Monday, June 27, 2011

Divisions too Deep

This morning I was watching the various cable news and business networks, as is my routine, and paused on a discussion of religious beliefs and politicians. The discussion on MSNBC reflected a national division in perceptions, one that causes people to drift further and further apart. The hosts and guests agreed that in the Northeast talk of faith would doom a Republican political campaign, but not necessarily a Democrat's campaign.

This double standard is often evident in campaign years. Democrats rush to speak in African-American churches and to obtain the endorsements of various black Christian ministers. That's okay. But a Republican speaking to a church? Mentioning faith? That plays into the stereotype of Republican voters as ignorant religious zealots from Flyover Country and the Deep South.

I was raised in a West Coast state and now work in an East Coast state. I'm an educated, agnostic, centrist. But am I constantly amazed by the complete and total disregard my colleagues demonstrate when discussing their fellow Americans. The condescension is bad enough, but it comes with loathing and even hatred for Americans with different perspectives.

I'm not religious, but it bothers me a great deal that these media double standards drive public debates. Picking and choosing when and were to be a "person of faith" to appeal to specific voters only reinforces divisions we don't need as a nation.

There's also a clear misunderstanding of different religious beliefs and traditions. Mocking a politician who states that he or she prays on important matters doesn't strike me as "liberal" or "tolerant." I happen to sit and quietly reflect on major issues in my life. What if I told a reporter I meditated when making big decisions? Would I be mocked? Probably not. It's okay to be immersed in thought — as long as you don't call that process prayer.

I'm not a Republican, and certainly not a religious conservative, but it is easy to see how the rhetoric used against a vast swath of Americans and their values leads them to be defensive. A colleague bragged about touring various nations I consider backwards and intolerant, especially towards gays and women, right after she insulted Christians from Iowa. The hypocrisy of celebrating one region while condemning Americans escaped this colleague. She won't even read alternative viewpoints in this country, but was on a quest to understand the "brave and noble peoples fighting colonialism." One of the nations she visited has the death penalty for homosexuality. But she really hates her fellow Americans.

Only three days earlier, a New York Times columnist managed to insult Middle America while appearing on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher. David Carr said: "If it's Kansas, Missouri, no big deal. You know, that's the dance of the low-sloping foreheads. The middle places, right? [pause] Did I just say that aloud?"

I'm sorry, but if I hailed from Kansas or Missouri, I'd be really sick and tired of the Northeast elites mocking me as uninformed, simple-minded, backwards, and a manipulated tool of the GOP. The assumptions about Middle America are themselves uninformed and simple-minded.

The media are dominated by educated liberals residing in a handful of cities. They believe cities are cultured, rural towns are quaint. A college education is a sign of intellect, while manual labor is a sign of ignorance. Secularism is advanced, religion is outmoded. Of course, these elite city-dwelling liberals are really concerned about the working class in Middle America, but those morons in Kansas and Missouri can't seem to figure out what's best for themselves.

I'm not convinced we can have meaningful policy debates as long as Americans feel hatred and disdain for each other.

Yes, there are bigots, sexists, and homophobes and we should challenge their beliefs. But to assume the worst of vast swaths of this nation is absurd. I've visited numerous states and most Americans are hardworking, well-meaning people simply trying to provide the best they can for themselves and their families.

I believe the New York Times and the major news networks need to open large offices in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska, and other central states. Don't just spend a week or two covering a flood or drought in these states, either. I want these elite snobs, who are as guilty of bigotry as they claim Middle America is, to spend two or three years living and working in small-town America. That might, maybe, open some eyes to what the view from the Middle is.

Or the elites would simply find evidence to feel even more superior. Maybe we can't solve our problems as a nation.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Teaching and Testing

This week I received a note from a teaching organization reminding me to call my elected officials to oppose the president's education reform agenda. The organization's flyer emphasized the evils of testing. In particular, testing results might be used to terminate good teachers whose students test poorly.

The heated rhetoric concerning testing is littered with fallacies, from the absurd claims that thousands of "good teachers" might be terminated to accusations that "corporate testing firms" are pushing the tests to make money. I recognize there are political and commercial interests involved in education, but let's take a step back and ask ourselves if testing is always a bad idea.

