February 17

Check Your Sources!

I had an epiphany the other day.

I was lecturing to my students about checking their sources. In the professional writing course I teach, we talk a great deal about checking the accuracy, authenticity, objectivity, credibility and currency of sources, especially those that come from the Internet. In an effort to exemplify the objectivity I was describing, I used “The Daily Show” as an example. “If you don’t pay attention, if you don’t realize that it’s a satire rather than a real news show,” I explained, “you could be taken in and end up getting your facts all wrong. You have to know your source.”

At that point, one of my students raised his hand and said, “So how do professional journalists screw up so often? Don’t they check their sources? Those idiots at Fox News must really not be paying attention. They make so many mistakes.” This comment got quite a laugh and stirred up some discussion about the erroneous Barack Obama story perpetuated by that network.

And then it hit me.

I’ve been complaining on this blog for some time about my conservative friends’ and family members’ baiting me over my liberal views. They make these wild claims and then accuse me of being too young and naive to realize how wrong I am. And these folks are quoting bad sources, biased sources, uncorroborated sources.

My friend’s grandmother – the woman who gave me the anti-Muslim rant and insisted Obama is a terrorist – she was quoting a Fox News story that was later recanted (very subtly recanted, I might add).

My uncle – who insisted that our forces DID find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – he was quoting Fox as well. As a matter of fact, I can’t find any reliable source that confirms Iraq’s possession of WMD’s. They had some nasty stuff, but most of it was old and none of it was deliverable to the United States. Fox News, however, neglected to give the complete details. Of course.

Even my very sweet and well-meaning mother – who had decided to hate the Colts because “they” were selling Super Bowl tickets for $15,000 each – she had not checked her source either. The Colts were most definitely NOT selling Super Bowl tickets for that much. The story had come off the Internet, and it was an eBay seller who had jacked the price so high, not the Colts organization.

So who’s naive? I may be young, but I in this world of instant news, web bloggers and 24-hours cable news networks, my relative youth is an advantage: I don’t trust everything I read or see on TV. Unlike my older friends and relatives, who grew up believing every word spoken by trustworthy journalists such as Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, I have spent most of my life in the electronic age. I know that e-mail is not to be trusted because people just forward stuff without even checking it. I know that no cable news show is completely reliable because they’re in such a hurry to break the story before everyone else that they publish first and check later.

My sincere hope is that, as the Baby Boomers leave us, the more techno-savvy and source-cynical younger generations will grow weary of this slipshod reporting, and Fox News will die a painful death. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

August 31

All Day Kindergarten

At a department meeting the other day, the topic turned to kindergarten. My son just started, and much to my surprise, he is enjoying it immensely. As I was expressing my delight, someone asked me what I thought of all-day kindergarten. As anyone who has read this blog before already knows, I am rather opinionated; I jumped up on my soapbox to expound upon the evils of this idea. I was quickly reminded, however, that I work in a university because several people stepped up to provide a different perspective.

Unlike most people who deign to disagree with me, my colleagues in academia usually tend to be very diplomatic and polite in debate. This occasion was no different. So instead of feeling attacked and belittled, I was intrigued. So intrigued, in fact, that I have let the discussion ramble around in my head for a while before trying to write about it. It’s complicated, and I had never really considered the opposing view much before now. Here is what my colleagues brought up:

  1. Many children need the structure a kindergarten classroom provides, and the more the better.
  2. Many parents cannot keep up with the needs and demands of a kindergartener all day long.
  3. Half-day kindergarten creates scheduling havoc for working parents.
  4. Most other states provide full-day kindergarten, so Indiana’s children are falling behind the rest of the nation.

After several days’ consideration, I’ve decided to modify my stance. I would like to see free all-day kindergarten as an option for public school students. (It is an option in some places, but it costs parents money.) I am still opposed to mandatory all-day kindergarten, though, and here is why.

