Tag Archives: rhetoric

On Writing that #@%& Essay

2am

We’ve passed the halfway point in the semester (wait…what?!), and your Final Essay is due soon (wait…WHAT?!). You’re starting to feel the burn…you have nothing to say…but you have to say something. The mere sight of a blank screen puts a knot in your gut and makes your palms sweat. You try to put it out of your mind; it’s not due yet, so maybe you’ll just procrastinate on it until $#@% it’s due TONIGHT!!!1!@!! And then you’ll spend that last-minute panic attack hating yourself, convinced you completely deserve the F that you just know you’re going to get on this utter disaster that you didn’t even spell-check before submitting because holy crap it’s 11:59. Sound familiar? Yeah. Me too.

I’m not the world’s foremost composition-and-rhetoric expert—not by any stretch of the imagination—but I do have an MFA in writing, and I am a guy who sometimes writes 5,000-word essays for fun (yep, I’m a nerd). I’ve learned a few things in pursuit of that hobby that you may find helpful, so here’s some unsolicited advice.

1. Start early. Better yet, start now. If you don’t know what you’re going to write about yet, you won’t know what you’re going to write about at the last minute. The difference is that if you start it now, you have time to figure that out and you don’t have to do it in a panic. Also, the earlier you start writing on your essay, the earlier you’ll start thinking about it, and the longer it has to marinate in the back of your head. Not all of the writing process happens at the keyboard. Once you’ve started working on a project, it will be there running in the background while you’re doing other things, and that eureka moment is likely to come while you’re doing something completely unrelated. Walking to the cafeteria or driving to pick up your kids. As an example, this point came to me while I was cleaning my cat’s litter box (it’s also my third point #1).

2. Let It Suck. Your first draft is going to be bad. That’s okay. First drafts are always bad. We’ll get back to this later (and you’ll fix it before you turn it in), but for right now, just write. Just write. No matter how bad it is, if you’ve got something on the page, you’ve got something to fix. A blank page is just that: blank.

3. Keep It Simple. You’re not going to write a successful 8-page essay on “imagery in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” Entire books have been written on that topic. Books. Plural. You might, however, get a successful essay out of that image that shows up in chapter 47, of her hair falling loose dangerously close to the grinding machinery of that steam-powered threshing machine. You might get a successful essay out of examining how that image works as a metaphor for the precarious position of a poor woman in Victorian England, and how that is one of Thomas Hardy’s dominant themes throughout the novel. Or you might choose to take a different approach to that same chapter and write about how the one person offering to take her away from that precarious life is her wealthy rapist. Either way, keep it focused on something small enough to manage in the space you’ve got. And eight pages may feel like a lot when you’re just sitting down to write it, but it’s really not all that much room. Remember, the opposite of focused writing is vague writing, and vague writing doesn’t tend to get the best grades.

4. If you know exactly what you’re going to write, you’re (most likely) wrong. I have seen far too many times when someone wrote a beautiful introduction to their essay, then proceeded to shoot themselves in the foot trying to stick with what they had written in that introduction. Writing projects have a way of getting away from us—of turning out differently than what we sat down to write—and the best way to deal with that is to expect it from the beginning. To that end…

5. Write your introduction last. Sometimes you’ll also see this phrased “write it backwards,” but I don’t like that because it’s not really accurate. In my experience it’s something more like this:

  • a] Notes and rough ideas (see below);
  • b] Rough body paragraphs;
  • c] Essay structure/outline;
  • d] Refined body paragraphs;
  • e] Transitions between the paragraphs;
  • f] Conclusion;
  • g] Introduction.

Sometimes c and d can be reversed. Some people prefer to start with an outline; there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you remain flexible enough to rearrange your essay if it becomes necessary. This list also only talks about the first draft. Immediately after that, you’ll start reading through the whole essay for flow and continuity and language issues.

6. Start with notes. Use index cards. While you’re doing your research (or reading what you’re planning to analyze), write down the important stuff on index cards. And by “the important stuff” I mean both the relevant details you’re finding in your readings (quotes and such) and your own thoughts about your subject. Be sure to jot down the relevant sources (the bibliographic data) and page numbers on those cards so you can go back to your sources later, and so you have that information when it’s time to write your works-cited list.

