On Bullshit

I recently found that T.S. Eliot wrote a throwaway poem, “The Triumph of Bullshit,” which many people consider to be the coining of the term bullshit as we understand it today.

Given our current political climate, i.e., the fact-free campaigns of many current political candidates in general and Donald Trump in particular, I was hoping Eliot’s poem would be a statement on the broader culture. Unfortunately it is not. The poem is a petty jab at female poetry critics with the refrain “For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.”

I’m a fan of Eliot in general. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is the founding poem in my origin story as a poet, the first poem that blew my mind and made me think about the world differently. But Eliot has characteristics that I find unseemly: he’s elitist, sometimes anti-Semitic  and given to some statements that people today would find extremist. For instance, in his essay on Baudelaire, he writes:

“So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing; at least we exist.”

This passage sticks out in my mind as the most bullshit statement in poetry that I’ve ever read. I’m using bullshit in a particular way, in this case, a statement made by a major figure that sounds like philosophy but is really nonsense. This sense is different from political bullshit, which I’ll get to later.

Eliot’s statement is ten kinds of bad. The argument relies on an either/or fallacy. As a human, if I’m sitting alone on my couch watching a rerun of Fringe and I sneeze, that sneeze is neither evil or good, it just is. I could imagine a scenario of an evil sneeze wherein I could sneeze extra loud to purposely distract a driver and cause a deadly car accident. But my solo sneeze just is. I suppose you could argue that an involuntary sneeze is not an act in the sense of “do”-ing. But come on. Not all acts are either evil or good. From that premise we get to the faulty conclusion that it’s better to do evil than nothing. Which I’m sure all sorts of evil people have used to justify themselves.

I can think of several caveats to defend Eliot’s passage. He his after all abstracting Baudelaire’s aesthetic from the man’s work, so you could say that this passage Eliot means to say that “In Baudelaire’s mind . . . .” Or you could say that Eliot means that this kind of thinking is endemic to human brains. But the rest of the paragraph says otherwise: “It is true to say that the glory for man is in his capacity for salvation; it is also true to say that his glory is in his capacity for damnation.” Again, this could be some kind of yin-yang, you-need-to-have-evil-to-have-good definition, a Blakean turning things on their heads along the lines of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Okay, but the conclusion I find problematic. I can think of a million cases where it is better to do nothing than to do something evil. So I call bullshit.

But it is erudite bullshit. I’d say a faulty conclusion, but based on extensive research and thought, perhaps due to some arrogance or hubris, but I don’t think it’s a lie, I think it’s what Eliot actually thought.

So it’s bullshit of a different order than Donald Trump bullshit. Trump’s bullshit is all about impressing us. Whereas Eliot is misguided, Trump is dishonest and self-aggrandizing. Here’s Harry Frankfurt on the subject

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

For a man whose attraction for many is that he “tells the truth,” Donald Trumps lies are clearly demonstrable. I mean, we have the internet now. We can look things up.

Besides the big lies, I’m struck by the blatant gaslighting. For example Trump was booed at an event, and on the way out told reporters, “those weren’t boos, those were cheers.”

But concerning the big lie, Trump’s recent call to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. is the biggest bullshit so far. In his announcement he cited two polls. First, a possibly non-existent Pew poll and another poll. He said:

a poll from the Center for Security Policy released data showing “25% of those polled agreed that violence against Americans here in the United States is justified as a part of the global jihad” and 51% of those polled “agreed that Muslims in America should have the choice of being governed according to Shariah.”

He said this, reading from a printout, which is a sure sign he’s laying it on deep. Of course the Center for Security Policy is known to be an anti-Muslim think tank, but more problematically the data was gathered using a self-selected group of people who answered questions on a website. This, in social science, is known as a convenience sample. In academic circles, that’s shorthand for “totally worthless” and the number one warning against such polls is that they are absolutely not generalizable to any larger group. Fact-free bullshit, in other words.

But it doesn’t matter. If you criticize Trump, he deflects. On the morning shows today, he was pathetic. He tried to charm, bully, and red-herring his way out of the criticism, but at least Joe Scarborough stood up to him

Trump’s actually not hard to figure out. He lives by three principles:

  1. There’s no such thing as bad press.
  2. Say whatever benefits me personally.
  3. Never ever admit mistakes or apologize.

