Monday, August 31, 2009

Tribute to Ted Kennedy

From CNN - "A Tribute to Ted Kennedy,"a Ken Burns video.

Have You Insulted a Friend Today?

Have you insulted a friend today? There's still time!

This item appeared in today's Penn State Newswire, our online in-house newsletter:

9. Researchers seek 'least playful' adults to participate in survey

Xiangyou (Sharon) Shen, a doctoral student in the Department of Recreation, is seeking participants for an online survey regarding "adult playfulness." Think of the least playful person you know, excluding yourself, and have them take the eight to 10 minute survey at online. The
password for the survey is 'lg'. For more information, contact Shen via e-mail at

How did this one get past the IRB committee? A playful person could have a lot of fun with this.

The Rhetoric of Capital Punishment

A New York Times editorial today tells the story of yet another Texas execution, and argues:

People should have no illusions about the brutal injustice of the death penalty after all of the exonerations in recent years from DNA evidence, but the case of Cameron Todd Willingham is still shocking.
Mr. Willingham was executed for setting a fire that killed his 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old twins, but a fire expert hired by the State of Texas has issued a report casting enormous doubt on whether the fire was arson at all. The Willingham investigation, which is continuing, is further evidence that the criminal justice system is far too flawed to justify imposing a death penalty.

There are and always will be moral and scientific arguments showing that capital punishment cannot be imposed justly.

For many years it has also seemed to me as a student of rhetoric that capital punishment is incompatible with what we know about the human capacity to make public judgments, which are inevitably the result of, among other things, rhetorical processes. Our capacity to discover what happened in the past is always based on probability, which can be approached only through processes of argument by flawed human beings using systems of persuasion that cannot attain justified certainty. The ultimate extinction of capital punishment simply cannot be justified in light of our limited capacity to know and to communicate what happened and why, and to sort out the moral weight of human action.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

No Pictures, Please: Studying Visual Rhetoric

The Yale University Press removed all the images from a new scholarly book, The Cartoons That Shook the World, by Jytte Klausen. The Press announced, when its action was revealed in a New York Times article, that it had taken the step to forestall possibly violent reactions to any attempt to publish images of the Prophet Muhammad. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors quickly issued a statement condemning the Press action as a threat to academic freedom.

Jennifer Howard, "Hot Type: Yale U. Press's Attempt to Avoid Risks Has Risks of Its Own," Chronicle of Higher Education, 26 August 2009.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Stanley Fish: Rating ACTA, Teaching Writing

At the New York Times, Stanley Fish has weighed in on the ACTA college rankings. As often happens with his columns, the readers' comments are as interesting as his initial argument. I find myelf agreeing that though it is possible to abuse a group of composition students by luring them into right-thinking about politics, it is also possible to teach composition by going beyond grammar and style -- giving students useful models, engaging them in analysis of rhetorical method, and helping them to see that to write is often to talk about the world outside of the self.

Stanley Fish, "What Should Colleges Teach?" The New York Times, 24August 2009.

Faculty Value Civic Engagement and Diversity

The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA describes changing views of American college and university teachers:

Compared to just three years ago, a significantly greater number of today's college teachers consider civic engagement and appreciation of racial and ethnic diversity important educational goals for undergraduates, according to a UCLA report on teaching faculty at the nation's colleges and universities.

The majority of college faculty (55.5 percent) nationwide now consider it "very important" or "essential" to "instill in students a commitment to community service," an increase of 19.1 percentage points since the survey was last conducted in 2004–05, and 75.2 percent indicate that they work to "enhance students' knowledge of and appreciation for other racial/ethnic groups," a gain of 17.6 percentage points over three years.

The report, "The American College Teacher: National Norms for the 2007–08 HERI Faculty Survey," is issued by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA, which puts out the national faculty report triennially. . . .

Saturday, August 22, 2009

College Ratings and the Culture Wars

It is college rating season again. This year the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a conservative education advocacy group that pressures for the "traditional" curriculum, has created a web site rating colleges and universities.

But watch out.

Not only are the criteria and ratings rather tendentious -- so far as I can tell they are often simply inaccurate. When I learned of the project I visited the site and looked up the rating for the university where I teach -- Penn State University.

ACTA gives Penn State a "D," alleging that we do not require English composition as a graduation requirement -- which is not accurate. They give Penn State only one "yes" rating, for requiring foreign languages. But in fact study of a foreign language is required only for the BA degree -- not for the BS degree. In addition, Penn State requires that students take a writing-intensive course in their major. The Penn State undergraduate degree requirements--admittedly they can be somewhat confusing--are here.

Between the political agenda and the apparently sloppy research, the ACTA ratings don't seem to hold up.

