Social Media and the Marketplace of Ideas

When I was first married, we lived in the room of my parents’ house that had been converted from a garage. My sister and her husband also lived with my parents, them in her old bedroom inside the main house.

One night, we were awakened by my sister pulling the screened door to the room free of the flimsy latch, yelling that my father needed help.

That was a terrible and important night for me as a young man. My mother had found my father collapsed in the bathroom, blood everywhere. He had been hiding a bleeding ulcer from everyone, waking that night in pain and passing out while vomiting blood.

My mother was running around frantically as my sister tried to calm her. While they called the ambulance, I cleaned up my father as best I could and helped rouse him.

They sent me with my father in the ambulance; the first hour or so at the hospital was terrifying as I watched the doctors try to stabilize my father.

He survived this, but in my early 20s I had to face a fact that I had been avoiding for many years—the inevitable and very real physical frailty of my father.

It is no easy thing for any of us to confront our parents’ weaknesses, to admit that our parents are wrong, even when the evidence is right there in front of us.

We humans want to believe what we want to believe. And we aren’t very well equipped for changing our minds, especially if we have to admit those beliefs were wrong all along.

No parent is superhuman, no parent is immortal.

Even in my early 20s, I was quite different than just a few years before, but I was still quite a ways from who I would become, who I am becoming. My journey was always moving away from my parents, my hometown, and what many people would consider mainstream.

Over nearly 60 years in this planet, I have watched as people struggle with unfounded beliefs, stubbornly clinging to and even promoting those unfounded beliefs.

In our era of social media, in fact, people spend a tremendous amount of time sharing provably false information because they are fatally committed to the beliefs at the expense of truth.

While this has been a common attribute in the U.S. for many years, maybe all of the country’s existence, the combination of the Trump administration and social media has certainly amplified the problem.

Technology has created a sort of bastardized marketplace of ideas on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, but it has also allowed almost anyone to communicate, create memes and manipulated images, and perpetuate any and everything as if all information has the same value or credibility.

Posting it makes it so.

Trump’s incessant (pathological) lying has invigorated the fact-checking business exponentially, but the free market has also allowed a partisan fact-checking backlash that uses the label of “fact check” to legitimize fake news and outright lies.

The result is that many people simply silo themselves with “their” evidence and languish in a perversely post-modern Frankenstein world of no facts matter—unless they are mine.

Two of the worst ways people communicate on social media are memes and images. I regularly warn people not to share any memes, but at least fact-check before posting.

As is becoming more common, however, doctored images are spreading faster than people can refute them.

Regardless of the ideology or partisan politics, that false information is being shared can never be justified. I spend far too much time posting links refuting memes, images, and social media posts.

What is frustrating here is that all I ever have to do is switch tabs to Google; in minutes, or even seconds, I have several examples of the meme or image being false.

And this poses a real problem for blaming technology. In fact, the problem is us, and our beliefs that resist evidence.

Social media also poses a real problem for our idealizing the marketplace and democracy. The market often rewards dishonesty and even abuse, and all voices are not, in fact, equal when some level of expertise is involved.

The entire world right now is witnessing that not everyone should be holding forth about Covid-19; epidemiologists and others in the medical profession are rightly the voices that should be elevated while some, as hard as this is to admit, should be silenced.

One of those beliefs is that things today are worse than ever, that the U.S. is more divided than ever (let’s not forget slavery and the Jim Crow era, just for some context about a divided country).

But we do have many calling for ways we can get along, come together.

My modest proposal is that we do not return to some naive belief in objectivity, but that we can agree to navigate social media and our IRL experiences with the same verifiable facts.

When we have video and audio that Trump said X, we must begin with that he did in fact say X.

Being the loudest or the most persistent doesn’t make you right. Posting provably false memes, images, and comments online does make you the problem, and proves that we shouldn’t value anything you believe.

My father was always merely a human before that night I saw him lying in the bathroom floor, bloody and unconscious. I was naive until than night, but to deny his mortality after seeing him right there in front of me would have been worse than delusional, a discredit to us both.


See Also

11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting | Psychology Today

The Writing Models Dilemma: On Authentic Writing and Avoiding the Tyranny of Rubrics

While my journey to the fields of English and teaching started with science fiction and comic books, a love of reading that was steered to so-called “literature” by my high school English teacher, Lynn Harrill, I walked into my first high school classroom as a teacher of English primarily committed to teaching young people to write.

My goal was not simply to have my students write well, but to write authentically, to write in ways that existed outside traditional classroom essay writing.

Teacher preparation for teaching high school English was for me (and remains mostly so) grounded significantly in teaching literature. As a result, I spent the first 5-10 years as a teacher teaching myself how to be a writing instructor.

Far too many of my practices were quite bad, even harmful. However, one thing kept my writing curriculum afloat—volume. I somehow recognized very early that people learn to write by writing (see LaBrant, 1953).

But I also began my career as a teacher of writing by embracing two contradictory commitments: (1) I was always anti-five-paragraph essay; however, (2) I tended to remain grounded in a (ridiculous) commitment to using an authentic-template approach.

It took me several years to recognize that teaching writing wasn’t about finding the right template, but about rejecting the tyranny of the rubric/template approach.

Without rubrics/templates, however, teaching writing to a relatively large number of students, most of whom are not genuinely motivated to become writers, is incredibly challenging. None the less, rubrics/templates are conducive to managing the teaching of writing, but they are essentially the enemy of authentic writing.

A watershed moment for me in teaching writing came with helping writers who wanted to write poetry. Writing poetry and teaching people to write poetry are very similar to writing and teaching students to write essays in that both can be accomplished in some superficial way with rubrics/templates, but that those outcomes are only pale imitations of the forms being attempted.

Most of us have participated in the clunky 5-7-5 approach to writing a haiku poem for class just as most of us have performed the five-paragraph essay.

