Friday, December 16, 2016

Are We Different?

Last week I facilitated the final college prep session of the semester at the O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility. It is work I am doing through the Prison Education Project.

Each week, three student volunteers and I ran an early-evening session in the correctional facility's library. We ran discussions and activities with 17 wards, all of whom had expressed interest in going to college when released.

The profound impact this experience had on me was made clear during the second-last session when one of the young men told me he wanted to ask a question unrelated to the group activity we were doing. It was a challenging and insightful question.

This young ward of the juvenile correctional facility asked me,
"Are we different?"

He went on to clarify what he meant. He knew about my work as a professor. I had talked to him about my 12 years of experience working with incoming freshmen. He wanted to know, based on my time at O.H. Close, is there something that differentiates a minor convicted of a crime from the other students I've worked with.

I told him it was a brilliant question. The other three at our table knew it was brilliant too. They leaned in to hear how I would respond.

I told them, as is the case with any brilliant question, there isn't a simple answer.
I was stalling for time.

I started by saying, I treat all my students like adults. Each student may have a different set of needs, but that does not change how I think about them as a person. My students are grown people who deserve my respect. That's where things start.

Then I explained how I approached the college prep sessions at O.H. Close. I had made a conscious effort to treat the young men at the facility like incoming freshmen. I delivered each session in the same way I would have delivered an orientation for new students on campus.

I told the guys that I did not treat them differently and they had never given me a reason to treat them differently.

I looked at the young man who had asked the question and said, "But that isn't really a complete answer to your question." And I shook my head. "This is a tough one. This is a challenge. You're challenging me. You know that, right?"

And he laughed, because he did know. The other guys laughed as well.

And that's when I told him what I thought. The life experience that lands people in a youth correctional facility, and the experience of living in a youth correctional facility, those things shape a person. Those things don't disqualify a person from the college experience. They don't make a person less...

But if my answer suggested that these young men's college experiences were going to be similar to my own, I would have been lying. Sure, I could have fallen back on the clichĂ©: All students are unique, and each faces their own personal challenges.

But these young men know what it is to be fed into a system that enforces its expectations.

And colleges do that.

In many ways, by enrolling in classes and declaring a major, these young men would be defying the expectation colleges have.

I said all this.

I told them to take pride in that kind of defiance.

But I also said that their life experience would make their college experience different.

And I admitted I didn't know how it would feel to be them on a college campus. A lot of people wouldn't know, and that was going to be a challenge at times.

But I think it's a pretty cool challenge. I asked the guys if they could see it that way.

Then I looked at the young man who had asked me the question in the first place, and I asked, "How'd I do?"

And he knew what I was asking.

That's the impact this had on me.
I now know why I have to keep asking how I did.
Because we are different, and that's a challenge.

When I argue with people who see the world differently than I do.
When I design a course.
When I assess a placement exam.
When I react to an election.
When I stand up for people.
When I stand up to people.
Each time I have to keep asking myself: How'd I do?

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Even if it doesn't matter to you...

People tell me the president-elect says a lot of things he doesn't mean.

They say I need to understand 'he should be taken seriously, but not literally.'

I'm told he's not like other politicians who are careful with words, and I need to take that into account before I accuse him of saying stupid things.

This expectation is considered reasonable because "Trump is a new kind of leader."

I hear that.
I can even understand it through the fog of flawed logic.

But just to be clear: I am not gonna to do that.

Seriously. Fuck that.

And if you don't like me cursing on a blog where I rarely curse - if you think that interferes with the potential for a reasonable discourse - you are sure-as-shit on to something.

You see, words intended for public consumption have an impact. They matter because they are out there for anyone to hear. Even if it is not my intention to offend, I need to take the potential impact of my words into consideration, right? Fuckin' a, right.

Thought experiment:
The president-elect says "Muslims," 
but he wants me to understand 
what he actually means is
"potentially dangerous people who are Muslim." 

If I react to the word he used
and point out that laws applied exclusively to a religious group
are against the Constitution and basic human decency,
the president-elect and his supporters will whine,
"Don't take the words so literally.
You're just looking for an excuse to hate on a political opponent." 

But what about the president-elect's political allies

Who is explaining all of this to them?

The people asking me to take the president-elect's words with a grain of salt are failing to take into account all of the people who are listening to the man. 

CWPA Statement 
I am not looking at the president-elect. I couldn't care less about that silly man. 

I am looking at the country he plans to lead. 

That's what I do. It's my training. 
I look at the spaces where words have an impact, and I study what happens when new words are introduced. 

This does not make my opinion more valuable than anyone else's. 

But I hope people will understand why I can't simply 'stop taking the president-elect's words so literally.' 

