to be a Google user is to be annoyed forever

At this point, I find it hard to imagine a more incongruous marriage of strength and weakness than the cross-Google combination of power and versatility with perpetual annoyance and technological fussiness.

This isn’t an argument about Google’s recent missteps re: privacy and user rights. That’s a separate issue. It’s just a whinge about the fact that Google’s products seem even less polished and user-friendly now than they were several years ago. For individual websites and applications, this kind of kludginess is a bit of a pain. For a company that is as deeply ensconced into the basic fabric of Internet life, this cross-platform irritation creep is genuinely disturbing. Everywhere I look, Google’s products seem to test my patience just a little bit more.

Here’s what inspired this:

So for awhile now, Chrome has been asking me to sign in. I take it that the point is to sign into Chrome on one machine, and then when you open it on another, it’ll sync your open tabs, preferences, saved passwords, whatever. Well, I happen to only use Chrome on one device, this (low powered) laptop I’m typing on now. On my desktop, where processor power and RAM are in abundant supply, I prefer Firefox. But, okay. Chrome really wanted me to sign in. So I did. Now, every time I open a new tab, I get that dialogue bubble in the image.

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lessons from real rhetoric: rip off the Band-Aid

Woodrow Wilson’s speech asking Congress to declare war against imperial Germany and bring the United States into World War One is, in many ways, a remarkable document. I’ve taken several classes of freshman composition students through a rhetorical analysis of the speech, and though at times it’s a slog, I find it a very generative enterprise.

Among the interesting elements of the speech: Wilson’s very obvious and broad move from the consideration of specific, particular reasons to go to war (the sinking of defenseless merchant and passenger ships, German spies in America, violation of treaty) to broad, universal reasons (democracy vs. autocracy, the rights of small nations, the international community; Wilson’s slick, almost shameless grafting of the League of Nations concept onto the immediate issue of war with Germany and the Central Powers; the care he takes in courting German support and German voters; and the humor in a sitting American president praising the Bolshevik revolution. I would suggest that anyone who’s interested in arguments and their power should consider how carefully he modulates the emotion and passion of the speech, careful not to sustain a fevered pitch for too long, or to let the speech remain listless and boring for long. He (and his speechwriters) do a masterful job of creating an emotional rhythm.

This passage can certainly be read cynically, and I do. Another interesting aspect of this speech is how much has stayed the same in the rhetoric of war. Wilson’s insistence that we must wage war to get to peace is by now cliched boilerplate. Note, too, the hypocrisy (the United States certainly conducting espionage of its own within the borders of Germany), as well as the inconsistent application of freedom and the right to self-determine. The annexation of Hawaii, for example, was only 20 years old at the time of this speech. Somehow, this annexation, undertaken against the will of much of the native population of Hawaii, did not amount to the imposition of the will of the strong against the weak. Note too that the United States’s allies in World War One, such as France and Great Britain, remained in possession of vast imperial holdings.

What’s really remarkable to me, though, is this paragraph:

 What this will involve is clear. It will involve the utmost practicable cooperation in counsel and action with the governments now at war with Germany, and, as incident to that, the extension to those governments of the most liberal financial credits, in order that our resources may so far as possible be added to theirs. It will involve the organization and mobilization of all the material resources of the country to supply the materials of war and serve the incidental needs of the nation in the most abundant and yet the most economical and efficient way possible. It will involve the immediate full equipment of the Navy in all respects but particularly in supplying it with the best means of dealing with the enemy’s submarines. It will involve the immediate addition to the armed forces of the United States already provided for by law in case of war at least 500,000 men, who should, in my opinion, be chosen upon the principle of universal liability to service, and also the authorization of subsequent additional increments of equal force so soon as they may be needed and can be handled in training. It will involve also, of course, the granting of adequate credits to the Government, sustained, I hope, so far as they can equitably be sustained by the present generation, by well conceived taxation….