The watershed moment in understanding how to approach the teaching of poetry included a direct move away from templates and mechanical structures (haiku, sonnets, etc.) and toward the conceptual elements that define a form or genre.

While prose is driven by the formation of sentences and paragraphs (both concepts that are not as easily defined as many think), poetry is most often characterized by lines and stanzas (even prose poetry is anchored to the norms it resists).

Without using syllable count, then, line formation and line breaks are something many poets intuit or feel—stanza formation as well.

When I work one-on-one with an emerging poet, I attack lination (line formation and breaks) and stanzas by asking the poet to be aware of the “why” in those formations and whether or not there is any pattern guiding that “why.”

It is about having a purpose, not that one purpose is correct.

This work is very complex, but it is at a conceptual level, not the mechanical framing of rubrics/templates.

Teaching writing at the conceptual level, however, can seem abstract to students (who lack the rich experiences with text as writers for those concepts to be concrete); therefore, I soon began seeking ways to merge concepts to the concrete.

Here I also began to blend more intentionally my responsibility for literature and reading instruction with my writing curriculum by presenting our text readings as models for our journey as writers.

To be authentic in our pursuit as writers, I eventually realized, ours was not to reject rubrics but to reimagine our paths to rubrics. I knew that handing students stilted rubrics/templates was mostly about compliance and did not foster the sort of conceptual understanding my students needed.

The teacher-created rubric makes most of the writer decisions for students that they need experiences with in order to be authentic and autonomous writers.

However, I needed to help students develop their own toolbox of rubrics drawn from a wide and rich reading of texts that model the many ways that writers produce any form or genre.

Poets create poetry always in conversation with forming lines and stanzas just as essayists are aware of beginnings, middles, and ends as they navigate sentences and paragraphs.

For at least thirty years, then, I have been providing my students compelling models of the sorts of essays they are invited to write and walking them through reading-like-a-writer activities (see here and here).

And for the past two decades, where I teach undergraduate and graduate students, I have worked diligently to provide my students detailed models with my comments embedded to walk them through some of the more mundane elements of writing in formal situations (college essays, scholarly writing, public commentary)—citation, document formatting, etc.

Two of those models (linked above) are for cited scholarly essays using APA and public commentaries. Periodically, I create new models and revise my embedded comments, seeking always to refine the effectiveness of using models for teaching writing.

Now here is the dilemma.

Many years ago I had to accept the sobering fact that research shows that teaching writing by models is only modestly effective, far less so than something as clunky and inauthentic as sentence combining (sigh).

But I also live the reality that models often fall short of why I use them and how they should support students writing authentically.

This spring, in fact, I have implemented two new models with embedded notes, and I have been increasingly frustrated by the jumbled efforts at public commentary in my upper-level writing/research course.

That frustration, however, has led to a new understanding, coming 36+ years into teaching writing.

My models with notes are primarily generic examples to walk students through some of the structures and formatting expected in formal cited essays or when submitting a public work for publication. While I am frustrated always with students failing to format as required with these models right there in front of them, I have resolved myself to this process taking several rounds for students to “get” these (trivial) elements of submitting original writing.

My ah-ha! moment this semester has been to recognize that students have repeatedly ignored the public commentary assignment and have clung instead too directly to the model by creating a backward rubric/template for their public commentary submissions.

I soon realized that many of the students simply mimicked exactly my number of and types of paragraphs provided in the model (much of which wasn’t appropriate for this specific assignment).

Of the two major writing assignments, of course, writing a public commentary is the one more foreign to my students, the one about which they have the least expertise. In desperation, they have reverted to the inauthentic process most of them have experienced as writing instruction—prescriptive prompts and conforming to rubrics.

I have been long aware that my writing instruction is mostly unlike what students have experienced. What I ask students to do is extremely hard, often frustrating, but something they genuinely can just suffer through briefly and return to the normal ways of writing essays in college.

There is little I can do about this outlier aspect of my classes and practices, but I am now better equipped to have the rubric/template urge conversation earlier and more directly with students.

Using models and models with embedded notes can be more effective with greater intentionality and my diligence in responding to students who resist working toward conceptual levels of understanding by defaulting to rubric/template mode.

The dilemma with using models to teach writing is a subset of the larger problem with nudging students away from performing as students and toward performing as writers (or whatever role we are trying to achieve—pianist, scientist, historian, etc,).

This newest round of better understanding how to teach writing is yet another adventure in teacher humility—confirming that I must always be diligent about what I am doing and how they guides (or misleads) my students in pursuits we share.

Teaching and learning are different sides of the same complicated coin.

Do as I Say, Not as I Do: Lessons My Father Didn’t Know He Taught Me

My childhood home, the place of my single-digit life, sat just outside Enoree, South Carolina, a very small crossroads of a town near where I typically call my hometown, Woodruff.

This house my parents rented throughout the early to mid-1960s had a large barn beside it, apparently intended as a garage, and a redneck beer joint across the street, Lefty’s.

Paul and Eydie DEC 63 Enoree
My sister, Eydie, and me in the yard of the Enoree house.

This is the house where our family dog was killed, hit by a car in that street and buried by my father before he walked over to Lefty’s for a beer or two.

While our memories are not as credible as we would like, I have some of the most vivid recollections of my life from those years and that house. Part of that vividness is likely from my father’s habit of telling and retelling stories of his life and ours, but a significant contribution to my being able to see those years quite vividly in my mind is that my parents took 8 mm movies throughout that time as a young family.

There was the snowstorm video with the giant, frozen snowball that we watched over and over.

But I also recall playing outside in the leaves with my parents, and our own family version of ollie ollie oxen free that positioned one child and one parent together on each side of the house as we threw balls over for the other pair to catch. The greatest chaos, however, were the tea and water fights that often began at the table during lunch or dinner and then carried over into the yard before circling back into the house.

