Tag Archives: faculty

Social Media and General Education: My Queens College Presidential Roundtable talk

This week I gave a Presidential Roundtable discussion at Queens College. The talk was titled, somewhat anemically, “Teaching on the Coattails of Text Messages”, though arguably what I was saying didn’t really end up having much to do with text messages! (I justify my being misleading by reference to the fact that the Presidential Roundtable was not in fact a roundtable format.)

The thrust of the talk was that there are important structural similarities between social media like blogs and Twitter (their openness, their relative lack of imposed structure, their focus on audience and emergent conventions, their positioning of the individual as the locus of value and meaning) and the kind of general education that we’re seeking during this year of gen ed reform at QC.

I transcribed the video after the break, mainly so I’d have the text for my own purposes. It’s lightly edited to cut out some of the more egregious ums and ers and actuallys. Video of the talk is below for anyone who is interested. I spoke mostly extemporaneously and said some dumb things, so please be generous in your interpretation!!

Special thanks to Zach Whalen, who generously answered some of my questions about his Graphic Novel class. (And to his students, whose tweets served as fodder!)

Teaching on the Coattails of Text Messages from Boone Gorges on Vimeo.

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Why punish plagiarists?

A recent post at the great philosophy teaching blog In Socrates’ Wake had a reader asking the audience whether, by not automatically giving a student an F for the course after plagiarizing a one-page assignment, he had “gone soft”. Simultaneously, I empathize with the instructor and I am baffled by why I empathize.

In the past I have taken hard stances against plagiarizers, stances which at the time made a lot of sense to me. Like the author and commenters at the ISW post, it seemed to me that plagiarism is the worst kind of crime and deserves the worst kind of punishment. In retrospect, this attitude seems ludicrous. There is a broad spectrum of actions one could reasonably take in reaction to a cheater, ranging from expulsion to doing absolutely nothing. Why is the transition from “hard” to “soft” to be found between failing the course and not failing the course, a consequence that seems to be pretty far toward the severe end of the spectrum?

To shed light on that question, it might help to think about this one: Why should students be punished for plagiarism at all?

Before thinking carefully about this question, it’s really crucial to remember that there are different kinds of plagiarism, and treating them all alike is like claiming that a candy-bar thief should be punished like Bernie Madoff. I want to know whether there is any justification for plagiarism being punished so harshly, so it makes sense to consider the most serious kind of violation. I take it that this would be a student who copies (buys, whatever) an entire paper and passes it off as his own. If any kind of plagiarism is going to warrant harsh treatment, presumably this will be it. Unless otherwise mentioned, then, this is the kind of plagiarism I’m talking about.

That said, let’s consider a few arguments one might give for why plagiarism is a punishable offense.