  1. Yes, some children need more structure. Some are holy terrors at home, but they tend to calm down in a classroom setting. Other children, however, thrive in less structured environments. My son is very bright, independent and creative. At home I have given him as much freedom as possible with as many opportunities and tools for learning as I can provide without making him sit down and do structured activities on a strict schedule. I believe that part of the reason he is now enjoying school so much is that he enjoys a little structure as a change of pace, but I fear that when he goes to first grade, the full day will squelch his active imagination. Full-day kindergarten may be right for some kids, but they are still only five or six years old. If they can be free, let them be free a while longer.
  2. Yes, some parents have a hard time keeping up with a kindergartener. They are demanding little critters. But the parents are the ones who decided to have children, not the state government or the taxpayers. Why should the state foot the bill for all-day kindergarten just because some parents are too tired to run after their kid anymore? And what makes people think that a teacher with 25 of the active little darlings is going to be able to deal with them better than their parents?
  3. Half-day kindergarten is a scheduling nightmare for working parents. It’s also a scheduling nightmare for stay-at-home parents and for parents who work part-time. But public school is supposed to be more than state-sponsored daycare, and I think it’s more important to consider the needs of the child than the schedules of the adults. The hassle of arranging for childcare should be the last concern of parents trying to decide whether to put their child in part-time or full-time kindergarten.
  4. Finally, there is the issue of Indiana’s falling behind the states that are offering free full-day kindergarten. Now, I’ve never been one to do something just because everyone else is doing it, but I’ve also never been one to tout Indiana’s educational system as superior. If other states are offering all-day kindergarten, good for them. I don’t think Indiana should just assume that we need to do it just because everyone else is, though. This state is falling behind educationally for a lot of reasons, and we must use our limited funds to address the most pressing of those reasons. Kindergarten is important, but I’d like to see some studies that indicate full-day kindergarten students end up with higher GPA’s in high school or that they are more likely to graduate or go to college or something concrete like that. Don’t just tell me that everybody else is doing it. Tell me why it is good that everybody else is doing it.

Here’s my last point, and then I will shut up. Say we do add four more hours to the school day. What exactly will we be adding? If you have children for the entire day, you have to feed them. You’re down to three and a half hours. Hopefully, they’ll add some physical playtime, preferably outside since this state is already struggling with overweight kids. Now we’re down to two and a half or three hours. I don’t know many five- or six-year-olds who can sit still and concentrate for more than about half an hour at a time, so you will have to incorporate some other unstructured, free time. Now you’re down to about two hours. For little children in school for the first time, eight hours is a lot of time away from parents just for a couple extra hours of instruction.

So despite the thoughtful comments of my colleagues, I’m not on the all-day kindergarten bandwagon yet. It would be a nice option for some kids, but it really is already. People just don’t want to pay for it. I’d still hate to see it mandatory. Let our kids be kids for just a little longer.

August 25

First Day of School

I have always loved the first day of school – meeting your new teachers, seeing your classmates, buying new textbooks, pencils and notebooks. There is so much promise and opportunity in the air, you can actually smell it, like newness in a car. There is the promise of learning wonderful new things, the opportunity to make new friends or even to become someone new yourself.

When I was a kid, I would spend the whole summer planning my new persona for fall. On vacations, I would specifically look for and purchase souvenirs that would help me create this exciting and totally different Jennifer – wild-child earrings, hippie bandanas, preppy polo shirts. Many hours would be spent in deciding exactly what clothes and accessories would be worn on that first day, how my hair would be done, which perfume would be spritzed.

My son started kindergarten last week, and when I wasn’t being either a sentimental slob or an anxious basket-case, I was reveling in the first-day atmosphere. Even the five- and six-year-old kids could feel it. They strutted around their classrooms, sporting their new haircuts and backpacks, chattering happily about their teachers and getting to know one another.

Yesterday was our first day back at the university, and the feeling was the same, just with older faces and different props. Eighteen-, nineteen-year-olds, even twenty- and thirty-somethings were loudly talking on their cell phones or self-consciously playing with their new MP3 players as they waited in line to buy books. A former student stopped me to say hello, and I barely recognized him with his dark tan, wild new hairstyle, and recent nose piercing. Nose piercing may not be my thing, but I could certainly relate to why he was adopting his new look – first-day-of-school excitement.

Even students who don’t like school generally get into the spirit. Think about it. How often did you ever hear people sincerely gripe and whine about school on the first day? Sure, some of the tough guys would complain, but it always felt like they were just going through the motions. They too were pretty excited about seeing their buddies again and getting out of the summer doldrums.

Teachers aren’t immune either, though you might think we would be after years and years of school. We get a kind of high out of those first days, even with the chaos of preparing syllabi, juggling administrative paperwork, and making copies. Most of us love our subjects, and we’re happy to come back to share them with our students. Plus, it’s fascinating to see who will end up in our classrooms and how the dynamics will fall out.

Of course, after a few weeks, the newness starts to wear off like new car smell does. After a while, you start to take it for granted. It becomes routine. All the promise turns into work, and the opportunities turn into deadlines. School is hard. How many days until winter break?

August 10

Don’t Believe (or Forward) Every E-Mail You Read!

This morning, a very nice and well-meaning friend e-mailed me a dreadful “article” masquerading as history, and I couldn’t resist ripping it to shreds. I guess I’ve just gotten tired of everyone in Indiana assuming I’m a conservative Republican and forwarding me this kind of stuff. I hope I didn’t make my friend mad – I really like him- but it is just such drivel, I couldn’t handle it. If you feel the need to see it first-hand, here’s a link:

http://righttruth.typepad.com/right_truth/2006/03/historical_revi.html

It is an essay that tries to justify the war in Iraq by comparing it to World War II with Saddam Hussein playing the part of Hitler and various other groups (“militant Muslims,” “Jihadists,” al-Qaeda” – the author doesn’t seem quite sure and uses these terms interchangeably) playing the part of the Nazis. Like most pieces of far-right propaganda, it has many serious problems. As a professional writer and a composition teacher who teaches a class focusing on research, purpose, and audience, I feel qualified to explain some of these.

