Tag Archives: rhetoric

Freedom of Speech in the Classroom

by Steve O’Boyle

I'm Feeling Lucky!

I’m Feeling Lucky!

At no other time in history have people had access to more information than in the current era. Within seconds we can become pseudo-experts on most any topic, from Satanism to Zen, from the Kama Sutra to Lollapalooza and or even an upbeat biopic of Leonard Cohen (say it like co-en, then it works). This is not news to you (or at least I hope it’s not), but it is an important yet puzzling piece to recent controversies concerning freedom of speech in the classroom.

In the past year, there have been several incidents where university professors have been sanctioned for the words that they used in their classrooms while attempting to explain academic ideas. One incident that made national headlines involved a highly regarded sociologist named Patti Adler, a full Professor at the University of Colorado.

Patti Adler.

Dr. Patti Adler.

In her intro-level Deviance in U.S. Society class, Dr. Adler spiced up her lecture on prostitution with “a skit in which many of Adler’s teaching assistants dress[ed] up as various types of prostitutes. The teaching assistants portrayed prostitutes ranging from sex slaves to escorts, and described their lifestyles and what led them to become prostitutes” (DailyCamera).

Adler is described in the article as having an unorthodox and engaging teaching style. “Students recounted how Adler showed up in class in a bikini to illustrate deviance or dressed as a homeless person to make the same point.” However, the prostitution lecture got—well, some negative attention—and at the time the article went to press, it looked like Dr. Adler was at risk of being forced into early retirement over the controversy. She was in jeopardy of losing her job for trying to teach her students in a way that was engaging, entertaining, and most of all, memorable. That is to say, for trying to do her job.

Prostitution skit in Adler's class.

Prostitution skit in Adler’s Deviance class.

I do realize that some of you may not think this is a big deal, but as someone who teaches sociology at UNCG—a discipline that includes an entire area devoted to social deviance—well, as my old not-very-good mechanic used to say about my POS Jeep, “Man, this is troublematic…”

So if we offend a student in class—not directly of course, but by making them feel uncomfortable while trying to teach them important ideas—we might be severely sanctioned for this? Knowledge that is controversial, and can take a student out of their comfort zone, is off limits?

Do I have your attention yet?

Do I have your attention yet?

Students are now exposed to more controversial envelope-pushing cultural ideas and images than ever before, and at much younger ages (scholars call this phenomenon “the internet”). So I find it a bit perplexing that these kids—who could never understand a teenager’s absolute thrill of finding their parents’ porno mags in the sock drawer, but (or perhaps because) they can now google any sex act and have a “how-to” video before their eyes in seconds (and long before their first real date)—these students are so much more savvy than I ever was at their age, but now I have to watch what I say more than ever in the classroom?!

And to complicate things further, because of the limitless access they have grown up with (and the seconds-long attention span that accompanies it), it takes more effort than ever to keep the attention of these Millenials without grabbing their attention—with ideas and language that wakes them the #@%$ up, and stops them from just sitting there in class half asleep, hoping whoever they’re trying to hook up with will respond to their inane text with a “k”…

"wnt 2 hookup l8r?"

“n class. bored. wnt 2 hookup l8r?”

So what to do? I’m going to follow the advice university counsel Skip Capone gave a few years back, after some legal challenges at other institutions—some of them blatantly political (here’s a link to the slide show, which is clearly dated).

My CYA strategy? Define germane to the class, then when comes the time to talk about the touchy stuff, refer them back to that term. Then show them the link from the controversial stuff (i.e., the fun stuff), directly to how it relates—or is germane—to the academic topic. Finally, address the class with “so do you see the connection here?” When they say “yes,” you’re covered.

Shut Down

by Matt McKinnon

About a month and a half ago, I agreed—as part of my job—to write a contribution for the BLS blog, due by October 6th, and to be published shortly thereafter.  I agreed to this based on my understanding of what my job is, what it entails, the compensation I receive as a BLS instructor, and my belief that a community only works when its members participate in just that: a “communio” or sharing, from the Latin “union with.”  I made this agreement in good faith and free from constraint.  And, though some might argue this point, I made it being in sound mind and body.

But the situation has changed.


(The first image would be here if I were not shut down.)

I am not happy with the present way in which the elected officials of the State for whom I work have conducted business regarding the educational system within which I work.  In short, I disapprove of the massive cuts to higher education that the North Carolina State Legislature has made over the past several years.

