Sunday, October 23, 2005

Changing Your Mind

Gasp – what a topic. Why on earth would anyone but a wimp every change his or her mind, you might ask. We all remembered what happened to presidential candidate John Kerry when he changed his mind about the second Gulf War: he was widely ridiculed both in the press and by the well-oiled GOP talking points machine (often one and the same) as “flip flopping” (what ever that means). The GOP’s wonderfully effective and creative (and misleading) wind surfing ad is still etched in the retinas of many political TV junkies to this day.

I find it equally appalling and obnoxious that a national leader and role model like George Bush is applauded for “staying the course” and “showing resolve” over the same war, when, now all that the facts are in (there are no WMDs, the Iraqis hate us, there are more terrorists in Iraq then ever before, the country is in shambles and much more unsafe for the general population than it was under Sadam, evil as he was, Iraqi oil is not funding the reconstruction, etc. etc. etc.), it is painfully clear something must change, and soon. But, new information never impacted this curiously uncurious president.

Fortunately for themselves and for the future of this country, my students are different. Three notable cases come to mind over the past several years in my teaching of the research paper as a “process of discovery.”

Several semesters ago, I taught a bright, vivacious woman whose husband wanted her to have breast enhancement surgery. Naturally small and graceful, nonetheless she was concerned about her body image and wondered in her class journal if larger breasts would be pleasing to herself and would be met with approval from her husband and other family members. She was indeed quite interested in the procedure, as her own mother and other females members of her extended family had done this, and she was actually saving money and setting a date for the surgery. Personally aghast but not letting on, I suggested that she research all the pros and cons, as well as all the personal and societal reasons one might want this surgery. Bottom line: she determined that the risks and the costs were such negative factors that she couldn’t justify the operation despite the pressures within her family. I talked to her about a year later, and she still had not gone forward with the surgery. I felt pretty good about this outcome, as it was a clear example where someone was being pressured by a variety of overt and covert factors to make a decision based on faulty or insufficient information. When she got all the available information, she was no longer so keen on the project. Score one for research!

This semester I’ve already had two students tell me their research has impacted them in unexpected ways. One young man, an avid golfer, decided to do a paper about prejudice and discrimination in sports. He had already made up his mind, he told me, that it was okay that women could not play in the prestigious Augusta National, mainly because of the “private club” issue. “I think I’m changing my mind though, because the more I look into it, I see the economic and other issues involved,” he reported. In other words, as he started to examine the economic structure of all discrimination, and sports in particular, he was starting to see that the conventional and uninformed wisdom about the “private club” issue misses larger points and that such discrimination is actually harmful.

But perhaps my most rewarding moment came this morning when I was reading I-Search papers for my online expository writing class. One adult woman in this class has been researching issues around being a “power mom” and families with kids who just do everything and go, go, go. She wanted to know what kinds of stresses this puts on a family’s well-being. “Since I’ve started looking into this, I’ve started to make the time to read to my kids again at bed-time. My eight and nine year old daughters just love this,” she wrote. She also reported that they’ve been restructuring their extra-curricular time (basketball,4-H, etc.) to make family meals an important part of the week, with the kids pitching in. “This is important, to have this kind of family time, I’ve learned.”

It’s outcomes and comments like these that make teaching the wonderful job that it is.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Understanding Research

One issue that is problematic in today’s society is that many consumers of information simply seek the information they are already familiar with and go no further. Hence you have Fox News which takes a very predictable line and goes to all ends to comfort its viewers. Or you have Rush Limbaugh who admits he only takes one point of view because he doesn’t trust others with differing points of views to tell the truth!!

Not only does this one-sided but comfortable approach produce vulnerable citizens, it also produces consumers who are easily scammed and students who get little if anything of value out of their college education. Unless students learn rigorous critical thinking skills, they will be of little use to employers who are faced with the demands of the rapidly shifting global market place.

One small measure in dealing with this issue is to cause all my students to write research papers in which they are required to thoroughly cover the opposing points of view. This doesn’t mean they have to end up agreeing with those other views, but they do need to structure their own argument around acknowledging that opposing views exist for just about every issue and finding the holes in those views.

Sometimes the result is surprising. I’ve had more than one student actually change their draft thesis statement after getting further into the research and discovering that the opposing views make sense after all!!