If there are people who want to take those words less literally, I'm not going to stop them. I may occasionally point out how dangerous that choice could be, but they probably won't take my words very seriously. 

It is unreasonable, however, to ask me or my professional peers to take our eyes off the words of a leader. 

So, stop asking.

CCCC Statement 
Both of the professional organizations I'm affiliated with have put out strong statements related to this. Each statement explains why the public must consider all of the potential meanings that can be derived from the president-elect's words. 

I am more proud than ever to be associated with these organizations as well as the entire community of rhetoric and composition scholars. 

Our mandate is clearer than ever, and I see people I respect stepping forward to act on it in bold and thoughtful ways. We know this is important. 

Even if it doesn't matter to you, this is important to us. 

Living in a civil society requires all of us to live with these kinds of differences. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Do You Support Trump's Appointment for Chief Strategist?

The day after the election, I posted this olive branch on social media.

I have family and friends who support Trump. So, I tried to express some hope that maybe they see a different man than I do. Maybe they know something they're not telling me.

That is what prompted my hesitant peace offering, my agreement to "wait and see."

So, nearly a week has passed. I've waited a little and seen a little.

This weekend we got news of Stephen K. Bannon's appointment as Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor.

This news was met with tremendous enthusiasm from the White Nationalist community. The Southern Poverty Law Center collected the online celebrations from some of the more prominate figures in the White Supremacy movement. They also posted this comment from Stormfront, the famous neo-Nazi message board.

And so, I return to last week's peace offering.
The reaction from openly racist communities confirms some of my worst fears. The White Nationalist Movement believes they have the President Elect's ear.

They are publically celebrating because they believe their agenda will be represented in the White House.

If you support Trump, do you also support this appointment?
Do you support an appointment that gives White Nationalsists the impression their ideas are represented in the West Wing?

Because if you do support this appointment, you support the White Nationalist agenda.
Even if (and this is a big "if"), even if Bannon is not a voice for White Nationalism, he has never disavowed the support he receives from that community. That is how people in power legitimize hatful ideologies.
So, I'll say this again: If you do support Bannon's appointment, you support the White Nationalist agenda.

And if you support the White Nationalist agenda and want to argue, "But I'm not racist," then you are an idiot.

There is no nice way to say that. You cannot believe that non-racist people support White Nationalism unless you are stupid. Even White Nationalists know that.

So, Trump supporters, do you support the Bannon appointment?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Robot Overlords

Maybe Black Mirror has broken me, but I've come to believe resistance in futile.

Engineers are going to develop tools that evaluate writing as effectively as a human.

We may be a long way from that reality, but even as we approach, what computers can glean from a text is impressive.

This worries a lot of people, and I get that.

Writing assessment is very complex work. It defines so much of what writing teachers do. But more importantly, writing assessment feels like something humans should own. Writing is, after all, a form of person-to-person communication. Right?

A computer-produced report on my writing is not a valid assessment, because it is not measuring a person's response to the text.

Only people can provide a valid assessment of a text written as person-to-person communication.

And you know what?
Teachers are people!

Teachers can do things computers can't do, like... be people.

This is a reasonable argument, up to a point.

See, teachers are people.
And people are the intended audience of most writing.
But, here's the thing, teachers are not the intended audience of most writing.

This is particularly true in college composition. As students begin college, they enter a new stage in their writing development. They are preparing to join various scholarly, civic, and professional communities.

Writing teachers do not belong to all of those communities.

As a writing teacher, if I am the only person a student has learned how to "write for," I have failed.

So, we cannot say 'the writing teacher provides a completely valid assessment.'

The only completely valid assessment of a text takes place when the actual intended reader reacts to the text.

I need my students to learn to write for a variety of readers.

My job is to help students understand this: From now on, as a writer, you will have to use what you know today in order to learn the rules anew each time you decide to write for a new audience or a new purpose.

There are tools I can give students to do that. So the function of college composition courses remains important.

But I need to leave some of the assessment to others - to my colleagues in other departments, to other students in the class, to other writing teachers, to potential employers, and the list goes on.

So, why not computers?

Are we afraid we are going to be replaced by robot writing assessors?

There is some legitimacy to that fear. If we believe that keeping people in "the assessment loop" is too expensive, or that the labor conditions writing teachers work under are unsustainable, then maybe it's time to welcome our robot overlords.


But that assumes we are satisfied with writing assessment as it is performed today. Are we comfortable saying that?
Try saying it: 
We know how to perform effective writing assessment that reliably predicts a person's ability to write across a wide variety of circumstances. 
I don't buy it. What we do is still very messy, and it's always going to be. That's what drew me to this work.

