Thursday, August 25, 2016

For the Professors, part 7: Elocutionary Exercises

By Steven S. Vrooman

This is one of my favorite activities to do in a public speaking class. It is both nerve-racking and horrible, but at the same time it is fun and really pretty funny.

It is exactly what we need in an oral communication classroom, which is to create opportunities for safe, shared, inevitable, performative failure. 

Why make students fail? 

Because they are afraid they will. It is aversion therapy, of a kind. I pack the first weeks of my classes with safe, ostentatious failure inevitabilities in order to defang some of those fears. The first "serious" speech they make, they will still be nervous, but this helps. I've been using it for 17 years. It always helps.

A particular moment it REALLY helps with is when student who gets up front, blanks, panics, and says something like "I don't know what to saaaayyyy....." and looks at you like they just want permission to slink away and back down. 

But this allows you to create the moment you HAVE to create to run a successful speaking class or workshop: no one is allowed to stop and sit down. You help them through it. We focus on the first image and explain it. I ask what, for example, they might be afraid of or prideful of (depending on this image in this activity). I'll tell them to just start with that and start telling a story and see where it goes. I tell them I'll help them if they get stuck again. They hardly ever get stuck again. They are failing up there is a really tough, personal way. Everyone, they think, can SEE their nerves in that moment. Yet, they get through it. 

Enough activities like this will help them learn the cardinal message of anxiety, for me: 


So here is the link to the PowerPoint I use. It has enough slides for 29 people to do it. But, of course, there is no reason you couldn't repeat slides. 

Give this activity a try!

And if you do, please let me know how it goes!!

Monday, August 15, 2016

For the Professors, Part 6: Five Exercises in Small Failure

By Steven S. Vrooman

I came to East Tennessee State University for two purposes. 

The first was to guide the communication studies instructors through faculty development on three issues: 1) failure, 2) feedback, and 3) revision. These are three things I think we need to do more of in speaking classrooms. In addition to showing why these things work and are needed, I gave them a pile of speaking exercises and ideas so that they could take the things that would work for their approaches to their courses. 

The second is to lead the non-communication faculty in a workshop on how to incorporate speaking into their courses in ways that work for their other instructional goals and don't take away too much time from the other content of the course. They have likely heard pitches like this before. My test, when I give the presentation tomorrow, will be to deliver them what I promised, which is to give them some new and creative things they haven't heard before.

When I finish this trip (or, depending on how long I end up laid over at the Atlanta airport), I will begin a series of blog posts which take my readers through those ideas. I'd still like to come to your university and present it myself (hint, hint), but these are ideas worth sharing, so I will.

I will also be updating this particular blog post with the first set of activities from the "failure" portion of the first presentation. But, until then, I promised the ETSU faculty that I'd put links to some of the online resources they wanted from my presentation here now. So I will, and I'll explain to everyone else what to do with them a bit later.

The Elocutionary Exercises:

Here are the links to the century-old images if you want to build this activity yourself.

But I've already done that and you can grab the link to the PowerPoint here.

The educational statistics site:

The Ripper site:

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Zombie Statistics, Part 2: The Breadcrumbs of Memory and the Habitual Mythology of Bias

By Steven S. Vrooman

I've written before about our often sad research skills and our love of just citing things from the magic internets.

At this moment I am teaching a Professional Speaking class. 4 hours a day. 2 weeks. It's like speaking boot camp. Here's a story from the class that illustrates some of the flaws in how we think about gathering digital knowledge.

It starts with a crumb of knowledge and then we follow the trail. What could go wrong?

The Crumb

In a conversation about the need for transitions, previews ans summaries, all the connective cues that helps audiences follow as we speak, a student, a psychology major, suggested that we can only remember "seven, plus or minus two" things at a time. She did not cite the source of that, and other students nodded at hearing, once again, numbers that had become a kind of "received knowledge" about the world. There is a powerful effect from hearing, again, a number you've heard before. It begins to take on the weight of fact, even if we don't really know if it's true, what Charles Seife, with perhaps apologies to Stephen Colbert, calls "proofiness."

Of course, that kind of persuasion is not really durable. That sort of persuasive cue does not really engage the brain. It is what various two-stage models of persuasion call either "peripheral" or "heuristic" information. Think about the utility of that kind of thing for difficult persuasive tasks like. . .
. . . convincing the audience that the Earth is actually flat. I might take zombie Internet stats for truth if you are telling me what I already believe, but in other cases, no way. You've got to have an answer when your audience starts to get angry like every public meeting in Parks and Recreation.