Never mind that these folks have been duly elected by a legal process and have conducted this business in a manner consistent with the Constitutions of both the State and the Nation.

Never mind that “legal” does not necessarily mean “fair.”

Never mind that there are regular procedures in place to check the manner in which they do this business—that there is constitutional recourse to persuade, recall, impeach, or merely vote them out of office at the next election.

Never mind that what they have done is now “law”—and has become “law” in a legal and constitutional manner.

Never mind all of this because…well, I just do not agree with them or their “law.”

(The second image would be here if I was not shut down.)

(The second image would be here if I were not shut down.)

And while I adhere to the principle that writing a blog entry is part  of my job, and that I have a duty to myself, to my institution, and to my students to faithfully execute the duties of my job, I have another principle that outweighs all of these:

If I do not get what I want, then I shut down.

(The third image would be here if I was not shut down.)

(The third image would be here if I were not shut down.)

At this point, I am not even sure what would make me not shut down.  Or stop shutting down.  Or start back up.

At this point, I am not even sure what I hope to get out of shutting down.  Other than the shut down itself.

But none of that matters.

Because I have shut down.

So, until further notice—until an agreement can be reached that satisfies the righteousness of my indignation at the manner in which duly-elected officials representing the State by whom I am employed have conducted business in a lawful and constitutional and regular manner—until then, there will be no blog contribution.

I will not fulfill this part of my job.  I have deemed it “non-essential.”

There will be no witticisms or anecdotes about me, my classes, my life, or my family.

There will be no funny or interesting or bizarre pictures to punctuate my points.

There will be no weblinks to follow for more information—at least none supplied by me.

There will be none of this.

Because I am shut down.

(The fourth image would be here if I was not shut down.)

(The fourth image would be here if I were not shut down.)

Of course, by shutting down and writing about how I am shutting down, I am still, technically, fulfilling some of my responsibilities and thus doing my job.  Therefore, I will continue to be paid and will continue to accept and spend my paycheck.

After all, shutting down is hard work.

“So, You Pastor a Church?”

by Matt McKinnon

I'm no pastor and I don't play one on TV.

I’m no pastor, and I don’t play one on TV.

It’s a question I used to get all the time, mostly from me and my wife’s family members.  Good, God-fearing folks (for the most part) who simply assumed that devoting one’s professional life to the study of religion must mean being a pastor—since “religion” must be synonymous with “church.”  Why else would someone spend upwards of eight years in school (after undergrad?!) studying various religions and even languages few people on earth still use?

And while one of my three degrees in religious studies is from a non-denominational “divinity” school (Yale) and my doctorate from a Roman Catholic university (Marquette), my degrees themselves are academic, preparations for scholarship in the academy and not the pulpit.  But that still hasn’t stopped folks from asking the above question, and has also led to invitations to offer prayer at family gatherings, read scripture at special events, and even give short homilies when the situation arises.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being a pastor, or priest, or imam, or rabbi.  Plenty of good folks are in these lines of work, many of whom I have studied alongside of in pursuing my education.  My wife’s cousin, in fact, is a Baptist preacher—a wonderful man who is much more qualified to pray and preach and—God forbid—counsel folks than me.  So the problem is not my disdain for this profession: the problem is that it is not my profession.

But the real issue here is not what I do but rather the underlying problem that most folks have in understanding exactly what “religious studies” does—and how it is different from “theology” and the practice of religion.

This was never as clear as in the recent Fox News interview of religious studies scholar Reza Aslan about his new book on Jesus, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”


Lauren Green

Lauren Green

Never mind that Fox religion correspondent Lauren Green gives a horrible interview, spending much more time on what critics have to say about Aslan’s book than on the book itself.  For while this may be bad, even worse is that it becomes painfully clear that she probably has not read the book—and may have not even perused even the first two pages.  But what is most troubling here is that the RELIGION CORRESPONDENT for a major news network is working with the same misunderstandings and ignorance of what exactly religious studies is and what religious studies scholars do as regular folks who are not RELIGION CORRESPONDENTS.


Aslan’s Zealot

Her assumption is that the story here, the big scoop, the underlying issue with Aslan’s book about Jesus is that…the author is a Muslim.  And not just a Muslim, but one who used to be a Christian.  Despite Aslan’s continued attempts to point out that he has a PhD in religious studies, has been studying religions for over twenty years, and has written many books dealing with Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and even Hinduism, Ms. Green cannot get past what she—and many of his critics—see as the real issue: he is a Muslim writing a “controversial” book about Jesus—the “founder” of Christianity as she calls him.

