Tag Archives: communication

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.

Actually, We Can All Just Get Along…And Do Most Of the Time.

by Wade Maki

Who’s out to destroy America? If you believed everything you hear over the next few weeks the answer is just about everyone. Greedy capitalists, lazy moochers, and every candidate running in a competitive race are just some of dangers. Of course if you watch the news you’d also conclude that we’re all about to die from the weather (hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, snow oh my), can’t swim in the oceans (sharks), can’t fly (crashes), and we will be the victims of terrorism, swine flu, computer hacking, identity theft, or sudden onset obesity any minute now.

Similar to how the news exaggerates the risks of daily living, campaigns exaggerate the evil intent of every “other” in society. Luckily, when disasters really do occur most of us get along pretty well (and days without disasters too).

Image

Are the presidential candidates really villains from Batman?

Our predisposition towards cooperation became especially clear to me this summer during a trip to visit family in the hills of northwest Arkansas. On the surface this is a unique region, as you learn when flying into what appears to be nowhere. You land at a very large and modern airport (thanks to Wal-Mart headquarters being in the area). The many small communities contain people from all over the country—most notably retirees seeking warm weather, affordable living, low taxes and a large supply of golf courses.

We stayed with relatives up winding roads in the hills filled with middle class houses and large trees. During the second night of our stay we experienced a very fast and violent storm. The power went out after dark and we experienced the “what do we do without electricity” quandary faced by those too used to technology. Luckily, I had an iPad to light the way until we found a flashlight and got candles lit. As there wasn’t much to do, we grabbed a flashlight took a midnight stroll to see what had happened.

Quickly we realized that this was not a unique idea as there were people roaming all over the neighborhood (in the dark the bouncing flashlights were visible for blocks). Trees were down everywhere. Not just small Imageones but massive trees lay across yards, power lines, and on top of homes as well. It was bad and everyone was making sure everyone else was okay. We hadn’t made it a block before running into a man with a flashlight strapped atop his head by his shirt and his long wet hair hanging down his bare shoulders looking for the chainsaw he had set down along the street. This was the first, but not last person, who in the middle of the night was already getting to work helping neighbors get massive trees removed from damaged homes.

All night and most of the next day we heard the roar of chainsaws as the cleanup continued. People from outside the neighborhood were driving around offering their services to those needing tree removals (some were professionals, others just a guy with a saw trying to make a buck). It is at a time like this you realize that the “greedy capitalist” you hear during campaign season is a good thing to have around when an 8’ wide oak tree is crushing your roof.

For most of the next day power was out (the company workers were doing their best) as a mixture of Imagevolunteers and for profit professionals assisted those in need. One elderly couple had a very large tree crash right into their bedroom. Luckily they weren’t home. Rather than wait to contact them, or wait for an insurance assessor, that same mix of neighbors and professionals got together, removed the tree from the house and put a tarp on the roof to protect this couples’ home from further rain.

There were no bad guys that day. Despite the different political yard signs around, no one viewed anyone else as out to destroy America. When something really bad happened it was amazing how everyone (volunteers, for profit professional, neighbors, etc.) just did what needed doing. As a microcosm of society it is a good reminder of just how well most things work (which is the real magic given how many things could go wrong).Image

Sure there are problems, differences, and our decisions about what policy or person to support can make things better or worse. For the most part though, society is full of pretty good people trying their best, in their own way, to get what needs doing done. Something to remember as you experience the drumbeat of doom from political ads and “news” outlets—We can and do get along just fine…most of the time.

Sleep Well…

By Marc Williams

In a previous post, I wrote of my enthusiasm for football and my favorite team, the Detroit Lions.  As a die-hard fan, I follow the team year round and I read every single article written about the team via the web sites of the various Michigan newspapers.  In fact, ever since these papers started publishing web content, I think I can safely say I’ve read every word they’ve published about the Detroit Lions.

As blogs, podcasts, chats, message boards, and other web content delivery systems emerged over the past fifteen years or so, one of the Lions’ beat reporters, Tom Kowalski, embraced these new ways of bringing content to the fans.  While I’ve read the work of many sports writers, I’ve read more content by Tom Kowalski than any other reporter.  In part, this is because of Kowalski’s use of new media platforms—his daily web articles, opinion columns and blogs, fan chats, video blogs, email Q & A sessions, comment rebuttals, Twitter, radio interviews, and podcasts provided Lions fans with a bounty of material to devour.

Sadly, the operative word in that last sentence is “provided.”  Last Monday, August 29, I was spending a few free minutes scanning Twitter as I often do.  I was stunned when I came across this tweet in my feed:

espn_nfcnblog ESPN Blogs NFC North: No words for death of Tom Kowalski.