  1. Plagiarism is cheating, and cheating is unfair to the other players. I take ‘cheating’ to mean ‘breaking the rules’, which is unfair because everyone else has to abide by the rules. But different kinds of cheating are immoral in different ways. Cheating in golf, for instance, is wrong at least partly because my actions have immediate negative ramifications for the other players of the game: I take a stroke off of my game, and you are that much more likely to lose. In golf, what’s good for one person is necessarily bad for the other players (assuming they’re opponents – in fact, this might be a functional definition of what it means to be opponents). The same is not true of plagiarism. Unless you grade on a curve (a practice that a philosopher who is concerned with “fairness” would be hard-pressed to defend, by the way), one student’s cheating his way to an A when he otherwise would have gotten a D does not have a negative effect on other students in the class. You might maintain that students are obligated not do things that their classmates are forbidden to do out of abstract principle, a position that I can imagine various sorts of arguments for. But if the only thing wrong with plagiarism were that it was a violation of an abstract moral principle, it would take a very warped theory of retributive justice to justify such draconian punishment.
  2. Stealing is unfair to the person stolen from. Like in the previous case, “fairness” could be judged along two metrics: the practical and the theoretical. Stealing is often bad in a practical sense. If you steal my Charleston Chew, I no longer get to enjoy it myself. Therefore, :’( . Intellectual “theft” works differently, since the person stolen from hasn’t lost the use of the ideas. Of course, intellectual theft sometimes amounts to material theft, as when a breach of patent costs an inventor lots of money. And a parallel consideration might be at work when we talk about plagiarism in the academic community at large. If Dr X writes a great draft, and Dr Y steals it and publishes it, it could mean that Dr Y beats Dr X out for that Ivy League faculty position. Generally speaking, though, this is not a relevant consideration for student papers. Students – especially undergraduates – are neither publishing their term papers (much less their one-page, low-stakes assignments) nor using their papers to compete with others for jobs. The only situation where I can imagine real harm to the victim of classroom plagiarism is where the victim writes a paper with a great, novel idea or argument, the professor reads two or three plagiarized versions of the same argument before getting to the original, and as a result the professor is less impressed with the argument and gives a lower grade to the originator of the idea.
  3. Plagiarism devalues a degree, which is unfair to classmates. A bit different from the first consideration above, which is concerned more with a single game. This argument has more to do with iteration. If you cheat once and get away with it, other people will realize that cheating is possible; thus more people will cheat; and thus, somehow, everyone’s degree will be worth less; decreasing the value of a non-cheater’s degree through your own cheating is morally wrong; therefore cheating is wrong. (Andy Cullison lays out this argument here.) There are a couple things to notice about this argument. First, the mechanism by which the actual devaluing of the degree come about are not specified, and presumably they’d have to be abstracted away from in order to count out obvious counterexamples where the student could cheat, get away with it, and never let anyone else know about the cheating. Second, this justification for the punishment of plagiarism is less a moral indictment of cheating than of harming other people’s degrees. In the end, this might amount to the same thing, but it does not justify the kind of snooty self-righteousness that tints some instructors’ lectures on plagiarism, which suggests that plagiarism is akin to a mortal sin. As for punishment, you might argue in this case (as Mill does in his wonky “sensitive feeling on the subject of veracity” argument near the end of Chapter 2 in Utilitarianism) that a harsh punishment fits this crime even though the actual consequences of this particular action are relatively small (or non-existent) because the action has the potential to contribute to the weakening of a larger feeling of trust that is so manifestly important. It strikes me that this is the best reason considered so far for punishing plagiarists.
  4. Plagiarism is bad for scholarship/academia/the university. I’ve heard this sort of argument before: if everyone plagiarizes from everyone else, how will any new things be discovered? In one sense this rhetorical question is clearly overblown. Taken more seriously, you might grant that the posting of falsified or plagiarized material in, say, a journal of medicine could end up distracting scientists for several years, thereby diverting valuable research resources. But this argument does not extent to students, who are generally not doing original research, are not publishing, and are not in a position to affect the discipline either positively or negatively.
  5. Plagiarism is so frowned upon in graduate school and the professional world that students must be trained as undergraduates not to plagiarize. In other words, you might grant many of the points I’ve made above, which suggest that plagiarism at the undergraduate level is really not worth punishing in itself, but still think that punishment is prudent so that students are trained not to plagiarize when it really counts. I think there are a couple of limitations on this justification, though. First, it’s not obvious that plagiarism really is all that frowned upon in most of the careers that our students are going to end up in. If I crib the opening paragraph of an earnings statement I’m preparing, who cares as long as it gets the job done? I suspect that relatively few of our students end up in careers – academics, journalism, writing – where plagiarism really is so disdained. Second, I am highly dubious that scaring students shitless is a good way to train them not to plagiarize. If you want to train a dog not to jump on a couch, you use a rolled-up newspaper instead of reason; the same should not be true of students. Even if punishment – in the form of failed assignments, failed courses, or grade deductions – is part of the instructor’s arsenal, it should be proportionate with other, more humane teaching methods.

I take away from these considerations that there are both moral and prudential reasons that justify the punishment of plagiarism. But the assumption that harsher is better that I so often see in instructors appears to me to be far off of the mark. Few would say that you should teach philosophy, or chemistry, or poliical science, or mathematics, by threatening and slapping students. Why teach intellectual honesty that way?

