Intro to #VCUOLE

Hello!  I’m Ryan Cales, and I’m a fellow participant in the Online Learning Experience from the Department of Focused Inquiry.  I have previously taught online and have spent the past two years toying around with online tools/platforms in various classes to boost student engagement.  Last summer I was an instructor in the #thoughtvectors cMOOC digital engagement pilot for UNIV 200 (Code Name: “Living the Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds”) and am now currently teaching a connected face-to-face iteration of the course in concert with five other colleagues.  (Here is my summer section’s course site and here is the current one.)  Additionally, I have collaborated a bunch with Dr. Jason Coats (also a part of this experience!) over the years and currently share a course site with him for our six sections of UNIV200: Inquiry & the Craft of Argument in an attempt to better connect students across classes.  I’ve also used Tumblr a bit as a course gallery in UNIV213: The Truth About Lying and have been interested in online gamification in the classroom.  I’m very excited to work with everyone here and see how others are thinking of connected learning and other Web things in their courses.



Framing Claims

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As I have mentioned previously, we are concerned with generating conceptual, interpretive questions and claims in this class, all of which go beyond binary pro/con, yes/no, good/bad thought.  In getting there, we need to ensure that our main claims–our theses–are doing meaningful, interpretive work. Such theses should be new contributions to how we understand the world and that provoke audience interests and questions.  (At the very least, your main claim needs to be debatable, supportable, and significant to your audience.  See Dr. Coats’s post on descriptions for the claim criteria we have discussed in class.)  If you succeed in making a strong thesis with equally strong support, people will still disagree with you.  Though, disagreement, rather than mere dismissal, is a mark of success.  It means that you are contributing to the world and making it a better place through discussing new interpretations of data.  You’re so good!

The best way to set up your argument and demonstrate why your thesis is compelling—and that it’s worth it for the reader to continue reading to find out why he/she should believe it—is to first establish a framework in the introduction of your project for the problem you wish to explore and that your argument will give response.  Thus, it’s prudent to establish these three components up front:

  1. A statement regarding what is typically understood about your topic, including necessary background and context (the status quo).
  2. A statement regarding what you have come to believe is problematic with this. typical understanding (the problem), including why this problem is significant to the reader.
  3. Your thesis, encapsulating what you think people should embrace instead of the status quo.

Consider this paragraph (Note: I made most of this stuff up):

Most scholars have agreed that, prior to the late 19th century, throwing playing cards (often referred to as “scaling”) was a low-form spectacle: generally limited to tricks used by amateur magicians and intoxicated gamblers.  It was only until French magician Alexander Herrmman’s “flying card” act in 1890 that card throwing was accepted as a veritable skill. [1]  However, this reading of history undermines the significance of the work of conjurer Holtz Bellini to the art of card throwing. [2]  Though not well known in popular circles of performers, his card routines incorporated insurmountable speed and accuracy.   Further journal evidence was found in an 1846 issue of The Monthly Ruse which revealed a promotion of Bellini’s work, indicating that he would be “the first conjurer ever to successfully saw a woman in half with playing cards alone” (33).  Moreover, in “52 Reasons to Reconsider Messing with a Magician,”Calvin Tinks and Laverne Copp report that Bellini’s throwing abilities were reminiscent of 17th century martial arts, with particular similarities to the Dragon Scale Dance technique of instrument manipulation (803). [3]  If we overlook Bellini’s career, particularly his work touring in antebellum America, we jeopardize our understanding of the lineage of card throwing and how this history has influenced contemporary performers. [4]   By looking deeper into his methods and acts during the mid-ninetieth century, we can see that Bellini’s work serves an as integral link between old forms of object manipulation and new forms of scaling. [5]

1. Here is the status quo, establishing the general context of the issue and typical understanding of the history.
2. This begins the turn with the problem, where the common understanding of the the history is destabilized by pointing to what is missing given the common conception leaving out the importance of Bellini.
3. This serves as further evidence to bolster support for the problem actually existing.
4. Here is the significance of the problem, urging what is at stake for the reader by accepting the common conception of the issue.
5. The thesis.  This is what the rest of the paper goes on to show is true to replace the current status quo.  Notice that this is not a claim picking a side of an issue, but one that calls for a different and better understanding of it.

For longer projects,  it takes longer to establish these major parts of the introduction.  But no matter what, by the end of your introduction, your audience should have a clear understanding of the problem at hand, why it’s necessary to care about this problem, and the precise and significant thesis you will support and that responds to the problem at hand.

