Weekend Waste?

Didn’t really do much this past weekend, and now thinking about it on a Monday morning. I probably should have done a bit more in prepping for the week, writing, doing research, but I really just took it easy. I feel a little panicked about it, but that’s just holdover from a time when I would only have a weekend at home every 2 or 3 weeks.

I’m really starting to enjoy my position a lot more now that I’ve cut about 30 hours out of it. The biggest, and most surprising change to me is that I am never exhausted. Over the past 10 years or so my dominant feeling at work has been being tired. Too tired to do anything more than half-assed. After booking a trip, there’s another one to book. Or finances to reconcile. Or some form to complete. It really is the work of two people. The trade-off is now I’m teaching 3 courses, but I’m more alert, energetic, and engaged than I have been the whole time I’ve been a professor. I can see why people really like this job now.

I’ve got the CSPAN conference coming up in Purdue and I feel ready for it. That will be two weeks from today. After that is NCA, then the quick slide into finals and the holidays. The speed of the semester hasn’t changed at all. Once I accomplish a task, two more appear for completion. It’s nice, but I’m not quite back to the comfortable feeling of realization that I’m in charge of my days. I think next semester will be more like that, where if I’d like to spend the day reading a book or a series of essays, I could do that.

Long-time readers of this blog know I’ve been working on a book that attempts to reconceptualize intercollegiate debate. This is a very slow process, although many of the chapters are at about a 50% completion. The opening chapter feels like it’s going to be a slog where I have to set up the scene of debating and such, so I’m saving that for last. But in the meantime another project has popped up that is more time-sensitive, and I think I could write that book - a popular press book - very quickly and get it out in time for the 2020 election. It’s a book about election debate, something I’ve been thinking about a lot since writing this paper for CSPAN.

I’m also considering buying a GoPro 7 to increase or at least get some regular vlogging going. The YiCam is nice, but it’s not quite to the level I’d like it. I think the 7 has a lot of features that benefit a regular vlogging practice and make it a bit easier. I’m starting to think of vlogging as a compliment to the blog, which I’ve often thought of as a form of publishing instead of long-form social media - which is the style of this post.

Although I didn’t accomplish a lot this weekend I feel pretty rested and good about what I did do. My students have been concerned about the persuasive affect they feel from stories and conversation versus the lack of any feeling they have for well-researched statistics. I thought about giving them some Hayden White to read on this but Walter Fisher came to me and I think I found a couple of good essays to teach next week. I also wrote a bunch of recommendation letters in record time - not having debate to worry about makes the workflow so fast that I feel a bit bad about how easily I can accomplish my daily to-do list. It’s a really nice problem to have.

This week for bureaucratic reasons we have the same schedule for two days in a row, which helps nobody except some legal form filer who has to ensure we’ve had X number of hours in the classroom. At least we are doing speeches, so that makes the back-to-back make sense. Just another reason to file away in the stuffed folder of reasons why online higher ed is superior to the in person classroom.

Perspective by Incongruity

Kenneth Burke has this great tool, or method or heuristic device - I’m not sure what to call it. He calls it “perspective by incongruity” and what it does it help you see something in a disturbingly new way. You use the wrong sort of heuristic or perspective in order to understand, or convey understanding about something that if you just did it the normal way you wouldn’t get your idea across.

When you put two perspectives or two terms together that do not match up or do not come from the same narrative, you get at the same time a lot of fog, but you also get a lot of movement - of trying to see through, around, and past it. This movement and the fog (metaphorical of course) gives you the chance to see things a bit differently than you would have normally.

When I teach public speaking I often teach this as a way of providing statistics so they won’t bore the audience. “Tell the audience how many Yankee stadiums on opening day that is,” I’ll say, “Or how many Manhattans.” These are images everyone has in mind and can easily scale and scope the harm or benefit of the idea being conveyed in the speech.

But the other day I had this happen to me in a way that surprised me, it was totally unintentional and it really opened up my thinking about teaching.

I had a student come to office hours to work on a speech. We were trading ideas back and forth and building arguments. It was a great meeting. I happened to notice his laptop was really cool looking, really light, and had a great screen. I asked him about it and he said it was a Macbook Air.

“yea it’s great,” he said, “My sister gave me this to use in college.”

After he said that, I saw him totally differently. He wasn’t a student working on a speech, he was someone’s brother, someone’s son, a friend, a cousin - someone his family was so proud of for attending college. Someone who was very close with his family, who wanted the best for him. The gift of the laptop opened up this new perspective that I was sitting with someone who really meant a lot to other people.

This small moment of contact -where I was forced into imagining my student as someone who was deeply cared about, and a source of pride for a family I’ll never meet - seems like something that can hedge against the common, cynical tales of students that ooze about the halls of academia.

