CLEVR, Argumentation, Logic, and Authorities/Audiences


As with so many across the country in the wake of Common Core, my partner and I, who share a job as middle school English coaches in our district, have been working on Argument Writing. The intrepid colleagues that we collaborate with have stretched our thinking about what argumentation looks like, how it’s taught, how it can be assessed, and what value it has.  The poster is a reinterpretation of George Hillocks’ schematic representation of Stephen Toulmin’s now-classic delineation of the elements of argument, which he arrived at inductively from a study of arguments in contemporary usage (in contrast, to, say, Aristotelian logic).  Trying to be conversant with the parlance of the field, we’ve used the language of claim, evidence, and reasoning.  That differentiation seems to have a lot of utility and currency in Science, Social Studies, and literacy in the Common Core standards themselves.  The teachers we work with now make reference to introducing “CLEVR” as a means of analyzing and evaluating arguments and of developing their own arguments.

Even as I applaud the rigorous thinking that elaborating this construct is developing, I admit I’m lukewarm on it.  Yes, much academic and professional writing is conventionalized to require an explicitness in the logic, premises, criteria, and so on, that undergird an argument.  The need for students to develop that facility is not lost on me.  (I could probably use a good dose of it myself).  Yet, consider this paragraph from Steve Coll in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column this week:

The Tea Party’s anti-intellectualism reflects a longer, deeper decline in the Republican Party’s ability to tolerate a diversity of iras and public-policy strategies, and to adapt to American multiculturalism. Mitt Romney’s poor showing among Latino voters in 2012 helped insure Barack Obama’s reëlection.  Republican leaders, chastened and without any other obvious way to increase their vote base before 2016, pledged earlier this year to revive a comprehensive immigration-reform bill.  Yet party leaders, in part because they have been tied down since July by the debt confrontation, haven’t found a way to move legislation past the nativist caucus in the House.

Try to isolate the pieces of claim, evidence, and reasoning from that paragraph and you’re likely to realize that New Yorker audiences would be insulted by such explicitness about inferences they do not need an author to make for them.  Indeed, the same goes for a television sketch that would feel the need to explain why it’s funny, or virtually any other form of discourse which makes some kind of point or claim.  “If I have to explain the reasoning to you, then what are you doing here?”

Of course, the very function of language of schooling is to not rely on such inferences, implicitness, innuendo, in-crowd language, inside jokes… to express all complexities on the surface of language.  But I think teaching students claims, evidence, and reasoning without a concomitant attention to the irreducible element of an argument’s situated-ness in particular authorities and audiences is an incomplete education.  What reasoning is good reasoning?  Depends on who you’re speaking to.  What evidence is good evidence?  Depends on your sources of authority, your notions of truth, your epistemology.  What claims are forceful claims?  Who knows but those from whom we learn and to whom we speak, in the dialogicality of real-life interaction?

It seems like Toulmin extracted a nice scheme from real-life arguments.  I argue that we need to teach with a relentless consciousness of putting arguments back into real life.  Analyze the claims, evidence, and reasoning, but lay bare the addressivity and addressees.  Identify the warrants and backing, but know those aren’t abstractions, but the narratives and worldviews of living and breathing speech communities, cultural groups, participants of discourses.  And when we unfold the dimensions of claims, evidence, and reasoning that belong to the scientific community or the field of historians or the lingo of BBoys or culinary patois, we should not withhold from students reflection on all their specificity of location, politics, and development.  “Copernicus derived these conclusions from these calculations.  And he analyzed in this way in contrast to these predecessors for these reasons.  He ultimately published in this fashion and was taken up in these ways by these proponents.”  No arguments without arguers.