The rest, such as always speaking in superlatives, is style. Because he is fabulously wealthy, and therefore not dependent on campaign donations, this mix is toxic. Most people see through him as the great exaggerator, but if you take him at his word, he’s running for Dictator In Chief. It would require unprecedented power for a U.S. President to enact everything he promises he would absolutely do so fast your head would spin.

We’ve seen the pattern before yesterday’s proposed Muslim ban.   Outrageous statement, walking back and/or misdirection, new topic. Yesterday he called for “A total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Today we find out he doesn’t mean American citizens, not exactly “total and complete.” I expect at one point for him to say “I never said ‘total and complete.’”

It’s kind of transparent, but even though he’s not hard to figure out, his staying power in this campaign is perplexing, unless you understand the power of bullshit, which is all but impervious to information.

I began my teaching career at the dawn of the internet as we know it today. I got my first real email address when I began my current job. At the beginning of my career I was frustrated by the amount of bullshit that my students were willing to accept and replicate, and I was also frustrated by the bullshit in the media, especially because I taught academic writing and argumentation. Because of the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle grading papers that contained bullshit required extra work. I hoped for the day when we would realize the information superhighway. I found my students alarmingly uninformed about many issues and thought if they had better access to information there would be less bullshit.

That did not come to pass. People are willing to believe bullshit now more than ever. In fact, what has happened is that people now have easier access to bullshit.   I don’t want this post to turn into a bunch of griping about students, but I am astounded at some of the things I hear a few of them say, such as the Civil War was not about slavery, or that the United States Constitution is based on The Ten Commandments.  It’s not just shocking that some students say these things, but that they say them when they carry around access to huge amounts of information in their pockets. It is a small minority of students who believe such bullshit, but it is also a minority of Americans who are true Trump supporters. I believe that most political differences come from competing values and most of those values are valid. But I have to speak out against fascism and xenophobia.

Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims is ten kinds of bullshit. For many reasons but for one that it is impractical. Again on Morning Joe, when asked how the government would know if someone was Muslim or not at the border he said they would just ask. Because no terrorist would lie about that. A sure sign of bullshit is that it lacks even superficial practicality (deporting all undocumented immigrants, building a 2,000 mile wall at no cost, etc.).

I believe that the greatest force on Earth is denial. People who might still support Trump are in denial of facts. They are understandably afraid of terrorist attacks and economic uncertainty, but when those emotions turn into scapegoating and hatred and support of fascistic ideas, the key ingredient is denial: denying both basic facts and denying other people of their basic humanity. When people cling to fear, they deny reality.  When this behavior accumulates, terrible things are possible, holocausts and pogroms and slavery. Us vs. them. A level of bullshit like no other. Evil bullshit.

For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass, Donald.

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The History of “Innovation”

There I was, thinking myself so clever for coming up with “new” ways to grade papers.

No wonder that new ways to handle the paper load, advances in efficiency in the production of response, have a long history in the teaching of college composition. The use of lay readers (called “reading assistants” at Vassar before they were phased out in 1908) may be one of the earliest, but it was only a harbinger. Here is a short list of shortcuts, with date of earliest record I can find in the post-WWII literature.

  • Mark only the presence of problem, leaving it up to the student to locate and correct it (1940)
  • Use a projector to respond to student writing in class (1942)
  • Use a checklist, or rubberstamped scale of criteria (1950)
  • Hold one-on-one conferences to respond (1946)
  • Have fellow students read and respond to papers (1950)
  • Hold one-on-two or one-on-three conferences to respond (1956)
  • Record comments on audiotape (1958)
  • Respond only to praiseworthy accomplishments (1964)
  • Have students evaluate their own essays (1964)
  • Respond only to a limited number of criteria (1965)
  • Have students use computerized grammar, spelling, or style checkers (1981)
  • Add comments to the student’s digital text with word-processing footnotes or hypertext frames (1983)

Automated Conference Scheduling with Schedule Once

In a recent newsletter, I wrote about using Adobe Connect Pro web conferencing software to hold conferences with students in my online classes.  One burden in this practice is scheduling.  I started this summer with 60 students in my online classes and scheduling and managing that many conferences became a chore.  I used FerrisConnect’s Groups tool to set up one-person groups with a sign-up sheet.  I’d start by creating 75 slots and then manually typing in the time and date for each.  It would take a good twenty to thirty minutes or more each time to set up, and it was also time consuming to add more conferences slots later.

