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Thursday, July 6, 2017

Puzzle Boxes in a Professional Workshop Context, An Update

by Steven S. Vrooman

A month ago, I wrote about creating escape room style puzzle boxes to teach communication skillsI recently adapted this method to work with adults in a professional training context as part of my One-Day Communication Reset Workshop. I wondered, as I was building the experience for college students, whether or not it would work with non-students. 

It did.

That's good, because I am going to be rolling out a bigger version of this experience at the IAEE ExpoExpo! this fall, and it's nice to know that I have a fighting chance of getting some people who might enjoy this activity at my session.

They were *super* intense about it and were in it to win it. I thought there was a chance they would disengage, especially when they got to the hard parts, like reading and taking online quizzes, but they all really wanted to get those locks open.

Graphic created by Patricia Stelter

Of course, it was time for revision.

I improved on the method from the last time, generating a spreadsheet to keep track of the boxes and lock levels. No more confusion!

I also created some Google Forms quizzes that gave lock code outputs for successful completion. This shorter quiz worked well, but the longer one was a problem. I set it up so they had to retake the quiz instead of individual questions, which led to a frustrating time for some during that part. I will work on that. But the online quizzes meant they didn't have to report to me to get clues. 

That was good, because it changed our relationship during the activity. I was the hint-giver only, not a necessary interactant. Obviously I created the puzzles, so they might have directed frustration with them toward me, but I had primed them with the idea that I would give each group a limited number of hints. They couldn't know the number, so at a certain point they couldn't know, their hints would be exhausted. They had some discussions, when faced with difficulty, about whether or not to use me as a "phone-a-friend." It displaced some of the negativity they might have had about the process in a way that improved my interactions with them during the activity.

Here's a few of the things I saw:


They had two quizzes they had to complete to get codes for locks. One was on material that we had already gone over together. The other was new material they had to read and work through for the first time. Although they told me that they only learned the new material in small pieces to ace the quiz, this wasn't true. We applied those skills, on group facilitation, immediately after a break, and they definitely knew what to do. Do we under-report our learning when an activity is interesting and engaging?


They continued to show the kinds of groupthink barriers I saw the first time around. It was SOOOOOOO helpful to have them experience that, as it is groupthink that actually makes a physical barrier to success in this case! It is visceral, and we usually like to deny that we suffer from groupthink! One example of this is with the code to a text-based combination lock. One group got this combination on some tiles and had to figure out the order of the letters on the lock. They could NOT got any combination of M, D or I to work. I had to come and flip that M over to make a W. Two of them literally facepalmed.

"Win Conditions":

Groups began creating fictional "win conditions," very assertively, after a group finished first and crowed that they were in first place. One group suggested that they were the first group to have finished the longer quiz, etc. This proved an exceptionally interesting finding for our session on negotiation that would come after lunch.


I utilized this activity to prime them with failure. Games like this provide a fun experience of failure that gets subsumed into eventual success. We used some ideas from a recent Atlantic Monthly research review, "Power Causes Brain Damage,"  to talk about asymmetrical negotiation sessions. The article, by Jerry Useem, reports that merely priming people by asking them to remember a success, makes people less effective at things like accurately reading other people. So we practiced a bit with priming our failures. I'm not sure we did it systematically enough to draw conclusions from, as we had many other goals for the day, but it is interesting!

I'm still processing some of what I saw. (I still have boxes of open locks to sort through!). But I think this is a positive experience in the development of this method.

Stay tuned for more reports, especially after I use these boxes in a session at #EXPOEXPO in the fall. I have done it with pre-existing groups only thus far, students and now a team at a nonprofit. In my upcoming session, there will be a lot of strangers coming together to experience this. Should be interesting!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Can We Start Treating Social Media Professionals Like, Well, PROFESSIONALS, Please????

We treat our social media professionals extremely poorly, as a whole. Underpaid, overworked, and often *just* under full time. I know a lot of people work under those conditions, not just social media folks, but I only know a BARE HANDFUL of people who work in social media who are fairly compensated. 

We all pay the price for having our collective social media environment compiled by the angry, overworked and disrespected. Can you not feel it sometimes when you scroll? Do you think the inhuman spew of repeated and recycled content just shows up there because of strategy? Because Guy Kawasaki said to repeat things nine times? Or is it because we refuse to pay social media workers a living wage yet still demand the magic of increasing metrics?

Below is a Facebook post from a few days ago on this subject, with the names of people and businesses redacted. It struck quite a nerve. I hope it will strike a nerve with you. If it does, please share this. We need to shift this conversation and our expectations.


The ______ people should be ashamed of themselves! Read this job ad and tell me how you do all this as a part-time only position? And then you are gonna ask applicants to apply by revealing their current salary? These are the kinds of jobs my students and graduates want, so you know how low that number is working the school mailroom or at Sonic. I am appalled by how poorly social media workers are treated in this part of Texas.

As a department chair, I get calls all year from people who want a student to come do this for free. They actually pitch it to me as something like "They love social media, so this will be a fun environment for them." Yeah. Totes. Surrounded by old people who won't pay you and think what you do is crap, but, unfortunately, needed. Sounds super fun.

Here's a tip local employers: your social media person could very quickly have more work to do in a week than your manager. And for a smaller business, they are sometimes your entire communication/marketing/PR/advertising/customer service department. In other words, in many instances they are the hardest working and most important person in your company. But, yeah. Being stuck to your phone at 1am to up your Facebook response metric while you figure out how to meet your performance goals while not, once again, working too many hours this week, yep. That's the life, right there. It's great to know you work harder than everyone but get the least respect or compensation.

As Mr. Knightly says to Emma, "Badly done."


