Don’t Read Your Presentation… Unless You’re a Professional Scholar in the Humanities

Last week I paid a visit to the sections of the management courses I’m supporting this semester to introduce myself and explain the logistics of how I would help students prepare to deliver polished in-class presentations. The gimmick I came up with for this exercise was to parody an example of terrible public speaking: I stuck my nose up to the sheet I was holding and proceeded to read my one-paragraph introduction word for word from the script without ever looking up, and did so while speaking at a barely audible volume and nervously hurried pace. Every word I said was also projected upon the screen behind me, which I faced during most of the time I was talking—with my free hand shoved in my pocket. After confirming the students’ suspicions that I—a representative of the communication institute—was indeed pulling their leg, I asked them to dissect my poor presentation style and tell me what I did wrong. Unsurprisingly, they identified all of the obvious flaws in my performance (though I didn’t appreciate them ripping in to my attire), beginning with the fact that I was reading my speech. I, of course, reaffirmed that while it is fine to talk from notes, they should not read their entire presentations. As in other moments of my work at the BLSCI this year, though, my thoughts in the post-presentation reflection centered around the discrepancies between what I tell students to do and what I actually do in my own academic life. And this time the cause of my hypocrisy is… drum roll please… the read conference paper.

I know that criticism of the humanities conference presentation format in which scholars read their papers aloud to one another—maybe glancing up every few sentences to show “engagement” with their audience—is nothing new. This cheeky play-by-play account of the experience of being in the audience for such a paper surely resonates with many of us. But I’ve had to develop my personal disillusionment with conference presentation style on my own terms, and it has been brought into greater relief through the presentation coaching I’ve been doing. The first thing I ask students during a session is to tell me what their main arguments are. Well-prepared students usually proceed to convey their points enthusiastically and articulately without consulting their notes much; they’ve researched their topic thoroughly and have unconsciously internalized the pertinent information. Then, when I ask them to do a practice run of their presentation, in many cases these same students start reading a prepared script; the delivery is usually halting, stiff, and, quite frankly, boring. Now, I know that texts can be crafted and recited in ways that make them sound interesting and, conversely, that presentations that don’t rely primarily on reading are not automatically mind-blowing. Defenders of the read conference paper often point these things out. Obviously, any good presentation takes plenty of preparation and practice. But I’m going to go ahead and argue that, all other things being equal, reading a paper is an inherently less effective method of sharing knowledge orally than other approaches.

Look, ma, I can read!

Don’t get me wrong: I too have perpetuated the read format in my conference talks. It’s hard to depart from deeply ingrained disciplinary practice, and the risks involved with breaking from the manuscript are high for graduate students looking to impress their scholarly seniors. Moreover, as Julia has written in this forum, preparing extemporaneous presentations is just plain harder. So here’s a challenge to myself first, and my colleagues secondly, for us to be more consistent with the standards we impose on our students. If we give lower grades to undergraduates who read through their presentations in class, why would we tolerate it from each other in professional contexts? I propose that conference applications should include, in addition to written abstracts, an evaluation of oral delivery. Indeed, this could be an interesting application of the BLSCI’s Video Oral Communication Assessment Tool (VOCAT). Preparing non-read presentations that are well-organized, compelling, and adhere to time limits will likely take more time than simply writing and reading. Maybe this would reduce the number of academic conference papers presented every year; those of us who have witnessed or participated in numerous panels at large conferences at which the panelists outnumber listeners would likely welcome this development. And for me, at least, the prospect of raised standards for oral presentation at academic conferences would make me more likely to spend my time and money to attend them.

On Disorganizing and Reorganizing

(Or, “8 Things That Listicles Tell Us About Process”)

