Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Scientists Discover Rhetoric!

Vox science reporter Brian Resnick posted on the topic of How We Argue when we argue about politics.

Specifically, Resnick wrote about what psychologists Feinberg and Willer found in their research on moral arguments.
In a series of six studies, Willer and a co-author found that when conservative policies are framed around liberal values like equality or fairness, liberals become more accepting of them. The same was true of liberal policies recast in terms of conservative values like respect for authority.
It's kind of funny that the research is reported as a new finding, because much of what Feinberg and Willer found describes the learning objectives of a strong writing program. Resnick frames their findings this way:
Whenever we engage in political debates, we all tend to overrate the power of arguments we find personally convincing — and wrongly think the other side will be swayed. On gun control, for instance, liberals are persuaded by stats like, "No other developed country in the world has nearly the same rate of gun violence as does America." And they think other people will find this compelling, too. Conservatives, meanwhile, often go to this formulation: "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." What both sides fail to understand is that they're arguing a point that their opponents have not only already dismissed but may be inherently deaf to.
When the discipline of rhetoric was developed about 2300 years ago, one of the most basic principles was the rhetorical triangle. During the two millenniums it's been in use, the rhetorical triangle has seen some changes, but the idea remains the same:

There are a number of interactive factors that impact the way a message is heard, and if a person wants a specific message to influence a specific audience, all of those factors should be taken into consideration. 

If you accept the principle above, then Feinberg and Willer's findings should not come as a surprise.

When you boil it down, those factors that influence how a message impacts an audience are the most important subjects of inquiry in Rhetoric & Composition.

It is what we do.

And we've been doing it pretty well for a long time.

So, sure, it is nice to see scholars in psychology confirm what has been the bedrock of our discipline for thousands of years.

That is exactly what researchers in psychology should do. No one in Rhetoric & Composition would dream of standing in the way of such helpful research. In fact, since the research procedure involved participants actually writing down their arguments, I hope maybe some of the studies' methods could make their way into my research.

But it is a bit troubling when a science reporter reports these findings as "new" to the broader public.

The findings may be new to the discipline of Social Psychology (and therefore worthy of publication in that discipline's journal), but the broader public should be aware of this.

"Should" is a key word here.

Part of the problem is that the discipline of Rhetoric & Composition has an ethos problem. People don't view the knowledge produced by the discipline as "knowledge" because we are rooted in the humanities. People want to see scientific inquiry, and that is something Social Psychologists can provide.

Another part of the problem is the discipline of Rhetoric & Composition hasn't always been the best at articulating its purpose.

And the final, perhaps most obvious point: While people should be aware of the impact of their own rhetorical choices, people forget, people get emotionally involved, people don't care, people love to hear themselves talk, etc...

Still, cool study.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

First Year Composition and The Secret Formula

In January I will be teaching a first-year composition (FYC) course of my own design for the first time since early 2013.

FYC is the course that, way back in 2004, got me into my current profession.

It is a privilege to teach the course.

The entire idea behind FYC is awesome:
Introduce students to the knowledge and skills required to write while in college.

I aim to make this a strong course offering - one of my strongest yet.

And I'm excited to report I have found material for a new and (I believe) cool way to open the semester.

Well, I didn't find it. My colleague Professor Julian Heather recommended this podcast episode to me after reading one of my recent blog posts.

The podcast is called StartUp and the episode is called "The Secret Formula."

The premise of the episode is posted on StartUp's website:
Gimlet is making a big, expensive bet. The kind of bet that could make or break the company. And it’s a bet that comes down to one factor: What is Gimlet’s competitive advantage? As the company launches its fourth new show, “Surprisingly Awesome,” we take a deep dive in to how the show was made. From the kernel of an idea to the final product. And, along the way, we look at what we believe is Gimlet’s secret formula for making podcasts.
It's an episode about creating an episode!

As a composition instructor, the work that goes into creating a "text" is what I need students need to consider and explore.

The Secret Formula delivers great insights on pre-writing and putting together an initial draft, but it only gets better when they move on to some of the more difficult parts of writing: Revision & Editing.

There is a lot of useful material.