Here are a few of the responses I got to this, all within a half hour of posting:

“Finally, someone who isn't a millennial gets it.” ➖ Fernando Rover

“I have this conversation all the time with fellow marketing/comm/PR colleagues. We really think it's because people don't value creative work or see these types of jobs as actual work. It's the same reason people don't want to pay $5 to listen to a band or are under the impression design work is free. For some reason, everyone thinks they're creative or a writer. It's very frustrating.”  Ashlie Ford

“This is all too familiar, all too close to home for me😐 And, this type of job is NOT a recent grad grunge job - as it clearly states, this person is responsible for the brand of the company, they are the front door of customer service and the creative marketer behind the company. They want genius for nothing, they want art for nothing, they want passion for nothing, they want experience for nothing, they want intuitive creativity for nothing. This ad is the epitome of how businesses large and small perceive online engagement - "we know we need to do it, but we think it's for chumps." And, fyi, most recent college grads have no concept of how to WORK in social media. A social media professional is needed to TEACH them how.”  Michelle Johnson

"I'm so glad I'm not the only one who's as frustrated by stuff like this..."  Haley Hannon

“This is terrible. Others have said it more eloquently than I, but yeah. This is stupid.”  Connor Dillon

Connor followed up with: "The commonality of the problem? Enormous. I look at job boards almost every day, and quite a few places hire for the more creative roles as managers, put them on a part time salary (so they don't have to pay overtime) and call it good. It's a business tactic I've seen a lot.”

“This is spot on. Administrating a good and effective Facebook page is VERY time consuming and requires almost constant monitoring. Well said!”  Mary Shahan

This comment got the following follow-up:

“Not including Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Messenger, and managing communities like Yelp, TripAdvisor...I could go on and on but what for.”  Angelica Mata

And then there was this amazingly epic rant from an old friend who extended the issue to all sorts of people who do creative work online:

“You have no idea...being a professional artist is devastating...your friends and family and half the people on your social media think since you have a "fun" job you shouldn't be paid for it, because it's fun and you’re already good at it so why pay. Even worse I crossed over into graphics and media to find the perception is even worse, because they don't use "real tools and art type things so it's not like they have to do the work of a real artist."
Except the "real" artist like me doesn't have a "real" job because it's fun so I'm not really working because anyone can paint right?
It's just mind boggling because as the PR social media "Marketing Manager" you’re just playing on a computer like you would be at home anyhow...right, an intern should be doing this so they get practice...but you’re right that student will take over everything, bring up the sales, numbers exposure and get a following and then the boss usually thinks "Cool, we did you a favor and gave you a great portfolio piece" then they let you go because your job is "done" got us what we needed so now Harry the new intern can take over your hard work and totally change the social media program for his portfolio....right? Making your work completely unusable for your portfolio and when you mention to the next company that you didn't get a salary for it...the problem then carries on to the next guy...
As a mural artist running my own business on my own for 15 years I was given a few responses while trying to even be considered for a "normal" job when the housing crash favorite most common response was " why do you want to work for us if you can paint like this?"
Apparently the roles reverse when you actually try to get the "real job" everyone tells you to grow up and get... 
And yet I still continue to ask did the perspective not change over the is it possible that artists of all kinds who are good at their craft are perceived as not worth paying for the skills they have sweated for and painfully learned over the years, but not qualify for being capable of learning to be a phone rep, a burger tosser or an inventory clerk for side money? Successful artists, especially musicians, don't even get paid what they should have, yet everyone thinks they are rich... 
Now get to the millenials who are real good at social media, marketing and they call it socializing....yet it actually runs and becomes the core of their business....but they want a student to do it for free...
 Seriously you get to where you just want to stab yourself or someone else in the eyes with a fork when this cycle wonder why many talented and skilled professionals have no desire to offer their services....” ➖ Amber Dawn, from Murals by Amber Dawn


I did have one person whose comment was like “Boo hoo, that first job out of college sucks.” But the people who commented above range in age from 22 to north of 65. This is not about college, really. This is about how we treat people with skills that are central to our business while we create the sense that bros with MBAs get sweet gigs in offices and immediately drive down productivity numbers.

The social media workers you string along think you, in your office, writing job ads like this one, asking for 5 years of experience on software that has only existed for 2 years, are exactly the source of data that the “average” office worker has only 45 minutes of productivity a day.

Does it bother you at all that the people who are the public face of your company hate you? Don’t you think we are careening toward an enormous downside?

One of the comments mentioned that if this company knew anything at all it would have contacted me to take down my rant. But no one noticed. So more bad PR  . . .
 . . . or did they? They still have posts going up on social media. The person who is leaving the job is still there, waiting out the last weeks before their better opportunity.

Did they look at my post and laugh? Did they, knowing the boss doesn’t know anything and wasn’t going to look, simply look at the comments and smile knowingly, leaving it alone, caveat emptor?

If we keep treating people like this, there will be consequences.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

My Answer to the Nine Dots Prompt, "Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible:" -- “We Are the Unembraced: Technology Gave Us Captial P Politics, and Now It Takes It Away”

by Steven S. Vrooman

I submitted an entry for the Nine Dots Prize on their inaugural theme: "Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible?"

Looking at it now, months later, I am trying wayyyyyy too hard to squeeze way too much into the word count. The idea that mass media gave us a small window of "mass" politics in the middle of the 20th century which we now mourn the passing of is still something I think is interesting and correct. But I approach this question with a style that seesaws a bit too much from a casual lit review to quick pop culture references. In my defense, I could not tell whether they wanted a more or less academic text, even after researching the organization and the people behind it. If I were to do it again, I think I would choose more pop culture and less theory, but I write these words two hours before the prize winner is announced. We'll see if my prediction of what they want is true.

Okay, the results were just announced. Looking at some excerpt's of winner James Williams' submission, it sounds like they wanted academic after all. Ah well, it is better to make a choice than try to do it all, as I did. If it's wrong, well, then, next time.

So what you see below is a sandstone of approaches that may not, ultimately, be structurally sufficient. I hope to return to this idea in the future. In which case this post will stand as an early, failed form of these ideas. 

This is the core of writing: failing and then revising.


“We Are the Unembraced: Technology Gave Us Captial P Politics, and Now It Takes It Away” 

Politics is impossible. Not the brute Laswellian mechanic of who gets what when why how.

What has long been impossible is the inevitability of the embrace, the optimistic Aristolean entelechial dream of the enormous, affirming group hug of civilization. Aristotle suggests that such an outcome is logically inevitable, as we might expect of a thinker fulsome with the sameness of his Athenian tribe, here at the beginning of his Politics and its dream, where he is three mere paragraphs away from an insulting discourse differentiating women and slaves and bees: “But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.”