Tom Kowalski

This news had a profoundly strange effect on me.  Of course I’ve dealt with death before: friends and family, students, teachers, and many others.  And obviously I read about death every day, including people in the public eye who I admire or whose work I enjoy.  But my internal reaction to the death of Kowalski, affectionately known as “Killer” by his readers, took me by surprise.  My experience was not like the death of other journalists and writers I remember.  I was sad when playwright Arthur Miller died but my reaction was not visceral.  Miller’s work certainly moved me—it continues to move me—but I did not feel a sense of personal loss when he passed.  For Kowalski, I felt.  It didn’t feel as if a stranger had died.

I didn’t understand why my reaction was so extraordinary.  And while I’m not sure if I’ll ever know for sure, I’m now convinced that I actually did know Tom Kowalski.  He certainly did not know me, but he shared a lot with his readers.  Personally, I read every word he wrote for at least twelve years, maybe more—and he wrote a lot.  And because he used so many interactive tools to deliver content, he ended up having real conversations with his readers.  In fact, the night before his death he was tweeting with readers who didn’t understand the difference between man coverage and two-deep zone coverage.  Over time, readers learned more and more about his personality.  For instance, almost every night he signed off of Twitter by writing, “Sleep well and dream of large women,” a quote from his favorite movie (The Princess Bride, which he quoted frequently). In fact, his final sign-off from Twitter was a sadly ironic quote from the film:

TomKowalski36 Tom Kowalski OK fellas, here we go … Sleep well, I’ll most likely kill you in the morning …

Kowalski did something special as a writer and a journalist: he actually revealed his personality to his audience.  As writers, we are always thinking about audience—who is actually supposed to read this writing?  Knowing one’s audience is crucial in determining what to write, how to write, and the proper format for writing.  Because Kowalski was so highly interactive with his audience, he eventually got to know them as a group and he allowed the group to get to know him as well.  He didn’t write for a theoretical audience but rather wrote for the specific audience with whom he had interacted for years.

Kowalski's cubicle at the Lions' headquarters in Allen Park, Michigan. The press room has been re-named "The Tom Kowalski Press Lounge" in his honor.

I’m not a journalist and don’t know if Kowalski’s personal touch would be considered “good journalism” by professional standards—but that’s not the point.  There are many stories today about how social media and virtual communication threaten human interaction, yet Kowalski’s work demonstrates the best potential of these technologies.  Kowalski used these tools to better understand his audience, to better serve them as a writer, and to interact with them genuinely, as a real human being.

Technology gives us tremendous ability to hide from each other.  We can remain anonymous, faceless, or even invisible.  Kowalski, on the other hand, demonstrated that technology can allow us share our humanity. Given that the BLS program at UNCG is online and that students and professors never actually meet each other face-to-face, what steps can instructors and students take to keep classrooms human?  What can we learn from Kowalski?  And what are some other examples of people using technology to express their humanity?

Mobile Learn

By Marc Williams

On Monday, I wrote about the Blackboard upgrade at UNCG and some of the differences I’ve noticed so far.  Perhaps my favorite new feature of UNCG’s version of Blackboard is its compatibility with Blackboard Mobile Learn.

We use our wireless devices for virtually every aspect of life nowadays so the developers at Blackboard wisely designed an app that gives students and instructors mobile access to Blackboard for a variety of devices (Android, Blackberry, iPhone, iPad, iTouch, Palm).  The app is free–I certainly recommend downloading and trying it out.

I’ve already found the tool useful for managing my courses on the go.  I’ve been able to use the iPhone app to respond to student questions posted in threaded message boards found on Blackboard.  And it is easy–the discussion boards look and feels like my iPhone’s text interface.  In fact, message board discussions on the mobile app feel cleaner and more efficient than the discussion boards in the standard version of Blackboard.  Blackboard apparently designed a mobile app for each individual device, working to embrace that particular device’s personality and functionality.  In this regard, the Blackberry version of Mobile Learn doesn’t look or feel like the iPhone version–it is customized for Blackberry users.  Here’s a video about the iPhone version,  here’s a video about the Blackberry version, and finally an Android demo.

The app is apparently still in development and some of the tools and features of the standard version of Blackboard are not yet completely functional in the mobile version.  For example, the “Grade Center” that instructors use to view grades and find assignments that need grading is not yet available on the mobile app.  Some Blackboard content may need to be converted into different file types in order to work on the mobile app.  For example, audio and video content need to be offered in universal formats like MP3 (audio) and MPEG-4 (video).  As the mobile app develops and as instructors learn to make their content “mobile friendly,” our BLS classes may become not only virtual classrooms but also mobile classrooms!

