Friday, July 22, 2005

Partisan Readers: Blogs v. MSM

I repeatedly remind students that reading, and composing, are acts that reflect our biases. There is a long essay in the New York Times supporting my thesis. I have included two of the pertinent paragraphs.

The New York Times
July 31, 2005
Bad News
The argument that competition increases polarization assumes that liberals want to read liberal newspapers and conservatives conservative ones. Natural as that assumption is, it conflicts with one of the points on which left and right agree - that people consume news and opinion in order to become well informed about public issues. Were this true, liberals would read conservative newspapers, and conservatives liberal newspapers, just as scientists test their hypotheses by confronting them with data that may refute them. But that is not how ordinary people (or, for that matter, scientists) approach political and social issues. The issues are too numerous, uncertain and complex, and the benefit to an individual of becoming well informed about them too slight, to invite sustained, disinterested attention. Moreover, people don't like being in a state of doubt, so they look for information that will support rather than undermine their existing beliefs. They're also uncomfortable seeing their beliefs challenged on issues that are bound up with their economic welfare, physical safety or religious and moral views.
So why do people consume news and opinion? In part it is to learn of facts that bear directly and immediately on their lives - hence the greater attention paid to local than to national and international news. They also want to be entertained, and they find scandals, violence, crime, the foibles of celebrities and the antics of the powerful all mightily entertaining. And they want to be confirmed in their beliefs by seeing them echoed and elaborated by more articulate, authoritative and prestigious voices. So they accept, and many relish, a partisan press. Forty-three percent of the respondents in the poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center thought it ''a good thing if some news organizations have a decidedly political point of view in their coverage of the news.''

Creativity Compulsion

While people in the field of rhetoric discuss social construction and cultural influences on creativity, I often wonder if we are too quick to dismiss the individual urge to write or create. Dr. Alice W. Flaherty is trying to answer why some of us are driven to write. The researcher began her work at Harvard and has been expanding it for almost a decade:

In The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain (Houghton Mifflin, January), neurologist Alice W. Flaherty explores the hows and whys of writing, revealing the science behind hypergraphia. Why is it that some writers struggle for months to come up with the perfect sentence or phrase, while others, hunched over a notepad or keyboard deep into the night, seem unable to stop writing?

The initial research began in 1994:

My interest in this is very personal, since my writing is definitely related to the effects of a brain trauma and resulting seizures.

Part of a conversion with Dr. Flaherty:
Q) Writer's block is something we hear about a lot, but I wasn't familiar with hypergraphia until reading your book. What is it, and why did you choose to write about it?
A) Well, hypergraphia is essentially the opposite of writer's block. It's driven, compulsive writing — keeping huge journals, writing letters to the editor at the drop of a hat, that sort of thing. Some people will write on toilet paper if nothing else is available. One of the things that makes hypergraphia interesting is that known brain conditions can trigger it, and they all seem to heavily involve the temporal lobes, parts of the brain that are right behind the ears. The other interesting point is that hypergraphia seems to reflect a component of literary creativity, namely creative drive. And there is fairly solid evidence that drive, and emotional involvement in your work, is even more important than talent in creating something new. 
Q) What are the most compelling examples of hypergraphia and of writer's block you've come across? 
A) One person who fascinates me is van Gogh, who was hypergraphic and who painted with a fury that amazed others and even himself. He was one of the most prolific artists ever, and at the same time he wrote two to three long letters a day to his brother Theo. Schumann is another example — he wrote feverishly while he was composing feverishly. The incredible drive of those two artists to communicate something, regardless of the medium, is evidence that the temporal lobe is involved not only in the drive to write but in the drive behind other art forms as well. 

As for examples of writer's block, the strange thing is how paradoxically eloquent many writers are in describing their block. Because a block is often very genre-specific, as anyone knows who has felt blocked on a big paper and has procrastinated by writing long e-mails. Coleridge is a perfect example of that — he used to churn out metaphysical treatises when what he really wanted to do was write poetry. The recent movie Adaptation demonstrates a trick many writers use in that situation, which is to escape your block by writing about it. Both Coleridge and Wordsworth did that.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Issues of Bias

When we discuss "rhetoric" in our first-year composition courses, it is easy to overlook issues of philosophical and ideological bias. True, we tell our students to look for the biases within their readings, but we seldom explore the actual nature of bias.

The problem of bias is being exacerbated in our current media climate. An abundance of choice, which we often assume is a good thing, can also lead to self-segregation. People can locate magazines, television shows, Web sites, and "blogs" supporting their existing views. Our desire for simple binaries, often encouraged by the nature of these various media outlets, leads us to take sides andstake out rigid positions.

