Thursday, February 28, 2013

To Error or Not to Error...

I am a reader of blogs.

Surely, in this day and age of blogginess, I am not alone in my love for them.

Currently, I am enamored with Garr Reynolds' Presentation Zen blog.

It speaks to me.

Each week Mr. Reynolds comes up with an interesting and enlightening post that immediately shakes me up - in a good way. His posts remind me that, much like my writing, I am a work in progress.

And we all need a swift kick/reminder of that once in awhile.

A lot of the scholarly work that I do is centered in Performance Theory. Having been an actor for many years of my life, I cannot help but notice performances in all aspects of day-to-day living.

So, naturally, when I came across Reynolds' blogpost entitled "Lessons in Engagement from the Flight of the Conchords," I was hooked. First of all, that group is hilarious. Second, "engagement" is quite possibly my most favorite word ever. And I'll tell you why:

Performers engage their audience. Having been a performer, I know this and feel qualified to tell you this.

Engagement is not an easy trick. However, for some people it comes naturally, and for others it is a struggle.

How does one accomplish the task of being engaging?

According to Reynolds, this is done by being human and he argues that being human means being imperfect.

Reynolds writes: "What makes some of the best speeches or presentations so memorable is not that they are perfect or slick, or overly polished, but that they are human. And to be human is to be imperfect. This is why so many of us are attracted to live musical performances. Studio recordings are fine, but there is a visceral human element that one gets from a live performnce."

My favorite part of that quote? He spelled performance wrong.

I'm not quite sure if he did it on purpose or not, but I cannot imagine a more perfect moment to do it.
Admittedly, many of my own papers are full of spelling errors - that I catch most of the time. However, once in awhile they slip by me.

And you know what? I think this is ok.

I admit that I'm a bit of an anti-grammarian. A statement that makes the ears of many of my most favorite professors bleed. And I'm okay with that (well, kind of. Ear bleeding sounds AWFUL).

My errors are what make my writing mine.

There is a pattern to my errors. For example, commas are going to kill me. I'm pretty sure of it.
I also have a tendency to commit run-on sentence crimes.

Do these errors make my writing any less engaging? No, if anything they make me appear more human, thus imperfect.  However, my errors can be distracting to those versed in the ways of grammar, and then the solid points I'm making run the risk of getting ignored.

It just comes down to the fact that I am faulty. And I'm pretty sure everyone else is too.
But how do I reconcile this in my writing? Because although I'm okay with my errors, many people reading my work are not.

Fact: I do not spend the amount of time that I probably should editing my work for grammatical errors. I have paid the price for this lack of editing many times.

 It's just that I am more concerned with my writing being clear and engaging - and I want to make sure that it sounds like ME.

After all, people are ultimately attracted to and want to learn about what you have to say and your particular point.

Also, it seems that when people read they want two things: to be entertained and to be educated.

I would like to think that educated would come first - but it seems that entertainment is what grabs a reader.

And if you can grab your reader and keep them engaged, then you have the opportunity to educate them.

If an article or essay is dry and appears as if a computer produced it, I won't read it. Simple as that.
It's sad and possibly a very telling fact about my personality.

But I don't think I'm the only person out there who thinks this way.

If a paper has grammatical errors but is engaging, will I read it? Yep. I might snicker a bit, but I'll read it.

Do I think that people should be out there writing papers loaded with grammatical errors and typos?

Absolutely not.

Why? Well, because in order for your work to be has to appear as if it is worthy of being read.

Academia prefers the language and writing of white-upper middle class people. Some people don't recognize this, or they possibly don't want to admit it. Sadly, if you don't write this way, you better figure out how to ... or you will not make it through school nor will your work be read.

This is a disappointing fact and a fact that I do not agree with.

So, my advice to people working to write in their own way while adhering to grammatical guidelines and institutional rules is this: think of your writing as drama. In drama there usually are many different characters or people with different identities. Your identity is not singular or fixed, so why should your writing be that way?

According to screenwriter Syd Fields: "All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no action; without action, you have no character; without character, you have no story; and without story, you have no screenplay."

Think of your paper as drama. Your little drama is going to experience conflict -- either with a professor or peer reviewer. If you did not have this conflict, you would have no action ... meaning no revision or acceptance. Revision gives you the opportunity to develop your writing, thus develop your character. And no revision means you have no or have an underdeveloped character. Without character your writing is without a strong message ... and if you don't have a strong message, you don't have a good paper.

If you do not have a strong message, there is no way that your paper is engaging.
If your paper isn't engaging, it probably won't be read. And guess what else?
If your paper has grammatical errors, it might suffer the same fate.

Goodness. This is getting tragic.

Well, does anyone out there think that errors are okay?

Yes! According to Mike Rose, who is AMAZING, "...we should welcome certain kinds of errors, make allowance for them in the curricula we develop, analyze rather than simply criticize them. Error marks the place where education begins" (189).

Our errors, painful and annoying (and sometimes ignored) as they may be, are important.

Don't be afraid of your errors! Embrace them! They provide you with moments to improve your already mad skilz.  Fixing your error does not mean that you are losing your voice or becoming any less engaging. It means that you are taking the time to make sure that you are functioning on all cylinders.

Fixing your errors also means that you are aware that you are imperfect - and by acknowledging your imperfection you embrace your humanity.

You should probably listen to this while doing all of that error embracing.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Critical Thinking: Batman vs Spiderman

Critical thinking is the gem that every teacher looks for in a student paper, and for many students this is the largest hurdle to overcome.

If we look at critical thinking as defined by the National Council for Critical Thinking, then it "is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action."

Sounds tough, right!

Actually, it isn't all that difficult.

For example: "Is Batman tougher than Spiderman?" is a question that can spawn a lively debate between two critically thinking adolescent boys.