It's obvious to me why parents and politicians wouldn't understand the union position.

I test students. Most of my colleagues give exams and lab practicums. We assign homework and projects, which are graded. As a profession, then, it is clear that teaching is not automatically opposed to testing — as long as the testing is limited to our students in our classrooms. Testing us or evaluating us based on student tests? We oppose that, even when it seems reasonable to the general public.

I like metrics, assuming the correct metrics are used in a given context.

Unfortunately, the wrong metrics are often applied to situations, resulting in meaningless, misleading, or downright stupid analyses. For example, I had a manager years ago who tracked "daily lines coded" to rate programmers. That is the wrong metric for programmer productivity. In fact, a great programmer strives for condense, fast, accurate code.

But, it would be reasonable to test programmers before hiring them. In fact, I would want programmers to be evaluated before extending a job offer. A test might be debugging a program with common errors. Another test might require the programmer write a basic SQL query extracting data from two tables with a common key. The point is, evaluating an employee's skills and knowledge makes sense, whereas judging the quantity of output regardless of quality is foolish.

If I am teaching a programming course, it is reasonable for my department to wonder how many students can demonstrate improved skills at the end of a semester. For example, I teach a course on design. It's logical to test how many students know the basic HTML/CSS to recreate a theoretical page design with body paragraphs in Times New Roman, indented one em-space, with no space between paragraphs. If the student doesn't know this information, either the student or I failed during the semester. Testing my entire class would reveal if I failed to achieve objectives or if the one student did.

Testing is not a bad metric for measuring knowledge gained. Although we should not test constantly, which takes time from teaching, some testing is valuable.

Contrary to the repeated mantra of education unions, include the national union to which I belong, testing does not necessarily, and certainly should not, require "teaching to the test." I would argue that teaching to the test represents not a failure of testing but a failure of pedagogy.

Not that testing is perfect. But it isn't nearly as flawed as the education establishment wants parents and politicians to believe.

I remember in the late 1980s an education professor asked about high scores on language portions of the SAT. "Those of you with high scores memorized the lists, didn't you? That's the problem with testing," she asserted.

"No," I blurted out, "I read a lot and remember the words from the stories and plays. I recall great writing."

"Well, you're different," was her terse answer.

That is still the attitude in too many education schools. They assume students doing well memorized material in isolated, atomized chunks. I know I couldn't learn that way. When I challenge this, I'm told there's "not enough time" for contextualized learning.

The education establishment wants people to hate testing, because with testing, observation, and parental feedback, there would be a chance to evaluate instructors on their performance. If they can prove testing is flawed, metrics are pointless, administrators are too untrustworthy, etc, they don't have to improve teaching -- they can keep blaming thousands of other variables.

And I am a member of the AFT. They claim testing is a way to weaken the union. Maybe we have some weak members? Maybe our teaching methods are flawed?

Schools have created testing regimes that are absurd. They have allowed the tests to dominate discussions in ways that do make testing, as currently done, a bad metric. But, instead of criticizing testing in general, why not work towards aligning test materials with the subjects taught?

I've met with teachers from across the United States. The best teachers guide students through hands-on projects that are exciting, compelling, and educational. From building model rockets to writing and producing audio dramas, students in these classrooms learn the subject materials that appear on state tests without thinking about the tests on a daily basis.

Innovate, create, explore, and discover. A student creating a simple game on a computer does memorize the underlying computer language and general skills. A student collecting insects or plant specimens for a science class learns about habitats, native species, and much more. Students remember what they do.

The schools that emphasize test-taking skills are short-changing students.

I've had teachers tell me that some students need to learn how to take tests. I understand that some special needs students struggle with tests entirely inappropriate to their limitations. But, again, the solution is not to criticize all testing but to help develop more appropriate metrics for some student populations.

Also, there is a declining return on the statistical value of long tests. We could test students for one to two hours in most subjects and have a relatively accurate measure of performance in any one subject area. Yet, most schools I've visited spend two weeks testing students each year. Two weeks? That's unnecessary for accurate metrics.