“The teacher…is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow.” -Freire

The language teacher, more than anyone, ought to understand that teaching for social justice does not mean only supplying students with the tools, the doctrines, and the canon that will grant them access to elite education, employment opportunity, and exit from their communities and oft-pathologized cultures.  This is because the language teacher leads students to examine an object–language– whose very lifeblood is the ingresses and egresses of populist energies, the dynamics and vicissitudes of changing standards and expectations, and the particular potency of symbolic subversion, even as language also simultaneously asserts stability, routinization, and rigidity.  Language is that most democratic of things, signifiers shifting all the time at the hands of creatively appropriating humans, and kids teach us language (even the stodgy teacher who scorns and mocks it cannot long sideline its intelligibility and therefore communicative effectiveness) all the time, and we cannot resist its powers.  Bakhtin said it best in a metaphor that has proven memorable and durable to me: there is a centrifugal and centripetal pull, simultaneously, with language, that makes it push outward towards diversity and what he called heteroglossia, and at the same time a centering pull toward unity, uniformity, and authority.  Both operate at all times in language.  We sense it in every novel we read, in the playfulness or ponderousness of poetry, in the ways we and students perform, try on/take off, and otherwise make a practice of language.

Therefore, Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children granted, it is not enough to give students the tools of the culture of power.  We must also unmask the culture of power and give them the tools of its revision and subversion, particularly the symbolic tools, the ones that eventually lead to material consequences.  Yes, students must learn how to compose academic essays.  But they must also do so to craft deft arguments that challenge the notion that the non-essayist is blinder, stupider, less articulate.  And moreover, must illuminate for the rest of us darkened minds the greatness of those considered the least.

This is not a romanticization of the poor or “illiterate.”  This is a recognition that in our profoundly divided and hierarchical society, where wealth inequality continues its steep increase, as Freire reminds us, our humanization depends on the moral clarity and force of “students” to transform the voice of the “teachers,” the oppressed to teach oppressors, the poor to intercede for the rotten rich.  Or, put another way, those who teach in “underperforming” or “low” schools had better be prepared to learn a thing or two from their students, even while they responsibly teach them.  Together, we synthesize what’s new, what’s next, what’s tomorrow, whether we like it or not.  Understanding how that synthesis is configured is where our work is done.

Waiting for sunrise


Faith is waiting for a sunrise to appear with the utter certainty that it is beyond the horizon, sure to appear as it has every day that we waited for it, and more importantly, every day that we didn’t.

Forgetting about the goodness of God for entire months at a time, it is not hard for me to imagine a life sans faith. Easier sometimes than reimagining my life with the eyes of faith.

But if God lives and moves, it can be an utter certainty, one we seize by faith, that he will live and move in your life. But am I prepared for the form in which he might? Will Love appear as a roaring lion or a storm of locusts? Will strength arise with a yawn of silence and quietude?

The point is, it is not ours to decide or even to know. Only to wait.

“the hard discipline of existing as God’s people”

“Cry out and wail, son of man, for it is against my people…”  Ezekiel 21:12

“Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.  It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from Heaven.  Even angels long to look into these things.”   1 Peter 1:10-12

The deliverance of Christendom in the West is not going to come about by critique, but by suffering.

Ezekiel’s scenes of God’s judgment for His people’s idolatry always contains the strains of what we hear in this refrain, the wailing that all of this judgment is reserved especially for His special people, the ones who betray their undeserved covenant gift by obeisance to idols, injustice, and willful ignorance.  Ezekiel is swept up in visions of a judgment inevitable from a God unquenchable, whose unfurled sword is a greater terror than any human army.  But what continually strikes me about Ezekiel’s message is the sad recognition that all of this, all of this, is for God’s own people, the ones He loves and calls His own.  They have gone too far, He declares.  Ezekiel is to weep, not God; God is not weeping here, but He is vengeful and holy, and Ezekiel stands before that in utter despair and terror.

Peter talks about the prophets speaking of grace to come, and indeed Ezekiel will later speak of grace to come that is fulfilled in the Messiah Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, but first the prophet speaks rage and revenge, speaks judgment and fire.  We would be foolish to think God has no such message for His people today, no such message for the evils of colonialism, craven capitalism, conspicuous consumption, for the idolatries, injustices, and willful ignorances of the contemporary Church.  We were bought with a price; yet the judgment and full wrath, unfurled sword, have come upon Jesus our Messiah.  But we are not immune from the consequences of all this.  In fact, we are called also to wail.

