Posts Tagged ‘criticism’

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty. 

This week, I substituted for a colleague, and taught her ENG 211 course for a two-hour class period. Because I know it’s difficult to “embrace” a substitute (even though I’d taught nearly every student in the class before), I planned something fun for the day.

We watched “How Beer Saved the World,”  a one-hour Discovery Channel special available as a 44-minute video available on Netflix. The beerlength of the video is always relevant. Attention spans aren’t what they used to be. The subject matter seemed relevant to my audience of college students, especially as spring break is approaching.

The course is devoted to a study of argument, so the subject matter is irrelevant: the lesson is what matters.

The program is plagued by issues of inconsistent tone, which the students noticed immediately. The intermixture of dreadfully kitschy animation, ultra-serious voice over narration, and a few too many portly experts sipping pints while explaining the merits of beer became worrying. Another issue was the incessant product placement: clearly Miller Brewing and Coors Light offered some (if not all) of the funding dollars for this project. I wanted the students to identify what undermined the effectiveness of the argument back, and they did.

Honestly, it’s easier to teach source material that is flawed, just like it’s easier to write negative reviews. It’s important to note that criticism does serve a vital function, as brilliantly illustrated in Anton Ego’s epiphany in the fabulous film Ratatouille.

A deep understanding of the nature and purposes of critique informs the core of everything I teach and know.

I was impressed by the students’ analysis. They doubted the credibility of the sources. They asked why the negative attributes of beer were not even considered. They were a tough audience. Hurrah!

They also expressed suspicion with regard to the “facts” as presented in the piece. The most interesting definitely required “Googling” for veracity.

Fun Fact #1

The Star-Spangled Banner was based on a melody from a drinking song: Fact.

Fun Fact #2

Louis Pasteur conducted scientific research on beer: Truth, he used milk, beer, and wine in his pasteurization experiments.

Fun Fact #3

Refrigeration was largely the result of efforts by beer makers who wanted to make cold lager year round. Doubtful; my preliminary research suggests that many industries funded research in refrigeration to serve the purposes and needs of the product manufactured.

When beer enthusiasts (or companies, or researchers) want to understand the significance of beer throughout human history, they begin with the supposition that beer had a significant impact on human history, and seek to prove that supposition.

The students wondered asked “why have we never heard this before? Why isn’t in textbooks?”

Despite their willingness to question some facts, they have only just begun (perhaps) to question “fact” as a construct. They still think that all factsalong they’ve been told the whole truth and nothing but the truth!

The lesson represented another step on their path of knowing, the larger realization that all knowledge is more than incomplete. Viewpoint is always skewed. When pictures of the earth taken from space are shown, they are presented as though the spacecraft is “above” the earth, but space isn’t linear. It’s 3-dimensional. The shuttle is off of the earth, away from the earth, at a distance that is neither above, nor below, but outside.

The complexity of knowing is one of its particular beauties. Ultimately, everything we know is limited, but that doesn’t mean we should stop looking for answers.

 

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

21st-century adult life entails entirely too much paperwork. One of my primary aversions is paperwork, which clashes most unpleasantly with my chosen profession. Nurses and doctors encounter paperwork in daily charting. Restaurateurs endure the endless weekly paperwork of inventory and ordering and scheduling. Paperwork comprises a large percentage of the duties and expectations of every profession (whether white color or blue), yet it is rarely mentioned as a path to that profession is undertaken. I’m sure this obfuscation is intentional, as paperwork is as relentless as an avalanche. For teachers, paperwork means grading.

paperwork_overload

Tricia Lunt?

I’ve been trapped under a pile of paperwork all week. I refer to time spent evaluating papers as “going into my grading cave,” since I have little time to focus on anything else. Not counting pages of journals and in-class assignments and online grammar modules, I graded 21 essays on Friday, 18 essays on Monday, 29 essays on Tuesday, and the final set of 21 essays on Wednesday, which is why I’m just now getting to my preferred version of paperwork—my own writing.

I am continually surprised by the amount of time and effort I devote to grading. About 70% of my efforts as a teacher fall under the “grading” heading, which is important work, but difficult and draining on nearly every level. Without even considering the inherent problems of attempting to conduct objective assessment, grading is overwhelming. There are always essays to grade, and a lot of them, and they need to be done immediately, because there are more assignments due next week, and they’ll need to be graded, too.

When I tell my students that grading is challenging, they (kindly) seek to simplify my life by suggesting I just “give them all A’s”. My response includes reading and discussing Roberta Borkat’s satire of higher education, “A Liberating Curriculum.”

Hello, “teachable moment!”

Although grading demands so much, it is an essential part of meaningfully engaging with my students. In order to improve their writing skills, my students must write, and I can only help them develop their writing if I study it closely, considering how their own unique voices might be made stronger, more effective.

