Monday, December 27, 2010

Being an Anti-Academic Scholar

When people read my blog entries out of context, they sometimes assume I am anti-scholarship or anti-research, when the reality is far more complex. I am pro-scholarship and research, but I am "anti-academic" in terms of the attitudes and biases that have developed within some, and only some, disciplines. More specifically, I am concerned that the humanities are not only losing touch with their traditional role within liberal arts educations, but they are also losing touch with the vast majority of citizens.

It is a problem when the humanities view themselves as somehow apart from, even better than, the general citizenry. If anything, academics in the humanities should be reaching out to people, working to educate the public in a manner that is approachable and meaningful.

I like logic and reason. I, like most people, can comprehend the value of medical research, computer science, and even theoretical physics. The quantitative "hard sciences" are an easy "sell" to me, as they are to the vast majority of people who support U.S. public universities through tax dollars and/or tuition payments.

But, I don't understand the "scholarship" or "research" published for small audiences in the humanities. The "arts and letters" spend too much time talking amongst themselves, often in ways that insult many of their fellow Americans. The elite professors seem detached from their fellow citizens, even when the professors address important issues.

There was a time, not even that long ago, when academics in the humanities were cultural leaders, but increasingly they are leaders only to a sliver of the American population. The gaping chasm between the academic culture and general culture seems to be widening in the humanities, a division that cannot be good for us.

When I write that I am not an "academic," it is a statement that I do not want be isolated. I want to be engaged with my fellow Americans, with their concerns and their values. I might not share all popular opinions or beliefs, but I want to engage them and learn from them.

Writing academic papers and publishing journal articles does not, in general, change society nearly as much as one good work of political or social satire. One great play or feature film can do more to change minds than almost any academic work. This is because academic works are no longer written to be read by everyone. They have become puzzles, a form of academese cryptography meant to be decoded only within specific disciplines.

To me, a good scholar should be a citizen-scholar, someone working in the here and now for his or her fellow Americans and, ideally, all the people on this planet. The term for this used to be "public intellectual." I'm fine with being a public figure, as long as I am not a caricature of what it means to be intellectual.

I place incredible value on teaching. I believe in teaching. I also believe we need to reconsider what we call "research" and/or "scholarship" in the humanities. Let us ask ourselves what the purpose of research is and how it can be explained outside our specific disciplines.

Too much of the "research" on the teaching of rhetoric, communication, and creative writing fails to ask the most basic question of all: are our students becoming more effective communicators? Instead, the research prattles on about "positive self-image" and "collaborative events" without asking if the end result is better, more critically engaged citizens. We write about our teaching methods, engaging in a substantial self-reflection, but at some point we have to ask about the results of our teaching.

Are the U.S. university students of today as well-rounded as their peers around the world? Are they learning about shared cultural norms, which is essential in the field of rhetoric? Are they learning about other cultures and norms so they can both respect those and evaluate them critically? Can our students communicate in words, sounds, and images effectively when they need to convey information and persuade audiences?

I am not anti-academic so much as I am anti-isolation. Academics are more isolated, not less, than they have been in a century. At one time, universities existed to produce nothing but leaders. The first dozen or so U.S. universities were founded to train clergymen and civic leaders. We should still be producing civic leaders, and not only from within our law and business schools.

Leaders should be coming from across the disciplines, with a shared liberal arts foundation. And that foundation of liberal arts education is what I want to help restore, maintain, and extend. Right now, it is being chipped away by budget cuts and students choosing other majors because we have not demonstrated the importance of the arts and letters.

Students will continue to exit the arts and letters as long as we fail to demonstrate that our disciplines are not isolated cliques, but are important pillars within a democratic society. If we will not rise to this challenge, it is not because the task is impossible but because we have grown too accustomed to a tiny sphere of like-minded colleagues. We have become complacent and comfortable, though we complain constantly about the state of affairs within the humanities.

I refuse to be yet another scholar writing to and for my peers. I want to communicate with my fellow citizens -- as many of them as I can reach with various forms of communication.

