Thursday, January 26, 2017

It's Hard to Hear "Wrong"

John William Waterhouse's "Echo and Narcissus"
I love mythology.

Mythology gives us fun and exciting stories with huge characters you want to believe once roamed the earth.

But myths are not real.

Just like learning styles.

Yeah. That's right. I said it.

Learning styles are not a thing.
Even if you want them to be a thing, they are not a thing.

I'm sure you've heard about learning styles.

Maybe you even took a test that felt very "test-like" and made you feel confident telling people something like this:
"Oh, I am a kinesthetic learner; I need to be moving to learn effectively."

The person who gave you that test probably believed in learning styles. A lot of people do. It's a very popular idea. But to be clear, learning styles are not a thing.

Learning Styles emerged from a theory that had not been researched. The idea sounded great, and a lot of people decided to believe it before doing the research.

The good news is that other people went and did the research. Here's what they found:
The overwhelming majority of the literature concludes the same thing: there is no proven benefit to matching a teacher’s instruction to a learner’s preferred style.
So, a lot of people are wrong - a lot of smart people.
And I want them to stop being wrong.

I want to stop reading about learning styles in papers from strong students.
I want to stop hearing intelligent parents tell me about the learning styles of their children.
I want to stop knowing that this myth is behind lesson plans being used in my kids' schools.

I want to stop all this, but I also don't want to be a jerk.

Telling people they are wrong about something they believe makes you look like a jerk - especially when that 'something' makes them feel informed.

People look back on all the times they used that flawed knowledge, all the times they mentioned it in passing, all the times they relied on that incorrect information to make a decision. Suddenly they feel foolish, and you are the reason they feel foolish.

You may think you're doing people a favor, but it sure doesn't feel that way for the person you're "helping."

It was easy for me to accept learning styles aren't a thing because of the way I heard the news.
I had used the phrase in a paper I was working on, but I wasn't referring to the concept that's been debunked. One of my advisors pointed it out and told me to get it out of my manuscript. He knew I didn't mean to invoke the popular concept, but he explained that the phrase was a red flag in education research. He told me it is pseudo-science, like astrology.

I got the message and pulled the phrase out. That was easy, but I was not invested in the idea.

It's a different story for people who learned the concept from a respected teacher, an authority, or a good read. These people are going to resist, and I get it.

I want to take something from them. They had this knowledge, and it was useful.

Here comes some jerk who has proof that the thing they valued is actually worthless.

So, you have to acknowledge some kind of worth.

It is a good idea to vary teaching methods so that students experience learning in more than one way. So, a lot of the teaching techniques that were prompted by the idea of "learning styles" are helping students.

Show people why it was okay to believe what they did.
That makes letting go of flawed knowledge easier.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Hide Your Degree, Hide Your Accomplishments

My Ph.D. ain't helping.

If I want to have a constructive argument with people about politics, I can't refer to my education or my profession anymore.

My degrees put me at a disadvantage.

That's one way I'm experiencing today's brand of populism.

Achievements I am very proud of are being used to set me apart - to sow distrust and undermine the ideas I bring to a conversation.

If I use my skills as a scholar to demonstrate a source is biased or flawed, my skills are dismissed as tools of the elite.

My arguments about political rhetoric leave people I respect feeling insulted.

I have had people tell me, "We are sick and tired of people like you thinking we're stupid."

And this didn't start in November. I dealt with this during the Democratic primary, the general election, and now under a new administration.

It's more than anti-intellectualism.

It is an effort to consolidate "rhetorical capital."
Here's what I mean by that: A person's rhetorical position is strengthened when people trust that person more than they trust other sources of information. So, one way to earn trust is by undermining trusted institutions.
"You can't trust the scientists. They are just after funding."
"You can't trust the economists. They work for Wall Street."
"You can't trust the teachers. They just cost tax dollars."
"You can't trust the media. They are owned by corporations/They have a liberal agenda."
I worked my way through universities to become a professional scholar in a community I admire.
But now the legitimacy of universities is under attack.

A claim of expertise is met with cynicism.

I found some strategies to avoid inadvertently silencing myself in this piece about populism in South America.
“'Don’t listen to them, folks', says the populist. 'Stop letting them think they can school and fool you. The only true fact is that the enemies are few and that they lie. Let’s show them they’re the ones who are wrong. They’re the ones who are stupid. They’re scared! Or, worse, fearing justice! They think only about themselves. Turn off the TV. Listen to me.'
The author goes on to point out that if your arguments against a populist show contempt, you’ve "just lost the first battle. Instead of fighting polarization, you’ve played into it."

The new challenge for me is to know how my strengths can be used against me.

Intellectually, it's an interesting challenge.
Spiritually, it's crushing me.

NOTE ADDED 1/25/2017
A few people have thoughtfully responded to this post with something like, 'Perhaps it's best that your arguments stand on their own. A good argument should not depend on your professional qualifications.'