Oftentimes, students are shocked by the extent of marks and commentary I make on their essays. I could easily provide even more recommendations, but cannot dally since another stack of essays awaits my attention. Grading offers my students the one-on-one attention they so urgently need, and ultimately deserve. I ask them to pay attention to their language use, to contemplate the validity of their examples, and to develop the logic of their arguments, so I must lead by example and give their work thoughtful consideration as I seek to help them develop useful intellectual skills, writing or otherwise.

grades2Eventually, most students come to respect and value the time and effort professors put in to grading (or evaluating, critiquing, if you like) their work. Even now, I have an email from a former Columbia student expecting my input. Meanwhile, my dance instructor asked me for editing suggestions to improve her studio’s website. I’ve edited countless cover letters and resumes for friends. And when I write anything, I solicit numerous opinions from my trusted colleagues. Just last week, I asked for reaction to the vegetable masala I’d made. Anything good can be made better, and there’s nothing quiet as useful as honest advice.

Grading reveals offers proof of this unassailable truth: criticism is love.

By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty

As I find myself getting older with ever increasing grace, realizing more and more how selflessly I’ve dedicated myself to helping others in myriad ways small and large, and yet still feeling like I should work more to further improve myself, I can end my day on a happy note and look forward to waking up the next day on an upbeat note as well.

I say these things not out of conceit or to blow my own horn–not as something personal, but as business, meaning it’s impersonal and objective, no different from saying that two plus two is four. I’m simply giving an honest appraisal of myself, taking note not only of my successes but also my shortcomings. For like arms and legs, fingers and toes, we humans wherever we happen to live and work and however young or old we may be we all unfortunately have some shortcomings.

This doesn’t mean we’re bad people who are out to harm others and need to be carefully watched and monitored. Nor does it mean we’re bereft of virtues and our lives must, of necessity, turn out badly. Oh contraire. Despite our shortcomings, we’re perfectly capable to doing good things and being regarded, rightly, as good people. So when I describe my virtues and the way grace follows me about, I’m being perfectly objective without ignoring I also suffer some shortcomings, though, since I wish to highlight my honesty, I should mention that these shortcomings seem to be decreasing both in number and severity as I continue working on them.

Of course by publicly making these claims of virtue, I expose myself to the possibility some may dissent from what they believe is my far too rosy account of my person. So be it. For I’m sufficiently convinced my virtues speak for themselves and that enough of you very dear turtles reading this post will find no difficulty agreeing with me and hence rise to my defense should some misguided personage wish unfairly criticize me, for their own purposes, whatever those purposes may be.

I wish to emphasize my virtues here in the Turtle because I believe one of my best traits is the graciousness and good cheer with which I take criticism. I don’t get angry or resentful, nor do I mindlessly lash out at my critic or critics. My response is the precise opposite. I welcome criticism since I view it as an opportunity to grow and mature. Here’s the kind of person I am: If I’m doing something wrong, I want to correct the situation as fast as possible. Criticism isn’t about hurt feelings and defensiveness; it’s about correcting mistakes, growing in depth and breadth, and becoming more accomplished in whatever one’s doing.

Now that you, you ever patient, understanding, and insightful Flaneurite, fully realize where I’m coming from you can better appreciate my immense disappointment in reading the post of a Flaneur reader furiously attacking my previous post about the hopelessly hackneyed phrase “thinking out the box.” This ruthless effort to undermine my integrity and philosophical commitment to clear expression and deep thinking jarred my hard won equanimity. As far as I was concerned the reader willfully chose to misunderstood the point my post was making.

Peter Stern's reaction to Blake Whitmore's critical post.

Peter Stern’s reaction to Blake Whitmore’s critical post.

The critic implied I wanted folks to remain victims of our pedestrian, shallow, mindless , and power crazed country. In fact, my point was precisely the reverse. I wanted to encourage people to think and create for themselves unfettered by mindless cliches about creativity and liberation.

I believe it’s no longer possible to pick up a freshman textbook on writing, or thinking, or communicating, or interpreting without running across the term “thinking out of the box,” so ingrained in the brains of our generation has this unwonderful phrase become. In fact my point was that its cliched status renders it incapable of inspiring genuine creativity and the kind of liberation which encourages becoming a free spirit.

One of the ironies of that phrase is that it conjures up one of the key issues inherent in wanting to go outside today’s system, whatever term we happen to use to describe it. The problem is this: if everyone’s doing it, is what they’re doing really liberation? For instance, if 2/3 of Wall Street traders sport tattoos, are tattoos still tattoos? Or if Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdales sell record numbers of grunge jeans, are grunge jeans still grungy? Or if you prefer let’s ask if almost all poets are writing in free verse is that verse any longer really free?

This is one way to characterize the problem of telling people to think outside the box. Exhorting them to think outside the box places them firmly inside it, with the additional drawback that they mistakenly think they’re really outside it and liberated. In many ways, after discussing Plato’s Cave Parable this week with RMU Humanities Professor Mr. Gerry Dedera,  I thought I could see parallels between the box cliche and the illusions the cave prisoners regarded as real.

Plato's Parable of the Cave illustrated.

Plato’s Parable of the Cave illustrated.

In conclusion, let me say that my critical reader helped me see that I should have stated more explicitly that I thought the box metaphor was the kiss of death, yet that for some people it could indeed inspire them to live a liberated life. On the other hand, implying that most people will be transformed by the notion of going outside a box leaves me cold and worried it’s the box, like Plato’s cave, that they’ll never leave.