It was DalĂ­ who said, "Have no fear of perfection - you will never reach it."

So, when IBM rolls out a tool that produces "Personality Insights" based on text samples, I don't see that as IBM working to replace human readers. I see IBM tinkering with just how much computers can learn from writing - and maybe just how much they can contribute to a more comprehensive assessment of writing ability.

Here's what they learned about me in a Sunburst Chart:

Reading that analysis, it feels like I visited a psychic, and not in the "Wow, that's uncanny" way.

It feels like someone sized me up as I walked through the door and then made some vague observations using language intended to sound specific.

In other words, it still feels like a trick. It's a cool trick, and it's rooted in some pretty sophisticated understandings of human behavior and communication, but... it still feels like a trick.

Trick or no, it is progress. That computer made observations about me based on my writing.

I hope these tools get better, and as they do, I hope to use them to add more dimensions to the work I do when I assess the writing my students produce.

As it stands today, I recommend my students consider assessment from their peers, from me, from tutors, from roommates, from professors in their major, from grammar checking software, from study groups, and anywhere else they can get some assessment. And then I ask students to consider the feedback critically and use it to improve their work.

I can't think of a good reason to treat assessment software differently.

If someone tried to suggest that such software will replace me and all those other sources of assessment, I'm ready to tell them why that is absurd. But I think they know. If not, the computers will probably tell them...

Or will they?

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Why Johnny Can't Teach

A lot of my colleagues are super upset about an advice piece published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

For those of you who live outside of the world of composition studies, I'd like to explain what all the fuss is about.

I kid you not, the advice piece opens with this:
"My students can’t write a clear sentence to save their lives, and I’ve had it."

From barefootattitude
The author has dug himself into a hole right there. This is a teacher who starts the conversation by blaming students.

For professional compositionists, that's like blaming the controller in a video game (or the sound engineers at a presidential debate). Except, in this case, the author is blaming the people who have come to him for an education, blaming them for making his job difficult.

Please understand, this teacher's job is difficult.
Teaching students to write in a college setting is a profoundly difficult task...
But that is not the students' fault.

Students arrive at colleges and universities each semester with some writing skills, and then something frustrating (but important) happens.
The rules change.
Institutions ask students to repurpose those skills and apply them to a set of activities most students have never engaged in before.
Writing is no longer a way to show a teacher that "I did the reading."
Suddenly students are expected to use writing to critique a reading, analyze lab results, generate new understandings of a complex topic, and the list goes on.
Our most fortunate students may have started doing some of that in 11th or 12th grade, but it is an ability that requires years to develop. And while that ability is developing, general writing performance almost always dips a bit.

So, this advice piece starts in a bad place, a place that demonstrates a failure to understand what it is we are asking our students to work towards.

And that's just the opening sentence.

The author goes on to argue there's something else making his job difficult: The discipline of Composition Studies itself.

I'm not going to get into the weeds on this, but here's a breakdown of what happens.
The author lists three core principles associated with quality writing instruction.
The author states he has tried to teach using those principles.
The author claims the principles "rarely work."
The author goes back to blaming students.

From barefootattitude
That's right, back to blaming the students.
The author tells us that... 
  • "Students do not revise." 
  • Students do not know how to give good feedback to their peers 
  • Students don't use good advice when they get it
  • Students don't know how to use basic argument structures 
To which, I imagine many of my colleagues responded with (and please feel free to insert the profanity of your choice), "Do your job!"

It's all hard, but that's the job. 
We are teaching people how to write for academic purposes. Revision is necessary. The ability to recognize good writing is necessary. Understanding feedback from peers and mentors is necessary. The ability to make complex arguments is necessary. 

The ability to "write a clear sentence" is not enough, and if we ask students to do all the necessary work, the students' sentences are going to get messy. 

Stop complaining about how hard their work is. 
Get in there and help them do the hard work.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Well, That's Original

When most of my students think about plagiarism, they are afraid.

They are afraid of harsh consequences, marred permanent records, and potential expulsions.

This bothers me.

A lot.

Students are not introduced to the concept of academic integrity; they are introduced to the violation of that integrity. And often the introduction has a "guilty-until-proven-innocent" vibe.

I work hard to show why that fear is unproductive.

There is a reason universities treat intellectual property the way they do. It is a value the community holds, and not every community feels the same way. Students should know that when we enforce rules about academic integrity, we are not teaching a universally held belief. We are teaching the values of the institution.

I ask my students to explore this and write an informative essay for incoming freshmen that explains why higher education places such an emphasis on crediting our sources.