Think about this paragraph, for a moment. It’s necessary to consider the United States at a time when isolation was a far more politically popular stance than it is now. Here, Wilson unveils his demands of Congress: we’ve got to lend tons of money to foreign governments; we’ve got to start rationing essential goods that Americans rely on; we’ve got to spend a ton of money on a navy; we’ve got to take at least 500,000 men from their homes and families and send them to war, through the draft no less; oh, and by the way, we’ve got to rack up huge debts to do it. Imagine being a member of Congress and having to sell this to potentially unsympathetic constituents, all with future elections on your mind.

It might seem like a mistake to lay out all the bad news like this. I would instead argue that this is a major part of the speech’s strength.

I tell my students this all the time: rip off the Band-Aid. As I’m interested in helping students learn to write for their own practical benefit, I always encourage them to make arguments where there are stakes at hand. And any argument that involves real stakes involves trade-offs, compromises, and unfortunate necessities. Any position worth arguing will inevitably have its downsides. A mistake students often make is to avoid being direct or open about those downsides. Frequently, they’ll try to spread the bad news around, hiding it in bits and pieces, always including several bits of good news for every bit of bad news. This doesn’t fool anybody; bad news is bad news. It can’t be avoided, and the attempt makes the arguer look worse for his or her efforts. What’s more, by spreading the downsides around, in little drips and drops, students can actually make them appear more substantial than they really are. Worse of all is the tendency of students to downplay costs and consequences to the point of dishonesty. Nothing signals weakness to an audience more quickly than an arguer who won’t express the honest consequences of his or her proposal.

No, Wilson had it right: be straightforward, be honest, be clear, and be concise. When it comes time to ask for what you want, express the costs openly, in a way that indicates you know your audience can handle them. That doesn’t mean you accentuate the negative, and you’ve got to prepare your audience by making the strengths and necessity of your plan clear. In rhetoric, we talk often of kairos, the ancient Greek term for the opportune moment. Wilson embeds his frank discussion of the costs of going to war in a long argument  that builds on his credibility, the passion and emotion of the moment, and facts of the situation at hand. As Yeats said about writing, “Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.”

Ultimately, Wilson succeeded, and the United States was pulled into a horrifically bloody war of choice, an inter-imperial struggle for power and influence. The aftermath of that conflict created the conditions that made Nazism and World War Two inevitable. Rhetoric need not be wise to be successful. As for the international community and the League of Nations, Wilson dealt with the consequences of that philosophy for the rest of his presidency. In many ways, we are dealing with them still.

Update: A commenter points outs that the date of this speech precludes the possibility that Wilson was speaking about the Bolshevik revolution. Wilson was referring to the February revolution. I was lazy and didn’t check my dates. I apologize for that.

unpaired words and cranberry morphemes

I’m sure you’ve had the conversation, at some point in your life, where you’ve discussed the fact that some words have prefixes or suffixes that indicate an antonym, but no antonym exists. For example, we say someone or some act is uncouth, but not couth; our hair can be unkempt, but not kempt; you can be disgruntled, but not gruntled. Those examples all depend on simple prefix removal, but such words need not be constrained in that way. Consider, for example, feckless, which might be matched with a term like feckful (but isn’t). These terms are frequently referred to, unimaginatively, as unpaired words.

A related issue is the cranberry morpheme, one of my favorite terms in linguistics. A cranberry morpheme refers to a part of a word that can only be used in context with another part; that is, it is a morpheme that doesn’t have meaning unless connected to other, specific morphemes. (Think of a morpheme as the smallest unit of language that is significant enough to distinguish meaning; contrast with a phoneme, the smallest unit of sound that can be distinguished in a given language.) Morphemes are classified as either bound or unbound; the former cannot stand alone, while the latter can. All prefixes and suffixes are bound morphemes, but can be attached to a variety of other morphemes.

