Friday, March 29, 2013

Critical Thinking and Assumptions

In the middle of last semester, I had an interesting conversation with another writing consultant. The topic of our conversation was the difference between an assumption and a presumption. Although when I check The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, it does, in the second entry, give assumption as a synonym for presumption, when philosophers make arguments, assumption is the term of choice. 

Most of you probably have a colloquial sense of what an assumption is, indeed, most of you have probably been warned about the dangers of assuming anything. When you make an argument or when you assess an argument, you should probably avoid relying on your colloquial intuitions. 

Assumptions can be true or false; they can be strong or weak. They will be found in almost every argument you will ever encounter. Thus, while making an ass of oneself and others, could on many occasions result from making a naive assumption, it certainly is not inevitable.  

What is an assumption? 

This was the question put to me by the other writing consultant. After thinking back to my Logic 101 class, my response was the following: "An assumption is an unstated premise." Fairly simple, right? 

We know that in college classrooms "argument" does not mean "screaming match" or "fight." Rather, when you make an argument for a class, you conclude something on the basis of evidence and good reasoning. The premises are used to support the conclusion. Sometimes, if the argument is sufficiently complex, you may have more than one conclusion. In such arguments, you may have a sub-conclusion that also a premise because it is used to support a main conclusion. So, premises support a conclusion, and an assumption is an unstated premise. 

To illustrate these abstractions, I'm going to refer to some of what I said to my writing consultant colleague. Before our discussion began, we had just noticed someone eating chicken soup in the graduate student office, at which point I said, "He must have a cold." My colleague confirmed my conclusion. "Yeah, he told earlier today that he wasn't feeling well."

This exchange, or an exchange very similar to this one, happens a million times a day. But what exactly are the rhetorical components that are important for critical thinking? There are premises and a conclusion, and of course, there are assumptions as well. To make the relationship between these entities explicit, let's look at the following schema.

Conclusion: "He must have a cold."

How did I arrive at this conclusion? Well, I saw the person in question eating a bowl of chicken soup. So let's make this premise explicit.

Premise 1: "He is eating a bowl of chicken soup."

At this point, something in the reasoning chain is missing. How do I connect premise 1 to the conclusion? There are many ways, but the most definitive would be to use the following premise. 

Premise 2: "If a person is eating a bowl of chicken soup, then he has a cold." 

Premise 2 is false, but it will help illustrate my point about assumptions. The point is that I didn't actually include another premise when I drew my conclusion. My argument, if I had written it down in standard premise and conclusion form would have looked like this:

1. He is eating a bowl of chicken soup.
2. Thus, he must have a cold. 

The consultant I was speaking with understood my reasoning chain without the additional premise. When I am speaking to someone in a colloquial manner, it would be awkward, not to mention cognitively problematic, to explicitly state every premise in every argument I make. For this reason, I, and basically everyone else in the world, will use a lot of assumptions when we argue. Let's include the assumption in our schema to reinforce this idea visually. 

1. He is eating a bowl of chicken soup.

Assumption, unstated premise: If a person is eating a bowl of chicken soup, then he has a cold

3. Thus, he has a cold. 

In many of the texts you read for your classes, the assumptions will be more controversial. Controversy can lead to emotion, and emotion can lead to a person wanting to make an argument appear more cogent than it actually is. 

If the writing consultant I was talking to had asked me to clarify my assumption, and if I had clarified it with premise 2, then my conclusion would not follow. I would need to modify my assumption in order to get a cogent reasoning chain. I might modify my assumption by making it more narrow e.g., "If a person is eating a bowl of chicken soup, then it is likely he has a cold." 

I might modify it by including more information in it e.g., "If a person is eating a bowl of chicken soup during the cold and flu season in Charleston, IL, then it is likely that he has a cold."

 An essential part of critical thinking is to ask yourself about the assumptions a writer or speaker makes. If a writer's or speaker's assumption is weak, then his conclusion will be weak. Keep this in mind when you analyze an argument.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Interview with a Writing Fellow (not nearly as scary as a vampire)

After chatting with Greg Peterson about his experience working as a Writing Fellow in a Communications Disorders class  (mentioned in last week's blog), I decided that I wasn't satisfied with just a short conversation and begged him if he would let me interview him.

Thankfully, he agreed. 

I should mention that Greg is a second year graduate student in the English program at EIU, he has worked in the Writing Center for three semesters, he taught English Composition course on campus last fall, and he is currently writing his Master's thesis about the hero's journey in David Foster Wallace novels. 

He's also cool.

What follows is Greg's great answers to my simple questions about his experience working as a Writing Fellow. 

1.      Did you know anything about the discipline your assigned course is in before the course   

No. In fact, the course material is fairly advanced communication disorders and sciences knowledge. The coursework focuses mainly on brain science: how the brain works and how the brain can fail to function properly, resulting in communication disorders.

2.      How many classes do you sit in on during the week?

1 class, 50 minutes, three times a week.

3.      Do you help design the writing assignments for this CDS course?

The professor consults with me when creating writing assignments and assignment sheets. Ultimately, the assignments are of her design, but she does ask me to make sure that these assignments are clear. She also asks me to make sure that the assignments are writing intensive and challenging.

4.      How is being a Writing Fellow different than being a consultant in the Writing Center?

Many ways. The most basic being that I get the privilege to work with a specific group of students who are all doing the same assignment. I get to observe the different ways the class full of students approach a writing assignment. I also get to work with the same writers on four different assignments, so I can get a closer look at their processes and individual progress. The Writing Center is in some ways the opposite experience. You get the privilege of constantly working with an amazing chaos of diverse writers and writing assignments at different skill levels and stages of the process.

5.      Are you given opportunities to teach writing lessons in the classroom or are you strictly meeting with students during assigned times?