This faith that goods are additive into a magic Emerald City polis is, as are so many of Aristotle’s ultimately cloistered Aquinian faiths, cute. This faith is not simple. It involves conflict and compromise, but it sees inevitable “harmony” resulting from that, unlike the single beat or foot of music he critiques in Socrates’ political ideas in Book Two. While he awaits the final swell of a Garlandian thematic reprise in Victor Fleming’s musical, we live in a world of more complex harmonics.

Bernard Crick, who has come to represent a battered postwar version of a faith in the telos of politics, writes in an age in which the devil’s tritone has been pulled from satanic dissonance into Baroque harmonies and bebop improvisation. Unlike Aristotle, he sees political good as an axiological commitment, not an ontological inevitability, embracing, as many did in a century of fascists, political process as a bulwark against horror. 20th century dissonance, as in jazz, resolves into something approaching harmony only with “tolerance and diversity” for Crick.

Crick understands that group hugs are awkward. They are work.

Although Crick talks “compromise” fifty years ago, he really seems to be after what the business school gurus will eventually call win-win problem solving. In a compromise we both feel like we lose. And in a world where, as E. J. Dionne writes, we “hate politics,” and, as polls continue to show, distrust it, so many seem willing to Brexit and Trump their way past politics to something that looks an awful lot like win-lose problem-solving, as they vote to protect their tribe, their community, their family, their race, their dream, their illusion, their jobs, their nostalgic picture of a better time.

So much for the grand, “big tent” wins of the coalition-builders.

Does that kind of politics no longer exist?

It might be more prudent to ask if it ever existed.

Have we abandoned the big tent group hug Emerald City major chord politics of yesteryear in a digital stream of narrowcasting, fake news echo chambers and unfollows? Or was Crick always peddling an illusion he knew we needed as a motivator whilst Stalinism rose on ballistic plumes in the east and Blitzed buildings went on to a second decade of unrepair?

Ah. Now we’re talking rhetoric, another Aristotelan passion which Crick departs from, unfortunately equating it with vapidity and sophistry, exactly the things Plato wished to rescue it from, by, well, writing to defend “truth” in dialogues where he made up dumb things for his sophisitic opponents to say before they recognized that he was right, like classical age wish-fulfillment fanfiction, complete with a “yes” at the end.

If we are to suggest, for a moment, that Aristo-Crickian politics is impossible, we are left with a definition of politics as the art of achieving the least-bad outcome for your tribe. Big tent group hug coalitions happen when those least-bad outcomes dovetail. Candidates win when they can narrowcast least-bads to a governing preponderance of groups. Get out the vote is more reliable than convincing the other side. Which sounds like a departure from a rhetoric that might involve persuading someone who thinks differently than you do.

Instead, we’ll shift past Aristotle’s rational, conscious, mental, calculation-heavy, try-hard formula of the “use of the available means of persuasion in any given case” to a post-Freud Kenneth Burke, who posits that persuasion happens via the magic of identification in a quasi-mystical commingling. It is hard to say when it happens, which is fair, as if you, reader, were to list all the times you changed your mind about something important as an audience member, I imagine the list would be shorter than that for your weekly groceries.

It is a shift to the “you can’t not communicate” era of unconscious complexity given to us by ethnographers of ritual like Gregory Bateson, who suggests that our words and gestures sound a lot more like animal noises, the very differentiator Aristotle used to justify his entelechial faith at the beginning of his Politics. For Bateson, people just kinda suck at information-processing. Most of what we say is ritualized friendship messaging. We, like Democratic candidate Al Gore in his AME church event, simply and awkwardly continually try to communicate fealty. I am here. I care.
We have, then, always lived in small echo chambers of friendship since we dropped from the trees and needed another set of eyes to look for big cats.

Politics and Rhetoric should not be separate books.

Does Martin Luther King convince white America with his ideas, or does he simply use enough religious code words to convince the Bible belt that he is part of that tribe, as Selby seems to suggest? Is social change the result of cognitive dissonance in tribal identities as much as it is anything?

One more moment for rational faith in rhetoric comes from the optimistically monikered “new rhetoric” of postwar argument theory. Stephen Toulmin adds markers of uncertainty and calculation to syllogistic reasoning, suggesting, for example, that in a world of diverse audiences and complex knowledge, arguments have a “modal” qualifier which signifies a level of certainty. Practical argument in an uncertain world, I guess, requires us to diagram that the claim “Kanye West is a genius,” is, even for its proponents, not at all meant with anything approaching certainty.

Better work in the new rhetorical school comes from Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, who catalog every form of argument they can find in a rather exhaustive reading list of Western discourse. Perelman, who remembers being unpersuaded, not believing the Holocaust was possible when first told of it in his office in Belgium, is an enthusiastic student of the impediments to persuasion. His catalog of argument spends more time stripping the logic out of argument, calling it, at best, quasi-logical, a general form that looks like math, maybe, perhaps, if you are bad at math and don’t really know much.

Perelman, for example, finds that most argument seems to proceed from example or cause, with more paradoxes and errors in both topoi than you’d think. He emphasizes the impossibility of a universal audience to respond to the premises of argument, which Toumlin, for his part, reduces from “major premise” to the accurately and inevitably ambiguous notion of a “warrant,” which, like the legal document, simply authorizes us to move to the claim, to the end, inside the door to search for contraband. For Perelman, premises must be given “presence” like “Caesar’s bloody tunic” and he spends the end of the book dithering into how we more readily break philosophical pairings than build them.

All of this adds to a world where reasoning, the kind of thing you’d need to compromise, is fraught, mistaken and rare.


We return, again, to Aristotle. He suggests that there is such a thing as an enthymeme, an incomplete argument. This could be a persuasive tool, as when you suggest the two premises that have only one logical outcome and let the audience say it themselves: “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. So….?” But the dark side enthymeme, which we would expect to be triumphant in a world beyond Aristo-Crickian politics, is fantastically common. In this case we drop a piece of evidence and barrel on to the claim, because, you know, we are preaching to a narrowcasted choir. We rely on the old saws (loci, for Perelman) of our tribe and expect them to be able to provide the chamber’s echo. When Fox News suggests a candidate might raise taxes, for example, there is no need to remind the tribal hordes of the major premise/warrant that “Taxes are bad.”