Cranberry morphemes don’t have a meaning separate from their particular bound morphemes. You know what pre- means even if I don’t type out the rest of a word. Contrast that with the most common cranberry morphemes, such as -ceive in perceive, receive, or conceive. -ceive is not a suffix; it has no meaning outside of the context of the morphemes it attaches to. (Although it seems like there’s some intuitive connection between what the morpheme -ceive is doing in each of those words.) So with cran-: unlike, say, the black in blackberry (an unbound morpheme), cran- has no intrinsic semantic definition.

There’s a quite-old but cool discussion of unpaired words and cranberry morphemes at Language Hat. Incidentally, I didn’t first become interested in cranberry morphemes through their namesake word, but rather due to aimless thinking about the term lukewarm. (Could you have lukehappy feelings?) That’s actually a good reminder that morphemes can be homophonous (sound the same) but have separate meanings: the luke- in lukewarm is unrelated– semantically, syntactically, and etymologically– to the name Luke.

a post about attendance (seriously)

You can fairly accuse me of being absurdly quotidian here. And that’s okay! You’ve been warned.

So, I take attendance. It’s just necessary for a writing class, in the age of the process model. If you don’t establish the importance of attending class, and lay out clear negative consequences for missing a lot of class, students won’t come. And since the process of drafting and improving a paper over time is now so deeply ingrained into the fabric of writing pedagogy, if they don’t come, they don’t improve. So in the first couple weeks of class, I always drill it into their heads (to the point of their visual annoyance), if they miss a lot of class, they are bound to fail. Does that mean that nobody misses a ton of class and fails? Nope. They’re always surprised by it, somehow, as well.

However, taking attendance, as in calling out student names or looking to find them and marking a sheet, is a big pain, and can actually take more time than you think. Plus, a delay like that before instruction can lead to distracted and unengaged students; I’ve always found capturing their attention, before drift or chatiness sets in, to be key. For that reason I have taken to distributing attendance sheets to students at the beginning of the class. Here’s a nice wrinkle to it: I make that effectively my tardiness policy, too. If a student comes in late but not before I take back the attendance sheet, so be it. They can sign their name. If they come in so late that they’ve missed the attendance sheet, they can stay and work and be instructed, but they receive an absence. Nice and clean.

On the other hand, it is annoying and more work than you think to hunt and peck in a gradebook for each name on the sheet. For that reason, my attendance system has evolved once again this semester: each attendance sheet has every student’s name listed, along with a space on the side for them to sign. That way, I can check at a glance who was absent, mark them that way in my gradebook, and move on. Better still, by having a set of physical attendance sheets to match the book, I’m protected in case a student wanted to challenge his or her grade. (Nobody ever has, in one of my classes, but it’s never impossible, particularly if you don’t hand out As like candy.) If challenged about the number of absences, I can just check the gradebook, go into the folder, and produce the actual attendance sheets. It’s a good system.

There, I know that will be interesting to about five people worldwide, but there you go.

my piece in Consider Magazine

I was asked to write a piece on Obama’s recent tuition proposal for Consider Magazine, and was happy to provide one. You can check it out here.

The format of the magazine is point-counterpoint, which requires a certain degree of tunnel vision. Also, the word count limit was a constraint. I will just add this: when I say, in the piece, that the details are what matter, I mean it. I spend a significant portion of my life  researching , thinking, and arguing about education reform efforts. One point that I insist on is that assessment methods must be proven before they can be responsibly argued. In the realm of education reform, the cart is constantly put before the horse; we are forever debating the political and economic fallout of proposed reforms before we have adequately demonstrated that they actually work. To my dismay, reform advocates often deliberately misrepresent my insistence that proof of efficacy come first as resistance to any kind of reform, or even of improvement at all.

What matters in this reform effort is that the assessment metrics work, that they actually identify schools that are working to reduce tuition costs and the actual financial load on students. And these assessment metrics must be limited to the purpose that Obama articulated in his speech.

But something has to be done. These spiraling tuition costs undermine the most fundamental commitments of the university and cause considerable suffering for those we are tasked with educating.