Protecting Our Space

According to a new survey, 20% of American college students now say it is acceptable to use physical force to stop a speaker from making “hurtful or offensive comments.”  Catherine Rampell, in the Washington Post, reads this as a growing rejection of the principle of free speech.  I think she’s right.  It does seem that Americans are increasingly willing to accept censorship and silencing.  Or at the very least, they are more willing to take active measures to protect their discursive space.  Why?

The first and most obvious answer, I believe, is the dominance of consumer logic.  The world of late capitalism is ruled by “choice.”  Through our consumption habits, we are expected to construct our own reality.  I can customize my home or outfit—sculpt it to the exact image I want to project—so why not my information stream?  Of course, as Cass Sunstein has argued, exposure to opposing views is a necessary social good.  Consumer logic undercuts such thinking, though.  It sidelines the expert (Sunstein), and long-term (democracy) in favor of immediate, emotional satisfaction.  When we think as consumers, therefore, it is only logical to censor and silence.

So people shut down speech because they want to, and believe as consumers, they should get what they want.  Where does this desire to silence originate?  Of course, the alien is always disconcerting.  Still, this new survey data indicates that people are increasingly troubled by opposing views.  Or perhaps we are simply more attuned to them.  Perhaps because of the homogenization of our discursive space the alien sticks out, demands our attention (and challenge), more than it once did.  When I spend most of my time in a filter bubble, the sliver of the outside world that sneaks through is bound to be upsetting.

I do wonder though if there are other factors at play. This is very speculative, but I wonder if the structures of belief which we use to define self and world are shakier than they once were.  In our multicultural, multivocal world even the most closeted thinker must know—at least on some level—that other views are always out there.  Perhaps in earlier, less connected times these views were more distance, and hence less threatening.  And/or perhaps our relation to knowledge has changed.  Perhaps we can say that with modernity and postmodernity some sort of ground has disappeared, and this makes us fundamentally insecure.

We can imagine, for example, a true believer, someone so confident in his views that opposing beliefs are seen only as objects of amusement. Such would be the position of a medieval Christian laughing at a Hindu, perhaps.  The Hindu’s gods are so distance, and the Christian’s understanding of how the world “is” so solid, that the former’s religious claims cause no offense.  Now compare this to students trying to shut down a conservative speaker, Ben Shapiro at Berkeley say.  They find it intensely offensive that Shapiro claims there are only two genders. Shapiro’s views fundamentally hurt these students.  Why?  Why can’t they just laugh at him?  Certainly, they “know” that gender is a spectrum, a social construct.  They know it as certain as the medieval Christian knows the true nature of God….

My point is that it seems that what it means to know has changed.  On some (subconscious) level we have internalized the idea that knowledge is relative, rhetorical and shared.  Leftwing activists need Ben Shapiro to acknowledge gender is a spectrum because, simply put, we can’t be sure of anything anymore.  There’s an abiding sense of unreality, a feeling that everything is up for negotiation.  The negotiation is public, but the outside works its way in, shaping how the individual thinks.  This would explain why we see students chasing conservative speakers off campus.  And why we see Trumpian attacks on the “lame steam media.”  In both cases the principle is the same: I want (or need) to believe the world is X.  When you say it is Y, it makes my life harder.  I must therefore stop you from saying Y.

In short, in a world of excess—of connection and unbridled choice—we recognize that everything is shared, everything is unstable.  We must take an active role in constructing our reality.  And this means being constantly on guard against threats to that reality.

Grad Unionization or No, Pitt Needs More Financial Transparency

Graduate student unionization.  Of late, it seems that those of us engaged in funded graduate study are caught between [insert Game of Thrones reference].  As a student at the University of Pittsburgh, for example, in the past couple weeks I’ve received an email from Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia Beeson laying out the university’s official position.  I’ve also been following the Intellectual Poverty blog of one Andrea Hanna, a graduate student in communications at Pitt, and supporter of unionization.  Let’s parse the claims within, and see what’s going on.

