The Madness of Herds

There are indications that the policies that my campus was promoting regarding offering both online and face-to-face instruction simultaneously are going to be mitigated. Our department had a very interesting video meeting through Zoom in which it was clear that we were all in agreement. After the meeting, one of our members crafted the following statement:

The Department of English and Modern Languages (EML) holds that pedagogy rests in the hands of teachers. We collectively do not subscribe to the “banking concept of education,” where content is deposited into the minds of students through strict lecture (and recording). This is not a model for humanities instruction. To that end, faculty are empowered to make pedagogical decisions that match their subject matter to students’ needs while maintaining consistent instruction through the end of the semester. Under pandemic conditions, this will likely mean primary virtual instruction. Faculty will make reasonable accommodations to help students succeed when access and resources are restricted or unavailable.

I think that most faculty on campus would agree with this statement. The union has pushed back strongly. I think that we will be teaching fully online courses.

However, I think that higher education will be forever changed by this crisis. We are all being forced to think, teach and learn in new ways.

Today I went to a supermarket to buy milk and ice cream. I had been to the same store three days before. At that time, although toilet paper and bottled water were in short supply and hand sanitizer was not to be found, everything else was normal. But today, the store was tremendously crowded. There were no shopping carts in front of the store. Pasta, flour, canned soups, milk, and many other items were sold out. I know that in many countries it is not unusual to see bare shelves in a market, but I have never seen this in California before. I was told by someone that all the local stores were the same. Suddenly, everyone was behaving as if civilization were ending.

I don’t think civilization is ending. That might come later if we don’t do something about climate change. But people are suddenly very insecure. And somehow they all become insecure in the same way all at once. It is very strange.

However, strange as this behavior is, humans are also brilliantly adaptable. We will get through this.

Online Instruction

On Wednesday we got a message from the President of our university that instruction will be “paused” from today until Tuesday next week and that we would move to a “virtual” form of instruction after that until March 27, which is the beginning of spring break. After spring break they will “reassess” our local context and risk. Then we got a message yesterday from the Provost that said that we would be providing both “virtual” instruction and face-to-face instruction unless “all” of our students preferred “virtual” instruction. Apparently, the administrators bought cameras for the classrooms. They seem to think that an online class is just the same as a traditional class, but with a video feed of the lecture.

I think that these administrators have forgotten what actual teaching is like.

As soon as I heard that we were switching to online instruction, I redesigned my courses.

  • I eliminated some assignments and activities that required face-to-face interaction.
  • I added some new discussion boards.
  • I shifted points around to accommodate participation in discussion boards instead of in class discussion.
  • I made plans to produce podcasts instead of lectures.
  • I informed my students of these changes and got feedback on the changes.

I also began helping the Teaching Associates that I supervise to begin thinking about redesigning their courses. They were freaking out because they are new to teaching face-to-face and suddenly, midstream, they have to switch to an entirely different mode of instruction. I told them that there were actually better prepared than many faculty for this change because they are much more familiar with the technology. One responded, “Yes, we can do this!”

Composition courses are not lecture-based. We have writing activities, whole class discussions, group discussions, collaborative projects, presentations, poster sessions, etc. If we lecture, it is only for a short part of the class meeting.  Meeting with a few students in an almost empty room and lecturing to a camera will not work. This is not information transfer. It is teaching and learning. And it doesn’t make sense to move instruction online and then try to move it back again.

I am afraid that the administrators are afraid to be truly decisive. They want to have it both ways. And they have forgotten the reason we are doing this. If we want to reduce or slow the spread of Covid-19, we have to take decisive action, not a little of this and a little of that, leaving all options open.

I plan to post my podcasts and other instructional materials here. Those who follow this blog for teaching materials and ways of presenting rhetorical concepts may find the series of posts I put up in the next few weeks a bit course specific for their own use, but I hope you will find something useful for your teaching as well.

Will We Have to Move Online?

As the novel coronavirus Covid-19 spreads throughout the world, festivals, conferences, corporate meetings, and schools, colleges and universities are shutting down. Educational institutions are considering moving all instruction off campus and online for a period of time until the crisis passes. My campus has not decided to close at this point, but we have received numerous emails that imply that it is a possibility in the near future.

