Monday, 23 May 2011

Good Points and Straw Men (Or, The Rhetoric That Reduces)

This originally started in my head as a response to an e-book vs. paper book post on Historiann's blog, "Codex Rules, Kindle Drools. (And I told you so)." I posted a comment responding to it, but cut myself off because I could go on all day. Digital publishing is a bit of a hobby horse for me, so I thought I'd continue here. But now I'm here, I think I've said it all before. What's interesting to me right now as I think of it is the way we approach arguments here on the interwebs (and, sometimes, in scholarship). It's the question of posturing that shows up in disputation from Plato down to the present: how do you restate your opponent's argument?

See, when Historiann wrote this: "The only good argument for e-books that I’ve seen recently was from my commenter Susan, who noted their usefulness to people with failing eyesight. That’s not a trivial usefulness, to be sure–but for most scholars, codex [her term for paper publishing, I'm assuming] is still the superior technology. Plus: they aren’t fatally damaged if you take them to the beach or try to read them in the bathtub, and they’re still supremely easy to annotate with a pen or pencil and awesome Post-It technology."

My thought was this: "What a straw man argument is this. But lovely rhetoric."

There's a trope in argument (the source for which I've just spent an hour looking up -- I assume it's in the Rhetorica ad Herrennium, but I can't find where) where one seems to agree with one's opponent on a minor point in order to show that the major point is untenable.

This is something that rhetoricians have been doing for thousands of years. If you go back to read Plato's Symposium, you'll see that it's all about restating your opponent's argument in such a way as to control the outcome. Control the definitions, control the argument, control the outcome. To a degree, we do this instinctively; it's a part of our process of analysis. In reading an argument, we make judgements and react -- not to the initial argument, but to the judgements we have made of it. But sometimes in restating our opponents' arguments in order to refute them, we restate them in such a way as to make them easier to knock down.

Intentional or not (and it can and is used intentionally by some) it can also have a tendency to reduce the scope of an opponent's point of view to something that can be easily overcome: for instance, reducing all the arguments for e-books to "well, they're good for people with bad eyes". Straw men don't fight back.

So that's what this post was going to be about. But I realized as I was writing it that it's just as much about how we treat each other here in the blogosphere.

Case in point, this post, by Larry Swain. It's sparked a lot of debate, during the course of which feelings were hurt and misunderstandings abounded. Most of it, I think, has to do with not what was said, but how and where, and the the ways in which the things that were said were understood and reframed for comment.

Larry's post, if you haven't read it, was well-meaning (and, as it would seem, easily misconstrued) advice to both graduate students and professorial types alike in the wake of K'zoo 2011. I'm going to try to stay away from commenting on the content of the post, because it's not what I want to discuss. Part of the problem with the situation was that a long discussion of the post went on here, at In The Middle in the comment thread to a response by J. J. Cohen. And, as sometimes happens on the interwebs, nobody thought to inform Larry that a discussion that, while ostensibly about his post was in many ways about him, was taking place in a public forum.

Vaulting pointed out to me this morning that the same thing happened re: a while back, and my response was that they didn't have the option of commenting on that site because (if I recall correctly) comment threads weren't enabled there. To me this seems more like a certain post I wrote in 2009 which touched a few nerves. While I meant to discuss a trope in scholarship, a reference to Jeffrey's phrase "originary geotemporality" gave it at least the impression (unintended, I hope you'll believe) of a personal attack. Especially because it was in my own blog, and not in the comment thread to his.

Which leads me back, by a circuitous route, to my main point: as bloggers, where we choose to address a point can be as meaningful as how. Starting a new discussion on one's own blog (as I suppose I'm doing right now) is a way of reframing an argument. Whether we mean it or not, it has an effect on the discussion that can be taken in different ways. Without the full text to which our posts refer, our readers are left to interpret based on those reduced parts of it we have selected to discuss. That's why this post isn't about what Larry said, or what the commenters on Jeffrey's post said he said, or what Larry's follow-up post said they said he said. I'm reframing the issue as about reframing the issue, or at least I'm trying to.

I, of course, would urge that we give each other the benefit of the doubt (and the benefit of rebuttal) but that won't always happen. But as recent events show, it's at least important to remember that the blogosphere (such as it is) is a discussion -- sometimes a heated, frustrating discussion, but a discussion nonetheless -- and that there's a whole new rhetoric of (dare I say it?) geotemporality that comes into effect. Where and when we post is a rhetorical choice in itself.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Post-Kalamazoo Roundup!