First, we have problems with research; the article is full of big leaps in logic, many of which build on one another with no research to support any of them. For example, “Had Hitler… invaded England in 1940 or 1941, there would have been no England for the US and the Brits to use as a staging ground to prepare an assault on Nazi Europe. England would not have been able to run its North African campaign to help take a little pressure off Russia while America geared up for battle, and today Europe would very probably be run by the Nazis, the Third Reich, and, isolated and without any allies (not even the Brits), the US would very probably have had to cede Asia to the Japanese, who were basically Nazis by another name then, and the world we live in today would be very different and much worse.” That’s quite a lot to assume in just two sentences! Especially with no support from a credible source. I suppose all these conjectures might have turned out to be true, but they are just as likely not to have.

Then there are problems with purpose. The author seems to be trying to justify the war in Iraq; however, he keeps undermining his own argument by quoting staggering statistics and frightening figures: “The US has taken more than 2,000 KIA in Iraq in 3 years. The US took more than 4,000 Killed in action on the morning of June 6, 1944, the first day of the Normandy Invasion to rid Europe of Nazi Imperialism.” So we’re supposed to feel better about the thousands of young Americans killed in Iraq because it’s less than the 4,000 we lost in 1944? At some point, the numbers get so high as to be meaningless to most readers. The casualties all terrifying.

He also seems to be trying to convince his audience that they are foolish not to support the war in Iraq. Well, as a professional writer, I can tell you that most audiences are not really keen on being told repeatedly that they have “short attention spans.” Readers have a tendency not to listen to authors who insult them.

Then there are problems with audience. I cannot really decide who this author wants to reach. If he’s trying to convince liberals, he probably shouldn’t call them names. As a matter of fact, if he wants to reach any Americans, who he says watch too much TV and have such “short attention spans,” he should probably make his essay quite a bit shorter. He says our students need to be better educated in history so their perspective will be “clear,” but then he bandies about terms such as “Inquisition” and “Reformation” without explaining their origins or ramifications. If his intended audience is poorly educated young people, he should do them the service of explaining these terms. To label the two current sides with this kind of shorthand smacks of stereotypical propaganda, which uses vague references to famous events or figures in history to rationalize a point to an audience that has insufficient background to debate the point on an informed basis. The entire thing relies on its audience’s complicity and/or ignorance to prove its point.

Finally, since I teach a course on analyzing your sources for authenticity, authority and currency, I checked this “article” out. There’s nothing on this guy Raymond S. Kraft except an entry in the California Bar Association’s site saying that his license is inactive. I checked the Yahoo Yellow Pages for Loomis, California, and he doesn’t appear to be a practicing attorney there. And as far as I can tell, this was never actually published anywhere significant. *Sigh* Why are people so willing to believe everything they see in print? And for God’s sake, why do they turn it into a viral e-mail?!

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August 10

Hoosiers – Think Before You Write!

You know those people you see on the news after some kind of disaster? Somehow, those reporters always manage to find the dumbest people to interview – people with only six teeth and fewer IQ points. Well, I’m starting to think that those idiots are multiplying exponentially, and they’re beginning to speak out more and more! What’s particularly mortifying to me is that many of these outspoken morons are from my home state.

Today, for instance, I was reading an article on Yahoo! and was disappointed to see an editorial comment about stem cell research from some guy in Indianapolis. Here is the exact quote: “If stem cells were proved to prolong life, rather than just imagined to do so, we would need no research.” Brilliant, huh? Obviously, the guy’s a little confused about the scientific process. I mean, how are you going to prove something without doing research?

I ran across another doozy in the Indianapolis Star last week. A woman was outraged at an article that dared to mention a new mother was breastfeeding her child. The editorial writer insisted that this detail was offensive and unnecessary since breastfeeding has nothing to do with giving birth. Hmm… has she tried to breastfeed a child without giving birth first?

Most of these morons seem to be very conservative. I don’t know if that’s a cause or an effect: are they morons because they’re conservative or are they conservative because they’re morons? Not sure which is the case, but there certainly appears to be some kind of connection. Maybe they’re just really poor writers, and they need help expressing their ideas more clearly.

Whatever the reason, they’re only adding to the state’s reputation for being backward. Indiana has more fat people and more smokers than the rest of the country. We also lose more of our college graduates than most other states. So I guess we’re left with all the uneducated people who eat and smoke all they want, ignoring the wisdom of medical science. Hey, now, that explains the two idiots above pretty well, huh?