Many of my colleagues teach classes in the traditional way, without online tools. I am a bit more prepared. My courses are neither hybrid nor online, but all of them are “web-enabled” in that I use our course management system, Blackboard, to host documents, discussion boards, blogs, and group projects. I also use the online gradebook. I have also been supervising Teaching Associates using the video conferencing app, Zoom, for which the campus has a license. Zoom is very easy to use.

My “Teaching Writing” seminar is small, so if I move it online I can use Zoom to hold synchronous class meetings. Combined with the tools on Blackboard, this should work fine.

My “Genre Fiction” class is probably too big for Zoom. For that course, I plan to use a combination of specialized discussion boards and podcasts. Our undergraduates do not always have internet access at home, so we have to be careful about bandwidth. That is one reason I want to avoid video lectures.

I record a lot of music, so I have good microphones and other equipment. However, I am new to podcasts. I tried an earlier one here on Stasis Theory.  I got some good feedback on that, but it wasn’t entirely successful. Today, as an experiment, I did a short podcast on a story for Genre Fiction, “The Barnum Museum” by Steven Millhauser.

I think my students will find this helpful. I have asked them for feedback.

I hope that we don’t have to close the campus. However, I think that the virus is beyond containment at this point and that we are in the mitigation phase. That means that we have to slow the spread so that our health care system is not overwhelmed. Closing the campus may in fact be helpful in that regard.

Writing Matrix Extension 2

In my seminar, we are reading James Berlin’s Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies. I include this book as an example of a cultural studies writing pedagogy aimed at teaching students how to recognize and resist what Berlin calls “hegemonic discourses” expressed in “cultural codes.” This is sometimes called “critical thinking,” in that the goal is for students to see how the language in everything from advertisements to political discourse is designed to make them think and act in ways that support the dominant ideology of the culture. The idea is that if we can see how we are being manipulated, we can free ourselves and make our own decisions.

These days, we have to create a list of public outcomes for every course we teach. I sometimes joke with my students that one of the outcomes for a cultural studies course should be “Students will learn to resist hegemonic discourses.” Because the institutions that offer these courses are often trying to impose hegemonic discourses, or are at least complicit in maintaining the dominant ideology, I wonder if such an outcomes statement would be questioned.

I realized that my writing matrix did not include this concern among the skills and abilities I had listed, so I have made yet another revision. One could certainly argue that other writing skills are more important, but because many university writing courses are organized around a cultural studies pedagogy, I felt that it was important for “Critical Thinking/Ideological Insight” to appear in the matrix.

WritingCourseMatrix-color-extended-1a

This is getting a bit unwieldy, but I think it is still useful for thinking about the goals and content of a writing course.  Again, not every course will include all of these concerns. Previous posts on this matrix can be found here: What Writing Courses Do and Writing Matrix Extended.

Writing Matrix Extension

I used the nine-cell matrix in the previous post in conversations with colleagues and in my “Teaching Writing” seminar. After these discussions, I decided that the matrix needed some extensions, which I have represented here:

WritingCourseMatrix-color-extended

These extensions are closely related to the cells they are above or below. Writing in a home dialect such as Black English, Spanglish, or Hawaiian Creole is clearly related to self-expression and also to audience awareness. Composition instructors need to be aware of the ideological, ethical, and rhetorical implications of insisting that students always write in Standard English. I sometimes have my graduate students look at the websites of Jamaican newspapers, where the articles are written in a prestige Jamaican dialect that has similarities with British English but is not quite the same as either British or American English. However, when the Jamaican reporter interviews a witness to an event, the responses are written in Jamaican Creole.

In the adjacent cell to the right I have introduced the skill of storytelling. Narrative is often neglected in writing courses, but in our culture today, a good story is often more convincing than facts and arguments. I explore this further in the post, “A Narrative with a Point.”

Finally, the cell in the bottom right is a counterpart to the one above it. A good writer knows the conventions and knows how and when to break them, especially in creative writing. I explore this a bit in “The Alternate Style” and in “What Makes Punctuation So Confusing?

The matrix is not so neat and tidy anymore, but the apparent tidiness of the first version was misleading. This one is not designed to be definitive either. What I hope to do is inspire conversations about writing courses that will help teachers and outsiders see how complex they really are.

