Monday, September 23, 2013

My Academic Home

This is where I am now teaching and how the institution views itself. It is all about rankings and striving to be number one. It is the most competitive environment I've encountered, extremely focused on measurable outcomes.

I absolutely love where I am teaching. It aligns well with my nature and my interests. I love math, especially statistics. I teach within the undergraduate quantitative economics program. Numbers make sense to me. Statements without data are beliefs — and I don't have faith in those.

Student evaluations of professors are published online for all to see every seven weeks. There is pressure to get the best test scores, best evaluations, most grant monies, and so on. Metrics and more metrics. Comparing how the university operates to current debates among writing (composition and rhetoric) teacher-scholars is fascinating.

http://www.tepper.cmu.edu/about-tepper/school-mission/index.aspx

Monday, September 16, 2013

Rhetoric without a Home

When I read through the discussion groups and mailing lists for composition and rhetoric scholars, it is impossible to miss the political biases of the major figures and the most vocal members of these communities. The scholarly communities I observe, and sometimes in which I attempt to participate, are focused "social justice" and various "studies" (women's, queer / LGBT, colonialism, minority).

It can require some effort to find research focused on teaching effective writing and communication. The scholars will argue that focusing on inequity and political issues is a form of advocating for new approaches to teaching. But teaching what? My colleagues have a confusing, contradictory history of arguing for "minority dialects" while also trying to teach college composition skills.

As a scholar, I want to focus on how to best communicate complex concepts. I understand we should ask "why" we teach something and what the ethical implications of our practices are, but in the end I want to be the most effective teacher of rhetoric I can be.

I understand that many of my colleagues focus on "social justice" because they feel compelled to do so. They are upper-middle-class revolutionaries, with their doctorate degrees, houses, iPads, iPhones, and double-shot venti mochas. They find themselves protesting the system in which they have found success. Are there problems to address in society? Yes. But maybe the writing or rhetoric classroom isn't the best place to begin the revolution. If you are so compelled to act, then go… take action!

"What about you?" I've been asked. "You're striving to improve the lives of your students."

Yes, I do want to improve the lives of my students and others: by teaching them to write and communicate in the world as it is. If they use those communication skills to become advocates, that's great. If they use those skills to become successful in business, that's fine with me, too. I hope they communicate honestly and ethically, but I don't seek to convert students to my political or philosophical viewpoint. Nor do I hide my views, certainly, since students can find my writings online and in print.

In my classroom, undergraduate economics, statistics, and business majors learn to write and speak more effectively. It is not my job to change business majors seeking to work in finance into Peace Corp volunteers. Not that I don't assign readings that challenge all viewpoints, but I don't view "saving souls" as my role. And yes, that does represent my underlying social philosophy, making it oddly political to be open to all student views on these matters.

When I mention that I teach "rhetoric of economics" within a business school some of my composition and rhetoric colleagues appear to be horrified. There are many underlying assumptions about what I must teach, namely the assumption that I must be actively promoting greed and some simplistic Ayn Rand social Darwinism. Sorry, but that's not what I teach.

I teach how to write about the math and models that underly economics. These are often statistical models that have nothing to do with profit and loss. I am not teaching my students that greed is good or that life is all about having the most toys.

Economics is a broad field, focused on how models of efficiency and scarcity. Economists might study how to best allocate resources, or they might study how people negotiate within personal relationships. Yes, there are economics behind love and romance: biological efficiency versus psychological efficacy.

My dean studies voting methodologies and sports scheduling. My program director studies climate change and public policy. But, rhetoricians don't understand what economists study. Rhetoric of economics? Composition and rhetoric scholars assume rhetoric of economics must involve labor or class, which is not what "economics" means. Curious that rhetoricians, who constantly defend the word "rhetoric," resist what "economics" means, reflecting the biases of some rhetorical scholars.

A colleague has suggested that I stop trying to submit papers and research to composition and rhetoric journals. Instead, focus on economics journals. Rhetoric of economics doesn't seem to have a place within rhetoric at this moment. It might, but not at the present.

My other interests are also not "trendy" within rhetoric at this moment. If I do explore the rhetoric of fiction or the rhetoric of philosophy in the future, I'll likely have to concentrate on journals that explore creative writing or philosophy, not rhetoric journals or collections. Even the "interdisciplinary" journals and collections don't seem as broadly conceived as I would hope. In the end, they reflect the biases of the scholars within rhetoric.

I already had "homes" as a creative writer. Now, I've found a home as an educator. Next, to find a home as a scholar.

Monday, September 02, 2013

She… Changed: A Complex Economist

The rhetoric text I'm using this semester, The Rhetoric of Economics, was written by Deirdre McCloskey [http://www.deirdremccloskey.com]. The text is probably my favorite rhetoric text, and it isn't a bad philosophy text, either. I can't praise McCloskey's works enough — I enjoy the writing style and the depth she provides.

And yet, because students have located this Google thing, they quickly discover that McCloskey is more complex than they could imagine. McCloskey evolved, from a Western Marxist perspective to a libertarian featured at Cato Institute events. Some students get stuck on that transition. How in the world does a good, proper, academic shift from Marx to Friedman? Those students ask some great questions about politics, philosophy, and economics.

Then there are the students who find, and cannot get beyond, McCloskey's book Crossing: A Memoir. You can read an excerpt of the book on McCloskey's personal website [http://www.deirdremccloskey.com/gender/dee.php].

I've worked with two transgender colleagues, both in the field of computer science. I never thought of their computing or mathematics skills as related to their genders. They are the women they are, certainly, but math is math and I don't really need to know much about the author of a great journal article or book. But economics, rhetoric, and philosophy are unlike computer science.

A transgender person confronts gender issues daily, and gender is intertwined with philosophy and politics. Economists study gender inequality, in various forms. McCloskey is, therefore, in a unique position to study and speak on issues of equality, fairness, justice and so on.

This short excerpt captures McCloskey the libertarian and the social activist:
We Americans like telling people what to do, as in Prohibition or the war on drugs. It's not even Blue Cross' money: Over the years I've paid 10, 20 times more in medical insurance than has been paid back to me in expenses. From an actuarial point of view, there's no moral hazard. It's not as if millions of men will step forward to take advantage if gender reassignment and jaw pointing are paid for. The policy is sheer, stupid crossphobia. Sweet land of liberty and of stubborn, self-justifying hatreds.
My students cannot seem to understand choice and liberty might correspond to a reduced government safety net. This was McCloskey, wanting to use her money, to complete a process. She uses her own journey as an example of negative liberties, and as support for her journey from Marxism to Classical Liberalism. She is a religious person, and certainly no anarchist, but she discovered that freedom from government (and corporate) policies was desirable.

Philosophy is shaped by our experiences. The existentialism of Sartre and Camus grew out of World War II. The objectivism of Rand grew out of her experiences under Communism. Critiques of capitalism are often based on living within crony capitalist nations. The loudest critics of Chinese communism are expatriates of that nation. In other words, as we see the world close up, we come to see the flaws of the systems around us. The risk is that we might embrace another philosophy or political viewpoint without appreciating its deep flaws.

McCloskey might or might not be right in her economic and philosophical views. I tend to agree with her more than I disagree. But, I have to remind myself that like everyone, she is a product of lived experiences.

My students need to appreciate that, too.
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