The podcast demonstrates the importance of collaboration via peer review. It shows just how helpful a critical reader can be during the revision process.

The makers of the podcast share early drafts of an episode and describe how and why they made changes.

There is constant attention on an imagined audience member.

The reality of shitty first drafts is explored (by someone other than Anne Lamott, who I admire greatly, but I've long needed to find at least one other person who has made that point about first drafts).

They even go into how the amount of work can sometimes seem like too much, but how that work pays off more often than not.

All that, and the episode is basically a massive reflective exercise. The podcast team spends much of their time examining what-works-and-why during the process of creating something for an audience, and then they work to abstract ideas from that reflection to better understand the broader process.

I'm a fan of Kathleen Blake Yancey's scholarship on reflection in the writing classroom, and it has shaped much of my approach to teaching. So, it's pretty cool to have a piece as accessible as this podcast to help me introduce those ideas to my students.

As a side note: The company producing the podcasts I wrote about today is called Gimlet Media. It was founded by one of the founders of the Planet Money podcast, something I've been listening to since 2008. That podcast has come up on this blog at least 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, times.

I really admire the work done by the people behind these podcasts, and I'm very happy to be able to use their work in my classroom.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Why the GOP is Getting Down

I sometimes worry my students will pick up bad habits by spending too much time with the public discourse.

You try to teach students how to argue with integrity and ethics, but eventually you have to let them watch a political debate on their own.

And that's a lot of what motivated this blog's on-and-off-again emphasis on rhetoric in the public discourse. When I see a bad argument that is effective, I want to sort out what's going on there. I've done it a few times.

In August of 2012, I wrote a post about the tone the GOP was using to describe the US. I argued the tone suggested the GOP had stopped believing in America. Truth told, I never thought the politicians making those arguments had actually stopped believing.

My liberal friends are going to be angry when I say this, but here goes, I don't think conservatives are dumb. I don't. I know a lot of smart conservative people. They don't see the world the same way I do, but if I assumed holding a different worldview made people dumb, then I'd be an asshole, wouldn't I?

No. Conservatives are no dumber (or smarter) than liberals, and back in 2012 they were looking at the same data I was. Back then I wrote:
Despite the dreary picture the GOP would have us believe, the US is recovering faster than the rest of the developed world. While the EU attempted austerity, we stepped in with stimulus. We believed our economy was strong enough to risk that debt. Today, the EU faces inflation, rising borrowing costs, and no job growth. We, on the other hand, have dodged inflation, our borrowing costs have remained low, and we have slow job growth. (UK economists are starting to see it our way, btw.) Ours is clearly a dynamic economy that can weather very rough times. In relation to the rest of the world, our nation is a strong as ever.
So back in 2012, I concluded that the 'down-on-America' talk was a scare tactic intended to win votes and justify cuts to proven programs the GOP was philosophically opposed to.

Today, Ezra Klein noted how not much has changed.

In the piece, Klein uses data to push back against the "America is failing" campaign trail rhetoric.

And the data he uses is not wonky or difficult to parse.
They would be surprised to find that unemployment is at 5 percent, America's recovery from the financial crisis has outpaced that of other developed nations, the percentage of uninsured Americans has been plummeting even as Obamacare has cost less than expected, and there's so much money flowing into new ideas and firms in the tech industry that observers are worried about a second tech bubble.
One could make an argument that a stronger economy would be better (duh), but it is difficult to look at the major economic measures and reach the same dire conclusions we're hearing from conservative talking points.

So, what's the deal? Why do people make these claims?

Well, they work.

People want to be doing better. There are real issues the nation faces, and there is reason to push for changes.

But nuanced arguments about what it takes to hold onto gains made while making incremental changes to adjust for our nation's changing role in a global community in which--- ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ!!!!!


Donny "Yells-a-Lot" Trump is so much more fun than any of that.

But is that the marker of good public discourse?

I don't think so. And it has a cost.

My sharpest students don't trust authority, and I applaud that. They shouldn't trust people who rely on smoke, mirrors, and boogeymen.

But they should also feel like they can sort through all the garbage and make an informed decision. Because eventually they are going to take up the role of authority and kick jokers like me to the curb.

I'm doing my best to help them out.