 

What Do Writing Courses Do?

When we design and teach writing courses (which of course are also reading courses) we often start by looking at the outcomes for the course or by creating our own list of outcomes. Then we start listing writing assignments, often based on texts we find interesting to teach. We imagine how long it will take to present the assignment, for students to write and revise the various sub-components and drafts, how long we need to grade it and return it, and we set a due date. We create a sequence of reading/writing units, probably of increasing difficulty and length. Ideally, each assignment with its various tasks and drafts addresses at least some of the listed outcomes. Realistically however, the connections to some of the outcomes may be tangential at best. In addition, some students started out weaker or stronger than others. They are unlikely to end up at the same place.

And what happens after your course ends? Do students go on to another course? Do they write in their disciplines? Have you prepared them to do that? What is it all for? Where are we going?

In order to think about this a little differently, I created the following chart:

WritingCourseMatrix-color-1

I intend this as a big picture map of what a writing program needs to do. The course you happen to be teaching might be focusing on a few of the cells in the chart more than others, but as you design your course, you should be aware of the big picture. These cells are not discrete items in a list. There are complex relationships between them.

Fluency

Fluency is based on a lack of fear. The fear is usually caused by the concern about “Standard Written Conventions” in the opposite corner of the chart. Students given an assignment will sometimes spend 30 minutes writing and rewriting the first sentence before they have even decided what to write about. No real writing can occur in the face of anxiety about making a grammatical error. We have to work on that.

Self-Expression

“Self-expression” is important to beginning writers. It is a powerful purpose. It shouldn’t be denied absolutely. It is a purpose to build on. How does a student grow beyond self-expression? “Intertextuality” is one direction. What do other people say? Can you quote them to support what you are saying too? “Inquiry” is another. Can you find out more? Do you still think the same thing after knowing more? Both of these types of activities help build audience awareness too.

Interdisciplinarity

“Interdisciplinarity” is the connection of the writing course to the rest of the academic world. The student in your class is not likely to be an English major. When they write in science or in engineering, will they have to unlearn some of your stylistic recommendations? Do you have to know how to write like an engineer in order to teach them? No, but you can help them ask questions and analyze documents to see how it is done. Also, rhetorical strategies such as thinking about audience, arguments, and evidence tend to be universal. It is stylistic preferences and organizational patterns that change.

Making Things Happen

“Making Things Happen” is really the true purpose of all writing, but it is more obviously true of academic and workplace writing. Students should be aware of the connections your course has to writing in other environments for other purposes. It makes your class more meaningful to them and they are more likely to be engaged.

And in fact, thinking about how your course fits into the big picture might help you become more engaged too!

Sophistic Appeals: Mythos, Logos, Nomos

Note: This post is also available as a .pdf for classroom use.

In Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured, Susan Jarratt argues that the ancient Greek sophists existed at a time when human society was shifting from mythos, an uncritical acceptance of tradition as represented in myths and stories, to logos, a system of logical analysis allowing access to certain truth, as represented in Plato and Aristotle (31). Jarratt introduces nomos, or “custom-law,” as a third term (41). She sees the sophists as using logos (words and logic) to challenge traditional mythos in order to renegotiate nomos (cultural values and beliefs). Her model for this process is found in Gorgias’s “Encomium of Helen,” in which he argues that Helen of Troy is blameless because she acted as she did for one of four reasons: she was fated by the gods, abducted by force, persuaded by speeches, or conquered by love. Gorgias invokes the myth of Helen and uses words and arguments to challenge her bad reputation among the Greeks, influencing social attitudes toward women in general at the same time.

This sophistic triad of terms–mythos, logos, nomos–can be a productive alternative to the better known Aristotelian appeals of ethos, logos, and pathos. The advantage of the sophistic perspective created by these terms is that it directly addresses social values (nomoi), a factor that the Aristotelian terms tend to obscure.

mythos-logos-nomos-chart-color

Nomos

Nomos (the Greek plural is “nomoi“) encompasses the unwritten social rules, expectations, and values of a local community concerning behavior, responsibilities, boundaries, rights and other social customs. Nomos is what everybody thinks is proper, a set of agreements that may be in part unspoken and unconscious. Of course, even in a local situation, nomos is always open to renegotiation and change. In the past, such change was slow.