My father was apt, even after they built their own house and moved to the other side of Woodruff in 1971, to sneak around the house and spray my mother with the garden house through the window screen as she sat on the toilet.

I think my parents were well aware of these lessons about play and joy as a family. I often think my parents had children to insure they could continue playing their entire lives; we were card and board game players throughout my life at home as well.

And my parents raised three grandsons with the same sort of playful gusto well into their old age.

gramps outside 3 pines house
My father, Keith, was known as Gramps and sits here near the play area at the only house they owned.

I have another vivid memory, a standard refrain of my father’s as well as what very well may be a reconstructed memory of him lecturing from the living room of the Enoree house while smoking and drinking bourbon: “Do as I say, not as I do.”

This parent philosophy and authoritarian pose by my father planted early seeds of our discord as father and son. As a child, I couldn’t explain why but I hated this mandate, often while sitting in my room alone as punishment for talking back.

I would maintain a strict policy of my own, my philosophy of being a son, well into adolescence—talk back because that is the one thing he will not tolerate and ultimately something he could not stop.

As a teen, I also recall (again maybe more reconstruction) my father holding me hard against the floor, all his weight on me and his massive arms and hands rendering me immobile, and saying, “Don’t say another word.”

To which I would say, “Word.”

My mother was crying nearby because these events had to look pretty violent, although they were more clashes of will since my father never went much further than restraining me.

While my father and his mantra were intended to teach me about the proper place of authority and doing what you are told, my father taught me quite different and unintended lessons.

I learned to appreciate the sacrifices my father and mother made for me, the very limited but deep ways that they were able to love. And I have to hold onto that as I came to understand my father’s flaws, including the hypocrisy of his mantra.

As an adult, a high school teacher, I experienced the same anger I felt toward my father when I watched the principal treat teachers as my father treated me. The principal had his own private restroom in his office, but relentless policed the faculty for not doing hall and door duty during every class exchange—disregarding the basic human needs he took for granted in his position of authority.

And this morning, my father’s “Do as I say, not as I do” rushed back over me as I watched a video of several white families being told to leave a park closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Police officers were gently informing these families the park was closed—tape clearly marking off that fact—and that they were simply doing their jobs. But one white woman was relentless, asking for officers’ names and badge numbers and explaining to the that the park is public, paid for by tax payers.

You see, the big lesson my father taught me was what white privilege looks like, his version a healthy dose of male privilege also.

And my father taught me almost everything I need to know to understand this:

protest michigan
Michigan protests

White male privilege is not a message of law and order, or of the rightful place of authority.

White male privilege is about demanding other people comply with “my” authority, uncritically.

White male privilege is a concession that the law and rules are for those “other” people.

While not my father’s intent, his lesson here has made me a better person, or at least given me the opportunity to be a better person in my roles of authority. My anger at his hypocrisy returns to me often and pushes me to have higher standards for myself than for others.

Don’t trust what I say until you see what I do.

 

Worker’s Dilemma

A former first-year student of mine, about to graduate during the Covid-19 pandemic, emailed me recently since we will miss the chance to talk face-to-face before graduation. This student was incredibly kind about the role I played in their undergraduate journey, offering this as well: “I came to you with concerns over a major sophomore year, and instead of lecturing me you asked me what my dream job was.”

This student made some dramatic changes to their life and college career then, and now, I think is on a path that will be far more fulfilling. But this situation plays out over and over, and quite differently, at my selective, small liberal arts university.

The students at my university are often socially and economically conservative, or at least come from homes that are socially and economically conservative. These students are keenly aware of viewing a college education in terms of return on investment.

In other words, is there major going to lead to a career that justifies the price tag of those four years (and often the additional years of graduate school that follow)?

More often than not, I interact with students who want to follow their bliss, but their parents want them to respect their investment—by preparing for a high-paying career.

My journey to and through college was quite different in most ways than the students I teach. I grew up in a white Southern working-class home, where my parents’ generation was just beginning to tip-toe into college but had firmly accepted that college was an essential goal for their children.

My mother completed only one year of junior college, where my father finished both years. But four-year college was rare throughout both sides of their families, although college was part of the aspirational narrative that all of my family voiced and instilled in me.

I had no knowledge of concepts such as return on investment, but my academic journey was a given that included going to college and turning that degree into a stable career.

Although I fumbled with deciding on a major throughout my first two years (also attending the junior college my parents had)—from physics to pre-law to architecture—by the time I transferred to a satellite campus of the state university, I was staring at needing to commit fully to the sort of major and career that justified my parents paying for my college experience.

I am not entirely sure why, but I always felt deeply obligated to my parents and their funding my college (although I did earn several academic scholarships along the way and also tutored for additional income). I had grown up in a home where school was first, athletics second, and as long as I attended to these commitments, then I was not asked to work or “pay my way” in much of anything (although I did hold jobs throughout the summers and into college).

As I entered my junior year, although I wanted to major in English, I was acutely aware that this sort of major wasn’t practical (no one expressed that to me, not even my parents) so I chose to be a secondary (English) education major to become a high school teacher.

This meant that I sat in English courses (taking far more than was required to certify) where the professors routinely identified me as education, not a real English major. Because I graduated in December, I immediately entered an MEd program (more practicality since that insured a pay raise) that spring before becoming a full-time high school English teacher that coming fall.

A bit over a decade later, I continued that trend by entering an EdD program, earning my doctorate in 1998. That entire journey consisted of academic choices made at the margins of bliss, grounded always solidly in being practical.

You see, I had not lived the comment that I made years ago to my student.

I am very fortunate and happy to have had a career as a teacher; it has been a fulfilling dream career. But I consider myself a teacher and a writer, with the latter always lurking in shadows and being tended only secondarily and gradually as my life became more and more conducive to that dream deferred (moving to higher education was a huge boost to being a writer, but greater and greater financial stability has been significant as well).

