You Keep Using That Word

In the Princess Bride, Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) tends to describe nearly anything that doesn’t go according to plan as inconceivable.

Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) is, in a way, using a rhetorical technique that Joseph Harris calls “arguing the other side.” He tells Vizzini directly that the the word does not mean what Vizzini seems to think it means–or perhaps what he intends it to mean.

The Babelfish: Why Being Right Isn’t a Worthwhile End in Itself

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, the babelfish is a creature that “eats” auditory signals and “excretes” telepathic signals that can be interpreted directly by the human brain. The upshot of which is, if you put one in your ear, you’ll be able to instantly understand any spoken language.

“Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence, writes Adams, “that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.” The argument goes something like this:

“I refuse to prove that I exist,'” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
“But,” says Man, “The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.”
“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
“Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

What does this suggest about writing? On the one hand, not much–it’s just really clever. But it does point to the problem with arguing just for the sake of being right. In Adams’s exchange between Man and God, Man seems interested only in being right. The problem is that once his intellectual opponent is vanquished, he leaves a vacuum in which nothing useful exists. In other words, the argument has no real purpose, other than (perhaps) proving how clever Man is–and we see where that gets him.

When academics argue–or at least when they argue in good faith–they’re usually trying to arrive at some kind of deeper understanding of their subject matter. This “noble contending for the truth” is what philosophers since ancient Greece have called a dialectic, and that more contemporary philosophers might refer to as agonism

””Science has achieved some wonderful things of course, but I’d far rather be happy than right any day.”


“And are you?”
“No. That’s where it all falls down of course.” (30.11-3)

Finding the Right Source Can Be Like Unlocking a Level

When you’re doing research, finding the right source can be like unlocking a level in a video game. Or bonus features, special powers for your avatar, etc. Here’s an example:

A student of mine this semester was doing research on H-1B Visas. Not surprisingly, she had a difficult time finding full-length books on the subject. But once she used the broader search term “high skilled migration,” she found many.

More to come soon.

A writer’s stance…and a football

In the latest episode of his Freakonomics podcast  (An Egghead’s Guide to the SuperbBowl), Stephen Dubner interviews Justin Tuck about what to watch for in order to get the most out of your SuperBowl viewing. I’ve often thought that a football player’s stance was very much like the rhetorical stance a writer takes in an essay. Tuck explained to Dubner why he always waited until the last second to get into his stance:

I wanted to see did they have trips into the boundary. Is the running back eight yards deep versus six or seven yards deep. Quarterback in the shotgun. What is what is the hand of the offensive linemen that I’m going against. What does that tell me? How’s his foot position; is he blocking down, is he blocking towards me. Is his weight back because he wants to kick out because of the pass? Things like that is what experts look at, you know and you know are they are they going in motion to see if we’re playing man. All right. You know is this a situation where we might get hard-counted. Is it third and short. Should I watch the ball more and more intently than I would if it was third and long. All those things kind of go in my … But the better you get at it, the quicker it goes. So you know you normally have, once they come to the line of scrimmage you probably have five seconds at the max depending on the type offense you’re playing against and you have to you know decipher all this information like that and be able to go and play. And I think the teams that do it the best are the teams that you know play really really well.

Dubner observes that the more information a defense lineman has, “the more you know what stance you want.” True, but I also think I heard Tuck explaining that his stance would telegraph to the other team what he was planning to do on a given play (he goes on, in fact, to talk with Dubner about the relative importance of surprise on the line of scrimmage). This all happens in a matter of seconds.

Doesn’t the same thing hold true when we read an essay? In the opening seconds, the writer telegraphs to us (the reader) what his intentions are for the essay. And like Tuck says, the more information a player (or a writer) has before the play begins, the better equipped he is to decide on the appropriate stance.

I think there’s probably a lot more that could be said about this, and I invite readers to add comments–or tell me why I’m completely wrong!

A few random mentions

This shout out from Shabhia Akter was really gratifying to me. Shabhia was a fantastic WA, a great Posse scholar, and an all around damn fine human being. To be singled out by her at graduation as among her significant influences here at Lafayette was really gratifying!

And to be honest, I had forgotten the work I did reviewing John Langan’s College Writing Skills for McGraw Hill. It was a long time ago, but I suppose perhaps I should record it here for posterity.

Is a med school interview a “text”?

If so, can a student bring a draft to the writing center?

During this week’s staff meeting for writing associates, Eric, a senior English major, related an interesting experience he had during drop-in hours. A student had come in asking for help preparing for a med school interview. Eric wondered whether this was, in fact, something WAs should be doing. “Is it something we’re actually qualified to do,” he wondered? It was clear that some of his fellow WAs wondered that too. Jackie, a senior chemistry major, opined, “we’re qualified, but I think maybe there are others who would be better qualified. Haley, a senior neuroscience major, thought perhaps a few specially trained WAs–maybe those with a pre-med background–should work with such students. “Should we be setting a precedent that any WA is qualified to do this?” she asked.

I asked Eric how he handled the conference. He responded that he began by working with the student to “analyze the prompt,” just as he would with a First Year Seminar student. “We tried to unpack each question and think about what the interviewers were really asking.” Sadie, a junior English major, suggested that Eric was really helping the student think in more depth about her audience. An interview is, after all, a kind of text (a performative text?). In preparing for the interview, one might argue that the student was composing a draft–a draft which she was sharing with a writing associate and would then revise, probably multiple times, prior to finalizing the text.

Eric’s drop-in experience raises several interrelated questions for me as a WPA. First, is a med school interview genuinely a text, even in the broadest sense of the word? The second question is the one that Jackie and Sadie seem to ask: Should WAs be the ones to conference with students on such a text? Are they “qualified, in other words? (Is it merely coincidence that the two students whose backgrounds are most closely “pre-med” are the ones to raise this question?) A third, related question, arises from these first two. If preparation for a med school interview is indeed a kind of text that can be brought to a writing center, and if WAs are to be considered qualified to hold conferences about such a text, how shall we prepare them?

This question is part of a project on which I’m currently working. I’ll be discussing the project in a presentation at the upcoming International Writing Centers Association (IWCA) Conference in Pittsburgh this October. My project seeks to explore how we can integrate visual rhetoric, multimodal composition, design thinking, and other competencies into existing tutor training programs, and asks whether such “texts” should be part of writing program and/or writing center work in the first place.

Over the next few days, I’ll be posting more about this particular exchange and how it relates to my project. I welcome any feedback from friends, colleagues, and other interested parties.

Fisher’s project

In “Precarious Dystopias: The Hunger Games, In Time, and Never Let Me Go, Mark Fisher aims at getting his audience to realize that many of the modern day dystopian, science fiction novels and films we see represent and critique the society or world we live in today. In all three films the rich are in control of the poorer classes and the protagonists are all young adults who present, to one degree or another, the possibility of revolution.