Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Two Mediocre Obama Inaugural Addresses

It seems President Obama, famed orator, is generally a mediocre speaker. That might not be the popular image of our president, but his speeches have not left a lasting impression on scholars. Rhetoricians, historians, and political scientists seem to agree that for an excellent speaker, technically, the president has yet to deliver a speech that will be recited by future generations. Not even a great line has taken hold. Why is that?

Writes David Ignatius for the Washington Post:
The only voice that really soared at midday was Beyonce's, while singing the national anthem. President Barack Obama's second inaugural address, by contrast, was flat, partisan and surprisingly pedestrian—more a laundry list of preferred political programs than a vision for a divided America and disoriented world.
ABC News reminds us the first Obama inaugural was uninspiring, too. It was the moment that mattered, but the president delivered a generic speech four years ago.
Historians seem to like President Obama's first inaugural address, delivered four years ago, but some speechwriters don't, as NPR recently noted. Obama's first address didn't have a signature line, something the best inaugural addresses often do.
NPR's story on Obama's inaugural addresses reminds us that he simply doesn't "wow" the crowd with words. Obama's power is pure charisma, something beyond the words. Listen to the audiences at his speeches, the "shout-outs" to the president. He is a star, a celebrity. He doesn't need to give great speeches, only "good enough" speeches.

I've shown Obama speeches to my classes, asking them to note specific facts and then verify those facts. In one instance, we watched a five minute segment of a speech delivered at another college campus. Five minutes into the speech, a student asked, "When will there be any facts?" I explained generalizations are common in political stump speeches. The student responded, "Until you asked us to write down facts, I just assumed he was a master of that logos thing."

It is disheartening for my students. I showed them Reagan did the same thing. Lots of nice anecdotes, especially about letters from fellow Americans, but little substance. If you want substance from a recent president, turn to Clinton, Carter, or even Nixon. These men used facts and figures constantly.

President Obama is keenly aware of Google and YouTube. He knows any statement will be checked and double-checked. Even an accurate statement can be demonstrably manipulative — so why make any statements of substance?

Obama does well with a teleprompter. Ironically, we dock points in speech classes when a student has failed to memorize a speech. And we know Obama doesn't do well in impromptu situations — witness the first debate with Mitt Romney.

As one scholar expressed it today, the president's superior rhetorical skills are part of a mythos surrounding him. It is better to watch his speeches than to read them if you want to appreciate his strengths.

The only lines we associate with the president aren't the hallmarks of a great speaker. In fact, they are signs of a poor speech and someone unsure of himself:
  • Let me be perfectly clear.
  • I don't want to be misunderstood.
  • Let's be honest.
Ponder what the markers convey about the speaker. These are not phrases uttered with confidence. Generally, we assume someone telling us to expect honesty and clarity is about to lie. Nixon used similar phrases — and we know how honest Nixon was.

Maybe the State of the Union speech will be better.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Composition and Rhetoric, in Literature's Shadow

A comment on an education listserv this weekend raised an important question: Why do we assign anyone with an "English degree" to teach composition, rhetoric, or technical writing? A science graduate with a degree in computer science would not be hired to teach "closely related" courses at most institutions. How closely related are the various "communication" courses and can most instructors of one move laterally into any other?

I am torn on this issue because most of the English and rhetoric scholars I know have completed coursework in a myriad of topics. It isn't uncommon for rhetorical scholars to come from English literature, social studies, journalism, or the sciences. I've also met a literature professor with an advanced biology degree. We need to remember that people with doctorates probably love learning in general and are flexible enough to cross fields and disciplines.

Yet, it does seem literature people are favored for openings with ads that read: "World literature professor sought. Must be willing to teach one section of first-year composition." The phrase "willing to teach" implies teaching composition is an unpleasant obligation, a necessary evil if you want to teach literature. I have yet to see the advertisement that reads: "Composition and rhetoric professor sought. Must be willing to teach one literature course."

