Monday, December 29, 2014

Angry Words Don't Persuade

As a colleague observed, there has been no shortage of topics for rhetorical analysis since returning to school in late August. The second half of 2014 has offered a long list of potential topics, internationally, nationally, and locally. The two challenges for me have been the time to blog and the passion to delve into topics that offer little hope for persuasion or meaningful discussion.

I am convinced that we select our facts, as there are often just enough accurate facts to support some thin version of most events or general theories. You can select your facts, cherry picking a reality. We all do this, to some extent.

Our deep dislike and distrust of other viewpoints makes solving problems difficult. We resort to name calling, reveling in our distaste for views we oppose. We exist in not just two Americas, but in four or five or a dozen American realities, all slightly (or seriously) out of alignment.

Here's an interesting contrast. The Washington Post published an article on finding common ground to solve problems. If you focus on shared ideals and agreement, before debating an issue, the parties involved are more likely to compromise. In theory, this could help end some, not all, partisan gridlock in national politics. Core values would hold, but more overlap would be admitted in debate:
On the other hand, we have a Salon column examining neurology and partisan psychology that starts by calling some Republican lawmakers "clowns" — because the ad hominem is a great persuasive device. Starting a discussion with name calling, even if you have valid points to make, isn't going to win converts.
At least the Salon column ends with…
Once you're aware that the Dunning-Kruger effect is involved, it's anybody's guess, really, who is more incompetent than whom.
Yes, that's a good reason to call the opposition "clowns" in the headline, then.

I remember when Ronald Reagan was elected. There was more than a little vitriol from his opponents. When Bill Clinton was elected, the Republicans respond to what they viewed as mistreatment of Reagan (and some of his nominees) by going all-out after a Democratic president. The escalation of hateful rhetoric has continued, with each side describing the other in increasingly contemptuous terms. And each side is better at spotting the slights against them than admitting their own role in this spiral of hateful language.

"The other side is worse" doesn't excuse what's happening in our political discourse. But, it isn't going to change any time soon. It is depressing, and it is the historical norm.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Am I in Technical Rhetoric?

The calls for papers and conference invitations on technical communication I receive seem to construe "tech comm" narrowly… broadly, yet narrowly. My passions are outside virtual worlds or instruction manuals. I want to push in a new direct.

First, there's the tendency to group any and all "new media" or "digital" studies within the rhetoric and tech comm. That leads to an obsession with all things virtual, even though a lot of what has been studied under this umbrella faded away before the scholarly papers were published. Our rhetoricians spent a lot of energy studying what was, to be blunt, pointless: MySpace, Second Life, MOOs/MUDs, USENET newsgroups, instant messaging, and more.

They will argue that even what proved ephemeral was important because something was revealed about communication, at least in that moment, in that medium that was studied. Personally, the only value I see in a study of SecondLife is that it might reveal something about the little group of people who could tolerate the lousy interface and mediocre experience.

I read the discussions of these scholars and am frustrated by how disconnected they seem to be from the online, digital lives of "average" geeks — and even most people. They might be the only people I know using Twitter. None of my students use Twitter. Young people don't even "surf the web" anymore. They use apps to get information. The idea of buying music or films on a plastic disc? Not my students. They stream the world, renting content. The entire "Napster" and "copyright" debate strikes young people as weird.

After the online rhetoricians, you get the "instruction manual" crowd of tech comm. These scholars view user manuals, online help, and technical documentation as their domain. Sometimes, they stray into cookbooks, crafting, and other fun topics. (I love cultural anthropology.)

A few brave rhetoric and tech comm people dive into medical texts, public policy, and legal issues. I appreciate those boundary pushers, working in the fringes. We can debate how this brings rhetoric back to more classical roots, away from the "technical" component, but I'm all for classical studies when they shed light on existing conditions.

The STEM rhetoricians focus on engineering and technology as understood by scientists. These are the "rhetoric of science" scholars. The philosophy and rhetoric of science fascinates me because the people with expertise are often not included in policy debates. The STEM experts struggle with public rhetoric.

My passion is the rhetoric of economics. It's technical, but ignored. We need a rhetoric of economics, especially at this moment in history. Economics unifies philosophy, psychology, history, and mathematics. Economics is not quite a science, yet it relies on scientific analyses.

I worry I'd be alone at a rhetoric or tech comm conference. I'd be the one author of a paper on the rhetoric of economists, the one person wanting to analyze Federal Reserve reports for hints on policy trends.

