Complex ambiguities

Rebecca Solnit from Ploughshares, May 2016: “We live in a time when …purveyors of conventional wisdom like to report on the future more than the past. They draw on polls and false analogies to announce what is going to happen next, and their frequent errors… don’t seem to impede their habit of prophecy or our willingness to abide them. ‘We don’t actually know’ is their least favorite thing to report.” [My italics.]

I am the sort of reader who loves to hear experts announce “We don’t actually know.” But I recognize I am in the minority–in this respect–in my culture. That most Americans are willing to abide such speculative prophecies worries me a bit, and I do what I can in the classroom to waken my students to the possibility of erroneous thinking, even on the part of supposed experts and aggregate sources.

Yes, once again I am teaching argument to freshmen…the classic example of what Solnit calls naïve cynics:

Non-pundits, too, use bad data and worse analysis to pronounce with great certainty on future inevitabilities, present impossibilities, and past failures. The mind-set behind these statements is what I call naïve cynicism. It bleeds the sense of possibility and maybe the sense of responsibility out of people.

Maybe it also says something about the tendency to oversimplify. If simplification means reducing things to their essentials, oversimplification tosses aside the essential as well. It is a relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world that generally offers neither, a desire to shove nuances and complexities into clear-cut binaries. Naïve cynicism concerns me because it flattens out the past and the future, and because it reduces the motivation to participate in public life, public discourse, and even intelligent conversation that distinguishes shades of gray, ambiguities and ambivalences, uncertainties, unknowns, and opportunities.

Scholarly argument should ideally create discourse, not embattled absolutism on things that cannot ever be “proven.” In fact, I have forbidden my students to employ the word “prove” (or any of its conjugations) in their argument papers. They know my rationale for this lexical excision; I also warn them away from “always,” “never,” and “everyone.” But they are not yet experienced enough critical thinkers to recognize that my practice is also to encourage research and nuance, to shove them (gently) out of their naïve cynicism into the world of no-easy-answers, no-slippery-slope-thinking; a world of wonderfully complex ambiguities waiting to be more fully explored.

I think of my oldest child who, many years ago, was insistent on knowing ahead of time how everything was going to turn out: “Does the movie have a happy ending?” “Does the Little Red Hen get anyone to help make her bread?” “Can I win this game?”photo ann e. michael

Raising a child who is temperamentally anxious requires a form of parenting that offers comfort but admits to unknowingness. (Next up on my reading list: America the Anxious, by Ruth Whippman!) Solnit says the alternative to naïve cynicism is “an active response to what arises, a recognition that we often don’t know what is going to happen ahead of time, and an acceptance that whatever takes place will usually be a mixture of blessings and curses.”

I don’t think I have ever heard a more accurate description of what being a human entails.

What is American?

I have been setting up new training for the students I hire as writing tutors. My tutors are terrific students who understand coaching, modeling academic writing behaviors, and conventional essay structure better, often, than correct use of commas. Anyone can eventually figure out commas, though–that’s not the best use of a student’s time in a tutoring session. Writing tutoring works best when the tutor and student engage in understanding the assignment and the reading and then, mutually, figure out the most appropriate means of expressing the student’s stance and response. Only the final draft needs a bit of window-dressing for academic correctness, though that certainly is important…more important to some instructors than it is to others, and more important to some students than it is to others!

What I’ve lately come to recognize is that my tutors need a little more guidance in how to assist non-native-English-speakers. The need is not merely pedagogical–such as how to coach someone in the correct use of articles or of adjective-noun word order or verb agreement. The need is also cultural: my tutors should possess an awareness of cultural and ethnic variations in background that make content-reading, prompt-interpretation, and the structure of essay-writing far more complex than they may realize.

The college at which I work is small, religious-based, suburban, regional, and only recently multi-ethnic. My tutors tend to be from fairly privileged high schools and are, after all, quite young (undergraduate sophomores, juniors, and seniors, the oldest among them is only 22). I’m continually impressed by their willingness to expand their horizons–many of them have taken semesters or mission trips abroad, for example. Several of them have asked me for advice on how to conduct tutoring sessions with “ESL” students. Hence, some training is in order.


I encounter this new generation of students in my office, as well; and recently, one of them asked me what she could do to “become American more quickly.” She has been in the US for two years, and she does not know what to read or what to watch to guide her more rapidly into American culture other than self-help books, popular TV, and internet sites, which she finds unfathomable and uninteresting: Everyone speaks too quickly. She misses all the allusions. The material seems shallow and risqué.