Tensions between disciplinary and media instruction

I’ve been talking with a colleague about coming up with a mission statement for our educational technology program, so as to better position ourselves to assess our successes and failures. We’ve got a ways to go before we’ll have anything approaching a final version, but the brainstorming conversations we’ve had so far have been fruitful. In particular, a conversation we had yesterday gave me a chance to articulate a tension fundamental to the promotion of meaningful ed tech, a tension that had been bouncing around in my head for a while but that I had never formalized. I thought it’d be worthwhile to post it here.

My view is that there are two broad, interrelated reasons for implementing various kinds of technology in the classroom. One, certain kinds of technology can help to achieve the independently existing goals of the course. (For example, blogging in an Intro to Philosophy class might help students get a better introduction to philosophical methods and topics.) Two, it’s independently valuable for students to engage critically with and create content with new media. There are a couple justifications for this second point, I suppose, the more obvious of which is that there’s a vocational advantage to having Google-fu, web savviness, etc. More important, perhaps, the nature of information, and the relationship between information and its producers and consumers, is in significant flux. The more information the internet provides, the more necessity there is for students to develop effective bullshit filters – filters which can only be developed through critical practice with the medium. Moreover, the increasing ease of production (computers, cameras, etc that are cheaper and easier to use; sites like YouTube that allow people to publish and distribute in free and massive ways) means that today’s students could potentially be much greater participants in the creation and dissemination of knowledge than past generations. Part of the educator’s job is to teach students how to harness their creative power for their own good as well as for the greater good.

So I take it as given that there are plenty of justifications, independent of the specific content of a course, for teaching new media literacy. And such literacy can only be taught through practice and iterative reflection. I propose the caveat, though, that one can only become fluent with new media by the right kind of practice. What counts as “right” can vary, but what is definitely not right is to simply do digital versions of analog assignments. If I have my students write traditional, argumentative papers, and then post them on a website, I am just porting an analog assignment to a digital medium. When they add videos or hyperlinks or a comment section or a “tweet this” button, only then are they engaging with features of the native features of the medium that set it apart from what they’d do on paper.

From this I conclude that an educational use of a technology isn’t independently beneficial unless the use engages the meaningful or “native” features of the medium enabled by the technology. Instructional technologists, if they are to be advocates for the most effective uses of tech in learning, should therefore be advocating for native uses.

Here’s the tension. “Native” uses of ed tech – uses that are typified by a real engagement with the features of the technology that set it apart from different media – are, at least prima facie, exactly the kinds of uses that instructors will and should resist. Most instructors I’ve talked with see the instructional goals of their class as primarily disciplinary. Broader benefits, like the kind of media literacy I’ve urged here, are nice, but distinctly secondary, considerations. And the problem with the desire to teach your discipline first is that your sense of what counts as good disciplinary instruction is determined by the state of your discipline in general. Take philosophy as an example. With few exceptions, what constitutes quality philosophical work is linear, text-only, relatively long-form prose. The bodies which are de facto responsible for setting the standard for philosophical legitimacy – journal editors; tenure, promotion, and hiring committees; graduate school professors; etc. – reward this kind of work nearly exclusively. The ramifications for the philosophy instructor are that (a) in the absence of alternative motives, the production of traditional philosophical works is the end goal when training budding philosophers, and (b) the means for achieving the goal of traditional philosophers will mirror the results that we desire to achieve – in other words, the only way to produce a student who’s good at writing traditional philosophy is to have them write traditional philosophy.

What it boils down to is that the instructor who focuses on disciplinary goals is, at least at first glance, beholden to the traditional disciplinary methods to get there. And since those traditional methods are necessarily at odds with “native” uses of instructional technology (because in order to be native, a use must engage in a critical way with a feature of the medium that sets it apart from traditional media), disciplinary instruction seems almost incompatible with new media literacy instruction.

I have a few ideas about how the cycle might be broken. One is that the de facto standards of excellence in a discipline are de facto only, and if we examine what we really value in (say) a good philosopher, we’ll see that the traditional medium is not critical. Another is that traditional disciplinary excellence can and should be taught by methods other than simply aping the greats – in other words, it might not be the case that writing a lot of traditional philosophy texts is not the best way to make a better writer of traditional philosophy texts. Whatever the response to the tension I’ve described above, it is crucial to respond to it if instructional technology is to be able to fulfill both its goal of enabling disciplinary ends and striving for increased student facility with new media.

