Those of you who left the world of academia long ago might be unaware that there is a debate raging about the humanities. Are college students interested in majoring in the humanities? Are they not? Would they like to, but their practical mind says, “Don’t be a fool. There are no jobs for humanities majors.”
My question is why is this debate even happening? I suspect that students who major in vocational type degrees get their long-sought-after jobs and live happily ever after. Just like students who major in the humanities or liberal arts degrees don’t get jobs related to their degree and live happily ever after.
There is some notion that accompanies attending college which goes something like, “If only we all do this right, we can achieve heaven on earth.” Is that what we (humans) really think?
I say do what you want. I wanted to get good grades and learn about why people behave they way they do. So I majored in sociology. Some people want to become very rich, so they major in fields that lend themselves to making money. Other people want to paint, so they major in art. I don’t see why this is a discussion. Am I missing something?
I want to be the best that I can be. Isn’t that enough? Why do I have to conform to your utopia? How about this: You just do your best rather than worry about forecasting what will happen if nobody studies English or History anymore. And I’ll do the same. And then we’ll see what happens.
I’ve been taking writing courses at UCD since January. One class ended with a pass/fail writing assignment. Failing would also mean failing the course. Below is my passing paper. The assignment was to convince the professor which grade we deserved using by analyzing our previous coursework. It was a class in rhetoric, or the tools that a speaker/writer has at his/her disposal to persuade an audience. The general topic the professor chose to use was the ever appropriate “Gun Control.” We read and analyzed the rhetoric used in several articles including the chapter from Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics which correlated the legalization of abortion to falling crime rates 20 years later. The three types of rhetoric we studied were 1. Logical- if A then B. 2. Ethical – if I you are to be persuaded by me, I must demonstrate credibility to you. 3. Pathetic – An argument can be more persuasive if it literally causes you to have a physical reaction, such as fear, crying, nausea etc. With that said, enjoy the paper. Oh, and I changed the professor’s name. Enjoy.
I’d like you to close your eyes. Visualize with me a day in the not too distant future. The year is 2021. It is Spring. You arrive at the university as always. You notice the air lacks the usually pervasive petroleum scent. You excitedly think, “They did it. They really did it. Clean cars are everywhere.” As you walk to the building, the sound of fabric flapping in the wind rouses you out of a pleasant daydream. You find yourself staring at Old Glory. Wiping away the start of a nostalgic tear, you overhear students discussing Hillary’s inauguration speech indicating to you that she has been reelected President. A smile forms. Nearing the building, you begin to notice several of the students and faculty looking at you and smiling. Worrying first that they’re noticing a fashion faux pas; you give yourself a subtle once-over only to breathe a sigh of relief that everything is as it should be. Walking further you notice the smiles have a certain quality to them; a level of envy, if you will. “I could get used to this.,” you think.
“Is it true?,” one particularly stunning student asks.
“Uhh…,” you stammer.
“Is it true?,” the student repeats, apparently star-struck.
As you search for some clue about what is going on, you see it. How could you not see it? A banner across the entirety of the building reads, “Admits Pete, the ‘Humble’, ‘I wish I could take the credit. But the truth is I owe everything, the skills, the money -everything- to my first English Writing professor, John Smith, who can still be found instructing the art of writing at the University of Colorado Denver.’”
Okay, now open your eyes.
How would you like to live in that future? The university would surely give you a raise. They’d also permit-not just permit-but expect you to capitalize on all the talk show invitations you’d surely receive. There would definitely be a book deal. Heck, maybe my future self would even be gracious enough to be your co-author to ensure you’re rewarded for all your efforts.
There’s a catch though. My future self can’t possibly find it in his heart to pay back people who helped him achieve his dreams if they didn’t actually help. As a professor of mine, there is only thing left for you to do in order to help me make my dream a reality. I need my grade in your class to be a solid “A”. Not a skin-of-my-teeth “A-“; not a what-exactly-did-he-do-to-deserve-it? “A+”; just an “A”.
There are only two data-points from CANVAS (the web-based syllabus) relevant to this discussion. First, I actively participated in every assignment save one. Not just participated mind you, but actively participated. This was best demonstrated by my usually being the first person to post. On top of that, the points that I brought up in student discussions caused people to actually think, while demonstrating that I actually had to think to develop them. No “CTRL C” then “CTRL V” for me. There was even one student who consistently praised my posts for their ability to make her think outside the box. “Pete- Your post’s always stimulate other thoughts for me. I didn’t think about this approach to pathos.” Second, my average to date is 85.9%. If you run the numbers you’ll discover that even a passing grade on this paper leaves me in need of one percentage point in order to mathematically achieve the “A” I think I deserve. Here’s where the 1% comes from: This paper. It is a demonstration of my command of ethical and pathetic rhetoric wrapped in a bow called logical rhetoric. Assuming the paper clearly proves to you that I understand those two types of rhetoric, the only conclusion for you to draw is that I also understand logical rhetoric at an “A” level. When you reach the end of this paper, ask yourself, could other than an “A” student have written this paper? Seriously, to take just one example, could any self-evaluation of my Pathetic Analysis paper better demonstrate my understanding of pathetic rhetoric than this paper’s opening? We’re in agreement then.
Returning to the task at hand, the way ahead, as I see it, has two paths. First, stick to the description of this assignment you offered, in which I’d evaluate my previously demonstrated submitted works in defense of the letter grade argued for in this paper. BO-ring. Or second, accept the challenge you offered in those papers to develop a truly intriguing argument. You see, in my training to become an instructor pilot I was taught that “learning” is defined as “a change in behavior based on experience.” “Learning” therefore is about change, not past performance. This definition is at odds with colloquial peanut-gallery commentary (a southern accent works best), “Ya’ larn somethin’ new every day, don’t ya’?,” isn’t it? Higher education is about learning. Accordingly, I’m choosing to use my 2000 words “gloves off” to make the most persuasive argument I can that I deserve a solid “A”.