I just want to say that I completely agree with that and I hope this much is clear:
I do not think people should listen to me because of my profession. I do not think my political arguments carry more weight because of my degrees.

This post is about my experiences of having those qualifications used against me. People are dismissing my views because my advanced degree represents a link to "the establishment" they are blaming for the state of affairs they deem unacceptable.

This is why I have to hide my degree; because it weakens my position before an argument even begins.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Challenging Our Preconceptions - A Refresher

I can't remember the first time I saw this video of Hans Rosling's talk challenging people's preconceptions about world health and poverty. I've seen and shared it often. By internet standards, it is an oldie.

I watched it again recently and was struck by its renewed importance.

Yes, it is a TED Talk, and I know that can get a bit tired for some, but this one doesn't have that guru vibe some of them are guilty of.

Rosling effectively demonstrates the gap between 'what we believe is true' and what facts and data actually tell us about the world.

With the phrase "fake news" on the tips of everyone's tongue...
With an incoming president who prefers an impressive message over a fact-based one...
With people seeking to discredit and disregard all arguments that contradict their beliefs...
With every argument becoming a zero-sum game...

With all that in the air, it is worth watching a man who can successfully challenge 'what we believe is true.'

It's not enough to have the facts.
The facts have to be clear and clearly linked to the point being made.
And yes, presentation and enthusiasm count.

If you haven't seen the video, take a look.
If you have, have another look and consider this kind of rhetoric in the context of the past several months of news and politics.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Following Up on Johnny's Teaching Ability

Last fall I wrote a response to a Chronicle of Higher Education opinion piece that was critical of how we teach composition.

I've never had a post get as many hits as that one, and I get it. This is a popular debate.

While I was happy for all the visits, I know my response could have done more. I kept my blog's casual tone and stopped short of going into much of the research to support my response.

I am pleased to see that the Chronicle has published a response in which the always brilliant Doug Hesse did the heavy lifting I did not do.

His response cuts the snark and is backed by the knowledge of a well-established community of scholars.

Here are some highlights:
A 2005 article, "The Focus on Form vs. Content in Teaching Writing," analyzed why formalist approaches — like the back-to-basics kind that Professor Teller advocates — remained so popular in teaching composition, despite overwhelming empirical evidence that they were significantly less effective than other methods.
The teaching of writing happens — or should — within a deep field of practice, theory, and research. It’s also an enterprise marked by a fair amount of what Steve North, in a 1987 book, The Making of Knowledge in Composition, called teaching "lore." Lore consists of ideas and assumptions that are grounded in local experience ("what worked for me") and then passed along informally, for the most part, from one faculty member to the next. Lore is sometimes informed by research, and thus transmutable and generalizable, but more often it is not.
Teller’s essay participates in the tradition of lore. Not having been in his classes or having read his students’ work, I can’t judge his local experience, but I can judge how well his approach compares with the most effective national practices.
For example, his assertion, "Substantial revision doesn’t happen in our courses," might speak for his own classroom, but it surely doesn’t speak for mine or those of thousands of other professors. Consider his claim that students "do not use the basic argumentative structures they need." Again, while perhaps true of students in Teller’s own classes, that broad claim is unsubstantiated by my experience, by research on my campus, or by the wider literature in the field.
I am happy to belong to a community of scholars that includes the likes of Professor Hesse.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Rules I Don't Know

I'm writing today, and while doing some editing I realized I wasn't sure of a mechanics rule.

Check out UNC with the top result on Google!
If I place an independent clause after a colon, do I capitalize the first letter of the independent clause?

So, I looked it up.
That's how I write.

I have no qualms about publicly sharing I don't know this rule.

I know to seek the rule out during the editing stage of my writing.

Again, that's how I write.

I draw on a ton of outside resources as I go. My writing ability is by no means housed exclusively in my mind. In class, I refer to this by its fancy name, distributed cognition.

It is something I work hard to teach my composition students - and something I work hard to teach future instructors. Writing is a socially supported ability. You can't do it all by yourself. Most of "learning how to write" is the process of discovering what resources you need and how to access them.

This is one reason I shared a minor objection on social media yesterday about a NYT opinion piece on technology in the classroom.

The author wrote an excellent argument for disallowing laptops in her lectures, but the argument went a step too far, suggesting that everyone ought to ban laptops.

I let my students use their phones, laptops, and tablets in class. If they're on Reddit, I ask if it's related to what we're working on (sometimes it is). I want them to incorporate the technologies they use every day into their writing practice. I design classroom activities around that goal and my technology policy.

I would not ask another instructor to model their classroom (or their lecture hall) after my own.

This is all to say, I had a nice moment while writing today. It helped me reflect on my writing practice - both how that is related to my teaching of writing and how it is related to my teaching of pedagogy.

Now, back to editing.