When looking to the thesis itself, understand that you should concern yourself with something that will change the way people think about the particular problem you establish rather than something like a call to action or a policy change.  There is an important distinction between practical (i.e. tangible) problems and conceptual (i.e. interpretive) ones.  Practical problems deal with applying understandings we already have.  However, before we can do anything in the world in terms of action, we need to have grounded and sophisticated understandings of the issue.  (Otherwise we would just be running around the world like jerks asserting stuff with no tenable grasp as to why action should happen.) Providing these sophisticated understandings–supporting conceptual claims–is what we concern ourselves with when addressing our particular audiences.

Consider the differences between these two claims:

Claim 1: We need to elect more Green Party candidates into office.
Claim 2: Grassroots democracy initiatives are significantly overlooked and undervalued given their potential for community-building and prosperity.

The first is a practical claim telling us what should happen in the world; it necessarily calls for an action with voters, otherwise it won’t work.  The second is a interpretive claim telling us how we should understand a particular concept (grassroots democracy) and why it’s so significant to our lives. Although it may seems like the first claim is more desirable, it’s not nearly as sophisticated or precise as the second.  Moreover, it doesn’t really get to the significance of the issue at hand.  Of course, a paper written to support such a claim could include such justification, but it would take a great deal of work and would still run the risk of being broad and nebulous.  The second claim is specific and has the significance built in for us.  Also, it’s important to note that, in order to buy claim 1, you need to have an understanding of something like claim 2, which most people clearly don’t have.  This is not to say that the answer to your conceptual problem shouldn’t ever yield potential for practical significance—doing things in the world to better it is great!  Though, asserting and supporting conceptual claims is where our work here lies: trying to get our audiences to think of specific phenomena in the world in a different, better way.  If you suspect that your thesis is too practical, try to find a way to take the action you want to promote and move it into the background so that it becomes personal justification for your interpretation of your primary text.

Here are some other practical claims.  How can we make them conceptual ones?

1.Parents should have the right to choose whether their children get vaccinations.
2. Emojis should be used as evidence in court cases dealing with communication via texts.
3. Social matchmaking apps such as Tinder should enforce background checks for their users.

Digging Deep with Arguments

Before getting into argument components and all their wonder, here is a quick note about analysis:

Whenever we look to study anything, need to have very specific data to analyze.  Consider the following things: “ Hollywood horror film,” “office memo for a large company,” “store sign.”  Though these are more specific than their larger counterparts—movies, office documents, signs—they are still fairly abstract.  These are what we can refer to as “types” of things, rather than specific “tokens.”  We can make “store sign” more specific by looking at particular film—say, the Apple Store sign.  This gets us closer to a token of the type “store sign.”  Though, it could get even more precise.  A token could be the Apple Store sign at Short Pump Mall.  When using primary texts for our purposes with the CAP, we want something closer to a token than a type.

Consider this range of specificity:

Very Abstract: Social Media
Abstract: Facebook
Concrete: My Facebook Profile Page
Very Concrete: A full screenshot of my Facebook page from today, or, my status updates from the past week.

We need very concrete texts because they afford us actual hard data we can use pull out for analysis: looking at everything on the page and picking out salient parts for evidence given your angle/perspective.

OKAY.  Now we’re ready for the argument talk.

Simply put, an argument is a set of reasons (we can also call them premises) working together to show why a thesis is true.   People discuss ‘argument’ differently given particular disciplines. Philosophers, for instance, typically break arguments down formally into premises and conclusions. Consider the following example:

Premise 1: If the building is burning down, then we should run like hell.
Premise 2: The building is burning down!
Therefore, we should run like hell!!!!!!!!!!!

Here is an example of a formal argument where the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises—meaning, if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. Though we can break arguments down this way, we typically don’t make formal arguments in common conversation and writing. Rather, we typically use informal ways of discussing arguments like enthymemes (or brief arguments). Here is the same argument as an enthymeme:

We should run like hell (claim) because the building is burning down! (reason)

From here we get to the elements of argument we have discussed so far in class:
Claim: The point you’re trying to prove true
Evidence: The data you interpret to support your reasoning
Reasoning: Your explanation of how/why the evidence supports the claim

We can think of these as the logical elements (logos) of argument. Though, as we began discussing today, it’s not always enough for an argument to be persuasive merely based on the strength of the writer’s claim, evidence, and reasoning.  Arguments are rhetorical endeavors; you must think about the specific audience you are addressing and how an argument is appropriately tailored given this audience.  Thus, it’s important to understand the moments in your argument where you need to spend time explaining your assumptions and beliefs/principles you’re invoking to frame and support your work.  Otherwise, your argument will have limited success.