Beeson basically claims that education (including networking, the development of practical skills, etc.), rather than financial compensation, is the primary point of graduate study.  As such, she doesn’t want to foreground financial concerns.  If there are any issues with the current funding system, she argues, they should be addressed piecemeal—on a departmental basis—rather than through the broader framework of unionization / collective bargaining.

Hanna, on the other hand, claims that the university is starving her to death!  Having come to Pitt from Northern Ireland, she finds it very difficult to get by on her graduate stipend.  Among other measures, she’s had to resort to handouts from a local foodbank.  Her blog is dedicated to tracking this “intellectual poverty” and her attempts to overcome.

Now, I’m not going to make a claim for or against unionization.  I would like to say, though, that my experience as a grad student at Pitt (five years as a PhD candidate in the English department), bears little resemblance to Hanna’s.  Still, I respect what she’s doing.  I think transparency is important: we need to get our (financial) experiences out in the open so we can have an honest debate about what problems exist and how they can be solved.  In short, we shouldn’t cede to the administration’s desire to obscure financial concerns.  As such, let me relate my experience.

My official job title at Pitt is “teaching fellow.”  According to Pitt’s Graduate Studies website, this means I make $9,590 per term, or $19,180 per year (plus health insurance).  In exchange, I teach one section of freshman composition (or a similar course) per semester.  My class meets for 3 hours a week.  As I’ve taught this class before, my out-of-class preparation time is limited—probably about 5 hours a week (this includes meeting with students, reading/responding to student emails, grading blog posts, etc.).  Also, five times a semester I read a batch of student essays: this is pretty time-intensive, taking about 8 hours per batch.

So, over the course of a fifteen-week semester, I work about 160 hours (45 in-class, 75 preparation, 40 grading).  For this I get paid $9,590, or about $60 per hour.  In the English department, funding along these lines is guaranteed for at least five years.

Unlike Hanna, I find I am able to live quite comfortable on my Pitt salary.  I have a roommate, and thus pay only about $700 per month for rent and utilities (gas, electricity, cable/wi-fi).  I buy groceries at Trader Joe’s, where I spend about $250 a month.  For recreation I do regular millennial stuff: drink craft beer, go out to eat, see bands.  I own a 2003 Toyota Corolla (so no car payment), and though I have student loans, am fortunate that they are in deferment (hence no loan payments).  So in short, despite making a relatively low wage, as a single, rather frugal person, I find that almost every month I have money left over.

I don’t want to imply that my experience is typical.  In fact, after reading Hanna’s blog, I recognize that it’s not.  As such, whether grad students unionize or not, I feel that the university needs to do a better job of making salary / work information publicly available for comparison.  How much, for example, does Hanna (or a biology PhD) make per hour of work?  How much do they actual bring home, and were they appropriately informed of this situation before taking a position at Pitt?  These questions obviously inform whether unionization is needed.  Likewise, if the university refuses to provide such information, one must conclude that unionization is indeed needed.

Of course, financial transparency should also extend to faculty members.  How much do faculty and staff in the English or communications department make, for example?  How does this compare to those in the Business school?  At many colleges this information is publicly available.  Not at Pitt.  Because of her rank as one of the highest paid university employees, we know that Provost Beeson earned $492,133 in 2016.  Hanna claims to make $17,500 per year.  This indicates that Beeson is approximately 28 times more valuable to the university than Hanna.  Is this true?  I don’t know.  I do feel, though, that we should get all the salary data out in the open, so we can properly debate such claims.

So, in short, from what I’ve seen, any claim that graduate students at Pitt, as a whole, are “impoverished” is a bit ridiculous.  But some student employees obviously have grievances.  I call on the university to compile and make available detailed salary and work information, so that the members of the Pitt community can decide if these complaints are valid.

Putting the Beatles in Context

The centerpiece of my writing class is always the lived experience of the student. I try to stress though that our experience of the world is never disinterested or given. Instead, what we see and hear and feel is always shaped by various forces. Here’s a lesson plan that seeks to illustrate this point.

Note: this is for a 75 minute class.

Lesson Plan:

To begin, I had my students listen to the Beatles’ epic “A Day in the Life,” and do a short (~7 minutes) freewrite describing the experience. My prompt asked them simply, how does this song make you feel? What does it make you think about? Why?