I hate that students are talked about, then become, something in the way of our work, something lazy that we have to deal with, headaches who keep coming back, who won’t listen. Here’s a young person who is just doing his best. He’s trying, and people have invested in him. The gift of a laptop on top of the cynical student discourse is incongruous enough to let in the chance for some new identifications.

I wish there were easier, or even constructed ways to plan to humanize students for their professors. I think even the most caring of us grow a bit calloused after a few semesters on autopilot. But caring, really deep caring, is essential for excellent teaching. I’ve been convinced of that for a while. Caring about more than rules and policies or material and weeks left in the term. These students, who have made their families proud, who have been given special things to carry with them to help them on their journey, deserve an experience in higher education, an experience that will confront who they are and point to who they could choose to be.

The revolutionary educational experience will not come from cynicism, from re-enforcing the norms of the corporate world, from worrying about your students not being able to hold down a job. It will come from the recognition that they are here to get better. Whatever that means, it is not compatible with the idea that they are here to cheat and trick you out of points.

How do we encourage this perspective by incongruity? How do we increase the chances of this sort of encounter?

We Decide Supreme Court Appointments in the Worst Way

The headline shouldn’t surprise anyone after checking out what our so-called government thinks is the best way to proceed in making appointment decisions. We elect people who believe that seeing into a person, seeing who they are deep inside, is going to be helpful in determining if they will be able to fulfil a role.

The Kavanaugh hearings exposed that we haven’t moved forward since ancient times in the belief that one’s actions and attitude communicate what’s really in the soul. Spending a few days answering questions in a really fancy room might not be the way to determine if someone is a good person. The process is a parody, a very insulting parody, of dialectic. Kavanaugh is a terrible person for a lot of reasons. So this post isn’t really about him, but it could be as you’ll see near the end.

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Kavanaugh is pretty clearly an unfit person to hold any position, but this sort of “unfit” is a perfect fit for the American ruling class. His behaviors throughout his life indicate that he understands what’s on the table and what’s off the table as far as conduct that will be perceived as appropriate, or behavior that matters. Remember, it’s only been recently that we, as a society, have determined that sexual assault is not something that women have to tolerate in order to be successful.

The Kavanaugh hearings opened up for me an opportunity to think about how to re-arrange our hearings and confirmation processes around a rhetorical first principle instead of this incredibly bad 15th party version of some Socratic version of truth. It’s nonsense in the political to believe that soul-truths would be the best way to govern. What you need is flexibility, situational awareness, and command of the power to rewrite reality with well-chosen articulations. This is a Supreme Court ability set, if you think we need one.

So what would the hearings look like? I would suggest instead of investigating “Character” - which nobody we elected seems to understand what that might mean given the questions - we should ask questions around the most important issue for a justice: What is your conception of the Universal Audience?

The Universal Audience is the creation of Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrects-Tyteca in their book The New Rhetoric. They argue that when we are arguing we are imagining our audience. That audience is not the actual audience we will engage with, but it is the audience we feel is worth engaging. That’s a huge difference, and can cause some problems. For example, what if you imagine the only audience worth engaging is people who “get it” in the terms of class, political view, race, et cetera - all the accidental characteristics people can have? This then excludes large parts of the audience that are legitimate. This is why BP debate internationally is nonsense - speakers exclude anyone who hasn’t practiced BP from their conception of what is persuasive, rendering their approach to argumentation unethical, at least. It is pandering, and it’s something to be avoided in ethical argumentation.

According to the Universal Audience theory, there is an ethical way to do this which is to double check yourself and determine if you are committing the fallacy of substituting a vanguard audience - a specialist audience, but not just specialized in an academic subject, but perhaps even class or race or other exclusionary characteristics - for the universal audience which includes people who are not factually present, but due to the content and the scope of the material deserve to be present in the discourse. This is how I interpret Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca when they write, “The Universal Audience is not a matter of fact, but of right.” Who has a right to be included in your argumentation? Who has the right to be assumed when you are speaking?

By now you can see that Kavanaugh’s universal audience fails on a couple of fronts, mostly due to his argumentative responses to the accusations of Dr. Ford and others. His rhetorical performance fails to include appropriate stakeholders and we can see that via performance. His argumentation is structured, as all of our arguments are, toward who we imagine counts. He does not imagine that these women, and these sorts of claims that are made by women, matter.

How can we make this critique rhetorically, or at least, consistently with the theory I’ve discussed? Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca offer the idea of the undefined universal audience, which is the ethical check on the easy slide between a vanguard and a universal. The undefined universal audience is the conception of how that audience was formed by the speaker, given his or her conditions, and whether the criterion or locus of the generation of that audience was done ethically. The Undefined universal audience is a good way to evaluate whether a speaker has invoked inappropriate bias in the framing of why their position is acceptable, and why we should believe it. This comes from structure as well as content (“I got into Yale” is a good example of both).