Cornell University is rated "F" -- on the allegation, among others, that they do not offer a required composition course taught by the English department. The first year writing program at Cornell is of long standing and has been a considerable success, taught by instructors not only in English Literature but also in Philosophy, History, Art History, and other disciplines. Cornell in fact requires two first-year writing seminars. The Cornell first year writing program is described at the Cornell site for the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines. The Cornell model may not be for everyone, but it is hard to argue that it is casual or irresponsible.

There is also the question of why so many colleges that attract elite students choose to act in ways that earn them an "F" in the ACTA ratings. Perhaps a simple set of required courses is not the golden key to a great college education.

ACTA is not rating undergraduate education but awarding grades based on an arbitrary and tendentious set of criteria -- inaccurately applied.

For a fascinating essay on the history of English studies, do have a look at William Riley Parker, "Where Do English Departments Come From?" Association of Departments of English Bulletin 11 (1967): 8-17. The essay is reprinted in an immensely useful new anthology, The Norton Book of Composition Studies, ed. Susan Miller (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009), 3-16.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Senator Arlen Specter Town Hall Meeting on Health Care at Penn State

Senator Arlen Specter held a town hall meeting on health care at Penn State's conference center hotel on August 12. The video here, presented by the Penn State student newspaper, the Daily Collegian, is from that meeting. An accompanying story is here.

By all reports, Specter has been handling the angry shouters who have come to his town halls this month, as they have come to those of other Democratic members of Congress, with considerable skill and fortitude. He insists that the protesters have a right to be heard, and he moves close to them as they ask their questions, rather than shrinking away, as we would all be tempted to do, or himself rising in anger, as we might also be tempted to do.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

White House Health Care Campaign

The Obama administration is using public communication in what appear to me to be some novel ways -- for a president.

In his general approach to health care reform, President Obama set out broad principles that he hoped would form the Congressional agenda, rather than sending a bill prepared in advance by the administration. Whether this was a largely tactical attempt to separate this round of health care from the failed Clinton plan is not clear. In some ways the President's approach seemed to hark back to the Constitutional system depicted by Jeffrey Tulis as preceding what he called The Rhetorical Presidency, in which, Tulis claimed, presidents spoke over the heads of Congress and thus short-circuited the process of Congressional deliberation.

On the other hand, the Obama White House has been using various organizing and communication tactics that bring to the White House a new level of direct citizen appeals. See, for example, the "Health Insurance Reform Reality Check" site at the White House. The site comes complete with links to post to email and Facebook and to connect to the White House Facebook and Twitter services. Whatever our views of the importance of health care reform -- I'm all for it -- this is a peculiar development and in some ways a worrying one. on Health Care has posted a set of talking points on what it calls the "Top Five Health Care Reform Lies--and How to Fight Back."

The site keeps the list brief and pointed, and seems clearly designed to be forwarded, and to serve as ammunition in conversation and debate.

Meanwhile Senator Arlen Specter is in town today for another health care town hall -- early reports indicate that it, too, was interrupted by shouters.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Health Care Scare Tactics

The Lehrer News Hour on PBS broadcast a useful analysis last night of where those charges about "government run health care" and "euthanasia" were coming from.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to deal with this charge that's out there. Gail Wilensky, to you first, this so-called euthanasia charge, that there's something in this proposal that will have somebody from the government go visit people and say, "You must decide right now how you're going to die." What's the truth of that?

GAIL WILENSKY, Project HOPE: That is just not true. . . . This is not a right characterization.

What has been proposed is that, if someone wants to get counseling on hospice care, hospice care itself is, of course, a covered Medicare benefit. They would be able to have the physician or other practitioner paid for the counseling.

The idea is for people to be able to make known how they would like to be treated in the event of a terminal illness. We have advance directives now. It was actually first raised when I was running the Medicare program. If you go in to the hospital or a nursing home, you are supposed to be asked whether you have an advance directive and, if so, have it noted. . . .

It's an interesting question of public communication how this sort of sensible analysis could find its way into the hysterical atmosphere created by the angry mobs that have disrupted town hall meetings. And of course, that is their point.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Health Care Reform - UMich Research Guide

The University of Michigan Library has posted a useful web page with links to informational resources the health care debate (some of them restricted to University of Michigan library patrons, but most public access).

Political Party or Mob?

"The bitter divisions over an overhaul of the health care system have exploded at town-hall-style meetings over the last few days as members of Congress have been shouted down, hanged in effigy and taunted by crowds. In several cities, noisy demonstrations have led to fistfights, arrests and hospitalizations. . . ."

Ian Urbina, "Health Debate Turns Hostile at Town Hall Meetings," New York Times, 8 August 2009.

Many related stories may be found at the same site, including a timeline on attempts to reform American health care, starting with Teddy Roosevelt's promise to initiate universal national health care -- in 1912.