So is technology free of the burden of its contribution to making this kind of politics a dodgy business at best, the kind of thing that exists most clearly in Aaron Sorkin programs and heavily-advanced political autobiographies? Are we all choirs to our chosen preachers, clicking our ruby slippers to go home when confronted with another opinion, whether we are on Facebook or in the donut shop?

Not entirely.

The dream of technology, since Howard Rheingold coined the term “virtual community” in books he wrote in the pre-web 90s with pictures of himself wearing pajama pants on the back covers, was to foster connections of ideas. If you are a brony or lover of bar graphs or Blue Note LPs or late 19th century US presidential facial hair or long discussions of which Shoshtakovich symphonies count as art, the Internet is the place for those conversations, as they usually don’t fly between frames at the bowling alley. The unabashed optimism of the early days of the Internet was that it meant that someone out there, somewhere, dug the same obscure shit you did.

And this isn’t new. Since even before Paul innovated new uses of a distributed communication technology, the publicly performed letter, to expand and cement an enormously successful tribal identity, the early Christian church, since before Virgil piggybacked on the Homeric poetic invention of Troy to remythologize Rome, since the beginnings of writing and song and myth, we use communication technology to craft tribes.

Although lazy enthymemes and choir-preaching are inevitable rhetorical habits in a world built of communities and tribes, the act of seeking out, riskily, additional connections with a new tribe based on a new interest or secret passion is structurally different than the passive replication of the memes of your clan over Sunday dinner or football halftime or happy hour.

That kind of entry into a pre-internet irl wizarding world has so many nostalgic paeans that it is hard to imagine 20th century popular culture without this story: the smoky jazz club luring you with its horn riffs, the underground record store smelling of pot, the surfers rolling in the swells after dawn, the mysterious colors and textures of yarn on the craft store shelves, the nerds fighting with swords in the park in the afternoon, the folded party flyer you’re sure most people don’t know about, the hushed up Bible study in that 3rd floor dorm room, the older kids who hang out in the back of the comic book store with Crumb comics and quiet when you walk by, the Tupperware party at the end of the cul-de-sac you finally got an invite to, the like-minded political meeting at 6pm in the conference room in the back of the library.

We have always been, just a bit, the Gore Vidals of our lives, looking for what we can archly appreciate as an inside joke, even though the rival 70s icon, George Plimpton, autoethnographically finding a way to do everything and then ruining it by writing a tell-all, just sounds more real, even though the opposite seems like the truth.

In Internet makes the search for the smoky rooms easier, and it also makes it easier to crowd out everything else. I’m looking at you, Tumblr.

So it should make our tribal-style politics easier, too, while at the same time reducing Crick’s axiological bridge-building.


But was it really that hard before?

Or have we just recently popped what felt like the new normal bubble of 20th century collective broadcasting, when we all watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and Walter Cronkite crying when we landed on the moon and all read the same papers that pretended we were all duped by Welles’ War of the Worlds until we believed it was true?

Was the group hug moment of political life across the world a temporary function of the big media monopoly bubble that lived on in our memories as the way-it-should-be even if it was no longer the-way-it-is when the Paramount decision and new TV channels Howard Bealed the media into market shares?

When exactly, in fact, did this Technicolor dream of politics exist, this foundational historic moment of better times, this Golden Age fallacy which, as in Baudrillard, is a simulacra, a vision of visions, a text of texts, a medium of media which represents what we wish it was as much as anything else.

Politics and education, even amongst academics who might know better, share this tendency to believe that students and voters of the past were smarter, paid more attention, and probably ate more fiber.

Giddens suggests a reason for this pervasive Yellow-Brick Age fallacy in another context, when he suggests that the complexities of modern life and its abstract and expert structures, technologies and discourses which proliferate but which we don’t get, induce both increased states of trust and faith in buildings and vehicles and institutions and discourses which we don’t understand but which require magical fealty in order to satisfice our ways though life and something like Kroker’s panicky concern at the lack of the grounded Real that Baudrillard and other salty postmoderns keep swiping out from under us. We wish for a simpler time while we enjoy all the channels and apps. We don’t understand the simpler time either, the jazz tritones, how Fallingwater’s cantilevers stay in the air, how three strips of Technicolor come together into one film, whether or not TV pictures break apart into pieces and fly through air over Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka hair, how the little rectangles on the punch cards worked in the mainframes, what the difference was between the superchargers and the turbochargers installed in the Pony cars that boomer dads raced past Rydell High. But we all know someone who says they did, even if they are just bullshitting us.

They tell us that back in the day they could take apart their VW engine on the lawn and have it working again by the end of the day but now mechanics work by popping a thumbdrive dongle into the slot under the dash, which seems improper even without the symbolic overtones. They tell us that back in the day the polls were never surprised. They tell us that back in the day, as my grandfather swore, that Gone with the Wind somehow got colorized later and everyone just lied about it.

We know that Ozzie and Harriet and Anne of Green Gables and Upstairs Downstairs and even Godzilla were always already nostalgia bombs, but we want to believe that big P politics hasn’t always already been an impossible game we built on the endorphinned memories of the war correspondents who built the network news.

In the 70s, Anselm Strauss was exploring the constant segmentation of our social worlds across geographic and interest boundaries, with the inevitable battles of legitimation and authenticity, and Dick Hebdige was exploring exploding subcultures as Star Trek fans were finding ways to share mimeographed erotic fan fiction via mail-order catalogs.

Technology is the fever dream of unity, the CRT LCD glow of electrified human connection, but the deep structure of that connection is the ham radio after midnight “Can anyone hear me?” you drop after your callsign, or the phone number you found in the back pages of the local free paper from the head which you call on your Hayes Micromodem II to connect to a MUD, or the new local show about the surf at your beach you found on a 3-digit channel on a cable box you didn’t know went up that high, or the pimped-out MySpace page of the sweet new band your friend from history class said the flute player in the marching band her cousin was drum major for said was going to be the next big thing on TRL, or the new trending subreddit that was the community that you always wanted to find but doubted existed.

Politics is the fever dream of humanity. But its deep structure is of people finding their tribes and cooperating just enough to defend them.