Although this task can be complex and difficult, fortunately Helmke Library provides two databases that are student friendly and tailored precisely to the discovery of opposing views. One is Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center, from Thompson-Gale. This database has a lovely index on the home page with many topics often enjoyed by today’s students, plus it has an adequate search engine. The database reports back articles under “tabs,” so if multiple tabs are operational be sure to click on each tab, for different kinds of articles (academic, newspaper, web sites, etc.). Unfortunately citing these articles is difficult, but there is a link at the top of the page called “Help” which takes you to another link called “Citing Online Reference Works” which will show you how to cite Gale-supplied articles.

Another very topical database that examines multiple points of view is CQ Researcher, brought to you by the same folks who put out Congressional Quarterly. The home page of this database always lists this week’s hot topics, and it is very easy to cite, with a link on the bottom left corner that says “How to Cite.”

Really, then, the only excuse in today’s Information Age for not knowing both sides of a story (although I would argue there are usually many sides to a story!) is pure laziness.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Trusting Information

In this “Information Age” which is bombarding us at an ever escalating clip with data faster than we can absorb it, teaching our students how to find truthful sources is a critical challenge. The bottom line is that people lie at worst or distort at best, for all sorts of reasons, and that many of these lies and distortions are purposefully unleashed on an unsuspecting public.

From Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, to outright Internet hoax sites, to media and political misinformation, the airwaves and cyberspace today are filled with a glutton’s feast of non-truths and half-truths that when repeated often enough become reality for our students.

One thing I stress in my classes is that good consumers of information will find multiple sources on a subject, and then they will check to see what other sources (“experts” if possible) are saying about those sources. This can get a little tricky, as sometimes those secondary sources are working in a deliberately set-up and manipulated echo chamber, such as that established by the Creationist press, whose authors have dubious credentials and cite each other to “prove” that Evolution is “just a theory.”

Although I equally stress that my students must use trusted academic databases such as Academic Search Premier to do most of the researching, there is an extraordinary number of wonderful websites “out there” (a term my students love and I hate!) and/or useful articles that are available on the web and not inside any library database. Because the Internet is here to stay, no matter what we think of it, and because our students have grown up with it as a matter of daily fact and not as a matter of infinite graphic and audio wonderment as it still is to those of use who started with Commodore computers and Compuserve’s text-only browser on 14.4kbps dial-up modems, it is imperative that we rigorously teach strategies to determine the veracity of web-delivered information.

This is a difficult task, and I do not have silver-bullet for it. However, a little trick I learned last week when Alan November spoke at the 30th anniversary birthday celebration of IPFW’s Department of Continuing Studies (see related blog entries below) can be very useful and can open students’ eyes. I used it just now to satisfy myself that my “dubious credentials” link above was a worthy one, and it goes like this: using Alta vista, type the word “link” (without quotes) followed immediately (without a space) by a colon, followed immediately by the full URL of the site in question. This command will give you all of the sites that are linked to the site you are questioning. By itself, this is not terribly useful, but if you add a “host” command, you can narrow your search to just “.edu” or “.gov” sites under the assumption that such sites might attest to the true usefulness or veracity of the site in question. You can even get more specific. For example, in the case of my “dubious credentials” link above, which takes you to an article on the web site, I did the following AltaVista search (without the quotes): “”. And lo and behold, the site is linked to an article by a Yale ornithologist, who gives The Talk.Origins website a rave review.

Now I know those who teach at Yale are nothing more than pointy-headed, knee-jerk liberals, but still, you can see the usefulness of this little search-engine trick. And even here in the isolationist Midwest, when I mention “Yale” to my students, they do take notice. So, who knows, maybe the truth can set us free!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Image Building

One of the issues my students really dig into, and one that is often prompted by postmodern English textbooks, is the media’s impact on “body image.” Just exactly why are all the models and superstars on TV and in the movies, not to mention all women and now even men in TV ads and billboards and clothing stores, super thin or super “well built”?

I think of all the physical not to mention emotional stress this puts on us. It’s one thing to be healthy, but quite another to feel one has to look a certain way in order to be considered ‘attractive.” And I like to illustrate this dilemma buy showing my students pictures by 19th and early 20th century painters, such as Henri Matisse or Cezanne or Renoir, when women were “full bodied” and proud of it!

What happened in a mere 100 years?

However, the times are a ‘changing. For a real surprise in the fashion world, check out this article from today’s Washington Post about a designer who has decided to fight (or maybe it’s just smart marketing!) the recent body image trend. There appears to be hope after all: maybe soon it will be socially acceptable to loosen your belt buckle!