* This activity could utilize any piece of music, as long as 1) the students are not overly familiar with it and 2) it has a substantial entry on Wikipedia. “A Day in The Life” works particularly well, I found, because of its challenging nature and the well-documented (and interesting) circumstances of its composition.

After freewriting, I asked if anyone knew anything about this song (some recognized it was the Beatles, but no one knew its name). I then told them the name, and asked them to go to the relevant Wikipedia page and do some research. “Find out where this song comes from,” I asked. I gave them 15 minutes to read about the song. Though instructed to start with the song’s Wikipedia page, they were encouraged to follow whatever research path grabbed their attention.

We then listened to the song again, and did another freewrite. My prompt this time asked them to note any differences in what they heard or felt or thought. In short, I wanted them to reflect on how background knowledge changed their experience of the song.

Theoretical Justification:

I know from my own experience that learning the context and compositional background of a piece of music (or film or text) inevitably alters how I engage with that work. I was hoping that my students would experience the same effect, and that reflecting on those changes would make them more aware of how knowledge (and context in general) shapes their understanding of the world.

I also feel that engaging deeply with an object (especially a disruptive one like this song), and attempting to share that experience, is a fundamentally beneficial activity for young writers. It forces them to put their subjective experience in symbolic form. It’s also useful for them to see how others make sense of a shared object. This tracks with one of the main goals of my class—to better understand how we see the world, and how this differs from how others see it. Though I didn’t focus on it much, the varying research paths taken could also provide fruitful grounds for discussion.

Analysis:

After our second freewrite, we spent ~45 minutes discussing what we had written. I started off by having some students read their first freewrite aloud. Their responses were varied and fascinating. Some students wrote of being “confused” and “scared” by this “trippy” song, with orchestral parts which reminded them of the score to a horror movie. Others wrote about how some parts (Paul’s verses, in particular) reminded them of childhood. The dominant tendency, after doing some research, was to focus more on the lyrics and the story behind the song (IE, an acquaintance of the Beatles dying in a car wreck). This, predictably, lead to the students hearing an increasingly plaintive element.

Perhaps the most telling response was from a student who wrote about how at first, the unusual structure of the song caused her “anxiety.” This anxiety was relieved once she did some research and “knew what the song was about.”  This response says much about this student’s relationship with novelty.  It is my hope that after exploring this relationship in the classroom, she’ll be more inclined to take note of it in other contexts.

Conclusion:

This was a fun exercise, and I certainly saw changes in my students’ experience of the song.  I’m inclined to believe though that to really facilitate the kind of inter-contextual transfer I’m seeking, it may be necessary to have the students draw some generalizable conclusions from the activity. Towards that end, perhaps this in-class activity could be followed by an essay assignment in which students discuss this “experiment” and what it says about the relationship between knowledge and lived experience.

In group discussion I’d also like to put more emphasis on what the differences noted “mean.”  For example, the song’s background story made one student feel less anxious.  What does this change say about the importance of narrative coherence in her world?  Certainly this question was implicit in our discussion; if I were to teach this activity again though, I’d like to make it explicit.

Twitter and the Trump Tapes (A Lesson Plan for Freshman Composition)

I recently had a successful class session which involved evaluating tweets made in response to the infamous “Trump tapes.”  I thought I’d share my lesson plan, in case any other teachers are interested.

Some background: I teach freshman composition at a large public university. The theme of our course is “thinking about thinking,” with the underlying premise being that this sort of (self-)reflection is necessary to be a successful writer.  We do a lot of activities which involve trying to understand the worldviews (or ideologies, you could say) which underlie certain claims.  This activity is in that vein.

Note: This is designed for a 75 minute class.

Background Material:

Prior to this class session, we watched and discussed this interview with Professor Nicholas Epley, a behavioral psychologist from the University of Chicago.  In it he discusses “egocentrism” and how individuals innately view the same event (he uses 9/11 as an example) in different ways.