Our task is to study the textures by which technology and politics haunt each other, structure and move each other while we burst the cynical histories that suggest that something is, in fact, different about now. Every now feels like a surprise, like a discontinuity with the mythology we have been weaving around ourselves. That feeling, which feels like wisdom, is in fact the oldest mistake. It is a grit of sand which we always seem to use to spitball ourselves another pearl we can inevitably spit upon the shore of the new world on which we will inevitably land, a beach of millions of grains of sand which always seem to be just too much to swallow.

If we study those textures, those eddies, those magical currents, those surprises, if we can work through this history while resisting the lure of myth, if we can turn to the technological rhetoric of politics, and if we can use this different pearl-less faith, perhaps we can grab a more secure hold on the house as its spins, one more time, through the twister. And when we leave our yellow-bricked golden age behind, perhaps we can learn to love living as the people behind the curtain, people who see the wizard on the screen as what he really is, a flawed sideshow that still brings us all together.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Escape Rooms for Education: Portable Puzzle Boxes in a College Communication Class

by Steven S. Vrooman

I did an Escape Room class. Well, okay, no matter how much they wanted to they could never escape class, so instead I built Puzzle Boxes they had to get into. 

The thermos is just for my tea. Only I could earn the caffeinated treasure inside that.
There was a pirate doubloon somewhere inside each one. Get it to get the points.

I was motivated to try this based on a session I attended at SXSWedu, where we worked in interdisciplinary groups to figure out how to build Escape Rooms for education. I wanted to make it more portable and containable, so I tried to build Puzzle Boxes instead.

It turns out that an actual Escape Room is easier to plan than this kind of thing. For one thing, you can just set things out all over the room, which makes it a bit easier to manage the puzzles. I have been hunting for ever smaller and smaller boxes and locks for a month now to prep for this. I am reminded of this scene in that ridiculous genius, Flann O'Brien's, crazy novel, The Third Policeman:

And making the boxes fit a narrative is harder than if I can lay down bear rugs and have a saloon with a player piano:

Each box I use has a theme, like what's inside the carry-on or the pink backpack or the boat emergency box. Sometimes it is easier to carry off the idea as things get smaller, and sometimes not.

Also, you also don't have to have so many things embedded inside other things in full room. I was constantly convinced I had locked the combination clue which opened the key bag inside the box the key in the bag opened, and such. That kind of thing gets easier as you do it more, but it was still nerve-wracking. My colleague and partner in crime, Dr. Chris Bollinger, kept track of it all by taping keys or combinations to papers with the boxes labelled:

I think we'll get something more like a key-sorting tackle box for that for next time.

Anyway, they solved the puzzles in about 40 minutes, which included doing an online quiz on the reading content, a small scavenger hunt in the room to get more of the Escape Room feel, and a bit where they had to demonstrate their application of concepts from the reading to a case study to one of us, "The Wizard."

These were the easiest puzzles we could do and still have 3 or 4 layers deep of boxes/bags, with some "here's a key, but it doesn't fit any of your locks yet" sorts of moments.

I had hoped to make them harder puzzles and to make the students utilize more content to solve them, but I ran out of time.

This is an activity I plan on using in my classes going forward, and I also hope to be bringing this to association meetings and corporate retreat sorts of things, so this was a test of prep time, administration challenges, how well adding learning objectives to these puzzles works, and whether or not an Escape Box is actually as fun as I thought it would be.

The short evaluation is that it worked well. The students had quite a bit of fun. Here they are figuring our how to use the black-light one of their boxes provided to find invisible messages on a case of business cards from the briefcase that had simply seemed like "flavor items":

I know this is revealing secrets to the puzzle, but if you've ever done an Escape Room, you've used the black-light trick.

Hearing them get excited to open a box and then groan when they see two locked bags inside was pretty great. The first group to hold up the doubloon was really stoked. I think amping up the between-group speed competition in the future will be a good thing. That will be interesting, since I also want to build puzzles where they have to trade keys to finish, either as a surprise they have to figure out without prompting, or as a negotiation bit to add more communication learning outcomes, or as an artificial way to even the timing of completion out so one group doesn't get too far ahead.

They were *really* motivated to perform on the online quiz, which they had to get 100% on in order to get the key, and the performance task. That's the kind of engagement we want.

We were also able to take the content, in this case group dynamics and leadership, and really debrief using the things that happened during the activity itself, as well.

And that was one of the great takeaways from this, for me, for the class, and perhaps looking ahead to working with this kind of thing in the future: The groupthink was very strong. The boat box group, for example, after they opened the main locked compartment, were stuck:

They had two brands of locks which shared a key size. In other words, the key went in but didn't turn. That was as it should be for the puzzle, but they were convinced I had messed up the puzzle, even through the key had a different brand etched on it than the lock's brand.

I had to give them a hint and I tired to talk them out of the hint. I said, "You guys are gonna feel pretty dumb when I show you." But they were desperate.

I closed the lid of the box.

Still nothing. I gave them a bit of time. I had to open this compartment for them:

They were LOOKING RIGHT AT IT, BUT THEY COULD NOT SEE IT. Their groupthink had literally led their culture to write over reality. In fact, they convinced Dr. Bollinger and myself, for a second, that there had been some mistake. We had been primed for this, as we were a bit uncertain whether or not we'd made a locking error, but they still convinced us, PEOPLE NOT IN THEIR GROUP, that their groupthink version of reality was true. #FakeNews. That was a really important takeaway. Each group had their own moments of this, just a bit less intense.

On the whole, they learned a huge amount from the process elements, which in a communication class or first-year experience class or a corporate or teacher retreat or something would be really valuable. I think in other contexts, where those lessons were not so key, that their deep engagement with the puzzles really had them learning the content they were using to unlock things. If I were a math teacher, for example, I would do this kind of thing a lot. Numerical answers are perfect for this sort of thing, especially with so many programmable combination locks out there.

The downside is the time it takes in planning. And you can't really have them put the puzzles back together how they found them, since they don't actually always remember how. I think I will try to incentivize that as part of the next time I try this out and see if I can do that to save myself prep time. (You need master keys and a combination cheat sheet to do that so they don't lock something away forever by mistake!). I think leading them to design their own puzzles for each other or for future groups would also be a nice exercise, especially for certain classes (communication, education, leadership, etc.). I certainly benefited from that at SXSWedu.