  1. If I begin with a list, I’m about to start a project— maybe tonight’s dinner, tomorrow’s trip, a draft, or a revision. “This is what I need to do,” I assure myself.
  2. The word “listicle” is odd and ugly. But I don’t mean ugly in the same way that Stanley Fish means it when he says: “…‘blog’ is an ugly word (as are clog, smog, and slog).”  The word, listicle, is crudely formed by smashing together “list” and “article.” It’s an article that plays on a system of classification.  The writing (thinking) process, the drafting of ideas, and evaluating of information can be uncomfortable, clunky, and uneven procedures. The word “listicle” honestly reflects the messiness of process.
  3. A list is a familiar form of writing and a tool of organization. Some examples: What do I need to get at the grocery store? How many more course credits do I need? What don’t I know? What do I know? A list is a useful genre for prioritizing tasks, assessing objectives, and discerning values.
  4. A list is a familiar form of writing and a tool for organization. A retail worker uses it to check a store’s inventory. A bartender scribbles a list of what to restock a bar with. An administrator of any rank is an expert in the form. A syllabus is a hybrid list. A student can use it to brainstorm.
  5. I make lists to remember. I realize I haven’t talked about what makes the word “listicle” an odd word… It shares sounds with unexpected words, like tickle, pickle, and popsicle. Listicle also conveniently rhymes with mythological and ideological.
  6. To create a list is to create a mission, a manifesto of some sort. Perhaps a list is content in desire of form; maybe it’s knowledge impatiently in want of coherence.
  7. A numbered list implies order. But sometimes the order seems arbitrary or trivial. “23 Signs You’ve Lived In New York City,” “31 GIFs That Will Make You Laugh Every Time.” Why 23? Why 31? Lists draw on the appearance of structure, but maybe they’re just disorder masquerading as (or maybe they’re new shapes waiting to supersede) order.
  8. A list can be a form of critical inquiry. Place two lists next to each other— one for pros, the other for cons— and a one person debate can commence. Art is in “listicle,” tactically obscured from view, and it’s present if one wants (or has) a poetic mission. A list can be a form of critical inquiry: a “to do” list might actually be a “to know” list. Or maybe a list is, at its core, a performance of: “This is what I do and this is what I know.”

***

A confession and some brief notes on my pedagogy:

This blog post is an attempted exercise in demonstrating how meaning is built into form (which is what I tried to do with my previous piece on the mixtape). It is also an excuse to quarrel with an Internet form that I have long been ambivalent about.

In my classroom, students and I spend a lot of time discussing form and structure. Meaning, I tell them, is not just located in content and plot: meaning is also mediated through its structure. This might be obvious, especially for those who specialize in literary criticism, but it can be a challenge to get undergraduates to think about structure in concert with content. In our more dynamic and fruitful discussions, students and I merge our close-readings of a narrative’s texture and relate our collective reading to that narrative’s structure. Chapter seven, “Structural Principles: The Example of the Sonnet,” of Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form has been particularly helpful in getting students to think about form and structure, not just in terms of poetry, but also in terms of shaping their own form(s) of critical inquiry.

Oral Communication in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Make eye contact. Project your voice. Articulate clearly. Plan smooth transitions. Don’t read from notes.

For most of us connected in one way or another to teaching in higher education, these simple maxims are some of the unquestioned tenets of good public speaking. Personally, I have instructed my students to bear them closely in mind for the short presentations I typically have them do in my classes; bullet points with slight variations on the above permeate the documents we here at the Schwartz Institute distribute to students to prepare them for successful oral presentations and debates in their communication intensive classes. As someone who’s field of study (ethnomusicology) is largely premised on granting equal value to the musical systems of every culture (i.e. cultural relativism), and who believes that the disproportionate focus on the western classical tradition in our universities’ music departments is seriously problematic, I was surprised to find myself only recently reflecting on the implications of assuming the primacy of one particular style of oral communication.

Since the amazing diversity of human musical expression became evident to me only a few readings into the ethnomusicological canon, I have often found descriptions of heterogeneity in other communicative domains to be more striking. Take, for instance, the following depiction of public speaking style in the rural indigenous community of Conima, on the highland plateau of southern Peru, from Thomas Turino’s Moving Away from Silence:

A Conimeño [person from Conima] would not be comfortable on an elevated platform facing and conducting an orchestra, a classroom, or a meeting… speaking style is soft and indirect. People generally avoid eye contact during conversation, and when talking in groups, a speaker will look at the ground so as to address no one in particular and everyone at the same time.

The contrasts here to several of the postulates listed at the outset of this post are obvious. We further learn, though, that Conimeños would find foreign the very idea of a debate, which is the format that some fellows at the Institute are assigned to support.

The next example, drawn from an article by Steven Feld (“Aesthetics as Iconicity of Style”) on the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, speaks to an aesthetics of public speech that is ostensibly fostered by the dense soundscape of their surrounding rain forest:

The Western normative concepts of individual speaker turns, floor rights, and turn-taking etiquette, notions rationalized in both speech act philosophy and conversational analysis, are absent from, and analytically irrelevant to Kaluli conversation and narration. What might be heard as regular “interruption” is not that at all, but rather the collaborative and co-creative achievement of dulugu sala, ‘lift-up-over speaking.’ […] Multiple voices hold the floor simultaneously and parties address multiple others and agendas simultaneously, without any voice continually dominating or organizing the stream of discussion.