Every once in a while I am granted class time to give mini instructional lessons on facets of the composition process like paraphrasing, thesis crafting, and creating successful introductions and conclusions.

6.      How has being a Writing Fellow changed your tutoring style?

I’m sure it has affected me in ways I don’t even realize, but mostly it has made me more aware of individual students’ writing process.

7.      What other disciplines do you think could benefit from having a Writing Fellow?

 Any course that involves writing assignments could benefit from a Writing Fellow, especially disciplines that participate in WAC. 

8.      Do you have any suggestions as to how this program could become even better?

More funding perhaps? But what department doesn't need more funding?

Special thanks to Greg Peterson for taking a moment to answer my questions.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Risk with the Grade

Recently a professor, curious about my interest with linking grades to students' emotions and motivation, asked me if I felt safe when I took an introduction to literature class.

I didn't know how to respond. She reminded how I once expressed to her how much I learned in the literature class, and she wanted to know if I felt safe to take risks there. I answered, "No."

She said to me that safety is a privilege and by keeping students safe we may be denying them particular learning opportunities. In other words, teachers who sometimes push students outside of their comfort zone (as I experienced in the introduction to literature class) can teach some of the strongest and most valuable lessons. 

But what does this have to do with grades and evaluations?

Generally speaking, anytime one is evaluated on their performance they are pushed outside of their comfort zone. As students know their work is being evaluated and marked with a letter grade, they place more value on the assignment.

For example:

As a student who has taken several pass/fail classes, I know the level of importance students place on assigned writing tasks in these courses.  Many of my peers -- myself included -- have said these words, "It's only a pass/fail course," meaning that the level of work required is the bare minimum.

However, had a grade been assigned to the writing task, the level of commitment and effort given by myself and my peers would have skyrocketed. This reaction might be because the grade itself pushes students outside of their comfort zone and motivates them to do better work.

I initially thought, as I have began the early stages of my master's thesis concerning the link between grades and evaluations to emotions and motivations with writing, that harsh grading and strongly critical evaluations must decimate a student's motivation to writing.  But this cannot be the whole story.

In the introduction to literature class that I mentioned above, the first grade I received in the class was an F.  Through much work and determination, I squeaked by with a B for the semester. The F placed me outside of my comfort zone and motivated me to up my performance level. I know without a doubt that my dedication to that class far outweighs any of my undergraduate work from a pass/fail course. A evaluations from a pass/fail course could never motivate me the way the F did. 

Without the risk, uncertainty, and the lack of security grades provide, will student motivation decrease?

Please share your thoughts with me as I explore this topic.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Occam's Razor Continued

In this post, I'm going to give two more examples of Occam's Razor and how it functions in the world. Sometimes using it actually leads one into a false conclusion. Sometimes an inductive argument involves a chain of reasoning that creates a disagreement as to which conclusion is supported by it. In cases such as these, each participant in a dialogue or polemic or debate believes that his or her conclusion is made preferable because of Occam's Razor. Thus, Occam's Razor itself would need to be examined. 

For my purposes, we'll keep things simple. 

Many years ago, a movie directed by Robert Zemeckis was released in the United States. Castaway told the story of a Federal Express cargo plane that, after attempting to divert around a large storm, crashes in the middle of the ocean. Given the location of the crash and the nature of ocean currents, recovery of the wreckage would be difficult, while recovery of human remains would be almost impossible. 

Now in the movie, the audience stays with the character who survives not only the initial crash and sinking fuselage, but also luckily drifts into a land mass that can support his continued survival.  Because the camera remains with this character, we, the audience, know that he is still alive. But have you ever wondered what is happening to his family and friends who are back at home? Obviously, they are mourning, but it is important to ask: why are they mourning? Because they believe that someone they cared about died in a plane crash. Of course, we, the audience, know that the proposition:

There were no survivors in the Federal Express cargo plane that crashed into the middle of the ocean--is false.

Some of the crew did die. The pilot, for example, died and the co-pilot as well. They have families too. So let's think about how Occam's Razor might work to analyze these two different chains of reasoning. 

Premise 1. It is very very unlikely that any person could survive a plane crashing into the middle of the ocean.
Premise 2. The pilot in Castaway was in plane that crashed into the middle of the ocean. 
3. It is very very unlikely that the pilot survived.

By applying Occam's Razor we should prefer the following conclusion. 

4. In fact, it is so unlikely that the pilot survived that as a matter of fact he did not survive. 

And it turns out that this conclusion: The pilot did not survive is true.

Occam's Razor leads us to a true conclusion.

Now let's look at a similar reasoning chain.

1. It is very very unlikely that any person could survive a plane crashing into the middle of the ocean.
2. The protagonist in Castaway was in a plane that crashed in the middle of the ocean. 
3. It is very very unlikely that the protagonist in Castaway survived.

Now here things go against Occam's Razor. Remember Occam's Razor tells us that we should not multiply the number of causes to explain an effect, or to explain a data set, and that when one chain of inductive reasoning includes fewer un-evidenced assumptions than a competing conclusion, the former should be preferred. 

What un-evidenced assumptions do we need in order to move from #3 to the following:

#4. The protagonist in Castaway did in fact survive not only the initial impact of a plane crashing into the middle of the ocean but also the sinking fuselage. In fact, the protagonist in Castaway is alive four years after the plane crash because he washed ashore on an island that allowed him to procure sustenance and shelter. 

We would need a lot of un-evidenced assumptions to get there. But the story gets even more unlikely as the movie goes on. 

But let's just think about #4. Since empirical data has established that surviving a plane crash is very unlikely, the following assumption would be un-evidenced:

a: The protagonist in Castaway survived the plane crash. 