Then again, maybe the Fed is as mythical as SecondLife and reading the Beige Book is as practical as MySpace.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Better for Me, Better for (My) Students

Perfection and compulsive organization drive me to over-prepare for the courses I teach. I've found that some instructors, especially at the college and university level, are comfortable with a loose seminar approach to teaching, I like to have lots of notes, outlines, slides, and handouts. Without the structure, I would be easily distracted or my pacing wouldn't fit the class meeting time limitations.

I post most, but not all, of my notes online for students. Having the slides and handouts gives them a chance to review materials covered in class, something I would value as a student. Because I'm a perfectionist, as a student I reviewed materials throughout each semester. My assumption is that many students want that same ability to review and learn at their own paces.

For assignments, I like detailed handouts with all due dates at the top. I describe the assignment, the objectives, the grading criteria, and mention any additional resources available to help complete the assignment. I also prepare grading rubrics that guide students, but reserve flexibility for grading if students fail to meet major objectives. It's not enough to write the perfect paper technically, the paper also has to address the assigned topic! (And yes, I've had students argue that they deserved "B" grades for assignments that were "perfect" except for missing the required topic entirely.)

Having such a structured course, from a detailed calendar to grading rubrics, does not preclude making adjustments nor does it limit my ability to be creative. The structure exists to help cram a lot of material into a 16-week semester, as best I can.

In the business school, my approach is considered standard and reflects the practices of many of my colleagues. However, some of the writing instructors I know bristle at the use of rubrics and the slides I use to guide lectures. These philosophical differences run deep between the disciplines, and I find myself an outlier when I read writing forums or lists. But, my approach would have been what I sought as a student and aligns well with the students I teach, primarily STEM majors.

I was the students I teach. Hopefully, they help me meet their needs effectively.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Facebook, Politics, and Friendships

I dislike political posts on Facebook.

I also dislike that these posts are called "memes" for some reason. These posts are usually manipulated images with silly bumper-sticker statements, "memes" — a meme is a cultural norm passed along, not a bumper sticker. Then again, bumper stickers might be a meme: a style or behavior spreading through a community. The "meme" would be the action of posting these polarizing, annoying online images.

Posting your political insights, borrowed from some partisan group, isn't going to sway friends and family with opposing views. If anything, it drives them to block your posts from their timelines or to "de-friend" and "unfollow" you completely.

Stop it.

Those "witty" posts about the president, Republicans, Democrats, libertarians, business, and whatever else you find so compelling… compels me to ignore you. I don't remove friends for their political views, but I stop reading their posts to social media.

Being vehemently anti-whatever isn't open-minded, no matter how evil you believe others with an opposing viewpoint must be.

I am sickened by the polarization online. It's depressing. It's why I avoid reading the comments below most articles online. If you have to resort to elementary school name calling ("Rethugs" and "Dumbocrats") or misuse of labels ("Fascists" seems popular), I don't really want to feed into the discourse.

Technology didn't improve democratic discourse. It seems to be killing it. Yes, the majority will still "win" and with even 51 percent of the vote, the winners won't listen to any good ideas from the opposition. Why? Because you cannot work with people you've been calling evil (and worse) for the last year or two.

Today, the radicals of our parties demand an all-or-nothing approach to governing. I believe social media are exacerbating such rigid ideological stances. Compromise? That's unacceptable to the Facebook warriors, fed by Daily Kos, Red State, and dozens of Facebook and Twitter feeds tossing rhetorical hand grenades into policy debates.

I wonder if our government would be better if we forced elected leaders to stay in D.C. for six months, with no media access, randomly assigned to dormitories and seated alphabetically in the chambers. Instead of trying to be celebrated on Twitter, maybe our officials would talk to each other as colleagues.

Maybe I could create a "meme" about getting along!

Ironically, I bet friends across the political spectrum would be offended, realizing I'm attacking their tendencies to promote anger, distrust, and cynicism.

Remember when we were told that it is never wise to discuss politics or religion? That's still good advice, especially on social media. It would make the online world a little nicer, too.

How sad that the online discourse is so toxic.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Plays are Rhetorical Acts and Scholarship

As a creative writer, and rhetorician, I embrace the idea that my works aim to persuade and motivate people to act. Trying to explain that creative writing is an expression of theory in practice, applied knowledge of rhetorical analyses, is proving to be a challenge. I turn to Wayne C. Booth for inspiration. Any other ideas on how to approach this question?