These are merely two examples that happen to be discussed in studies that otherwise focus on music, and there are certainly thousands more in the literatures of anthropology and linguistics.

What, then, might the consequences be of our emphasis on one, culturally specific, style of public speaking in our classrooms? Are we promoting cultural homogenization? How might we reconcile an appreciation for the diversity of oral communication styles with an acknowledgement that mainstream North American academic culture has converged on a set of criteria for what makes good public speaking? I assume experts in communication have given this some thought. Peter Elbow addresses the culturally inflected character of speech and writing in his book Vernacular Eloquence, and I was interested to hear concerns about what messages we are sending ESL students when we point them to resources for accent “reduction” at a recent meeting. And yet, our materials on oral communication seem to rehash the same assumption that there is a universal mode of effective public speaking. One document we use purports to deliver “the essential elements and some tips on preparing and organizing a successful oral presentation in English or any other language.” Although it does later advise readers to keep the first language and professional field of their audience in mind when planning a presentation, the guidance provided is ultimately in line with the basic ideas mentioned above.

I don’t have any concrete answers to these questions, but let me offer a couple of half-formed and probably unoriginal thoughts:

Firstly, oral communication styles, like musical systems and language itself, are thoroughly interwoven with the cultures from which they emerge, and it is significant when societies or individuals are compelled to change their forms of communication. Turino illustrates this point vividly when he describes how Conimeños who migrated to Peru’s capital began adopting the Hispanicised speech style of the city’s European descendants, and how this development put a strain on communication, and relations more generally, between the migrants and elders back in the home district. Secondly, tied as they are to a cultural habitus, forms of public speech may be linked to forms of politics. As it happens, the non-confrontational, indirect style of communication in Conima corresponds to a generally egalitarian society in which decisions are reached by consensus, “public political and religious offices rotate equally among adult male community members, and equality of opportunity is given precedence over individual competence.” The Kaluli, too, were characterized as an egalitarian group. I would have little basis for attempting to correlate the monologic mode of formal speech and its attendant aesthetics to the hierarchical and unequal organization of capitalism, but I can’t help thinking that for all their eye contact, well-projected voices, clear diction, and savvy off-the-cuff handling of prepared speaking points, our politicians give us little in the way of truth, integrity, or effective governance.

“Is This a Persuasive Paper?”

That question — “Is this a persuasive paper?” — is one that I can’t seem to avoid when teaching classes. A student asked it to me the other day in a writing class. Each time, I try not to appear flabbergasted. After teaching in English departments for seven years, I should be used to the question by now, but, each time I hear it, still, I pause.

“Of course it is. Every paper is a persuasive paper.”

And, I do think that: every paper, every piece of writing, and every communicative moment is persuasive. It is whether or not it aims to be. The question of whether or not it is effective, however, is one left up to the person with the red pen, or, if the words are sent outside of academia, then the question is answered simply by the person receiving it. Each paper has its own rhetorical situation rife with aims and motivations, yet, somehow, my students often enter into my classroom thinking that persuasive writing is a special kind of writing that is to be engaged in at the behest of the professor and not often otherwise. Perhaps my view on the matter means that I’ve read too much Kenneth Burke or just that my course through academia has been one that has engaged first with rhetoric and second with the research done in pedagogy by scholars of Composition studies. Still, I don’ think I’m wrong.

Later that the evening, after answering my student’s question, I read a Facebook post from Trish Roberts-Miller, an undergraduate mentor of mine:

So I had to tell my son I can’t help with his research paper. I showed him how to use Google Scholar, and I pointed him to back issues of The Economist, but, basically, I had to say, I don’t know how to write a history that is not an argument, and I think that’s what you’re supposed to do.

teddy roosevelt -- big stickTrish’s son is in high school, and that is the sort of assignment that we’d expect from high school: show me you read the material. It’s a banking system of pedagogy in which the student collects information, and, if the student is capable, makes the knowledge gain interest through synthesizing it. But, my point: before, after, in, or outside of college, how do you write anything that isn’t an argument? Even if the piece of writing has not been delicately crafted as a blunt-force tool of persuasion simply following the form of a logical proof and culminating in a boring, five-paragraph essay, even if the argument isn’t — obviously — in the content of the paper, we can at least understand the argument to be in the performance of the exposition. Can’t we?

