Monthly Archives: December 2008

Blatz, venison, and the dreaded “What do you do for a living” question

It’s always been tough explaining to my family what I do. ‘Student’ they understand; ‘graduate student’ is easy enough by extension. ‘Philosophy’ is hit-and-miss. While the folk (i.e. my folks) has an sense that philosophy involves far-out, abstract thinking (and maybe a pipe and leather elbow patches), it’s harder to grasp what it means to write a dissertation on the subject. Trying to explain the specific nature of the problems I’m interested in, or even how my subdiscipline is delineated, is a non-starter. It takes lots of setup for the problems to make sense, and lots of persuasion to convince that the problems are worthy of a research program. This is either a testament to the erudite nature of philosophy, the pointlessness of philosophy, or my ineptitude as an explainer. (I am indifferent between these possibilities.)


Fridge-o-Blatz: taken at a more carefree moment in my life

I had a new spiel this Christmas Eve, trying to explain my new job as an
educational technologist. In some ways it’s easier. When I tell them that it has to do with computers they usually glaze over and that’s that. (Unlike, incidentally, when I tell people that I’m doing philosophy and they really want to engage in a philosophical discussion with me. Seriously, what is up with that? I just want to drink this Blatz and eat this venison sausage and not think about Kripke for like ten minutes.) Of course, when I try to dodge the question with the “work with computers” line, I’m sure the position they imagine is something very different from what I actually do (they probably envision the administrator that Jim Groom describes here). Does it make me cynical that I don’t care to disillusion them? Seriously, I just want to drink this Blatz and eat this venison sausage and not think about pedagogy for like ten minutes.

I’m curious to know how other people deal with the “What do you do?” question, when “what you do” is not well-defined by the kinds of categories familiar to, say, my grandfather.

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.