We are supposed to be experts in persuasion and communication. It is time to prove those skills can be taught and mastered by proving we possess the skills we claim to teach.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Rhetorical Politics of the Birth of Jesus

There is a "rhetorical mythology" around the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Political leaders have long used scriptures to persuade people, so it is unsurprising that the story of the birth of the major figure of Christianity would be used for political purposes. I am not religious, and I am certainly not a theological scholar, but some of the myths used by politicians in public statements are clearly absurd and deserve to be debunked.

A bit of New Testament data helps understand how shallow the political rhetoric is: only one book of the Four Gospels details the birth of Jesus. Only Luke 2 offers the familiar details. One chapter of one book from the Christian Gospels is all we have. Not much to build on, but politicians are seldom restrained by such limits. Mark and John provide few details at all about Jesus as a child, and nothing about his birth. Matthew offers a little about the genealogy of Jesus, via Joseph, but only Luke offers the story of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem.

Again, understand that I write this only from the view of errors in political speeches -- errors I believe are intentional in many instances. I am not writing this as a Christian or Jew or anything else; my intention is not to claim that the Gospel accounts are historical or true. However, if you are going to cite the New Testament stories, you should at least get those right.

Myth 1: Jesus was born into a humble, low-caste family.

Political motivation: appeal to the "common man" and those of modest means. Prove a connection to the lower-classes and those without status. Many politicians can't let go of the "simple carpenter" image, though that's a misreading of the time period. The artisan class was substantially "higher" in prestige than the working or farming classes.

It is very unlikely Jesus was in the lowest class of Nazareth. The book of Matthew (1:1-1:16) begins with a detailed lineage, the fraternal genealogy of Joseph from Abraham through to Jesus. Any family able to trace its lineage through the most honored families in Judaism was at least "middle-class" by standards of the time. Joseph's family supposedly included: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, King David, and Solomon. It's no minor thing to be related to King David, even if thousands of families over 14 generations could make a similar claim.

In the Gospel of Luke, we learn that Mary is related to a priest, certainly not representative of the lower classes.

Luke 1:5: In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.

Elizabeth must be a significant relative to Mary, though the relationship is unclear. Mary takes residence during her pregnancy in the house of Zechariah, the priest, along with Elizabeth, who is also expecting a miraculous child to be named John.
Luke 1:39: In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, (1:40) and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
Luke 1:56: And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.
In Mark 6 and Matthew 13, residents of Nazareth seem stunned that the son of a carpenter would know the scriptures and traditions of Judaism:
Mark 6:1 He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. (6:2) And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? (6:3) Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
However, this deals more with the specific roles of the caste system in Jewish tradition. At the time of Jesus, only a priest of high rank, not even the apprentice scholars, would dare speak a sermon in the synagogues. A carpenter, regardless of anything else, would never dare to teach as a priest would. The priesthood of antiquity was inherited, not something anyone could do. (In the early Jewish tradition, only certain families were the priests. It was a complex social system.)

That everyone in town knows Joseph and his sons is actually an indication of his standing. The violation is not one of class, but of roles and tradition. Only a priest can be priest.

Myth 2: Joseph was going to abandon Mary.

Political motivation: varies by party. Some use this to talk about the sanctity of life, even though it was common to abandon unwanted children. Others use this aspect of the story to impress upon fathers their importance to families.

Joseph seems to have been a man of standing, one with the ability to offer a rather modern solution to Mary's "problem" of pregnancy: divorce. This implies some standing because at the time the man would have had to provide some financial support to an ex-wife until she was either remarried or one of her family members took her into a household. Jewish tradition of the time would not allow for divorce without either cause or, without cause, financial compensation. Joseph, in the Gospels, doesn't seem to leaning towards a divorce of cause.
Matthew 1:18: Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (1:19) And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
Notice the mention of divorce. It is neither dishonorable nor especially unusual. Joseph's offer of divorce is meant to protect Mary and her family from shame. Joseph and Mary had yet to wed, according to Matthew, yet Joseph was willing to wed the young woman, allow her to give birth, and then divorce her. That's no small task, especially if Joseph had been poor or lower-class. An angel, Gabriel, persuaded Joseph to wed Mary and keep her as his wife.
Matthew 1:20: But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. (1:21) She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
Myth 3: Jesus was "homeless" at birth.