I am also going to take pictures and create a visual guide for myself for each puzzle next time so they are easy to make again. Obviously if I do this more than once a class I will need to develop more than one option for each box to reduce boredom, but I did this with five groups of five people, so I could rotate all 5 puzzles and get extra mileage.

The last thing I really want to do is to deepen the narrative a bit more. I already have some flair on the carry-on, especially, to make it seem real. I need to do more with the other boxes and have non-puzzle flavor text and objects to build a story they can unravel for deeper engagement. Maybe all these people disappeared or something? They solve a mystery of some kind? Gotta think further. If I make it engaging like that on multiple vectors (puzzle, story, etc.), I can capture more interest. 

I think then I can make really hard boxes they can't finish in time. They leave class and need to do some homework to be able to finish? Because they are in boxes we can have them put it all away and then have another crack at it next session? This was part of my thinking in making Puzzle Boxes instead of Escape Rooms. I am a college professor and do not have the luxury of my "own" classroom. 

I think this all has a lot of promise. I will update with future blog posts on this. If you do this kind of stuff, yourself, please let me know and we can compare notes!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Diversifying Rhetorical Methods, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Hubris

by Steven S. Vrooman

Presented at the Engaging Pedagogy Conference, Seguin, TX, May 17, 2017

Aristotle’s three modes of rhetoric were ethos, pathos and logos, but these are, with apologies, inexact.
Although rhetorical criticism has often been taught as an application of various “methods,” these tend to produce, in the words of my doctoral advisor, Cheree Carlson, “cookie-cutter” projects that stamp the pentad or Symbolic Convergence Theory. This is not the same as what Janesick (1994) calls methodolatry, but it is in the same family. Janesick is talking about the kinds of specific methodological practices in ethnography, which, in contrast to most rhetorical criticism articles, is usually far more honest about how it does its work. Rhetoric, by erasing the conditions of practice by which a piece of criticism is undertaken, shifts its methodolatric burden onto its theorists, who become magic totem words that are supposed to tell us exactly what is happening. You know the words. Burke. Bohrmann, Fisher.
We diversify this list, when we do so, by carting over loads of ideological criticism, which, to be fair, people like Burke were doing on the sly anyway, but this leaves us with a decidedly problematic set of methodolatries. As Grossberg (1997) argued years ago, in between NCA panels where he wondered why so much cultural studies work was “so fucking boring,” we typically just find domination and resistance exactly where we expect to find them.
What is the epistemological status of a Burkean critic who sees the world as ripe for slicing with Burke’s box of knives? We can build an alternative rhetoric using, say, Anzaldua, but all of these approaches verge on hagiography. Anzaldua at least has cool words we can use to label our practices for us and allow us to explain to advisers what our “method” is. But what of lesser-known scholars, who don’t have five keywords to bold before the abstract? We risk the possibility that there is “real” rhetoric, with systems and models and names for things, and “fake” rhetoric, which is clearly an attempt to open up the canon, but seems to carry a different standard for how much it can lift. If it were good, wouldn’t there be steps like this other stuff we see in the Foss books, a student might ask?
And they will ask that even more in my class, which has, by this time, already taken students through a set of detailed tables of options for exploring and applying schemes, figures and tropes, as well as argument structure and fallacy (see the vast charts at I do find that students experience everything to follow in the class as less intellectually rigorous than what they’ve worked through in the tables.
So I feel it my task in this to generate those tables. There is something to struggling with Butler or West or Irigaray and then leaving them to float in a pool of confusion when asked to pick a method out of the bunch. And Stacey Waite’s (2016) hilarious account of reading passages from Judith Butler with her students shows that struggling through those moments with them can be pretty great.
This semester I played both sides by doing this intellectual kick into the deep end of the pool that reminds us all so fondly of graduate school seminars but then moving to the clearer set of charts. I know. I know. Butler’s approach cannot be reduced to such blankety blankety schemes, and it just reifies the kind of blankety blankety privilege her work stands against by reducing it in this way.
Does it, though? How do you teach Butler? Make them read? They don’t, btw. You give them some ideas before they start to guide their reading? Critical guiding questions? Then you do reading groups or pull the class into a circle for a discussion? Maybe you eventually are dramatically compelled to rise to the chalkboard in a moment of transcendent joy which you will use as your Facebook status about how wonderful your students are later that afternoon. You grasp the chalk and begin to . . . what? Write words. Then more words. Now you have a spatial diagram. Perhaps you use an arrow or two. Maybe you even number some concepts for them so that you have an answer when they tell you, “I’m still not sure exactly what we are supposed to do for this project.”
See what you did, with all the haze of constructivist and dialogic and postmodern and decentered teaching? You faked it. You made it look, to the students, like they did the work. But, you know, they don’t buy it. Either you explained it clearly enough that they think you are a genius and are so glad for the privilege of taking courses with you, or, worse, that you are a bore and they left confused. Rarely, as a classroom body, do they think they did this or could do it again without you.
This drives me nuts. This is fake pedagogy. Fake democratization.
I would prefer to cut out that bit, read the hard texts for them, process it into outline form and provide it to them in a form that they can immediately begin applying. I see that as far more empowering.
And I regularly see nonmajors in my introductory rhetorical methods class do better work with these tools than what I see in the journals or in conferences.
Back to Aristotle.
I break the pieces of rhetoric into interlocking funnels:
Schemes build structure (think Michael Leff). Narratives build genre. Arguments build ideology. Okay. But we know that’s not the whole story. Ideology, for example, is composed of, well, everything. So that’s what the grey circles are for. We start the class with schemes and they figure out how to do original research to analyze a structure. Same for arguments, although their theses tend to be of fairly small scope. All the rest of rhetorical criticism builds accounts of how all of this fits together, but so often it seems a kind of narrative + genre + ideology + structure question.
In the bad old days I used Burke and a social movements rhetoric textbook to explore these issues.
To build a version of the good new days, I, as I indicated, first just gave them articles or chapters and we struggled, disingenuously, as a class, to develop methods from them. Plenty were about being excluded from the rhetorical canon or even from public discourse, so that helped to process the perceived problem of “Why don’t we have these in chart form if they are so great?” We built methods with them:

For their final project they simply had to choose one of the 9 articles to use for what we were calling the MashUp section of the course. The project, which is course cumulative, used schemes, Perelman’s argument typology, fallacies, the material which used to be Burke (now MashUp) and the social movements book. This had, in the past, been a different social movement for each student. This time, all students had Black Lives Matter. Each student selected a different set of data (some social media content, some video content and some press coverage). They did a final presentation and paper, which they uploaded to a shared class blog ( for potential aggregation into a larger project.
At a basic level, given that before 100% of the students used Burke, a dead straight white male theorist, this time around only 12.5% did. I included a Burke reading as part of the diverse MashUp.
A more complex analysis of these results requires a bit of understanding about Burke, Burke’s connection to social movement theory, and the unique structure of the Black Lives Matter movement. Burkean analysis has many parts, but given his dramatistic framework, the typical elements used for the final project are either his frames or his notion of perspective by incongruity and its relationship to rhetorical bureaucracy. A quick and vaguely inaccurate version of these ideas is that Burke values either tragic framed movements (like the peace movement of the 1960s, morally rejecting the evil Establishment) or the comic (Gandhi, MLK, etc., which use civil disobedience to educate the foolish, not evil, system). Perspective by incongruity is akin to Gramscian hegemony analysis, which is interested in how power-laden discourses are stretched by power structures and cracked by resistance. In Burke’s case, he highlights the use of irony and satire in such cases.
This all connects with social movement theory largely built on a Burkean framework that privileges clear moral conflict. Other, non-Burkean elements of social movement theory involve clear leadership structures, internal communication rituals, etc. When it is all put together, the ideal movement is almost exactly the opposite of the less-structured, social media-driven, just name their names style of BLM, what my students called “hashtag salad”:

I had a feeling that if I had assigned this kind of movement using Burkean analysis, as usual, the result would have been just like the two previous times individual students chose BLM or three times they chose similar less-structured movements (WTO, Occupy Wall Street) for their final project – they suggested the movement was unclear and disorganized and thus would not be successful. In this case, the results were more mixed, with 5 students concluding that BLM was making errors that were in keeping with Burkean judgments, 6 suggesting that their different structure was an asset and the other 5 members of class arguing more complex theses like:

There is a boomer-millennial divide in terms of strategy, and suspicion of old leadership style, “respectability politics,” is important, because those models led to civil rights settling for not enough. They are stuck in mestizaje stage in connections between generations, but are struggling to develop nepantla.


BLM and others use fallacies, and their unorganized hierarchy allows them to exploit fallacies that are popular and funny enough to get attention but to be able to deny the ineffective or things that cross lines, which is a kind of turn to mdw nfr instead of Aristotle, which helps to pull in people who see news and just get angry.

