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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.

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