Since empirical data has established that surviving a plane crash away from medical care is even less likely than surviving a plane crash near emergency services, it would be even less likely that a person would survive a plane crash in the middle of the ocean. Thus, anyone back on land who concluded that--The protagonist in Castaway is not dead--would need another un-evidenced assumption, namely,

b: After surviving the initial impact of the plane hitting the ocean, the protagonist in Castaway did not suffer a severe injury that ultimately killed him. 

Then we would need another un-evidenced assumption, namely,

c: After not being seriously injured during the initial impact of the plane hitting the ocean, the protagonist in Castaway was carried to a land mass that included within it both food and shelter. 

The list would go on for maybe a hundred independent un-evidenced assumptions, and yet it does't affect the truth of the conclusion above. 

Now, most of us, if we were in the situation of the protagonist's family and friends would not believe assumptions a,b,c, etc. In fact, Occam's Razor forbids us from doing so. But unlike in the case of the pilot's death, using Occam's Razor for this reasoning chain would lead us to a false conclusion. 

Even though Occam's Razor is a powerful tool to assess the merits of competing inductive reasoning chains, it is not invariably reliable.  

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Writing in Plain Language

Yesterday, while working in the Writing Center, I asked a colleague of mine what type of writing the students are doing in the Communication Disorders Class he has been assigned to as a Writing Fellow.

Thankfully, Greg is used to my nosy nature and humored me.

"Well, right now they are mostly writing in-depth but understandable descriptions of disorders and biology."

So I replied, "Like a case study?"

And he said, "No, easier than that."

To which I countered, "Like pamphlet writing?"

During this quick Q&A/banter, the Director of the Writing Center happened by. Upon hearing this Dr. Taylor replied, "So they write in a way that parents can understand," which of course made me think of audience awareness.

And suddenly I was transported to a doctor's office in Normal, Illinois six years ago.

When my third child was born he contracted Spinal Meningitis and was hospitalized for two weeks on IV therapy.  The medicine that is prescribed for SM has a side effect of mild to total hearing loss. Our doctor told us this rarely happened and she had never had a patient experience any loss of hearing due to the medication.

So, we didn't worry about it until my son wasn't making the cooing sounds that babies start making around three to four months of age.

By the age of one he hadn't made any sounds aside from crying, not even a "mama" or "dada." My husband and I made an appointment with our doctor, who referred us all about, and we finally ended up at the office of a Speech Pathologist/Hearing Specialist. James, our son, had a 70% hearing loss and would need extensive speech therapy as well as surgeries to repair abnormalities in his ear canal.

We were handed documents that appeared to have been written for scientists, we felt as if we might have needed a degree in biology to understand them. This was very frustrating for us, and why would a doctor's office hand us pamphlets that were most definitely not written for the general public? Did they not know their audience?

Flashback to the Writing Center and Dr. Taylor's comment. 

I found myself overjoyed to hear that these students were learning to write in such a way that the average person could understand the disorder afflicting their loved one.

So, then I asked Greg if he could understand the writing and he said, "Well, now that I've been in the class ... yes."

I was crushed. If Greg couldn't understand it, without having been in the class, then what hope is there for the average guy?  After all, Greg is a Smarty Pants.

The entire conversation kept bringing me back to audience awareness. 

All the tough research, brilliant discoveries, vital information basically means nothing if the people that are intended to read the documents cannot understand the material. Important information is lost.

I wonder why audience awareness is such a struggle, especially when people often know exactly who they are writing for. I'm sure the people that wrote the pamphlets for my son's Speech Pathologist knew they were writing for parents, but how could they have missed the boat so badly?

I believe that assumptions cause a lot of problems in terms of audience awareness. And you know the age old phrase about assumptions..... 

More than likely, a lot of people are writing with the idea of what the audience is in their heads. However, those ideas are heavily impacted by the type of person the writer is. The type of life they have led, the ethnic group they've grown up in, the discourse communities they interact with--all of these factors effect how a person assumes. 

The way in which someone can go beyond their assumptions and write in a way that truly addresses their audience is to get to know their audience. 


Researching an intended audience is pivotal in making sure that writing is clear and understandable. True, it isn't possible to write in such a way that every person gets every single point you're making, but it's possible to get fairly close to that goal. Researching is so much easier now, thanks to the internet, than it was years ago. 

Also, more than likely, people who are writing information in regards to Communication Disorders have communicated with real people before. I'm sure they didn't just drop out of the sky into a Dr.'s office or College Classroom. The trick for them is to take material that is difficult and translate it into the language of everyday people.

Greg told me that he thinks the students are getting very close to being able to do just that. The first set of papers were very technical, but as the semester has moved on, he has noticed students are able to write for a professional audience of scientific colleagues as well as the audience of everyday people. 

I have to admit that I had never really even thought about audience awareness outside of the writing classroom or the theater, but after having spoken to Greg about his class ... I see it everywhere.

It's as if we are all hyper-aware of our audiences, yet we have forgotten how to really speak to them.
Is there a cure? Or a quick fix to make us all truly communicate in ways that everyone understands?

Well, kinda.

The Center for Plain Language believes that audience awareness can be achieved through the use of plain language, which they define as information that people can find, understand, and use. 

As they describe on "What Is Plain Language?", this type of writing is "...information that is focused on readers. When you write in plain language, you create information that works well for the people who use it, whether online or in print."

And here's more from that link: 
Our measure of plain language is behavioral: Can the people who are the audience for the material quickly and easily
  • Find what they need
  • Understand what they find
  • Act appropriately on that understanding
This means that the definition of “plain” depends on the audience. What is plain language for one audience may not be plain language for another audience.
Plain language is more than just short words and short sentences — although those are often two very important guidelines for plain language. When you create information in plain language, you also organize it logically for the audience. You consider how well the layout of your pages or screens works for the audience.
The Center for Plain Language website is a wonderful resource. There are many examples, checklists, guidelines, and even a blog to help people make sure their information is found, understood, and used.
If a writer is truly aware of their audience than she will make sure she writes in a manner in which the the audience can comprehend. Sometimes that means going easy on the bells and whistles, sometimes that means writing in a way that will not win you a major award for fancy pants vocabulary,  and sometimes it means sacrificing your ego and putting the needs of your reader first.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Let's Talk about Grades!