Reasonable conclusions on her part. She is bright and observant.

My feeling is that cultural appropriation is American culture, and vice versa, but that notion is a bit theoretical for the writing center. One has to start somewhere, so what path can I show her? She is so eager, yearning written all over her face and her posture–and so full of questions that in her naivete she believes I can answer.

My tutors and I need to recognize ourselves as cultural informants§, and to proceed to assist students to write as clearly in US/American-English as possible while respecting the diverse knowledge and cultural differences we are liable to encounter more frequently as our institution becomes more open and diverse–a welcome diversity that will change and enhance the college mission.

My tutee’s earnest question has primed my thinking–what is “American”? Every time we converse with a student, we are inadvertently cultural ambassadors; we represent the culture that we unwittingly just are. So now, as we help at the sentence level, we ought also to think about who it is we are and what we can do to help newcomers to acclimate.

How? I believe the students we tutor will offer the best and brightest assistance in that direction.


§ See Staben & Nordhaus, “Looking at the Whole Text”

Rational & connected

When I instruct freshman college classes in essay-writing, it’s clear to me that few students (usually around 18 years old) have any understanding of what it means to be “rational.” They often believe they are rational thinkers because they are good at math or interested in a scientific discipline or eager to study law, medicine, or economics–all factual and rational pursuits, in their minds, though they tend to think based on gut instinct and social upbringing. I have spent considerable time pondering this reality, which affects my pedagogical approach. In the presidential election cycle years the situation seems especially obvious…and problematic.


I wonder how much of the gut/emotion-responses’ validation, retroactively, by “rational thinking” evolves from psychology or human nature, and how much from culture. Culture is due to connectedness influences: we want to be identified as part of, or differentiated from, the community of human beings around us. Psychology overlaps with culture; I may be a bit out-of-date, but it seems that the study of psychology tends a little more toward the individual’s nature, even accounting for the “nurture” aspect of individuality, which is culture-based. And people who are US citizens have by and large been raised in a capitalist culture, a form of capitalism spurred to dazzling speed and pushed into far-reaching areas of culture/nurture by our for-profit media system.

The resulting culture flowered into persuasion-based, desire-based “needs.” My students and I are acculturated into seeing and judging, seeing and desiring, and confusing want with need. That approach works for businesses that need to make a profit; they have to make their audiences yearn for products. Gut-based persuasion works better than rational persuasion; ask any marketing campaign designer. Connecting one person’s “need” with the community’s perceived “need” also works.

These urges are not rational approaches to purchasing, budgeting, prioritizing, or voting. If, however, one’s job is to analyze buying trends, examination of the efficacy of such approaches is rational indeed. Thus analysis, any form of analysis, should be scientific and rational and based upon a genuine understanding of human beings–our natures, our connections, our influences. Call it interdisciplinary, or synergistic.

How can analysts learn about the gut instincts and unreliability and cultural natures of their fellow humans? An excellent way is through studying the arts.

Of course, I would end up here.

Sciences, if we consider them rational pursuits not entirely independent of one another–granted, that is another conversation–likewise should not be independent of the arts and humanities. The visual and kinetic arts produce sensations that feel emotional yet which can be critically analyzed, rationally pursued and discussed. Novels inform readers of the vagaries and irrational motivations of the human heart; they tell us about character and culture and urgency. Poems tell us, in ways that science never has been able to elucidate, what feels most true. (See Fiona Sampson’s article in The New Humanist, though I admit she provides a biased view, as she is editor of that journal).

This semester, my students and I will be examining what it means to be rational in an academic argument. Perhaps we will go further than that, but I do not expect to change their hearts.

alice-heart1 copy

Nagel, on stepping back

From Thomas Nagel’s 1979 Mortal Questions, and still relevant today (as philosophy tends to be), on doubts, questions, and the value of being reflective and skeptical. My italics to emphasize the sentence in paragraph 3:

“Leading a human life is a full-time occupation, to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern.

This fact is so obvious that it is hard to find it extraordinary and important…Yet humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand…they can view it sub specie aeternitatis–and the view is at once sobering and comical.

…this is precisely what provides universal doubt with its object. We step back to find that the whole system of justification and criticism, which controls our choices and supports our claims to rationality, rests on responses and habits that we never question, that we should not know how to defend without circularity, and to which we shall continue to adhere even when they are called into question.


source: Instagram stock photo from sochicat

The things we do or want without reasons, and without requiring reasons–the things that define what is a reason for us and what is not–are the starting points of our skepticism.”