I'm looking forward to adding this set of posts from Imgur to the readings.
In it, one user animated another user's comic about how the community on treats original content.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Opening Our Doors

My dad and I do not see the world the same way when it comes to politics.

Once upon a time, our debates were ugly.
Over the past few years, however, we've found ways to discuss issues without getting shouty.

Part of what led to the increase in civility is a shared understanding that our positions in life are different.

My dad is a retired business owner.
I am an Assistant Professor working for a public university.

Those facts are enough to establish why some of our interests are not aligned. And they won't be, which is okay. That's why we vote. I don't get everything I want, but neither does he.

When we do debate (which is often), one of my dad's techniques is to argue that my views are the product of my life within the university: "You have to hold those views, Hogan. You can't be conservative on campus, right?"

When I first heard this, I though it was a jab, a way to dismiss my views as irrelevant or out of touch.
And let's face it. That may be the case. I expect my dad would deny as much (he'll let me know when he reads this), but you gotta admit, it is a rhetorically solid way to undermine my arguments.

Whatever that point does to my arguments, however, I've come around. He's right.

As an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition, I have to hold some pretty liberal views.

But not for the reasons most would assume. My job does not require generic "party-loyal liberalism."

As an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition, I have to be liberal about something very specific. Here it is:
The university should open its doors as wide as possible. Our mission should be to share our resources with everyone, regardless of class, race, ethnicity, religion, or language ability.

Those values are woven into the work I do as a scholar of rhetoric and composition.

Allow me to provide some context. My discipline was established not too long ago, when colleges and universities opened their doors a little wider after the Civil War. Suddenly there were students in the classroom who did not come from wealthy privileged backgrounds. The student population was no longer as homogeneous as it had been. Students wrote using regional styles of spelling and grammar. Composition courses were introduced to teach the academic voice. 

The role of higher education changed, and everyone was better for it.

This has happened again and again.

Over the years, at different historic moments, the doors to higher education have been opened wider and wider to include veterans, minorities, students with less income, students coming from under-resourced schools, students who speak other languages, and the list goes on. 

Each time, the role of higher education changed and everyone was better for it.

Don't get me wrong. It's hard work, and there have been people pushing back at each turn - good people - people who thought they were protecting "The University" from forces that would corrupt it. But through continued effort, the door keeps opening wider and wider. The effort is worth it. 

The more students we meet, the bigger our world becomes.

Sure, it's challenging to listen to people who see the world differently. You know, people like my dad. But those people have something to teach us. If we shut them out, even if we think we have good reason to shut them out, we all lose something.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Rhetorically Analyze This

It's not a favorite assignment of mine, but I know many teachers who ask students to perform a rhetorical analysis of a commercial.

Something like this:
Name the speaker, the purpose, and the intended audience; then describe how the message was crafted to achieve the purpose. It helps students understand what rhetoric is, and that's a good thing.

The results students produce, however, are often boring:
  • The ad shows us attractive cool people using the product, and the intended audience wants to be cool and attractive...
  • The ad presents a logical argument on price and value...
  • The ad makes us feel afraid of what might happen if we don't buy the product...
But these results are not boring because, as some might assume, students are boring.

Commercials are boring.

I don't ask students to write up rhetorical analyses of commercials because the most visible marketing campaigns often rely on easy rhetorical appeals - making for easy (read boring) papers.

What if, however, our students had to pick marketing material like this?

Trying to Describe Writing Ability

Yesterday, I asked my students to define "writing ability."

That may sound like a reasonable request to make, but it was not reasonable.

Try it. Try to write up a sentence or two that describes "writing ability."

I was happy when students recognized it begins with basic scribal skills. You need to be able to use the tools that create letters, words, and sentences. But that wasn't very satisfying. We all knew it was an incomplete description.

When teachers from other departments, policy makers, or professionals complain that 'this person' or 'that person' can't write, they are not talking about scribal skills.

So, what does it mean to say a person can write?
Or can't write?

It is a central question in the discipline of rhetoric and composition, which is a polite way of saying, "We don't know."

We have theories, and many of those theories are well supported.
The answer each scholar gives, however, often leads to more questions. And while that's true in many disciplines, it's particularly troublesome for writing teachers, because most people think they know what "writing ability" is.

Until people actually try to articulate an answer, they assume it is an easy question:
"What's writing ability? Well... It's the, ahh, ability to write, right?"

I don't want to give my students my answer (yet). I want my students to generate their own answers and build their practices out of those answers.

But what about you, dear readers?
How would you define writing ability?

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Dynamic Transfer at #IWAC16

I spent the end of the week in Ann Arbor at the International Writing Across the Curriculum Conference.

I presented the below on day one of the conference. Aside from some AV hiccups, the session went very well.