Now I put “controversial” in quotations because, as anyone even remotely aware of scholarship on Christianity knows, the most “controversial” of his claims are nothing new: scholars since the 19th century have been coming to many of the same conclusions that Aslan has come to.  And I put “founder” in quotations as well, since these same folks even tangentially aware of New Testament scholarship know that Jesus himself lived and died a Jew, and never “founded” a new religion.

Dr. Reza Aslan

Dr. Reza Aslan

Not being aware of any of this is not really the problem, but rather a symptom of the bigger issue: Ms. Green, like many folks, simply does not understand what the discipline of religious studies is, or what religious studies scholars do.  So why would she be aware of information that is common knowledge for any undergrad who has sat through a survey course on the introduction to religion at a mainstream college or university?

Except that, uh, she is the RELIGION CORRESPONDENT for a major news network, and would thus benefit from knowing not just about the practice of religion, but about the way it is studied as well.

Now, my own mother has been guilty of this (though she’s no RELIGION CORRESPONDENT), one time explaining to me why she would rather have a class on Buddhism, for example, taught by a practicing Buddhist, or on Islam by a practicing Muslim.  And here we have the crux of the problem: for the role of a scholar is not simply to explain what folks believe or what a religion teaches, though that is part of it.  The role of a scholar is also to research and discover if what a religion says about something has any historical veracity or is problematic or even inconsistent.  Our role is to apply critical analysis to our subjects, the same way a scholar of English Literature or Russian History or Quantum Physics would.

Scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, have argued that there are two competing and contradictory creation stories in Genesis, that the book of Isaiah was composed by at least three authors, that the genealogical narratives in Matthew and Luke disagree, and that Paul only actually composed about half of the letters in the New Testament that bear his name.  And you will find all of these ideas routinely taught in secular state schools like UNCG as well as mainstream seminaries like Princeton and Wake Forest.

It just doesn’t matter what one’s religion is, or even if they have one.  Some of the best and most reliable books on New Testament subjects have been written by Roman Catholics, Protestants, atheists, Jews, Women, and yes, even Muslims.  One’s personal religion simply has no place in scholarship, anymore than being a Christian or Jew or Muslim would affect the way that a biologist studies cells or an astronomer studies space.

Scholarly Books about Jesus

Scholarly Books about Jesus

One’s religion, or lack thereof, may point someone in certain directions and may inform what interests him or her—and may even make what they do a vocation or calling.  It may inform their training and influence their methodologies.  Or it may not.  But it doesn’t make them qualified to study one religion or prevent them from studying another.  One’s training—including those degrees that Dr. Aslan pointed out—is what does that.

As my first religion professor Henry Levinson (a Festive-Naturalist Jew who didn’t hold the traditional concept of God adhered to by his religion) often put it: “It doesn’t take one to know one; it takes one to be one.”

Dr. Henry Levinson

Dr. Henry Levinson

Religious studies scholars are trying to “know” religions and religious people, not “be” them, for that is something tangential at best to our roles as scholars.

So this should be the official motto of all religious studies scholarship, where what one’s religion “is” has no bearing on the quality of the scholarship they do.

Anything less is not scholarship.

It’s simply propaganda.

What Should We Learn in College? (Part II)

by Wade Maki

In my last post I discussed comments made by our Governor on what sorts of things we should, and shouldn’t, be learning in college. This is a conversation going on across higher education. Of course we should learn everything in college, but this goal is not practical as our time and funds are limited. We are left then to prioritize what things to require of our students, what things will be electives, and what things not to offer at all.

One area we do this prioritization in is “general education” (GE), which is the largest issue in determining what we learn in college. Some institutions have a very broad model for GE that covers classic literature, history, philosophy, and the “things an educated person should know.” Exactly what appears on this list will vary by institution with some being more focused on the arts, some on the humanities, and others on social sciences. The point being that the institution decides a very small core for GE.

The drawback to a conscribed model for GE is that it doesn’t allow for as much student choice. The desire for more choice led to another very common GE system often referred to as “the cafeteria model” whereby many courses are offered as satisfying GE requirements and each student picks preferences for a category. This system is good for student choice of what to learn, but it isn’t good if you want a connected “core” of courses.

