Thursday, January 10, 2013

Writing Part 4: How *Our* Comprehension of Ourselves Affects Our Comprehension of Others

NOTE:  I promise not to try to change the world in this post.  But if you have patience through the explanation of the problem, you will see be better able to understand the beginning of the solutions I am proposing.

Twelve years ago I finished a class on the underworld in literature and, after writing a required response on it, made the mistake of telling my professor, "I didn't much care for The Wonderfulle Yeare."  I have never forgotten his response.

"I don't give a rat's *ss whether you cared for it or not.  I'm asking why the people of seventeenth century London found it so profound."

This response has epitomized for me the major quandary, predicament, and fallacy underlying both the teaching of comprehension and literature and the way we approach grading our writing in response to it.

The quandary:  Whose intention and interpretation really matters?  The theorists are divided on this matter, and they ride the ocean waves and the tides moving back and forth over generations.  It's the author's intent.  It's the reader's intent.  It's the interpretation that the society at large had.  And then, of course, if it's the interpretation that the society at large had, we must beg the question--which society, when, and where?

The predicament:  What works to teach and how to teach them? Here again, some works are taught based on artistry (as measured in whose eyes?), some on their seminal nature (but seminal in which group?), and some on their influence (but influence in which circle?)

The fallacy:  That any one interpretation in the grand scheme of things is more valid than another. (More arguments on this point later.)

I am not arguing that these are invalid questions, that we should throw up our hands, or that every interpretation is equally valid and therefore we should not teach any interpretation at all.  That's not my point.

My point is this:  The questions we ask that form the basis of our teaching are, and will likely always be, problematic.  

Therefore, recognizing that students may have difficulty with the logic behind our conclusions, we might find ways of
  1. Recognizing our bias; 
  2. Opening our minds to consider other alternatives; 
  3. Validating the views of the students while at the same time teaching them the necessary rhetoric to prove (or at least present) their points to other less-enlightened/less open-minded audiences; 
  4. Presenting and helping students equally value the "accepted" or "canonical" interpretations of the works as they do their own (not more than their own, and this is hugely important.  A student's take matters, and, in fact, most of us authors write because we recognize that there will be generations of readers with different takes on us and that EXCITES us.)
So, briefly, I'm going to outline the first of these four points.

Recognizing our bias

A word of advice:  You can try reading books written by authors
who are "other" than you, as so very many people suggest--from
the professors writing diversified syllabi to cultural experts like
Derald Wing Sue.  It is a very inefficient way of recognizing
your own bias and confronting it.

To give you just a very quick example, about a dozen years ago, I took a class on cultural difference, and the instructors tried very hard to get us to "feel" difference in stories.  And, I have to admit, the whole process was rather like Kathryn Schulz's description of being wrong in her eponymous book (and also discussed in her TED talk here).  I didn't know I was missing anything at all until some ethnically Indian students in the class said, "Well, it's obviously happening during diwali," at which point most of us said, "Huh?" because it totally wasn't obvious to us.  Later the students filled us poor unsophisticated readers in on the clues:  the time of year, the menu, the fireworks.

Then our teachers asked us, "So when did you feel the difference?"  Is this a trick question?  I wondered.  I didn't feel any difference until I heard someone else's interpretation of the piece (now this discord does occasionally happen within books too, but it generally takes the form of a "What the heck?", "Why on earth?", or "What am I missing?" when a character draws a conclusion that we clearly wouldn't make).  And of course, this tendency to fill in gaps with what we expect instead of searching for what is actually missing is actually recorded a number of places.  In reading comprehension specifically, several researchers have described the ways that readers of differing backgrounds fill in holes in stories that fit in with their pre-existing schemas.  In other fields also, this tendency to explain or fill in with a created story or assumed reason--sometimes called confabulation--has been written about extensively.

So how do we recognize our biases?  I have come to find a faster way. 
Flash forward about eight years.  Now I am sitting in a classroom at Kyungpook National University in Daegu, South Korea, watching a Korean English teacher discuss the role of media, particularly movies, in the English-learning classroom.  He is showing us the finale of "The Dead Poet Society."

He concludes (and I am remembering to the best of my ability), "The lesson in this movie is clear.  The teacher fails his students by not teaching them how to think as they are expected as well as to think in new ways.  When his students climb on the desks, they demonstrate the power of a teacher over his students. While he loves his students, he sees his own failure."