I outline, I plan, I study rhetorical traditions from theater, religion, politics, and education. I turn to Isocrates, Sophocles, Aristotle, Aristophanes, and traditions across the centuries.

Other writers work through these analyses, but maybe not as consciously. We ready other writers, we study other scripts, we examine what has and what has not affected change. If we seek to entertain, we study those works that have succeeded by that measure and turn to scholarship on form and structure.

Creative writing, and all art, is scholarly. It must be, to be effective.

Monday, July 14, 2014

New Play: A New Death World Premier

This is why I haven't been blogging a lot this summer. I've been working on several new plays… 


A World Premiere

By C.S. Wyatt

Directed By Kaitlin Kerr
Assistant Directed By Sarah McPartland

July 18 - July 26
The Grey Box Theatre
3595 Butler St, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15201



Andy Coleman 
Chelsea Faber
Hazel Carr Leroy
Eric Leslie 
Tonya Lynn 
Sarah McPartland
Jared King Rombold 
John Henry Steelman

Monday, June 16, 2014

Rhetoric of Education

Tenure. Union. Education.

The following articles highlight these words:
The Fall of Teachers' Unions
…the share of Americans who see teachers unions as a negative influence on public schools shot up to 43 percent last year, up from 31 percent in 2009, according to national polling conducted by Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance and the journal Education Next.
Key teacher job protections violate California's constitution, L.A. County judge rules
Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled, in effect, that it was too easy for teachers to gain strong job protections and too difficult to dismiss those who performed poorly in the classroom.
Teachers are popular (generally), but teachers' unions are deeply distrusted. Most of the reasons for this distrust are self-inflicted public relations mistakes by union leadership. Fighting against even minor education reforms, defending what at best are horrible human beings, and corrupt leaders.

The L.A. Times had an excellent series on dangerous teachers still in the classroom a few years ago. In one example I cannot forget, a teacher called a student a failure, and cited the student's failed suicide attempt as evidence.
Polanco looked at the cuts and said they "were weak," according to witness accounts in documents filed with the state. "Carve deeper next time," he was said to have told the boy. 
"Look," Polanco allegedly said, "you can't even kill yourself." 
The boy's classmates joined in, with one advising how to cut a main artery, according to the witnesses. 
"See," Polanco was quoted as saying, "even he knows how to commit suicide better than you." 
The Los Angeles school board, citing Polanco's poor judgment, voted to fire him.

But Polanco, who contended that he had been misunderstood, kept his job. A little-known review commission overruled the board, saying that although the teacher had made the statements, he had meant no harm.

The former president of the union in my hometown was convicted of child abuse, while nearby Fresno Unified has endured three years of leadership turmoil.

Although most teachers, like most police, are good people doing good work, people remember the lousy ten percent (or less) that get media headlines. When education unions defend these individuals, or defend tenure systems and policies that make it difficult to fire bad teachers, people do hold the union responsible.

"Tenure" has turned into a negative word among many voters, and politicians have followed the voters (as if often the case). Teachers convinced that their unions need to become more defensive, more radical, likely assume they just need better public relations. They blame corporations, political opportunists, and others for the bad image of education unions. But, the reality is… most people don't understand, or care about, the history of tenure and don't favor tenure in its current form.

The unions should get ahead of public opinion and political trends. Propose reforms. Propose strict codes of ethics that would remove "bad apples" from teaching. Develop evaluation processes that promote excellence, while recognizing that student achievement includes variables beyond our control. Do things — that action.

The biggest complaint against education unions is that they protect teachers at the expense of students. Unions argue they protect teachers… to promote education. The public doesn't believe the unions. I've had people ask me, "How do strikes help students?" I could offer various theoretical explanations, but they aren't easy to sell to the general public.

We need to change the rhetoric of professional educators and their labor organizations. More than the rhetoric, we need to change our actions to better align with public concerns.

For me and many others, tenure means "defending the indefensible" too often. I can name three teachers who had sexual relationships with students… and one became an administrator. I experienced verbal abuse, and two teachers who threw things at me — including a desk. And they were "stars" within their union.

Until we in education take proactive steps to clean house, we won't have public support.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Legends of the Fall (of Universities)

A wonderful post on Ars:
Universities come with a mythical mission. But they don't fulfil it.
by Chris Lee - May 31 2014, 1:46pm EDT
Unlike most rants of this nature, I have no complaints about the modern standard of education. The myth of falling standards has been with us since the Roman republic decided that they wanted the south of France as their personal back garden. If they really were falling for that long, we would all be living in caves wondering how our fore bearers were able to create this thing called fire.