The undefined universal audience is a criticism that picks up on both what the speaker did to frame that audience, and whether or not the members of that universal audience are indicated in enough of the grounded, actual audiences that intersect all the time. This isn’t an appeal to intersectionality per se, but it could easily function along side it since it’s easy to assume any audience member is a composite of multiple identities both asserted and ascribed, and persuasive rhetoric is always pulling one forward and pushing others back (an audience view of how Perelman & Olbrects-Tyteca’s concept of “presence” and “amplification” might work).

So Kavanaugh’s universal audience of “Americans” is unethical since it does not consider the legitimacy of those who are women, nor those who did not attend elite schooling. Supreme Court judges must imagine universal audiences when making decisions. Can Kavanaugh form an undefined universal audience in these situations? Or would he mistake “Americans” or “citizens” for a vanguard audience?

This is the sort of questioning that would be quite meta, and quite valuable to listen to for us as we consider the evergreen question of who counts as American. Framing a universal audience, as in how to persuade people is always automatically answering the question “Who deserves to be persuaded?” And that understanding is a way to ethically check our arguments to make sure we aren’t using the idea of reason to erase large swaths of legitimate members of our society.

New Semester and a New Perspective

The new semester is here and it’s time to

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They have renamed all the donuts in the on-campus Dunkin’ Donuts and I cannot deal with it. The names are just too much and I keep taking pictures of them.

Now that we are jelly-brating, some news you may have heard already: I am no longer directly or indirectly responsible for or teaching a debate program. I handed it back over to the university to see what else I can do with my time. Of course, the real reasons are not that selfish, and they are also not public. Maybe one day I’ll post them here, but for now just know that things are better than I could have imagined. I feel like I have a new job, and there are all sorts of new perspectives I’ve taken on due to that. Most of them have to do with how and why we teach public speaking at the university, but there are a few other ones too.

I have to get back to writing and course prep for now - I have a big paper coming due that I did not budget enough time to complete. Now the heat is on. And the blog must suffer.

Who Do We Praise? A Tale of Two Passings

The eulogies will never end. Everyone is talking about the death of John McCain using the strangest language about "service" and "honor" and the like. It's no surprise - as Aristotle tells us praising Athens before the Athenians is barely a challenge. Tropes of hard work, dedication, loyalty, honor, love of country, self-sacrifice, and others are so easy to generate to call them thought would be overkill. John McCain died from a horrible illness, and death is almost always, almost universally, by all audiences, considered to be a loss. But the amount of praise McCain gets from people who disagreed with him, or thought his ideas and policies were bad, says a lot about what we value, or don't value. 

At around the same time McCain died, playwright Neil Simon also passed away. The attention Simon's death generated was paltry to that of McCain. Neil Simon wrote some of the most popular, appealing, and probably the most produced plays (if you count high school theater and speech competitions as production) in the world. He brought us a very complex, very humorous and sad, very intense portrait of human affairs. And that's why he's not treated the same way in death as John McCain.

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McCain's job, like any politician or senator, is to simplify incredibly complex issues in a way to either garner support from them, or to make his support for them intelligible. This principle is applied to everything, to the point of harming understanding and harming appreciation for the issue itself. McCain's "service" that he is so praised for could refer to his time in the military or his time as a senator. Oddly, his awful time in the military did not inspire him to call for demilitarization or even raise the question of why to have such a large fighting force. He took it as a given, as natural, and called those who did not support it unpatriotic. McCain's "service" made him and his family very wealthy, and it also gave him what Kenneth Burke called "occupational psychosis," the natural lean to see the world in the terms of your profession or perspective. As a military man, he saw the world as a military problem, and was happy to reduce and "cook down" issues to this simple formula. As an example, I watched one of the many panegyrics on TV for McCain - an old former senator - talk about how McCain always said that issues were about "men and mission" just like in the military. Not only is this stupid, it excludes everyone who does not identify as a man as well as reducing the work of government to something like a video-game level. Do we want to think of governance as a mission? Do we want to think of the people involved in these issues as "men," with all the military association that comes with? McCain did, but I don't believe he was that interested in thinking. Making reduction your principle of understanding betrays your motives quite well. McCain, a career politician, probably said, "well look it is really just one issue here" more times than any sane person should. McCain is praised for service, but I think the more appropriate term is "servile" - beholden to shoring up absolute concepts of value regardless of what violence they do to the world. We as a society love that. We love it when someone "sticks to their principles" regardless of the wake of damage it causes. Delusion like this, often referred to as ideology, has a long history of being praised, simply because of the ideology we have of strong, single-minded individuals who don't change their minds being good people. This is of course in direct contrast to our lamenting society's inability to understand facts. McCain, and many others, are part of the problem as they spread this shoring-up, simplistic discourse in order to consolidate their power, enrich themselves, and somehow govern the nation.