What’s Out There

For this semester, I researched several online scheduling services to see if there was some way to make scheduling more efficient.

For my choice, the system had to meet most of these criteria:

  • Free or inexpensive
  • Easy for students to use
  • Easy to set up many one-person time slots
  • Easy to vary the schedule from week to week
  • Output to a conference list I can follow when I am holding conferences
  • Allows students to reschedule

A lot of the systems I eliminated for complexity.  Most of those were for business and assumed multiple “resources” (i.e. staff) on a regular 9-5 schedule.  My schedule changes every week due to meetings and kids in school, etc., and I do conferences with classes every other week.  Some systems were for medical practices and had the look, feel, and text of a doctor’s office.  And a lot were set up for group meetings instead. After looking at a lot of systems, a couple stood out: Schedule Thing (http://www.schedulething.com/) and Schedule Once (http://www.scheduleonce.com/).

Both Schedule Once and Schedule Thing are easy to set up and have a simple interface.  Schedule Once is ad supported and Schedule Thing is free for one resource (me).  Schedule Thing was originally written for restaurants, so the students would be signing up for “reservations.”  Table for one, I guess.

Using Schedule Once

Although I liked the cleaner interface and lack of ads better in Schedule Thing, I ultimately picked Schedule Once for one reason: setting up my schedule is much easier.  In Schedule Thing, you have to set up regular hours and then block out the time you’re not available.  Schedule Once links to Google Calendar; when I want to set up availability, it loads the calendar and I draw my availability on the calendar with a virtual highlighter pen, so I’m setting up the time I am available rather than setting up the time I’m “not unavailable.”  In other words, I set up my specific availability rather than start with a general schedule.

Here’s how Schedule Once works:

  • I set up my availability
  • I make the link available to students in my course
  • They visit the web site and pick times from a calendar
  • The student and I both get a confirmation email
  • Schedule Once creates an appointment on my Google Calendar

Some of the nice features: the web address for students is short (http://meetme.so/%5Busername%5D).  After I set up availability, if I later block out unavailable time on Google Calendar, Schedule Once will schedule around it.

In order for it to work as I need it, I have to use Schedule Once in “appointment mode” rather than “meeting mode,” which is for coordinating a meeting with multiple people. Also I set up a rule in Lotus Notes to automatically send the email confirmations to a folder so they don’t clog my inbox.

There are a couple of drawbacks to Schedule Once.  There are ads on the student page (though they are unobtrusive).   There’s no way for students to cancel their conferences, although they can just sign up for another one.  By using this site, I’m adding an external product to my process as well, so there’s no University tech support.  Also, even though I start conferences on the half hour and tell it to schedule 30 minute conferences, it offers students some time slots on the quarter hour, so there will be occasional 15 minute gaps.  I guess it thinks I need more breaks!

These are minor drawbacks, though, and so far I am pleased with the system.  It has made scheduling conferences so much easier that I’m using it for my face-to-face classes as well.

Adios Tegrity. Hello Jing!

Tegrity Troubles

After struggling with Tegrity, I’ve decided to switch to Jing for screen capture. Tegrity has had way too many problems.  I’ve had lots of students complain about it.  I’ve switched to using a laptop exclusively and spent two hours yesterday trying to install Tegrity on my laptop (Windows XP)  and record a ten-minute talk for my students. Here are the problems I encountered:

  • The Tegrity recorder would not install unless I used Internet Explorer (you can’t just go to Tegrity’s web site and download the recorder; you have to start a recording online)
  • The installation required two restarts
  • I had to start the recording several times to get around IE’s security settings
  • When recording using IE, I could not switch between PowerPoint and a PDF that I wanted to show my students
  • In order to record and switch screens I had to use FireFox
  • I could not log in using the record function from the Tegrity icon in the system tray

After all those hurdles, I finally recorded my ten-minute video.  I trimmed the first ten seconds of dead air from the front of the video using the Edit screen.  After I went back to the video, I found that ten seconds of video had been removed, but twelve seconds of audio had been removed, making the entire audio track out of sync.

Maybe that was just a server hiccup, but after a few choice words, I decided then an there to ditch Tegrity entirely and find something else.

Jing!