I have given 20 question tests and 100 question tests. The grades vary little between the two lengths, so what is the purpose of a longer test? At least in my courses, the longer exam would prove nothing and simply exhaust students. I can ask moderately difficult questions in the shorter exam and determine which students have mastered a topic.

Instead of being vehemently against testing and relying on rhetorical fallacies such as the slippery slope and unsupported protestations of possible anti-teacher bias, unions should embrace reasonable testing practices complemented by sound pedagogy.

Workers in other professions are evaluated by supervisors. Many are tested on a regular basis for continued licensure. To argue that teaching is "special" is to invite more extensive appraisals of our performances. Rhetorical claims of difference start to sound like claims to privilege.

Testing is not going away. What we should do is try to influence the nature of testing to ensure the metrics are chosen wisely and effectively.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Politicians and Ethos

Persuasion depends, at least partially, on the notion of "ethos" I blogged about last week. We tend to trust too much or too little, granting speakers and organizations too much or too little "ethos" (reputation or standing) in public policy debates. It is natural, and probably unavoidable, that we trust people we consider more like ourselves too much and distrust people belonging to "the other" group by an even greater margin. As I mentioned previously, research shows we are really good at finding errors in the statements of the opposition, but quick to dismiss the errors of those we support.

When you do not trust a speaker or information source, then no matter how valid the argument might be it suffers from the lack of ethos. We do not trust our political leaders. When we do trust them, we only trust "our party" or our small segment of a party. I'm not a registered anything and I'm admittedly an equal opportunity cynic. The deep distrust and dislike I have for politicians is shared by most Americans.

On July 13, the following polling data were published:

HILL POLL: Politicians, Congress unethical — and getting worse
By Mike Lillis - 06/13/11 06:00 AM ET
More than two-thirds of voters think the ethical standards of politicians have declined over the past generation, and almost as many say Capitol Hill lawmakers are downright unscrupulous, according to the results of a new poll commissioned by The Hill.
A striking 68 percent of likely voters polled said the ethical standards of politicians have deteriorated in recent decades, while just 7 percent said they have improved during that time, the survey said.
I am not going to trust someone I describe as unethical. That should be pretty obvious. If more than two-thirds of voters believe our leaders are less and less ethical, yet we face serious issues, how can engage in a serious debate about those issues?

Another set of data, these from Gallup, have held remarkably steady since July 2010:
Only 11 percent of the country has confidence in the United States Congress, making it the lowest ranked institution in a new Gallup poll.
Among the 1,020 adults surveyed, Congress rates lower than banks, labor, big business and Health Maintenance Organizations.
Respondents also expressed very little confidence in the media, as only 25 percent have confidence in newspapers, 3 percentage points more than those who said the same of television news.
Twenty-three percent have confidence in banks, 20 percent in labor, 19 percent in Big Business and 19 percent in HMOs.
I can tell students that quantitative data and careful research should be given weight in debates, but my students rightly ask me about the sources reporting the data. When you don't trust the source, the research doesn't matter. Some people will never believe particular political leaders, media figures, news sources, et cetera. When your level of distrust is that deep, that ingrained, it becomes part of your emotional identity.

With such animosity and distrust in our culture, I'm not sure how effective any rhetorical methods can be. I have colleagues who refuse to read any economic writing and research from the business community. The few colleagues I have with business management experience refuse to trust any government data. The result? The various sides involved in economic debates won't consider each other's research or theories.

This type of binary division of communities is visible even at the local and state level. We seek out and want to live among people like ourselves. It is the "Big Sort" and it is altering public policy debates.

I'm wondering how I might teach students to overcome such deep and depressing divisions to effectively communicate. How can we teach rhetorical skills that do more than appeal to those predisposed to our personal perspectives? Or, have we become so stratified as a culture that bridging groups is no longer the aim of public discourse? Maybe our aim now is to motivate "the base" and ignore the opposing ideas entirely, except as the opposition might further excite our base to action?