The Trail

One student clearly liked that idea and wanted to use it for her speech. Of course, depending on how you Google that, you end up with all sorts of vague things. This student, in her first speech draft, cited "" Okay. Dot-net sounds legit, yeah? She got docked some points on her grade.

Curious, I went to the site and first noted the "Seguin, TX Residents Are 'Rattled' By New Public Records Website" ad embedded in the top paragraph and the "Chakra balancing" ad at the bottom. More legit by the second! Looking further, there's not a citation on the page to any of the research that generates the various "facts" about memory. All the blue-underlined links are to other pages on their site.

I suggested that this site was not credible enough and she was shocked when I told her to go to Wikipedia. She looked like:
Yep. What we learn in high school is:
  1. Quotations are the only evidence that there is.
  2. Unless the quote is Wikipedia. THAT's not a thing.

Of course, quotations are the LEAST effective kind of evidence for an argument, but it is easy to grade sophomore English essays built on quotes when grumpy faculty are coming in to fill out rubrics over the summer, so we might as well ruin the analytic skills of a generation of students . . .

Wikipedia is as good as the edits. Look around. Look at the MANY CITATIONS ON THE BOTTOMS OF PAGES. See if they are any good. For some things Wikipedia is great, like the persuasion theory sites I linked before, or the history of Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride, Cicero's De Oratore, the Berlin Defense in chess, RCA's Photophone or the inflationary universe model of cosmology, especially if you are using it to investigate those citations on the bottom.

The House Made of Candy

In this case, the Wikipedia page for "The Magical Number Seven, Plus of Minus Two" is worth more than any of the sites a Google search would give you in the first 3 and a half pages of the Google list (on the day I wrote this -- it may be better or worse on your day if you try it). 

How can you know that? Well, the G. A. Miller study from 1956 that generated this number is cited right off the bat! And there are 15 more cited articles from the testing and development of that idea as it developed over the past 60 years, of which 13 are peer-reviewed.

You can easily find the pdf of the original article plus the arguments and problems with the theory. 

Sometimes following the trail is easy, as long as you set aside your habitual mythology of bias.

And, in this case, you can not only get the peripheral/heuristic bump from giving us numbers, the the citation credibility bump from citing a few impressive sounding journal titles. Plus, Miller was at Harvard when he wrote it, which is at least better than average as an institution of higher learning, wouldn't you say?

Of course, I would suggest a better search to begin with, perhaps in a peer-reviewed psychology database, to generate a more nuanced analysis of this figure, but that would in fact be more work, so there's that. But good research does not always mean more work. It is just smarter, better work. More work is always possible, and more work, in the right places, usually does lead to better. But trying to do less work by hopping on the first site in the Google list does not usually end up saving time anyway. 

The Witch

This is where I would give you the downside of this more credible and rigorous approach to simple Internet research.
Yeah, nope. None. No one will eat you. No chicken bones through the cage. You are doing it wrong and fairy tales contributed to the persecution of women through witchcraft panics. Really. Why do you think witches have big cooking pots and brooms? Gee .... I wonder who typically used those things in the 15th century .....

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

For the Professors, Part 5: Social Media in the Classroom: Challenges and Opportunities

By Steven S. Vrooman

 Social Media in the Classroom: Challenges and Opportunities 
 Engaging Pedagogy Conference, TLU, Seguin, TX  May 11, 2016 
 Steven S. Vrooman, PhD  @MoreBrainz

 A self-centered review of previous research:

These things work in eLearning:[1]

1.       LaRCs (Laterally Rewarded Competitions): Structured “games” which have non-graded rewards, either course-relevant (late pass) irrelevant (badges). Ex: The best post on a board gets to choose the next day’s debate teams.

2.       CATs (Content Applied through Technology): We disrupt their sense of control with surprising or de-centering moments in high impact classes. E-learning makes that harder. Use technology applications in surprising ways to do something similar. Exs: Use free software to make a comic. Oral interp their paper on YouTube. Instagram a page of marked-up text.

3.       MAJiCs (Modular Asynchronous Jobs in Collaboration): Group work with need for real time (synchronous) intra-group interaction removed. Ex: A discussion board debate. Reward for “winning,” but up to them how much to collaborate before they start posting.