Jing is easy! After you download the client and set up an account,  it lives in a glowing semicircle at the top of the screen, and you just click on it and record a quick video with narration. I’ll do it now.

I recorded a video of me typing this sentence. It took two seconds to start the recording, and as soon as I stop it, it’s available on the screencast.com server in under a minute and you can paste in a link, like this:

http://screencast.com/t/qs9fahg8ZtJ

Jing is nowhere near as robust as Tegrity, but for recording quick videos, which is what I want for my online courses, it is perfect.  I downloaded the software, learned how to use it, and posted my first screencasts in under thirty minutes.

The free version sticks a Jing banner at the beginning and does not record directly from the webcam.  The pro version is only $14.95 a year and adds some features.  You can upload directly to YouTube and record video from the web cam.

Both versions have some limitations.  You can only record up to 5 minutes at a time.  For longer videos, you have to go with Camtasia Studio, which is at the other end of the spectrum in terms of price and features.  Also, with both versions you get a free screencast.com account, but you are limited to 2GB of storage and 2GB of monthly bandwidth.

With the free version though, you can save the videos as .swf files to your computer.  I tried uploading that to YouTube, but it didn’t work.  I did load it into our LMS, and the videos play just fine.  And it is so easy,  you can record a longer video in parts and post the parts.  So, for recording short screencast videos quickly, I think Jing is about perfect!

Learning with BlackBoard Learn 9.1

This semester, I am teaching my face-to-face LITR 286 course with the help of BlackBoard Learn 9.1 (henceforth “BB”), as part of a pilot testing group. Our current Learning Management System will eventually be phased out by BlackBoard, and this system is one possibility for replacing it.

The best compliment I can give BB is that it has become transparent in my classes. In other words, it has become just another of our class tools that my students and I use to communicate and learn. The learning curve for the students seemed the same for using FerrisConnect. I have used BB for the same purposes I used FerrisConnect last semester, with the same results.

These sections of LITR 286 are face-to-face, so I am using BB in a web-assisted teaching mode. I use the site for a number of purposes:

1. A repository for course materials
2. A collection point for team assignments
3. A grade book
4. A conduit for email

Probably the most advanced use I am making of BB so far is for group assignments. I have students arranged into groups of four to five students, and we meet once a week in lab where they complete a team assignment, such as an analysis of a poem. BB has a groups tool, similar to FerrisConnect, so I can create an assignment for a group. One person from the group submits the assignment, and the grade flows back to all the group members when I grade the work. The only problem we’ve had is if a student submits a filename with a number sign in it, I can’t download it; however, BlackBoard is working on the issue.

In the second half of the semester, the teams will work together to produce a longer assignment over several weeks, and I look forward to using the Wiki tool. The Wiki will allow them to collaborate online on a single document and it will allow me to track who contributed what to the document.

I have found the gradebook quite easy to use. It is much faster than FerrisConnect in that you can edit directly inside a cell, much like a spreadsheet, rather than waiting for another window to open and close. There are lots of options for filtering your gradebook view as well to quickly look at all assignments on one screen, for example. Another option is to show just one student’s record across the screen. I’ve found this helpful during conferences when I want to go over grades with a student.

I’ve also used the email tool for communicating to students. The default setting for email is to send email out from BB to the students’ Ferris email addresses (although it still has internal messaging as an option). When they reply to the message it goes to my Lotus email, rather than back to BB. I’ve found this tool a quick way to communicate with students; many students have mentioned that they saw an important announcement on their email accounts when they missed class.

Another positive result was an improptu online peer review session during our snow day earlier in the semester. When I found out the bad weather was coming, I told them on that Monday that we would do peer review online instead of in the lab and they could use lab time if they wanted help with this. I emailed them the instructions later that day. When Ferris closed on our lab day, it turned out we had to do it online, and it worked with few problems (other my putting one student in the wrong group).

There are a number of key differences in the BB system. For example, the course menus are entirely customizable. You can choose to put tools in the course menus, much like on FerrisConnect, but you can put folders there or links to content or whatever you like. It does require careful planning, though. Otherwise, an instructor might end up with a huge list that would be hard to navigate going down the left side of the page.

Another nice feature is to be able to add bits of text or HTML to a page along with links to course items. It makes the individual pages much more customizable. Probably the biggest improvement over FerrisConnect is the fact that the HTML Creator actually works. You can quickly create text online using a word-processor-like interface.