Sadly, I do believe public policy debates have reached a point of "us vs. them" closer to religious battles than genuine discovery. No longer is persuasion and consensus the goal. The only goal is winning, even if we have to vilify opponents and add to the culture of cynicism.

I hope my students see the dangers in this. However, there's a homogeneity within most academic settings, too, that makes it too easy to caricature opposing views. The result? We unconsciously teach our students, through modeling, to dislike our leaders and national institutions. I'm sure my cynicism is obvious to students, too.

When I hear a student say that he or she "hates" politician or group X, I know that the student isn't going to seek consensus solutions to problems. When you declare "hate" for anyone or any group, you cannot be a good audience for the information presented.

I wish we I didn't hear the word "hate" so often, but the data I've cited above shows why I do hear it in political discussions and policy debates.

One of the approaches I've tried to challenge these biases is to hand out speeches or statements by politicians and swap the names, party affiliations, and so on, to prove to students that they apply their biases uncritically. Sure enough, if a great idea is attributed to a hated politician, the students will want to take the debate position that the idea is horrible. They evaluate ideas solely by the source and want to embrace only some sources.

Modern policy debates are reduced to team loyalties. Consider how the governors of two Midwest states are perceived by voters:
In PPP's poll of Wisconsin voters Feb. 24-27, [Scott] Walker had an approval rating of 86% among Republicans and 8% among Democrats, for a partisan approval gap of 78 points. In next door Minnesota, Democrats support Mark Dayton with an approval rating of 86%, while only 12% of Republicans support Dayton.
In other words, party loyalty is everything in our current environment. Governors once were "local" politicians with broad-based support. Now? Even statewide elections are about party and that shapes the vile political commercials, so-called policy debates, and the media punditry. People blindly support their team — and my students are no exception to this. They adore or hate politicians. There's almost no realistic middle ground. Emotions and reputation are everything — pathos and ethos.

When I finally reveal which statements are from which sources in reality, students are stunned. Yet, I have repeated the exercise at the end of a semester with nearly the same results. My point to students: our biases are stronger than our ability to reason. I'm always heartened by the few students who have, by the end of a semester, learned not to look at the source before evaluating an argument. I dream of the day when every student reaches that stage of critical thinking.

The ethos of speakers and sources will always affect our judgments. We at least need to understand the power of ethos, both positive and negative.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The Purdue Online Writing Lab

The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University ( is one of the two websites I check when I have a writing related question. The other is the Tameri Guide, of course, since Susan and I tend to add content to Tameri based on our experiences writing and teaching. I am a bit envious of the great content on Purdue OWL, though. It is probably the best academic writing site on the Web.

Recently the OWL began adding slide shows, movies, and podcasts for students and teachers. The MLA and APA citation guides were already invaluable, but I've started to accept that students want content in digital form.

The podcasts' content focuses on rhetorical concepts. Because students struggle with ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos, any additional explanations are helpful. I'm for anything that helps students sort through the complicated textbook definitions of these concepts.

For a few years the OWL has been adding PowerPoint presentations on a range of writing topics. I'm not a fan of PowerPoint; slides are best used to introduce topics. Slides, by their nature, are superficial and should be accompanied by further reading and discussion. Still, the slides help students focus on key topics and concepts they should remember. The long list of available presentations is impressive and I do encourage teachers and students to browse the OWL library.

The OWL movies focus on visual rhetoric, but they too can be useful for writers. Unless we're discussing audiobooks, most of our words appear on pages or screens. Design affects the perceptions of texts, including how seriously a reader approaches the words. The OWL movies are a good starting point for discussions of visual rhetoric.

For the basics of academic writing, you won't find many resources equal to the OWL. Again, the website is:

Monday, June 06, 2011

Ethos - Yes, Reputation Matters

One of the many challenges we face teaching rhetoric is how to admit our own biases and how those affect us as audience members. After all, we teach our students to avoid falling for various fallacies — supposedly, even those employed by our own "side" within a debate or public policy discussion. Of course, we don't actually see our side and any opposing views clearly. Not even close. Study after study reveals we are better at spotting the fallacies and errors of our opponents. We distrust the other side(s) of arguments.