Today, technology has made it possible for individuals in widely separated communities to write, speak, and see each other with great immediacy, across cities, states, countries and continents. This immediacy could lead to greater understanding of different communities and cultures, but it has also led to clashing nomoi. We are in a world that has gone from isolated tribes and nations to global civilization in a handful of decades. Electronic media, cheap air travel, and disparities in economic opportunity ensure that we keep crashing into each other with vastly different languages, religions, morality, values and traditions, so that one can succumb to culture shock in one’s own country. The sophists were really the only ones in ancient Greece who experienced this kind of clash, because they were itinerant and traveled from city-state to city-state.

So people today are shocked by what they read and see from outside their community. They think, “How can they do that? How can they think that? Are they even human? Something must be done about them!” The problems our world faces are more related to clashing values than to misunderstood facts. Logical argument succeeds only when there are shared values.

Mythos

Nomos is rooted in mythos. The sophists had Greek myths in mind–the Iliad and the Odyssey, stories about Greek gods such as Zeus, Hera, Apollo and Athena, and Greek heroes such as Hercules. Today, we know those myths, but they are not the ones that are relevant to our own culture. Instead we think about such things as the Founding Fathers, the Frontier, the American Dream, and Santa Claus. We also have movies, such as Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, that create their own mythology. For the purpose of utilizing the concept of mythos in a modern context, I want to define it broadly as “A story that nearly everyone in a community knows that serves as a reference point for community values and behavior.”

Logos

Aristotle uses this term to refer to logical argument, but it literally means “words.” For the sophists, any kind of persuasion that used words was logos. That would include logical arguments, but also stories, images, poetic language, incantations, etc. In this context, logos is the bridge between mythos and nomos. A typical move is to invoke a mythos (such as Helen of Troy) then use words to change the audience’s perception of the myth for the purpose of altering how the community feels about a particular issue. So it’s 1) invoke mythos, 2) deploy logos, 3) change nomos.

Applying the Concepts

This mythos-logos-nomos pattern is actually quite common in modern speeches, op-eds and other articles. In a review of David Silverman’s This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, Philip Deloria writes

The challenge for scholars attempting to rewrite Thanksgiving is the challenge of confronting an ideology that has long since metastasized into popular history. Silverman begins his book with a plea for the possibility of a “critical history.” It will be “hard on the living,” he warns, because this approach questions the creation stories that uphold traditional social orders, making the heroes less heroic, and asking readers to consider the villains as full and complicated human beings. Nonetheless, he says, we have an obligation to try.

Both Silverman, the writer, and Deloria, the reviewer, invoke the myth of the first Thanksgiving, describe the historical record and the history of the transformation of the holiday to serve particular ideological purposes, and then recommend a changed view. Deloria’s review is titled, “The Invention of Thanksgiving: Massacres, myths, and the making of the great November holiday,” Deloria asks, “So how does one take on a myth? One might begin by deconstructing the process through which it was made.”

Deloria points out that almost none of the traditional Thanksgiving story is true. However, the real point is not to confront a myth with the facts. Rather, it is to change attitudes toward Native Americans in the present. Deloria notes that current politicians want to treat Native Americans as a racial group and disavow the political relationships established by treaties. That is the part of nomos that Native American groups are trying to change.

Different Myths of Love

In “Romantic Regimes,” Russian-born Polina Aronson describes coming to the United States as a young exchange student and learning about American ideas of love from a stack of Seventeen magazines. She realized that the American concept of love was entirely different from the Russian concept. Later she became a sociologist and characterized the American version of love as the “Regime of Choice” and the Russian version as the “Regime of Fate.” She writes,

The Seventeen girl was trained for making decisions about whom to get intimate with. She rationalised her emotions in terms of ‘needs’ and ‘rights’, and rejected commitments that did not seem compatible with them. She was raised in the Regime of Choice. By contrast, classic Russian literature (which, when I was coming of age, remained the main source of romantic norms in my country), described succumbing to love as if it were a supernatural power, even when it was detrimental to comfort, sanity or life itself. In other words, I grew up in the Regime of Fate.