The fact that I nearly aced all the minor assignments, makes discussing the big three papers the appropriate place to start. Scoring an 80% on the Logical Analysis gave us (you-professor and me-student) a baseline to work with. That grade and the associated commentary taught me three key things which resulted in raising my respect for you. One, you clearly were going to be reading my papers. Two, you know what you’re doing. Three, I clearly misunderstood the assignment. Oh well. In either case, I found myself very motivated to really try to impress you with my Ethical Analysis.
The 80% I received on the Ethical Analysis could communicate that I didn’t learn from before, but that is not how I interpreted it. This time I was mentally arguing with your stated reasons for the 80%, rather than thinking, “Wow. I totally misunderstood the instructions.” Nothing to do with changing that grade, but rather persuading you that I demonstrably performed at an “A” level in this class, I’d like to discuss your feedback to my Ethical Analysis paper a bit. You wrote, “In the end, I have a hard time seeing how these two threads (he’s wrong, but he’s incredibly persuasive) come together.” The truth that your comment captured was not that these two threads are irreconcilable. Levitt can indeed be wrong or irrelevant on the whole, and at the same time a master of ethical (/logical/pathetic) rhetoric. Where I failed in my analysis was in spelling out that there were two different categories. See the difference? In the first paper, I didn’t understand that there were different types of rhetoric. My previously acquired logical abilities carried me to an 80%. Paper number two showed I still had far to go, but I now understood that there were several nuanced types of rhetoric. In order to develop an intriguing thesis in my analysis of Levitt’s use of ethical rhetoric, I needed to venture to a more abstract analysis of Levitt’s argument than ethical rhetoric. That I did so without explanation is reflected in my grade. In the film “Boondock Saints,” there is a scene where a mob-peon is trying to convince two newly-vigilante brothers that they should let him help them track and kill the bad guys because his position in the mob has given him intimate knowledge of the bad guy’s lifestyles. As he makes his case, he erupts with such passionate reasoning that he starts buying wholesale into the idea himself. In a moment of unmatched hilarity he has the epiphany, “We could kill everyone!” It’s a funny moment precisely because it’s illogical. Killing everyone wouldn’t leave anyone to enjoy the new crime-free society. Similarly, Levitt implies (he is never assertive regarding how his conclusions should be used) either that abortion is okay because it acts as a crime-reduction strategy, which is totally contradictory; or that we need to really make sure that we make babies only when we can care for them according to some standard. This second reason being nothing more than what various groups of people have been saying since the beginning of time. My conclusion remains, Levitt is wrong. Yet, his status as an author of a best-selling book-turned-movie proves he is a master of at least ethical rhetoric. (Along with all the reasons we can single out in an analysis of his use of ethical rhetoric). To be clear, I am not attempting to persuade you that I am right about Levitt here. Instead, my point is that despite the same 80% number grade, I argue that your commentary responding to my analysis of Levitt as “wrong but persuasive” inherently demonstrates that I changed my behavior due to the experience of reading your feedback to my Logical Analysis. Put more simply, your commentary revealed that I had learned.
Then there’s the recently graded Pathetic Analysis. 89%. Oh, and on top of the fact that you thought it nine points stronger-a-paper than the other two, you even wrote, “I do think this is easily your best paper yet.” The result of you teaching is me learning.
How to most effectively use my remaining 500-ish words? One way might be to point out that I am more than aware that this entire paper has been about me. While I’d like to, I can’t take full credit for this. The assignment is to persuade an English Writing professor what grade I’ve earned this semester. I am more than aware that I am taking a tremendous leap of faith by challenging the posted standards for grading this assignment. Just the same, it is worth highlighting that everything in this paper is still applicable even if the student wasn’t me. In fact, I would argue this is one feature of the online English Writing program that I find to be ingenious. I don’t know if anyone thought it through beforehand, but the value of a professor grading a student purely on the student’s written word in an English Writing class is priceless. Over the course of the semester you probably have come to imagine that I am a charismatic, charming and good-looking man. Guilty, all true. And I cannot deny that I normally take full advantage of these qualities in attempting to get what I want in life. I’d be a fool not to, right? But with this online format all those qualities are nullified. I’m left with my words. Throughout, I have only been pleasantly surprised to receive immediate feedback from you and students alike, saying that points I took to be obvious, to my chagrin, actually need explanation. For the first time ever, this grade is not about me, but instead the submitted written words. Therefore, I am totally disinterested in the grade. You must acknowledge that you really don’t know for sure who is writing the words. What if all the words you thought were coming from a human, were actually submitted by a new breakthrough in artificial intelligence called P.E.T.E. or a Persuasive Electronic Typing Entity? Again, this simply illustrates that this grade really isn’t about me. It’s about the work.
That brings us back to square one. After careful self-evaluation, I, Pete or P.E.T.E., am convinced I learned the types of rhetoric, how to analyze other’s use of rhetoric, to purposefully use rhetoric in my own writing, and self-evaluate. I learned this due, in no small part, to the planned content of this course and the individual attention of an expert, you. Could I have performed better on each and every assignment? Always. In the same breath, what grade do I deserve? An “A”. Why? Well, if you don’t know by now, I guess I totally missed my mark. Did I mention the banner will be HUGE?