"Most students hate to be graded, most teachers hate to give grades, and everyone hates to talk about grades" (Edward White, "Evaluations: The Enemy of Learning").

Except me!

For the rest of the semester, I resolve myself to tackling issues surrounding grades, particularly on papers.

But I will not focus only on grades. There are many ways students are evaluated, and many ways students respond to these evaluations. What I am interested in and what I plan discuss (in spite of how much we hate talking about it) is particularly those issues that involve student emotional responses to these evaluations.

In other words, I want to talk about what the "grade" does to us.

To begin, I believe it is important to empathize with students as they enter into the world of collegiate writing. Writing, at any level, in any academic form, often provokes what I believe to be a strong sense of vulnerability in students.

This idea of vulnerability stems from Brene Brown's relatively recent success with her presentation which propelled her into the limelight.

Vulnerability, as Brown argues, is not a weakness but an opportunity to learn and cultivate a new skill. However, vulnerability is steeped in fear of judgment or receiving a poor evaluation from our peers, our superiors, and as I argue, the red pen. 

If students are saturated in the feeling of vulnerability as they enter into the language of the university, then they may step too cautiously. They may, as Brown argues, refrain from "entering into the arena" of academic discourse. Vulnerability limits our ability to be creative, to take risks, and to dive into a project with the conviction necessary to achieve the level of work we desire.

To combat this feeling of vulnerability in students, teachers can expose their own vulnerabilities to students. Self exposure in this form can help to alleviate anxieties that cripples students' writing abilities. 

When teachers simply allow students to see their imperfections, it encourages risk taking behaviors in students, dissolves much of the defeatist mentality students have when approaching writing, and allows them to see themselves as humans with the ability to improve. 

If vulnerability is based on the fear of judgment, or in this case grades and evaluations, then how do educators ultimately overcome vulnerability?  Do we eliminate grades altogether as some have argued?

I don't believe so.

I believe, with a little effort and imagination, students can be graded, evaluated, and offered feedback in such a way that encourages students to take risks, to be creative, and allow them to make embarrassing mistakes - as learners often do - without capitalizing on their vulnerability.

I have not developed a system to propose here. When I do, I will sell you my book. I do, however, invite the conversation to begin in the comments section below. Students voices are especially appreciated.

Tell us how you feel about grades!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Getting Write to the Point

I lament the days of creative intros. The love that resides inside of me for a good analogy or an interesting personal narrative experience in an introduction is immense.

It seems that introductions such as these have gone by the wayside.

When I sit down to write a paper, I now get right to the point all the while sitting there thinking, "Shoot. I've sold my soul. This is boring." I used to be all about those fun and flowery introductions.

For a long time, I thought that the difference between story-like introductions and scholarly "get right to it" introductions was simply writing experience. There is some truth in that because much of my early writing generally started with either an analogy or humorous bit to grab my reader's attention. I honestly did not know how to start a piece of writing any other way.

But after two years of  Graduate school, I reckon I've changed. 

My writing now gets right to the point even though I tried to meander a bit in the opening of this post.
This tendency has caused me to wonder if this is a sign of writing experience or perhaps a sign of the times.

Yes, people do seek to be entertained (almost all of the time) as if we are terribly afraid of being bored. Yet, when it comes to reading audiences want to get to the important information first. Perhaps people want to form an opinion as quickly as possible or to simply get that need-to-know information. I'm not sure.

Could it be that the most important information is what entertains us the most?

I figure that we as people have forgotten how to wait and also how to converse (in writing and speech).

We have gotten used to the 24/7 hustle and bustle. We want what we want when we want it.
We argue that we don't have time for many things and so lengthy conversations have started to disappear, replaced by character limited tweets and status updates.

In her article "The Flight From Conversation" Sherry Turkle writes, "We are tempted to think that our little 'sips' of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don’t. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have their places — in politics, commerce, romance and friendship. But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation. Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information or for saying, 'I am thinking about you.' Or even for saying, 'I love you.' But connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another. In conversation we tend to one another. (The word itself is kinetic; it’s derived from words that mean to move, together.) We can attend to tone and nuance. In conversation, we are called upon to see things from another’s point of view" (Sherry Turkle's article can be found here).

Isn't that what an introduction is supposed to do, call upon one to see things from another's point of view?

I find myself wondering if this shift in conversation has anything to do with the shortening of introductions?

Do we no longer have time for a good story, metaphor, or analogy?

Possibly the difference in introductions is that "flowery" introductions can be considered creative writing, and scholarly writing is often not thought of as creative. In fact, I hear "tone needs to be less creative and more scholarly" all of the time in a lot of my academic writing.

This frustrates me. So, scholarly cannot be fun? Who has decreed that scholars aren't creative writers?

Isn't all writing creative? 

Why is flowery not considered intelligent and smart writing?

This made me think of scientific writing, which is most often straight to the point. A lot of scientific writing states final outcomes in the beginning of the document -- and will even go so far as to list what will be written about in the document right off the bat.

Maybe academic writing is becoming more scientific and formulaic?

Should I be angry at WAC?

I really don't know.

Things I do know:  I appreciate an entertaining and bold introduction, and scholarly writing tends to bore the pants off of me, and although I'm 35, I seem to be a product of the current generation (what is it now...I think I'm technically a Gen. Xer...).