Batman has the cool cars and gadgets, but Spiderman has the superhuman strength. Spiderman has those cool Spidey web-shooters, but Batman has the cooler, more intimidating suit.

Who will win? Check out the youtube video above to find the answer to this age old problem:

Beyond the playground debates, like the example above, this type of skillful analysis is what teachers look for in students' papers.

It is actually the best part of writing papers when done thoroughly. Critical thinking not only provides a student with an introduction, body and conclusion for a class paper, but it also provides an opportunity to ask oneself those tough questions that just don't come up in our mundane routines.

For example, if a teacher assigns an argumentative essay asking students to choose between the superpower of flight or invisibility, then students have many questions and avenues to consider.

In order to make an educated choice, we will need to consider and discuss the parameters of each power. Then students will have to consider what actions the powers will enable them to perform. After mulling over these details, we will need to consider our own values in order to make a suitable match to the superpower.

After-all, we do not want to get a decision of this magnitude wrong and then have major regrets!

The same goes for more conventional essay topics. Topics like gun-control, the legalization of gay-marriage, or the separation of church and state. These are the topics we must take seriously, and discuss as thoroughly as possible in our essays.

Critical thinking is how we learn, develop our own ideas, and essentially become the superheroes we  want to be.  It is also our superpower to writing successful essays.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Induction and Writing Papers

In my previous blog post, I made a sincere, if imperfect, effort to draw some basic distinctions between deductive and inductive reasoning. Although deductive reasoning is an essential part of our cognitive framework, much of the reasoning we do when we write essays or research papers is inductive. A key part of completing many writing assignments, not to mention an infinite number of non-writing tasks, is to generate and defend conclusions based on the words or the testimony of an expert. 

Obviously, the concept of "expertise" is complex. When does a person become an expert in some field? How do we decide when to bestow that title on an "expert?"

To give an example of this complexity, consider the legal career of Thurgood Marshall. I would imagine that most people presume that a lawyer is an expert on the law because of the education that he completed. Colloquially speaking, the concept of "education" would basically reduce to the following two questions: 

"When did you graduate from law school?" 
"What law school did you graduate from?" 

Thurgood Marshall earned his Juris Doctor from Howard University Law School in 1933, graduating first in his class. He then went on to become the first African American appointed to The United States Supreme Court. It's an impressive resume, isn't it?

While every lawyer doesn't have such a sterling profile, most of us assume that a person who earns a Juris Doctor degree from an American Bar Association accredited law school is an "expert" about, if not the entire American Legal Code, then at least some particular aspect of it. One lawyer could be an expert on the criminal legal code; another lawyer could be an expert on the U.S. Constitution. Thurgood Marshall, being a Supreme Court justice, would be an expert on both the criminal legal code and on the U.S. Constitution.  

The point is that if I'm writing an essay in my composition class about the FCC and its policies toward censoring the f-word on the public airwaves, I would, if he were still alive, ask Thurgood Marshall for his assessment of the issue. The answers he articulates for me would provide a well-forged link in my reasoning chain. The link would be well-forged because, as an expert in the U.S. Constitution, Thurgood Marshall  would have knowledge about it that can trusted by all reasonable non-legal experts.

My reasoning chain might be constructed in the following way:

1. Some people believe that XYZ is true about the First Amendment 
2. Thurgood Marshall  believes that X is true and Y is true about the First Amendment, but he disputes that Z is true.
3. Thurgood Marshall is an expert about the First Amendment.
4. Thus, I have a good reason to doubt the truth of Z. 
In the same way that a lawyer is an expert on certain legal topics, someone with a Ph.D. in particular academic discipline would be an expert in that discipline. This is why many of your professors want you to consider the author of text when you look for research sources. The author of a book or the author of a peer reviewed academic journal probably has a Ph.D. in a particular field thus we can justifiably assume that he/she is an expert in that field. Appealing to that expert's authority to justify a conclusion is an acceptable way to construct a chain of reasoning. 

Complexity will almost always arise when you write a paper. For example, what happens when two experts disagree? When experts disagree, it actually allows you to carefully consider each person's position and then ask yourself which one is the more cogent. If you're writing a paper about Psychology, obviously the research (its methodology, for example) would be a good place to consider which expert you find more persuasive.

Of course, there are ways for a person to achieve expertise in a particular discipline without earning an advanced degree. For example, while a person could become an expert in journalism by earning a Ph.D in Journalism, there are many professional journalists who attain expertise on a topic by carefully researching a topic as an employee for a news organization like The New York Times or PBS.    

If a journalist from The New York Times  spends six months writing a series of feature length articles about the pros and cons of hydraulic fracking, many of us would justifiably consider that journalist, if not an "expert," then certainly someone who's opinion about hydraulic fracking is more informed, more nuanced than, say, the owner of my local Seven Eleven. 

The journalist's stories become reliable sources because of the expertise he/she has achieved.  When you write an argumentative paper, you might appeal to the journalist's authority about hydraulic fracking to make your case. When you appeal to a relevant authority in an argument, you are arguing inductively.   

All this talk about becoming an expert or achieving an expertise is relevant because most of our inductive arguments rely on the authority of experts. Much of the article by the journalist in The New York Times  will be quotes and paraphrases from experts in geology and petroleum engineering. The article will also probably include the testimony from people who've been deeply affected by agreeing to lease their land to a natural gas drilling company.  

In this sense, whatever the journalist concludes, his/her reasoning will be inductive in nature. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Defeating My Arch Nemesis: Using Writing to Learn Math

When I was in first grade, a skinny six-year old sporting long piggy tails and buck teeth, I quickly learned that math was very hard for me.  Longingly I watched my friends go out for recess while I sat inside and attempted to fix the math problems I had done incorrectly earlier. I just couldn't do them right.