The research is from  my dissertation and it sums up the portion I'm currently writing up for an artilce I aim to submit to the WAC Journal.

The bit of knowledge I'm trying to introduce to the discourse is the concept of "dynamic transfer." It shows up about half way through the presentation where I shared a graph and table from the Martin and Schwartz chapter that describes dynamic transfer.

The graph is an adaptation of a learning model from artificial intelligence, and I think that's fun, but I also think the graph shows a number of learning trajectories that helped me understand learning to writing in new spaces.

Those learning trajectories are influenced by how complete a learner understands the key concepts related to a new task. What dynamic transfer offers is an acknowledgement that learners often enter a problem space with only partial knowledge of those key concepts. What happens when a learner has to innovate - create new knowledge - they coordinate that partial knowledge with resources in the new environment. The process takes time, and often results in a brief dip in performance.

I know that dip well. I've experienced it and I've seen it in my students.

I like that dynamic transfer adds some important detail to the mechanics of high road transfer - it goes into what happens when students "detect, elect, and connect" with prior knowledge.

I attended three panels (on the program D3, F1, H3, I1) that I felt this idea could inform. I was able to speak with Liane Robertson about this, and the discussion did a lot to deepen my understanding of transfer as a whole.

The conference was a great experience, and I look forward to unpacking all I learned.

Friday, June 03, 2016

This Year's Projects

This year was my first in the English Department at Sacramento State, and it was a good one.

The students here are fantastic. They keep me on my toes by demanding I demonstrate the value of the learning objectives we're pursuing. I really like that attitude. And the University and Department have made me feel very welcome.

One of the ways the University has worked to bring me aboard was a Faculty Learning Community on e-portfolios, reflection, and metacognition. It's like a class for faculty, and this one focused on topics I enjoy tremendously.

As a group, we created action research projects. We introduced reflective activities into our courses and evaluated the results... as best we could in the limited time.

For my project, I made some changes to the reflection tasks I ask my composition students to perform. Previously, the reflections were all kept separate from the portfolio in a journal. Last term, I asked students to place their reflections into their electronic portfolios alongside drafts and other writing process stuff. Each assignment had its own tab, and now, as readers scroll through the tab, they move from the early stages of writing to the final draft - able to see reflections, outlines, ideas, drafts, peer feedback, and other material in a kind of timeline. The effort was to create a visual narrative of each student's writing process - one narrative for each assignment.

The results were encouraging. I had several students using the new portfolio format in cool ways. They referred to items on the page to describe their process and progress. The portfolio letters of many students were more specific. I intend to start formally collecting data and writing this project up next year. For now, there's a poster.

The poster summarizing my project

The project was informed by the book Writing across Contexts and the teaching for transfer pedagogy it presents. I've continued to tinker with my composition courses using the book as a guide. I keep up with the book's impact on the Teaching for Transfer blog. It's had a huge impact on my teaching and my research. The book guided the creation of the theoretical framework I used to design my dissertation study.

I'm looking forward to presenting some of the results of that dissertation and outlining the follow-up project at the IWAC Conference in Ann Arbor later this month. I'll be presenting on Thursday at 1pm along with several other scholars who have investigated writing in the sciences. I'll post the Prezi up here when its complete.

I'm aiming to turn that presentation into a paper I can submit before summer ends.

The other big project this summer involves getting ready for a new coordinator position here at Sacramento State. Next fall I will be coordinating the University's Graduation Writing Assessment Requirement... Yes, you read that right, I will be coordinating the GWAR.

Aside from the awesomeness of being professionally associated with Slave Pit Inc, the job is an exciting challenge. I look forward to seeing what happens to my vision of large-scale writing assessment as it is subjected to the bureaucratic and political machinery of a state university.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Intertextuality Video

So, I'm gearing up for some summer teaching, and I just found this video on intertextuality -  a concept I teach in my Composition across the Curriculum course.
Look forward to using it in class!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Follow up from post on Scholarship and Popular Media

So, last week I posted about John Oliver's segment and how it is related to the rhetorical analysis assignment I give my students.  

Then a friend posted this old PHD Comic

And then I saw this video about how maple syrup kills cancer. It's related to this study, which does not make anywhere near as bold a claim as that.

So, yeah, the essay assignment remains relevant.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Popular Science and Scholarly Science - An Assignment

For a few years now, I've been using a version of an assignment developed by Dana Ferris in which the students perform a rhetorical analysis of two texts:

  • A study from a scholarly journal 
  • The popular media's reporting on that issue. 

It's worth noting here (as Dana pointed out in an FB comment,) this assignment was inspired by an assignment from the first edition of Writing about Writing by Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs.