How will the church be redeemed?  Peter tells us in no uncertain terms: “…you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.  These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”

Suffering, alienation, estrangement from the world, are God’s means of purifying us.  We suffer, and to treat such suffering as grace, not as source of bitterness, vindictive pettiness, but as part of the process fo being born again, of being made into Christ’s image, of an alternative from the empty way of life handed to us… that way of living, of bearing with suffering and with thievery and blame and deceit, that is what it means to be the people of God.

The church in the US is still enthralled by its belief in its own chosenness, its own stories of salvation, that it fails to hear God’s present voice.  As Hauerwas (1993) contends, “…our fundamental problem with hearing the Bible can be attributed to our having accommodated our lives to the presuppositions of liberal democracies…The Bible is not and should not be accessible to merely anyone, but rather it should be made available to those who have undergone the hard discipline of existing as part of God’s people.” His claims are provocative and need more explanation, but the sharp point of them is that we are not prepared to claim we know God’s Word simply by reading it or by buying into the dominant American Christian interpretations of it if we don’t live in the community where that Word is allowed to fundamentally challenge our way of living in its core, idolatrous ways.

The Literacy Episteme

Reading “The Literacy Episteme: From Innis to Derrida” by Jens Brockmeier and David R. Olson in The Cambridge Handbook of Literacy (2009).  My summary and thoughts below:

My outline summary of Brockmeier and Olson’s argument:

In previous centuries, the “life of letters” was the indulgence of elites with such things as leisure time and armchairs, the “clubby habitus” of a few.  Literacy is now so pervasive, so ubiquitous a fact of social life, that it explodes definition boundaries; observe how not only does a child in school read a book, but a basketball player “reads a defense,” people socially network in textually mediated relationships, and everything from institutional learning to the internal life find literacy practices at their center.  Brockmeier and Olson contend this near limitless diversity of and yet commonalities among literacies belong to an “overarching cultural discourse” they call the literacy episteme, drawing from the larger Western tradition of epistemological inquiry, but especially from Harold Innis and Jacques Derrida, both of whom plumb the materiality/physicality of concepts/language.

The Literacy Episteme and Its Scope.  What makes an episteme: “the cultural order of ideas and concepts that define, at a given moment in history, what knowledge is and how we gain and transmit it” (6).  There are scientific objects that basically only exist on paper, so to speak… the recordings on a computer of protein connections, for instance, or states that don’t exist in a reality apart from models and calculations, that are basically treated as or equated with “real.”  So too hunters ‘read’ the tracks of a deer from signs that imaginatively recreate a history of movement.  Or the cultural dimension of “self” that exists uniquely in the modern Western discourse.  This is a Foucaultian “historical a priori” as opposed to a Kantian “a priori,” meaning that they belong to concrete human discourses and not in an ideal and transcendent pre-knowledge human universal.  Two implications of literacy as episteme: writing is not derivative of speech, but its own form of language; and the privileged place of the “book learning” form of literacy is being dissolved.

The Rise of the Literacy Episteme.  Literacy has been long considered and studied since Plato, but the elevated epistemic status emerges in the West in the 60s, simultaneously in national projects of development via education and in academic attention on literacy (such as Havelock, McLuhan, Levi-Strauss, Goody and Watt):  “Great divide” theories of orality and literacy, from La pensee sauvage to McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy, and of course Goody and Watt’s Consequences of Literacy, along with the Western uptake of Vygotskian sociocultural perspectives of mind.