I believe that introductions will continue to follow this trend.

Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if 20 years from now academic papers start with the thesis statement (I'm talking first sentence type of start). Perhaps someday, all that writers produce will be abstracts.

The world seems to to have forgotten how to caress its readers, ease them into the paper, make them want to read the paper, and enjoy reading their paper--seduction of the reader has been replaced by timeliness.

These are the musings of a graduate student on Spring Break.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Induction and Occam's Razor

When you make an inductive argument or you encounter one, what method do you use to decide whether to believe the conclusion it draws? This process of winnowing the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, happens automatically  when we walk to the store or cook our dinner. 

But when you need to assess two chains of inductive reasoning, each of which was produced by a reputable thinker and contain contradictory conclusions, the process of assessing the principles that both arguments employ becomes more important.

Generally, what inductive arguments are trying to accomplish is provide the best explanation for a certain data set. The data set could come from any academic discipline; it could come from our personal experiences of the world..

This data set could be statistical in nature e.g., American men between the ages of 45-49 suffer 28% more heart attacks than Japanese men between the ages of 45-49; it could be sensory in nature--sensory in many different respects, for example, during a trial a jury might here the following piece of data delivered by a defense attorney., "On the night in question, three independent witnesses testified under oath that they saw John Doe at the party when the crime was committed." Likewise, for a scientist, sensory data generated from an experiment needs to be explained: "Over the past five years, during my research in Madagascar on the ring tailed lemur, I have observed a decline in the number offspring produced each mating season."

The data set does not need to be what we might typically think of as a data set. 

Our personal experiences include an endless series of observations that we interpret in an inductive way. When I look out my window in the morning and see snow on the ground, I, assuming I have no reason to doubt the reliability of my sense of sight will instantaneously explain that sensory data in terms of temperature, i.e., it's cold outside. 

Why do I conclude that it is cold outside before I actually go outside and feel the temperature? Well, because snow is, generally speaking, frozen rain. And rain is water. And water is subject to the laws of nature. More or less, one of these laws of nature, dictates that water freezes at a temperature that I know from past experience is "cold."

Now, from a meteorologist's point of view, the sensory data of snow on the ground might involve a much more complex physical process, but despite the added complexity of his explanation, seeing snow on the ground, he too will conclude: it's cold outside.

So, continuing with our example, we have this set of data: I look out my window and see snow on the ground. I explain, in a basic and narrow sense, this data with the following conclusion: "It is cold outside." It all seems fairly automatic, no? But now let's complicate things. 

Suppose you have a roommate who is science fiction fan, suppose he just read a science fiction novel about an alien invasion of earth. Suppose he, upon seeing you reach for your galoshes, says: "What are you doing that for?"

You slide your eyes askance, and tilt your head as if aiming a weapon. Since you've already had your morning coffee, you decide to spare his life. "Well, uhhh, it snowed last night and I don't want my feet to get cold on the way to class."

"It's not cold outside," your roommate assures you as he digs into his bowl of Lucky Charms with a fork.

"No?" Have the folks at General Mills started adding something extra to their cereals?Magically delicious, indeed! "There's snow on the ground. But it's not cold outside?"

"Actually that white stuff on the ground only looks like snow."

You feel your eye begin to itch. "Huh?" 

You roommate sets his bowl on the counter top in order to gain access to a vaster array of gestures. "My theory," he whispers in conspiratorial tones, "is that last night. While we slept. An alien race, maybe from Epsilon Eridani, maybe from Gliese 876, visited the planet earth. What you see out the window is the evidence of their visit."

"Evidence? Of their visit?"

"Like the litter campers leave in Jellystone National Park. And its definitely not cold but has a temperature consistent with the ashes of dying campfire."

You consider correcting his malapropism directly but opt to murmur your correction as you search for your chap stick, " I thought Ranger Smith executed litterers." 

At this point, your other roommate walks in. You can't help yourself. "Tell him. Let's see what Mike thinks about our competing explanations."

It might not seem like it at first but Mike must now perform a detailed evaluation of two competing explanations. The first explanation concludes that the snow on the ground outside is frozen water and that frozen water requires a certain temperature. That certain temperature is felt by human beings as "cold."  

The second explanation concludes that the snow on the ground, despite its appearances, is not actually snow. It is litter left by a race of super intelligent alien beings. He further concludes that this litter is not cold but warm.

Why do I classify these two explanations as being in competition with one another? Well, because they both explain the data set and neither one involves a contradiction. After all, the roommates's explanation is possible, if it weren't possible, in a basic sense of the word then all those sci-fi movies that people love would not be so riveting. Think about it--has there ever been a movie about a person discovering a square with three sides? 

So, even though it seems counterintuitive, both explanations do in fact explain the data set. In other words, each explanation offers an answer to the questions: What is the stuff I see outside my window? and What caused it to appear? 

Now let's get back to Occam's razor (just so you know Occam's razor is also known as the law of parsimony). Here's how The Shorter OED defines it: "the principle that in explaining a thing no more assumptions should be made than are necessary." 

Now what does this actually mean for those of us who must act in the real world? When we must decide whether or not to wear galoshes or sneakers, shorts or pants, a skull cap or a baseball cap?

It means that we should prefer the first explanation not the second one.

Now investing the time to count the number of assumptions a particular chain of inductive reasoning uses can be a tedious process--unless you happen to be a philosopher, in which case the activity is considered an ideal Friday night--but in the example above we don't need to be overly scrupulous.  Take the following assumption (in logic an assumption is an unstated premise)

Assumption #1: There exists a race of super intelligent aliens.

The first explanation does not require the truth of this assumption. The second explanation does require it. Thus, in regard to Occam's razor,  the first explanation is winning: 0-1. 

Assumption #2: There exists a race of super intelligent aliens from Gliese 876 and Epsilon Eridani.