Political motivation: sympathy for the homeless and needy, usually in the form of government programs. The idea is that if Jesus was homeless, then the homeless are "like Jesus" in some way.

This is a staple of political speeches, unfortunately. It's also not true.

Nothing in the Four Gospels indicates Jesus was homeless. Joseph and Mary are from established families and Joseph, as a carpenter, had an important career. In the time of Jesus, a carpenter wasn't merely a worker: he was the architect, the contractor, the foreman, and, most likely, the employer of many men. "Carpenter" is more analogous to the owner of a modern construction company.

What we know is that the family had left Nazareth and Jesus was born "on the road" in Bethlehem. The Gospel of Matthew gives us only the location of the birth:
Matthew 2:1: Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.
In Matthew, we are not told why Jesus is born in Bethlehem or why the wise men of Herod headed for Jerusalem. However, it is likely that the final taxes would be due in Jerusalem, while the census was conducted in Bethlehem. We are talking about a government bureaucracy, after all. We know the government is to blame based on the Gospel of Luke.
Luke 2:1: In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. (2:2) This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (2:3) And all went to be registered, each to his own town.
The destination for Joseph was Bethlehem's census office, probably in a Roman government building.
Luke 2:4: And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, (2:5) to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
Because the Romans worried about tax evasion, they required entire households to register in person at their government centers. Makes you wonder why they couldn't accept the word of each male head of household, or send out census counters to each village. You would register at the census, then proceed to pay taxes, usually in a regional center. The taxes were based on your earnings and your family size. More people, the theory went, meant a family needed more Roman-provided services. The lowest castes did not generally owe taxes in ancient Roman territories, another indication Joseph has enough money to pay taxes.

It wasn't that Mary and Joseph were homeless, therefore. They were on the road thanks to the government. And because the Syrian territorial governor wanted everyone to be counted at the same time, the cities and towns with government offices were overrun with families. Imagine asking everyone to go to the nearest state capital city to be counted, followed by a trip to the largest commercial city to pay taxes. The only winners in this mess were people with taverns, inns, and households willing to board travelers.
Luke 2:6: And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. (2:7) And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
We are not told there were animals around or that the manger was particularly bad (considering the time and place). We don't know if Joseph had paid livery or not, either. What we do know is that it was government that caused Jesus to be born outside a good home.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Are Fox Viewers Least Informed?

World Public Opinion has published a 20-page study on misinformation believed during the 2010 election cycle. News outlets and bloggers soon began trumpeting that "Fox Viewers Least Informed." The problem with this is that while "true" in pure numbers, the rhetorical move conveys a message that itself might be misleading without more data and a longer, more varied set of questions about issues important during the election.

While much has been made on the Internet about "Fox Viewers" being misinformed, the full data shows something else: people watching any news (Fox, CNN, MSNBC) "2-3 Times Weekly" were incredibly similar in accuracy. Only, and only, the "Daily Viewers" of Fox and MSNBC had serious deviations from the median answers. In fact, studying the crosstabs, you see that this represents a small number of people in the "Daily Viewers" categories.

Overall, only 616 voters, +/- 3.9% accuracy, were surveyed. They offer no data to other researchers on how many people were in each category. What if only 10 people claimed this? The data don't show, instead WPO supplies only the percentage of each self-selected category.

For example, the question reading:

1. Most economists who have studied it estimate that the stimulus legislation saved or created a few jobs or caused job losses.

The "2-3 Times Weekly" viewers getting the answer wrong for Fox (88%), CNN (85%), and MSNBC (87%) are not that far apart. In fact, this is within the margin of error.