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Building Community

One of the nice things about blogging is that although much of the blogosphere is devoted to politics, an actually larger part is devoted to nothing more sinister than building community.

Rather than breaking down discourse, as today’s political punditry seems to be bent on, a vast majority of the bloggers seem to be reaching out to each other, to share their interests, joys and pain in what some analysts see as sort of a wide-scale public catharsis.

The implications of this use of blogging are particularly useful to Distance Learning, which although is clearly the bastard child of higher education and considered by many academics as an oxymoron in itself, is equally as clearly the wave of the future as higher education becomes more “public” in nature and as shifting demographics alter the makeup and usefulness of the traditional college campus.

One of the complaints traditionalist lob at Distance Learning is that it fails to create the community of learners that the classroom, dorm, quad and union (and football games?) theoretically create.

I will not argue that this community of learners is not necessary. To the contrary, I have nothing but the utmost respect for Kenneth Bruffee and Ken Burke and their “Conversation of Mankind.”

However, with the advent of blogging which permits a nearly real-time exchange of ideas, and other similar internet forums such as, the gap between a traditional college classroom and an Internet classroom has effectively been reduced to the point that the only remaining issue is equity of access (which really is still an issue in the traditional classroom, where annual tuition fees are inching past $40,000 at many of the “elite” schools).

The mushrooming Internet community of students that provides, for instance, was introduced to me by two of my students at the Warsaw campus, JT and Larissa, and also by Christine and Jessica in my Honors English class on the main IPFW campus. So imagine my own pleasant surprise when I discovered my own son, Ben, on there. Ben lives and works in Korea and we don’t see or hear from him nearly as much as we did when he was in college, so suddenly my wife and I can both see and hear what he’s up to, whenever we like!

Another really cool site that builds community among college students is Some of my students were doing some research on the lies of political pundit Ann Coulter and they found some wonderful videos of her that other students had posted to this site. (This site is a little risqué, so operator beware!)

So, in a nutshell, the old argument that Distance Learning can not provide the same type of learning community that the traditional face to face campus does, is simply no longer in any way operational.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Pondering November

As I was grading papers before the sun came up this morning (I’m not sure it ever did, as we seem to have gone from summer to November by skipping October) I was struck again by Alan November’s comments yesterday.

One of the points he made was how important it is for today’s workforce to be comprised of people who not simply have the knowledge necessary to get the job done, but who also have the skills to perceive what the job really is and to move forward without further supervision towards getting the job done.

He noted that he runs a small educational consulting company, and if he had to decide among two employees who to promote or keep on, and if both employees knew the same amount of knowledge, he’d pick the one who had the highest ability to see through the issues and move forward unsupervised with the work. This ability, known as critical thinking, can be taught to some degree, but for the most part it comes with practice and with deliberately cultivating an enquiring mind, something today’s pop culture and deliberately polarized political culture fail to encourage.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Connecting to the Future

If the US hopes to retain a vibrant and viable economy and maintain its edge as a world leader in medicine, science, engineering and the like, this country’s educational and political leaders will need to envision new types of schools where all students have full-time access to all levels and types of information. Schools need to become more like the modern and post modern workplace, where information is shared and created among peers, not restricted and funneled and poured top down a curriculum unit at a time and a grade or class level at a time.

That was the message of Alan November, featured speaker today at IPFW’s 30th anniversary of its Division of Continuing Studies. Titled “Creating new Cultures for 21st Century learning,” the workshop lead off with a 90 minute presentation by November, who painted both an exciting view of the future as well as a bleak picture of what could be in store for today’s young people if they don’t take seriously what fellow speaker Ft. Wayne Mayor Graham Richards termed as the need to be a “lifelong, lean, learning machine.”

As more and more US jobs get outsourced to countries where wages and benefits are not so costly, Graham noted that the “connection between learning and earning has never been more important.”

Towards that end, November called for the restructuring of schools, connecting students, their teachers and their families to 24 by 7 information through the Internet, by building a web of instant information flow that connects students and their families directly with the learning process. Without going into more detail about his presentation, which can be seen at the DCS blog, I just want to point to one of the more upbeat portions of his dynamic talk. A great society is not just one that is educated, it is also one that is connected; it is a society in which citizens work together to build and share knowledge – with this type of cooperative learning and looking towards the future, this country can ensure and improve its status as a world economic and socially just leader.

This blog is a small part of that process.