We judge and choose based solely upon our own perceptions and experiences–it seems unnatural to do otherwise; yet stepping back makes it somewhat possible, through listening and observation, to make connections and find relationships with what is Other than ourselves. First, we must agree to feel skeptical about our own view of the world and to pose inquiries and then to shut up and pay attention to someone else’s experience of the human occupation. (See my post here.)

I do, however, admit–as Nagel does–to the limits of philosophy as relates to public policy. Whether reflection can change the methods of oligarchy, capitalism, dictatorships, the Leviathan, revolution, social attitudes, the masses, democracy, or the Republic has already been answered:

“Moral judgment and moral theory certainly apply to public questions, but they are notably ineffective. When powerful interests are involved it is very difficult to change anything by arguments, however cogent, which appeal to decency, humanity, compassion, or fairness. These considerations also have to compete with the more primitive moral sentiments of honor and retribution and respect for strength. The importance of these in our time makes it unwise  in a political argument to condemn aggression and urge altruism…the preservation of honor usually demands a capacity for aggression and resistance to humanity.”

We continue to adhere to unfounded but deeply ingrained notions we cannot rationally justify, and that remains a truly interesting aspect of human life. It is a set of notions I do not criticize nor defend, but which I do think we should question.

Even as we vote–if we bother to vote–with our guts and our resistance to what is Other, even as we defend those powerful interests from which many of us benefit, we should keep up our inquiry and work on becoming more aware of other human beings’ situations and sufferings, joys and social experiences. One thing about the human being and the whole human endeavor: as long as we possess our consciousness, we also retain the startling and magnificent ability to learn new things.

Here’s to life on the anthill.


Steve Tobin, “Termite Hill,” 1999–





The semester is over, and the juncos have returned to my back yard. One thing I have trouble assessing after teaching my class is whether the students have made any inroads into learning the difference between a fact and an opinion, and argument and a disagreement, an interpretation and an analysis. But a response can be any of these things.

Recently I have been entertained by Rebecca Solnit’s responses (as opinion). She’s made a bit of an earnest-minded internet buzz with her brief essay concerning Esquire magazine’s “80 Books All Men Should Read.” [As an aside, I really enjoyed her early book Wanderlust: A History of Walking.] Her opinion piece on Lithub is smart and funny, and she irked many readers; yet I do not see how anyone can argue with her final paragraph:

…that list would have you learn about women from James M. Cain and Philip Roth, who just aren’t the experts you should go to, not when the great oeuvres of Doris Lessing and Louise Erdrich and Elena Ferrante exist. I look over at my hero shelf and see Philip Levine, Rainer Maria Rilke, Virginia Woolf, Shunryu Suzuki, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, Subcomandante Marcos, Eduardo Galeano, Li Young Lee, Gary Snyder, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez. These books are, if they are instructions at all, instructions in extending our identities out into the world, human and nonhuman, in imagination as a great act of empathy that lifts you out of yourself, not locks you down into your gender.

Roth, Caine, Miller– “just aren’t the experts you should go to” if you want to understand half the human species; I love that tongue in cheek understatement. I also love her list of “heroes,” although it doesn’t hurt that she names among them many of my own heroes. She says she reads and re-reads work that she has opinions about–and admits her opinions may not align with the generally-accepted opinions. Which is fine, since she reminds us, quoting Arthur Danto, art can be dangerous, risky, uncomfortable, as long as it means something.

She does raise the point that “[y]ou read enough books in which people like you are disposable, or are dirt, or are silent, absent, or worthless, and it makes an impact on you. Because art makes the world, because it matters, because it makes us. Or breaks us.” In this way, she reminds us that readers are people who may have perspectives that vary from one another, particularly as to the social, psychological, or artistic merit of a piece of literature. Lolita, for example. That’s one book she mentions that evoked considerable response from Lithub commenters.

Rebecca Solnit’s response to her detractors–or “volunteer instructors,” as she calls them at one point–and her willingness to walk around the Himalayas with a medical team (recounted in a recent New Yorker piece) count as reasons her work has moved to the top of my to-read pile of books. I think I will start with Men Explain Things to Me and A Field Guide to Getting Lost.


Synthesis & cigarettes

My students are too young to remember a time when smoking was permitted in public places. They’ve never seen cigarette ads in magazines. While a few of them do smoke, all of them are well aware that smoking can be dangerous. Most 18-year-olds seldom even see people smoking in movies; few celebrities flaunt a cigarette in their promotional shots anymore.