Now that Vaulting and I have returned from an excellent Kalamazoo (and had time to recover. Slightly.) there are a number of things I'd like to address. And I'll get to those in good time. But first, I just want to say thank you to everyone who made it fantastic: the presenters in Vaulting's session and my own, the random people who asked all the right questions, the old friends we saw and perhaps drank too much with, and the Richard Rawlinson Center, the University of York, Early Modern Europe, and the mead brewers (sadly now defunct) for providing a proportion of that "too much" free of charge :) I'd also like to blow a great big raspberry at those who lose all interest in you once they realize you're nobody special: to borrow a phrase, "bitter kittens, you ain't so special yourselves." So, here's a brief list of highlights, lowlights, and othermoreconfusinglights of the conference, some or all to be covered at greater length later (I'll leave it to you to decide what's what):

-Doctor Who audiobooks
-The astounding, insane price of petroleum products
-Sharing a bathroom with someone you *actually know* (and like)
-Ethernet (for one) in cell block H
-American Continental Summer for two days followed by English Winter for two days
-Books I can't afford because I'm poor
-Books I can't afford because the used bookseller thinks none of us have heard of abebooks and amazon
-Books I can just barely afford and must buy because it has a chapter that replicates almost exactly what I'm doing OMGWTFBBQ (and now he's writing self-help relationship books.... O_o)
-Very Cheap Amazing Books
-Free Swag
-Sessions run by Venerable Scholars
-Sessions run by Venerable Scholars in part as a 3-day roast of Patrick Conner
-Sessions run by less-venerable scholars who are my friends
-Sessions run by my friends
-Sessions which piss off the Society for Stuffy Old Art Historians (would you like to run a session? Please send us your CV)
-Eminent Scholars who ignore one's nametag
-Eminent Scholars who read one's nametag in order to learn one's name (and not one's social status)
-Eminent Scholars who ask if they can accompany you to lunch in order to further the conversation you're having with them
-Young scholars who engage one in conversation in order to (obviously, blatantly) chat up one's friend
-Drinking in strange (and possibly illegal) places
-Really, really, *really* hilarious waitresses
-Really nice people who show one where to print things before the computer lab opens (which happens to be at the same time as your session)
-The Dance
-Jon Jarrett and Heptarchy Herald headbanging to Bohemian Rhapsody at The Dance
-Half-price books at Powell's on Sunday morning
-Goodbyes to people you saw
-Apologies to people you didn't
-Days of recovery

As I said, some of this will be written about, some not. But it all really happened. I think.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The 5am Post!

I'll tell you what's amazing. Everything. Everything's amazing at 5am.

Well, no, probably not really. But trust me, get little enough sleep and you'll think so too!

Time to head off to Kalamazoo!

Wait, where's my coffee...?

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Good news

As some of you saw on Twitter, I was accepted into a PhD program last month. I'll be starting at Northeast Metropolis University (NEMU) in the PhD in Art History program this fall. I am, to say the least, delighted.

I'm in the extremely fortunate position to already be an employee of NEMU, so it didn't actually matter if I got funding or not - worst case, I do my PhD part-time for free (thanks to NEMU's 100% tuition remission for the first course/semester. The 2nd course, should I ever be so brave, is 90% covered).

In the end, I received what amounts to a good funding package for NEMU humanities departments, but which is unfortunately still a shit deal. I'll be TAing this fall for a pretty nice stipend, but the spring semester funding is only a graduate assistantship for 10 hrs/wk in exchange for tuition remission - no stipend. And there's no guarantee of funding in future years (and it sounds as though there definitely won't be any TAships available for my second year). So, for obvious reasons, I'm keeping my job and taking classes part-time - except for this fall, when I'm somehow going to juggle a full-time job with a 20 hr/wk TAship and a graduate course.

Assuming there are enough hours in the week, this is probably the best possible outcome. I like my job, but more importantly, it pays very well - more than I'll make in academia for the next 10+ years. I don't mind keeping it and studying part-time, but I had been concerned about what this would mean for teaching experience. However, now that I'm TAing a semester, I'll be at the top of the list for future semesters. I'll also be able to teach summer classes. So if all goes well, I'll have a few strong courses under my belt by the time I have to confront the job market.