My student I reference above has been on my mind as I have witnessed the disturbing reality of being a worker in the U.S.—emphasized by the pandemic that has stressed our medical system, exposed the failures of private work-based health insurance, and tossed people out of their jobs and careers.

In the U.S. (to the bafflement of much of the rest of the world), most people have their health insurance and retirement anchored to their jobs—being a worker is a necessity to have what many would consider essential elements of being fully human in 2020.

The pandemic has not only unmasked how inhumane these practices are, but even when stimulus legislation was passed, much of the money to help people remained grounded in the people who were (or had been) workers.

Even as the stimulus money is dripping out to individuals through the lump-sum check and funds added to unemployment, many conservatives on social media are lamenting that these “handouts” are proving that government money just makes people lazy. The mainstream media are playing right along by posting several stories in which small business owners are complaining that their workers are making more unemployed than when they were working.

Here is something I think many are missing about the $600 per week addition to unemployment: Political leaders of both parties were so eager not to send large lump payments to all citizens ($2400 stimulus checks not linked to unemployment, doubling the current stimulus amount) that they chose a process that has had unintended and negative consequences.

The bad policy and bad politics coming out of the Covid-19 crisis is not driven by good economic policy or even concern for the common good; the bad policy and bad politics are the consequence of a bad and paradoxical mythology.

The first part of that mythology is that to be fully human in the U.S., you must be a worker. The big lie in that myth being debunked during the pandemic is that we are witnessing that the lowest paid, hardest working, and most exposed working conditions—hourly workers and the service industry, for example—are genuinely essential and the workers who are building and maintaining the U.S.—not the CEOs, billionaires, or political leaders.

Along with service workers, health care providers and teachers now sit far more prominently in the minds of people about what sort of workers matter, what sort of workers have the kinds of work conditions and obligations that many people would prefer to avoid.

The second part of the mythology is a paradox, a cruel and ugly paradox: Workers’ lives don’t matter, actually, but being a worker is dangled before the public as a possible way to become what does really matter—being rich and powerful.

The cruel and ugly part is almost no one will ascend to rich and powerful because almost everyone who is rich and powerful had most of that gifted, not earned.

The rugged individual who built his empire completely on his own is a bald-faced lie, a saccharine libertarian fantasy.

We should not be rushing to get back to normal once we find some handle on the Covid-19 crisis because normal in the U.S. means that everyone must be a worker to even have a shot at being fully human.

Our normal democracy has been held hostage by a false truth we hold as self-evident. We deserve a new normal in which basic human dignity is the given and our lives as workers are a part of that but a part that is properly supported by our government and our economic system.

It should not be normal that wait staff must depend on tips.

It should not be normal that you have to work to have health care and retirement.

It should not be normal that minimum wage means that you cannot afford housing, food, and essentials.

It should not be normal that you have to choose between your health and keeping your job.

It should not be normal that a billionaire class continues to feed on the labor of the masses who are systematically being denied their humanity.

I am happy that my former student feels connected to a life and career in part because we talked and he thought differently about who he was and who he wants to be.

I am nervous about the possibility that after Covid-19 we will in fact return to normal where workers’ lives don’t matter.

Teaching Writing Remotely in a Time of Crisis

My students and I are in our last couple weeks of remote learning and teaching due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As I have examined, the transition for me was facilitated by many of my philosophical/theoretical commitments and practices—most of which are non-traditional and tend to cause tension in traditional circumstances.

At the root of these commitments, I think, is that I am essentially a teacher of writing. Therefore, I am prone to creating classroom experiences around workshop formats, open-ended discussions, and text-based examinations that are seeking goals beyond simply summarizing or analyzing the texts for meaning.

Most of my teaching career—almost two decades each at the high school and higher education levels—has involved teaching writing to students who are not trying to become writers. My writing instruction is primarily grounded in fostering the power of writing as that is valued within academic and scholarly contexts.

Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash

One of my best assignments, I think, is that I ask my first-year writing students to interview faculty at my university about how they conduct scholarship and research as well as about their lives as writers. Much to their surprise, students discover that most faculty are begrudging writers if not openly antagonistic to writing.

I work much of the time to balance my commitment to the field (and career) of writing with the reality that the vast majority of my students are attempting to navigate academia well, but may be as resistant to being and becoming writers as many of those professors.

My university now has only two writing-intensive courses for students—the first-year writing seminar and an upper-level writing/research course (intended to be taken in a student’s major department if offered).

I teach the upper-level writing/research course for my department, and we are currently navigating that remotely.

This is my third time through the course; therefore, I have continued to revise and better focus my goals for the course and the assignments. Teaching this course remotely has been another, and unexpected, way to rethink what works when teaching writing.

First, a fortunate accident of the move to remote learning/teaching is that it occurred in the middle of the course, which I have designed to be text-based and direct-instruction focused in the first half and workshop oriented in the second half (see the schedule). As a result of the shift to remote, all of the major assignments in the course have been submitted without our having traditional face-to-face class sessions.

The assignments have included annotated bibliographies, a cited scholarly essay, and a public commentary. Students have been invited to choose a topic in education that is being covered significantly in the media, conducting scholarly searches for what the research base shows about that topic, and conducting an informed analysis of how well the media is covering the topic.

I have now received at least the first submissions of all of these assignments, prompting me to email my students about the public commentaries this morning (since it was due yesterday). A key point I made was that the course is designed so that they are experimenting with how different writing purposes have different submission formats, different standards for citations, and different stylistic concerns.

Students are provided several documents to support producing and submitting the assignments. Those materials include a sample scholarly essay with notes and a sample public commentary with notes.

The challenges students face include preparing separate writing assignments and documents with those differences—APA format v. submitting a work of journalism, in-text scholarly citation v. hyperlinking, writing for a scholarly audience v. writing for the general public.