In recent years there has been a move to have a “common core” in which all universities within a state would have the same GE requirements. This makes transfers easier since all schools have the same core. However, it also tends to limit the amount of choice by reducing the options to only those courses offered at every school. In addition, it eliminates the local character of an institution’s GE (by making them all the same), which also reduces improvements from having competing systems (when everyone does it their own way, good ideas tend to be replicated). If we don’t try different GE systems on campuses then innovation slows.


No matter which direction we move GE, we still have to address the central question of “what should we learn?” For example, should students learn a foreign language? Of course they should in an ideal world, but consider that foreign language requirements are two years.  We must compare the opportunity costs of that four course requirement (what else could we have learned from four other courses in say economics, psychology, science, or communications?). This is just one example of how complicated GE decisions can be. Every course we require is a limitation on choice and makes it less likely that other (non-required) subjects will be learned.

As many states look at a “common core” model there is an additional consideration which is often overlooked.  Suppose we move to a common core of general education in which most students learn the same sorts of things.  Now imagine your business or work environment where most of your coworkers learned the same types of things but other areas of knowledge were not learned by any of them. Is this preferable to an organization where its already employed educated members learned very little in common but have more diverse educational backgrounds? I suspect an organization with more diverse education employees will be more adaptable than one where there are a few things everyone knows and a lot of things no one knows.


This is my worry about the way we are looking to answer the question of what we should learn in college. In the search for an efficient, easy to transfer, common core we may end up:

  1. Having graduates with more similar educations and the same gaps in their educations.
  2. Losing the unique educational cultures of our institutions.
  3. Missing out on the long term advantage of experimentation across our institutions by imposing one model for everyone.

Not having a common core doesn’t solve the all of the problems, but promoting experiments through diverse and unique educational requirements is worth keeping. There is another problem with GE that I can’t resolve, which is how most of us in college answer the question this way: “Everyone should learn what I did or what I’m teaching.” But that is a problem to be addressed in another posting. So, what should we learn in college?

What Should we Learn in College? (Part I)

by Wade Maki

Recently Governor McCrory made some comments on William Bennett’s radio show about higher education. These comments got a lot of people’s attention and not necessarily the good kind. Before reading any comments on what someone else has said it is best to check out the original source. To that end, I suggest listening to the entire segment of the Governor on the show (which you can download as an MP3 here).

Governor Pat McCrory

Governor Pat McCrory

Several comments were made regarding higher education including the importance an education has in getting a job, the shortage of certain kinds of training (welding), and the surplus of workers in other kinds of education (including gender studies, philosophy, and Swahili). While there are a lot of things worth responding to in the radio segment, I will address only one issue: Why disciplinary training in philosophy is valuable. Philosophy is, after all, my field and it is wise to restrict one’s public claims to what one knows.

What does philosophy teach us? Common answers include increased critical thinking, argumentation skills, and clarity of communication. In practice this includes a bundle of skills such as: seeing the logical implications of proposed ideas or courses of action; the ability to identify the relevant issue under discussion and separate out the “red herrings”, unsupported arguments, or fallacious reasoning; being able to break down complex ideas, issues, or communications and explain them in a logically organized fashion, etc. I could go on, but these are a sampling of the real skills learned from an education in philosophy.

What the governor and Dr. Bennett (who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy) said gives the impression that a philosophy education doesn’t help students get jobs. This has been a takeaway message in the media. Since, others have made the case that a job isn’t the goal of an education, I leave it to the reader to examine that argument. There are two points about the discussion that should be noted. First, Dr. Bennett was suggesting that we have too many Ph.D.’s in philosophy, which is a separate claim than philosophy lacks educational value. It may be true that we have an oversupply of Ph.D.’s in many disciplines (and a shortage in others). The causes of this are many and include the free choice of students as to what to study, the impetus for universities to create graduate programs to enhance their reputations, and the ability to reduce teaching costs by putting graduate students in the classroom. Again, I leave it to others to examine these causes. Nothing Dr. Bennett said indicated that undergraduates shouldn’t learn philosophy.

Dr. William "Bill" Bennett

Dr. William “Bill” Bennett

This leads me to the second point—Dr. Bennett is himself an example of the value philosophy adds to education. What do you do with a philosophy education? Dr. Bennett parlayed his philosophical training, in addition to legal training (a common set of skills), to become Secretary of Education, a political commentator, an author, and a talk radio host. His logical argumentation skills, knowledge of Aristotle and virtue ethics are seen throughout his work. The very skills described above as benefits of a philosophical education are the skills his career represents.