And when I couldn't do them right, my teacher would sit me in the corner. Humiliating. I was the girl constantly in tears in the corner, and the cute boy in class (who was a math whiz) thought I was some sort of weirdo (which I am....but still).

The experience created an instant mental math block that I have fought  my entire life. The rest of my grade school career was bleak in the math department, and I have to admit that I never passed a high school Algebra class.

When I started my college career at Parkland College, back in the mid-90s, I had to take basic math. I was not surprised and slowly worked my way up to beginning Algebra. The first day of my college Algebra class sent me into nervous fits. I felt like my six-year old self, only with straighter teeth and shorter hair.

I was determined to do better, and I only wanted to take this class one time. Due to the fact that I came from a large family with not so large of an income, it was up to me to pay for my schooling, and I knew that I did not want to pay to re-take an Algebra class. So, I had resolved to work my butt off and figure this whole math thing out even if it caused my hair to go prematurely gray.

I walked up to my professor before class, wish I could remember her name because she changed my life, and told her of my math woes. She smiled and nodded and asked me what my interests were. At the time my interests circulated around my boyfriend (so stupid!), but I managed to say something like, "Well, I really like English and Theater." She then told me that she had some tricks up her sleeves that could help me with my struggles, and we started class.

Well, I didn't believe her.

I had been told, by many teachers and tutors, that they knew exactly what to do to "fix" me and cure me of my math ignorance. So naturally I just took a deep breath preparing to weather the storm.

After my professor had handed out the syllabus, explained the schedule, and let us introduce ourselves, she dismissed the class for the day--then quickly asked me to stay for a few minutes. She told me that I would need a separate notebook for the class that would become my Algebra Writing log.  I looked at her like she was crazy.

She laughed.

"Kelly, have you ever done journal entry work in your writing or English classes?" she asked. I nodded yes and told her that journaling was one of my favorite things to do.  She then told me that I would be doing this for my homework and in-class activities.  My professor took out a notebook and showed me exactly what I would be writing in my log--it looked something like this:
  • Date
  • Topic or Chapter/Assignment Name
  • Description of pages read in textbook, lecture notes, and in-class activity notes
  • Main points from the section being assigned in a bullet point list
  • Summary of main points from book/class written in paragraph form
Not only did she have me do this weekly math log, but she also assigned me paragraphs to write.  My professor would write an equation on the board each week, usually on Monday, and by Friday a paragraph was due to her that explained how to solve the problem and why I had decided to solve it in that way. 

I was kind of shocked that I was using writing do help me understand math.  I had never thought that "math" people wrote. In the article "Writing to Learn Mathematics" Bernadette Russek says, "Contrary to popular belief mathematicians must write and must write well...Writing is a valuable assessment tool. It is used to assess attitudes and beliefs, mathematics ability, and ability to express ideas clearly" (36).  Russek also suggests that writing is often used in the math department to " doors of communication with students who may have math anxiety or who have 'I hate math' feelings, students who have never really 'spoken' to their mathematics professors before" (36). 

I feel as if Russek might have been directing that last bit directly at me....

Thanks to my professor's willingness to use writing in the math classroom, I passed beginning Algebra with an A. The first A I had ever received in a math class my entire life. I'm still proud of that A.

I moved onward and upward and eventually managed to tackle a college Algebra class. I did not get another A, but I did get a B, and I was able to mark math off of the list of classes I needed to take to finish school.

I really, really, really wanted to take my passing math grades to my former first grade teacher and say, "HA! Take that! See! If you would have just been willing to teach me math in a language I understood, instead of sitting me in a corner, I would have been done with this a LONG TIME AGO."

I wisely did not do that, but man did I ever dream of it.

After I completed my general education requirements, I thought that I would never have to take a math class again. However, my children have proved me wrong (as they usually do), and I find myself helping them with their math homework. Unfortunately, my kids also struggle with math and I sometimes feel as if maybe I should not be the person helping them. 

It's kind of like the blind leading the blind.  So, we write about math. Each day we write out their assignment in paragraph form and then we talk about it and pretty soon those math problems are getting solved correctly. 

If you would like to read the rest of Bernadette Russek's article it can be found here.  As Writing Across the Curriculum becomes more prominent on college campuses and within K-12 curriculum, I'm sure that writing in the math class will be used more often.

EIU President William Perry has used writing in his math classroom, and in an April 2011 interview with the EIU Writes Blog writers (found here) Perry said that: "...mathematics has a language all its own, you all know; you’ve taken math, so you do a math homework; it’s one set of language. But now if you’re going to talk about how that relates to maybe football head injuries or supply and demand, you know these kind of things, you have to interpolate that for your audience. You have to convert mathematical concepts to plain English, and so that’s a valid exercise because I think in all of our lives, we’re always interacting with multiple audiences." 

To me multiple audiences means multiples discourses, which then equals various types of verbal and cultural languages. In a perfect world teachers will be able to teach in a method that answers the needs of all of their students, but that perfect world is more than likely not going to happen in my lifetime.

So, instead of waiting for that perfect world to arrive, try remembering the skinny little six-year old sitting in the corner of her first grade classroom. Don't be afraid to speak to students in languages they understand--even if that means writing in a math classroom.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Don't Snooki Around with Grammar

The youtube video above is a clear representation of how celebrities are subject to the same grammar judgments all of us are vulnerable to.

Many of us frequently use one of the many social media sites available to us, and we are subject to criticisms about our grammar, which is typically focused on what people call usage errors. That means that now, more than ever, we should be aware of our writing etiquette.