Overall the site runs much faster than FerrisConnect. However, we are using a site hosted by the company, rather than a Ferris-hosted site, with a limited group of students and instructors. As I understand it, Ferris is exploring whether company hosting or Ferris hosting is the best option.

All is not perfect, however, and some people in the pilot have had some hiccups. Some of those issues have to do with learning all the options; because it is robust, there are a lot of settings to deal with sometimes. The biggest drawback right now for me is there is no Grading Forms tool in BB. The company is developing it, however, and plans to have it integrated later this year. Bea Griffith-Cooper from FCTL has been collecting any issues we’ve encountered into a wiki to be part of our pilot group’s overall evaluation.

So far, BB has met my needs as an instructor for a web-assisted course and I see it working well for my online sections as well.

Bb Learn 9.1 First Impressions

I’m taking part in the BlackBoard Learn 9.1 pilot in Spring semester 2011 at Ferris.  This is the system we are considering upgrading to, what some people are calling FerrisConnect 2.  The information about this pilot is posted by the FerrisConnect Advisory Board here:

http://www.ferris.edu/htmls/academics/center/ferrisconnect/fab/FC2-learningMgmtSystem.html

Basically, the idea is that we’re trying Bb Learn 9.1 first and if there are no major troubles, we will begin transitioning soon.  Our current product will be no longer supported after 2013.

My goal with these posts will be to record my impressions during the pilot to share with the campus community.  Being a writing teacher I have my own biases about what a course management system needs to do, so bear in mind these are just one person’s impression.  I also use Ubuntu Linux as my operating system on my personal computer, so compatibility is a concern for me, although I use WindowsXP on my office machine.  I’ll try not to post anything that’s factually incorrect, but will post corrections if I do.

First Impressions

So far, I’ve only spent a couple of hours with the new system in training mode on BlackBoard’s own servers.  We’re in sandbox mode now, just playing, so nothing is integrated yet with our system.  I’ve watched the first training video and played around with some things.  A quick screen shot:

Here are some things I am excited about:

First, there is no more separate Build and Teach tabs, just a simple Edit Mode on/off switch in the top right.  I don’t know yet how this affects grading or anything, but the Off setting shows the student view.

Second, the course menu is highly flexible.  Instead of just the tools living in the course menu as in FerrisConnect, you can add the equivalent of FerrisConnect content links there.  You’re not bound to the home page as the point of entry into the course.

I am also really excited about the new Wiki tool.  I do collaborative writing projects in the course I’m going to pilot next semester (Literature 286: Justice in Literature), and you can put students into groups and track their individual contributions to the group Wiki.

Another thing I really like is the Visual Editor mode.  It is similar to the HTML Creator in FerrisConnect in that it has word processor-style buttons for editing text, but it is different from FerrisConnect in that it actually works. (It never seems to finish loading on the machines I use).  You can easily incorporate files and images into pages online and even YouTube videos via a “mashups” button.

Overall, so far everything seems pretty intuitive to me.  There are key differences in the interface between this and FerrisConnect.  I usually adapt to changes quickly, though (except I still have trouble finding things in Word 2007), and I’ve had fun playing with the new system.

Here are some things I am less excited about:

One key loss in this new system is Grading Forms.  I knew this going in (it’s mentioned as “Rubrics” on page 4 of this report as a loss), but it is a big loss for me personally.  I teach writing courses, some of them completely online, and I use Grading Forms to grade papers and discussion participation.  I don’t know yet if there is some sort of workaround. (Note: according to Mary Holmes, this feature will be added to Bb 9.1 next summer!)

The look of the courses seems to be a standardized corporate gray color.  So far, I’ve found that I can only customize the color of the course menu, which I have.  That may not be all bad; I’ve seen lots of offending color combinations in courses (contrast, people!) and the new course panes use a white background which I’m fond of (as you can tell by my blog). I imported my LITR 286 banner and it kind of clashes with the existing colors.  This could be an administrative option to allow or disallow customization, so I’m not 100% sure of this as an issue yet.

Wrapping up . . .

I’m excited to play with this new toy so far.  I’ll post impressions periodically and cross-link the new posts to Facebook. We’re having training sessions and development sessions over break, so I will post frequently prior to the new semester.  Feel free to email me any questions.