This writing-intensive course, I think, is both quite challenging for students (and the teacher) and a perfect model for helping students move beyond a rules-based or template-driven approaches to writing in academic, scholarly, and public contexts.

The scholarly essay and public commentary force students to see that writing is grounded in purpose and audience—not a simple set of rules demanded by the teacher.

Since workshopping the assignments remotely is not fundamentally different than when we have in-class sessions, I am recognizing another layer of stress because the remote is occurring during a health crisis and the unusual experiences of isolation many of my students are experiencing.

When I have been charged with providing faculty development for faculty teaching writing (as disciplinary professors without backgrounds in composition beyond their own experiences as writers), especially first-year writing, I have highlighted the problem with cognitive overload—asking students to write about new or challenging content while also focusing on being better writers.

If students are overwhelmed intellectually, they often do the multiple expectations poorly (or at least less well than if they could focus on only one) or prioritize by doing one thing well at the exclusion of the other(s), typically choosing to address content and fumble the writing itself.

One of my refrains is that when we are primarily teaching a class addressing writing instruction, we must be careful not to detract from that focus on writing well (or better) by engaging students in new or challenging course content (such as reading a highly technical, complex text to write about).

However, as we move into upper-level writing course, that problem is essentially impossible to avoid. Even in so-called normal circumstances, students have struggled with this upper-level writing/research course because, to be blunt, it is asking a great deal of undergraduate students.

I am accustomed to responding to initial drafts with “Did you look at the sample?” and “You are not doing the assignment.” But during this remote experience compounded by a pandemic, I am giving these responses far more often, nearly to the point of frustration on my part.

As I continue to interrogate my own role as a teacher of writing and a writer/scholar, I have a few key elements of my teaching that need careful consideration:

  • Increasing the tenuous value of providing students with models of writing in academic and public writing.
  • Fairly balancing writing assignments with supporting students making autonomous decisions as writers/scholars.
  • Providing feedback that supports effective and efficient revision (and learning).
  • Disrupting student misconceptions about drafting, written products, and performing as a student instead of as a writer or scholar.

I am not certain that a course shifted mid-semester into remote learning/teaching because of a pandemic can be anything other than a pale version of the original course, but I have witnessed that my courses are providing many if not most of my students quite valuable learning experiences.

The negative consequences of teaching remote during this pandemic are not quite clear yet, but I am certain the added stress of the situation has worked against many of my course goals.

I worry that many of us teaching fail to consider the demands of writing and writing well while students are simultaneously learning and navigating new content. It ultimately may be far too much to ask of students forced to remain in their homes and rooms for weeks on end with a newly uncertain world around them.

Honey Bee: “Honey helps an open wound”

“Gradually, Toby stopped thinking she should leave the Gardeners,” begins Chapter 19 of Margaret Atwood’s book 2 of her Maddaddam Trilogy, The Year of the Flood.

The “flood” is the apocalyptic “Waterless Flood,” predicted by God’s Gardeners, a vegetarian sect, and created by Crake (Oryx and Crake, book 1 of the trilogy).

Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam Trilogy, Book 1) by [Margaret Atwood]

“One day, old walnut-faced Pilar—Eve Six—asked Toby if she wanted to learn about bees,” and Toby does. The scene includes Pilar’s “bee lore”—such as “Honey helps an open wound”—and highlights the fragility of those bees under the weight of human negligence: “It was the pesticides, or the hot weather, or a disease, or maybe all of these—nobody knew exactly.”

Atwood’s trilogy, and this novel specifically, is quite chilling—for me a reread—in the time of Covid-19; our 2020 pandemic at least forces humans to confront our fragility, but it should also provoke some humility for our role in the entire ecosystem, Nature, or as Emily Dickinson envisions, “Landscape.”

What human behavior costs bees also costs humanity—bees as harbingers of our own inflicted doom.

That God’s Gardners are vegetarian, not vegan, is a distinction captured by their devotion and tending to honey bees. For several years now, I have been learning about veganism, and one of the most surprising elements was discovering that for vegans, honey remains a point of debate.

The standard “eat nothing with a face” framing of veganism is a bit fair, and a bit careless. Vegans also shun eggs and milk, produced by creatures with faces, driven by a concern for sentient life that is central to the Gardner’s in Atwood’s novel.

Some of veganism can be grounded in consent—creatures other than humans being given the same grace of consent for their lives and that which they produce—while some is certainly anchored in the sanctity of life, a rejection of reading “dominion” in Genesis as nature and all living creatures subject to the folly of humans.

While bees producing honey seems the same as chickens producing eggs and cows producing milk, the gathering of and using honey continues to be allowed among some vegans and rejected by others.

Once unpacked, in fact, veganism becomes a nearly inextricable ethical spider’s web of contradictions. Fruits and vegetables are not above the workings of nature and living creatures, pollination for example.

How arbitrary is the line between pollination and honey/egg/milk production?

One morning, a little over three years ago, seemingly in a different universe than the world we live in during April of 2020, I was opening a small packet of honey to put in my coffee at Starbucks.

This may have been around the time that I learned some vegans rejected the use of honey (vegans do not, however, shun sugar). So I found myself overwhelmed in that moment with recognizing the arrogance of being human, the work of bees so neatly and cavalierly packaged for human consumption.

For many years, I had avoided processed granular sugar by using honey in my coffee. In recent years, along with the ethical dilemma, I have had to admit that sugar is sugar in the human body so the commitment to honey has always been fairly arbitrary and pointless.

After some health concerns highlighted by blood work last fall, I have renewed my quest to be sugar free, and have even abandoned my dear honey, drinking coffee with creamer only.

That morning at Starbucks began a poem, we rape the bees (because we can), because I stood there thinking about bees as workers, and the stark reality in the U.S. that workers are seen as autonomous beings even as our capitalistic consumer culture compels us to work or find ourselves less than human.