At any given time, people from all over the world can make instant judgments of our intelligence from merely glancing at a tweet. A poorly written Facebook status can cause massive amounts of critical comments written in all caps. Likewise, a simple grammar mistake on a dating site profile can have horrible consequences.

This public shame should be seen as a huge internal motivator for correcting our grammar.

The first step to avoid these embarrassing types of errors is by valuing language. As Hank says in the video, we have to "care about the quality of discourse in our society." By doing so, we will not only improve our individual reputations, but our social media discourse as well.

These are the important skills we learn in writing classes and classes where strong written communication is highly valued and supported. All we have to do is transfer these grammatical and stylistic lessons from the classroom into everyday use.

For example, proofreading and editing are skills that can be applied to even the smallest post, say even one less than 140 characters, before hitting "Post."

Awareness is crucial to our media reputation.

Using strong proofreading and editing skills in our attempts to communicate on social sites, paired with a consideration of our audience, purpose, and subject will not only improve our reputation and our credibility, but it will also improve our social media discourse.

I'm not suggesting we remove the culture, creativity, or the fun out of social media communication. What I am suggesting is that we value clarity and integrity in our social discourse.

So, let's not Snooki-around with our grammar. Let's consider our language quality!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Deductive Vs. Inductive Reasoning

The spring semester has brought with it new challenges for us writing center consultants. Aside from trying to stay healthy during a merciless flu season, many of us are moving to the classroom as teaching apprentices. A couple weeks ago, I discovered, during two separate conversations with two different colleagues, that they would soon be giving a lecture explaining the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning.  

After discussing with each colleague his/her teaching strategy, I asked myself how I might distinguish deductive reasoning from inductive reasoning, then I asked myself how I might give this information to a freshman composition student. This blog post will be the abbreviated version of my cerebral labors. 

Let me begin by asking you a question: What can you conclude from the following two premises?
1. All men are mortal.
2. Socrates is a man. 

I would imagine many of you have seen these two premises before. Lots of introductory philosophy or critical reasoning books include this example to illustrate the features of a valid chain of deductive reasoning.

Now if we assume that (1) and (2) are true, we can conclude--conclude without any doubt, without any qualification the following:

3. Socrates is mortal. 

Part of what makes deductive reasoning distinct from inductive reasoning is that first premise. How many men does it say are mortal? All of them. And given the fact that (1) and (2) are related to each other in a specific linguistic way, and given the fact that we are assuming both to be true, the conclusion is guaranteed to be true. In other words, if (1) and (2) are true, then it is impossible for (3) to be false. In a world full of doubt and uncertainty, a sound deductive argument is a bastion of knowledge. 

Other kinds of deductive reasoning move from some universal statement to a particular one. The valid forms of such reasoning chains would be called syllogisms.   

Here is another example:
4. No book on my shelf has a pinstriped cover.
5. Catch-22 is a book on my shelf.

6. Catch-22 does not have a pinstriped cover. 

(6) is entailed by (4) and (5).  Part of what makes this chain of reasoning deductive is the content of (4).  How many books on my shelf have a pinstriped cover? That's right, none of them.  To show how (1) and (4) effect the nature of the reasoning chain lets slight modify these two examples. 

1* 99 percent of men are mortal.
2* Socrates is a man.

Now if we assume that both 1* and 2* are true, what can we conclude? Or maybe the better question is to ask, what can't we conclude?  

Because 1* is probabilistic, because it leaves that 1%  of men floating around who could be immortal, even if both 1* and 2* are true, we would not be able to conclude, for certain, that "Socrates is mortal."  

Instead, what we could cogently conclude would be something like, "It is very very probable that Socrates is mortal." Or maybe, to express the same basic idea in a different way, we could conclude, "Any rational person would believe that Socrates is, in fact, mortal."   Even if both 1* and 2* are true, the conclusion "Socrates is mortal" might still be false, thus this chain of reasoning would not be deductive. 

Let's look at our second modified argument:

4*Out of 250 books on my shelf 249 do not have a pinstriped cover. 
5*Catch-22 is a book on my shelf. 

4* gives information about the number of books on my shelf--I have 250 books on my shelf. 

4* also gives information about a characteristic that 249 of the books do not possess--a pinstriped cover.  

But even if 4* and 5* are true, it is still possible that 6* "Catch-22 does not have a pinstriped cover" is false. Maybe it's the one book that actually has a pinstriped cover. For those of you who believe that you've seen the cover of Catch-22 and know that it doesn't have a pinstriped cover, my edition is very special. So special, in fact, there is only one in existence. Since it's so special, I've never shown it to anyone, thus no one, at least no one who hasn't had some supernatural assistance, could possibly know about the features of its cover.     

Just like in the other example, most of us would believe, given the truth of 4* and 5*  that Catch-22 does not have a pinstriped cover" is true, but since the truth of the premises do not guarantee the truth of the conclusion, it would be an inductive chain of reasoning, not a deductive one. 

To sum up some of what I've tried to illustrate with the above examples, a chain of deductive reasoning includes a couple of key features that are distinct from a chain of inductive reasoning. The first one is that, in a deductive chain of reasoning, if the premises are true, then the conclusion must also be true. A chain of inductive reasoning does not, even if its premises are true, entail the conclusion. The second one is that all the valid syllogistic forms (all of which contain a universal modifier like All or No) use a deductive chain of reasoning to draw their conclusions. 

If you see a valid argument that contains only premises that itself includes either the term All or No, without some qualifying distinction, (For example, in the following proposition: All the penguins that have ever been seen by human beings..., the part in bold print qualifies the All), then it will be using a deductive chain of reasoning.  