She writes that these romantic regimes are “systems of emotional conduct that affect how we speak about how we feel, determine ‘normal’ behaviours, and establish who is eligible for love – and who is not.” In other words, a myth of love determines nomos, what the society thinks is normal for love. Different myths create different norms. Clearly if a Russian girl and an American boy fall in love, they are going to have trouble negotiating this difference.

Possible Writing Assignments

  1. Select an article that follows the mythos-logos-nomos pattern and write an analysis of how the myth is represented, how it is connected to a particular aspect of nomos, and how the writer develops arguments that might change the attitudes of the community.
  2. Choose an aspect of the nomos of your community that you think should be changed, invoke a myth that supports this attitude, and use stories and arguments to debunk or reinterpret this myth to support the change you have in mind. Examples of nomos might include attitudes toward same sex marriage, attitudes toward LGBTQ people, racial stereotypes, gender discrimination, etc.
  3. Research the history and background of a common current myth. How did it begin? Why did it develop in the way that it did? What effects does the myth have on current society?

Works Cited

Aronson, Polina. “Romantic Regimes.” Pocket, https://getpocket.com/explore/item/romantic-regimes?utm_source=pocket-newtab. Accessed 9 Jan. 2020.

Deloria, Phillip. “The Invention of Thanksgiving: Massacres, myths, and the making of the great November holiday.” The New Yorker. 18 Nov. 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/11/25/the-invention-of-thanksgiving. Accessed 9 Jan. 2020.

Jarratt, Susan C. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1991.

Writing a Rhetorical Analysis

Note: This post assumes you are familiar with Aristotle’s terms, ethos, logos, and pathos. If you are not, you may want to read “Three Ways to Persuade” first.

A rhetorical analysis paper is a common assignment in university writing courses from First Year Writing to graduate courses in rhetoric. The assignment offers an opportunity for the writer to see rhetorical concepts in action, doing real work in real contexts. It is an exercise in critical thinking, pulling the curtain of language aside to look at the rhetorical machinery at work behind it. It is also a step toward being able to put these concepts to use in one’s own writing. However, many students struggle with this type of analysis. Some end up merely paraphrasing the text they are examining. Some go on a search for strategies to identify, pointing out that the author “uses” ethos here and pathos there, but without connecting the strategies to a purpose or an audience. Others make arguments about what the author is doing, but don’t support those arguments with evidence from the text.

This is not really surprising. Most students have been trained to do literary analysis in a close reading, non-theoretical way. Rhetoric is both intuitive and counter-intuitive. It is intuitive in that we are all natural rhetoricians using rhetorical strategies every day. It is counter-intuitive in that thinking deeply about rhetorical strategies makes us see that what at first seems obvious is in fact quite complex and perhaps even devious.

A good starting point for a rhetorical analysis is to produce what is called a “rhetorical précis.” This strategy was first presented in a 1988 article by Margaret Woodworth in Rhetoric Review. The rhetorical précis, as designed by Woodworth, is a paragraph that answers four questions:

RhetoricalPrecisChart-cropped

This semester, my Professional Writing class looked at a resignation letter written by Kelly Mehlenbacher, who was State Operations Director for the Kamala Harris presidential campaign. The letter was published in an article in the New York Times.

A rhetorical précis of the letter might look like this:

Kelly Mehlenbacher, State Operations Director for the Kamala Harris campaign for President of the United States, wrote a resignation letter (dated November 11, 2019, published in the New York Times November 29, 2019) stating that she is resigning because she has never seen a campaign treat its staff so poorly. She supports her argument by describing the lack of a plan to win, laying off staff without notice and without regard for personal consequences, low morale, and divided leadership. She says that she writes in order to cause serious consideration of the structure, goals, internal communications, and values of the campaign. Her immediate audience is the campaign leadership, though once it was published in the newspaper, the audience expanded greatly to include newspaper readers and most importantly, potential campaign donors (Harris dropped out of the race on December 3).

The rhetorical précis is only the beginning of a full analysis. Though it doesn’t go into specific rhetorical strategies, it establishes the basic context–the author, the thesis, a summary of the support, the purpose, and the intended audience. Anyone doing a rhetorical analysis should solidify their grasp of these basic elements first.