In reality, this type of assignment isn’t just in high school’s jurisdiction. The first year that I taught at the college level, I was assigned to teach first-year writing as most every English graduate student is. The prospect excited me, but the department mandated that first time instructors used a particular text: The Longman Writer: Rhetoric and Reader (the link is to the newer edition, not the one I used). This textbook is aimed at first-year college writing, and I wasn’t sure how to use the book, especially when I saw that Chapter 19 was entitled “Argumentation-Persuasion,” and a mere 20 pages were devoted to the subject that included several readings.

The Longman Writer, like too many other textbooks offered up by major publishers, is classified as a “rhetoric” and is organized around the “rhetorical modes,” also known as “the modes of discourse.” The modes themselves reduce writing to local moments in which a writer has a particular aim for a small section or simply a paragraph; however, introducing the question of aim might already be bending the summary of the modes too far into a rhetorical direction. The number of “modes” varies from textbook to textbook, but the four that form the base of the system are narration, description, exposition, and argument. The implication is that, at any one time, a writer will be either narrating events (perhaps constructing a history), describing something (maybe a scientific object), explaining something (here we can consider this “informational”), or making an argument. The modes often are used in tandem in a single piece of writing, the pedagogical theory being that if one can master the different modes of writing, the constituent parts of writing, then one can put them together into a wonderfully constructed, brilliantly organized, easily readable piece. Instruction that takes the modes as its core, however, seldom explains adequately — if at all — how the modes need to be integrated to form that well-crafted prose.

This inadequacy stems partly from the presentation of the modes, the way that they are organized in the textbook and, by extension, the classroom. The more the modes are separated from each other (even under the guise of “exercises,” although they are rarely cast as such), the more that a piece of writing will be considered to function simply in one mode. The effect is an aimless, fragmented writing that can become more fragmented with the greater number modes that are defined. The Longman Writer outlines more:

  • description,
  • narration,
  • illustration,
  • division-classification,
  • process analysis,
  • comparison-contrast,
  • cause-effect,
  • definition, and
  • argument-persuasion.

One implication of this classification of the modes and this division of writing is that argument itself is now distinct from every other mode, and the student (and teacher as well) employing the textbook might cease to see a piece of writing as a whole, and, without looking at the piece of writing holistically, it is easy to forget that the piece of writing exists with a particular purpose, in a particular situation, by a particular author, for a particular intended audience. It is even easier to  forget to ask the simple but most important question of why the piece of writing exists to begin with, that dreaded “So What?” question that few authors of academic prose, our their drive toward hyper-specialization, fail to consider much less explicitly address.

The modes were based off of Cicero’s work, but they were brought into a more “modern” form by Samuel Newman in 1827 in what could be considered the first Composition textbook, A Practical System of Rhetoric (available on Google Books). Newman’s positivistic understanding of rhetoric refocused rhetoric merely onto writing, simply onto composition, and reduced it in a way that stripped writing of its context. Briefly, he thought that the philosophical bases of rhetoric were mostly cruft and had no practical purposes, so he removed many of the otherwise oratorical aspects of rhetoric (canons such as invention and memory) that Neo-Classicist Rhetoricians had embraced just years before (consider John Quincy Adams‘s Lectures On Rhetoric and Oratory). Yet, studying Rhetoric-as-oratory (or -with-oratory) forces the student to look at the audience and understand that the words are being heard and that the audience can respond; thus, oratory is speaking, oratory is discourse, oratory is dialogue. On the other hand, writing can free us from the anxiety that those with whom we are communicating can and do respond to us because we can’t physically see them and their micro-expressions of suspicion. That’s not to say that Composition ignores audience by any means. I’ve yet to see a textbook that doesn’t put the concept at the beginning and highlight it throughout, but what I mean is that the reduction of Rhetoric simply to writing, stripping Rhetoric of its other important aspects, endemically distances us from our audiences, allowing us to retreat into a space that contains just ourselves, our thoughts, and our words, a writing space that is alienated from the context in which the words will be read. The necessity to reiterate the importance of audience again and again and again may be a symptom of this reduction.

At its base, the distance allows us to embrace expression at the expense of deliberation. Indeed, Newman’s ideas about the practical effects of his reduction of Rhetoric into Composition are not too far from the core of “expressivism” in current Composition Studies; granted, the latter is much more varied and complex than this comparison suggests. But the core of “expressivism” is that students already know how to think, yet they don’t know how to express themselves through writing. Hence, if we enable the students to express themselves, then they’ll be fantastic writers. But the focus is — and I don’t mean just to harp on the name — expression rather than deliberation.

