It’s not what you know…

My father’s—and uncle’s and grandfather’s—favorite phrase, when discussing the educational and research opportunities I’ve been afforded, is: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” And what really bothers me is that they seem to be right. The summer before freshman year, my dad got me a job sterilizing operating rooms an oral surgery office. The summer before sophomore year, my uncle convinced his friend (a robotic surgeon) to let me shadow him in the ER. The summer before my senior year, my grandfather’s fellow rotary member contacted a former postdoc to get me set up in his lab. Now looking towards graduate and medical school, I’m well-equipped to send out my résumé to all the programs I’m interested and hope something good happens.

In her essay, My Hidden Class-Consciousness, Monica Bielski discusses the difficulties that college students from traditionally “lower” or working class backgrounds face. Namely, not having the built-in knowledge and connections that professional parents tend to afford. As someone who comes from a position of class privilege, I am embarrassed by my own culpability in avoiding the topic of socioeconomic status (SES) with my peers. By ignoring the education and income disparities that exist within Pomona College’s student body, I contribute to the isolation that low-SES students sometimes feel. And that’s wrong.

But I’m not sure that I agree with Bielski’s assessment of why I, as a high-SES student, continue to avoid discussions about class with my peers. Bielski hypothesizes that it’s because I’m ashamed of the advantages I have over my fellow students—and she’s right. But it’s not just about the economic advantages I enjoy. It’s that I’m a white heterosexual male who has economic advantages because of my white heterosexual male-ness. It’s that race and gender are intimately tied to income inequality and SES.

Bielski notes that “Many studies have shown that women and people of color face barriers when they enter the academy, but I never hear discussion of the obstacles that working class students must overcome” (217-218). In fact, she “see[s] class as being more difficult to address than race or gender” because it is readily concealable (219). I disagree. Studies on the “education gap” faced by women and people of color necessarily address SES. Nine-year-old black students, on average, have significant math and reading deficits just by virtue of growing up black—and SES is the principal mediator. Class, in this sense, is not concealable because class is inherently racial. It is a variable in the equation that relates race and educational achievement.

I admire what Bielski is doing in her essay, I do. And as a straight, privileged white boy, I’m the last person who should be critiquing her. But I don’t think you can have a discussion about “just class.” An honest discussion about class necessarily involves race and gender. Because in a sick, twisted way, “It’s not what you know, it’s what you look like.”rothstein1

Fu₵k Vanilla

In his stand-up, comedian Pete Holmes describes in detail what he calls the “fu₵k vanilla” principle. As a general rule, he maintains, most people kind of like vanilla. They don’t LOVE it, and they don’t HATE it. Saying “I like vanilla” ice cream, then, is uncontroversial and usually unfunny. Consequently, most rookie comedians begin their careers ranting against vanilla ice cream (that is, screaming “fu₵k vanilla” at the top of their lungs) even though they may enjoy it privately. Only talented, veteran comedians, Holmes qualifies, can go on at length about kind of liking vanilla in a way that is both engaging and funny.

And why am I telling you this? Because often in my writing I fall prey to the “fu₵k vanilla” principle. If I am ambivalent about a piece, it’s easier to excoriate or glorify the thing than go on at length about how OK it was. And that’s my dilemma here. Stephen M. North’s The Idea of a Writing Center was mildly interesting and made some solid observations, but do I really want to write an in-depth blogpost about how 8.5/10 it was?

Don’t get me wrong, I was struck by what North and other writing center directors have to endure from within their own departments. Depicting writing centers as grammatical “fix-it shops” is beyond insulting, and especially from those faculty who employ and teach academic writing every day. And while I agree with what was said, this piece didn’t really get my blood boiling. I didn’t LOVE it, and I didn’t HATE it.

Now I know I’m not a Writing Partner, but I’d like to think of myself as an advocate for the Writing Center who understands and appreciates its purpose by virtue of taking this class, using its services, and having best friends who are head Partners. I respect the Writing Center’s goal, and I think North effectively demonstrates that a lot of non-English faculty, students, and administrators don’t—and that’s a problem.

And North has a lot of great suggestions and examples as how to rectify that. But at the end of the day, his essay was pretty vanilla. And so, in an effort to go where no writer has gone before, I boldly declare that this essay was just OK!

Content or Style? You choose

In her essay Bam, Amanda Winalski emphasizes content (rather than style) as the principle factor in distinguishing proper “college writing.” Correct grammar and sophisticated vocabulary are helpful only so far as they lend clarity to content. That is, they are a means to an end and not the end itself. Here, I would like to test Winalski’s claim. Which extreme do you prefer: the content-focused paragraph or the style-focused paragraph?