The First Paragraph

Now we are ready to start looking at the actual language of the text. One of the books I sometimes use in the professional writing course recommends making a “mental movie” of the reader reading the text. This is a moment by moment imagining of the reader’s responses. This letter starts out

It is with a heavy heart that I submit my resignation as State Operations Director at Kamala Harris for the People, effective November 30, 2019. This is my third presidential campaign and I have never seen an organization treat its staff so poorly.

Often there will be an ethos move in the beginning of a document like this. However, the phrase, “It is with a heavy heart,” cliche or not, signals an emotional state, or an appeal to pathos. The reader knows that bad news is coming. The writer doesn’t like what she is about to do, but she is going to do it. We don’t know whether this letter is a surprise to the reader, or expected, but it is not good. The ethos move comes in the second sentence, with “this is my third presidential campaign.” She is a seasoned campaigner. And then she complains, not about how she herself is being treated, but about how the campaign is treating its staff in general. She is sad, she is experienced, and she is principled and trying to stand up for her people. There is a lot going on in those first two sentences.

After establishing herself as knowledgeable and principled, she delivers the devastating payload of this letter. She writes,

While I still believe that Senator Harris is the strongest candidate to win in the General Election in 2020, I no longer have confidence in our campaign or its leadership. The treatment of our staff over the last two weeks was the final straw in this very difficult decision.

She states that she still believes in the candidate, but not in the campaign or its leadership. The poor treatment of the staff is not the real issue, but a symptom of poor leadership. As we move into the logos of this letter, we have two possible enthymemes. One might be

  • Successful presidential campaigns require dedicated and talented staff.
  • Successful presidential campaigns treat their staff well.
  • The Kamala Harris campaign does not treat its staff well.
  • Therefore, the Kamala Harris campaign is not a successful campaign.

That makes it all about the staff. The implied recommendation would be to treat the staff better to have a better result.

The Second Paragraph

However, at the end of the second paragraph, a paragraph that resonates with the word “unacceptable,” she writes,

It is unacceptable that with less than 90 days until Iowa we still do not have a real plan to win. Our campaign For the People is made up of diverse talent which is being squandered by indecision and a lack of “leaders who will lead.”

We might write this enthymeme as follows

  • Successful presidential campaigns require decisive leaders with a real plan.
  • Decisive leaders with a plan use their staff resources well.
  • The Kamala Harris campaign does not use its staff well.
  • Therefore the Kamala Harris campaign needs decisive leaders.

The rhetorically interesting issue here is why focus on the issue of the treatment of the staff when the real issue is about leadership? This is the kind of issue that is often missed when a student is simply focused on finding instances of ethos, pathos, and logos. The writer is using a sub-issue to get at the more difficult issue from an indirect perspective. The text provides one enthymeme, but another is lurking behind it.

The Third Paragraph

The third paragraph continues to focus on staff morale, trusting in the expertise of the staff, and listening to honest feedback. But mixed in are references to the campaign manager and the campaign chair (the candidate’s sister Maya) who have not addressed the staff “to explain, apologize, or reassure us of the decisions being made and the path forward,” and have refused to confront mistakes.

The Fourth Paragraph

In the final paragraph, the writer says that she hopes that her departure “might result in some serious consideration of our structure, our goals, our internal communications and what our organizational values are.” She does not say who should be doing this consideration. The letter is addressed “To whom it may concern,” not to the campaign manager or chair. She has already indicated in the first paragraph that she does not have confidence in their leadership. It is unlikely that she thinks her resignation will change their capabilities. I think a case could be made that the actual intended audience for this letter is the candidate herself, Kamala Harris, and that this is a plea that she fire both Maya Harris, her sister, and Juan Rodriguez, the campaign manager. What happened instead is that Kamala Harris ended her campaign.

Conclusions

What comes out of this analysis is a tension between what the text says and what it does. This tension is designed into the document. The concern for the welfare of the staff is an acceptable theme. A direct attack on the competence of the campaign leadership is much less likely to provoke the desired result. It’s all about rhetorical strategy. Notice also that the rhetorical précis doesn’t get at this. The précis is about the surface, while the in-depth analysis gets at what is really going on. But the précis is a good starting point.