This seems to be a one-way problem. Why is that? If you have any English degree, we ask you to teach first-year composition. Yet we seldom ask the composition teacher to cover women's literature or dramatic writing. It is as if "composition and rhetoric" are assumed to be easy, basic courses to teach. Professional and technical writing also experience a similar disregard, even disrespect, as disciplines.

I am not trying to argue that either rhetoric or technical communication is superior to other fields. I am stating that neither rhetoric nor technical communication receive professional respect on many campuses.

Would we hire a computer science graduate to teach electrical engineering? After all, computers are electrical, right? Or maybe the computer science graduate could teach logic! Yes, computer programming is all about logic. Yet, I don't want a most computer scientists to teach philosophy course on logic and reasoning.

While I definitely endorse teaching in multiple disciplines, and team teaching, the key is that we want teachers to be the best and the most passionate in the topics they teach. Passion should matter — and so should some specialization.

I have taken literature courses, but I do not view myself as qualified to teach any and all literature courses. I would teach some literature courses, and have. I know a fair amount about American literature and existential literature, but nothing significant about Asian, African, or South American literature. The best I could do is learn alongside my students when asked to teach a literary tradition beyond my knowledge. That might not be a bad approach, but it wouldn't be the same as having an Asian literature expert teach a course. The idea that "teaching is teaching" and "communication is all rhetorical" seems problematic to me.

My degrees do not demarcate all my skills or knowledge. Yet, my degrees and certifications are a good indication to an employer of my strengths and interests. (I would love to add a degree or two, in additional disciplines I enjoy.) A school would need time to understand what I should or should not teach outside the areas of my doctorate.

"We've all had to teach things we don't really know," said a colleague. She suggested that my degrees prove the various communication disciplines overlap sufficiently as to be "one and the same" for teaching purposes.

The fields I studied are loosely related, but they are not "one and the same." My journalism degree did not rely on units from my English degree. The courses were housed in different schools, with different approaches to writing and editing. A newspaper article is not an MLA research paper. "Writing is writing" ignores how wonderfully different communication fields are.

I started an MFA program in poetry, but I did not complete the degree — switching to a master's degree in composition theory and rhetoric. It is important, because I am a creative writer but I did not embrace the pedagogies I experienced in creative writing courses. I didn't "fit" the course models as a student and I would not employ the practices as an instructor. Instead of completing the MFA in poetry, I took courses in film, stage, and visual rhetoric. I am passionate about the performing arts, namely stage and screen, not classic literature. Since the program offered no specialty in dramatic writing, I found the rhetoric emphasis more aligned with my passions. Rhetoric has an obvious connection to public performance.

I love the rhetoric of fiction — but that's a different approach to literature than is practiced in most courses. Personally, I don't know why. Studying the rhetorical choices of authors fascinates me and many others. The works of Wayne C. Booth demonstrate the potential of a rhetorical approach to literature.

My doctoral studies focus on technology ("new media") and rhetoric. I did not take a single course in literature, nor did I research anything connected to literature. I studied ways to improve writing instruction via technology. I studied online course design, how online communities function, and the technologies themselves. I created prototype websites, applying my technical skills. Not many literature graduate students spend two years immersed in software and Web development.

I understand that many English and communication departments are small and need teachers willing to lead almost any course offered. The problem is that the impulse exists to hire literature experts and assume those professors will be "good enough" for the writing courses. Can someone with no coursework in writing pedagogy be a great writing instructor? Certainly. Can we always assume any "English" teacher can teach writing or rhetoric? No.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

NBC: Get Ahead by Skipping Last Two Years of College

Is higher education a good value? Is the education "worth it" for students destined for debt and uncertain job prospects?

I often write about the value of a liberal arts foundation — but that doesn't mean that I believe the most promising career prospects are in the humanities. Students asking me will be told they should focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), while they also have to be selective within the STEM fields. Not every science has great job prospects, but I can predict that English and art majors are going to face much bleaker prospects.