On the other hand, an inductive  chain of reasoning will base its premises on a series of observations that will always fall short of universality. It's for this reason that, powerful as it may be, the scientific method only generates conclusions through a chain of reasoning that is inductive. Because a set of data collected by human observation will always be qualified by the natural limitations of either human faculties or the instruments we create, the conclusions generated by the scientific method are always inductive. 

Induction and deduction are both essential ways of reasoning.  In all honesty, we would be lost without either one.  

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Just Push Play - Using YouTube to Engage Students in the Composition Classroom

I'm a sucker for a good visual.

And an even bigger sucker for a good music video.

In fact, as hard as this is to admit, I am old enough to remember the days where MTV was not its own channel yet and actually played music.

Weird, I know.

So my music video love started in the early 80s along with my love for all things Miss Piggy.
I have since parted ways with Miss Piggy over the years (because of her dreadful treatment of Kermit), but I have never lost sight of music videos.

Thankfully, YouTube is on the scene now and if I want to see a video....all I have to do is search it out.

Within seconds I have music video bliss.

Then it probably is not a surprise to many people that know me, and now you, that I use YouTube to play music videos in some of my composition courses.

This lesson plan isn't completely self-serving although I do love getting the chance to share my favorite bands and appear cool.  Using YouTube clips to teach certain facets of composition in the classroom actually works (and that's what matters).

My favorite time to use a video is when I'm teaching students how to begin quoting.

 The EIU Writing Center has a wonderful handout that I incorporate into this lesson, which can be found here.  This particular handout is a great tool that explains the differences in summarizing, paraphrasing, and direct quoting.  It also has a wonderful list of verbs for signal phrases that provide many different options for writers who want to write something other than "According to..."

Sometimes the whole notion of quoting can make people nervous.  Figuring out how to properly format a quote and then choosing the right quote to use can be tough.  The first time I taught this lesson without the videos, the students seemed not only bored but also a bit perplexed.  If there are two things I don't like in this world, they are bored and perplexed students.

This sent me on a mission on how to teach quoting in an informative and exciting way.

Fate shined down upon me one day as I quested for some seriously good quoting lesson plan ideas, and I happened a cross a YouTube clip of my favorite 90s song "Flagpole Sitta" by Harvey Danger.  Bells and Whistles went off, and I knew exactly what to do.

I had my students take the quoting worksheet home to review (fingers crossed) because the next class period they would be required to use some of the listed signal verbs in a quoting exercise...and they would have to use a different signal word each time.

When my students arrived for class the next period I could hardly contain my excitement.  I knew this lesson was going to be fun! And was really hoping that it was a learning experience too (really hoping).

At the beginning of the class I gleefully told the students what we would be doing (and they all seemed kind of excited or at least pretended to) and we all watched the Harvey Danger YouTube clip.  Can you believe none of them had heard the song before?


Anyway my favorite students, as I referred to all 13 of them, at first seemed a little shocked by my sudden foray into in-class music videos. Some laughed, some were rocking out, some grimaced--and they were all engaged.

When the clip was over I wrote a quote on the board that said: "Harvey Danger's 90s classic makes me want to sell my children and dance all night!"

Which of course made everyone snicker (because they had heard my mom horror stories).

I then asked the students to write one paragraph about this video/song and include my quote using one of the verb signal words from the handout sheet I had given them.

When that was done, I asked for volunteers to read their paragraphs out loud - with the requirement being that their signal word had to be different than the word used by the previous student (who had read aloud).

What followed were some pretty rad paragraphs.

I had also found a review of the song/video, from back in the day, which was only about two paragraphs in length.  I asked the students to then incorporate a quote from this review, which was a scathing one, into another paragraph about the song.  This time the students had to use a different signal word, and also use my previous quote as well...which was a nice quote...where as the reviewer's quote was a tad bit on the mean side.

This gave the students an opportunity to use quotes with two differing opinions. And again we read them out loud, and some of them were seriously excellent paragraphs (like Rolling Stone magazine excellent).

I asked the students if they thought they had more of a handle on quoting, and they said "yes!"

So of course we did the exercise one more time (with a different song because there is a limit to how many times I can listen to "Flagpole Sitta"), but this time I made them write an in-text citation in MLA style at the end of each quote, which gave me a nice lead in for the in-text citation/works cited lesson I had coming up in the next class period.

This was by far one of my and my students' favorite class periods.

Music instantly generates a response in people. It doesn't really matter if the person likes the song or not because it's the interest and engagement that matters.

Today's world, which is ripe with portable audio/visual treats (iPhone/Tablet), has given birth to people that expect entertainment -- because we are now all almost constantly entertained.  And when not entertained, we quickly get bored.

By using YouTube, I was able to teach my students a valuable lesson by teaching them in their own language -- technological entertainment.

I'm sure there are other ways that YouTube can be useful in a class lesson as well, especially if you incorporate journal or free writing exercises into your lesson plans.


True the use of technology in the writing classroom is not a new idea, and I certainly am not the first person to have included YouTube in a composition lesson plan, but perhaps I'm the first person to use it as bribery.

I have to admit that I evoked a bit of the mom in me and channeled the "I'll let you have a soda if you quit fighting with your sister" mentality.  Only this assignment goes something like, "I'll let you watch YouTube in class if you write me an intelligent paragraph that properly quotes sources."

Using YouTube also allowed me to engage students in an aspect of performance by linking my lesson to music videos. It is true that people often remember words to songs they have heard only a couple of times more than grammar rules they have heard all of their lives (guilty!).  By linking a lesson to music, I, hopefully, made my quoting exercise more memorable for the students - and more fun as well. Mom style bribery or not.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Picture Flow

Renoir "On The Terrace"
Writing, much like Renoir's composition pictured above, is a work of art. It is a form of expression, meaningful, and creative. Writing is also an important form of professional and academic communication. As we look at writing in the latter example, we may find it hard to see the art form to our composition.