4.       IDIGs (Interactions Daily, Individually & Grouped): Every day give them some individual feedback and some collective comments. Have them working on multiple assignments at once, some individual, some collaborative, and have pieces of each due every day (you can just grade for completion sometimes).

 These are what students engage with via social media, matched with eLearning techniques  & class-used social media  :[2]

·         Deep

·         Inspiring

·         Personal

·         Funny

·         Fandom

·         Hacks

·         Events

·         New

·         Problem-solving

·         Games

Note: There is decent evidence that these drive face-to-face and classroom engagement, as well.[3]

 Social media options used in classes, with additional engagement opportunities cued:

1.       Blogs: Students post data analysis (273, 274, 339, 378),[4] drafts (339, 379), final projects (339, 379). Peer review.

2.       Public Blog Comments: Alumni/experts invited to critique student work (339, 379).

3.       Discussion via Facebook EventIncluding alumni/experts (339).

4.       Students Publicized Work: They did work on Instagram and shared it & blog work via Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn (339).



1.       Better Work: Public work is better work, especially when outside voices tell them to improve it and students are promoting it.
2.       Engagement: Social media, used in certain ways, can increase engagement more than courseware, especially for Inspiring, Personal, Funny, Events and Problem-Solving.
3.       Portfolio: Students can retain their entire work to show progression or just the final versions to demonstrate their expertise.
4.       eLearning BonusesLaRCs work better in public environments. CATs are easier to design using social media. IDIGs are open-sourced, a bit, with peer and public comments.
5.       Skillset Development: For COMM majors, social media skills are key. For other majors, they are more important than you might think.[5]
6.       Alumni Engagement: Many LOVED the opportunity to reconnect with professors and students at TLU in this way and share their new skills and perspectives. Mentoring happened in many cases. And it set the stage for increased inclusion of those alumni in face-to-face events with students.


1.       Age:
a.       Nontraditional students: They had troubles: unwilling/critical of social media, self-doubt due to lack of familiarity, higher privacy concerns.
b.       Traditional students: They had troubles: difficulty adjusting to violation of “fun” space, difficulty with academic self-promotion.
2.       Sign-Ups:
a.       Technical DifficultiesFewer than courseware & easy to Google answers to, but signing up for accounts is surprisingly very hard for them.
b.       Secondary Accounts: Younger students often do not want classwork in their personal accounts, but second email addresses are often required for multiple accounts. Managing multiple accounts is easy for some platforms (Twitter) but hard in others (Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn).
3.       Oversight: Hashtags are not enough to find their work. You need them to @ you or you won’t see everything.
4.       Content ABOUT Social Media is Needed: Things like how-tos, technical difficulties, privacy, etiquette, bullying/flaming, etc. probably need class time/resources to go over (however, offloading classtime experiences into social media helps offset this).

Social Media use for college classes is more than worth it, but it requires a level of faculty time and investment that not all will want to commit to. However, it seems unlikely, especially for classes which already utilize eLearning, that NOT doing this will remain a reasonable option for long.

[1] “Online Education Sucks” TLU Center for Teaching and Learning Mini-Workshop, April 10, 2015.
[2] “Social Media and College Auxiliaries: Missed Opportunities and Lessons Learned.” Invited “NACAS Talk” at NACAS Conference, San Antonio, TX, November 2, 2015.
[3] “Our Brains Are A-Twitter.” Presentation at TEDxSanAntonio, San Antonio, TX, November 18, 2014.
[4] All classes are COMM.

Friday, May 6, 2016

A Model of Argument, Part 6: Argument Scaffolding and Zombies

By Steven S. Vrooman

More than a year ago, I finished with this series of blog posts, which were excerpted from my chapter, "Reading Argument: Santa, Star Wars and Uncle Sam," published in the TLU Reader. The whole series starts here, if you are curious.

In updating the TLU Reader for its 6th edition, the chapter's gap became apparent. It is one thing to be able to look at, say, a propaganda poster and find the arguments. It is another order of complexity to see how arguments develop, connect and scaffold over an extended chapter or book. 

When we teach models of argument, with little boxes for evidence, like this:

and then apply them to specific ideas, like this:

it all seems reasonably simple. But one of the difficult transformations that happens is that the claim from one argument, once supported, often goes on to become evidence or warrant for another. Or maybe one claim has a fan of evidence-warrant combinations all leading up to it in a less linear way. 