In the meantime, I'm focusing on saving as much of my income as possible. Once I start the program, my loan payments will all be suspended, and the interest on all but one will freeze. (Can I just say how excited this makes me? My only monthly payments will be rent and my car!) The one that will keep generating interest is, of course, the largest one, but by this fall, it will be more or less equal to my fall stipend. And that's where my stipend will be going. By Christmas, my unsubsidized loan will be gone, and with it, my highest interest rate. And I will have paid off more than half of my MA degree.

Not bad for a first semester PhD student.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Credit Cards

This started out as a comment to Tenured Radical's post, "A Graduation Guide for the Age of Living in Debt". It got a little long, so I've moved it here. But you should go read her post first.

On the topic of credit cards, I'd like to add my two cents: namely, that with a little self-control, a credit card really can be a good thing. Without a credit rating, you can't get cable. You can't get internet service. You can't get a cellphone plan (pay-as-you-go is an option though). You can't get electricity. I know these things because as a Canadian coming to the US, I had to rely on others for these things. Oh I had a Canadian credit rating, but that means diddly south of the border, it seems.

This is what happens when you have a Social Security Number, but no credit rating, and you try to get, say, internet, electricity, etc.:
VerComStar: "What's your SSN?"
Me: *gives SSN*
VerComStar: "Hmmm.. is there anyone else in the household?"

At this point the options are "yes" and you go get them, or "no" and you don't get service.

I had been working in the country legally on that SSN for eighteen months, but because I had no US credit cards, I had no US credit history. Then four months ago the lovely folks at CapitalOwned offered me a parasitic high-interest mastercard, which I took.

I proceeded to use it for one purchase a month, setting aside the money to pay the bill the moment I spent it. When we switched internet providers a month ago, lo and behold: I suddenly existed.

Here's the thing: you don't need to carry a balance to get a credit rating. If you buy one thing on it a month (preferably something you were going to buy anyway, like groceries) and pay it off each and every month, then voila: easy credit score. You exist.

Of course if, as so many young people today, you think that credit cards are for "buying now and paying later" then please, for your own safety, don't get one. And for everyone else's safety, maybe don't leave the house.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Canadian Elections (My Bully Pulpit)

Well I'd say I'm surprised, but I can't, because I'm not. For those of you not in, from, or familiar with Canada, they just had an election. Here's the rundown, out of a parliament of 308 seats:

Conservative Party: 167
New Democratic Party: 102
Liberal Party: 34
Bloq Quebecois: 4
Green Party: 1

On my Facebook wall this morning I woke up to comments like this:

"Just remember for the next 4 years that we are not hostages, we are not victims and we will be neither silent nor polite. We will scream."


"momentous day for the NDP, and yet still a sad, sad day for Canada"

Let me say this now. The Conservative Party went from a minority government to a majority one, because of the same arrogance you can see in these posts. Me, I vote Green. I'm dead chuffed Elizabeth May (leader of the Green Party, for those of you who don't know) got her seat. But neither will I weep for a democratically elected party winning a free and fair election. I'm not arrogant enough to think that just because I don't share the prevailing political opinion (yep, that's right: they won; they prevailed) that it's a "sad day for Canada."

So the rich will get a little richer, the poor will get a little poorer, and we'll waste a little more money than we otherwise would have on the military. And even then, it was the Liberal Party who bought those broken-down diesel subs (yeah that's right, diesel-powered submarines) from the British for an arm and a leg when they last had a majority, so wasting money on the military isn't just a Conservative trait, I guess.

For those of you in the US, just remember: this is a Conservative Party that cannot help but espouse single-payer healthcare, has admitted that it was wrong to push for entry into the Iraq conflict (which we didn't join despite their best efforts), and who has given me, a poor student, money every year because I'm poor. Which is to say that every political party in Canada makes your Democrats look insanely right-wing. The Conservative Party just less so. Oh and most of them don't hate gay people, either.

So I'm taking a wait-and-see approach. I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm not going to like the bills that come out of Ottawa for the next few years, which is why I didn't vote for them. But the Conservative Party just won a fight it didn't start, because the leader of the Liberal Party made the same mistake as those people who are shocked by the outcome this morning: they confused their own political beliefs with those of the country as a whole.

I don't like it, but I can live with it.

Guess I'll just be writing more petitions for the next few years.


And I may have a drink to the bloody nose the separatists got last night, too.