Health care and retirement along with our wages are directly tied to our status as workers. As the Covid-19 crisis is showing us, without the security of health care and wages, we are all dehumanized.

Our Waterless Flood has been a sort of reverse baptism that should wash us clean of the sin of the inhumanities of capitalism. This pandemic may as well call us to reconsider not only our basic humanity but our oversized role in all of nature.

For us in the South, we fear the invisible threat of Covid-19 as pollen covers over everything during an April that has brought us temperatures in the 80s, a swarm of tornadoes, and a frost and freeze warning.

Is making honey and serving the queen simply the beeness of being a bee, an existential fact like Sisyphus and his rock? Is working in the service of the U.S. economy simply the basic humanity of being human as well, a fate shared with the bees?

I included lyrics from “Bloodbuzz Ohio” (The National)—“I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees”—in my poem, and am often drawn to lyrics and poetry about bees.

So as I approach the end of book 2 of Atwood’s trilogy while I also live a new life guided more than normal by simply surviving our Waterless Flood, I venture outside everyday for some relief, some peace—everything yellow-dusted in pollen—and eventually I cough and sneeze, tempered then by the new paranoia we all feel from the basic human reactions that may signal the Waterless Flood is right there before us.

One of my favorite spots to sit outside my apartment, a converted cotton mill in the quickly gentrifying South, is among an assortment of bees and wasps in the rafters of the deck overhang. So far, we share the space in harmony, although I have to calm my own knee-jerk fears.

Now, I am tempered by Atwood’s speculative novels that seem all too real, but also Matthew Olzmann’s “Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now,” published the same year I wrote my bee poem, ending: “And then all the bees were dead.”


Recommended

Honeybee: Poems & Short Prose, Naomi Shihab Nye

[The murmuring of bees has ceased], Emily Dickinson

Aftermath

But the stars collide
They’re beautiful and much maligned
In a universe where you see the worst
And it’s up to you to fix it

“Aftermath,” R.E.M.

I am not in Kansas…
Move back home with mom and dad…
My bedroom is a stranger’s gun room…
I can’t go back there anymore

“Not in Kansas,” The National

Dorothy’s journey in The Wizard of Oz was a quest and a mantra—”There’s no place like home”—but Thomas Wolfe has warned us otherwise, You Can’t Go Home Again.

I have been thinking a great deal about nostalgia, the urge to return to something from before, something assumed to be better and normal. The Covid-19 pandemic has coincided with my oldest nephew finally having the time needed to scan hundreds of family photos gathered after the deaths of my parents over a six-month period a couple years ago.

The images are haunting and fill me with nearly overwhelming melancholia. The newest and last batch of scans forced me to consider both the allure of back then and if any moment is really better; is there ever really such a thing as the good old days?

These photographs span decades and generations; many of the oldest black-and-white photos are faded, blurred, but they capture people mostly unsure of how to be while being photographed. There is an awkwardness that puts up masks to whether or not these days were more than the old days, but also “good.”

And family photographs are rich with babies and children, especially babies on people’s laps. There are two in the newest batch that I can’t quite fully process, babies on laps—one of my mother and me, obscured by finger prints, and another of my oldest nephew sitting on my mother’s lap, her beside my father in an eerily red-hued picture from 1983:

 

There are about 20-plus years between these images of my mother, and I am turned inside out by my parents’ faces, both looking away and appearing to be quite distant from the moment then in the early 1980s, there with the beginning of a life that will always be inextricably intertwined with theirs.

My oldest nephew, who we call Tommy on our side of the family, carried a tremendous bulk of the responsibility as my parents’ health declined and once they died. His earnest duty to them has persisted as he has scanned these hundreds of photos, I assume, in one effort to hold onto a home that we shared at different times.

I look at these images and feel like Dorothy:

Well, I, I think that it, that it wasn’t enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. And it’s that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with. Is that right?

But I also know this to be misguided nostalgia—that you can’t go home again.

The urge to go back to seemingly better times is a powerful political message, however, one resonating in a different way in 2020 during a pandemic that has erased normal from most of our days and nights.

Political messages about reclaiming the good old days has had mixed results.

In 1996, Bill Clinton levered the future over the past:

“The real choice is about whether we will build a bridge to the future or a bridge to the past; about whether we believe our best days are ahead or behind us; about whether we want a country of people working together, or one where you’re on your own,” Clinton said.

But Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump have shared political success by taking the opposite stance:

“We ran on a theme: ‘Make America Great Again.’ And a lot of people are saying that may have been the greatest theme ever in politics. Ronald Reagan had a small thing called ‘Let’s Make America Great.’ That was good,” Trump said earlier in the evening. “I don’t like it as much. And he sure as hell didn’t use it as much.”

Those of us leery of the good old days often ask people to specifically identify when and what was “great” in the past, specifying the when but also acknowledging how it was “great” and for whom.

At whose expense is anyone’s happiness?

Bob Dole seems to have lost due to his failure to recognize that a nostalgia for a 1950s U.S. ignored that mid-twentieth century America was often anything except great for large populations of people not like him.

However, even as 2020 is a presidential election year, throughout the world, all of us are now confronted with wanting to return to normal, desiring through a haze of nostalgia to go back to the time before the pandemic.

I have been struck by how unfamiliar now images of crowds seem to me—major sporting events, music concerts.

I am reminded of going with friends to see The National in an outdoor venue in Pittsburg just after the Las Vegas mass shooting. It was a challenging and disorienting experience, but many of us simply attended the event to cling in part to something we considered normal.

It seems entirely reasonable in our current medical crisis to want things as they were before the pandemic. But it is also completely irrational to want to return to the world that brought us to this shut down.

Thinking everything was better in the past is not just nostalgic, but negligent.

Before the pandemic, people across the U.S. lacked health care and stable well-paying jobs. Those facts increased the crisis.