With so many outlets, students and instructors can locate research supporting most any view. Because we seek like minds, we are inclined to doubt or even challenge differing views. While we attempt to promote questioning and challenging in our students, we probably dovery little of this ourselves.

Even those of us involved in academic research tend to have deeply ingrained biases, which influence how we read and evaluate student papers. In effect, students enter yet another echo chamber when they enter a university setting.
"A warehouse of psychological research suggests, however, that once people form a belief, they selectively seek, collect and interpret new data in ways that verify their opinion. This distorting cognitive confirmation bias makes such personal convictions resistant to change, even in the face of contradictory evidence." (Saul M. Kassin and Gisli H. Gudjonsson. Scientific American Mind, p. 28, "TrueCrimes, False Confessions" 25 July 2005)
Kassin is a professor of psychology at Williams College. Gudjonsson is a professor of forensic psychology at King's College, London.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

My Biases

I was reading through papers from throughout the university as part of a larger study when I was reminded of my distaste for extremists. My greatest passion is an opposition to people of too much passion... since we can all be wrong and misguided. And in my hands was a passionate paper.

"I am a strong Christian woman," the paper's author stated. I looked at the title: "Stem Cell Research."

This paper was exactly what we fear as composition instructors. The language, grammar, and format were easily among the best in the huge box of papers I was reviewing. And yet, for all the strengths of the paper, I had a difficult time reviewing it. The science was accurate, well-cited from trusted medical journals, but the conclusions were at odds with my deeply held faith in the value of medical research.
Admitting this to myself, I was left wondering how I could fairly score the critical thinking component of the paper.

A radio host I listen to has said no thinking person can be a religious fundamentalist. My gut reaction is to agree, which then means I am prejudicing myself against this paper. How could anyone use faith as the basis for an academic argument? And yet, here was an APA-formatted, well-written paper from a devoutly Christian student.

In the end, I recorded the paper as demonstrating excellent research, mastery of form, and good critical thinking skills. The author at least admitted her bias, and then proceeded to seek out opposing points of view and the scientific evidence. The fact she included information on other medical research, illustrating the inadequate funding for more proven research, was enough to sway me, despite myown emotions.
I hope this student remains open to science and data. I know I wasn't very open to her paper.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

What Makes a Rogue?

Am I a rogue rhetorician?

I have been giving this a fair amount of thought, especially as I reread journal articles and books by the leading names in the field of composition and rhetoric. What makes me feel like an outsider as I read these works? Why do I question my place in a set of disciplines I love? There is no single explanation for my self-assessed status as a rogue, and some will certainly doubt my appropriation of the moniker.

While the rest of the field is rushing towards labels and metaphors for various teaching approaches and ideological intentions, I am uncomfortable with the implications. In the classroom, I am not trying to be a social crusader or liberator. Teaching is my rebellion, yes, but I can leave the reasons outside the classroom.

I am a writer interested in finding the best pedagogical research so I can effectively teach others how to express ideas. If the research points towards something, I'll try it and see if the methodology complements my teaching style. Pedagogy is the theory of teaching, but too often I see the theories within composition and rhetoric couched in ideology. Because I want to impart skills and a passion for words, not my political bias, I find myself apart from many of my peers. Sadly, the quick and easy response from the self-proclaimed liberators is that I am merely a complicit supporter of the current power structures.


If I help students learn to communicate, striving towards a mastery of rhetorical skills, then they will be able to add to the public discourse regardless of political or philosophical beliefs. I admit I want students to be skeptical consumers of information, always trying to determine biases and intellectual contradictions. The first thing I tell students is that we all have biases and make cognitive errors. The real challenge for an educated person is to constantly evaluate information and revise positions.

Unfortunately, many of my colleagues are unwilling to challenge closely held beliefs and deeply ingrained biases. Mention neurological research, cognitive psychology, or educational theories
and people look at you suspiciously. If you want to try social activism as a teaching strategy, you are cheered. If you ask for evidence supporting the approach, you risk being ostracized.

I'm not going to deny that I have a political philosophy outside the academic orthodoxy. It certainly informs my view that students and their parents are consumers of education, usually with a mix of social and professional goals in mind. My job is to serve these clients well or future students will select other institutions. Worse, the wider public might cease to support composition as a standard university requirement.

Too many of my colleagues imagine composition will never lose its place at the university. I suppose its a nice illusion to imagine we're not expendable, no matter how far we drift from the teaching of composition and rhetoric.

I'd rather be a rogue.