My class also uses a standardized heuristic to critically analyze statements.  We created this together and have termed it “The DACO method.”  Here is a handout which explains this method and provides an example.  In short, it involves taking a statement or belief and tracing the Definitions and Assumptions which underlie it, the Consequences to which it could lead, and where it fits in a range of Other Opinions.  For this lesson plan to work, it’s not necessary that you use the DACO method.  If you do want to use it though, it may be useful to go over the above handout as a group.

Lesson Plan:

I began the class by breaking the students into groups of 2 or 3.  I then explained that we are going to watch a video that illustrates Epley’s point about the subjectivity of interpretation.  We then viewed this CNN report featuring the video in which Donald Trump is caught making various vulgar comments about women.  [Note: this version of the video is edited slightly, but still pretty offensive.  You may want to issue a “trigger warning.”]

After watching the video, I distributed this handout, which lists 8 tweets interpreting said video.  Tweets, of course, are very short, which makes them neat encapsulations of the writer’s worldview.  Using our DACO method, we then worked together as a class to interrogate the first tweet.  The goal was to try and understand “where the writer is coming from,” how they see the Trump video (and the world at large) and how we can learn to negotiate with such a perspective.

The first tweet states –> If you’re like ‘that’s just men being men’ after listening to the #Trump Tapes it’s seriously time you get some new male friends.

My class discussed how “men” and “friends” might be defined in this case.  We then discussed the assumptions at play, particularly how this writer likely views Trump’s comments as unusual and wrong, and anyone who engages in such talk as shameful.  Regarding consequences, we decided that this writer wants less vulgar talk because it’s “offensive,” meaning it upsets certain people.  Going deeper, we realized that the writer may believe that such talk leads to physical violence.  He or she may therefore view their tweet as a part of an effort to reduce such action.  Finally, we discussed a range of other opinions.  Opposing opinions can often be generated, we found, by challenging the writer’s premises.  For example, if an opponent could show that vulgar talk doesn’t lead to violence, the argument implicit in this tweet would fail.  Such a belief (that vulgar talk doesn’t cause physical violence) is an example of an “other opinion.”

After analyzing the first tweet as a class, each group worked separately to analyze the other 7 tweets.  After about 20 minutes, they were asked to present their findings to the class, facilitating another group discussion.

Conclusion:

Overall, I found this to be a fun and intellectually lively activity.  The tweets examined come from a variety of perspectives; through critical analysis the students had the opportunity to dwell in those perspectives, enriching their understanding of the other (and the way s/he thinks and writes).  Because tweets are so short, such analysis requires both creativity and attention to the nuances of language.  Also, by examining the intended consequences of each tweet– which I frame as “what the writer is trying to accomplish”—the students began to think about rhetorical tactics.  This are all valuable outcomes, in my opinion.

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Must Philosophy Be So White (and Male)?

Philosophy so white (and male). So claims a trending Twitter hashtag and a recent LA Times article by Myisha Cherry and Eric Schwitzgebel, two academic philosophers. As someone who exists on the fringe of professional philosophy (I’m a writing teacher, but use philosophy in my classroom), I feel I have a unique perspective on this issue. So is “philosophy so white?” Yes. But why exactly?

First off, as with any discussion of social dynamics, we should be wary of anyone who claims there’s one single answer. There’s obviously a lot of factors at play, a lot of stories which can be told. I’ll start with the most basic.

It may seem a little obvious, but one reason philosophy is mainly practiced by white men is because the books you have to read to “do philosophy” in the Western, academic tradition are mainly written by white men. Not surprisingly, people generally like to read stuff written by people who look like them. It’s therefore understandable that philosophically inclined women of color, for example, may be drawn to Audre Lorde or Gloria Anzaldúa, over Kant and Hegel. An interest in such texts, of course, would take these scholars outside the bounds of academic philosophy and philosophy departments.

