For the last couple of years, I have taught a course called Fables and Tales, a class that most students take to meet a general education requirement in the humanities at San Francisco State University.
Fables, fairy tales, and folklore are not exactly my area of expertise, though I find the topic fascinating. The first time I taught the course I spent nearly a hundred hours prepping – mostly in background research, exploring sources and looking for creative and interesting readings and assignments – and enjoyed every minute of it. For a comparatist, the intersecting and overlapping nature of folklore is fertile ground. And from a pedagogical standpoint, the more connections I can make between stories, the better able I am to create a climactic arc for my course – to give students the sense that each part of the course is building on the last, that they are moving ever-closer to a goal. As both a scholar and a teacher, my impulse to look for literary connections and convergences kicks into overdrive.
My students, on the other had, tend to be a bit more circumspect, seeing connections between texts less readily than I do. I often open up discussions by asking students to test the limits of the relationships between stories, posing questions like, “Would you call this a Cinderella story?”, “Are Snow-drop (Schneewittchen) and Snow White really the same person?”, “Is Biancabella more similar to Snow White or Cinderella?”, etc. While they sometimes make interesting and unexpected connections between stories, a sizable chunk of them will tell me they don’t see any connections at all. They’re particularly skeptical of more abstract connections, where the details of the story are adapted to emphasize particular thematic concerns, such as the interpretation of Bluebeard as a serial adulterer.
As they have challenged me on my own comparative impulse, I’ve thought more deeply about the relationships between texts, and my own agency as a scholar in asserting and depicting those relationships. I’ve also explored ways to clarify and support the relationships I identify for my students. As I searched for a framework to make these relationships more compelling, I remembered my study of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblances, which seemed in many ways uniquely suitable.
A while back, I published a post on best practices for e-mail communication with instructors and advisors; that post was primarily aimed at grad students, and though it would be useful for all students, it focused on the finer points of maintaining a collegial and professional tone in e-mail. Recently, I’ve been reminded that many students (even grad students) could benefit from some nuts-and-bolts advice for communicating effectively via e-mail, so I thought I’d tackle some of the most common issues I encounter in e-mail correspondence with my students in a series of posts.
To start things off, here are the four fundamental things you need to do when e-mailing your professors.
I recently gave a midterm in my section of Myths of the World, a large lecture class that most students take to meet a general education requirement in the humanities at San Francisco State University.
I have been extremely proud, and more than a little shocked, that since introducing this version of the midterm in my classes, several students have told me that they actually had “fun” answering the essay question.
The essay asks students to make comparisons between texts we have read by considering the question:
What makes a hero?
In class, as we read each text, I have challenged them to think about several issues related to this topic:
- By what means does the author establish for us that the character is heroic? What details of his/her representation make it clear that we are meant to valorize a certain character? What do these choices help us understand about what it means to be heroic in the context of the story?
- How does the depiction of heroic figures help us to understand the beliefs, attitudes, and values of the society that produced them? If a hero is represented as an ideal, an object of admiration and aspiration, what does this show us about the traits and behaviors that were valorized in a particular culture?
- How might stories of heroic figures inspire but also constrain real individuals in a society as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to be?
- Would we, now, consider this figure heroic? Why or why not? How does this help us understand our own sociocultural beliefs, attitudes, and values?
The exam asks them to consider these questions in relation to two of the texts we have read and discussed in class so far, but it also adds an unexpected element:
Then, for your final paragraph, choose a heroic figure from our own contemporary culture. This doesn’t necessarily need to be your own personal hero – it should be someone you feel is admired by a large number of people in our society. This could be a fictional character (like a superhero, or action hero), or a real person who is considered a hero by a significant portion of society. Discuss what this heroic figure reveals about our own cultural values, AND, whether this represents a change from the values of the ancient cultures you discussed, or remains consistent with those ancient values.