I promise you, it is there! And we find it most readily in "Flow."

Flow is a mysterious part of any composition. Whether we are looking at a painting, listening to music, reading a poem or even a memo at work, flow plays a huge role in its success.

What is "flow?"

My abbreviated definition of flow is the movement of meaning from beginning to end.  

Renoir's painting is just one excellent example of flow. Looking at flow in this way, we can see that the artist purposely directs our attention to the red hat the woman is wearing. He does so by placing the bright red in the center of the canvas. However, he does not stop there. Once he has our attention on this color, Renoir strategically places the same hints of the red hat elsewhere in the painting. He controls the flow of his composition by placing the red in the hat of young girl, in her cheeks, and in the lips of both females.

He also controls the flow by incorporating the same red in the basket in the lower left hand corner of the painting just as he does in the red roof structure in the upper left hand corner. We can even see red in the boats on the water and in some of the leaves tangled on the railing. Therefore, he controls our eye movement over the entire masterpiece.

Just as Renoir achieves flow through painting, we must achieve it through writing.

Unlike a paintbrush, most of us have been using language flow since birth. When we learn "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" as children, we are learning the flow of our language. We change the complexity of our flow as we get older. Our parts of speech become more complicated. So do our ideas.

The hard part is converting this familiar flow into a composition. Much like Renoir's red hat, writers must point specifically to a subject, and then refer back to that subject frequently. Doing so will artfully moving the reader through the composition.

Of course, achieving flow is difficult for any of us. Thankfully there are tricks we can learn to help us with these difficulties.  Using transitions is one color on our pallet to use in our composition.  Words or word phrases like "however," "likewise," "also," "besides," "after all," "in other words", etc, can be used to move the reader from point to point. We can also use pointing words such as "those" and "this" as well as pronouns to help us color our composition artfully.

In other words, looking at a paper like a painting can be a helpful trick to achieving flow. In fact, one could even highlight words that directly link back to the subject of the composition to visually recognize how often it appears throughout the paper.  If we highlight these types of words in red, then red should move our eyes evenly over the composition in the same manner we see in Renoir's red.  

Friday, February 8, 2013

Analogies The Final Installment

In the past two posts, I've explored the benefits and the dangers of using comparative language to express an idea or an argument. Referencing a book by Robert J. Gula, I distinguished between the poetic purposes of an author and the logical purposes of an author.

A writer or reader or audience member of any kind must consider how poetic and logical purposes are different.

Since the purposes of poetry are different from the purposes of logic, our standards in assessing the effectiveness of each will also be different. A poetic comparison, if it succeeds at all, will succeed on poetic terms; a logical comparison, if it succeeds at all, will succeed on logical terms.

As you've read in my two previous posts, the terms that the laws of logic impose on us are strict.

In this post, we'll look at the last example that Gula gives to illustrate a fallacious chain of analogical reasoning, and then we'll look at the recommendations he offers by way of summary.

In Nonsense Gula writes, "Analogies are abused when a person uses the terms of one element to predict  the terms of another element" (144).  To show this definition in action, let's look at the following exchange:

P: "Who are voting for?"

Q: "Probably Smith.  I'm an environmentalist, so I think the government should be putting a lot more money in making renewable energy a practical way for the United States to generate electricity and transport its citizens to and from wherever it is their going.

P: "If the environment is important to you, then you shouldn't vote for Smith."

Q: "Why not?"

P: "Well, because take a look at the current administration's record on environmental issues. I guess it hasn't had any photo ops where high ranking cabinet members actually shoot polar bears from helicopters, but needless to say, it hasn't exactly been friendly to the tree and the flower.

Q: "But that's irrelevant. What this administration has done is one thing. What Smith will do is an altogether different thing."

P: "No. Not when one considers all the similarities between the current president and Smith. For example, the president's father made his fortune in the oil business, and so did Smith's. The president attended Exeter, then Princeton, then The University of Chicago School of Law. Guess what Smith's academic career looks like? You got it, Exeter, Princeton, Hyde Park. After he graduated from law school, the president was awarded a federal clerkship before going into politics, just like Smith. I think it's clear from all these similarities that since the president said one thing during his campaign about the environment but ended up implementing a different policy, we can conclude that Smith will do the same thing."

If you can forgive my long winded example, what is your assessment of it?

P tries to argue by analogy. P connects several similarities between the current president and Smith. P then goes further by drawing a conclusion about Smith's future behavior. Such an analogical reasoning chain would be fallacious.

At the end of his discussion of analogies, Gula (144) recommends answering the following questions when evaluating the cogency of an analogical argument:

1. "Have all the properties of X (the object of analogy) and all the properties of Y (the other object of the analogy) been cited?"

2. "How many of these properties are similar?"

3. "How many of these similarities are relevant?"

4. "To what extent are some of these similarities actually not as similar as they have been made out to be?"

5. "To what extent is X different from Y?"

Analogies are everywhere. We use them all the time. When we are being asked to assent to a speaker's conclusion based on analogy, we should be aware that arguing from an analogy has a high standard to satisfy before the argument's conclusion can be accepted.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Why We Use the O.E.D.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is an "unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of words- past and present- from across the English-speaking world" (OED). We use the OED to gain a better understanding of our etymology, to lean about phonology, and to see the history of the context in which a particular word was used, spelled, and pronounced.

156 years ago the Philological Society of London proposed to create a complete collection of the English language. The project became known as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and it is still going on today. It took over 70 years to complete the first edition. The first completed volume (A-Z) was not published until 1928 and contained more than 400,000 words.

Today the OED, published in 1989, contains over 615,000 word definitions, 2,430,600 quotations, and accounts for nearly 1000 years of usage of the English language . The printed version, with all 20 volumes, has about 21,730 pages, and weighs close to 140 lbs.