Paragraph #1. The Content-Focused Paragraph

The following is the topic of my thesis: how has neuroscience as a discipline looked at religious experience? What approaches are scientifically valid and/or true to the complex social construct of religious experience? The Modularists believe that there is an area in your brain in the medial temporal lobe that is dedicated solely to religious experience and that activity in this area is necessary and sufficient for religious experience, regardless of any preexisting religio-cognitive schema. An example: one famous Modularist, Michael Persinger, constructed a “God helmet” that purported to use transcranial magnetic stimulation directed at the temporal lobe in order to invoke temporal lobe activity and cause participants to have a religious experience, which was defined as a “felt presence.” Subjects overwhelmingly reported having detected a disembodied or “felt presence” in their immediate vicinity when asked about it on questionnaires and Persinger took this to mean that religious experience was caused by microseizures occurring in the temporal lobe and therefore that hyper-religiosity was an aberrant brain state and that religion grew out of subjective reports from individuals with temporal lobe epilepsy like, perhaps, Muhammad, Paul the Apostle, Joan of Arc, and others who have reported what some interpret to be temporal lobe epilepsy-like symptoms. Cognitivists believe that religious experience is cognitively mediated and is not the result of activity in a single “God spot” in the brain but rather the attribution of meaning to visual and auditory and interoceptive sensory input; they do not believe that we can prove or disprove the validity of religion or even religious experience.

Paragraph #2

For my senior thesis, I intend to explore how, over time, the neuroscientific literature has operationalized and empirically investigated religious experience. Traditionally, religious studies scholars as well as religious practitioners, have been loath to relinquish religious experience (also mystical or spiritual experience) into the purview of science. Nevertheless, an assemblage of eminent neurologists, neuroscientists, and psychopharmacologists has endeavored to apply the latest neuroimaging technology to millennia-old questions about the neural basis of religious experience. By what mechanism (microscopic receptors, localized modules, distributed circuits, or otherwise) does religious experience manifest in the brain? What happens in the brains of tribal shamans, circuit preachers, and the Vatican pope during communication with the divine? For millennia, humankind has pondered over those same existential questions: Why am I here? What is my purpose? Is there something beyond this world? In what scholars have christened the “golden age of neuroscience,” pioneering men and women seek to provide empirical answers to these questions and more.

*in the voice of Ira Glass* Colin Eckstein on “God in Origin Theories”

“Of course. Thank you for having me back. The interview format, while a bit unconventional, certainly lent itself to naturalistic discussion and analysis in week 4. Not to mention meta-commentary, which, speaking of: hello reader.”

“…”

“Today I will be applying Harvey’s ‘Elements of the Academic Essay’ to a piece written by some poor, unskilled Theophilus who may very well be Pam. In which case, you’ve made your point, I promise I will stop making religious references in my blogposts and reflections.”

“…”

“First, the thesis—which, according to Harvey, should be true but ‘not obviously or patently true.’ Contrary to Harvey’s sage advice, however, dear Theophilus ends his first paragraph by asserting thus: ‘In theories of creationism, intelligent design, and evolution, God plays different roles in the origin of life.’ While true, this argument is certainly no new revelation. One would probably assume that different creation narratives depict God as playing different roles by virtue of the fact that they are different creation narratives.”

“…”

“I wish that I were being too harsh! But alas, Theo cannot even deliver on the patently obvious argument set before him. His evidence is entirely inappropriate for his claim. It is not, as Harvey suggests, the ‘right kind of evidence to support the thesis.’ Theo introduces the Hebrew Bible as a singly Christian document and then proceeds to recite the text as if its meaning were self-evident. The early Hebrew people understood the Genesis creation narrative as being figuratively and spiritually (not literally) true. Without ‘breaking down, interpreting, and commenting upon’ the story, Theo is unable to put Genesis chapter 1 into proper historical context—even the literalist context he seems to prefer. By failing to provide proper analysis, Theo grossly misrepresents what the Genesis story ‘means.’”

“…”

“Well… Theo’s misuse of keyterms, or, as Harvey describes them ‘the recurring terms or basic oppositions that an argument rests upon,’ dooms his argument from the start. Theo’s paper is divided into three principal sections discussing creationism, intelligent design, and evolution (i.e. his keyterms). By structuring his paper as such, Theo implies that the three categories are somehow distinct. But here’s the problem: there exist old-earth creationists that affirm evolution as God’s process of intelligent design. There are reformed Rabbis that uphold the sacred creation narrative while rejecting intelligent design in favor of evolution. In other words, Theo’s misunderstanding of key terms makes his argument not only untenable, but unintelligible.”

“…”

“This, I assume, is because Theo derelicts Harvey’s suggestion on sources. Theo should have compiled not only isolated facts, but ‘opinions or interpretations of [his] topic.’ To be honest, I’m impressed as well as disturbed. Theo MacGyvered a four page essay out of Wikipedia snippets, unconnected Bible verses, and sheer bias. And while it fails to represent any past or present state of affairs, the piece certainly covers a lot of ground in a short space. But then again… that’s what Wikipedia is for.”

Did Obama Eat a Squirrel? Clickbait Headlines and Our Obsession with “Newness”

I think this captures a few key observations Olivia made in regards to Gaipa's article. It's a particular favorite of mine.

I think this captures a few key observations Olivia made in regards to Gaipa’s article. It’s a particular favorite of mine.