In these kinds of examples, students were able to use the MashUp article concepts not just as an alternative to the traditional 60s-fetishizing vibe of classic rhetorical social movement theory, but as a key lever in mediating a more complex conversation between that and BLM, and, in many cases, other methods in the class, like fallacies.
Okay. All good. But….
In talking with other faculty interested in diversifying readings and ideas in their classes, there was some resistance to my idea of simplifying these texts down into a set of tools in a table. So I sought to open the class process and let them develop it. I remain skeptical of both the honesty of that approach and the relative lack of agency it gives the students. Although my more top-down table method has problems, it is the better option, all the things considered, I think. My plan is, for Spring 2018, to give the students the table and some of the readings and problematize the whole concept with them. The idea is that I admit that my readings and table entries are simplifications and the class is based on testing them out as much as using them, with the students rewarded for what they can read or generate for the readings that are new. This style can work exceptionally well if the instructor is committed to it. Let them know that all of this is contingent and incomplete. There is always more to do.
I am going to produce a draft of a table below here for you, but I struggle with all the things that I think you’d hope I’d be struggling with here:
1.    Does he have sufficient training to represent these ideas with any degree of fidelity?
2.    Especially given that his embodied experience in the world has been one of vast rafts of privilege.
3.    And the hubris of this table is EXACTLY the sort of reductive thing we’d expect in that case.
Let me take these totally legit criticisms in turn. Not to dispute them, but to explore their implications a bit.
One. I have had a lot of training. My coursework, teaching and research in Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies and African American studies have helped me here. Of course, I’ve been doing Burke stuff for 25 years, so I will likely reduce him to table form far more accurately, so this is a fair point. However, I’d like to underline that this is just not my problem alone. Part of the reason I want to do this project is that NO ONE has the right training for this if we entertain the possibility, even for a bit, that critical academic work does not have to exist in non-step-oriented postmodern form. We have to give it form for the students. We also hope we teach them to supercede our training wheels. And we put those wheels on for other methods. The Foss textbook give plenty of steps to even such mush as “genre criticism.” Why does the Burgchardt textbook give us a history piece and a cultural studies/ideological criticism piece as 2/3 of the “feminist criticism” section? When we strip diverse critical practices of the possibility of being abstracted into method, we reify something terrible. All our postmodern huffing and puffing will not blow down the methodological parts catalog of positivism. Thus we have “real” rhetoric on the one hand and something squishier on the other. It’s what we heard about feminist theory in an unfortunate graduate seminar years ago. The prof suggested that it would be more accurate to call feminist theory poetry or something instead, since it didn’t have the specificity and rigor one would expect of “real” academic work. I swear Kristin Hibler actually had steam come out of her ears, like in the cartoons, in response to this.
All of which reminds me that we are also putting an enormous burden on young faculty and graduate students to prepare, anew, every time, this stack of methods that swirl in their heads and experiences, this orbit of complexly written text that they need to sift and choose to help students to sift and choose. Of course, they also have other things they’d like to apply their skills and consciousness to, as well, in their departments, schools, communities, the world. Maybe they need to have a bigger voice in the union or faculty governance or a community organization. Maybe they need to have more time to write and publish and compete in a positivist model of scholarly presentationpublicationproduction that unfairly allocates privilege. Maybe they need to, as my friend was told at a Research One school, “spend less time with his students” in order to get tenure. He didn’t. So he didn’t. What if we could be better about not policing our own reductivism in the extended form of ideological purity texts we like to inflict on each other in the left.
Two. My privilege has been a titanic raft. This is true. Thus, it is entirely likely that I will get the nuances of nepantla wrong. But EVERYONE gets Burke’s Pentad wrong. Everyone. I have never seen or heard a piece of pentadic criticism that doesn’t have giant howlers of errors in the method. We just don’t care about that as much, I guess, although old Burkeans will read you the riot act if you happen to define “division” in a new-ish way, so maybe I’m wrong. This critique is true. But only someone with my unique combination of hubris and privilege would try this thing. Most others out there diversifying rhetoric kind of abandon the systematization gig in their syllabi. I think this is a waiting game. Eventually all the ancient Burkeans will die off, leaving their lumbering reptilian methods to the fossil record. But that ultimately abandons rhetoric to cultural studies and ideological criticism. And I don’t like that. I find so much of that work just dishonest enough to be grating. It lacks methodological openness while preaching openness and thus Grossberg’s twin critiques tend to be true: it’s boring and predictable.
Three. Look, tables, right? It’s not ideal. I can only speak for my students. Know how many people learn Perelman in their classes besides me? I am not all-seeing, but there are almost no other examples. He’s, as Dr. Carlson said back in the day, quaint and too hard. Ha! Aristotle is quaint but we still teach that stuff. Perelman is too hard to make accessible so we don’t try. We turn to methods that we can easier gloss for our students. It’s why we still use psychoanalysis in feminist cultural criticism. It’s wrong. But it has clear methods. And if we know how wrong it is going in, we can use that as a helpful lever even as the method illuminates stuff for use to critique. We are building a toolbox of methods, as another old prof of mine, Dr. Hasian, used to say. Except, it’s not enough to know when to use a wrench and when a hammer. We have to know that the whole box is a problem at the outset. But, really, don’t you already think that about EVERYTHING anyway? Anyway, I turned Perelman into method and am preserving the Mishnaic tradition of Judaic argument analysis for the WASPish world of most rhetorical method, with some error. Always some error. Tables work. They help students to do work faster. Our job is to help them process the implications of what the tables leave out. But remember, they are NOT reading for your classes. You are doing that with chalk daily anyway. Or on a PowerPoint. This version gives the students more power in the equation. And, to bring the shibboleth of assessment to critical scholarship, aren’t student outcomes the things that matter most here?
My old philosophy prof, Jasper Blystone, who taught a class called “Postmodernism,” gave us Lechte’s 50 Key Contemporary Thinkers book. It’s like a Cliff’s Notes to current theorists. He admitted, sheepinshly, that this wasn’t the same as reading, say, all of Foucault, but, who does that anyway if they are also reading all of Derrida and Freud and Haraway, etc. He argued that that’s what the European model of graduate education does. The ideas are more important than struggling with every text. He might have been right. But he taught postmodernism, so we will never know J.
Plus, this only works if we give them the texts. I’ve got hyperlinks below. These usually exist on the interwebs. The students get a quick summary from me and if they want to use a method they have to drop in on the full, complex text and have a longer visit.
Thus, the table, in its current form is below. It is not at all complete. It will, honestly, never be complete. But it’s a start. Note that we could throw the usual suspects like Burke and Bohrmann and Fischer on here, too, and I will, but we already know what that looks like.
Biesekcer’s techne
“by scrupulously working within and against the grain of the the word's historically constituted semantic field, techne can be used to refer to a kind of "getting through" or ad hoc "making do" by a subject whose resources are necessarily located in and circumscribed by the field within which she operates, but whose enunciation, in always and already exceeding and falling short of its intending subject, harbors within it the possibility of disrupting, fragmenting, and altering the horizon of human action out of which it emerges.” (p. 155)
Perfomative queer sensibility with special focus on:
1)    Irony
2)    Aestheticism
3)    Theatricality
4)    Humor
Cyborg theory
We are cyborgs, multiple and contested. Look for:
1)    Places where boundaries bleed. Infections.
2)    Signs of excess. Appendages.
3)    Trickster narratives of flows of control.
Double jeopardy
If oppressions multiply effects instead of add effects, how do those play out?
The queer practice of “illicit imagination” involves reading into texts, between the lines, etc., for things that could not be said.
We live with “complex personhood” and are haunted by contradictions. The ghost is the mostly hidden visitation of organized structures  of power that work to be removed from memory
Medu nefer
Ancient Egyptian “good speech” suggests that ethics and truth are, unlike Aristotle, not separable – rhetorical effectiveenss and ethics are inseperable
Multiplicity is a new subjectivity – a synthesis of structures of oppression and freedom.
Multiple definition
Persuasion requires definition of concepts mutually acceptable to all before further proceeding.
Mestizaje identity pivoted to critique all categories.
Vocal speech in the African tradition creates worlds, and both build community while also delivering imperative to it, call and response. It is not separable from the concepts “behind” the word, as in the European tradition.
Rhetorical conversation
Women, excluded from the public sphere, developed a particular rhetoric which expands the values of good private conversation to public discourse directed to “gaining the audience,” not “gaining the applause.” Key values are:
1)    Wit: Gentle humor allows strategic, planned communication to enter with goodwill and spontaneity
2)    Elocution: Attention to politeness and truthfulness matching idea, voice and body.
Madame de Scudery via Jane Donawerth
Ruthless critique
Radicalism is therefore the epistemological work of shattering the political
unconscious of terror that structures the boundaries of common sense and consensus.” (p. 182)
shame paradox
Decreasing visibility from others serves to actually increase visibility of self/acts.
The ethic of caring
Black feminist wisdom offers these three things for us to care about in interacting with the world
1)    Individual uniqueness
2)    Emotion-laden dialogue
3)    Empathy
I know. It’s not nearly good enough. Wanna give me a hand? I am feeling a textbook in this.

Grossberg, L. (1997). Dancing in spite of myself: Essays on popular culture. Durham: Duke University Press.
Grossberg, L. (2005, Nov.). Comments. In J. Hay (Chair), Critical and cultural studies now – A forum. Panel conducted at the National Communication Association Annual Convention, Boston, MA.
Janesick, V. J. (1994). The dance of qualitative research design: Metaphor, methodolatry, and meaning. In. N. K. Denzin, & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.) Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 209-219). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
            Waite, S. (2016). The unavailable means of persuasion: A queer ethos for feminist writers and teachers. In K. J. Ryan, N. Meyers, and R. James (Eds), Rethinking ethos: A feminist ecological approach to rhetoric (pp. 71-88). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.