I have been looking through hundreds of photographs and missing the people and the times; it is a powerful thing to want to go home again.

But we can’t go home, we will never go back to normal.

In the aftermath of crisis, in fact, the greatest honor we can pay to our past is to move forward, better people and seeking the very best of Maggie Smith’s final lines to “Good Bones”: “This place could be beautiful,/right? You could make this place beautiful.”


My Transition to Emergency Remote Teaching

Across my undergraduate and graduate courses in education, I stress the importance that all educators have a detailed understanding of the educational philosophies and theories that they claim to embrace as well as if their practices match those claims.

Teachers, however, are a practical lot, and most pre-service and in-service teachers resist my argument.

The somewhat abrupt move to remote teaching that has occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic has emphasized for me, again, that the value in educational philosophy/theory and how that matches practice cannot be overemphasized.

While my philosophy/theory and practice are well outside the norms of mainstream, traditional schooling—and that causes stress and anxiety for many of my students, at least temporarily—I was incredibly well prepared to shift my courses to remote and individualized structures within an hour of addressing my schedules (see foundations of education and scholarly reading and writing).

The entire transition is now being handled by email, smart phones (text, Facetime, phone calls), and the blogs linked above. I prepared no Zoom meetings and no video lectures.

In fact, the scholarly reading and writing course is not much different than it would have been without the shift except that we no longer sit together in the same room every Monday evening.

Here are the ways in which my educational philosophy/theory and practice have provided the foundation for moving quite easily to remote asynchronous learning:

  • While I am just noticing the online terminology (asynchronous v. synchronous), I have practiced individualized instruction (asynchronous) for the vast majority of my 36 years of teaching. Throughout my 18 years teaching high school English, I experimented with and refined workshop methods with both writing and literature instruction; therefore, my courses are often designed around students working on holistic and authentic products of learning that are developed over drafts.
  • Individualized instruction that focuses on authentic artifacts of learning is nested inside my larger commitment to student-centered teaching. I start with each student and genuinely place content and so-called skills secondary. I try to begin with student reactions (reflections on readings, drafts of assignments) and then drive instruction with what students know, what students do not yet know, and student misconceptions.
  • As a writing/composition instructor, I tend to function as a teacher by responding to student work as submitted; being “on” for students throughout the day and responding to student work as it is submitted may be stressful for some teachers, but I already function that way, which lends itself well to the necessary asynchronous nature of remote teaching.
  • My courses are supported by checklists, models, and support material that I always prompt students to use before they rely on my help; I see my overarching goal as a teacher as making myself unneeded, fostering intellectual autonomy in my students. “Take your time. You can do this on your own” is essentially the soft message I am whisper behind all that I do.
  • All of my courses are managed by a low-technology commitment; I am neither a no-tech Luddite, nor a technology evangelist. My courses are all on WordPress platforms, easily and freely accessible to anyone, not just students. My students and I already interact by email and through a fairly sophisticated use of Word (comments, track changes, etc.). This low-technology approach allowed me to shift remotely in minutes, sacrificing only a few elements of my teaching (which I discuss below).
  • I teach by inviting students to have shared experiences, but I do not suffer the illusion that those experiences can or will guarantee the same outcomes. I feel far more concerned about fostering ways of learning than covering and asking students to perform to a set of disciplinary knowledge. Thus, I have no standard lectures to video for students to view, although I often ask students to read shared texts that give us some foundation for thinking deeply or at least harder about topics.
  • Throughout my career I have been anti-grades/tests, but in the reality of traditional schooling, my approach is best described as delaying grades—although I do not give any sorts of tests. While many teachers are struggling with assessment (implementing tests, assigning grades on assignments) when moving to remote teaching, my portfolio approach (course grade assigned based on a final portfolio submitted of all work) hasn’t needed to be adjusted for my shift to remote teaching.

Yes, I have made the transition to remote teaching fairly easily; however, I am not suggesting that there haven’t been costs, things lost in the shift. Those losses and concerns include the following:

  • A key aspect of my educational philosophy/theory is that I am solidly anti-online courses; I remain a strong advocate for the traditional classroom structures in which teachers and students interact face-to-face. I am not convinced that the amount of face-to-face class time traditionally practiced is necessary, and I certainly practice a great deal of one-on-one conferencing. However, remote instruction can never match the power of in-person classroom dynamics.
  • Class sessions for me include two major structures: workshop or discussion. Workshop has transitioned remotely quite well, but I have abandoned the discussion element, recognizing that is a major sacrifice. Here, I must distinguish between remote teaching in a crisis and creating a course online (in which synchronous sessions over some App would allow discussion). In the Covid-19 crisis, I have elected not to add the stress of designated days/times to meet as a class. However, I genuinely cannot imagine that online discussions can meet the level of in-person class dynamics create, when we all can make eye contact and be “in the moment” together of discussions.

In one way, the sudden shift to remote teaching also fit well into my educational philosophy/theory that requires me to be vigilant about critical reflection on my role as a teacher, and a human being. I never see any of my practices as “fixed,” always in reflective flux.

The Covid-19 pandemic forced me to reconsider a course mid-stream, but I am prone to doing that most of the time any way.

My teacher personae is a contradictory mix of external self-assurance tempered by a pervasive fear that I am failing my students. As I worked diligently to transform my classes, I monitored my own practices against my educational philosophy/theory (checking what I had planned as well as what I revised and expected of students).

I remain, then, resolute in this belief: Our day-to-day teaching in so-called normal times always benefits from recognizing what our educational philosophy/theory is and how well our practices remain grounded in those commitments.