Turns out Obama didn’t actually eat a squirrel. But now that I’ve got you here…

Check out this cartoon! I think it’s keeping with Gaipa’s own use of cartoons and elaborates on what Olivia said in her blogpost.

Colin Eckstein on the Revision Process (9/17/16)

“Is this too artsy? Too meta? Be honest.”

“…”

“I felt challenged by some of last week’s blog posts to experiment with new formats, so I’m trying something different. I thought an interview might lend itself to ‘dialogue’ and ‘discussion’ and all that we’ve been praising as integral to good writing.”

“…”

“Well, since I’ll be talking about successful writing strategies, I thought I’d begin by outlining what strategies don’t work—at least for me.”

“…”

“Sommers mentions a few: James Britton’s ‘conception-incubation-production,’ Edward Corbett’s ‘inventio-dispositio-elocutio.’ Both linear models of writing that don’t incorporate revision throughout. You get an idea, let it stew, and then transcribe the whole thing fully formed. Sure, you might change a few words here and there, but the essential argument never changes.

“…”

“I thought Sommer’s naturalistic observations (if you can call them that) were particularly telling. Only inexperienced writers actually followed Britton or Corbett’s prescribed formulae. After putting together a first draft, these students never made substantial changes to the structure of their paper or refined their argument. For them, ‘revision’ consisted of getting out their thesaurus and swapping ‘asserts’ or ‘maintains’ for ‘says.’ And sure, that can improve the quality of your paper—but only so much. If you’re only willing to make cosmetic changes, then the overall argument is only going to be as strong (or more likely, weak) as your first draft.”

“…”

The experienced writers took a radically different approach! They conceptualized rewriting as ‘finding the argument’ or ‘mak[ing] the argument more effective.’ Instead of dressing up their preliminary thoughts in fancy language, they fundamentally remade their arguments over the course of several drafts. So at the end, they don’t just sound sophisticated, they are sophisticated. Syntax actually contributes to the clarity of a complex idea instead of masking its simplicity.”

“…”

“Now I never thought I’d be one of those assholes who quotes himself, but I think I painted a nice picture of what this ‘refinement’ process might look like in my recent reflection on writing. For me, ‘The first attempt is clumsy—a rough, chunky slab. But as I continue to chip away, the idea takes shape. Over the course of multiple drafts, I hone my argument.’ Good writing is like sculpting. You can paint the marble slab to give the impression of a man (i.e. improve the word choice of a shallow argument), but it lacks depth. You really have to chisel away at that thing, deconstruct it, to give it proper detail and dimension.”

“…”

“No, I’m glad we did this. Sure, the interview format is pretentious. And this meta-critique of the interview format’s pretentiousness is possibly even worse, but I think I was able to effectively communicate what I think the revision process should look like. For all of Emig’s critiques, I think talking really does lend itself to constructing a fairly sophisticated written argument.”

When your Cog. Sci. has Consequences

Engaging inner-directed theorists from her perspective as an English professor, Bizzell identifies a fundamental flaw in the “‘bottom-to-top fallacy’: the notion that a writer first finds meaning, then puts it into words, then organizes the words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, etc.” (Bizzell, 397). Planning and translating, designated as separate cognitive processes in the Flower-Hayes theory or writing, are in fact ecologically integrated. The granularity of an idea informs how effectively it can be—not only will be, but can be—communicated. In short, “[o]ne can’t have an idea one doesn’t have a word for” (392).

To the detriment of the inner-directed model, “[l]anguage itself is not seen as having a generative force in the planning process” (395). Instead, arguments are conceived wordlessly, as diffuse, nebulous things that  the author-to-be must transcribe. As a scientist, I have plenty of reasons for dismissing the Flower-Hayes theory of writing. The neuroscientific literature suggests that language and labels have the potential not only to modify one’s memory of an event, but change one’s perception of that event in real time. The personal relevance or salience of an event have also been demonstrated to affect perception.

But while the Flower-Hayes theory of writing has empirical holes, I dismiss it for another reason: it does not ring experientially true. I have never, to my knowledge, formulated an argument outside of my internal monologue. At least for mature adults, ideas crystallize as words. What’s more, “thinking and language can never occur free of a social context that conditions them” (390). Ideas are often collaborative things, a product of conversation. Thus, certain cognitive and linguistic formulations are inherent to any concept.

Writing composition must be taught in such a way that respects cognitive and linguistic diversity. Students are capable of thinking and communicating in complex ways—just not always in the ways prescribed. Understandably, students mimic the “discourse conventions” modeled for them by adults in their respective communities (388). It is the responsibility of the teacher, therefore, to familiarize students with unfamiliar academic standards, both lexical and analytic. Students who succeed unaided are not more intuitive or intelligent; they were merely raised in a community that spoke a dialect of “Standard English.”

By examining the cognitive science of writing, we stand to learn something about the way students formulate answers to novel questions. Moreover, the theory we accept has implications for the classroom. If language processing is distinct from problem solving, then students “whose ideas who seem so ill-considered, by academic standards” are simply deficient (388). But if language is, in fact, integral to idea generation, then the education system is failing students who don’t speak academia—not the other way around.