My position isn't a contradiction; it is nuanced. If you are going to pursue a four-year degree it should have a solid foundation of liberal arts knowledge. This is because it is unlikely that graduates will remain in a single field throughout their professional lives. The humanities encourage creativity and critical analysis.

But, the traditional university education isn't for everyone. Though I would argue that capable students should have the ideal education — even if they don't appreciate its value until later in life — I also realize that vocational alternatives are important.

I've told students, much to their surprise, that if they are only interested in getting job, maybe they should consider community colleges or certification programs. If you want to fix computers and are going to actively resist art, history, and English courses, then you might as well pursue a technical certification instead of a degree. You can always complete a degree later in life, though being a returning student isn't easy.

New research supports my advice to those students with purely vocational aims.
Get Ahead by Skipping Last Two Years of College?
NBC News | December 30, 2012 | 11:53 AM EST

Want a solid, middle-class salary straight out of college? Skip the last two years.

A site that analyzes state-level data of how much people earn a year after graduating college found some counterintuitive results: Certain students who earn associate's degrees can get higher salaries than graduates of four-year programs — sometimes thousands of dollars more.

"These numbers and the consistency of these numbers are surprising to me," said Mark Schneider, president of CollegeMeasures.org and a vice president at the American Institutes for Research. CollegeMeasures aggregates anonymized education and earnings data to figure out who earns what after graduation.

Some of its results run counter to commonly-held assumptions. Community college degrees, long considered also-ran prizes in the race for academic achievement, "are worth a lot more than I expected and that I think other people expected," Schneider said.

But there is a catch: You have to earn your degree in a technical or occupational program to earn anywhere near $40,000. That's the approximate average earned by students who went to school and worked in the state of Virginia and graduated with two-year degrees in these fields between 2006 and 2010. Graduates of two-year nursing programs earned an average of $45,342.
Associate's degrees and technical certifications are, generally, much cheaper than a four-year degree. In California, you can complete an associate's degree at some public colleges for $2500 to $3000, as tuition averages $600 per semester. Even in states with higher tuition rates, community colleges cost a fraction of university tuition — and the quality of courses is often excellent. If a student decides to transfer to a university, the associate's degree remains a great bargain thanks to transferable units.

For 2011, the estimated total cost of an associate's degree at the College of Sequoias in Visalia, California, was $4,796. If you complete a basic vocational nursing program or computer certification program, the investment is returned within the first year of full-time employment. You can't make that claim about most bachelor's degrees.
The surprising finding is a comparison of those earnings to what bachelor's degree graduates made, on average: $36,067.

People with liberal arts and humanities majors didn't even fare that well: on average, grads with political science majors earned $31,184, history majors earned $30,230 and English majors only earned $29,222 a year.

Schneider said this pattern of workers with two-year technical degrees out earning many four-year grads has been consistent across the states it has studied so far.

A generation ago, things were different. Before the recession of 1980-1981, a bachelor's degree of any kind was a ticket to a career that offered middle-class earnings, said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce.

This isn't the case anymore, he said. "It's a system in which you can't just have an ambition to go to college and get a degree. You have to pay attention to the courses and the content of your degree."

"The degree level matters, but a lot less than it used to," he said. "What matters is what you take. Thinking about it as a hierarchy of degrees isn't the way to think about it anymore."
Education has always been "vocational" to some extent, but the value metrics are changing. We need to be honest with students about the financial costs of and returns on a university education. For many, a two-year degree or certificate might be the best choice after high school.

As someone with degrees in English, journalism, and rhetoric, I'm not about to claim we don't need experts in the humanities — but we don't need many professors and researchers in those fields. Having a double-major or pursuing a graduate degree in a STEM field is a great way to expand career options. Technical skills represent job insurance. It would be great to have English and art degree programs filled with students also studying engineering, biology, and businesses.

Myself, I am considering updating technical certifications and maybe some additional credentials. That's not because my English degrees have no "value" — but their value isn't monetary in this job market.