Widening the Frame: Innis and Derrida.  These two quite different scholars contribute two developments to the literacy episteme: Innis’ focus on literacy “as a momentous factor within a practical, economic, social, and political trajector,” Derrida’s handling of literacy “at the heart of the history of philosophy in he twentieth century.”  Innis is a Canadian economist studying structures of communication in ancient empires and among fur traders; Derrida is a French theorist of deconstruction.  Despite their differences, however, for Brockmeier and Olson, both contribute attention to power and hegemony in Foucault-like ways that join what is traditionally kept asunder, the material and the conceptual, in their thought on literacy.

Why Did the Dam Burst?  The argument here is that all of a sudden, literacy becomes unprecedentedly promoted and studied, mattering not only theoretically but materially as social reality (for example, in the power exerted by schooling).  McLuhan, Goody, Innis and others poised at the century’s midpoint saw the “interdependencies” of communication technologies, the ever expanding “literacies” of media, networks, etc., that revolutionize culture, society, and thought.  This interdisciplinary recognition of the role of sign mediation in social scientific thought works to collectively overcome its Schfiftvergessenheit (expansion of Derrida’s idea that Western philosophical thought forgets or overlooks the ‘writing’ on which it is based, privileging speech and immediacy).

They close by again underscoring the diversity of literacy uses and practices (a nod to the social practice perspectives of New Literacy Studies and the like), but also what is common to literacy everywhere, to its uniqueness as a dominant form of communication against others, its still-primary role in societies, “development” in whatever forms, etc.

A few responses…

Somehow Brockmeier and Olson don’t quite take the tantalizing notion of a “literacy episteme” as far as I thought they would, not even as far, for instance, as the scholars they cite in their title do.  I would simplify their argument by saying that they demonstrate how literacy is not simply one subject among others, but so consequential, not only to what philosophy and human sciences study, but to “study” itself, that rather than “literacy consequences” or “literacy practices” or “literacy ideologies,” the scope of literacy studies is on an epistemic level, all the way to root questions of knowing.  This idea is vastly suggestive… and sufficiently expressed in just the title.

Then, a philosophical trajectory is combined with a social-political trajectory (to some extent), demonstrating the indivisibly theoretical and material presence of literacy in the mid-20th century onward.  I think the recognition of literacy as quintessentially conceptual and material (that is literally what is it… concept materialized) as the core insight of the literacy episteme, I will return to again and again in my thought.  Yet I am somewhat dissatisfied with where the authors take this.  Perhaps it is because theirs is the first chapter of an entire handbook that unfolds the implications they would supply…

Also, I wonder about the equivalence of literacy-as-technology transformations with the proliferation of mediation forms we have been and are part of.  Brockmeier and Olson are right that literacy is indeed broadening, exploding, imploding, so that we talk of the transportation of an “image” (say, a video of my cousin in Taiwan showing up in my Twitter feed) within the literacy episteme, as a continuation of the “reading” and”writing” that as consequentially changed knowledge and our relation to the world and experience.  But traditional literacy, alphabetic words on a page, quickly begins to fail as the metaphor, significant though it is historically, for what goes on now semiotically, for the video in my Twitter feed.  Does “literacy episteme” freeze us in particular consequences that modes are now changing, emptying, replacing?

The critiques may be unfair; they are pointing toward something too vast for a chapter to capture, and I glimpse the expanse and expect more coverage than reasonable. What the authors draw together in philosophical and social thought, though, under the literacy episteme, I will draw from again and again.

Giggly wiggly precious pearl, I’m so glad that you’re my girl

Girl of Mine by Jabari Asim

One of our friends, an educator, gave us this book at our baby shower, which she picked up at Hicklebee’s (among other nice titles I will probably post about in the future).  I forgot this, but I guess we knew it was a girl and I guess we told everyone by that point.  I liked a lot of the books that I could thumb through and imagine reading to the baby taking shape in my wife’s womb, but this one immediately became my favorite.  I did extensive research (wikipedia) on Jabari Asim, the author, and imagined a professor publishing textbooks on black literature and books for popular audiences about the significance of Obama, and then also writing these books inspired by his five children, by each of them sitting on his lap when they’re little and wanting to read something to them filled with a father’s affection, playfulness, and wonder.