I enjoy the assignment because it's big and messy and it gets at the larger learning objectives a first-year writing course should aim for.

And now I have a reason to show John Oliver in class!

I wrote as much on Facebook after sharing that video this morning (it's work-related).

One of my colleagues asked me to share the assignment, and so, here it is.

On the day I introduce the assignment, the students have two readings to complete before class.

  • One is an online textbook chapter on A) how much of a pain in the ass it is to read scholarly journal articles and B) some tips on how to read those articles.
  • The second reading is a scholarly journal article by Ken Hyland about comparing popular media readings to scholarly readings. 
In class we consider the readings (and in future classes, we'll watch that Last Week Tonight video), and then we walk through the assignment. 

We then visit the library to A) meet with a librarian who shows us how to search for scholarly articles and B) search for a popular report on a subject that interests each student personally (maybe the topic is related to the student's major).

While they read, annotate, and analyze their two articles, they also read a textbook chapter on genre and another on rhetorical analysis.

The goal is to give the students language they can use in their essays, and that's a lot of what lecture is about before introducing an in-class activity that asks students to complete a table by comparing rhetorical features of the two articles.

Then they draft, get peer feedback, revise, get instructor feedback, and finally have the option to revise for their portfolios.

Again, it's a great assignment, and now with more comedy!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Emoji and Language

This week's Idea Channel video is about emoji, writing, language, discourse analysis, linguistics, composition, mediated speech, technology, and the larger question of what makes something language.

So, yeah, I was pretty into it.
The video goes out of its way to point us toward Gretchen McCulloch's blog, All Things Linguistic. It also shows the way to her SXSW talk on the subject (with slides!).

All of it is worth a listen.

Monday, April 18, 2016

I Won't Ignore a Lack of Smoking Guns

I admire Naomi Klein. She is an important voice in the climate change debate. She models an intelligent way to argue against globalization. Her book No Logo is immensely important for people trying to understand how the modern corporation has impacted cultures.

But my admiration does not mean I will unquestioningly accept everything she has to say. I expect a smart argument from Klein.

That is why I was disappointed when I finally got around to reading Klein's piece in The Nation from earlier this month. I expected a critique of Clinton, which I got. But more importantly, from Klein I expected a careful critique, which I did not get.

I'm proud of the debate the Democratic presidential primary has fostered. It's been invigorating to read and listen to arguments about criminal justice reform, environmental regulations, and economic inequality. Bernie Sanders deserves a lot of credit for bringing these issues to the fore.

But to put a new spin on one of Clinton's go-to lines from the New York debate: It is one thing to demand we debate an issue; it is another thing to debate that issue in a substantive way.

Klein spends the first third of her piece arguing this: We do not need to find any clear evidence that Clinton has been corrupted in order to argue that she is in fact corrupt.

I'm not exaggerating.

After admitting there "is no proof–no 'smoking gun'," Klein's argument effectively becomes "Clinton’s web of corporate entanglements is deeply alarming with or without a 'smoking gun.'” This statement is followed by two things:
1. A description of just how serious the climate change issue is (a description no one from the Clinton camp would deny).
2. An invitation to "forget the smoking guns for the moment."

At that invitation, I'm already checking out. Even though the rest of the piece includes some smart analysis of Clinton-style policy making, it is out of line for Klein argue we should accept Clinton as corrupt without clear evidence.

When we discuss Clinton, we are talking about a woman who has been the target of countless smear campaigns. By itself, that's not a problem; Clinton is a prominent public figure, which makes her a target for those kinds of attacks. She can handle it.

But for people who are critically engaged in public political discourse, the existence of clear evidence is the only way we can sort the smears from the substantive attacks.

When an intelligent public thinker such as Klein asks us to ignore the lack of evidence - even if only for the moment - she is asking us to suspend our critical engagement.

And where does that lead us?

Later in Klein's piece, we read this:
Books have been filled with the failures of Clinton-style philanthrocapitalism. When it comes to climate change, we have all the evidence we need to know that this model is a disaster on a planetary scale. 
Let's examine what Klein has asserted here.

Klein, who writes primarily about climate change, would have us believe the model used by The Clinton Foundation is a disaster on a planetary scale. She doesn't say the model has contributed to the planetary disaster of climate change. No. The "model is a disaster on a planetary scale."

Klein's language is placing the blame for climate change on The Clinton Foundation

Of course I know Klein doesn't think the climate change crisis began in 2001 when the Bill Clinton started the non-profit foundation.

That's silly.

But when we expect readers to accept arguments (or accusations) without evidence, we are allowed to say some silly things.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

The Forest, Trees, and Tax Plans

Last week I composed an argument for why I won't vote for the very likable Bernie Sanders.

