Pretty Vague Comments on Writing?

This semester, I’m teaching a mid-level academic writing course and I started out with a definition piece asking students to make an argument about a word. Common stuff, but a fun way to start a class. One student wrote about the historical moment where pretty started to be used as a diminutive kind of intensifier (“You’re pretty smart” isn’t exactly a real compliment, as she pointed out). It was a good paper.

But when writing feedback, I realized how often I use pretty and other words to slightly measure the force of the comments I put on student papers. Looking over a small batch of old drafts, I found pretty, fairly, quite, solid(ly), a little, incredibly, and somewhat. (I hope) I’m at least a little bit more substantial in my comments than this list might suggest, but I started thinking about students’ experiences of this broad class of modifiers. Looking over my comments, I can definitely see the connection between my use of This point is fairly well supported when you say . . . and the critique of holes in the analysis that follows. But if I were to point to just that sentence, would a student really know where on the continuum of writerly success I was plonking them?

I’m thinking that I need to look at some of the corpora of writing feedback that I know are out there, then I need to try to imagine a way to learn about how students read lines like these.

I mean . . . I need to write a dissertation and finish the article I’m working on and get a job and stuff like that. But I want to do this too.

Sales Pitch Medical News

6688082-3x2-340x227In the 6 minutes or so I was in the car this morning, listening to NPR, I caught the tail end of an advertisement for MMR vaccines and a full ad for 3D mammography. Both were only thinly disguised as news pieces. So I’m thinking about NPR and their relationship to the broader medical-industrial machine. For all the claims about being independent media, NPR is 29% funded by corporate sponsorships. It’s a little hard to nail down exactly who these sponsors are because of the way NPR reports funding, but I know that, for instance, they’re supported by the pharmaceutical and medical-technology giant Merck because they announce it between stories once in a while. They’re also funded by the Gates Foundation, which is tied up in medical technology development too.

So, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that medical pieces sound like commercials. But this piece extolling the benefits of 3D mammography seemed worth stopping to look at a bit more closely. It’s a rhetorical storm of positive valuation, working in at least 3 main ways. The first is the enumeration of general benefits (underlined in the sample below). The second is the statement of sentiment-based accolades from the patient’s case (in blue). The third is the specific reiteration that this process facilitates – and maybe even creates – an easy experience (in red). 

When Mary Hu, an administrator in communications with Yale School of Medicine, went to get a mammogram two years ago, she didn’t even know she was getting 3D mammography, also called digital breast tomosynthesis. But she’s glad that’s what she got.

I am really a walking advertisement for early detection through this advanced technology,” she says. Thanks to 3D mammography her doctors found a small, but malignant tumor in her breast. They discovered it at a very early stage.

My treatment was really as easy as it was because we caught it so, so early,” says Hu, who had a lumpectomy to remove the tumor. And because it was detected so early, she didn’t need chemotherapy. Her radiation was done in just three weeks and four days.

If you have to get breast cancer you should do it the way I did; it was small and it was early stage,” says Hu. Today, at 58, Hu remains cancer free.

These positive value statements accumulate together to convey a sense that, because of 3D mammography, which is consistently framed as “easy,” cancer itself was also “easy.” Throughout, the patient is happy, glad, thankful, and willing to advertise. This kind of mammography is presented as a process that isn’t just more thorough or accurate, it is explicitly sold as a truly bizarre commodity: a more preferable experience with cancer.

I wonder, though, if this piece has some similarities to genres of actual advertisements, specifically the more long-form narrative kind. It would be interesting to draw out this kind of analysis I’m doing, but across the whole piece. Other examples would include the praise that it’s easy to get this kind of mammogram because insurance covers it (though it also covers 2D), and the dance around the question of physical discomfort, which the article even manages to put a positive tone on: patients “hardly notice the difference between 2D and 3D” (which, of course, is a little funny considering how much the story leans on patients noticing the difference in other ways).

I wonder if a TV sales pitch would reveal similar choices. Lining up medical ads disguised as news pieces with explicit advertisements could really highlight the ways that even ostensibly non-corporate news does that work for (almost) free. Someday . . .