From here, we get the importance of these:
Warrants: The belief/principles) connecting one’s reasoning to his/her claim.

Warrants are imperative when making arguments and are usually where issues arise with readers: why they would disagree and potentially oppose what you’re selling.  They are also, at times, tricky to understand.  Warrants involve the relevance of a reason, and the relevance is not something where everyone will necessarily agree.  They are principles that are often based in our societal commitments–and we know we all don’t share the same commitments.  Similarly, we won’t all agree on the truth of all warrants.

In certain instances, we don’t have to explain our warrants when making arguments.  Consider the brief building burning argument above. The warrant connecting the reason to the claim would be something like, we don’t want to die. You probably wouldn’t even need to go far past “The burning is building!” to convince someone to run.  However, there isn’t much work being done here.  More complex arguments–even slightly more complex arguments–need explicit warrants.  Consider my example in class today with drinking coffee. The conversation could go like this:

You: Ryan, you shouldn’t be drinking coffee right now (claim) because you’re sick (reason).
Me: Why does being sick matter with drinking coffee?
You: Coffee dehydrates you (evidence) and will deplete your body causing you to stay sick longer. Since you want to get better as quickly as possible (warrant), you should cut the coffee for now.
Me: Ah, fair enough. But I need coffee to get through the day. Have you seen me without it? No, because it’s the worst! I become this terrible monster, like a Gorg. Since no one wants to be around a terrible Gorg Ryan (warrant), I’m going to take the hit, enjoy my drink, and just suck down more Emergen-C.

(Note: It’s really not that bad. I’ve cut consumption quite a bit)

Though you may make a valuable case why I shouldn’t drink coffee while I’m sick and want to get better—and I do—it doesn’t trump my commitment to wanting to drink and be merry. This is why the logical elements of argument are not enough on their own: audience matters. The point: many warrants can be at play and compete at any given time. Because of this, you need to make sure that they are relevant, specific, and superior to other warrants.

Core concepts from readings act as warrants for your own work.  You will not use them as mere evidence for your argument (like you would reports of data, for instance).  Rather, you will take the claims/assertions of the authors we have discussed and apply them to your primary text: resting on what they have said for support.  When looking to core readings (and any source you may use ever in life) for warrants to utilize for your own work, look for argumentative moments where the authors are positing a view rather than just providing a description of something.

Signals for Warrants


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When incorporating the core readings into your work, you must introduce the author.  You do this by using signal phrasesSignal phrases are ways to introduce your reader to the ideas of others in a clear way. The way they look varies given particular style guides (APA, MLA, etc.), though they serve the same purpose. They are also necessary in academic writing.

Here are some examples with the signaling verb in bold.

*As economist Thomas Puddledunk suggests, “The working class will always create a cyclical and systematic rise and fall of equitable resources” (15).
*World renowned Slamball sports columnist Jack Freely states, “In any game, both teams want to win. What matters is who does” (2).
* Psuedopsychologist Robert Colbert claims, “Access to the mind only begins with the acknowledgment of the self while the self is aligned with the stars” (43).
*As postmodern philosopher Michel Mandermeer argues, “A prelapsarian reading of David Mamet’s About Last Night… both denies a Derridean ontology and negates a necessary epistemological contradiction of the body” (71).

Of course, there are many verbs you can use in phrases. The choice, though, is not arbitrary: use the verb you find best fits with how the author discusses the relevant idea.

When using signal phrases, also understand that you must cite all of the information coming from the source, paraphrased or not. This looks different given the style you use. For instance, APA privileges the year of publication as well as where as where the information comes from in the text, but is in past tense and typically does not include many direct quotations.

APA Example: Economist Thomas Puddledunk (2015) suggested that “the working class will always create a cyclical and systematic rise and fall of equitable resources” (p. 3).

No matter what, you need to include the page number (or the closest approximation, if there are no page numbers) for where you retrieved the information.

No Page Number Example: World renowned Slamball sports columnist Jack Freely (2015) stated, “In any game, both teams want to win. What matters is who does” (para 4).

Here you would have to count the paragraphs to see where the quotation came from. This way, your reader understands exactly where to look for this information if he/she wanted to check the original source.

The idea is to get as much mileage out of your sources as possible. The major points you use from the sources will act as warrants—not evidence—for your work.  It’s not incredibly important that you use the language of “warrant” so much as it is important that you understand how the sources are used.  You’re not relying on them for facts, but resting on the author’s work to bolster your own.  They act as principles to establish your own work–you don’t need to prove they’re true.  (Another way of putting this is that they act as conditionals for your assertions: something like, “If Shirky is right, then it seems that…”).