There are very good reasons to include philosophy as part of our higher education curricula. Unfortunately, philosophy becomes an easy target in public discourse disparaging what we learn in this discipline for at least two reasons. First, most people don’t have an understanding of what philosophy is and how it develops numerous valuable skills. Second, philosophy teaches transferable skills that enhance many careers without having a single career associated solely with it (besides teaching). In other words, the value of studying nursing may be to become a nurse in a way that studying philosophy isn’t to become a philosopher. The value of philosophy is found in the skills it develops which can be applied to all sorts of jobs. I suspect Dr. Bennett would agree and I hope Governor McCrory will as well.

How Free Should Freedom of Speech Be?

by Matt McKinnon

Only now, weeks after the blatantly anti-Islamic film “Innocence of Muslims” posted on YouTube, making headlines and spawning violent reactions from Muslims across the globe, have tensions begun to ease a bit.  Oh, to be sure, mainstream media and American attention has moved on, only to return when the next powder keg blows, while much of the rest of the world is left to grapple with serious questions of rights and responsibilities in this new age of technology.

Riots in Libya in response to “Innocence of Muslims”

These recent riots across the Muslim world bring into high relief serious questions about the freedom of speech, for us as citizens of the United States, as well as participants in a global society made smaller and smaller with the advance of technology.

The problem, at first glance, seems like the usual violent overreaction by Muslim extremists whose narrow view of religion and politics seeks only to protect their view at the expense of the rights of others who may disagree.

Salman Rushdie

We are quickly reminded of the fatwa pronounced on Salman Rushdie  for the horrific action of writing a novel (itself a work of fiction), as well as the assassination of Dutch director Theo van Gogh for his work “Submission” about the treatment of women in Islam.

But a deeper look into this issue, instead of bringing clarity and self-assured anti-jihadist jihad, reveals a real problem that is not so black and white, not so clearly one of the fundamental right of freedom of speech versus ignorant fundamentalism, but rather one that is complicated, with subtleties and nuances not conducive to entertainment-news sound bites and the glib remarks of politicians.

The question becomes, not so much what freedoms we as U.S. citizens have with respect to our Constitution and domestic laws, but rather what extent should we, as participants in a larger global society, respect the various notions of freedom of speech at work in other countries and cultures different from our own.

Theo van Gogh

For, when we look closer at the latest incident itself, instead of finding the literary musings of a great novelist or the social critique of a world-class film director, we find a joke of a movie—though not really a movie at all: more like a few scenes of such low quality and disconnect that one doubts the existence of a larger work.  Some have called it “repugnant,” but what makes it so is not its content, which can scarcely be taken seriously, but rather the intention behind it.

The title itself (Innocence of Muslims) makes little sense—if predicated of the film’s contents.  However, if the title was a display of ironic/sarcastic foresight, then it fits all too well.  It would be hard to find anyone in the Western world who would take it seriously.  There is no plot, no character development, in fact, no real characters—only thinly disguised stereotypes meant to offend.

And that—the intention to offend—seems to be the only real purpose of the work itself.

Now it must be said that intention to offend is not, in and of itself, always a bad thing.  And the intention to offend religion especially is not either.  (I find myself doing both as often as possible.)  The problem arises when the intention to offend is also an intention to provoke, not discussion and debate, a la Rushdie and van Gogh, but violence and riot.

A few details are warranted:

As it turns out, the video was posted on YouTube in early July, 2012 as “The Real Life of Muhammad” and “Muhammad Movie Trailer,” but received little or no attention.  It was then dubbed into Arabic, re-titled with the aforementioned ironic/sarcastic name, and broadcast on Egyptian television on September 9th—two days before the eleventh anniversary of 9/11.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

(Except that it’s still going on, and will continue to escalate in the future.)

Holocaust survivors in Skokie, IL

So why is this case NOT the same as that of Rushdie and van Gogh, overlooking of course the artistic and social merit of these two?  Well, it strikes me that this incident is less like writing a book or making a movie criticizing specific points of any (and all) religions and more like yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre or assembling Nazis to march through Jewish neighborhoods in Skokie, Il in1977.

The first are clearly examples of protected free speech, the second is not, and the third is still hotly debated 35 years the case went to court.