In this analysis, I have been using Aristotle’s three appeals and the concept of the enthymeme, which is the main component of logos, at least for Aristotle. I also noted the repetition of variations of “it’s unacceptable” in the second paragraph, a kind of anaphora or repetition.

However, we could also invoke kairos at this point. This resignation comes at a crucial point in the campaign, a point that comes in most campaigns, where things are not going well and money is short. Money for a campaign is a chicken and egg sort of problem. More money can mean more success, which can lead to more money. However, this campaign is in a downward spiral in polls and in donations. Drastic measures and brilliant leadership will be necessary to turn things around. Kelly Mehlenbacher doesn’t see that happening. It’s time for her to leave.

Works Cited

Martin, Jonathan, Astead W. Herndon and Alexander Burns. “How Kamala Harris’s Campaign Unravelled.” New York Times, 29 Nov. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/29/us/politics/kamala-harris-2020.html. Accessed 18 Dec. 2019.

Woodworth, Margaret K. “The Rhetorical Précis.” Rhetoric Review 7 (1988): 156-64. Print.

The Web Requires a New Kind of Reading

Reading on the internet is a new kind of reading. Some of the skills we use when we read printed material still apply, but we need to develop new skills as well. Because almost anyone can post images and text to the internet, we have new questions about who is an expert, who is knowledgeable, and who trustworthy. Because texts link to texts and then to other texts creating hypertexts, we no longer read in a predictable linear fashion. There is a sense in which the entire internet is just one big text. And while the internet is full of helpful volunteers willing to share valuable knowledge, it is also full of pretenders, deceivers, and charlatans with political or criminal agendas.

I used to read the Los Angeles Times every morning. The paper was delivered about 6:30 am and I had read or skimmed most of it by 8:00. News stories covered the basic who, what, when, where, why in the first three paragraphs. Details followed, sometimes spiraling down to the very specific, but it was often enough to read the first three paragraphs of stories that interested me. This was my habit for decades. I always knew where I had read something, even to the page. If I discussed it with someone, they had read the same article. We had the same facts.

Now I still read the L.A. Times, but also the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Sacramento Bee, and a vast selection of articles delivered through the Apple news app. I read everything on my iPad and I end up having little idea of where I read something. I know things, but I don’t know how I know them. I am exposed to a great deal of news and opinion, but it is an effort to sort it all out. Is this better? Well, yes and no. But one thing is clear: we need to develop a new skill set to sort through all of this information. We need to retrain our brains.

Traditional newspapers were never perfectly objective, but they made an attempt to be so, and they had procedures for fact-checking and policies in place to prevent the advertising department from influencing or even contacting the newsroom. Now they are struggling to survive, as readers and advertisers leave and shareholders demand more and more profits. They also have to compete with news aggregating sites that are often reporting on their reporting, without having to pay the expense of having reporters on the scene. In this kind of environment, how can we know what is true?

Four Moves

Mike Caulfield, in his very useful online book “Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers,” offers four moves for students who are trying to check the validity of information they find on the internet:

  • Check for previous work: Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research.
  • Go upstream to the source: Go “upstream” to the source of the claim. Most web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information.
  • Read laterally: Read laterally. Once you get to the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the network.
  • Circle back: If you get lost, hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over knowing what you know now. You’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions.

Caulfield also advises students to “check their emotions.” He says, “When you feel strong emotion–happiness, anger, pride, vindication–and that emotion pushes you to share a ‘fact’ with others, STOP. Above all, these are the claims that you must fact-check.”

Something Simpler and Deeper

Caulfield’s online book offers detailed procedures for implementing each one of these moves. It is certainly worth a look if you are assigning a full-blown research paper. However, it seems to me that we need something both simpler and deeper. Also, I think that Caulfield relies too much on finding out what other people think, instead of having the students think for themselves. We need a new way to read. Perhaps we could call it “skeptical reading” that leads to “informed reading.”

What Caulfield is getting at with “check your emotions” is what psychologists call “confirmation bias”: we enthusiastically accept information that confirms what we already believe and we resist information that runs counter to our own opinions. (This article. “Confirmation bias: 6 ways to recognise it and 5 ways to counter it,” and the included links offer a detailed account.) Google’s algorithms have confirmation bias built into them. Google wants to make us happy, so it shows us what we want to see. Different people doing the same search on their own computers will get different results. Trump supporters will see pro-Trump sources. Democrats will see liberal sources. It is all tailored to the individual. One solution is to search with DuckDuckGo instead of Google. But Facebook and other social media platforms have similar algorithms. Perhaps the question is “Do I want to be happy, or do I want to know the truth?”