It’s Complicated

By Marc Williams

One side effect of the pervasiveness of technology on school age kids, as many have observed, is that young people consume technology at a surprisingly high rate.  Young people spend countless hours on cell phones–usually texting–as well as online, or in front of a television or video game.  Parents, schools, and advocacy groups have done much to curb tech usage among kids and teens, hoping to reduce teen alienation, “popcorn brain,” and other ill effects associated with constant internet and wireless gadget access.

Similarly, the Boston Health Commission recently sponsored a workshop for teens centered on a very particular socio-technological issue:  online breakups.

Late last month, 200 teenagers from Boston-area schools gathered to discuss the minutia of Facebook breakup etiquette. Should you delete pictures of your ex after splitting up? Is it O.K. to unfriend your last girlfriend if you can’t stop looking at her profile? And is it ever ethically defensible to change your relationship status to single without first notifying the person whose heart you’re crushing?

To be clear, we’re not talking about online dating services like Match.com or eHarmony.  These are teenagers who know each other and see each other at school every day.  When teens in a relationship decide the relationship should end, many of them go to Facebook and change their relationship status from “In a relationship” to “Single” or perhaps “It’s complicated.”  While changing the relationship status in and of itself may not seem unusual to social media users, the phenomena may seem a bit unsettling if the pair haven’t actually talked about their relationship ending.  Some teens are using their Facebook relationship status as a virtual breakup tool, avoiding the difficult “breakup discussion” altogether.  The Boston Health Commission’s workshop sought to bring awareness to the issue and provide some practical tools for handling breakups.

[Organizers] encouraged the crowd to eschew parting ways over text message or Facebook, the most common teen breakup methods. (A bisexual 15-year-old confessed in a morning session that she learned that her girlfriend of two years had dumped her only when she changed her relationship status to single.) Attendees were advised — with mixed results — to bravely confront the awkwardness of face-to-face breakups. When the facilitator in a session titled “Breakups 101” suggested that teenagers meet with “and come to an agreement or mutual understanding” with a soon-to-be ex, a skeptical 19-year-old nearly leapt out of her chair in protest. “So, you’re telling me that you’re crying at night, you’re not sleeping, you’re eating all this food to make you feel better, and you’re supposed to just come to an agreement?”

I’ve found that for many students, online interaction emboldens them.  In some cases, this is a good thing.  However, many students are able to type surprisingly insensitive things–both toward me and their classmates–that I doubt they would say in a face-to-face interaction.  This trend among young people concerns me as someone who teaches online courses. Do tomorrow’s (or even today’s) online students really know how to interact with their teachers or classmates?  Likewise, I wonder if I’m at risk of forgetting how to interact with them.

I provide my home phone number to my online students but very few ever actually call me at home.  While some may think it rude to call an instructor at home, I wonder how many students are simply avoiding a difficult conversation.  If students have concerns about their grade, for example, will they actually pick up the phone to talk to me about it?  Or will they simply write something nasty about me in a course evaluation, avoiding the potential unpleasantness of live interaction?  And I certainly must consider if I use technology to hide from unpleasantness as well.

Bad Apples?

By Marc Williams

Public school performance in the U.S. is measured, most noticeably, by state-mandated standardized tests.  These tests are used to measure not only student achievement but also the effectiveness of teachers, administrators, and entire school systems.

Unlike the SAT and other standardized tests that are administered and proctored by independent contractors, public school tests are typically administered by the school’s faculty and staff.  The teachers and administrators whose jobs are on the line are actually responsible for collecting the data that could either enhance or jeopardize their careers.  In Atlanta, 178 educators appear to have manipulated or falsified testing data in an apparent effort to preserve their jobs.

In Atlanta, teachers who confessed to cheating told investigators they felt inordinate pressure to meet targets set by the district and faced severe consequences such as a negative evaluation or termination if they didn’t. The behavior was reinforced by a district culture of fear and intimidation directed at whistle-blowers.

Certainly schools should behave ethically but the cheating that is being investigated in Atlanta–and across the country–should come as no surprise since schools could face stiff consequences if standards aren’t met.  And since the schools have access to student answer sheets, manipulating data is quite easy.

There are plenty of debates about the value of these tests in the first place, as they typically don’t measure critical thinking, communication, creativity, and other key skills. But if the data on the tests are so easily corruptible, how useful can these tests be in evaluating anything?  How can school performance be better evaluated and measured?