Here is where American jurisprudence only helps so far.  For U.S. laws are clear that free speech can be limited if the immediate result is incitement to riot.  (This is what the city of Skokie argued—and lost—in their case against the Nazis: that their uniformed presence in a neighborhood with a significant number of Holocaust survivors would incite riot.)

Members of Westboro Baptist Church

To complicate matters, the freedom of speech laws are even more restrictive in other countries—and not just those “narrow-minded,” theocratic Muslim ones either.  In fact, Canada as well as much of Europe has free-speech laws that significantly restrict its exercise.   For example, the infamous members of Westboro Baptist Church, who recently won a Supreme Court case supporting their right to picket the funerals of U.S. soldiers, are not allowed to protest north of the border in Canada, as that country’s hate speech laws forbid such activity.  (Many in the U.S. disagreed with SCOTUS’s ruling and were in favor of restricting free speech in this case.)

And in most European countries, publicly denying the Holocaust is a crime.  As is racist hate speech (just ask Chelsea footballer John Terry).

The production and “marketing” of “Innocence of Muslims” might or might not meet the criteria of hate-speech, but that is neither my concern nor my point.

The fact that the video was produced with the intention to inflame Muslims, and that when it initially failed to do so it was dubbed into Arabic and specifically presented to Egyptian television to be broadcast to millions, makes it hard to deny that its real intention was to promote and incite riot.

The missing pieces here are the internet and technology—and the laws that have failed to keep up with them.  For with social media, YouTube, smart phones, iPads, Skype, etc…, placing an inflammatory video in the right hands with the capability to reach millions almost instantaneously just may be the 21st century version of standing on a street corner inciting folks to riot.

In fact, it may be worse.

Not recognizing this, I fear, will have even more dire consequences in the future.


Editor’s note: The usual practice in the BLS Program is to provide direct links to primary sources when possible. However, in the case of the video discussed in this entry, we decided it would be imprudent to link to it directly. If you want to view the video for yourself, a search of the title will lead you to the original posting, various repostings, and sundry articles and editorials about the video and its aftermath.

Who is on First: Ambiguous and Loaded Language

By Wade Maki

“Who is on first? Yes, he is.” The classic comedy bit plays on ambiguity in language.  In this case the ambiguity is just the unfortunate result of the situation (people named “Who” and “What” are difficult to talk about).  A great many problems are caused by ambiguous language in which two or more meanings may be found in the same wording. Vast amounts of philosophical disputes revolve around language disputes. What exactly did you mean by X?

Do you believe in God? This seems a simple question, but what does it mean to “believe” in something? Does belief entail: that it is true, that it is likely true, that it is possibly true, that I just hope it true, or even that I just want to be true? The word is unclear and any question involving it invites answers aimed at one of these standards leaving great possibility for confusion between questioner and answerer.

Sometimes ambiguous language is just the unintended result of vague expression. In other cases it results from careless expression. As evidence, here is how a team of students recently reported on a conflict between two companies:

“Throughout the process, this firm created monetary problems for their company explaining why they decided not to provide their services to them.”

While the team knew to what the words “this, their, they, and them,” applied, there was no way for the reader to decipher this meaning given that there were at least two subjects that each word could refer to.

In other cases ambiguous language is a deliberate tool to deceive. Examples from politics and advertising are numerous where, by design, language is selected because it has dual meanings one, which is technically true, and the other which isn’t true but the speaker hopes the listener will accept as true. President Clinton’s famous legal defense about perjury included the curious claim “it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”. You know language is in trouble when “is” becomes ambiguous.

Rather than focus on political ambiguity in language, a subject deserving of its own post, consider how advertisers utilize it. Below are two labels from the same product line called “ecosense” (in two shades of green). When you see this what do you think of? Once you’ve answered the question read the small print at the bottom. Then look at the second version, which represents the updated advertising language. Notice how they changed the small print to be even more ambiguous than the first.

What is going on with these ads is called “greenwashing” whereby an attempt is made to convey an environmental product when, in fact, it is not an environmental product. In the examples above the advertiser plays on both the ambiguity of the phrase “ecosense” and of the color green. The eco in ecosense could mean ecological and/or economical just as the green could mean environmentally friendly and/or affordable. As the small print indicates in the first ad (which was the original label) only the economical portions are true.  However, since the product would sell better if people thought it was environmental this original small print was altered to be more ambiguous. Now it tells you that ecosense means economical sense it leaves an open question as to the environmental impact of the product. People who don’t read the small print (a significant number) would reasonably conclude that the product was environmentally friendly and even those who read the second label may reach that same conclusion.