This is the part my students really like. Making connections between the stories we have read and their own experience and frame of reference helps make the texts we have read together seem more meaningful to them. And they love having the opportunity to talk about stories and characters that they feel strongly about, and comment on aspects of their own culture and society.
The first time I gave students this question, I was fascinated to see which figures my students picked, so this time around I decided to catalog their responses.
Here is an overview of my students’ choice of heroes.
Use this gallery to explore Aesop’s fables. Each picture represents one of the fables; captions provide the morals taught by each fable. Does one of the images catch your eye? Does one of these stories teach a lesson that intrigues you?
“When we claim to have been injured by language, what kind of claim do we make?
We ascribe an agency to language, a power to injure, and position ourselves as the objects of its injurious trajectory. We claim that language acts, and acts against us, and the claim we make is a further instance of language, one which seeks to arrest the force of the prior instance.
Thus, we exercise the force of language even as we seek to counter its force, caught up in a bind that no act of censorship can undo.”
— Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative
In recent days, a great deal of thought, and even more raw emotion, has been generated by the topic of rhetoric — rhetoric about politics, about race and culture, about identity and belonging, and about exclusion and distrust. I think now, more than ever, we as a society are confronted with the power — the potentially abusive power — of language.
And yet, when considering the power language has to wound, I cannot help recalling Judith Butler’s assertion, in Excitable Speech, of the paradoxical nature of language’s power — that in trying to curtail the power of language, we inadvertently accede to it. Then again, in accepting the power language has over us, we can likewise recognize it as a power we can wield. Though the book is now creeping up on its twentieth anniversary, it seems more relevant than ever to remember both the warning and the promise it contains.
The previous two posts about logical fallacies have discussed problems with premises and confusion of conclusion – mistakes in reasoning that arise when there is some issue with the building blocks of our arguments, or the way we put them together.
But in some instances of flawed “reasoning”, the problem is that argument is sidestepped altogether. Instead of supporting claims with reasoning, a speaker or writer distracts from the real claim by misdirection, confusing the issue or playing on our emotions.
In one sense, these are the most dangerous types of fallacies, because they allow people to make any claims they want, and hide the fact that they have no support for what they’re saying. Fortunately, since they’re often less subtle than other forms of fallacious reasoning, they’re easy to identify and avoid, once you know what you’re looking for.
In episode I, you learned about logical fallacies that represent mistakes in moving from our premises to our conclusions, due to bad logical form. But even if we’re careful to support our conclusions with reasoning and evidence, we can often run into problems with the evidence itself. “Facts” are supposed to be objective — but facts need to be interpreted, and this process is often subjective.
For that reason, evidence can often mislead and confuse. Have we interpreted it correctly? Do we have enough context to understand what it really indicates?
As consumers of media, we need to be aware of how frequently the supposed “evidence” that supports a claim can be misinterpreted and misused.
As thinkers and writers, we must make sure that we always consider source and context to ensure that we are using evidence appropriately.
Many mistakes in logic occur due to problems with our premises – the information or assumptions we use as our starting point when we begin to reason. But some are down to the way we put those premises together to draw conclusions – that is, they occur because we use bad logical form.
Logical fallacies are examples of fallacious, or faulty, arguments. At best, they represent flawed reasoning—making claims that are not supported by reasons or warrants, or drawing conclusions that don’t match up to the information you have. At worst, they can be deliberate attempts to mislead or confuse someone, to persuade through providing misinformation, usually to serve some hidden agenda. Many of the logical fallacies we will examine are common mistakes we all make, but some of them are established propaganda techniques.
Reasoning, in its most fundamental sense, is the process by which we take bits of information and knowledge that we already have, and compare or combine them to generate new knowledge. It describes our ability to move from what we know to what we don’t know.
We do this by drawing conclusions from a set of premises – things we already know (or believe) to be true. The way we combine the premises to produce a conclusion is called an argument. The goal is to construct a sound argument so that we draw conclusions in such a way that they are guaranteed – or at least very likely – to be true. We want to come to the right conclusions, but this can be tricky.