Monday, December 17, 2007

Day 4

Day 4 is the hardest. I need to get across to students that Claim + Reason isn't necessarily a good or bad argument in and of itself. I need for them to dig deeper and understand that underlying every argument is a premise that they may or may not accept.

For example:

Jennifer Lopez is a good singer because she sells a lot of CDs.

Claim = JLo is a good singer.
Reason = she sells a lot of CDs
Premise linking claim and reason = Selling a lot of CDs makes you a good singer. Or, good singers sell a lot of records. Or, popularity equals quality.

This leads to a vigorous discussion as students reveal times when popularity did not equal quality. They acknowledge the power of marketing and the gullibility of consumers. Then I point out to them that they're communists if they don't believe in the central concept of capitalism: that in the free market, quality will rise to the top and inferior products will disappear from the market. They don't like that part. ;)

They like this reason better:
JLo is a good singer because she's won awards for her singing.

They are more likely to agree that someone who has won awards, who has earned the support and respect of her peers, may be a good singer.

It's also easier for them to see the premise when I make the reason something crazy. For example, I give them this example:

JLo is a good singer because she wore that great green dress to the Oscars one year.

They quickly understand that the premise linking the claim and the evidence is ridiculous and unsupportable. They understand that they could never persuade someone that JLo is a good singer with such a bad argument.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Day 3

For day 3, I brought students to the computer lab. What I'm trying to do this term is get students more information-literate, get them using the Internet in new and more effective ways than just checking Facebook or using Google. One of the obstacles I'm coming across is that there is no real up-to-date database of op-ed essays. If I want to find someone's opinion on illegal immigration (the topic I've chosen for the first assignment) and I use Lexis-Nexis, 80% of the articles listed will be news articles reporting on the debate over illegal immigration or the latest pronouncements by presidential candidates. If I use Academic Search Premier, I run across many longer articles from academic journals. If I use Opposing Viewpoints, I end up with outdated essays. This was a bit of a challenge.

I also introduced the students to Delicious. Another challenge: the computer lab's computers do not allow student users to install the Delicious buttons. Perhaps I can contact the academic lab coordinators and have them install these buttons for now.

It took some time to get all students signed up for Delicious, then to teach them how to add the buttons to the Favorites drop-down menu. (A problem we came across in Day 5 was that the computers automatically wipe away all Favorites nightly. I understand why, but it creates the need to reinstall these buttons weekly.)

Once Delicious buttons were installed, I asked students to locate an opinion essay on illegal immigration then use Delicious to bookmark it using a special unique tag I had decided on. I also showed them how to use tagging (i.e., multiple tags for each link). Their first assignment was to summarize and analyze the essay they chose, identifying the claims, the evidence, the purpose and the audience of the essay. I just finished grading these assignments, and only 2 students analyzed the purpose and the audience! This required more research on their part, which they did not do. They did not, for example, know that Tom Tancredo is a Republican presidential candidate (the essay a few of them found was from prior to his announcement of his candidacy). They did not think about the implications of an essay on illegal immigration posted on It was kind of disheartening.

Delicious is a great tool for students because it can allow them to share their research. The second assignment asks them to find an essay that takes the opposite point of view on the issue. They can use the Delicious links to poke around and find other essays. They've helped each other do research.

I criticize schools for once :)

I've been reading the post-mortems after Thursday's snowfall and accompanying traffic nightmares in the local papers in Southern New England. The Globe had this cool graphic:

Graphic of how the snow affected the traffic.

Meanwhile, in Providence, school kids on buses didn't get home for hours. I'm an easygoing kind of person who understands problems, but seriously? I would want that school superintendent fired. His comments reek of ass-covering.

Back some 20 years ago, when I was a grad student home for the summer, I worked as the administrative assistant for the director of a preschool summer program for kids with developmental disabilities. We bussed a lot of kids. One of my jobs was to wait at the school till the buses finished dropping off the kids. Hudson, the bus company, would call me when they were all delivered home safely. If there was a problem/delay, parents would call me and I'd call the bus company and say "Hey, where is X bus? and why hasn't it dropped off Y kid yet?" I also had to call the social services department if no one was there to pick up a child.