Performing White Monolingual Arguments

At Cs this year, I was fortunate enough to be on a panel with the amazing Norma Denae Dibrell, Sumyat Thu, and Sara P. Alvarez.

In my talk, I highlighted Emil, an old student and one of the participants in my longitudinal study of Spanish-English students moving from high school through college. In short, Emil has been writing some brilliant pieces of writing that artfully explain a position, then share information to substantiate his view. But, at least according to his professors, he’s not making arguments in the sort of linear claim-subclaim-evidence-warrant-connection-counterclaim form of broader academic argumentative genres.

I argue that such genre-centered feedback (and I’m well aware that the kind of argument his instructors are talking about is the muttiest of mutt genres) is a feature of what Asao Inoue calls a “white racial habitus.” Emil is being held to a narrow view of writing that doesn’t match with his own priorities for learning and sharing knowledge. And that’s some old bullshit.

Here on the other side of the talk, I’m thinking about how to take this work further. Is this about looking critically at ways that Emil’s instructors have perpetuated this white monolingual argument? Is it about highlighting the navigations Emil learned to make, finding little ways to take an end-run around this white racial habitus? Is it about thinking about learning to teach better? Or is it about looking at ways to radically restructure writing and education practices? I mean, it’s all of them. But where to go from here?

Malcolm Gladwell the Empiricist Mansplainer

A good old friend and I hit a bit of a mudpit this weekend and I’ve been sitting soaking in it for a few days.  He sent me a link to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Is Marijuana as Safe as We Think?”and wanted to talk about it. The article had been circulating in the clinic at Pacific College, where his wife is studying acupuncture and my wife did her graduate work. The students and some of the faculty were incensed by Gladwell’s argument that marijuana might not be as medically useful as we make it out to be. My boy couldn’t quite figure out why that was so offensive. I mean, usually acupuncturists aren’t that into the idea of medical, so their distaste for the too-cool Gladwell was a bit surprising. Something else was happening.

Then I realized that when I looked at Gladwell’s article, all I saw was a guy saying Nobody knows anything until empiricism tells them what they can know. And that made me think that the annoying thing about the piece (and a growing mass of public research writing) is that it wasn’t really about weed at all. The argument Gladwell is making seems to be that we should all hold off on our own observations and conclusions until authorized scientific knowledge-makers weigh in.

He tips his hand early on, when he reviews the 2017 National Academies of Health and Medicine report on the current state of research knowledge about cannabinoids. In a series of terse dismissals, he corrects the “widely supposed” benefits of pot. He insists that we just don’t know if it helps with nausea, ALS, Parkinsons, or epilepsy. Those who think it has been helping with their glaucoma for 10 years are probably wrong, Gladwell explains.

So I guess it doesn’t really matter that people have been feeling relief from these disorders. That doesn’t count as data for Gladwell unless these effects are measured by outside observers as part of randomized trials and then communicated in simple sound bites to the public. So my father-in-law’s church friend whose Parkinson’s was visibly affected by marijuana was just fooling herself. The legion of old folks who got glaucoma relief aren’t authorities on their own bodies enough to know if it was pot or their own misguided love of a placebo effect.

And that’s probably why public scholarship – and maybe a lot of sci comm more broadly – rubs folks the wrong way. Clear-cut experiences are shoved off as insufficient ways to know about something. This is probably especially irritating for folks when the study-backed methods of Gladwell-approved medicine had failed so many of them so miserably for so long before weed came along as an alternative option.

I suspect that this is the real reason that the acupuncture med students were so annoyed with Gladwell’s piece. The same kind of argument is made about the treatments practiced in a rapidly-growing number of acupuncture and herbal medicine clinics across America. You can do an easy one-to-one substitution.

Acupuncture is providing relief from chemo side effects? No way. There’s no placebo trial. So it isn’t happening.

But, doc, I feel a lot better than I did before the acupuncture.

That doesn’t mean a thing. 

It probably does to the chemo patient though. Or the addict. Or the person with fibromyalgia who trusted in Gladwell-approved medical institutions for years, but finally got fed up, looked elsewhere, and got the relief they needed.