So I added an example of how this all might fit together:


That kind of thing is the skeleton of a piece of writing. This class, FREX 134, wants you to be able to see all this as a way of understanding what you are reading, which is a hard task, especially if a writer is not making arguments in neat, outline-y form. Sometimes this happens because ideas interlock in complex ways. In this diagram of some arguments I might make about zombie films, things get knotty. The claim for argument 1, for example, becomes evidence for argument 5. Argument 2 has two pieces of evidence. Argument 2 and 3 both come at the same claim from different sets of evidence and warrants. That claim is used as evidence for another argument, 4. Claim 4 links with claim one as two pieces of evidence for a new argument 5, and so on.

A chapter in a book or a book itself will be filled with knotty chains of argument like this. You probably will not do visual argument breakdowns of everything in a text. But after FREX 134, you should be able to look for these chains of argument in a text without having to diagram it all out. If you were reading my fake chapter on why zombie movies were political, for example, and you disagreed, if you had broken all of this down in some messy form that looks kind of like this in your head, you might be able to argue the following:

Vrooman does a nice job showing that Night of the Living Dead is a political film. But the rest of his argument hinges on this idea that because that film is influential and important, every other film that uses zombies inspired by it will also be inspired by its politics. That seems like too big a leap. Sure, Dawn of the Dead is political, as Vrooman points out, but it is political in a different way, and none of that means Zombi 2 or 28 Days Later HAVE to be political. They might be. But shouldn’t we have to look at each film on its own merit to say that?

Hey, you! That was pretty good! Yay for FREX 134!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Zombie College, Part 2: The Drive-By Quoter

By Steven S. Vrooman

In the new edition of The Zombie Guide to Public Speaking, I added a chapter on the ways we fail to do our research. I am excerpting a part of the chapter here which outlines some of the most common problems I see with student work at the college and high school level. This is Part 2 of two different series in the MoreBrainz blog, and I think that is apt. Don't sequels up the ante and double the danger? 

Part 1 of the "Zombie Statistics" series was on the fake graph, The Curve of Attention. Part 1 of the "You're Not Prepared for College" series was about the pitfalls of Trying to Be A "Good" Reader.

Drive-By Quoters

When I work with high school students or first-semester first-year students I see this kind of thing the most. High school students are being taught to write papers by finding three or four quotes and then “elaborating” on them in their five-paragraph essays, as in this guide to the AP History test:

        Body Paragraph (5 sentences)
1. Topic Sentence (subtopic 2 from Intro)
2. Evidence 1 with significance/explanation
3. Analysis (relate to thesis)
4. Evidence 2 with significance/explanation
5. Analysis (relate to thesis) (“The Five,” n.d.)

Here is our problem. You are encouraged to simply drop evidence in and then do this significance-explanation-analysis dance. In speeches I hear this as:

Vince Lombardi once said “Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” [evidence]. He would know. His team won the first two Superbowls [significance]. That means, for those of you who don’t know anything about football, that he was really successful [explanation]. So, um, you know, this just shows why we should always work hard, as I’ve said [analysis].

None of this is good significance-explanation-analysis, but it goes through enough of the motions to pass the exam, it seems:

To score at least a 3, students would be wise to make use of pertinent references from the text. Encourage them to use specific quotations to back up their assertions. However, remind them that they must explain their quotes clearly and demonstrate how they are relevant to the question. (Shelnut, 2015)

Really? This is the low level of analytic achievement we are looking for to pass a test for college credits? I grade these papers and speeches for a living, so I already know the answer, sadly. Yes, all we seem to expect is that they “explain” and then show relevance. Relevance? Is this why I get things like this, which we might add on at the end of the Lombardi bit from before?

All of this is why Pinterest is good. Because even though you might not make everything you pin like you were perfect, you just might make some excellent things! #NailedIt

This becomes a horrible cycle. I see students with a desperate, almost homicidal glint in their eyes when I critique them on this style. “But this is research! There’s no other way to do anything! Everyone knows that! I got a 5 on the AP test‼ Why do you hate me?”
The next section will detail this pathological research process for a (stereo?)typical student. The section to follow that shows how these habits stick around after graduation and mar our discourse long after college.