The "Daily" viewers are substantially different, but only between Fox (91%) and MSNBC (64%), but the daily audience of Public Broadcasting (87% incorrect) is as misinformed as Fox viewers. I can't believe that. This makes MSNBC viewers unique, since 90% of network viewers and 86% of daily newspaper readers also answered "incorrectly" in the survey.

Obviously, there are some problems with this study that need to be examined. But, the headline "Fox Viewers Misinformed" is better than "PBS Viewers Misinformed." At least within the margin of error, the daily Fox viewer isn't "worse" -- just as ignorant as most Americans.

What really should concern us: not one group, not one, was accurate more than 50% of the time.

Rhetorically, the "least informed" label feeds the bias of various audiences. And, because the questions were not balanced -- most of the questions were ones I believe dedicated "conservative voters" viewed through a specific bias, as well -- we don't know how self-identified "liberal voters" might have done on other questions. For example, would MSNBC viewers know that Pres. Obama was the leading recipient of money from Wall St.? That Goldman Sachs gives nearly equal amounts to both parties, but that Democrats usually edge out GOP candidates? Would MSNBC viewers know that, generally, Democratic candidates outspent GOP candidates and that SEIU gave as much money to candidates as American Crossroads (the "Karl Rove" PAC) did?

In other words, the questions matter, too. But these questions were, overall, favorable to a particular point of view: the researchers seemed to want to prove ignorance on specific issues, and those issues "favored" a particular survey outcome.

A better approach would have been 20-30 questions, coming from a mix of political biases.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Loving Teaching, Hating Education

In my previous post I admitted to advising a student interested in journalistic creative non-fiction (feature profiles, biographies) that he might be better served by interning and working as a writer and reporter for some years instead of pursuing a graduate degree in writing. I am going to clarify this a bit, I hope, and explain why I think this advice, while not ideal in my "dream world" of education, does represent the current realities of higher education.

In the late nineteenth century, progressives (both left and right) believed that science and technology were key to improving not only the United States, but the world. As a result, the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 declared that our public universities should focus on "practical sciences." Over the next century, our scholarship shifted from conservation of knowledge, history, and values to a production model. A good scholar didn't merely study the past, he or she was supposed to create new products. This production model  underlies a tenure system based on research output instead of teaching and mentoring.

We have hyper-specialized in our disciplines, including rhetoric and composition. We study small slices of our fields so we can claim expertise and produce scholarship. There are thousands of journal articles and conference papers produced annually, most of which have minimal influence on other scholars. It's all about producing more and more. At least some of the scholarship descended into minutiae over the last quarter century.

This focus on "shiny new theories" in the humanities does parallel, loosely, the demands on science and engineering schools to create marketable intellectual property. However, no university makes money selling the ideas of rhetoricians or composition instructors. You can't compare creating Web browsers (Univ. of Illinois), Unix utilities (Univ. of California), or new drugs (numerous universities) to creating a "new" approach to teaching writing or public speaking.

I love writing. I love teaching about writing. I am always trying to find better ways to teach students, better ways to share my love for words in all their forms. I'm passionate about visual design, because printed words are an art form. I'm passionate about film and stage, because the visual expression of words goes beyond the page.

But, I am never going to "create" new words that earn a university millions of dollars.

Yet, though you cannot compare directly what I do or my colleagues do to the output of other departments, it is as important — if not more important — to cultivate cultural history and an appreciation for communication in a democratic society.

The problem is that the emphasis on producing scholarship often takes us away from the art of teaching the liberal arts. Instead of teaching writing and reading with a passion for the past and the future, we are forced, by the nature of higher education's production model, to focus on theory production and the scholarships of minutiae.

So, I told an aspiring writer not to go directly to graduate school. I am not suggesting he, or others like him, never go to graduate school. However, I fear our methods and focus on production of scholarship means that we (universities) would not help this young writer gain the life experiences and appreciation for other writers that is so key to being a good communicator.