When writers like Gladwell get to humping empiricism like this, it’s limiting the range of how we can know things. Maybe he believes that’s the only knowledge can be trusted. That’s cool. But there’re a lot of people out there with contradictory evidence. And just telling them that that evidence doesn’t count – that we just need to listen to the smart guys – is a crude way of thinking about knowledge.

Bringing it all Back Home

IMG_0212I’ve been sort of obsessed with thinking about talking about our work outside academia since I first realized that this was going to be my life. A first-gen kid going home and talking about the ways Fox and the second Bush administration were distorting reality, I found myself simultaneously trying to argue politics and explain how I used LexisNexis to prove the points I was making. It was a real mix of ideas and epistemologies, because first I found myself interrupting heated debates by explaining (to equally skeptical but intrigued friends and family) how database searches worked and why an amalgamation of texts, keyword searches, and citations mattered when talking about whether or not members of Hezbollah were good guys or bad guys.

Later on, during my first bout in grad school, in a whiskey-hazed kitchen back home I slipped up and said “It’s like this story this guy Fredric Jameson writes about this fucked up hotel in LA” during a conversation about jobs and real estate in Michigan right before the 2008 debacle. I slurred something about “pretentious shit,” probably apologizing for dropping a citation into conversation with a friend, but had already derailed the night. My boy got it, better than I did really, but we never quite got back to the topic at hand, instead spending the rest of the night talking about why it mattered that somebody else had said something like I was saying and whether it was useful to make abstract connections like Jameson made between the Bonaventure Hotel and finance capital. I just sort of struggled with mashing together ideas and premises and methods and all the rest of it.

Image result for witches, witch-hunting, and women federici pmpressSo when I sat down with Silvia Federici’s Witches, Witch-Hunting, and WomenI was primed to be excited on multiple levels. Her connection between the historical dispossession of women in the nascent moments of capitalist development with structures that continue to justify misogynistic practices today is stunning in its clarity and importance. But even more important was her note that this small book was intended as a more accessible presentation of her earlier Caliban and the Witch.

Obviously, she’s worlds ahead of me, but it seems like Federici is thinking about how to balance content and epistemologies too. So there’s a lot to learn from this masterful little piece. The early parts of the book introduce readers to atrocities committed on female bodies, fueled by the desire to disempower women during the enclosure of the commons in the first great wave of primitive accumulation of capital. But the structure itself is just as instructive. Federici frames the the first chapter in terms of a series of questions: Why speak of witch hunts again (particularly if new facts or cases are not being introduced)? What proof do we have that witch hunts developed out of the new logic of systematic capitalist expropriation of the commons? Isn’t this argument all a bit circumstantial?

All of these questions lead Federici to teach readers not just what happened, but also how we can understand the method of connecting historical trends that have been so deeply-entrenched in capitalist accumulation that no records exist proving them as such. Her critical reading of historical correlations asks readers to think about how two broad trends that exist at the same moment in the same social space could not be related, and it is that lesson that seems so important to talking to broader audiences about the ongoing historical problem of torturing and murdering women as a means of disciplining new zones of capitalist accumulation. So, when I read

There is undoubtedly a direct relation between many cases of witch-hunting and the process of the ‘enclosures,’ as demonstrated by the social composition of the accused, the charges made against them, and the common characterization of the witch as a poor old woman, living alone, dependent on donations from her neighbors, bitterly resenting her marginalization, and often threatening and cursing those who refused to help her

I find myself wondering not just what readers learn here, but what they learn how to do and how they learn to think about the world. This epistemological education is threaded through the text, as Federici encourages readers to see connections between concurrent phenomena like the violent clearing of lands for mining interests and the purportedly benevolent official development plans authored by the World Bank and IMF. In broad sweeping lists of violent acts perpetrated against women across the globe, Federici includes the violence of predatory “micro-credit” that often leads to catastrophes for those the neoliberal lenders claim to be most interested in helping. Putting atrocities side by side encourages readers to do the same – to think about the logical connections between violent attacks on women occupying the commons and the machinations of the global giants pushing for those commons to be expropriated. It is this rhetorical and epistemological inter-weaving that seems so important in Federici’s book. If I end up in a late night kitchen with any old friends over the holidays, I hope I can manage a bit of the same.