Thus far the examples have involved language which could have two or more meanings. There is another form of ambiguity in language where meanings are smuggled into language without actually being said.  What comes to mind when I tell you Jones is an environmentalist? For many people the word itself brings with it images of hippies, tree huggers, people diving atop whales to save them from harpoons, Prius owners, or a host of other behaviors. As a result a lot of people say “I’m not an environmentalist” before adding, “but I care about the environment.” This is as logical as the woman who says: “I believe in equal rights, but I’m not a feminist.”

Confusions in such cases come not from the words themselves, but from outside ideas the listener associates with the words. Thus, most conservatives don’t call themselves “environmentalists” as that says SUV burning, un-showered,  neo-hippie. Instead, conservatives are more likely to use the term “conservationist”.  What is the difference? Not a whole lot if you only look at the words and know that both seek to protect parks, air, water, and nature.  Of course the term conservationist also carries additional connotations to some listeners such as, in full Teddy Roosevelt tradition, enjoying nature by using an elephant gun to blow away every creature in the natural world for the trophy wall.

A lot of conflict, confusion, and deception occurs because of ambiguity in either the meaning of language or the smuggling in of additional notions. What one person says can be innocent to one listener but racist/homophobic/offensive to others. The solution isn’t easy. Being aware of ambiguity and smuggled notions goes a long way, but not far enough. If you were running for president and want to protect parks, air, water, and nature what word do you use? If environmentalist and conservationist each scare a third of America what word do you use? This helps explain the tortured use of language in politics.

But They’re Just Words

By Joyce Clapp

In an online forum that I frequent, we recently had a disagreement (it happens in large, diverse online communities). The forum is for people in married-like relationships, however the community member defines “married-like”. However, this particular community is very heavily female skewed, and people forget that not everyone in the community is a biological woman legally married to a biological man. One of the moderators posted, reminding us to use inclusive languages in posts (such as significant other). Referring to your SO however you liked is fine, but we’re asked to not display assumptions through our language about other people’s relationships.

As someone who lives with my partner of eight years (and my partner’s mother, and our three cats), I appreciated the reminder, but didn’t think too much of it. Inclusive language is easy and just makes sense, right?

Apparently not, for the post is at 763 comments of discussion.

In another online forum, people were discussing the difference between e-books and paper books. However, they were referring to paper books as “real books”. When I commented on it, my best friend said “Oh, you know what they’re talking about.” I may, but that doesn’t stop people’s words from downplaying the growing prominence of e-books in our society. Intentional or not, that is the meaning that comes through when calling paper books “real”.

Words are so important. Words are symbols that carry weight in our society. Language is a one of the few tools we use every day (every minute!) Because language is so common and so necessary in our lives, our culture is simultaneously dependent upon our language, and yet, doesn’t encourage treating that language as important. People will say “I get so tired of having to be PC!” That statement reveals something about the importance we put on how the people around us feel and the care we put (or don’t) into our interactions. Our language and our choice of words communicates (consciously or not) information about our political beliefs, how we feel about the people around us, our educational levels, how we use that education, and how much we respect ourselves and our environments (and that’s just the start of what our language says).

As students, instructors, and other professionals in an online environment, they’re not “just words”. They’re all we have to convey our knowledge and our intentions. I often find myself typing “I think I know what you meant here, but I can’t grade you on what I think you meant – I have to grade you on what’s here.” Over time in a variety of online educational settings, I’ve found myself adjudicating disputes in discussion boards between well meaning parties who didn’t chose their words well. Words matter.

I call on you to be deliberate in both your written and spoken language, to use words well, and to be kind in your communications with other people. The next time you start to say “Oh, it’s just a word!” ask yourself what that word, as a label, direction, or endearment, might mean to the persons you are communicating with – and then act accordingly.

President Obama’s “Words Don’t Matter” speech from 2008.

To Tweet or Not to Tweet

By Marc Williams

In the first week of my Shakespeare Off the Page class in the BLS program, we discuss the development of the English language during Shakespeare’s era.  English, which was developing and expanding as colloquial language, was considered “lowbrow” by many 16th century traditional academics.  Shakespeare’s works, written in English of course, did much to legitimize the English language in spite of resistance from these traditionalists.    Shakespeare also coined many new words and phrases, contributing to a rapid expansion of English vocabulary that occurred during his lifetime.  One of my students gave the example of “eyeball,” a word that hadn’t been written in English until Shakespeare included it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Every semester, I ask my students to consider the coinage of new words today.  Students often cite technological advances as the source for new words:  after all, who knew what a “blog” was twenty years ago?