To give you a better idea of its complexity and thoroughness, the entry for the word "set" alone is made up of 60,000 words, list 430 different ways to use the word. And all of that is just the verb form!

A little more than a decade ago, a digital form of the OED was published, and it is now available online where it undergoes constant updates and revisions that are published online every three months (See "What's New" page).

The online version also includes a "Reader's Guide," which includes a key to understanding the symbols used in definitions and in pronunciations. This link also includes an abbreviation list and glossary terms.

For some more advanced "how to" information, the OED features a "Guide to the Third Edition" currently in progress. This link provides information about the structure of the dictionary, the structure of definitions themselves, and how to read the etymological notes in definitions.

But more than that!

The OED also provides a video tutorial, helpful resources for students and teachers, commentaries on the English language, and behind the scene video shorts.

The fact that we have this tool available to us at our finger tips is fascinating. Developing our vocabulary is one of the best ways to develop our minds and improve our writing abilities. Having a better understanding of words allows us more freedoms and flexibility in our communication efforts.

And let's face it. Sounding smart is being smart!

Although there is an annual subscription fee of nearly $300, most local libraries provide free access to the database.(EIU students and faculty can log on through the Booth Library link).

In short: You can't go wrong when using the OED!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Writing About Literature: Finding that "Something More"

If I could count the number of times I have heard "Your paper is great, but it needs something more. You need to delve deeper," I could probably pay off my student loans.

Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration but still...I've heard it. A LOT.

For a number of semesters I labored under the idea that a really good analysis was something more.

You know the type: spectacular summary with a touch of glitter (that's what I like to call sparkling smart analysis).

I would often turn papers into professors and think, "This is it.  THIS is the paper that's going to make them glad that they became a teacher." I had the confidence of Ralphie when he turns in his theme, as seen in this clip. that didn't work out for me, or Ralphie.
 (YET! Goodness, I've really got to get a hold of this cocky streak I'm on.)

What bothered me the most was this: How in the world do you figure out what that something more is? 

What exactly is "something more"?

And how exactly to you go about finding it.

Get ready, here it comes: Something more sometimes equals something new.

That phrase still makes me sob.

How in the world am I supposed to find something new about literature that has been written about FOREVER?  And probably written about by people a whole lot more intelligent than myself?

Have you ever asked yourself those questions?  If you have, let me know...and we can share a cry together.

There is good news though, I have some tips on how you can put yourself on that path to finding something more and something new.

First of all, let's build your self-esteem up a bit.

You are made up of a whole lot of stuff (aside from biology).  Although there are people that will argue that you are not unique, I'm going to tell you that you are.  The combination of things that have made you are different than anyone else's combination.  Confused? Let's break this down:
  • Your ethnic background greatly affects how you think.
  • The type of family life you have been raised in impacts your decision making and thought process.
  • Sometimes something as small as the fact that you took ballet when you were five changes how you see the world.
  • More than likely you travel in lots of discourse communities that operate under different societal rules.
  • Education plays a huge part in how you critically examine things. This does not mean that someone with a Master's degree is a better critical thinker than someone with a certificate in Collision Repair. However, it does mean that the type of education you receive molds how you critically examine the world around you. 
I could go on, but that's enough of the love fest.

So, basically when you read a text (which can be the written word or the world around you), you are already bringing something different to the table because of your unique viewpoint. This means you are on your way to finding that "something more."

Here are some steps I take when I am reading and writing about Literature (which I use after I have bumped up my self-esteem a bit):
  • Research what has already been written about your selected text. This will give you the opportunity to see what is out there.  I use Project Muse a lot when I'm researching. It's a database that seems to have a lot of recently published articles - and I want to know the most current information about my topic as I can.
  • Write down a brief analysis of the literature. The format does not matter, just a simple list to serve as an aid for you.
  • Think about the time that your literature was written.  Currently I am writing about The Hunger Games, which was written post-9/11, post-economic crash, during an era where "reality" TV is at its highest popularity.  
  • Re-read your novel with those time stamp/era markers in mind.  Does anything allegorical stand out to you? While re-reading The Hunger Games, I realized that Suzanne Collins had written a novel that encouraged the idea of Performing Resistance -and that topic has become chapter 3 of my thesis.
  • Did you notice anything in your analysis and your re-reading of the novel that no other writers you found had written about? If so, yeah! You're on your way. If not, don't give up hope yet!
  • Think about what you know. Reading this book through your eyes, your experiences, your  does this change the text?
  • If you can (and hopefully you will do this in class), discuss the book.  You can do this with a friend, Writing Center consultant, book club, dog...etc.  What's really interesting is that sometimes it does not matter if the other person you are talking to has read the book. Someone with a different perspective might be able to bring up an interesting idea (upon hearing your description) that you had never thought of. 
These are just some of the steps that I go through when working hard to find something more and writing the paper that will hopefully make my professor happy about their chosen profession.

Will you always come up with something new?  It's hard to say.  There are a lot of intelligent people out there working hard to do just the same thing.

But let's not think about them. 

Remember you bring a unique perspective to the the table -- use that as a jumping off point.

And if that doesn't work, watch this

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Next Big Thing Blog Hop

This blog has been tagged for The Next Big Thing Blog Hop by EIU's own Lania Knight

Thanks Dr. Knight.

As the process goes, she sent us questions, which have been slightly modified because of the nature of our writing projects, and Kelly and I have responded below. 

1) What are the working titles of your writing projects?

Tim: The big writing project of mine is the writing textbook that my co-author Linda Copeland and I are revising and editing. It's titled IDEAS & Aims.