Expression tends toward the irenic, a movement towards simple agreement, rather than an agonism that reminds us — perpetually reminds us, provoking a profound anxiety — that we are writing not just for someone but to someone. An expressive stance toward writing allows us to conceive of the work as a part of ourselves and as a gift to the audience. A disagreement with expression is a rejection of that gift and thus a rejection of the author. There is no divorce of the person from the work.

Movie Poster

Cowboys: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Persuasion, at least for my students, always tends to be associated with the word “argument.” The next association is unproductive: “argument” is associated with “fight” rather than “deliberation.” An argument is hot not cool. As Americans, we like to think of ourselves as a pugnacious sort, or, at least those are the heroes that play us in the movies. And we might have that same bellicose tendency when we do engage in our own arguments: we go in strong, guns a-blazing, shooting straight from the hip, like cowboys. So, if we’re supposed to make an argument in a paper, then the paper itself should look like a tool with which to bludgeon your opponent. Right?

If you observe many arguments, especially ones that are outside of papers, then you can see that many take the form of a two-part manifesto with each person laying out his or her side with a variably visible level of vitriol. At the end of each manifesto, neither side (I’m reducing this to a binary opposition for the sake of the scope of this blog post) has actually listened to the other; instead each has laid out the program to which the other must assent, and any discussion that may occur afterward takes the form of an ad hominem attack, haranguing the person rather than engaging with the argument. After all, each side has its “own opinion,” and refuting an opinion is refuting a person, or at least that’s one way we tend to think about it unconsciously. Here, the attempt at persuasion takes the form of expression: I’ll express my opinion, and you may agree with it. If you don’t agree, then I’ll be ruffled and rally forth any bit of aggression that I can muster to defend myself, my person. Strangely then, the argument-as-expression has an irenic note: you can either agree with me, or you can agree to disagree with me, and we’ll agree to drop the issue.

And I see this same move at academic conferences. The author of a paper, when challenged, will recoil and throw up a shield of expressivism: “well, this is how I see it, and you may disagree.” Or something of that sort. We’ve all heard it. Anyone who shifts, immediately, to a defensive posture when hearing potential criticism of either method, scope, or conclusion takes the argument wholesale as representative of their person, and so any attempt to engage with the argument deliberatively is, instead, a declaration of war against the author.

If any of the above seems to ring true, then what we have here is that what we call “persuasion” is actually the least effective kind of attempt at persuasion. More effective persuasive ventures might not even come off as argumentative but, instead, as expository. After all, at the end of any exposition, you could measure its effectiveness in whether or not the audience understood the explanation or — if I might rephrase — whether or not the audience was convinced that the explanation is good enough.

Conference CartoonLet’s go back to Trish’s son who may still be writing his non-argumentative research paper when I post this missive. The historical research paper does fall into the “narrative” mode of discourse and not the “argument-persuasive” one. But writing a particular narrative history that should be a simple exposition of certain facts arranged either chronologically or thematically makes an argument that “this is how it was.” Summarizing a history isn’t too different than summarizing a story or a poem, but that summarization is truly difficult in that we have to choose what to include and what to leave out. We also have to choose how to convey the facts, and, with each word that we choose, we inevitably assign praise and blame, create heroes, and oversimplify the story. The difficulty of trying to attain a high level of accuracy, to erase ourselves, to efface any argument that would be made is well-articulated in Paul de Man’s phrase: “the debilitating burden of paraphrase.” If the purpose of summary, history, paraphrase, or any “non-persuasive writing” is to achieve an unbiased accuracy, an accuracy free from argument, to tell it like it is or was, then we cannot write, or we must pull ourselves out of the situation and stop considering the reception of the words that we choose in order to free ourselves from that debilitating burden. But is this even possible?

I’d say no. But, more to the point, I say here that constructing assignments that are marked as “persuasive” and made distinct from any other assignment, or even constructing assignments of any type that alienate the piece of writing from its rhetorical situation, leads to bad writing and produces bad writers. Any time I see a syllabus that has an essay on it entitled “Persuasive Paper” or a unit in “Persuasion,” we contribute to the illusion that we can expel argument from language.

And I flinch.

Perhaps you disagree with this underdeveloped crank theory. If you do, respond to me, engage with these ideas — idea that I cannot claim simply to be my own — and deliberate with me rather than argue against me. I invite you.