This week’s discussion reminded me of a story that surfaced last year about the New York Times.  Philip Corbett, the standards editor at the New York Times, issued a memo to staff writers that the word “tweet” should not appear in the newspaper if describing a posting on Twitter.  Corbett advised the word “tweet” should appear only if referring to the sound a bird makes.  It was widely reported that Corbett “banned” the word but “strongly discouraged” is probably a more accurate assessment of Corbett’s memo.  Regardless of the phrasing, Corbett was widely criticized for the move–Here is Corbett’s response to the criticism he received.

So here’s a major publisher–among the world’s most important authorities on trends and issues with American English–deliberately resisting the coinage and use of a new word.  I did a quick online search and found two dictionaries disagreeing with each other.  Here’s Webster, which does not provide a Twitter-based definition for “tweet.”

Noun            1. tweet – week chirping sound as of a small bird [sic]

Verb            1. tweet –make a weak, chirping sound; “the small bird was tweeting in the tree” Synonyms: twirp

Verb            2. tweet – squeeze tightly between the fingers; “He pinched her behind”; “She squeezed the bottle” Synonyms: nip, pinch, twinge, twitch, squeeze

Here’s Dictionary.com, complete with a reference to Twitter:

tweet – noun

1. a weak chirping sound, as of a young or small bird.

2. Digital Technology . a very short message posted on the Twitter Web site: the message may include text, keywords, mentions of specific users, links to Web sites, and links to images or videos on a Web site.

Corbett explains that if “tweet” ever becomes as common as “e-mail,” it will warrant reconsideration as a legitimate word.  But don’t we look to the New York Times, dictionaries, and other publications to confirm a word’s legitimacy and proper use?  If they won’t use the word in print, can it ever be legitimized?  Do publishers have an obligation to embrace and define new words?  Do they think of themselves as defenders of the English language?  What can be gained from refusing “tweet” and other new words admission into our vocabulary?

What are “liberal studies” anyway?

By Marc Williams

This entry begins the official blog life of UNCG’s Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program.  We’ve begun our Facebook life with some discussions on education.  Perhaps it would be worthwhile to begin our blog with the term “Liberal Studies.”  What exactly does that mean?

Image from "Education in Ancient Greece," Michael Lahanas

The phrase derives from artes liberales (“liberal arts”), which describes the kinds of knowledge (“arts”) that free citizens (“liberated”) should possess. This definition of liberal arts can be traced from Ancient Greece all the way through the Middle Ages.   Artes liberales can be contrasted with artes illiberales, which refers to a kind of education intended specifically for economic gain (such as vocational training).    The branches of knowledge that comprise the liberal arts include mathematics, music, literature, logic, rhetoric, grammar, and oratory.  In this regard, a “liberal studies” education is intended to be broad in focus and inclusive of a variety of disciplines.

Most universities today offer degree programs with a liberal arts structure. First-year university students are often surprised by how many courses are required outside of their intended field of study.  “How will a philosophy course help me if I want to work in advertising?”

One answer to this question comes from a recent Carnegie Foundation study, recently outlined on Businessweek.com by William M. Sullivan:

More than ever, American business needs leaders who are creative and flexible enough to innovate in a complex, competitive, global economy. The recent near-collapse of the world economy underscores the importance of business professionals who can act with foresight and integrity, aware of the public impact of their decisions. [...].

The Carnegie Foundation study found that undergraduate business programs are too often narrow in scope. They rarely challenge students to question their assumptions, think creatively, or understand the place of business in larger institutional contexts. […] .

The study, soon to appear as Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession (Jossey-Bass/Wiley), went in search of business programs that set out to provide students with more than tools for advancing their careers, as important as those tools are. [...].

Not surprisingly, this report suggests business programs include a healthy dose of liberal arts courses—courses that specifically develop the analytical and critical thinking skills required to deal with ambiguous and complex questions, as well as courses that manage to connect to the business curriculum.  These critical thinking, analytical, and creative skills are precisely the focus of the Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  To learn more, please visit http://www.uncg.edu/aas/bls.