Thanksgiving 2012

AL Blog ~~ Nov 22, 2012 ~~ What’s in a lie?

Like many people, I have spent the fall worrying about the election, going so far, in fact, as to give more money to more people in more races than I can ever remember.  In 2008, I did a lot of phone calling and canvassing for Obama, and many afternoons and evenings found me perched on a stool outside the tiny “headquarters” in an alley with a bunch of other volunteer callers.  On election eve, I had three Swedish colleagues visiting, and we watched the election returns in one of the dorms with a crowd of ebullient students. The Swedes could not get over the extent of our election process (it seems as if it truly never stops) or over the barrage of untruths, half-truths, questionable truths, and outright lies that not only led up to the election but, as we saw in the coming days, continued long after it was over.  (They were particularly incredulous over the insistent and persistent claims of the “birthers.”)

This year I wasn’t able to do as much volunteering because of my own travel schedule and because I had back surgery scheduled for election day itself, so I sent money instead.  I admit to being a little spooked about having surgery on Nov. 6, and wondered (only half laughingly) if I wanted to go in wearing my beloved “Old White Woman for Obama” button.  So when the surgery was postponed for a couple of days, I was relieved:  I got to enjoy election night flipping between stations, since I was too nervous to join friends at a hotel in San Francisco.

It’s now ten days after the election, and it and the fallout from it are all mixed up in my mind with surgery and the complications it entailed—allergies to all narcotic pain medications, hallucinations, spasms, convulsions, raging fever—the whole nine yards of misery interspersed with lucid periods when I would hear of one more House seat picked up or of anything I could about Elizabeth Warren and the record number of women elected to the Congress.

But these ten days have given me some time for reflection, and in that time I’ve thought a lot about how disingenuous so much of the campaign was (an understatement if ever there was one) and especially about the “new normal” that seems to many to be emerging for truth telling.  Several columnists have commented on the fact that we as a public seem to be tolerating a higher and higher level of untruths, or lies, that they seem almost taken for granted:  of course political candidates and their supporters will lie.  Of course.

The Republican claim that Jeep and Chrysler were sending jobs to China is certainly memorable:  “Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy, and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China,” the Romney ad stated—and the campaign kept repeating the claim even after it was disavowed by the auto companies themselves along with a bunch of fact checkers.  Of course, Plato long since taught us that it is not enough to tell the truth: we have to give the appearance of telling the truth, and Aristotle warned of the dangers of substituting repetition for argumentation.  So in some ways this latest round of back and forth attacks may seem nothing new.  But it does seem to me to have reached a new watershed or threshold for what people will believe, and for how much they will believe not only without evidence or proof but in spite of such evidence and proof.

Now it is a little over two weeks after the election, and tomorrow will be Thanksgiving day.  My meditations and reflections (and perhaps some of my delirium) have led me to think about what—in this entire mess of a 2012 election—I have to be thankful for.  Just to name a few:

  • I’m thankful that President Obama will have another four years to try to implement the policies that he has fought for, especially on education, on immigration, on tax reform, on the environment, and on health care.
  • I’m thankful for sabermetrician Nate Silver and his blog, which stuck to his algorithm through thick and thin and avoided scare tactics or other forms of prognostication in favor of what his statistics told him.
  • I’m grateful for those—on every point of the political spectrum—who took time and care enough to provide strong and clear evidence for the views they were espousing, who had enough respect for those of us in the electorate to level with us and to back up their words and feelings with research-based support.
  • I am grateful for teachers, and especially teachers of writing, who devote so much time to introducing students to the realm of ethical rhetoric, to how to conduct honest research and how to deliver it in clear and straightforward ways, to the means at their disposal for analyzing claims on their own so as to ferret out the untruths, the half-truths, and the lies, and to the ability to refute those lies on their own.

Of course, most of all I am grateful for students themselves, for their intelligence, resilience, sheer hope, and determination to make a difference in this world.  I have confidence in this generation and their potential to do just that.

I’m thankful for a whole lot more, of course:  for the fact that my back seems to be healing, for my family and magnificent friends, for every new day.  Happy thanksgiving, everyone, even if it’s a week late.

MOOCs to you

Recently, I had an opportunity to travel to Cambridge as a member of the Visiting Committee for the Humanities at MIT.  I learned a lot by reviewing the work of several key groups, and particularly the new unit combining Writing and Humanistic Study with Comparative Media Studies:  I came away deeply impressed with the exciting projects this group has going, from the Center for Civic Media to the Education Arcade and Hyperstudio.  I came away thinking what fun it would be to be an undergrad (or better yet, a graduate student) in some of these projects. 

            I also heard quite a bit of talk about MIT’s venture into the world of MOOCs (massive open online courses.  MIT is partnering with Harvard on edX, while Stanford is offering Course2Go, with 16 free courses on offer so far.  These are both non-profit enterprises, in contrast to for-profit Coursera, started last January by a former Stanford Professor, which has reached nearly 2 million “Courserians” so far.  And Google is already into the act, with its MOOC-building online tool, released just a couple of months ago.

            At Stanford, where I teach, the University has created a new Provost-level position for online learning, the president of the university is pouring resources and plenty of attention in the direction of this phenomenon (which he has likened to a “tsunami”), and faculty are abuzz with talk of how or whether to develop courses for MOOC delivery.

            Of course, online learning is by no means new:  when I taught in Canada in the 1970s, the Open University was in full swing, as it had been in Great Britain for decades.  What is new is the scalability of the project, with millions signing on for the new courses.  And the problems with traditional online learning are also still around:  how do you make a course with 300,000 students in it in any way intimate?  How do you foster give-and-take among the participants?  How do you avoid rampant cheating? And perhaps most vexing, how do you evaluate the work of students in such courses, especially ones that don’t lend themselves to multiple choice scantron tests.  Colleagues across the country who are working on MOOCs are quick to say that they don’t know much about what they are doing and that experimentation is the name of the game—for the near future at least.  The excitement and promise of MOOCs are very real:  stories of people with no access to formal education suddenly being able to take courses from the best faculty in the world are heartwarming, as they signal an opening up and democratization of education scarcely imaginable in earlier times.  But the problems, some of which I’ve just enumerated, are also very real. In addition, the nation’s most prestigious institutions aren’t likely to trade in that prestige any time soon.

            As I’ve been thinking about these issues and talking with colleagues who are now teaching MOOCs, I’ve seen how they rely on the traditional lecture model but also how they are struggling to make that model more learning friendly.  In this regard, composition studies has a lot to offer:  after all, writing teachers have been working to “flip the script” of the classroom from lecture to interactive forum for the last fifty years.  And these same teachers have been experimenting for a two decades now on how to use technology to break down the walls of the classroom.  So we know quite a bit about how to engage students in deep learning. 

            Has your campus joined Coursera—or some other MOOC community?  How much is your campus investing in online learning in general?  More to the point, what role have you and your colleagues in writing studies played in the decisions being made on our campus right now?  Now is no time for writing teachers to hide our lights under barrels: rather, it’s time for us to join committees, volunteer for working groups, and make sure we are on the front lines of what some are calling the biggest change to come to higher education—ever.