The ethics of Turnitin, or How I Learned To Stop Detecting Plagiarism

Yesterday I was feeling sorry for myself with regard to Turnitin and the like. I ended up having an interesting discussion with @LanceStrate, @mattthomas, and @KelliMarshall about the ethics surrounding plagiarism detection service. It got me to thinking about why it bothers me.

My gut feeling is this: Turnitin, SafeAssign et al make big bucks off of their database. More papers scanned means a bigger database; bigger database means (in theory) better plagiarism detection; better detection means (in theory) more value and more profit. Forcing students to relinquish their papers to this machine feels exploitative.


John Stuart Mill – Awesome Guy | cc licensed flickr photo shared by netNicholls

But I wonder why this bothers me. I have no problem feeding different kinds of information-gathering machines. Take Google. I use Gmail, Google Reader, Google Calendar, and google.com extensively. The more I use these services, the more information they gather about my online activities; bigger database means better ad targeting; better targeting means more value and more profit. My “stuff” – information about me, writing I produce, records of my activity, etc. – is not sacrosanct. I’m willing to give it up in some cases.

So what’s the difference? Most obviously, I am choosing to use Google’s products in a way that students are not asking to use Turnitin. I will grant that there are different levels of “forcedness”, as @LanceStrate points out. Students can opt out of a class, or out of school in general. And if instructors make the Turnitin requirement explicit in the syllabus on the first day of class (or earlier), students will be reasonably well-informed about what they will be “forced” to do. But no matter how you conceive of the spectrum of requirement, the fact remains that my use of Google is far freer than students’ use of Turnitin.

That a professor requires students to do certain things that they wouldn’t otherwise do is not, in itself, an indictment of the requirement. I doubt that my own students would write about the Nicomachean Ethics if their grade didn’t depend on it. But, in this case, I as an instructor am obligated to exercise my power in a responsible way. (Heavy is the head that wears the crown.) Requirements should not be arbitrary, but should serve the goals of the class and the best interest of the students. Requiring a paper on Aristotle has negative effects on students – it takes away from the time and energy they could be spending on other things that are valuable to them – and it’s my responsibility to ensure that these negative effects are outweighed by the benefits bestowed by such an assignment. A well thought-out term paper assignment will, in the long run, have positive utility for the student.

Is the same true for plagiarism detection? Are the negative effects of such technologies (being forced to enrich a corporate entity, losing control over one’s intellectual property, feeling a presumption of one’s own guilt in the absence of supporting evidence) outweighed by some benefits? It’s at this point in the thought process that the pedagogical implications of Turnitin should be considered.

  • Is Turnitin good at detecting plagiarism? My experience says: Not really. While Google’s database doesn’t include as many student papers as Turnitin’s, Turnitin is in turn pretty awful at identifying plagiarism from the open web. Thoughtful reading and Googling has been more effective for me. I’d like to see data on the larger trends, though – for example, what percentage of student copying comes from the open web (Google’s domain) versus for-sale paper databases.
  • How much harm does “plagiarism” really do? This is really the more important question. Even if it turns out that Turnitin is very, very good at plagiarism detection, there is very little benefit from the software’s use if it turns out that plagiarism, as defined, isn’t really that harmful. This question is tough to answer, though. For one thing, there are lots of different kinds of plagiarism, certain kinds of which are more harmful than others. A student who copies a paper wholesale from Wikipedia is doing more harm than one who synthesizes a coherent paper from a bunch of different sources, or one who fails to cite a paraphrased argument. Surely the second and third students are getting more out of the assignment than the first. Furthermore, I have an untested gut feeling that the most harmful types of plagiarism – where a student steals wholesale – are easier to detect without using Turnitin, since they’re more likely not to be even approximately in the student’s voice or level of expertise. If this is right, then it might be the case that Turnitin is most necessary for the least harmful varieties of “plagiarism” – varieties whose ethical implications, some might argue, ought to be reassessed in light of how new technologies are affecting knowledge creation. (Too big a topic to address here, but you get the idea.)
  • Are there less troubling alternatives to Turnitin? Let’s grant that Turnitin is very good at detecting plagiarism, and that plagiarism is hugely pernicious. All things being equal, if we could avoid plagiarism by means that have less of a downside, we should choose those other means. In my experience (again, I have no comprehensive data to back this up), the answer is yes, there are far better ways. @KelliMarshall suggests assigning unique paper prompts, making plagiarism more difficult. I’ve found that the scaffolding of assignments – such that students write early, write often, and write in a low-stakes milieu – is extremely effective at lowering the tempation to plagiarize. To be more specific: When students are writing in journals or blogs – spaces where they are not harshly graded – and when their formal assignments allow students to pull from and build upon the ideas that they’ve already put to paper(/bits), cheating simply doesn’t happen very often. That initial moment – when a student sits down at the computer the night before the due date, not having written a single word, not knowing where to start, and copying out of desparation – is averted altogether. In the semesters I’ve used blogs and structured assignments in this way, I’ve had to deal with plagiarism maybe once per semester (out of 70+ students writing hundreds of papers). Another thing that’s worked really well for me is having frank discussions with students about why plagiarism is so demonized in academia in the first place (perhaps this conversation is a little more justified in an Ethics course). When they understand the motivations, and are not simply handed seemingly (and perhaps actually?) arbitrary rules about the Evils Of Plagiarism, they’re more likely to grok.