Index cards have two primary advantages: one, they force you to keep it short, and two, you can easily shuffle them around while you’re figuring out your structure. Also, according to cognitive scientists, handwriting notes (as opposed to typing them) tends to be better for learning and retention.

7. Write your body paragraphs as mini-essays. Each of your body paragraphs, as you get it closer to finished, should resemble a mini-essay detailing a specific element of your argument (e.g., why X-character or Y-event relates to your main topic). For each element, your goal is to introduce it, analyze what is significant about it, and conclude with why it is relevant to your greater argument.

8. Eschew the thesaurus. (See what I did there?) As a student, you’ve been exposed to a lot of overwritten material. It’s entirely possible you’ve even had teachers encourage you to mimic that sort of writing, because it’s “what academic writing is supposed to look like” (or some such nonsense). Don’t. Seriously. Just don’t. The best writing is simple and direct, and gets its point across without a lot of effort. I like to say write like you’re explaining it to a smart high-school student. Ineloquent applications of unnecessarily obfuscatory verbiage and etymologically arcane esoterica render the trajectory of any presented suppositions virtually impossible to disambiguate. That’s not good writing.

9. Be prepared to rearrange at any point. As you get your body paragraphs more refined, you may find that the most logical progression of your argument isn’t exactly what you expected it to be. Usually it’s going to follow the organization of the book you’re discussing (e.g., chronologically from beginning to end), but sometimes a better structure will present itself. Sometimes you may discover that the most interesting thing showing up in your body paragraphs isn’t even what you planned to write about. Sometimes your intended conclusion will totally implode (I’ve had this happen on a major assignment, and it’s really disturbing). That’s why I put outline/structure so late in the process up there, with the option to move it even later, because your ideal structure isn’t always clear from the beginning.

10. Be prepared for your conclusion to change. Obviously, if your body paragraphs start leading to a conclusion other than what you thought you were going to write, then you need to be ready to adapt your conclusion accordingly. When this happens—and it does happen—it’s a lot less painful if you haven’t already committed yourself to a specific conclusion.

11. Now that you have written your conclusion, go back and write your intro. Because it would have been pretty hard to write an effective introduction to an essay when you had no idea what it was going to end up talking about, but now that you know what’s going on inside, you know how to set your reader up to ride along with you.

Pro tip: In the introduction, when you mention the things you’re going to talk about in your essay, list them in the same order that they’re going to show up. If your introduction says you’ll be discussing how Tess was wronged by John Durbeyfield, Alec d’Urberville, and Angel Clare, your readers will expect you to discuss the characters in that order.

12. Proofread! Proofread! Proofread! Read it aloud to someone. Or at the very least record yourself reading it and listen to that recording. If you can, have someone else read it back to you. These exercises will help you discover the rough spots, such as awkward language, or unclear analysis, or non-sequitur transitions. Also, depending on how seriously you took “Let It Suck” up there, this stage may involve several passes (even dozens of passes) as you take the raw material of your rough draft and mold it into a finished essay.

13. When you’re satisfied that it’s finished, it’s (most likely) not. First-year undergrads tend to start with this notion that you can hammer out a good essay in a couple of hours, in the middle of the night after staying out too late with your friends, before it’s due in the morning. More advanced students realize that it takes more time than that, and more preparation. Graduate students often spend most of the semester working on the final essay for that 600-level class (or the essay is the cumulative result of that semester-long project). Graduate-degree candidates work for multiple semesters under the supervision of thesis advisors, who read every word critically, usually through several revisions. Professional-grade writers go through numerous revisions (often dozens of them), first on their own, then with feedback from colleagues, then with feedback from agents or editors, and then with feedback from publishers. When you read that story or essay that is just sublimely written, you can rest assured that the first draft looked absolutely nothing like what you’re reading. In fact, likely as not, the first draft looked kinda hopeless.

I say all this not to discourage you as you’re writing your essays, but to emphasize that, as with any creative endeavor, writing is never—ever—a straight-through, beginning-to-end process. It’s more of a process of continuous growth and refinement. The more open you are to that process from the beginning, the more you open yourself to the possibilities of what you can create.

—Jay Parr

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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.

broken

(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.

Zealot

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

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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.