In other fields, in which the profession is as product based as the university model, graduate school offers the same or even better access to experts in the field as work experience. But, in journalism and some forms of creative writing the best mentors are out in the field, working at newspapers, magazines, and (now) online publications.

An exception to the theory-overload in writing studies can be found within some MFA programs. Nearly all MFA programs, and many undergraduate creative writing programs, do base their courses on workshops and their graduation requirement is a creative publication. Though this is still a "production" model, it is much richer than the theory-based world of Ph.D. and general master's degree programs in rhetoric, writing, journalism, et cetera.

However, we must admit that many MFA programs are expensive and the value is more personal enrichment than professional advancement. If you do pursue an MFA, be certain there will be mentoring opportunities and genuine professional and literary guidance. Understand, it is valuable, but the "return on investment" might not be financial.

If scholarship leads me to be a more effective advocate for words and writing, great, but I also recognize that the demands to produce output, as if we are factory workers, has negative consequences. If I have to publish an article or two a year and a monograph every four to five years, that is a significant drain of energy. That's not necessarily bad, but it is important to understand the trade-offs and potential costs to students of the humanities.

I'm not claiming production is good or bad, but that it does mean shifting time from teaching and mentoring students towards research and scholarly output. As a result, many graduate programs are places where scholar/researchers teach courses focused on their research interests in an attempt to consolidate their commitments to research and teaching. The "price" to teach is research. (Though I do know many people who feel the price to conduct research is the annoyance of teaching. That's sad.)

Writing is not like designing new medicines. You don't need a huge lab with millions of dollars in equipment. You need nothing more than a pencil and paper. For hundreds of years people have written great works without pursing graduate educations. So, my advice stands. Go and be a writer, journalist, poet, screenwriter, dramatist, et cetera.

At some point, you might want to learn some of theories and scholarship. That's wonderful. But, don't make the mistake of assuming all graduate programs that study rhetoric and writing are meant to help you become a better writer. Some are and some are not. And, the "value" of such an education resists quantification.

NOTE: If you really, really want to pursue a graduate program in writing, I suggest considering MFA programs at state universities. And make sure the program hosts as many writers throughout the year as possible. You learn about writing from reading and talking to writers, including the other student-authors in an MFA program. There are some Ph.D. programs in creative writing, but that means more time and money. A Ph.D., by definition, is about the "philosophy" of a discipline, the theory.

Value of Education

Earlier this week, I advised a student against attending graduate school. The reason? The student wants to be a writer and I told the student that in my opinion it is more constructive to intern, take entry-level jobs, and do anything you can to write daily. Write and write some more. My experience is that four years in the workplace, as a writer or reporter, is likely to be more constructive than four years spent in graduate school.

However, I would not tell an engineering student there is more value to work than school because the graduate education is different in various fields.

Even in many MFA programs, graduate school courses in writing and communications are theory-driven, as opposed to practice-driven. Honestly, I don't know that theory has made me a better writer. If anything, I find myself slipping into an "academic" language and style that is inappropriate for most audiences.

If you want to be a scholar of writing, then graduate school might be ideal. If you want to be a writer, it isn't where you'll do the most learning.

The grand exception is if you want to teach others about writing. Teaching at the college level requires the degree, unless you're a published author asked to be a visiting lecturer or resident author at a university.

The only reason I completed graduate school was a desire to teach. I am only a scholar tangentially to practicing the craft of writing. As it stands, I probably learned far more writing for general publication than writing academic papers.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Obama & the Rhetoric of Progressivism

I highly recommend the following article. It is long, but worth the time and effort:

Obama and the Rhetoric of Progressivism
December 10, 2010
By Peter Berkowitz

I'm not going to offer any comment at this time, but I do plan to start writing about political rhetoric in the near future. This article was just too interesting not to share. I also suggest researching the historical names and texts mentioned.

My plan is to use this blog to analyze speeches and statements regardless of the political views of their authors. Of course, it is impossible to be unbiased, but I do plan to do my best to focus on the rhetorical devices.