On balance, then, it seems to me that there is very little, if anything, to be gained from Turnitin et al that cannot be gained through other, less harmful means. Now I have to work up the guts to start sending links to this post whenever a faculty member asks me how to do plagiarism detection! But I suppose my lack of intestinal fortitude is a topic for another blog post.

Nudging faculty toward paperlessness

I was included on an email sent recently by the VP of our school’s student association regarding the newly implemented pay-to-print policy. The student association is not happy with the policy, and their reasons were good: it’s not so much that students want to print, but instead that their professors require them to print. The email was a reminder to me that, at least in this particular area, it’s not students who are resisting change.

On this note, I’m planning some faculty development for the spring semester related to the idea of paperless teaching. I need to do some brainstorming as to what this means. So here goes:

  • Readings that have, in the past, been photocopied and distributed, should be distributed electronically. There are some procedural challenges here, though. Digitization itself is increasingly easy. More and more, I think faculty members are getting things from online databases, so that no digitization is needed. When the original is on paper and needs to be photocopied, more and more of our copy machines have scan-to-PDF functionality. So faculty need some guidance on using this functionality.

    Where to upload things for distribution? This is one area where Blackboard has some real advantages. For one, Bb courses are set up automatically, and so there’s no real setup on my part. Access is limited to those enrolled in the class, which is (lamentably, perhaps) required by copyright considerations.

    In cases where faculty members use Blackboard to distribute readings to students, it should be made explicit that printing is not required. A brief discussion early in the semester regarding the readings and how best to approach them is a good idea in any class, and considerations of paper vs. non-paper reading could be part of that.

  • Assignments comprise another class of tree-killers. Faculty who adopt wholly online assignments like blogs and wikis for the pedagogical benefits get paperlessness as a bonus. More traditional assignments – essays, journals, and the like – can be collected electronically in a variety of ways: with a Blackboard Assignment, Turnitin (or SafeAssign or whatever it is in Blackboard 8), as attachments to email, as postings to a blog or discussion board (where privacy is not an issue). Faculty members might need a little bit of help dealing with the different kinds of file formats coming in, but many will already be used to downloading and viewing various kinds of documents.

    Grading these electronic assignments can be a little bit trickier. I personally like grading papers with the Track Changes feature in Word or Record Changes in OpenOffice.org or whatever. The big downside of this is that, in order for your students to be able to read your comments, they’re going to need this particular software, or at least a compatible reader – which is a dangerous supposition when you use commercial software like MS Office at a demographically diverse public university like ours. Tablet computers offer an alternative, especially for those faculty members who like to mark papers full of circles and arrows. The problem with tablets is the overhead, though – they aren’t cheap.

How are you trying to move away from paper in your teaching, or in your faculty’s teaching? How do you convince individuals who have been trained to use paper over their entire careers that there are practical benefits to going electronic? Is it even possible to move our current kinds of curriculum, which are so deeply rooted in paper, to the digital realm? Or will the change only happen when the course materials and assignments move away from the old paper metaphors?