And none of them are aware of the history of anti-smoking campaigns: the legal wrangling, lawsuits, longitudinal studies, public service announcements, warnings, shaming, second-hand smoke claims, discrimination against smokers, tobacco industry lobbies, or the length of time it took to convince the general public that there were genuine risks involved in the addicting and heretofore glamorous habit. Yul Brenner died of cancer in 1985, long before my students were born, so his posthumous anti-smoking public service announcement–which was big news at the time–is not even a blip on their radars. They never saw the famous “Johnny Smoke” cartoon (which terrified me as a child) featuring the frightening and authoritative voice of James Earl Jones.

Why should they know–or care–about the combined efforts of state governments (cigarette taxation), non-profits (The American Lung Association and others), medical researchers, and health advocates…and why should the fact that this process took decades matter to them? Well, maybe they could learn something from this kind of history.

Like the actions of Civil Rights protesters, who employed social advocacy for the stated purpose of changing the expectations and behaviors of citizens, “awareness campaigns” such as those created to reduce smoking offer important lessons about how long it takes to influence large communities and which methods are most likely to be successful. Cass Sunstein notes that most legislation officially becomes the law of the land after the majority of citizens are already practicing the behavior, having individually and privately decided that, say, refraining from cigarette smoking is “common sense.”

An instructor at the college where I work recently assigned his students a synthesis paper in which they were to analyze and consider a JAMA Mozaffarian, Hemenway & Ludwig article–about using public health campaign strategies in an attempt to reduce firearms deaths in the US–along with another source (or two) and then derive, from their expert sources, an approach of their own that might be a step toward decreasing the number of gun-related deaths. His students are freshmen: he did not ask them to anticipate constitutional stumbling-blocks, censorship issues, or other complexities that would–naturally–arise. He did not tell them to propose gun control at all (and only some of them did); he wanted to see what they would come up with and whether they could infer, from the JAMA article, that there are methods other than federal legislation through which social changes can be implemented.

It is a valuable assignment because his students have trouble understanding it. They show up at meetings with me and the peer tutors in writing and they complain and question and wrestle with what the professor wants. What he wants is simple: he wants them to think. He won’t judge their ideas as right or wrong as long as they show that they understand the texts and can think about the complexities.

johnny smoke

Johnny Smoke

Here’s what I love about his assignment: students have to infer, reflect, analyze and synthesize, in the process of which it dawns on many of them that there are no easy answers; the issues are not black-&-white but depend upon perspective and social attitudes–not merely upon individual moral values, parental decrees, or civil laws. In other words: there are many other people in the world. Think about what you, the student and citizen-of-the-globe, can say to those people, respectfully, with some facts that you can convey.

It can be more than an argument. It can be a conversation, from which all of us learn more than a confirmation of our own correctness.


Youthful narcissism

“It’s not all about you.”

zits004(Many thanks to those geniuses of the adolescent mind, Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, creators of Zits.)


…Or is it? Psychologists, neurologists, and even philosophers seem to agree that human beings need to develop through the stage of self-centeredness in order to attain a mature sense of self-in-the-world. We do not recognize the world at large without finding a way to validate or maintain the self or consciousness that we are given.

One method of defining who that self is, what selfhood entails, is through dissent. The two-year-old who shouts “No!” establishes the foundation for the later process of expressing selfhood through making oneself distinct from others–sometimes through disagreement. As I guide my latest freshman class through the understanding of argument as reasoned discourse in an academic environment, one of my purposes is to encourage them to feel free to disagree as long as they can support their reasons for doing so. To accomplish that task, sometimes they have to learn how to “step back” from themselves a bit (see my last post).


Yeats: “We make of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”


I am aware that most of my students’ dissenting opinions will occur outside of the academic environment, i.e., in “real life.” Real life could benefit from a little more reasoned discussion and fewer overheated, intuition-based gut reactions and ad hoc attacks. Often what people (and students) need is what we desperately try to avoid: difficulties, complexities, challenges. Okay, I’m whistling into the wind…still, I’ve written about the topic briefly here.


…and maybe the narcissistic 18-year-olds who come to college subconsciously thinking “it’s all about me” are actually reasonable human beings whose developing conscious awareness of self is ready, (almost), to feel the push-back of the world against the whining ego and recognize that respect and understanding require wide perspectives and differing methods of operating in the world. Maybe they are ready to move beyond mere opinion and into the realm of thinking about thinking, analysis, generosity, compassion…and facts, if we can discern what’s factual.

Maybe they are ready to begin the quarrel with themselves.