What the Internet Means and Some Speculations on Why Our Media Culture Tends to Value Aggressive Rhetoric

I want to respond briefly to this really aggressive book review by Evgeny Morozov on Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect: The Case for Progress. The ideas are pretty interesting but my thinking about it concerns its rhetoric, and about why there’s so little room for nuance and qualification and subtlety in a lot of the journalism I read and watch. Here’s Morozov’s summary of Johnson’s book:

Johnson is grappling with the thorny question of what the Internet means. His conclusion, alas, is not very original: the history of the Internet tells us that decentralization is preferable to centralization. And, to quote Steve Jobs, “It just works!” Thus, early Internet protocols were built on the principle of packet switching, whereby the content to be transmitted is broken into packets, which are sent separately from each other and reassembled upon receipt. No centralized authority was needed: the packets could travel through a myriad of different routes independently of each other. The likes of Google and Wikipedia also thrive on decentralization; Google, for example, ranks sites for relevance by studying how sites link to each other. Google’s relevance index, then, emerges out of individual decisions by millions of site-owners; it is not centrally planned.

So for Johnson, the internal logic of the Internet is decentralization, and given the success of things like Google search and Wikipedia, this logic ought to be applied to social, political, and institutional problems: “When a need arises in society that goes unmet our first impulse should be to build a peer network to solve that problem.”

The obvious objection from someone like Morozov, writing for the center-left New Republic, is that Johnson is advocating for a kind of libertarianism, a flattening of institutional hierarchies. But Johnson happens to be on Morozov’s side politically. Johnson wants to preserve big government but have them think in “in newer, Internet-friendlier ways—to have them acknowledge that crowds and networks can be smarter than individuals.”

So what’s Morozov’s angle? It’s that Johnson is blind to the powers of hierarchy, central planning, and expert decision-making. Once he’s formed this axe he begins grinding it against example after example. Johnson cites NYC’s 3-1-1 hotline as a model of decentralization. Morozov replies, 3-1-1 was actually a move to centralize all the 400 different city hotlines. Etc. Etc.

It’s not that Morozov doesn’t have fair objections. It’s that he doesn’t really allow a fair showing of Johnson’s ideas. They’re smothered out by Morozov’s ideological objections. (Turns out Morozov has a book with the subtitle “The Folly of Technological Solutionism,” which makes me wonder about the New Republic’s editorial staff and the point of bringing together two diametrically opposed views such as Morozov-Johnson, other than to be sensationalistic and provocative and sell magazines. OK, so that’s probably it.) The idea of reforming the NEA based on a model like Kickstarter might find many objections. But its implications are at least new (new to me) and worth considering in detail. Wouldn’t a more just and sympathetic review say something nuanced like, Yes, there are good examples of institutions that might benefit from the decentralized logic of the Internet, but there are also examples of institutions that should continue to be hierarchical, and that the important debate is around which institutions could benefit from being structured like the Internet and which would not?

But who would want to read such a nuanced, sympathetic, basically reasonable and decent review? Is the reason that more often than not a lot of the journalism I read and watch tends toward the scathing, toward the “take-down” (a) because it sells? (b) because in a media-glutted context only the most rhetorically barbaric will be read/watched? (c) because if you want your piece to be picked up by the aggregating sites and reach a mass audience it can’t be “soft” but must be fiercely opinionated? (d) because of the general drift of media culture away from “objectivity” and toward “opinion” as evidenced by the rise of MSNBC and FOX News? (e) because essentially reasonable, non-rabid shows like The News Hour are extremely boring in themselves, but become bone-crushingly boring when placed in the context of our entertainment culture? (f) because writing broadsides and absenting from your thought nuance and subtlety is essential to the culture of journalism, has been since its origins and will continue to be?

If you see something, tweet something

I watched the first two presidential debates at my friends’ apartment. Sasha and Sam have a projector and a screen, so watching was a regal affair, like watching a movie, but way more depressing.

The frustration during and after the first debate was intense. I spent most of it looking out the window onto beautiful Sixth Avenue in Brooklyn. If Obama wanted to look down at his notes for what seemed to be 99% of Mitt Romney’s speaking time, I’d stare down and watch the people walking on the street below, wondering how they felt about shirking their civic duty, and whether it would be bad if I shirked mine next time around and caught a movie instead of the debate.

But I did go back to Sasha and Sam’s for the next debate. And one thing I thought about, as I sat back to enjoy the show, was why I was so drawn to following twitter while watching.

It is common currency to bemoan the fact that most people are swayed to an alarming extent by whatever pundits they happen to watch on TV. You are who you watch. And the amazing thing about watching our twitter feeds while watching the first debate was that we saw how quickly the pundits, those very same people who define the majority’s opinion, were deciding on twitter that Obama was eating Romney’s dirt. It took about two minutes, based on the people I follow, for the national story to coalesce. Obama was publicly shaming himself. What was he scribbling that whole time, anyway?

From Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show”

Sam, who also happens to have been Obama’s chief blogger in the 2008 campaign, told us that in a speech he gave a few days ago about social media and elections at Miami University (trickily located in Ohio!) he told the audience that twitter users have a real capacity to sway the election. If the pundits, journalists, academics, and normal-but-witty people who had amassed a twitter audience called the debate for Romney, then Romney would get the headline: Romney won. Since everyone guessed that the second debate would be a closer call, the twittersphere had a real impact. If they uniformly announced that Obama was killing it, then the headline would read: Obama won. And that would sway the polls, cause Romney to falter, backtrack, explain, etc. and give Obama the lead. Call it for Obama two minutes in and save America.

What I actually saw happen on twitter on the night of the second debate was interesting, subtle, and strange. There was continent-sized relief and almost immediately, people were calling it for Obama, but not in a sinister way. They were also calling him on his idiocy (like when he seemed to argue that college students should stop worrying: there are jobs  to be had on the production line!).  They were calling it like it was. If you see something, tweet something.

One question about the twitter/debate combo is, of course, can we watch, listen, process, think, and tweet, or at least watch the twitter stream all at the same time? And does following your twitter stream enhance the experience?

I don’t know if I’d answer this way about every listening experience (the best of the academic talks I go to require every scrap of concentration I can muster; a concert is best attended sans twitter; I can’t imagine ever wanting to tweet or follow twitter at an event I was expecting to find moving, surprising, or deeply meaningful). But watching a debate, which is in many many many (many!) ways a mindless and depressing activity is, I would argue, made manageable, and even fun, by twitter.

I laughed a lot.*

Found buckets of good sense:

I saw my main man Whitman referenced:


Of course, scrolling down twitter is often an onanistic exercise. Doing it, we affirm what we already know or think. We see our funniest, wittiest selves reflected (you, too, can contain multitudes of jokes, memes, witticisms!). And when the next morning’s news comes out, we feel like we had the inside scoop. Of course “binders full of women” is getting hours of news time. We saw it get miles of tweets within seconds of it leaving Romney’s mouth!

It can, though, push us to hear what other people have to say. It depends with whom you populate your twitter feed, to some extent, but even if you’re following mostly like-minded people, there’s always someone who knows something you don’t know, thinks it’s going differently than you think it’s going, or thinks the twitter posts that you find Jon Stewart-worthy are inane. Twitter allows you to settle into yourself comfortably, but it can also startle you out of yourself.

Twitter is, as Doug Henwood suggested on twitter, a hyper-productive cliche production line (with many jobs available for aspiring college grads!).

It has the potential to be an election decider. It’s a sideshow one turns to when the main event promises to be a depressing debacle, no matter how well your horse is doing. It’s a condiment we have come to find necessary to the consumption of a political spectacle.

See you for round three on Monday!

* I promise these tweets were all during the debate (except the Doug Henwood tweet which was the next day). The hours on the side are misleading since I collected them all at varying times the next day.

Competition Piece

In high school, I participated in a large-scale competitive festival of performances by high school drama clubs. This was not the beginning of my interest in theatre-making but it was a turning point for me. The production process was so intense that it was not until I had graduated college and moved to Poland to work with a professional experimental ensemble that I found something to match it.

My high school, Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, was a participant in the Massachusetts High School Drama Guild Festival, which we simply called “Festival.” I remember the competition rules exactly: Each high school sent a forty-minute production to compete. Five minutes were allowed for set-up and for strike. These time limits were strictly enforced and exceeding them meant disqualification. I remember practicing one year, over and over, to ensure the set-up of a fairly massive stage design in under five minutes. Putting up the set was as precisely choreographed as the show itself.

Comic and Tragic Masks: The MHSDG Logo

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Ethics and Politics in the Classroom

Last year I walked to class one day with a student. He told me that where he comes from professors are highly respected and that for him it was an honor to be walking to class with me. He also expressed surprise and curiosity about my being a professor at such a young age, since in his country the title of professor is usually attached to much older people. Finally, with no prompting from me, he began to explain to me why he is a proud Republican.

an honor to be walking

He told me that, as a devout Christian, he would like abortion to be completely outlawed. Furthermore, as an immigrant to this country, he would like all forms of governmental safety net to be abolished, forcing people to work harder and making things “more fair.” Finally he suggested that U.S. society can basically be understood as a conflict between white people and black people in which black people are responsible for most of the problems.