I struggled while writing that.

I didn't struggle because it was a difficult argument.

I struggled because I knew I was going into the weeds. I wanted to bring evidence from Bernie's website into the discussion. I wanted to show where and why his plans are flawed.

That choice demonstrated a lack of audience awareness on my part.

Like many scholars and teachers before me, I want my students to research, critique, and consider their intended audience whenever they compose a message.

I have a theory of writing ability; it informs how I teach. Based on that theory, I decide what kinds of activities will improve a student's writing. An important part of my theory suggests that developing audience awareness leads to improved writing.

And while reflecting on this during discussions in my Composition Pedagogy course, I thought back to my post on Bernie.

Going into the details was the wrong path. The arguments driving this election are not about the details.

I want people to vote based on policies and platforms that will impact their lives, and that's why I construct arguments based on proposed policy.

For example, my family cannot afford Bernie's $4k-$9k increase in our federal taxes.

But there I go again.

That's not a picture of Bernie getting arrested in the 60s. Nor is it a video of Clinton's uncomfortable reaction to a protester interrupting a fund raising event.

No. It's just me citing policy analysis produced by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center.  It's just me considering how two candidates' proposals would impact me personally.

And I'm silly enough to believe that is what should drive people to the polls.

So, I guess that's the argument that needs to be made first. Before I can use real policy analysis, I need to make this argument:

When considering who to vote into any elected office, we each as individuals need to consider what evidence is the most valuable in the argument for our vote.

Is it enough for candidates to tell us what they want in the future, or should we expect them to respond to expert critiques of their plans?

But then we get back into the weeds again, don't we?
Who is an expert? Is any group truly non-partisan? How much would I save on healthcare or college if Bernie gets his way? And----

Hey, did you hear what that dummy said about his johnson in the debate?

I don't know.

I do love to debate politics, and I enjoy the ways election season tests my convictions.

I try to use these experiences to help me develop professionally and personally.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Who I'm Not Voting For - An Argument

This morning a relative of mine posted an old picture of Trump and Hillary at an event. The first comment says that the system is broken and we should vote for Bernie.

I've stayed out of politics during these primaries because of work and the insanity of these primaries.

But this social media post got me writing.

I really like what Bernie has to say. A lot.

And I think he could beat many of the GOP candidates in the general election (probably not Rubio or Kasich).

But I will not vote for Bernie for two important reasons.

First, Bernie's promise of a political revolution - the revolution that would allow him to overcome opposition to his agenda - is deeply problematic.

The Tea Party made a similar promise and sent a bunch of idiots to Congress in an attempt to overcome Beltway gridlock. To be fair to them, I'll cite two examples to support calling Tea Party representatives idiots.
1) They shut down the government and
2) They threatened to defaut on the nation's debt.
Many Tea Party people actually still think those were good ideas, and when you ask them why, they'll tell you it's because "the system is broken."

Bernie wants to sweep aside any opposition to his bold plans by ushering in a political revolution that will put new like-minded people in Congress. So, who are those people?
Seriously. I'm asking. I don't know who will fill those seats.

Is Bernie planning to bring in the Left's version of the Tea Party? That's what it sounds like, and I want no part of that.

Governing is challenging and complex work that requires compromise. The revolution Bernie is calling for fails to see that. It is uncompromising in its vision. I don't like that.

When I think of Obama's greatest achievements, I see bold plans that were blunted and bruised by the process, but they moved forward.

Second, even if Bernie's economic plans work in the long term (which I don't think they will), they will cause so much economic disruption that my generation will live in a very insecure economic environment. I'm raising kids. I have a great union job working for the State of California. The level of upheaval Bernie is proposing at the national level would create stress that might lead to backlash at the state level.

Now, I recognize some people in the US are struggling more than I am, and I understand this is a serious issue - one that should drive the decision about how we all vote. But when I look at Bernie's supporting evidence for his argument about how he'll pay for all this, I am not convinced.
From how Sander's will pay for College for All

Here's a screenshot from a white paper on how Sander's would use a tax on Wall Street to pay for his 'college for all' plan. In it, the economist assumes trading volume would fall by 50%. Ummm... That's kind of a big deal. If you were looking for a way to fuel income inequality, this unintended consequence is an excellent way to do that, because it would make it so only the wealthy could afford to invest in the US economy.

It's a bad plan. I'd love to see 'college for all' happen, but this is not a workable path to that idea.

