months of joy and excitement could become something so different.

Such is the nature of memories. They are made by, interpreted by, and re-interpreted by people. Even the happiest of memories are prone to drastic changes as they are put into the context of our ever-forward-marching experience.

I'm sure the Facebook Team had the best of intentions when they decided, "Hey, let's create an algorithm that will generate a mini-movie of pleasant memories for all our users."

But I think Facebook made the same mistake my students make when they use spell check to proofread:

They asked a computer program to do more than it is capable of.

Monday, February 03, 2014

What's Wrong with Buying into the Battle between STEM and the Humanities

There was a great NYT piece by Michael Suk-Young Chwe this weekend. The piece describes how research methods used in the humanities could help researchers in the STEM disciplines.

To deal with the problem of selective use of data, the scientific community must become self-aware and realize that it has a problem. In literary criticism, the question of how one’s arguments are influenced by one’s prejudgments has been a central methodological issue for decades.

The "problem" Chwe refers to is the increasingly apparent skewing of research results in the sciences, results that may be skewed by confirmation bias. The most infamous example of this is actually not from a STEM discipline. It is the serious flaws in the Rogoff and Reinhart economics study, a study that influenced policy makers around the world.

I'm posting about Chwe's piece here because it sheds light on a highly visible debate about higher education - a debate which the President brought up in Wisconsin last week when he linked majoring in the humanities with lower income levels.
The Humanities

The debate, as best I can summarize it, is this:

One side says, 'The humanities are overvalued because they do not teach skills that improve employ-ability. College should primarily be about getting a good-paying job. It is an investment in your knowledge that can be measured according to how well you get paid after graduation.'

The other side says, 'STEM disciplines are overvalued because they neglect skills required to communicate and innovate. College should not primarily be about getting a job. It is a stage when you become a critical participant in an area of inquiry, the success of which can be measured by whether or not you become a constructive contributor to your community, profession, and family.'

I've always been drawn to the latter argument. I'll admit it is not a perfect argument, but I've struggled to figure out where it falls short.

Chwe helped me sort that out.

He does not pit the Humanities against STEM disciplines.
He does not argue that one is better than the other.
He argues that the research methods developed in the humanities could/should help address a serious problem in the sciences.
It is an argument that points to the value of studying the humanities - no matter what your major is.
It is an argument that points to the value of employing people with a broad spectrum of knowledges - no matter the industry.
It is an argument that exposes the flaws in a debate that pits the humanities against the STEM disciplines.

I like arguments that blow up the debate I thought they addressed. Chwe's work is a nice example of just that.