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The National Conversation

One of the points frequently made about Occupy Wall Street is that it has shifted the national conversation by putting income inequality and financial deregulation back on the table. At the same time, one of the most inspiring things about the actual site of Zuccotti Park, and the other Occupy encampments, has been their creation of a forum for open conversation about issues of local and national policy.

But what is the national conversation? Where does it take place? Whose voices are involved? Today I want to ask: Could expanding the national conversation become a focal point for political mobilization? Could activists mobilize around a clear articulation of the need for a more open, engaged, diverse national conversation? Could this be a way to bridge constituencies that currently have a hard time talking to one another?

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Two Social Media Paradoxes

Paradox Number One:  Social media foments revolution, but a sudden removal of social media can increase mobilization and create even more unrest.

We can all stand witness to the ways in which social and news media can spread a movement within and across nations.  I know an Egyptian who claimed that her family and friends knew that the revolution was going to occur in the weeks and days before it actually happened.  How?  Just by the messages on social media and between individuals.  In a similar fashion, social media proposed and flamed the fires of the occupy wall street movement in the weeks before it emerged, grew, and took hold as a real story in mainstream media outlets.

The protest was set to start on the 17th.  At first, there was a kind of silence.  People questioned whether it was happening at all.

Interestingly, Al Jazeera was one of the media outlets which first recognized the plan for a protest.  Other small news organizations online followed the story from September 17th on.  The New York Times City Room blog picked up the story on September 19th, while nothing was put into print until September 25th, when a version of a September 23rd online article titled “Protesters Are Gunning for Wall Street, With Faulty Aim”  and beginning with the sentence “By late morning on Wednesday, Occupy Wall Street, a noble but fractured and airy movement of rightly frustrated young people, had a default ambassador in a half-naked woman who called herself Zuni Tikka,” was published.

Since then the General Assembly of the occupation has released a declaration and the movement has its own subreddit.  However, the lack of specific demands, particularly from the outset, has been seen as a weakness and has led some people to propose their own.

Clearly, social media has played a key role in this movement.  Yet, ultimately, social media doesn’t stray very far from a standard news cycle.  Here are Google searches and news stories for occupy wall street:

(courtesy of Google Trends)

And here are the tweets containing occupywallstreet:

(taken from Trendistic)

The tweets, Google searches, and news reference frequency all have peaks on the first day of the protest, on Sept. 25 when images of pepper spray being used by the NYPD spread and a high number of arrests occured, and on Oct. 1 when 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge.  Eventually, though, whether the movement has succeeded or not, it will fall out of the news cycle and off of people’s radar.  Even though as I type this Egyptians are protesting military rule in Tahrir Square, not many Americans do searches related to Egypt these days:

It’s unfortunate, but it appears that social media news runs alongside the news cycle.  Facebook posts can catch our attention, but only for so long, and what seems to be fueling tweets about the protest are acts of violence rather than its actual rationale.  Also, isn’t there a risk that we are beginning to confuse posting items on Facebook with really exercising our civic duty?  Last week five or more of my friends posted about the execution of Troy Davis, but how many actually took action in contacting local representatives or representatives in Georgia?

In fact, a Yale student recently claimed to have proven that, based on what occurred in Egypt, a “sudden interruption of mass communication accelerates revolutionary mobilization and proliferates decentralized contention.”  A journalist quickly used the study to point out how mass media, even as it spreads consciousness, can create a passive public.

Paradox Number Two:  Social media brings networks of people with like interests together, but in doing so it can create information bubbles.

In May of this year Eli Pariser presented a TED Talk in which he warned about how Google, Facebook, and other online companies use algorithms that customize what information is presented to people based on their individual tastes:

Thus, just by virtue of being ourselves, our internet is filtered.  We go further to filter our own experience when we read websites that cater to our cultural background or to our political interests.  Despite a study which seems to indicate that this personal filtering is not an issue, Bill Davidow and Ethan Zuckerman have argued that online media can give too much attention to extreme groups and views, and that “positive feedback” loops might push us to take more extreme views ourselves.  Eric E. Schmidt, the chief of Google, takes a middle ground view on the issue, acknowledging that for those who don’t know how to curate their own information, the internet can be a breeding ground of ignorance.

In the classroom, discussing and giving assignments that reflect on how media is curated, either invisibly or explicitly, in different contexts (on Wikipedia, in academic journals, on Facebook, in Google Scholar) can give students a wake-up call regarding how they navigate the web (and increasingly, how the web navigates them).