And I know both from the murmurs and from discussions after the fact that perhaps every Western English teacher in the audience disagreed with his analysis at that moment.  Clearly, the point of the movie was that one had to think on one's own, to be able to step outside the conventional perspective to look at what is really there.  Mr. Keating's response comes because he realizes that many of his students have learned this lesson at a very painful cost--one that may not need have been paid in order to learn the lesson but which was paid nonetheless.

And yet...  the Korean English teacher's point is well taken.  That perspective is there too, if we choose to look for it.  And we Western English teachers were content to look at him from our desks while he stands on his desk down at us from his other perspective.  Obviously, had Neil just obeyed his father for a few more months, he could have escaped his father's controlling grasp.  Legally (though likely not socially or financially), Neil would have been free of his father in less than a year.  If Mr. Keating had stressed that there is a time for civil disobedience and a time for compliance, perhaps Neil would have lived.  The Korean English teacher is not wrong.  The movie offers us plenty of evidence to support his claims.

But, paraphrasing my professor, it doesn't matter to most of us, who happen to be deciding what matters, what those outside of our group or our area of study think.  We merely want the reiteration of the implications in our minds, not anyone else's.

The fastest way to recognize our bias is this:  to listen to someone else's opinion and have a very strong and immediate feeling that they are wrong.  You may say that this feeling is validated, that you are able to find reasons for it.  I will tell you with 99% certainty that you are in denial--and there's quite a bit of evidence to support this claim.  Our quick gut reactions are based on automatisms (automatic thinking from ingrained thinking patterns), not a rational look at the evidence.  Jonathan Haidt spends a fair amount of time discussing the research behind this evidence in his book The Happiness Hypothesis.

When you have the feeling that something is *just* some way, chances are that you are *just* biased.  And this is not BAD!  We are all biased.  The important thing is to recognize our bias (and the biases of others if we can) and use what we know to counteract and harness it.

So you're biased.  Now what?

Well, actually, the next step is to determine how others, particularly your students, feel.  And if you are in the majority and share the bias of the grading/scoring/evaluating culture but your students don't, then your next step is to teach them to recognize this bias and find ways to articulate it without making them feel that their voice is any less valid BUT while not overtly telling the majority culture that they're wrong either (because most of us just quit listening once we've been called wrong).  Like it or not, most of us cannot quickly overcome our biases to do our supposedly objective jobs--like grading.  Repeated studies on bias and overcoming are discussed by Jonathan Haidt, among others.  Teaching our "other" students to recognize and play to the majority bias when they need to and to give them the tools to challenge that bias in places that actually have a chance of making a difference is a crucial function of a teacher.  But there are steps to accomplishing that goal.  And we need to move one step at a time.

So how do we do introduce our students to the majority opinion without their feeling that their own view is invalid or undervalued?  Well, we open our students' minds to other alternatives by opening our own minds to other alternatives, particularly their alternatives, through empathy and active listening.  And that is the subject of my next post.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Writing Part 3: What Reading Comprehension Questions Tell Us About Writing

There are three fundamental types of reading comprehension questions currently utilized in testing students:
  1. Literal Comprehension Questions
  2. Inference Comprehension Questions
  3. Evaluative Comprehension Questions
(,,, I have not found the seminal work introducing these questions, but the types are commonly listed in educational books and websites, and they essentially follow Bloom's Taxonomy).

Of note, these questions are commonly applied to all sorts of different texts--from fiction to nonfiction--across all grade levels--from kindergarten to college.  Therefore, these types of questions ought to reveal to us writers what expert readers (i.e., test-makers) determine that the average person ought to be able to discern from any given text.

Literal comprehension questions are generally, "Can you read?" type questions, literally.  The Iowa Test of Basic Skills reading comprehension for grade 1 literally asks students to match the word to the picture.  A literal SAT question, taken from the College Board's own example, would look like:

In line 5, "surveying" most nearly means

What do literal questions teach us about writing?

Literal questions teach us the importance of facts and evidence.  In most academic writing, this evidence is going to take the form of quotations, data, results, statistics, dates, acts/laws, and other similar facts.  In news writing, you'll often be looking at quotations, numbers, pictures, etc.  In business writing, this evidence will usually take the form of procedure, analysis, and statistics.  In technical writing, you're looking at repeatability, procedure, specificity, and clarity.  In creative writing, evidence most often takes the form of scenes.  It will matter very much whether you conform to your genre's idea regarding evidence when you write and also whether you conform to your audience's idea of evidence.  Note, for example, how pop-psychology and motivational books often incorporate novel-like scenes.  That inclusion stems from publishing companies' understanding that the people who buy these books most often read novels before they turned to this genre and think of evidence in terms of scenes.  Therefore, they have asked authors to include scenes in their work.  Ta-DAH!  The work is suddenly accessible.