Today, I was pondering the power of "ethos" to shape public debates. In some ways, our evaluations of ethos represent our biases and cultural experiences. We judge people, and those judgments feed into how we measure ethos.

In classical rhetoric, ethos is translated as meaning a mix of character, reputation, standing, and position. I summarize ethos as the amount of respect and trust extended to a person based on assumed merit. That merit is not always earned, especially in cultures with strict caste systems. In those cultures, birthright creates instant ethos. Not that any culture is immune from birthright ethos, either, including the most "modern" and "progressive" Western cultures.

We each have an ethos scale. From the moment a speaker, author, director, or other public communicator is introduced we start to apply that ethos scale to the person, and that helps determine how much "slack" we grant the speaker.

For example, I would tend to trust an epidemiologist presenting information on contagion patterns. Anyone else, I would be listening for journal article titles, research references, and more. But I'd make the human mistake of trusting someone with credentials a bit less critically than I should.

We tell ourselves that whatever our ethos scales, they must be based on logic and reason. My scale admittedly favors certain scientists, economists, reporters, and so forth. I "trust" these people and what they communicate, primarily based on my value system. I admit that I trust some universities more than others, some hospitals more than others, and some media outlets more than others.

What brought ethos to mind today was the Anthony Weiner story. Because the story first appeared in certain media, many (most) of my colleagues refused to believe one of the leading liberal activists in Congress might be guilty of idiotic behavior and lying. The "ethos scales" of my colleagues led them to trust Weiner more than various media outlets. Ethos is definitely emotional, not merely a logical scale.

I'm not merely a skeptic. I am a curmudgeonly cynic, with misanthropic tendencies. Increasingly, trust no one is my approach to public discourse. I did not believe Anthony Weiner, from the start, but I also assumed the media attacking him had doggedly pursued him. But, I suppose that's also what opposition media do, left and right.

My ethos scale might not "go up to eleven" — I start from the position of doubting a speaker. I was surprised to learn that my friends and colleagues give anyone the benefit of the doubt. I try to never assume someone is being accurate, and I never assume a politician is honest and truthful. We cannot let ourselves imagine one "side" is honest and all others are not. Giving "ethos" (as in "good reputation") based on political, regional, religious, or other simplistic attributes is dangerous.

Ethos changes over time. There was a time when I trusted everything teachers said, right up until about second or third grade. There was a time I trusted most journalists, right up until I worked in newsrooms. We come to trust some groups of people and to distrust others, and these judgments evolve.

I study body language, verbal ticks, and other aspects of unintentional communication. That interest in micro-expressions and manipulative habits affects my ethos scale, too. Few people are worthy of standing because few have good character. Yes, I assume the worst of people because what makes us so human is our struggle to be better than our natures. I admire the men and women who admit to and rise above instinct and impulse.

Yet, even with all the reading I have done, poring over research on human nature, I still grant greater ethos to some people than others. In my mind it is logical to trust scientists within their disciplines.

I ask my students to develop lists of people they trust and don't trust. How do their cultural backgrounds, educational experiences, and other factors help determine trust?

Why did so many of my colleagues blindly believe whatever Anthony Weiner said? I could tell he was lying. I'm sure most people could, if they paid attention to his words, movements, and micro-expressions. Yet, his ethos carried the debate for many people I know. Maybe they learned a lesson about trusting a speaker based solely on his status within a group identity.

We tend to grant "ethos" to members of our tribe, our nation, our community. We want to trust members of our own team. That is a huge blind spot in debates and one we all have.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Slippery Slopes and the Media

I spend a few weeks in every course discussing the various forms of logical fallacy. One of the argument formulations that I dislike is the "slippery slope." I tend to group the slippery slope with the domino effect, the contagion principle, and the cascade potential arguments. In each of these variations, the argument is made that defensible action X could lead to indefensible action Y. Generally, the slippery slope embraces hyperbole — or genuine fear/paranoia that the person or group proposing X cannot be trusted to resist Y.