Assumption # 2 is different from assumption # 1, you see that right? After all, #1 could be true and #2 could be false. Thus, in regard to Occam's razor, the first explanation extends its lead 0-2.

Assumption #3: There exists a race of super intelligent aliens that litter.


Assumption #4: There exists a race of super intelligent aliens whose litter has an uncanny resemblance to frozen water that English-speaking earthlings have connoted snow


Assumption # 5: There exists a race of super intelligent aliens who would travel a long distance through space time for the purpose to silently drop its litter on another planet. 

Assumption #5 is tough even for the Klingon faction to believe. I mean surely if aliens visit us one night, the ruckus will disrupt our sleep. 


Okay that's a sizable lead. At this stage in the contest, Jordan can grab a towel and ice his knees.  

Both explanations have assumptions, but the roommate's explanation requires more assumptions, none of which, and this is key, none of which have any evidence to support their truth.  Now, of course, we know that an absence of evidence is not, logically speaking, the same thing as evidence of absence.  Every one of the roommate's assumptions could be true--even #5--but simply unknown to those of us on earth. 

But whether or not the assumptions could true or false is not the issue. 

The issue, according to Occam's razor, is that in the present moment we have no evidence to support any of those assumptions. Thus, when we evaluate the two chains of reasoning, when we examine the suggested explanation for each one, Occam's razor, provides a way for us to judge which is better, which we should believe. Sometimes Occam's razor is interpreted as a measure of simplicity. Such a conceptualization has some merit. When we look at the above example, one way to explain our preference for the first explanation is say "It is just simpler."  

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Writing Process Q & A with Dr. Melissa Ames

I cannot help but find the ways that people write fascinating. 

What is especially interesting to me is how different the writing process is for everyone. For example: a friend of mine writes his introduction last because he says that writing the introduction last is the only way that works for him.

I, on the other hand, have to write the introduction first. Actually, sometimes I cannot write anything until I think of a snazzy title (and will sit paralyzed staring at the computer until the perfect title comes to mind).

So, I'm always asking people about their writing process, mostly because I am always up for good writing tips - and partially because I'm a curious bird. This curiosity led me to interview a faculty member in the English Department at EIU, Dr. Melissa Ames. 

What follows is a brief bio of Dr. Ames and her interesting answers to my boring questions.

Melissa Ames is an Assistant Professor at Eastern Illinois University specializing in media studies, television scholarship, popular culture, and feminist theory.  She teaches courses in these fields, as well as in composition and English education.  

Her work has been published in a variety of anthologies and journals, ranging in topic from Television Study, New Media, and Fandom to American Literature and Feminist Art.  Her most recent publications include her books Time in Television Narrative:  Exploring Temporality in 21st Century Programming (2012) and Women and Language:  Essays on Gendered Communication Across Media (2001); articles in The Journal of Popular Culture and The Journal of Dracula Studies; and chapters in Grace Under Pressure: Grey’s Anatomy Uncovered (2008), Writing the Digital Generation (2009), and Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media, and the Twilight Saga (2010).

1.  What is the first thing you do when you sit down to write? Do you use an outline?

It depends on the project really.  As a graduate student I was a bit OCD about my pre-writing process:  I used to create an outline and color code it with markers/highlighters (one color for the intro, one for the conclusion, and different colors for various body sections); I would then go through all my printed off articles or typed up notes and then either highlight accordingly or put a little colored mark at the top of the document to tell myself it was to be used in a certain section (or sections).

Since then I’ve relaxed quite a bit in this regard.  I still often craft an outline by hand (one that looks scarily like the traditional five paragraph one with an inverted triangle representing the intro and squares representing body paragraphs and a regular triangle representing the conclusion).  I now don’t always write from start to finish.  I usually start by cutting and pasting material/quotes from typed up notes into the various sections and then writing from there.  I’m not sure which way is better, but there are certainly days when I feel like I was a better writer back when I was a grad student, so maybe I should revisit my colored pens!

2.  When you are writing do you take advantage of peer review opportunities?

I do participate in informal peer review quite a bit.  I have a writing partner (a former peer at Wayne State University where I received my Ph.D.) who usually serves as my second set of eyes for solo projects (and by default she is the second set of eyes on other projects because we often publish works together).  

Another one of my regular reviewers is actually a former graduate student of mine who is working on her Ph.D. at Illinois State University.  I’ve found that it is extremely useful to have a few people who I feel comfortable exchanging work with because they can then come at my work from different directions.  (I also find it nice to have a set of friends who know my work intimately).
And, of course, I participate in peer review in more formal capacities.  Most of the work I have published goes through a peer review process, and I have worked as a manuscript reviewer for various journals and presses.

3.  What projects are you currently working on?

I am currently revising an article on contemporary dystopian young adult literature.  I have been fascinated with the popularity this genre has found throughout the last decade (more so since the release of Susan Collins’s Hunger Games series), especially because it coincides with a string of publications bemoaning the civic illiteracy of the millennial generation (publications like Mark Bauerlein’s  The Dumbest Generation).  

Being that these YA novels are packed full of socio-political commentary, it seems inaccurate to attach labels like “apathetic” and “apolitical” to teens who obviously have some investment in these topics (even if that investment is not always manifested through direct political action).

My other two projects are book-length manuscripts.  The first, Watching (and Feeling) the 00s:  Television & Affect Theory during the First Decade of the 21st Century, studies the televisual trends of the so-called 9/11 decade (2001-2011).  I read various genre developments as reactions to the cultural moment (e.g. the escapism of reality television; the anger displacement of infotainment programs like The Daily Show; the ways in which network dramas remediate the trauma of the 9/11 attacks through various fictional stories focused on salvation, rescue, revenge, and so forth).  This work is also interested in how the technological developments of this past decade changed the televisual landscape resulting in new viewing practices (e.g. how fantasy football has changed sports viewership or how interactive fan websites have begun driving the development of certain programs).