Literal questions also show us the importance of directing the reader implicitly through straightforward words to the relationship between what came before and what will happen next.  As the Project Read website link clearly explains, recalling a series of events is a literal question, but it's one that leads to an inference question.  In other words, the ability of a reader to infer is directly related to how well an author literally lexically directly portrays the logic and sequence of what is happening now.

Inference questions ask the reader, in the context of what is known (i.e., what has been literal), what might also be known.  Inference questions include questions like, "Given that we know Mom hates dirt in the house, how do we think she will feel when Ruby and Sue, who we know have been playing in mud puddles, walk through the front door?" and "Since you know that it's dark outside, during what time of day do you think that the action is taking place?" 

Again from the College Board's own example of an inference question
The narrator would most likely describe Mr. Pontellier's conduct during the evening as
 We know this is an inference question not only from the phrase "The narrator would most likely describe...", but we can also be assured of the College Board's feeling on the matter when, in the explanation, they tell us literally, "This question asks you to consider a large portion of the passage and to make an inference about the narrator's view of 'Mr. Pontellier's conduct during the evening.'"

Inference question are not complete guesses, but neither are their conclusions without doubt.  We tend to forget that doubt because we score these questions regularly.  Inference questions often follow syllogistic logic.  For a thorough but not exhaustive discussion of syllogistic logic, see "Syllogistic Reasoning" at  The problem with syllogistic reasoning is that it assumes that no other conditions exist.  As we see in life, this situation is hardly ever the case.  Some circumstance or condition is always happening which you don't know about or can't qualify.  The acknowledgment of the existence of these unknown conditions are the basis behind controls in experimental design and the idea of extenuating circumstances in law.

Lest we think that the problems of fallibility in inference fall solely outside the field of words and literature, let's consider mysteries.  Tales of mystery are a staple genre that's been active for centuries and that operates almost entirely on the fallibility of inference.  We draw erroneous conclusions because not all of the facts are in.

Similarly, on the non-literary side of linguistics, the fallibility of inferences provides much of the background to the field of sociolinguistics which studies why difference groups of people use language differently in different situations--and do so with a fair (but not total) degree of miscommunication.

What do inference questions teach us as writers?

Inference questions, in and of themselves, teach us two things.  First, they teach us that inference/implication is expected, and thus a general disregard for extenuating circumstances (or a suspension of disbelief) is necessary for comprehending (but not thinking critically about!  Don't forget that, and don't think for a minute that our general questions on critical thinking teaching inference are critical thinking at all!--But more on that later).  From a writer's perspective, you need to take away two lessons from this point.  First, you need to recognize your audiences beliefs and doubts and work with them to make sure your points are not too far off the beaten path that the audience will no longer suspend disbelief and then to realize that you may need to simplify the presentation first and then address the arguments later (i.e., give them the main thrust of your arguments while belief is suspended and then work in the intricacies of  your points further on in the piece).

Secondly, returning back to syllogistic logic, inference questions teach writers that readers need a certain amount of literal information (i.e., the premises of the syllogism) to be clearly presented in order to expect the reader to draw an inference (i.e., syllogistic conclusion).  The writer will need to figure out what those premises are before she makes her argument in earnest.

Furthermore, and this I haven't proven here but you will see it as you look for examples in inference questions, the existence and types of these questions on tests teach us that the level of implication, from which we are able to make our inferences, varies greatly depending on the type of writing you are doing.  News stories without spin generally do not imply much; they state it directly.  The spin is the implication and the tone.  Likewise, most technical writing pieces do not leave implications open to the imagination.  They are straightforward in their assertions.  Academic writing does imply some concepts, but to a greater degree than a technical paper and to a lesser degree than a story with spin, and generally with much evidence presentation.  Creative writing, however, relies heavily, almost entirely, on implication.  Writers would do well to remember these differences.

Also, the art of writing a piece that implies something well requires a certain lexicon and grammar which differs between genres.  I will get to this grammar in a later post.  But, suffice it to say, writers need to be aware of and comfortable with using the appropriate level of implication and the diction and syntax necessary to convey it in the genre within which they are writing.