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Neil Simon, on the other hand, celebrated and worked toward complexity. Far from reduction, Simon split his view of the world into multiple, contrasting voices and had them talk to one another. He put them in impossible situations and had them talk about it. He then had these performances placed before audiences to generate even more conversation.  In his plays, each character is as sympathetic as they are annoying. This seems like daily life, yet it's represented in a way that provides inquiry into understanding rather than the reduction needed to garner an understanding. For example, Simon would give us a controversy and involve people who would expose their motives through speech in a way that would make us dislike them for the very reasons we understood where they were coming from. Such emotional contrast would make us rethink our attribution of motives ourselves, and wonder how we understand at all. Such work, very difficult to do, is what Mikhail Bakhtin identified as "dialogism" - placing voices and ways of speaking in contrast that would not naturally interact. Simon was a master of this, and as a result, we got a very sneaky way of inquiring into our own motives, our own biased ways of viewing and knowing the world. Simon's world is one where uncertainty is welcome, and we evaluate argumentation and conflict from several perspectives at once. The result is an inquiry into motives and values. An inquiry into how we know what is right, bad, good, or sad. Such an operation slows us down, makes us think, and makes us less likely to engage in eradication of views that are not our own. A plethora of discourse, speakers, and modalities often gets a laugh, but that laugh is the first step toward taking inventory - "Am I like that?"

John McCain is celebrated because he oversimplified the world and made us feel good about it, even if we thought his votes and policies were not good. We admire him because he "served" his country - whatever that means. Reduction always converts the anxiety of understanding as a practice into the comfort of understanding as fact. If you are right you no longer have to think. No wonder we miss him.  McCain's work was that of stripping away the complexities that make us recognize our humanity rather than shoring up oversimplicities to make it easier to funnel money and power on a global scale.

Neil Simon gave us no such comfort. His work placed human complexity and frailty right in front of us to show us our understanding was always incomplete. We saw our dependence on language and the incapability of language on stage in familiar situations. We wondered if we were like those characters. We wondered why we liked them even if they were flawed. We wondered about what it meant to care for someone else. All the questions were raised and open. A very dangerous feeling, best consigned to entertainment. He confronted us with the impossibility of knowing as anything more than a practice that must be defended. No wonder his funeral is not televised; no wonder his obituary is on the theater page. Truly insightful people who cared not for country, but for humanity, threaten our comfort. When we gain the sort of love we have for militaristic simplicity for the fungibility of value and the power of language, we will treat our Neil Simons better than our servile senators.  

Where Does Rhetoric Begin in Courses?

where should we start in class? With organization? Research? Developing an audience profile?

 

Wherever you start teaching in a speech or argumentation or debate course, that is where you are positing the start of rhetoric. 

The question of a start is the establishment of ends. What is the purpose of rhetoric? Why learn and study it?  

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I was gifted this great textbook from 1900 the other day, and the authors start with style. Most public speaking instructors probably cover style, near the end of the term, along with ethics, in the sense that "audiences expect different things so speak the way they want. Now, back to the importance of a bibliography."

This attention to style could be seen as evidence of the simplistic refutation of rhetoric as being surface-only, an affront to the deep consideration of the true that philosophy, et. al. deal with. 

It could be the understanding that style is the only way we have to understand truth. If it comes across in one way rather tha  another it wont matter how true it is.  

in starting with style, this book doesnt mince words. Theres a much better understanding of acceptability than we get today. Most public speaking courses convey an obsession with facts. Facts are the only style needed. Bring your references of various types and you'll be believed. Qe grade a lot more on references than oration, as if we have lost faith in rhetoric as a productive, creative force for good. 

Where is the faith in oratory to make the world? probably in the same spot we left our faith in students. The last time students were praised as a group I cant remember. Instructors at my university praise an I individual student, but with the tone of surprised exception. The student is impressive because students are supposed to be terrible, and this one isn't. It's a sad situation. 

Where is our belief or sense that the world is more than a selection of careers? That making money means you are successful? that good grades mean you know things? All of these questions should be able to dissolve easily in the hands of the trained orator. Then be reconstituted as immutable truths. 

But no. Far more important they learn how to cite a scholarly source isn't it? That's our style and hence our truth. If the facts dont work, we just shrugand call others stupid. If only we had a practice that could be used to reconstitute stupidity and facts into a pliable substance for making things, attitudes, people, and thoughts.