The second book project I am working on with my co-author, Sarah Burcon.  Our book is titled Mediating Female Identity through (St)ages:  Popular Culture Depictions of Mating, Marrying, Mothering, and Maturing.  In this piece we analyze how popular literature, television, and film are depicting (and influencing) various “stages” of female development in productive and problematic ways. 

We hope for this book to be a crossover item that can be read by academic and lay persons alike, and it’s been a lot of fun to write.  We have chapters on the effects of pregnancy self-help books, motherhood memoirs, Hollywood romantic comedies as instructional “how to” date films, depictions of Brides/Bridezillas, and portrayals of menopausal women.  My favorite chapter by far, however, is on the creation and use of the terms Cougar, Puma, and M.I.L.F. – how these words are used by others to label women and how women have appropriated them at times for their own means.

4.  The work that you do seems, at least to me, to be cutting edge and ground breaking...always on the pulse of what is going on right now. Would you consider that true?

I wouldn’t necessarily call my work cutting edge or ground-breaking.  Like any scholar I often am midway through a project only to find that someone else has made a similar argument before.  However, my work is usually timely. 

Being a popular culture scholar means that you have to strike while the iron is hot or else you miss the window where your work is relevant.  It also means that publication delays can be quite frustrating.  (Case in point:  I have an article coming out next year in the Journal of Popular Culture that I’m quite proud of… but it’s on ABC’s Lost – a show that went off the air in 2010).   My work on post-9/11 media also always seems to be a race against the clock because I’m constantly waiting for it to become passé.

As for why this all interests me, well, I find it fun to mix work with pleasure.  The joke I always make is that I get paid to watch TV.  I also find popular culture to be a great way to reach my students so from a pedagogical standpoint I think it is great that my research can inform my teaching. 

My feminist media work is important to me because I am very invested in following Susan Douglas’s call to “talk back” to media and I feel that my gender analyses of various films, books, and television shows is a way to accomplish that.  My post-9/11 work interests me because I fully believe that cultural events influence cultural production and since 9/11 has been touted as the day that “everything changed” I like using it as a watershed moment for my analyses.

5.   What is your philosophy in regards to teaching writing?

I’m not sure I have a specific philosophy any more when it comes to teaching writing but there are quite a few practices that I value. 

I believe that students need opportunities to write A LOT and that the only way one improves as a writer is with practice, practice, and more practice.  (And with that practice should come feedback, feedback, and more feedback). 

As such, I probably assign more essays than the average instructor.  In my composition classes students usually write 8-10 essays and create a writing portfolio.  I also believe in revision (hence the writing portfolio), but because of my desire to have students write so many different essays, I often only have time for them to do an intensive, directed revision of one or two essays during a term. 

I believe in peer review and conferences, but I’m always wanting both to be more productive than they are.  I also value non-traditional writing assignments, such as multigenre research essays. 

All of the above probably seems to conflict with some of my practices and overall reputation as a writing instructor.  I am not opposed to teaching students the components of the dreaded five-paragraph essay (as I feel it’s just one more tool for their toolbox and a fine starting point for writers with very little experience). 

I am known to be a very hard grader when it comes to writing (and specifically MLA documentation).  I feel that since I give so many writing assignments, I can afford to push students harder early in the semester so that they can grow. 

As for my reputation as an “MLA Nazi,” I’m not sure where that stems from, but I really believe in teaching students to attend to detail – not because MLA specifically will necessarily benefit them later in their education or careers but because the skills are transferable to some degree. 

For example, once a student understands the basics of MLA, he or she can usually transition well into other documentation styles like APA.  Also, a person used to consulting a manual and attending to the details of page layout and such will benefit when transitioning to careers where he or she might be expected to conform to company-specific communication formats.

6.  Has your writing process changed since you started teaching?

I’ve been teaching for a while now so it’s hard to say.  I wrote more for fun before I was a teacher.  (I wrote four young adult novels when I was a teenager and a lot of angst-filled poetry and journal entries as a twenty-something). 

If my writing process changed as a teacher, it wasn’t for any philosophical reason but more so because my time was so much more limited.  (Teaching is always my first priority, followed by service, so sometimes my own writing projects land on the back burner).   If teaching had any influence on my writing I’m afraid to say it was a negative one.  Because I assign so many assignments, I don’t read nearly as much as I would like to.  When I read less (academically or for pleasure), my writing (and general vocabulary) declines.  Also, I’ve often joked that after years of teaching high school my spelling has never been the same.  (I won a spelling bee in fifth grade, but after years of grading poorly proofread papers, I sometimes look up the spelling of words like “the”…  Okay, it’s not that bad but you get the idea).  Still, none of this really answers your question about “process” I suppose!

7.  What is the best advice you have ever received in regards to writing?

Well, I’m confusing the advice I received with a Nike ad but the sentiment is about the same:  “just do it.”  Studies have been done that prove that people who write daily no matter what write more than those who wait for opportunities to write in large chunks. 

My natural inclination is to do the latter – to wait for the stars and the moon to align (and for children to be silenced and/or not present) so that I can spend a large amount of time delving into a writing project – but I’ve learned that I do seem to write more when I can make sure I’m producing writing regularly. 

That’s the number one reason why I just started my own television blog – - to force myself to write something once a week for public consumption.  (This allows me to justify the hours I spend watching television, to reflect on shows that don’t fit into my current writing projects, and mostly to just experiment with tone and simply form writing habits that deviate from my natural instincts).

