Language & Composition

Mr. Eure | Brewster High School

Political Adversaries and Adversarial Politics

Albany’s a-comin’, die Blitzkriegkinder, and that changes things. The short version of a very long and depressing educational tale is that, yes, you will almost certainly have to take a couple of state-mandated tests of dubious purpose and value; and, yes, you will almost certainly have to do this frequently and soon. Unfortunately, no one in Albany is willing to push back Election Day to accommodate us, so, if we want to continue to study logic and rhetoric in the real world, we’re going to have to balance that (and writing instruction and some zombie rhetoric) with a few soul-obliterating tests.

If you parse the parenthetical in that first paragraph, you’ll find that we’re actually balancing four things, and that we’re actually juggling, not balancing, and that what we are juggling might be chainsaws, and that those chainsaws are on fire:

  1. Real-time policing of logical fallacies in current local and national election campaigns
  2. State testing mandates spawned in the sulphurous bowels of Albany
  3. Writing instruction through the DAMAGES+ rubric
  4. Reading about interesting things like horror films, the uncanny valley, and zombies

The goal is to keep all that in the air without losing a limb—and to treat all of it as a learning opportunity, no matter how Kafkaesque public education becomes. Even that opening paragraph is tied to our current unit on logical fallacies: I’m reasoning sort of speciously and making sweeping generalizations, and I’m manipulating you through prejudicial language, especially with the “soul-obliterating” bit.

The point is that you can pick up the skills and knowledge you need if you invest in everything we do, whether it’s a surprise lecture or a presidential debate that surprised no one. So it is with the political artifacts you’ve submitted. And so it is with this circuitous explanation of what you are doing with them.

First, a bit of history. You began the summer with notes on collaboration and collegiality, including a video that you really ought to rewatch every few weeks, if only to remind yourself that there are people in the world who think that maybe adding more tests to your docket is a bad idea. That summer work was scored as a function of collegiality and collaboration, too. Now you are taking on a rather ambitious political enterprise that must also be scored as a function of your collective growth.

(Are you clicking on each link, by the way? Are you looking up words you don’t recognize, like “Kafkaesque” and “circuitous”? Good, because not doing that wouldn’t really make sense. It’d be a bit like getting the directions in German, deciding that body language is probably enough, and not bothering to ask for a translation.)

If your essays grades are, as that surprise lecture indicated, about precision and ineluctable standards, this kind of work is about fluid, collective knowledge. Which is a fancy way of saying that there is no rubric for this. Your goal is to learn about the structure of logic and logical fallacies while reviewing the basics of manipulative rhetoric (e.g., appeals to pathos in place of support, using prejudicial language); as long as you are actively participating, the artifact analysis can be scored as a sequence of contributions to the overall learning mechanism in here.

To put it metaphorically, what will your role be in building this collaborative engine? Will you translate the plans, fasten the belts in place, or run diagnostics when things start smoking?

The benefit of a softer standard is that a faulty breakdown or error on your part doesn’t translate into a bad grade. One group misidentified a fallacy, missing that it was a straw man argument; another group caught that, and when they correct Group A, it’s going to be ameliorative, not pejorative. One group filled their artifact analysis with prejudicial language—their own prejudicial language, including a reference to “Republican la-la land.” When another group catches that and points out that it’s not objective (and, therefore, not an acceptable part of our blitzkrieg), that will be ameliorative, not pejorative.

(Still looking up those words? Good, because “ameliorative” and “pejorative” are important. You must be the former, and if you slip into the latter, that will be one of the only moments where you lose points.)

That freedom to make mistakes should empower you, not least of all because making mistakes is really the only way to learn anything. The way that school teaches us we’re supposed to learn—the ugly, inefficient drill-and-regurgitate way—doesn’t not work, of course, and that’s one reason that you will see it again when the quizzing on logical fallacies (e.g., prejudicial language like my use of “ugly” and “regurgitate”) and terminology (e.g., DAMAGES+) begins next week. The other reason is that decontextualized regurgitation in education just won’t die; it’s our version of Freddy Krueger, and just about as nightmarishly inventive.

To understand a bit more the mechanism I’m describing, load the following post from this year’s Regents English 10 course:

As you read, you’ll come across a link to a set of adversarial directions. Read that handout. Notice the differences between an AP adversarial and sophomore-level Regents adversarial, viz.

  1. the expected level of investment, and
  2. the threshold for effective contributions.

Another way to say this is that you won’t get points for staying awake or reading aloud. You have to earn points by being accurate and insightful about difficult texts, including real-time political discourse, and there is the possibility that you will earn nothing, even after working hard for a few days.

More history before the assignment (although you ought to have inferred by now what you’re going to do): The first crack at argumentative and logical analysis just ended; now we can look back at how it gave you more than a few opportunities to contribute to the collective learning environment (which is a less Skinner-boxish way of saying “opportunities to earn points”). First, the conversation about the presidential debates on 10/5 let us talk about everything from decorum (you want the second definition) to hasty generalizations (here’s Wikipedia to clear that one up); you earned between nine and 99 points for what you said during those 35 minutes or so. Then a post was created for further discussion, so that anyone who didn’t get to speak in class, or who thought of something clever later, could contribute more.

Well, we might as well break into a new paragraph to note that only four people left comments on that post over the next five days. Instead of the usual accrual of points for an online discussion (see the above adversarial links or this explanation again), they each earned their groups +21 overall. That’s what happens when something is rare; it shoots up in value.

At this point, you haven’t been told exactly what you need to do with those political artifacts. That’s part of the goal—not to obfuscate, of course, but to make you read things more complicated than a single-page handout with a tidy checklist. That kind of assignments isn’t bad, but this is a course in close reading more than it is a course in writing; if you can’t wade through what I give you, your eyes will bleed when you meet William Hazlitt. You have to start coaxing your inchoate intellect into a more definite shape.

(Still clicking and defining? There are some interesting words in that last one, including “inchoate,” which is one of those terms that just looks and sounds great.)

Your assignment is to go onto Google Groups, read everything your peers have posted, fix what you can without my help, fix what you can with my help, and learn from all of it. On Friday or Monday (let’s see how it goes), I will ask you to show me and tell me what you have learned. Show me what you clarified; show me what you expanded; show me what you can do with logical constructions, argumentative rhetoric, and specious reasoning.

We really need to start the lightning war, and that can’t happen unless you can police yourselves as well as we’d like to police politicians. Show me that you can identify which group simply summarized an article, which group revealed its bias far too often, and which group clinically broke down a candidate’s fallacies. You get the boulder moving, I’ll do the heavier lifting, and you’ll earn points as we go.

(And here, buried in the last parenthetical, I’ll give you the checklist you want: For the next four or five days, you should (1) work on your post-mortem at home while (2) completing this fallacy work in class. As always, bring me any questions or concerns.)


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