Caulfield makes “check your emotions” a kind of unnumbered fifth step, a “habit of mind” rather than a move, but I think understanding and accounting for your own biases is a fundamental first step. The questions to ask are “Why do I like/dislike this? Is my bias influencing my judgment about this article?” This is related to the “believing game” and the “doubting game.” If you are inclined toward the believing game, try the doubting game first, and vice versa. We could associate this move with pathos.

Once we have thought about our own personal biases, we can start more objective moves. Caulfield’s second move is to “go upstream” to the original source. Because a lot of content on the internet is reporting on reporting, i.e. paraphrases, summaries, or commentary on other writer’s stories, a good move is to follow the links or do searches to find the original source. The questions here are “Where did this come from?” and “Who did the original reporting?” If there is no actual source, this is a big red flag. Caulfield recommends what he calls “reading laterally” at this point, by which he means doing searches to find out what other people think of this source and this writer. We could call this an “ethos investigation.”

At this point I am going to depart from Caulfield’s recommendations and make a more rhetorical move. The question to ask is “What is this writer or source trying to do?” This is a question about motives and purpose. Thinking about why a writer is saying what he or she is saying will likely reveal much about the writer’s agenda.

A Summary

To summarize, there are three moves in my simplification:

  • Check Personal Bias: Why do I like/dislike this? Is my bias influencing my judgment about this article?
  • Check Original Sources: Where did this come from? Who did the original reporting? What do other people think of this source and/or this writer?
  • Check Motives and Purposes: What is this writer or source trying to do?

I think these three moves are possible for students to remember and implement. These habits of mind will lead to informed reading.

Dissoi Logoi (Two Arguments)

Dissoi Logoi” is a document associated with the famous sophist Protagoras, though the writer is unknown. The sophists were often criticized for arguing both sides of the question and for making the worse appear the better and the better appear the worse. This document is part of the reason why. It argues that what is bad for one person is good for another, that what is socially acceptable in one part of the world is shameful in another, and that what is just and unjust depends on the situation and the perspective. This looks like moral relativism and it fits with Protagoras’s statement that “Man is the measure of all things.” However, Aristotle himself argues that rhetoric is morally neutral and should look at arguments from all sides.

The document itself is incomplete. It appears to be speaking notes or perhaps a practice exercise. It is somewhat incoherent, and at times reads like it was written by someone who is crazy, or having fun at our expense. However, the writer is right that any position we take on an issue will have good and bad consequences and will affect different people differently. Our arguments will be stronger and more persuasive if we consider multiple perspectives. “Dissoi Logoi” is good intellectual practice.

Students given an issue or problem to consider and write about will often start with the following questions in mind:

  • What is my thesis?
  • How can I support it?

With the practice of Dissoi Logoi in mind, we start in a different place:

  • What are the possible positions?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of each one?
  • Who is helped and who is hurt by possible policies or solutions?

These questions can be used in group brainstorming sessions so that individual students don’t have to come up with all of the possible positions and consequences themselves. This usually leads to lively discussions. I have a worksheet that I update every time I use it so that the issues it raises are somewhat current. Here are the first two groups:

Group 1
Choose one of the topics below and work out all of the arguments on each side of the issue. If you run out of arguments on one, begin on another.

  • Drones (Remote-controlled pilotless aircraft)
  • Internet Tracking Cookies
  • Food Stamps

Group 2
Choose one of the topics below and work out all of the arguments on each side of the issue. If you run out of arguments on one, begin on another.

  • Free Community College
  • Statewide Educational Testing
  • Organic Food

I give each group three issues to choose from in case they have no knowledge or interest about one of them. However, you could take a single issue that the class is exploring and have the groups brainstorm all the possibilities. After they have done this, they are ready to consider the questions I started with:

  • What is my thesis?
  • How can I support it?

However, because they have explored beyond their own position and understand why people take opposing positions, their arguments are likely to be much more developed and persuasive.