<3 Research and teaching <3

I’ve been reading the comments on this post at Brian Leiter’s blog (via Sympoze). It’s been exhausting on several levels. If you read a few of the comments for yourself, I think you’ll understand why.

Together at last - via <a href=Of particular interest to me is the explicit invocation (here and here, among other places) of the distinction between research and teaching, and between departments where one or the other of these practices is emphasized. What’s the connection between the two?

Practically speaking, someone who wants to do philosophical research and is not independently wealthy must, in the vast majority of cases, teach as well. Likewise, someone who wants to teach philosophy to undergraduates must, in the vast majority of cases, go through a very research-centric graduate education and, if he wants eventual job security, engage in research for the purpose of publication. Are these connections de jure or merely de facto? Are there principled reasons why there should be such intricate links between teaching- and research-based careers, or are the connections the result of historical and economic accident?

I thought I’d try to articulate some of the ties between teaching philosophy and doing philosophical research. Feel free to jump in if you can think of any more.

Why researchers must teach

  • The most obvious explanation is that philosophy (alas!) doesn’t pay: original philosophical research typically doesn’t make the NYT best-seller list, and the market for philosophers to the royal court is depressingly lackluster. Universities need people to teach philosophy, and practicing philosophers are a captive work pool. If this were the only explanation for why philosophers teach then we would certainly say that the combined vocation is an economic accident.
  • I’ve had a few classes in graduate school that were built around a draft of a book being written by the professor. The class works like a testing ground for the draft. The philosopher thus gets to use his teaching in order to advance and improve his work. So this is a reason why teaching might be useful to a practicing philosopher.
  • More generally speaking, it might be argued that teaching – including the process of explaining something you know well to a bunch of people who don’t know it all that well – enhances one’s own understanding of, and ability to articulate, what one knows or believes. This explanatory skill is important for the writer of philosophy.
  • Philosophical researchers presumably care about the health of the discipline of philosophy, and in particular the future health of the discipline. The future of philosophy is dependent on future philosophers, and future philosophers come from the general student pool. Thus philosophers have a vested interest in making sure that at least these students get a decent philosophical training. (The big premise here is that philosophers care about the discipline as a whole. I wonder how true this actually is.)

I might note in passing that these last three reasons explain why philosophers ought to want to teach, while the first reason explains why philosophers are required to teach. If the benefits gleaned from the “ought to want” category could be guaranteed in a different way, then it’s hard to see how there is any necessary connection between research and teaching in this direction.

Why teachers must research

  • In order to teach effectively, you must have a certain mastery of your subject (or, at least, there has to be a certain differential between your mastery and your students’). Mastery in philosophy comes down to the ability to read texts, understand problems, construct arguments, and so on. These skills are best developed through the kinds of research that philosophers do. So research is good job training.
  • One of the reasons why philosophy is taught widely is to locate and train the next generation of philosophical researchers. Instructors with no knowledge of how philosophical research is done won’t be able to spot potential philosophers and hone them for the field.
  • More broadly, doing philosophy in a classroom is not really that different from doing philosophy in the armchair. You’re still reading those texts and still constructing those arguments. The practice of teaching philosophy might be a somewhat watered-down version of “real” research, but it’s not fundamentally different. If you want to be able to teach philosophy, you need to be able to do philosophy, since teaching and doing philosophy are essentially the same thing and, you know, the indiscernability of identicals. (The immediate problem I see with this is that teaching old arguments is crucially different from developing new arguments, at least from the point of view of the teacher’s epistemic states. Contributing something new to the debate, as researchers do, is generally something altogether over and above the argumentation that is done in classrooms.)

It’s hard to draw a definitive conclusion from these considerations. All things being equal, the more de jure connections you can point to between philosophical research and philosophical teaching, the more justified the de facto connection between the two vocations becomes. On the other hand, it remains an open question whether there might be other models for philosophers: a way for individuals to do research outside of the university, a way for individuals to teach philosophy without the rigors of a research-based education. Since people come to philosophy for different reasons, wouldn’t it make sense to have different career paths?