From the first months of her life, when we started reading to her and trying to institute a bedtime routine to try to ease her way into night sleep, Girl of Mine was a constant, the last book I would read to her before we started trying to get her to sleep.  The book’s thread has the parent (father?  I think so, but could be a mother) finding the titular daughter at play and playfully scooping her into his arms, narrating his delight in her, and then singing her an adapted “Rock-a-Bye-Baby” (less grim, more dream-like) before settling her into bed with her teddy bear.  I read that book so much that its words are like a lyric of the first year-and-a-half, emblazoned on my consciousness.

I might as well say now a few things: our baby has got me wrapped all around my finger, is all kinds of amazing just the way that a couple of very sentimental and overprotective parents would think of their little girl.  She also has completely consumed our attention and taken over our lives, like in the ways that make loved ones encourage you to go to therapy and work on your attachment issues.  Whether our affection and over-attention created a high maintenance baby, or whether she would have been one even if we were negligent or laid back, we will never be able to answer.  But there it is: she seemed to need a whole lot of attention, still does, and we are all too eager to give it, as costly as it is to our balance and sanity.

So my Girl of Mine reading has always had a twist of irony.  She loved it for a while, loved it since her eyes began to focus on images, loved it when her fingers began to grasp pages and precociously turn them, loved it because it meant those intimate moments before sleep.  Except that they weren’t the last moments before we’d put her down for an easy rest.  Our baby, God bless her beautiful soul, was and maybe is the toughest sleep resistor you could imagine.  Her daycare provider, a thirty year veteran of the baby-care trade, has never seen one like this.  My wife and I amazon-ed a library of sleep books, read them all like holy grail questers pouring over every clue and detail about how to get this girl to fall asleep at last, and still no Sears, Ferber, or Weisbluth could crack this nut.  Every night of bedtime routine was a calm and peaceful entrance into restfulness, ending with a sweet reading of Girl of Mine and then lullabies sung and gentle rocking and the most delicate touchdown you can imagine into the crib… and then WAAAAAA!… FOR HOURS!

I have since soured on books whose story arcs seemed essentially manipulations into sleepiness, and especially ones that do it not very artfully (isn’t that the enduring appeal of Goodnight Moon, how artfully it lulls?).  But Girl of Mine will always represent all the bittersweetness of the early months, the first year, the hard struggle over sleep and the pangs of pain at watching her cry and putting her down, all the attachment and emotion, all the desperation at 3am, sitting on a yoga ball for an hour trying to soothe her to sleep… Girl of Mine is a for me a reminder of how sad it was when she didn’t sleep, how sad I was that I didn’t sleep, and then how sad it was when she finally did, and she didn’t need us quite so much anymore.

And then, a few weeks into the heart-wrenching process of sleep training, she started to know what that book meant, and she started to resist it.  I would pull it out and she would cry, bat it away, call out for another book.  It was a prelude to her great struggle to be as alive and awake as her vivacious spirit wanted to be, her parents’ insistence on the 7pm bedtime be damned.  I was so sad that our book, our favorite, the one I hoped to pick up again and again for the rest of her childhood, came to signify such a painful process.

So for a while, we put it away, didn’t pull it out, just like we stopped saying the word “sleep” or “nap” to her, just like we learned to turn down the volume on that monitor before her screams crushed our souls.

She did learn to sleep, eventually, and when she did she slept like a champ.  More consistent than our friends’ kids, even though it still never got easy.  Recently, not I but mom started picking up Girl of Mine again, and now, at eighteen months, our girl looks a lot more like the one on the cover.  She stacks blocks.  She’s always had “dazzling and bright” eyes, but now they are so expressive and perceptive, they detect our joy and disappointment.  She points out stars and holds a bear to sleep and smiles her way to dreamland sometimes.  So the book is beautiful to me for the tender ideal it depicts, far as it was from our reality, as it narrated for us the affection and hope that she came to grow into.