Evaluative questions ask readers to speculate on what the author might think.  These questions often refer to topics like tone, underlying belief, and possible group membership.  In other words, evaluative questions often ask us to draw conclusions based on facts not in evidence.   For example:

The College Board's example:
In the final sentence of Passage 2 ("I thought... in me"), the author expresses

 The College Board further explains this question, by stating:

Difficulty: Hard

Even though this question focuses on a single sentence, you must understand the context in which the statement occurs in order to determine the feeling expressed by the author.
In this case, the phrase "in context" is extremely vague.  A student may stumble upon the answer without knowing cultural values around the time of the piece's writing or without understanding how statements of regret are commonly written, but it is unlikely that all such students would (or could) do so.  Therefore, this question asks not merely comprehension of a line in the passage or comprehension within the context of the passage, but comprehension of a line in the passage taken in both the context of the passage and in the context of the passage's culture.  Such questions require greater knowledge of the literature than the passage itself offers to the reader.  It requires speculation on the part of the reader, the consideration of other connections that the reader is expected to know.

In and of itself, speculation isn't necessarily bad.  In real life, speculation is often required.  Speculation provides the catalyst for experimentation and inquiry.  Speculations form hypotheses.  They are the beginning not the end.

That last differentiation, the understanding that the speculation is not the same as a definitive conclusion, is where we deceive ourselves as teachers of reading and writing.  Only in the classroom is an evaluation so easily codified.

Outside of teaching, the circumstances in which we actually see evaluative questions in action, these questions lead to experimental design, data, and results.  When we reach the professional level, we have many ways of judging the validity of the evidence presented:  levels of confidence, standard deviations, p-values, rules of evidence/admissibility, market research, etc.  In creative writing, we see the same types of validity presented other ways:  alternate viewpoints, foils to characters, "historic" facts woven throughout.  In other words, when we get to the higher levels of thought, we recognize that the correctness of any given point of view is relative.  Doubt is both acknowledged and quantified.

But when we begin teaching speculation and evidence gathering, we don't qualify our evidence much beyond the labels "fact" and "opinion."  And this practice is very important to recognize.  Yes, one needs to learn to do something before one can quantify and qualify it.  Basics do come first.  But something very important is missing from this equation:  the fact that these speculations are not without doubt.  They are based on facts not in evidence, on assumptions that might be made but don't necessarily have to be made and may not be correct--assumptions which are, in fact, assumptions.

In other words, when we begin teaching speculation (which continues into the upper levels of writing because the quantification of doubt generally happens within disciplines), we forget that we are no longer teaching facts and truths.  We treat speculation as truth even though it isn't so.  We are asking students to recognize their audience (us), do the best they can to read our minds, and then present our speculations to us as though they are facts.

What do evaluative questions teach us as writers and as teachers?

Evaluative questions teach us three essential concepts:

First, writers will be asked to recognize the logic of the culture at large and to be able to follow it to its conclusion and to present it to another body who is evaluating their work.  Furthermore, writers need to recognize the lexicon (choice of nouns--this concept vs. this misconception--adjectives, and adverbs) and syntax (succinct writing is generally used to convey the point you believe while convoluted sentences are often given to present the points of your opponents) used to convey the writer's true feelings and beliefs while not stating them outright.

Secondly, teachers need to recognize that students may come to class with other forms of logic or culture that will lead them to different conclusions that are as valid as the ones that are culturally accepted.

Third, in order to learn to succeed at writing and be true to themselves, writers need to recognize when they must parrot back the party line and when and how they can challenge it.  Challenging the accepted interpretation will require more various and adept rhetoric, more numerous and more specifically on-topic examples/evidence than generally accepted, and also an acknowledgment of audience.  You don't take your genre-smashing film to MGM immediately.  You start at an independent film company.  The same holds true of most writing.  While you might get an exceptional SAT essay-reader, chances are that the essay is not the time to protest the method.  BUT if you wanted to write a well-crafted letter or essay to the makers of the test, you might actually get a response, and a thoughtful one at that.  The people who design these tests are thoughtful and well-versed.  They do consider other points of view, especially when they are thoughtfully and thoroughly presented.  And because of the relation between the feeling of powerlessness and depression and violence, it is in the best interest of every teacher to make certain that every student who writes learns to express his voice in ways that matter both to him and to society at large and could actually evoke change.
There was an error in this gadget