We had a few problems here and there, but mainly it was a low-key part of my job. But I took it seriously. These were 3- and 4-year-old kids, some high-functioning Downs kids and many with communication issues, and the thought of them being left on the bus freaked me out. We didn't even have cell phones back then; the bus drivers and the companies kept in contact via radio.

I want to know whose job it was in the Providence transportation department to make sure that those buses got the kids home. Apparently, in Warwick, RI, they had similar issues, but district directors stayed in the transportation office till the kids got home.

Someone in Providence fucked up royally. The buses not getting home because of the snow/traffic is understandable. The lack of communication is not. The superintendent sitting in his car for 2 hours getting home instead of being at the transportation office is not.

My story: I left work in Providence at 11:30ish. It started snowing just as I was exiting the offramp on the highway near my house. I picked up my son at kindergarten, then we hung out at home for an hour or so till my daughter's school closed. We live across the street from the school, so we just walked. My husband was still at work and I began a series of calls to him begging him to come home so as to avoid 1. dangerous driving conditions and 2. serious traffic. He ignored me so that he could take photos of the snow. *sigh* Such is the life of a photographer's spouse.

At around 3:30 I told him to get his ass back home and he finally agreed, but he said he could see traffic was already backing up on the side streets. I prepared myself not to see him for hours even though we live only 6 miles away from his workplace, but he took the back streets he usually bikes on, and he said he had a smooth ride, no delays. He just avoided the highway. I am still amazed. He also had the Subaru (with all-wheel drive) just in case he got stuck or something, but there was no need.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

8:30 am. Student, who has missed 2 out of 4 classes already, shows up an hour and a half late for a 7 am class. Tries to persuade me not to drop him from the class by telling me he had to take his cat to the vet. Reeks of alcohol.

It's kind of sad, really.

More posts to come.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Day 2

In Day 2 of class this term I started working on argument analysis. We read an essay titled "Class Struggle: Is Homework Really So Terrible?" by Jay Mathews. A bit of snooping found that Jay Mathews writes a column for the Washington Post called "Class Struggle," and the title of one of the columns was "Is Homework Really So Terrible?" Hm, a bit misleading there, Bedford Guide to College Writers. One of the things I'm trying to teach students is to use the title as a tool to help them understand the essay, so I'd like the text to use the title as originally written by the author.

Anyway, Mathews' essay follows a familiar structure of a newspaper column:
Tell a personal story.
Raise a question.
Research the question.
Discuss conclusions.
Relate the conclusions to the personal story told at the beginning.

I asked the students to freewrite for a few minutes on the following questions/prompts:
1. Summarize the essay
2. Did they agree with the essay's main point?
3. Did they think it was a good argument?
4. Did the essay tell them anything they hadn't know before?
5. Was there anything in the essay they didn't believe?

I was surprised how many of the students agreed with the essay's main point (that homework isn't a bad thing). But I was surprised how few students noticed Mathews' neat little rhetorical trick. He investigates two books on the subject of homework. The first (opposed to homework) he heartily mocks for relating the practice of homework to social and economic justice issues. The second (supports homework) he describes as "intriguing." Then he states "having established that homework is necessary...." Ha. My students didn't notice that.

I also told the class that I was surprised by his contempt for the first book, so I looked up reviews and found that it received very positive reviews on Amazon. Furthermore, Harvard featured a debate between the very two authors mentioned in this essay. It was a great way to show students how easily readers can be manipulated by writers when readers are underinformed.

This will end up being a recurring issue. It's difficult to get students to question sources/evidence. And it's difficult to get across the point that even if the source is questionable, they still have a right to agree with it. They just need to understand that there are weak arguments and strong arguments, persuasive arguments and not-so-persuasive arguments.