Related to the above, is something that the authors of the LA Times article hit upon: quality in philosophical production is largely an aesthetic judgment, and because of the nature of the tradition, it’s easier for white men to present the aesthetic demanded. White men are, as Cherry and Schwitzgebel put it, simply better at “sounding smart” in the way “smart” is defined in the philosophy seminar room. I agree with this. What should be done about it though? It seems that the authors would like to expand the definition of philosophical skill to include a wider range of practices. For example, “woman’s ways of knowing” should come to be seen as a valid form of philosophical investigation. Again, I agree. From my perspective, more diversity in thought and practice is always good. If academic philosophy wants to remain culturally relevant, it seems that such a transition must take place.

Considering this topic though, I’m drawn back to a conversation I had some years ago with a theoretical mathematician (a sort of philosopher, I suppose). He was a pretty reasonable guy, but also adamant that no woman could do the work on which he was engaged. This belief, at least on the surface, didn’t seem to be driven by any particular hatred of women. Instead, from a reasoned consideration of his experience, he had drawn the conclusion that for whatever reason— neural makeup, social conditioning or lack of interest—women could just not do his particular brand of super high-level math.†

Now, it’s easy to dismiss this man’s claim. Let’s not do that though. Instead, let’s try to read his experience in light of Cherry and Schwitzgebel claims about philosophy. Are there modes or degrees of philosophical thought, which, by the nature of the female body or society’s innate (IE, unalterable) reaction to that body, are forever closed to women? If so, why may this be?

Of course, our monkey brains are pretty plastic. This being the case, there’s a strong argument that given the same degree of social support and personal desire, a woman, all other factors being equal, could perform any thought activity that a man could perform.‡ Obviously, throughout history the support has been missing. This should change. If it did though, would the desire be there too? Would the number of men and women doing the most abstract and obscure theorizing even out? Or, as Cherry and Schwitzgebel suggest, is the only answer to redefine “high-level theorizing,” to somehow change it into something in which women (as we now use that term) can participate? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of such a redefinition? I don’t have any answers. These certainly seem like questions philosophers should be asking though.


[†] More specifically, his claim was that there were a few hundred people in the world who could do his work and that none of them happened to be women. From this, he drew the larger, and perhaps unjustified, conclusion that no women could ever do the work.

 [‡] But while performing this thought activity, would they be “thinking the same?” Or does the body we think in indelible shape the nature of our thought?

Blessed Be War: Rhetorical Ethics and the Categorical Imperative

The philosopher Immanuel Kant is perhaps best known for his “categorical imperative”– the notion that in any particular situation one should act in the way they’d want everyone else to act. As a pragmatist, I reject such totalizing claims. Still though, in rhetorical practice we should try to heed Kant’s dictum. In general people speak as they are spoken to. They act as those around them act. We are all responsible, therefore, for setting the tone of debate and discussion.

The above claim is based on a rather simple premise. In short, it assumes that humans are innately social creatures. We look to our environment to determine how we should behave. Much of this attunement is automatic, unconscious. How many times, for example, have you coughed or yawned or chewed your pencil because others around you did? Such adjustment is constant, both on a bodily level (yawning) and an epistemological level (what is understood as proper evidence in a debate, for example). Overtime, norms develop. They are never set in stone though. How we talk, think and engage is fluid, always changing based on the aggregate of millions of trivial encounters. To twist a popular faux Gandhi quote, like it or not, we are the change we see in the world.

Consider the following (particularly outlandish) example. A Florida gunmaker recently began marketing an assault rifle with special features which ensure that it can “never be used by Islamic terrorists.” He claims that his new weapon can combat religious violence. It does so by sporting a cross, various biblical verses and a label which indicates that “God wills” the use of the weapon (seriously).

As is glaringly apparent, this gunmaker, while claiming to be against religious violence, is following the same logic used by those he opposes. Both see violence as justified in the name of religious certainty. It’s just that to the gunmaker, ISIS or Al-Qaeda are certain about the wrong things. His truth and theirs diverge, but the way they go about promoting said truths—the rules they set for engaging with difference– are fundamentally similar.

Presumably my left-leaning reader can see the foolishness of the gunmaker’s stance. He thinks he can combat force with force, not realizing that the behavior he promotes (violence in the name of religion) only leads to force against force, ad infinitum. In short, the end he seeks is impossible under the logic his rhetoric demands.