Kelly: My main project right now is my thesis, and it is entitled "Conceptualizing Identity as Performance in Young Adult Literature."

2) Where did the ideas come from for these projects?

Tim: Both my co-author and I have taught basic writing and college composition courses for years, and we wanted to write our own textbook targeted toward basic writing/developmental courses. We organized the book around rhetorical aims/purposes (to inform, analyze, persuade, et al.) and included chapters about college success, analytical reading, the writing process, and research.

Kelly: I spent a great many years of my life as an actress and have never been able to separate myself from the notion of performance and reality -- to me all interaction is a performance of some degree.  I'm a lover of Young Adult Literature and have noticed over the years how this type of literature encourages adults to explore multiple roles or identities -- so I decided to tackle this as a major research project.

3) What genres are these projects?

Tim: It's what higher education publishers call a "rhetoric/reader." In general though, it's a textbook.

Kelly: Young Adult Lit Dystopia.

4) What are one-sentence synopses of your projects?

Tim: IDEAS & Aims is a basic writing textbook that is organized around rhetorical purposes, focuses on analytical reading, reinforces critical thinking, and respects and works with the diverse students who take our writing courses.

Kelly: People play multiple roles throughout their lives, and this fact is endorsed and encouraged in young adult literature.

5) Who is publishing this work?

Tim: Pearson Publishing.

Kelly: Currently no one. But I've got big dreams!

6) How long did it take you write the first drafts of these projects?

Tim: With fourteen chapters and a handbook, it took a good while. But we wrote the first draft of most of the chapters over a two-year period -- mainly during two summers.

Kelly: It took me a month to write the first draft of my fourth chapter, but the other three chapters are moving along much quicker.

7) Who or what inspired you to write these works? 

Tim: My students. 

Kelly: My love the of theater.

8) What else about these projects might pique readers' interests? 

Tim: There are a lot of interesting reading selections in the book, ones you rarely see in college writing textbooks. IDEAS & Aims also has assignments that require professional writing genres like letters, memos, reports, etc.

Kelly: I include a lot of adolescent psychology research as well as sociological research that is just pretty fascinating.  PLUS, I'm writing about The Hunger Games...and who doesn't want to read about that?

Thanks for reading our part of The Next Big Thing Blog Hop. Next up is...

We'd also like to recommend these blogs for your perusal:

Friday, February 1, 2013

Analogies II

In my last post I, referencing Robert J. Gula, who himself was referencing a metaphor from a poem by John Donne (For the record, if anyone wants to read it, I think the poem that Gula references is titled "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,") explored some of the ways in which comparing one object to another object can be useful, incisive, and beautiful. 

I also explored, again using Gula as my guide, one way in which making an argument that derives a conclusion from an analogy can lead to a chain of fallacious reasoning.  

In Nonsense, Gula provides several more ways an argument from analogy can be abused. Let's take a look a few more.

From my last post, we know that to draw a conclusion based on an analogy between two objects, the two objects being compared need to have sufficient similarity for the conclusion to hold. According to Gula, other considerations need to be satisfied as well because "Analogies are abused when there is significant dissimilarity that goes unnoticed" (143). 

To illustrate Gula's point, let's take a look at the following short dialogue:

Q: "I don't think that I can vote for Smith in the upcoming election." 
P: "Why not?"
Q: "Well I'm really unhappy with the way things have gone the past few years. This current administration has not provided enough aid to help people who are struggling with the recent economic decline. And since Smith is an alumni of the same college, same law school, and same business school as is our current governor. Both Smith and our current governor also happen to live in the same wealthy neighborhood; both are filthy rich. I mean isn't it clear? To me it's obvious that Smith will simply continue the same ineffective policies that have gone on the past few years."
P: "But Smith is a Democrat. Our current governor is a Republican. Surely this distinction isn't merely irrelevant?"

The conclusion that Q draws is weak because although many similarities do exist between the two candidates, there seems to be a significant dissimilarity that Q simply ignores. Sometimes, given the public cynicism about politicians and given the influence that money has in the political process, it might seem like the two major parties in the U.S. are not so different as they try to make themselves appear during campaign season.

Nonetheless, I think P's point is a good one. I think the platform espoused by each of the two major political parties in this country contain enough dichotomies to invalidate Q's analogy, thus invalidating the effectiveness of Q's argument.  

A third way that analogies can lead to fallacious reasoning is "when one particular similarity is used to equate two very different things" (Gula 144).

To illustrate this potential abuse, let's look at this exchange:

P: "I'm going to Vegas next weekend."
Q: "What's your game of choice?"
P: "Roulette."
Q: "That's risky."
P: "So is buying a Dow Jones Industrial ETF."

Just so you know, an ETF is an Exchange Traded Fund. It collects a group of stocks into a financial instrument and allows it to be bought and sold as easily as a single share of stock. For modern investors, it really is quite an innovation. 

Now it is true that buying an ETF that contains the 30 stocks that make up the Dow Jones Industrial Average is in one sense committing a person to a financial risk. A person who places some chips on red risks a certain amount of money on that spin of the wheel. Similarly, a person who buys an ETF that tracks the Dow Jones Industrial Average risks a certain amount of money based on the collective performance of those 30 stocks. 

Nonetheless, this similarity obviously does not establish the identity of the two kinds of financial risks in question.  For one thing, risking one's money on a spin of the roulette wheel does not allow one the opportunity to recoup the loss. The chips are gone. One would need to risk more chips to recoup the lost chips. 

In contrast, the ETF allows a patient investor to recoup just about any temporary decline in cash value. The time horizon for a person who risks money on a roulette spin is different than the time horizon for a person who risks money in an ETF.

The two situations are far from identical, thus P's response is fallacious. Next week the journey continues with part III.