Indeed, I think that students today learn a hell of a lot more than I did in my day. Although I may mourn the fact that Lagrangian mechanics is now a footnote on the way to a physics degree, that is not a sign of falling standards, but rather tells us that it is more important to learn other things to obtain a relevant education.

No, my complaint is that universities do not fill the role that they were supposed to play, and they are very inefficient at fulfilling the role that they actually play.

The rose colored past that never was

Usually when people extol the virtues of universities, they discuss teaching people how to think, and how to critically examine evidence and ideas. The ideal role of this sort of university is to churn out well-rounded individuals who can think independently. Most people who despair of today's youth seem to think that these ideal universities are a casualty of the modern world. The young lads that universities used to produce—ladies being considered too delicate in nature to actually think in those days—were supposed to cast a jaundiced eye over society and to defend against iniquities of government, big business, and, in general, be superheroes without a secret identity.

My point here is not that this ideal was a bad thing, but that universities were never intended to be places to develop independent inquiring minds. And today, universities are ill suited to developing independent inquiring minds.

In the past, universities really only served two purposes. You can see this by examining who attended universities, and what those people went on to do. Traditionally, the university intake was dominated by young men who had attended private schools. That is, young men from rich families would be sent to Eaton or Rugby to learn their letters and look down on everyone else. After a smooth passage through these schools, they were sent on to Oxford or Cambridge to complete their education.

They didn't really go to university to learn anything much. Instead, the effect of going to private schools and university was to develop a circle of close friends who could be relied upon to continue to smooth each other's passage through life. That was the primary purpose of university: to give young men a chance to form bonds of friendship that would serve to secure and increase their family interests in the future.

— read more: Universities Can't Fulfil the Myth
Pretty much aligns with things I've been writing and saying for years. Education until the Land Grants existed to prepare political and religious leaders, by creating and furthering social networks. Yes, you had to learn French, Latin, and Greek, and you read the classics, but generally you benefited by spending time with elite peers.

Today, we talk about the "university experience" that never was. My undergraduate degrees? Vocations. How do we know? By the names assigned: "English Education" (teacher), "Journalism and Media Management" (publisher, editor), "Computer / Information Systems" (manager)… and my graduate degrees are the same. They were named for career paths. Maybe, if I had majored in "Personal Philosophy and Random Big Ideas" — but grad-level "Philosophy" at universities is geared towards Analytic, quantitative analysis in the Anglo-American models, with heavy emphasis on mathematical theory.

We might argue otherwise, but even in the humanities we create scholars who reflect our values, our ideals, and then declare them "Critical Thinkers" because they agree with us when they analyze an "issue" in some way we find acceptable. I've heard many opinionated, ideological, fallacious arguments that cherry-pick "truths" and "facts" among my rhetoric colleagues… but they are great about finding the weaknesses in the "other side" of issues. (That, by the way, is an issue neurologists and psychologists have identified: we are better at detecting biases in arguments with which we disagree.)

But if colleges and universities don't teach critical thinking, what can they do? They can't teach specific job skills, since the skills change in most careers — often before the current skills are part of a course syllabus!

The best universities can do, in their current form, is teach skills that support critical thinking and problem solving as the student evolves into a mature employee, manager, researcher, scholar, and citizen.

But, our universities are not teaching-centered. Our major universities value research, and, unfortunately, our "teaching colleges" don't always attract the best educators, either. Lee observes that…
…teaching at most universities is no different from open mic night at your local pub. You might occasionally get someone with the voice of an angel. But mostly you get Nickelback.
Even when we teach well, what we teach is fragmented, at best. At least in the old model, everything worked towards fostering a single "best" culture. Today, we talk of transferable skills, and generic critical thinking — two deeply flawed (mythical) concepts.

When a rhetorician (or any scholar) tries to tell me that the discipline teaches "transferable" skills, I cringe. That's misses how complex it is to analyze any given problem in a specific field.

Rhetoricians and composition instructors, in my experience, are quick to suggest they teach transferable skills that apply to all other disciplines. Though I agree that effective writing and basic, basic, basic argument skills are useful in any endeavor, the reality is that how a rhetorician approaches a problem is not the same as how a physicist must approach a problem involving sub-atomic particles or how a computer programmer must analyze the steps behind a process to develop useful software.