I’d like to argue that many would-be justice seekers fall into the same trap as the Florida gunmaker. Take for example the idealistic young social justice warrior detailed here. She recently got into a public spat with her professor over whether European treatment of Native Americans constitutes “genocide.” She believes it does because her “grandparents told her.” OK. That’s fine. According to the above article though, she also seems to demand that her professor feel the same. That’s not fine.

A closer look reveals that the student’s logic, like that of the Florida gunmaker, is self-defeating. She claims that “I think X because of my experiences, hence everyone should think X.” Because humans are social creatures though—because we never act in a vacuum—she must assume that for her argument to gain traction others must utilize similar logic. Under such a regime her professor is inevitably pushed to mirror her claim: “I think Y because of my experiences, hence everyone should think Y,” he says. This leads to an unproductive exchange. No minds are opened, no growth is achieved. It’s just a shouting match. Which, as the article indicates, is exactly what happened.

So, to draw a tentative conclusion, I would argue that on a purely practical level we always have to be aware of the rhetorical tone we strike and the implications of the widespread adoption of that tone. If we condone violence, others will condone violence. If we refuse to accept multiple truths, others will do the same. In short, in rhetorical engagement it is unreasonable to expect others—be they ISIS or history professors—to act differently than we do.

Rise of the Bottom-Feeders: Online Discourse, Politics and the Academy

Rhetorical practice is, of course, inherently unstable. With the introduction of new actors, issues and technology, the way people talk and think changes. Anne Applebaum claimed recently that the rhetoric of “The Donald” is representative of such a change. In short, she sees Donald Trump as bringing the vulgarity of online discourse into the political sphere. He’s the “voice of the bottom-feeders.”

I agree with Applebaum that vitriolic online discourse can have (and is having) real-world impact. What defines this discourse though? And what should we do about it?

First, when discussing online discourse, it’s important to keep in mind the extent to which to it represents a radical democratization of language. The barriers to rhetorical dissemination have dropped, those formerly silenced can speak. Viewed in this way, one can easily label Applebaum an elitist. She’s a celebrated foreign policy analyst, a graduate of Yale and Oxford. Certainly the way she speaks (and thinks) diverges from the proletarian norm. And who is to say that her rhetorical style– the one she implicitly advocates for in her attack on Trump– is superior? Rhetorical practice is, after all, inherently unstable. And allowing more people to bring their ways of knowing and speaking into the conversation is good, right?

Yes. But letting more people into the conversation has consequences. In a crowded room, with everyone speaking at once, there’s a strong incentive to yell the loudest. This is what we often see online. On Twitter and Facebook discourse is coarsened, nuance disappears. This often (but not always) acts to undercut the benefits of rhetorical exchange. The experience of the other is not substantively engaged with, opinions do not shift, new bonds are not forged. Instead of conversation we have rhetoric as a sort of therapeutic primal scream.

Applebaum’s concern is that this type of rhetorical practice, via Trump, is infecting politics. I have similar concerns with regard to the academy. Though generalizations are always dangerous, it’s fair to say that a certain mode of sensemaking is typically practiced in the library, lab and classroom. This involves listening, questioning and complication. It typically does not involve yelling really loud about your feelings. Such discursive practices are contingent, of course, but they are not arbitrary. We talk this way because it helps us accomplish the goals of the academic enterprise.

So, assuming that Applebaum is correct and that destructive communication practices are migrating off the internet into other spheres, how should academics respond? As a starting point, I would urge teachers and scholars (and anyone else interested in promoting healthy discourse) to consider their own online behavior. Do we engage with a multitude of opinions? Do we seek to promote this sort of engagement in others? As we move through loud, crowded digital rooms do we insist on speaking (and thinking) with nuance and respect?

Unfortunately, even among educated, left-leaning subjects such behavior is often not the norm. This makes the role of those of us well-versed in academic discourse even more important. We must bring our mode of sensemaking to the public sphere. We must provide a coherent, workable rhetorical model for others to follow. Otherwise, as Applebaum suggests, our students, and eventually our colleagues and we ourselves, are going to be talking (and thinking) just like The Donald.