The Horrible Cycle

Let’s explore the inner workings of this process.
When students start to explore topic they, as a recent student described her process for me, “look for quotes.” This process is kind of like the indiscriminate hunger of a zombie wandering across a post-suburban wasteland.
Say the assignment is to give a presentation or write a paper on why we should use figurative language in speeches. Student X will often begin by Googling “Why should we use figurative language.” I guess that’s better than Googling “figurative language,” which would give us an even larger blizzard of stuff. Here’s what we might do with the Google results I found by doing this search today.
First, “Tanya,” whose profile picture is a pair of puppies, says: “Authors use figurative language to make their stories more vivid and interesting” (“Why Do,” 2015). If I’m a student trying not to have to find more sources than I have to, I will cite this as the overall website host, because I think Yahoo!Answers sounds more credible.[1] So, based on this mysterious Tanya’s expertise, I have my first uninteresting quote. I will probably read it word-for-word, too. Why? Because it sounds like a thing if I read the quote. But if I paraphrase it, well, then it just sounds like what it is, an unsubstantiated statement with no persuasive value.
The second thing I see in my Google parade looks good,[2] but when I click on it, it’s about short stories. Bummer. But I did all this work to skim the big blue headings,[3] so I’d better get something out of it. So, um, the last bit says “Figurative language can elevate ordinary, everyday language” (Layfield, 2015). Sweet! One more quote. And the author totally has a Master’s degree, so she’s like an expert. A little Google search for a definition and I can say elevate means “to raise to a higher intellectual or spiritual level” (“Elevate,” 2015). Boom! #CrushIt
I need two more sources if there is a five-source minimum, so let’s see what’s next., that’s what’s next! A giant quote that will burn many seconds and get me closer to the 6-minute minimum for this speech:

Language that draws you in does so by prodding your imagination so that your brain needs to know more. Ancient storytellers needed all the rhetorical tools they could get to keep people listening, and they found the best ones by exaggerating and stretching words to get the most extreme meaning possible. (Anderson, nd)

Almost done! Ancient storytellers, bro.
But Vrooman is kind of a jerk and wants us to get peer-reviewed articles, whatever those are. So let me add “peer reviewed article” on the end of the Google search and try again. This takes longer, but I long ago figured out that Google adds a name and a date and a “Cited by x – Related articles” under things that might be peer-reviewed,[4] so I find one that has a sentence I can understand. I only get a small piece of a larger article in a snapshot view on, but I find a phrase I can quote, so I will just say The Philological Quarterly “emphasizes the enormous difference language can make” and not look for the whole article, because yuck.[5]
This student now pulls together a speech where they do the surface-level significance-explanation-analysis dance. And, of course, all of the arguments are all of the weakest type, really close to being fallacious: the argument by authority. The best arguments by authority persuade when they can defend the qualifications of the authority in question on the issue specifically at hand. Rarely do we go to that kind of trouble in this sort of work. Often students say things like “And I have a quote here on that . . .” as if the act of quoting some exact wording that exists somewhere on the Internet counts as persuasive. These are incredibly weak arguments by authority which rest on the warrant (see Chapter 14) that “Words I find on the Internet are true.”
We can get better and point out that The Philological Quarterly is an academic journal, in which case that warrant turns out to be “Words I find in peer-reviewed journals are true.”
Neither of those warrants are true or persuasive. Further, none of this says much about the relevance of these quotations to the issue at hand, the way figurative language affects audiences in a public speaking context. Doesn’t it seem immediately obvious that Martin Luther King’s figurative language-heavy “I Have A Dream” speech might be using it differently and for a different purpose than the metaphors in a poem?
Drive-by quoting leads to a stack of lazy authority arguments, which leads to an audience that is mentally checked out.

[1] Does it really, though? Does it?                                           no.
[2] By “good,” I mean that I’m totes tired of school right now #boring, so I’m going to do this fast enough so I can get a few more cat videos in before I have to get on Instagram #yolo.
[3] Literally, it was like 20 seconds of my life I will never get back. No way I’m wasting that, Vrooman. #literally #hashtag
[4] You don’t think I learned that, Vrooman? I tried it one day because there’s no way I’m going to use a library database like you told us to. #snoozeworthy
[5] If we actually do find the article, it talks about how figurative language is used in a particular piece of literature to reveal tensions in social and class level, the way those interact with gender, and the way those are encoded in language (Migiel, 1998). Pretty much nothing to do with our topic. So, yeah, this is why this kind of “academic” research is inaccurate and unethical. I’d like to stop seeing it every semester.