This op-ed from Fareed Zakaria gives a sense of what the broader community of economists think of Sander's plans. The entire set of plans "assumes that per capita growth would average 4.5 percent (more than double the rate over the past three decades), and that the employment-to-population ratio would suddenly reverse its long decline and reach 65 percent, the highest ever. Even more magically, productivity growth would rise to 3.18 percent. As Kevin Drum has pointed out in Mother Jones, 'there has never been a 10-year period since World War II in which productivity grew by 3.18 percent.'"

These are not viable plans.

So, why are we listening?

Because these plans are what we want to hear. We want someone with bold ideas to come and fix a deeply flawed system.

But here's the thing. The system always has been and always will be deeply flawed, because it is a human system. We don't get to fix that without some kind of Skynet event.

The rise of Bernie's vision and others like it have been fueled by a belief that our system's flaws are leading us to some kind of destruction.

I get nervous when a politician tells me we have to follow his plan or else our world will fall apart. That's a desperate rhetorical trick.

Our world is not ending; it's changing.
The system is not broken, it's imperfect.
And no, Bernie, it is not a disgrace to live in an America with imperfect healthcare.

Sure, it might be a little embarrassing at times, but it is not a disgrace.

I wish we took better care of the poor. I wish we supported a stronger education system. I wish we did more to fight economic inequality.

But those are stars to navigate by; they are not policy goals for a first term.

And the thing is, we are actually doing an okay job... if you're willing to take the long view.

Our large and diverse nation is navigating changing times as well or better than the rest of the world.
We have 4.9% unemployment with some upward pressure on wages.
Our investment markets have been crazy, but they are functioning despite uncertainty out of Europe, China, Japan, Russia, and Brazil (to name a few).
At the end of last year we passed a huge infrastructure bill.
More people have healthcare.
It looks like people might start buying homes again.
Marriage equality is here to stay.
We've ended No Child Left Behind.
I could keep going, because we are moving in the right direction. It takes time, work, and patience, but that's how progress works.

The argument that we need a major upheaval is an appeal to emotion with very little basis in fact, and that is why I won't vote for Bernie.

And the length of this post is why I've been trying to avoid political conversations for the last few months. If you've stuck with me this long, thanks

Monday, February 15, 2016

That Thing We Do [fixed]

There's this thing many composition teachers do. I do it too.

We share our students' particularly egregious writing errors or silly writing constructions with friends, spouses, peers, and really, anyone who will listen. We do so looking for a laugh.

We need to do this. We read a lot of mistakes, and finding humor in some of those mistakes makes the difficult work easier.

I have no problem with this practice, although I'm not crazy about seeing student errors shared in big public spaces. I see a lot of it on Facebook, and sometimes feel like those post are exploiting our students. Regardless of what I think, however, this stuff does get out into the social media landscape and onto click-bait websites.

The problem isn't the sharing; it's the responses I often see when people read these errors. 

It's always some version of this: 
How did that student get into college? 
How did that student get out of middle school?

The follow up goes one of two ways. People either suggest A) kids today are dumber than they should be or else B) our teachers aren't doing their jobs.

There are so many things wrong with these reactions, but I only want to get into two of the problems here.

First, composition instructors don't share examples of average writing. The stuff that works in a composition class is not amusing to outside readers. The only thing we're going to share are the hilarious mistakes (maybe the occasional moments of graceful writing), and it seems a bit unfair to judge an entire generation (or their teachers) based on such a biased sample.

Second, let's not decide if a student deserves a university education based on a poorly-worded attempt at a writing task. I mean, if the instructor is any good, the task should be challenging, making mistakes all the more likely. 

Keep in mind, the entire discipline of composition and rhetoric has been defined and redefined by the continued expansion of access to a college. We owe much of our livelihood to people who believe the opportunity to attend college should be extended to a larger portion of the population. 
Here's some of that history:
Yes. We should admit veterans to college.
Yes. We should admit economically disadvantaged students to college.
Yes. We should admit minorities to college.
Yes. We should admit people who grew up with families that don't speak English to college.
Yes. We should admit students from other countries to college.
And the list will continue to grow, because knowledge is valuable. 

It doesn't make the job easier. So, we'll probably continue to share the funny mistakes our students make. Just don't allow those mistakes to be taken out of context. 

EDIT: When I first posted, I was in a rush and used images and links to some fictional student errors. I was trying to illustrate how this stuff gets out there - beyond the first Facebook share. But that wasn't really important, and the lazy link undermined the larger point - as my friend Aaron pointed out with some glee on Facebook. I've pulled those links and images, but here's the Snopes article on it.

Friday, February 12, 2016

New Teaching Stuff

I just wanted to take a second to share the support material I developed for my first-year composition course.

Here is the sample portfolio I set up to explain the purpose and format of the course portfolio.

I think it has turned out quite nice.