Thursday, February 19, 2015

You Don't Like It?

My advisor Professor Dana Ferris will sometimes point out a common teaching mistake.

Many composition teachers ask students, "How did you like the reading?"

This question invites students to respond with, "Meh. I didn't really like it." Which shouldn't be a surprise when it comes from an 18-20-year-old enrolled in a required writing class.

Still, many teachers take this response personally because they selected the readings, and teachers most often select readings they enjoy--selections they want their students to enjoy as well.

Professor Ferris explains why this opening question is a mistake: We as teachers do not assign readings in order to entertain our students.
When we select readings and course content, the objectives are first to teach, to challenge, and to expand our students' understanding of the writing process.

I like to point this out to students explicitly. I'll open a discussion early in the term by announcing, "Just so you all know, I don't care whether or not you enjoyed the reading."

Delivered just so, this opening can get a laugh and then lead to a teaching moment about the goals we have in the course (delivered wrong, it can lead to some shocked faces and then to an overly detailed explanation).

I derive no small amount of joy from telling students that I do not care about their opinions of the work of Lars Eighner. I go on to explain that a defense of that opinion might be interesting, but I tell them (and this is what I love doing), "Hearing that some college kid simply didn't 'like' an essay is completely uninteresting to me."

That joy of mine is derived from the demonstration that learning requires rigor and patience.
And that makes it difficult for me to understand so many of the recent attacks on education.

In Oklahoma there are politicians who want to eliminate Advanced Placement US History because they feel the course too often focuses on the negative parts of our nation's history. Pundits have grabbed this story and upped the ante, suggesting that such a course is cause for ending public education.

Then there is the governor of my home state of Wisconsin undermining the mission of the state's public university system because the "pursuit of truth" is too abstract a goal when our efforts should really be focused on job training.

And of course I've written several times about parents and pundits who think Common Core lessons are too difficult.

This is just to say, the goal of education is not to please people. Educators do not take up this job to entertain or 'take the stage.'

If you are uncomfortable with a history lesson, a research effort, or a math exercise, then deal with it.

Let me repeat that: Deal with it.

I can hear the response now: But, Hogan, this is different. The politicians in Oklahoma, Gov. Walker, and the GOP have the purse strings and the will of the people on their side.

To which I say this: No one has to challenge themselves. It is a conscious choice to face uncomfortable truths, set lofty goals, or take on difficult tasks.

If that's not for you, you can drop out. Drop out of the class, the role of leadership, the political race, or the effort. You can drop out, but you should not have the power to force others to drop out along with you.

You don't have to enjoy the reading.
Your personal beliefs and preferences will not always be taken into consideration.
Your opinion about 'the work involved' does not change the fact that work will be involved.

If you simply don't like it, I invite you to deal with it or leave.

If, on the other hand, you have an informed and intelligent response to the issues, then by all means, jump in and present your ideas.

Because cutting funding and eliminating programs are not constructive solutions. That's like showing up to class without having done the reading. It leaves us without history, without a mission, and without rigor.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

On Approaching a Hot Button

I like to ask students about the debates they try to avoid.

It's a question they always have an answer to: religion, abortion, politics, sexuality, race...

You know, the really fun debates. The delicate and dangerous debates.

These are the debates that end Thanksgiving early. They stop budding friendships cold.

These are debates that people avoid because of deeply held convictions, emotions, and issues tied to personal identity.

I love these debates because they present an interesting rhetorical challenge. How do you engage the issue without emotions clouding the field?

The latest widespread incarnation of this kind of debate is the vaccination debate.

I'll admit, I've shied away from this one (for the most part) because my emotional response is right at the surface. With a nine-month-old at home, the measles outbreak in California makes this debate too raw for me to engage.

But that hasn't stopped me from reading many of the entries into the debate.

One important point that has been made is this: If you harshly condemn your opponent's view on an issue that reaches this deep, then you are going to push your opponent away from constructive debate.

And we know this.

If you don't know this, you're being willfully ignorant. So, stop it.

When you argue that someone is stupid because they can't see things your way, you have failed to engage in debate.

Worse yet, you have failed to understand your role in a debate.

If a person can't see your point of view, blaming them is not a solution, nor a victory, nor a strategy.

If a person can't see your point of view, blaming them is a failure with excuses.

If the constructive outcome to a debate means anything, then your primary task is to find a way reach your opponent - find a way to illustrate your point in terms they can accept.

You give up when you suggest that a person is too dense, obtuse, or stubborn to understand your point of view.

So I was pleased to read Paul Offit's op-ed in the New York Times today on religious objections to vaccination. He is firm about his stance, but he presents evidence that is clear and speaks with respect to his opponents. That clarity and respect is expressed best in two parts of his argument.

First, Offit's argument is based in his very relevant experiences during the 1991 measles outbreak in Philadelphia.
Between October 1990 and June 1991, more than 1,400 people living in Philadelphia were infected with measles, and nine children died. The epidemic started when, after returning from a trip to Spain, a teenager with a blotchy rash attended a rock concert at the Spectrum. By Nov. 29, 96 schoolchildren had been stricken with the illness; a week later, it was 124; by the end of December, the number had risen to 258, and the first child had died. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent a team to determine whether the strain of measles was particularly virulent. It wasn’t. Investigators found that the deaths had nothing to do with the strain that was circulating and everything to do with the parents.
Second, the argument is expressed in a way that acknowledges his opponents' beliefs.
It seems to me that if religion teaches us anything, it’s to care about our children, to keep them safe. Independent of whether one believes in Jesus, or that the four Gospels are an accurate account of what he said and did, you have to be impressed by the figure described. At the time of Jesus, around 4 B.C. to 30 A.D., child abuse was the “crying vice” of the Roman Empire. Infanticide and abandonment were common. Children were property, no different from slaves. But Jesus stood up for children. In Matthew 25:40, he said, “Verily, I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of my brethren ye have done it unto me” — a quote that could be emblazoned onto the entranceway of every children’s hospital in the world.
I am not a religious person, but Gospel quotes like that one are what keep me from becoming anti-religious.

Offit is effectively asking people to consider what is at the core of their beliefs before considering the facts and settling on a conclusion.

It's a graceful yet very firm approach to an debate that requires this kind of skillful approach to argument.