Epistemic Trespassing in Real Time: Peter Navarro, Economist

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro has an impressive academic background:

Navarro went to Tufts University on a full academic scholarship,[9] graduating in 1972 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He then spent three years in the U.S. Peace Corps, serving in Thailand.[7][13] He earned a Master of Public Administration from Harvard University‘s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1979, and a PhD in Economics from Harvard under the supervision of Richard E. Caves in 1986.[13]

His political and academic careers as well as his primary areas of expertise include economics and public policy.

Recently, however, Navarro has drawn criticism for clashing with Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, about Covid-19. Navarro has justified his disagreements as follows:

“I have a Ph.D,” Navarro said. “And I understand how to read statistical studies, whether it’s in medicine, the law, economics or whatever.” He added, “Doctors disagree about things all the time. My qualifications in terms of looking at the science is that I’m a social scientist.”

Navarro is demonstrating in real time both the existence and dangers of epistemic trespassing, embodying several of the qualities and conditions outlined in Ballantyne’s work.

For example, Navarro fits the basic definition by acknowledging his credibility lies in social sciences (economics) but he feels justified in speaking authoritatively on medicine:

Epistemic trespassers are thinkers who have competence or expertise to make good judgments in one field, but move to another field where they lack competence—and pass judgment nevertheless. We should doubt that trespassers are reliable judges in fields where they are outsiders.

Navarro also exhibits these common qualities:

Out of their league but highly confident nonetheless, trespassers appear to be immodest, dogmatic, or arrogant. Trespassers easily fail to manifest the trait of intellectual humility and demonstrate one or another epistemic vice (Whitcomb et al. 2017, Cassam 2016). Second, it’s useful to distinguish between trespassers holding confident opinions and investigating questions in another field [emphasis in original]. I assume it can be epistemically appropriate for people to look into questions beyond their competence, even when it would be inappropriate for them to hold confident opinions.

Once challenged, Navarro responded as expected:

Trespassers are a crafty bunch, of course, and they may resist reasoning in the way I’ve described. They may grant they are in one of the three reflective cases but insist they have not thereby flouted any epistemic norm. How could that work? For any particular trespassing case, the presumption that there is some epistemic trouble can be defeated by good reason to think there’s no epistemic trouble in the case. I call reasons that defeat the presumption of epistemic trouble defences [emphasis in original]. Defences are reasons indicating no epistemic norm has been violated.

Navarro embraced the third defense offered by Ballantyne: “(D3) I am trespassing on another field, but my own field’s skills successfully ‘transfer’ to the other field”:

I expect something like (D3) will be among the most common justifications given by trespassers. For example, Richard Dawkins (2006, p. 56) suggests that he does not see what expertise philosophers of religion could possibly have that scientists like him would lack; in his own eyes, his scientific competence apparently transfers to a new context where he can appropriately answer questions about arguments for and against God’s existence. Neil deGrasse Tyson may believe that his scientific training has taught him critical thinking—the only skill needed to answer philosophical questions. In general, if the trespasser’s expertise successfully transfers from one field to another, then the trespasser does not violate any norms related to lacking the other field’s skills.

With Navarro’s challenge to Fauci, we are witnessing that “[o]verzealous transfer can occur when thinkers mistakenly assume a new context is just like a previous one. … They are cautionary tales for how exemplary critical thinking in one field does not generalize to others.”

That skills may not transfer is grounded in “background knowledge is crucial for the successful application of skills in any domain (Barnett and Ceci 2002, p. 616), but trespassers often lack such knowledge.”

Expertise is a complex combination of skills, knowledge, and experiences; therefore, “how to read statistical studies” is simply not generic across disciplines.

Navarro’s doubling down also represents that “[o]ne hallmark of trespassing, however, is a lack of awareness of the failure to render good judgments”:

The Dunning-Kruger effect says that thinkers who are ignorant in a domain tend to be ignorant of their ignorance (Kruger and Dunning 1999). This is a bias influencing meta-knowledge. People who lack first-order knowledge often lack second-order knowledge about their lack of knowledge. Psychologists have described this as a kind of intellectual ‘double curse’ (Dunning et al. 2003). … Self-ignorance about trespassing is dangerous. Sometimes trespassers will have enough knowledge to give them false confidence that they are not trespassers but not enough knowledge to avoid trespassing.

Finally, however, Ballantyne’s confronting epistemic trespassing is not an argument for disciplinary siloing, but a call for awareness and greater care in situations where interdisciplinary input and consideration are not only common but possibly even necessary—such as in the workings of government and the formation of policy:

Researchers from different fields pull their chairs up to the table and try to arrange the pieces into a coherent whole. But these people have different technical backgrounds and vocabularies, different goals for research practice, and different perceptions of the problem. Presumably, the group could benefit from some guidance, lest their collaboration devolve into grabbing pieces and bickering over whose perspective is best….

…I’ve defended the idea that recognizing the risks of trespassing should often encourage greater intellectual modesty. Researchers on interdisciplinary collaboration have also affirmed the importance of something like modesty. For example, some researchers note that the ‘first step’ for cross-field collaborators ‘is to acknowledge, respect, and explore the diversity of perspectives’ (Hirsch Hadorn, Pohl, and Bammer 2010, p. 437). When researchers tackle together so-called wicked problems—from epidemics to poverty to nuclear arms control—they should presume they don’t have in hand what is required to hold confident answers to the questions, or even to know what those questions are. Their ignorance is what prompts the collaboration, and so they should begin the conversation knowing there are significant unknowns. My proposal is that many questions often not viewed as interdisciplinary call for a similarly modest response. We should be more sensitive to the inherent difficulties of confidently answering hybridized questions. At the same time, we may be encouraged by the possibility that cross-field efforts will enhance our understanding of important questions.

Navarro has little to offer about how the U.S. should confront a pandemic, but inadvertently, he has demonstrated the reality and dangers of epistemic trespassing, a moment in our nation’s history that may prove this to be more than mere academic “bickering” and a threat to human life.


See Also

Epistemic Trespassing: From Ruby Payne to the “Science of Reading”