Necessary smarm

I just finished drafting an email to be sent to faculty, inviting them to use our Movable Type blogs in their classrooms during the Spring semester. Writing these sorts of general-audience appeals is tough. The language we’ve used in the past has felt kind of smarmy and usedcarsalesmanesque to me. Check out this Incredible program we’ve got going on! Imagine all the Amazing things you can get out of it! And boy, do we Provide Support! I tried scrapping the whole thing and starting from scratch, but gave up and used a slightly modified version of the old pitch.

My discomfort with the whole thing comes from a couple sources. For one, I don’t particularly like the idea of selling the technology. The blogging initiative is housed within the Writing Across the Curriculum program, and with good reason – student blogs are only valuable insofar as they provide some benefit to the goals of the course, which usually ends up having something to do with writing. So there’s a sense in which I’d like the email to say “Do you want your students to accomplish academic goals x, y, and z? Here is a tool for you!” But this kind of pitch feels disingenuous, making the tech tool sound like a magic elixir that will simply, you know, “get the job done”.

At the same time, if I scale back the rhetoric and talk in more measured terms about the kind of benefits that students might get from blogging, I’ll probably limit my audience. Faculty members get a ton of requests to try new things, and if my request is riddled with conditionals and hedges, it’s not clear that it will shine through as something worth doing. The only people who will be persuaded by that kind of talk are people who are already warm to the ideas I’m pushing – the “low-hanging fruit”, as a colleague of mine once called these faculty members. And while there’s nothing wrong with this low-hanging fruit, I want to broaden the base of bloggers a bit each semester.

In the end, I rationalize the smarmy sales pitch to myself as follows. The point of the pitch is to get them in the door, thinking about what blogging is, and maybe giving it an earnest try in their classes. The benefit for their teaching, if there is one, will make itself apparent, regardless of whether this benefit is as Incredible and Amazing (or perhaps totally Different From) what was “promised” in the original pitch. I don’t think this makes me cynical, I think it makes me pragmatic. Or at least I hope so.

Does Facebook promote bad rhetorical skills?

I had an interesting conversation last night regarding using Facebook to communicate with students. There are lots of interesting aspects of this question, many of them of a practical type (how can I keep my students from seeing pictures of me getting drunk?) with practical answers (learn to use privacy settings). My sense is that if you could survey professors who are uneasy with the idea of Facebooking with their students, this would be the most prevalent cause for concern.

Much more interesting to me, though, is a different kind of worry, this one tied to the educational goals of the academy. The communication that happens in Facebook, the argument goes, is brief (think status updates), unnuanced, unsensitive to audience, overly informal. The communicative style that we want to teach our students, on the other hand, is nuanced and professional, both because this kind of communication is intrinsically better (whatever that might mean) and because it’s the kind of communication that they will have to be fluent in in order to flourish in the real world.

The motivation here seems right: we want to teach our students to be communicators who are sensitive to voice and audience and thus more likely to be successful. That said, there’s nothing inherent to Facebook that precludes this kind of conduct. I might even argue that the fact that students typically use the medium in non-academic ways makes it even more valuable as a teaching tool. In the “real world”, the division between professional and non-professional communication does not fall neatly along the lines that delineate media; telephone calls, emails, and face-to-face interactions are all used both for talking shop and for informal purposes. What students need to learn is not that certain media are appropriate for certain kinds of exchanges, but rather how to adapt to different kinds of exchanges regardless of the medium. Using Facebook to communicate with students is a potentially fertile ground for these lessons.

The distinction between “professional” and “non-professional” exchanges is bunk anyway. Even the idea that there is a continuum from totally formal communication to totally informal communication oversimplifies the matter. Relationships differ along all sorts of various dimensions, and to paint a caricature of this to students is both dishonest and self-defeating.

This isn’t to say that spaces like Facebook don’t provide any new rhetorical challenges. It’s hard to find a non-web-2.0 analog for status updates: brief, frequent messages that are sent to an entire network of individuals with whom you have different kinds of relationships. But this too is a teaching opportunity. Students should understand the quasi-public nature of these messages, and the technological means of making them less public if they wish.

It’s an open question whether it’s a good idea for any given professor to use this medium to communicate with students. But to rule it out across the board doesn’t seem right either, at least not for the reasons I talk about here.