Sorry, but "critical thinking" is not universal across disciplines. How does the critical thinking involved in analyzing a famous speech relate to analyzing why the particles you expected to appear in a collider image did not? How does a rhetorical analysis of an essay on poverty relate to translating stochastic calculus into a model for financial forecasting?

What rhetoricians consider critical thinking and analysis is, appropriately, humanistic and philosophical. But when employers or other disciplines complain that students lack "critical thinking" skills they mean something different. They mean the ability to properly select variables, models, approaches, and other tools of their fields to seek solutions to problems… within that domain.

In other words, critical thinking is domain-specific. But, that's not how rhetoric and composition instructors understand the university mission, because they view all critical thinking through the prism of rhetoric.

I believe this mistaken "catholic" application of "critical thinking" within the humanities, explains why so many students interested in other fields ignore (or actively reject) the concepts (and ideologies) advanced in college composition and rhetoric courses. What my colleagues assume to be the one, right understanding of critical thinking is a gross simplification that does not transfer easily to other disciplines in terms of the works they produce.

Lee concludes:
We should recognize that teaching is a profession that requires training and career development, so we need to provide a path for such at higher education. We should be explicit in acknowledging that critical thinking skills, logic, and reasoning, are not sufficient — domain knowledge matters. And, just as importantly, we need to teach people to recognize when they run up against the limits of the domains they know well.
I agree. But, we don't do this within rhetoric. Instead, we do imagine our skills and our analytical methods to be universal. That self-assured view of our field and its utility is mistaken. We have value, but we shouldn't overstate it or confuse it with the ability to be a critical thinker and problem solver in another discipline.

Instead, our skills are more civic in nature. And that's something to be proud of… if we do it well and admit that's our role.
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Monday, June 02, 2014

Academic Time Moves Slowly

There are always more projects on my to-do list than I will ever have time to complete. At best, I attempt to advance the projects a little bit here and there, completing those with firm deadlines while not entirely abandoning others.

In the last two years, I placed academic research projects on hold because creative projects were more promising. Sure enough, a play has been staged, another received a public reading, and two more large productions are scheduled for summer. Another three full-length works and two shorter works are written and ready for development.

Academic papers, for all their value both professionally (tenure, promotion) and socially (informing policy debates) tend to enter a time distortion field somewhere between proposal and publication. Maybe this differs in STEM fields, but humanities projects take months, even years, to reach publication. By the time papers appear, they have sometimes lost their urgency. Exigency, kairos, whatever you wish to analyze... It is gone.

I would argue that creative works are no less intellectually demanding, and the artistic disciplines recognize new juried works as academic contributions. Yet, I can submit a 100-page script to a juried event with more than 200 other entries and have a response in mere months. From submission to production might be nine months for a selected work.

I submitted an academic chapter for publication two years ago. By the time I see the book or web text, the issues I addressed might not exist. Yes, I might inform future debates, but the issues I researched have already changed.

By maintaining a long list of projects, I increase the odds something might find a home. But, there has to be better approaches than how the academic publishing system operates.

At least a non-academic blog is instant satisfaction.
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Thursday, May 15, 2014

How We Write in the Disciplines

During a thread with a colleague, I was also preparing revisions to my course syllabi. I try to teach the APA style used in STEM fields, including economics, while also challenging the various forms and genres used in academia, popular media, and online. Writing about detailed, quantitative research requires "code shifting" in the extreme… and understanding the dangers of privileging audiences. Too often, economics discussions are in jargon and metaphors understood by specific groups, or at least those audiences imagine they understand the language.

Economics, by nature, is the study of scarcity and resource allocation. Pretending that it isn't a philosophical pursuit of what is "best" for society or individuals, as much as it is a quantitative research field, results in scholarship that tries to hide its motives. I love discussing that challenge in academia: we are biased, while our writings seek to appear "unbiased" and "scientific" in some fields that are naturally philosophical and culturally loaded.

As I revise my syllabi, I struggle with the question of how to best teach APA thesis guidelines while reminding students of the simplifications and omissions propagated by the academic form, especially in a field such as economics, which attempts to be scientific, while being driven by philosophical disagreements. The papers offer dry scientific, quantitative analyses, yet even the questions they ask are philosophically and politically loaded. What is "good" writing in econ is that which best conveys the scientific method and quantitative credentials of the authors.

All writing creates an abbreviated, selective history of events. How do we acknowledge this to readers?
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