Various examples include:
  • If the minimum wage should be raised to $10 per hour, why shouldn't it be $20 or $50 per hour?
  • If you want to set the speed limit at 55 mph for safety, why not set it at 20 mph?
  • If you want to regulate fat content in foods, why not ban all unhealthy foods?
  • If you want to legalize marijuana, why not legalize heroine or cocaine?
  • If you want to raise the marginal tax to 50 percent, why shouldn't it be 60 or 80 percent?
  • If you want to legalize gay marriage, why not legalize polygamy?

The "slippery slope" comes from all political directions, an equal opportunity absurdity. Sadly, the slippery slope and its siblings are common debate devices on cable news networks and in the various partisan media. As stated earlier, often this is a reflection of distrust, not an intentional misrepresentation. Paranoia is not logic, though, even if large numbers of people really do believe Democrats are socialists and Republicans are fascists, each secretly plotting to destroy the United States.

No serious Republican leader has suggested lowering tax rates to zero, but I've heard MSNBC commentators suggest just that. The slippery slope: Republicans want to lower business tax rates, so they must want to do away with all business taxes. (Many libertarians would replace our tax system with a sales tax, but that's not "zero" taxes.)

No serious Democratic leader has suggested legalizing polygamy, but I've heard religious conservatives on Fox News Channel make that claim. I even heard one ask if bestiality would follow legalized gay marriage. The absurdity seems obvious to me, but not to this commentator.

Raising the minimum wage to index it to inflation does not logically lead to a $20/hr minimum wage. Nor does legalizing medical marijuana lead to the legalization of heroine.

Yesterday, I saw a Democrat suggesting that indexing Social Security to lifespan increases would "end Social Security." I'm not sure how increasing retirement age by a month or two every three years could end Social Security. Either the politician believes the Republicans would risk losing all future elections or he was engaging in slippery slope hyperbole: increase retirement a month now, eventually you won't get to retire before 90.

Slippery slopes make great television but aren't informative. It is a shame our leaders and the media commentators are helplessly attached to such sloppy arguments. Trying to argue that a single, incremental step in any direction leads to a leap in that direction should result in laughter. Sadly, the moderators of discussions seem more likely to enjoy the slippery slope than many of their guests.

Chris Matthews and Sean Hannity live on slippery slopes. Matthews cannot resist asking Republicans dumb questions about "doing away" with the social safety net, which he has to know will not happen. Hannity cannot resist arguing that any government regulation is a step towards "socialism" or something more insidious. I cannot stand to watch either host for more than few minutes because they don't argue the nuanced realities of politics. The slippery slope is too convenient.

Students struggle with the slippery slope because it can seem like a logical argument.

However, the slippery slope often relies on omission and simplification. The slippery slope assumes the audience won't consider any nuance, context, or pragmatism when evaluating the arguments.

Let's take the 55 mph speed limit. Yes, it was about saving lives, but it was also about engine fuel efficiency, pollution control, wear on infrastructure, and dozens of other variables. The speed limit was not about one thing: it was a set of interconnected issues that resulted in a compromise based on cost-benefit analysis. The 55 mph limit represents the most fuel-efficent point of many engines. It represents the speed at which most adults have reasonably good reaction times to obstacles ahead. It is the speed at which "harmonic" vibrations are least likely to damage roads via "rippling" effects. The "slippery slope" argument depends on the audience not asking questions about variables other than safety.

The same pattern is true of numerous other public policy debates. The slippery slope arguments are simple, usually reliant on one or two variables, not the complex web of variables we must actually address as a society.

You really can have tax rates that are too high or too low. Economists, left and right, admit this. But politicians embrace the slippery slope arguments. Democrats claim Republicans want no taxes, while Republicans suggest Democrats want to confiscate all wealth. The slippery slope causes Democrats to argue a two percent tax reduction is a step towards no taxes at all on the rich. The slope tilts right with the argument Democrats will raise taxes on the hardest workers until no one wants to work anymore. Again, dumb arguments unless you believe one side or the other is evil (and stupid).

I admit it is tempting, even comforting, to think of opponents as villains. That doesn't make the slippery slope logical.