8.  If you could write your memoir what would you title it?

I actually want to return to my creative writing roots in the future, and I’ve often played with the idea of creating a memoir spun from the 26 diaries I have filled throughout my life.  Since the bulk of these were written during my teen and young adult years, I’ve often thought the most fitting title would be:  The Memoirs of Melodramatic Me.  (This is also because I have an embarrassing appreciation for alliteration).  

9. Where do you foresee the future of the college composition classroom heading?

Right now multimodal composition is something that just happens in some composition classrooms in small doses.  I think in the future as more and more writing is housed on the web and more communication is relayed through non-print media that multimodal composition will be increasingly important to integrate into traditional composition courses not as a simple add on but as a key component of the course.

  Special thank you to Dr. Ames for entertaining my questions and providing me with such fantastic responses.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Induction as Scientific Investigation: An Attempt

In my last post, I wrote about a certain kind of inductive argument. Appealing to the authority of a legitimate expert is a common way we construct arguments. All of us rely on this kind of argument to make decisions about all sorts of issues: who to vote for, which charity to contribute to, which movie to see, which book to read, which college to attend, and so on. 

For this post, I'm still going to write about inductive reasoning, but I'm going to connect it, as best as I can, to the scientific enterprise. You've probably heard of the Scientific Method before. When considered as a method of reasoning, the Scientific Method is an empirical form of inductive reasoning. 

A scientist's curiosity (I guess, given human history, an aspiring scientist's curiosity would be just as dynamic. After all, before Einstein won his Nobel Prize for Physics, he was a Swiss patent clerk wondering what would happen if a person were to travel at the speed of light.) is piqued. Suppose our wondering scientist works as a zoologist at Lincoln Park Zoo. 
"I wonder," the scientist might say to herself after watching a late-night showing of Stand by Me, "if non-human mammals can experience "friendship" either within their own species or outside of it?" (This was the subject of a recent episode of Nature.  If anyone is interested, here is the link: 

The zoologist would then go beyond mere wondering. She would create a hypothesis and then create an experiment to test her hypothesis. In the Nature episode, the zoologist closely observed a troop of macaques and then would test their feces for a chemical, I think it was cortisol, that is released when a macaque experiences stress. Thus, there would be two fundamental sets of data for the zoologist to analyze. 

The behavior of the macaques, in particular behavior that indicated "friendship" would be one set of data. For example, macaques groom each other. Thus, grooming might indicate "trust" between two macaques. 

The level of cortisol would be the second set of data. 

Even before the zoologist examines her data sets, she has performed thousands of inductive reasoning chains. Most of these inductive reasoning chains involve the following basic structure:

X has happened repeatedly in the past, thus X will continue to happen in the future e.g.,

-In the past, the sun has always risen in the East; thus the sun will rise in the East tomorrow. 

-For the past 10,000 years , the tropical island (I think it was Costa Rica) that the macaques live on has not experienced a blizzard; thus, the tropical island that the macaques will not experience a blizzard during the zoologist's research 

-For the past 1000 years, most of the members of a troop of macaques in Costa Rica have not died simultaneously from natural causes; thus, most of the members of the troop of macaques she observes on a Monday will still be alive on Tuesday.
-For as long as macaques have inhabited Costa Rica, they have pooped. Thus, macaques will continue to poop in the future. 

-In the past, other scientific research has established beyond a reasonable doubt that cortisol is a chemical that is released by macaques when they experience stress; thus, in the future, when a macaque is experiencing stress, its body will release cortisol.

In the past, other scientific research has establish beyond a reasonable doubt that zoologist's can accurately measure the amount of cortisol in a macaques body, thus in the future, when a zoologist measures the amount of cortisol in a macaques' body it will be accurate. 

And so on.    

Once the two sets of data have been collected, it will carefully examined. The zoologist will see if a correlation exists between, say, lower levels of cortisol and number of grooming events

Suppose, for the sake of simplicity, there were a 100 macaques in the troop that our zoologist was observing. Suppose further that the 10 macaques that participated in the most grooming events had much lower levels of cortisol in their bodies.  Here the zoologist would produce an inference to explain the data. 

1. "During my observations of macaque troop #1, I observed 10,000 grooming events." 

2. "For the purposes of my experiment, each "grooming event" will be interpreted as indicating an episode of "monkey-trust" between two macaques."

3. "For the purpose of my experiment,  each episode of "monkey-trust" will be interpreted as indicating evidence for a macaque's ability to experience "monkey-friendship."

Assumption 1: "Experiencing less stress gives any mammal an evolutionary advantage to survive and procreate."

Assumption 2: "Monkey-friendship is analogous to human friendship in that it reduces the amount of stress the body produces."

Assumption 3: "If a pair of macaques experience "monkey-friendship," then that pair of macaques will each experience less stress than a macaque that does not experience "monkey-friendship."

Hypothesis 1: "If a pair of macaques experience "monkey-friendship," then each of those macaques will produce lower levels of cortisol than any macaque that does not experience "monkey-friendship." 

Hypothesis 2:"If hypothesis 1 is true, then macaques can experience friendship in a way analogous to the way that human's experience friendship."   

Conclusion: "The macaques that participated in the most "grooming events" had the lowest levels of cortisol, thus macaques do experience friendship analogously to humans."

Now here things may get a little confusing. In fact, this entire reasoning process as its stated above is deductive. If the premises and the assumptions and the hypothesis are all true, then the conclusion would also be true.

But every one of the premises and assumptions and hypothesis would itself rely on an inductive argument. For example, (2) simply stipulates that "grooming events" will be "interpreted" in a certain way. But why think that "grooming events" should be interpreted in this way? Well, by way of induction, a grooming event would seem to more consonant with an explanation that postulate "trust" than one that postulate "dominance," but no one can be sure this intuitive relationship actually holds.  

Thus, the beauty and the curse of inductive reasoning.