Monday, January 12, 2015

This Post is Probably about Hedging

I'm working on a lesson plan I thought I'd share.

You see, there's this thing people do when writing academic texts, and if I can teach it effectively, that thing will help student writers sound more like the professors and TAs they are writing for.

That thing is the academic hedge.

It is a writing technique used to express "medium certainty."

The hedge is common in academic writing because of an important value academics hold: Everything is up for debate.

We are allowed to argue any and all points in scholarly work, and this means writers often hedge when making a claim most would normally state as a pointed fact.

For example:
"Everything is up for debate" might become "Academic language suggests that most claims are up for debate."

This is not an easy thing to teach, because many students read examples like that and conclude: Academic writing is more wordy.

And that's actually wrong. Academic writing doesn't want to be wordy, but some claims need a hedge. So we add words, but adding words alone does not "sound academic." The added words have to perform a specific function.

There's another reason this is hard to teach. It's boring. Hedging is a boring lesson.

There are charts of words you can use and examples of hedged claims, but those resources by themselves, while important, are not terribly engaging.

Then I re-heard a favorite comedy song.
The song is by Flight of the Conchords, and it is called The Most Beautiful Girl (in the Room).

The title alone might clue you into why this is a good song to demonstrate hedging, but even if you already get it, the song is worth a listen (it starts at 1:30).

Getting a grasp on hedging might be a bit more fun with gems like this:
And when you're on the street, depending on the street//I'll bet you are definitely in the top three//Good looking girls on the street//Depending on the street
I like to think it would be fun to have students identify the hedges and write out the more direct claims the singer is hedging against.

From there I'd ask students to look at some examples of hedging in news reporting. Then we could look at examples of hedging in academic writing. We would finish up by revising some of the claims the students wrote in drafts for the class.

So, I'm working that up, and I wanted to throw it on the blog for two reasons:

  • First, I like explaining that hedging demonstrates the value scholars put on debate.
  • Second, I like showing how a community's values impacts the writing done in that community.
  • Third, I... 
Three! There are three reasons I put this on the blog.
  • Third, I wanted to post a Flight of the Con---

Friday, January 09, 2015

I would like to be Charlie

David Brooks wrote up a thoughtful column on issues surrounding Charlie Hebdo. His title is a reversal of the popular symbol of solidarity.

His piece is titled “I am Not Charlie Hebdo,” and it opens by pointing out that many places in America would shut down a magazine like Charlie Hebdo – he specifically calls out college campuses. Campuses like the one where I work and study.

Brooks’ title and introduction, I think, are more provocative than the rest of the piece, which goes on to demonstrate the delicate balance we must observe to maintain the vital role of satirists.

But that introduction did hit home for me.

I work with people who, as Brooks puts it, “would have accused [Charlie Hebdo] of hate speech.”

Working in a university environment, I’ve become a person who is quick to empathize with a small group deeply offended by something I would otherwise judge to be harmless thanks to my white bread Midwestern upbringing.


I like having that level of empathy, but I often find myself privately rolling my eyes as I defend the righteous indignation of yet another person who has found yet another reason to be offended.

It does get to be a bit much.


We get upset a lot on college campuses.

Each of those cases I just listed is a real example I’ve encountered, and in each case I simultaneously get it and find it absurd.

And I think Brooks’ column deals with that conflict effectively, especially here: 
Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.
Yet, at the same time, most of us know that provocateurs and other outlandish figures serve useful public roles. Satirists and ridiculers expose our weakness and vanity when we are feeling proud. They puncture the self-puffery of the successful. They level social inequality by bringing the mighty low. When they are effective they help us address our foibles communally, since laughter is one of the ultimate bonding experiences.
And I am a firm believer in bringing the mighty low for a laugh – a thing I think folks on college campuses could work on. I am often frustrated by a humorless assertion that grad students and professors speak with the underprivileged. Sure, the best of us might speak for the underprivileged, but if you’re up for an advanced degree or working on tenure at an American university, then you enjoy privilege on a scale that few in the world can comprehend.  

And if pointing that out makes people uncomfortable or offends, well, all the better.

That makes me think of the work of a different Brooks. I remember watching Blazing Saddles and not knowing how to react to the word nigger. I was too young to see that Brooks was exposing how
firmly racism was entrenched in the Western genre. So I just uncomfortably waited for the fart jokes. But now that I get what that is all about, the entire movie is changed… well, except the fart jokes. The fart jokes retain the same value they had when I was a teenager.

But there is no question, that discomfort and the fart jokes make for biting social commentary you can watch with your racist uncle. And that’s no small thing.

I think David Brooks nails this when he writes:
In short, in thinking about provocateurs and insulters, we want to maintain standards of civility and respect while at the same time allowing room for those creative and challenging folks who are uninhibited by good manners and taste.
So, here’s to bad manners and poor taste. May they always have a seat at the table – even if it is the kids table. 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Charlie Hebdo

I don't know what we would do without satire.

If you hold a belief that cannot endure mockery, then your belief has a weakness no show of strength can overcome.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Looking Back and Looking Ahead


Happy New Year!

As we get started on 2015, I wanted to look back at some of what I wrote here during 2014.

I created 70 posts in 2014, by far the most since I started this blog in 2006.

That feels good. I like maintaining this blog. It keeps me writing, and maybe more importantly, it keeps me writing in the way I would like to see my students to write:
Find something you enjoy and explore the ideas that inform that thing in order to create your own view.

Today I wanted to link to my top five, the posts that I think best reflect what I am trying to do with this blog.

These are in chronological order, from earliest to latest.

In February I wrote a post about teachers and how they are perceived by the public. I like this one because whenever I step into the education debate, I keep coming back to the idea I expressed here: Teachers are treated like labor but expected to perform like professionals.

In March I posted something on the Common Core. I did that a lot last year. I was often frustrated by the way that debate has been shaped by misinformation and special interests. This post was the one where I think I kept my focus on why so many of the arguments are flawed.

In May I responded to a friend's tweet about #BringBackOurGirls. For this post I stopped to examine how my identity gets in the way of my message when I write about certain issues. It felt personal, and I am glad I got some of these ideas into this blog.

I was pleased to be able to write about Weird Al in May. I've been listening to that guy since the Doctor Demento days. But what's better, I was able to write about a very real debate that grew up around Weird Al's song on grammar.

Then in November I posted about some of the work I'm doing in the classroom. I think it is exciting work, and I was pleased to get some positive feedback about it.

So, those are the highlights for my year as a blogger.

Here's to the new year and all the possibilities it brings. I hope we can use this time to argue, teach, and write with even more enthusiasm.