Here is a breakdown of using the core readings: taking the direct passage from a source, paraphrasing the passage (i.e. putting it into your own words), using a signal phrase with the paraphrased passage, and then finally incorporating this into a body paragraph of a paper. (Note: the final segment is an outline of each element working in the argumentative paragraph structure.)

  1. Direct Quotation from Shirky:

“In a world where a dozen editors, all belonging to the same professional class, can decide whether to run or kill a national story, information that might be of interest to the general public may not be published not because of a conspiracy but because the editors have a professional bias that is not aligned by the similar challenges they face and by the similar tools they use to approach those challenges. The mass amateurization of publishing undoes the limitations inherent in having a small number of traditional press outlets” (65).

  1. This Paraphrased by me:

The Internet allows us to both readily and easily seek out news we understand is not necessarily vetted and controlled by institutions.

  1. Incorporated with Signal Phrase:
    As Clay Shirky suggests,the Internet allows us to both readily and easily seek out news we understand is not necessarily vetted and controlled by institutions (65).
  1. This used as a Warrant in Critical Analysis:

Major network television news anchors have become archaic resources of information. As Clay Shirky suggests, the Internet allows us to both readily and easily seek out news we understand is not necessarily vetted and controlled by large companies and institutions (65). Shows such as Dateline and Meet the Press, though certainly still viewed by many, do not garner the same amount of attention they did in previous decades. We can now both select the kinds of news we would like to access from an array of like-minded individuals from various online platforms while also receiving such news with swift delivery. Now that we can access reports and data analyses at any given moment in a day, relying on delegated time slots for broadcast journalism is both unnecessary and arbitrary.

  1. This Paragraph Broken Down in Argument Elements

Major network television news anchors have become archaic resources of information.[1] As Clay Shirky suggests, the Internet allows us to both readily and easily seek out news we understand is not necessarily vetted and controlled by large companies and institutions (65).[2] Shows such as Dateline and Meet the Press, though certainly still viewed by many, do not garner the same amount of attention they did in previous decades. We can now both select the kinds of news we would like to access from an array of like-minded individuals from various online platforms while also receiving such news with swift delivery.[3] Now that we can access reports and data analyses at any given moment in a day,[4] relying on delegated time slots for broadcast journalism is both unnecessary and arbitrary.[5]

Here is another example my super brilliant and wonderful UTAs from last semester made using Malcolm Gladwell. A bit of background for their analysis: Caine’s Arcade is a story in which a 9 year-old boy, Caine, set up a makeshift cardboard Arcade. Although overlooked by many, one person took notice to Caine’s Arcade and made a documentary about it, making Caine Internet famous, with around a hundred customers per week, setting up a scholarship fund, and starting a cardboard “diy” empire across the country.)

(The “thesis” we are exploring is do-it-yourself (DIY) culture- how the shift has occurred from interest in mass production to DIY solutions, with an emphasis on communication as can be seen through Caine’s Arcade)

While there are a plethora of creative children across the country, it is rare for them to achieve the same amount of success as Caine for their innovation; the question becomes why this particular young person has become so successful with his DIY empire. Caine’s success hinges on one particular person, documentarian Nirvan Mullick, who served as a catalyst for his popularity. Gladwell explores this phenomenon of a singular person serving as agents for particular movements; and further asserts that “a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few” (37). Mullick is one of these individuals, as he was the person who took Caine’s story to a widely accessible platform. Mullick fits into Gladwell’s classification of a “Connector,” people who have a broad and functioning network with many other individuals in different social spheres (48). Because of Mullick’s desire to share Caine’s work, and his social connections that allowed Caine’s cardboard sentiment to spread; his cardboard masterpieces were the inspiration for the materialization of DIY dreams of thousands of others.

[1] Sub-claim (i.e. topic sentence)

[2] Warrant

[3] Evidence

[4] Warrant

[5] Reasoning

Holistic Learning Habitats

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I’ve been interested in how we can utilize space in different ways to enhance engagement and learning for a long time.  Some of these interests have come from trying to find tactical responses to the conditions of specific classrooms: computers or no computers, natural light or windowless, tables or chairs, crammed or open.  I hope that horror stories with room conditions aren’t frequent for instructors, but everyone seems to have at least one.  (One of mine: Years ago I taught a freshman seminar class of twenty-two students in a room that could barely fit all of us with clear windows separating the rooms next to it where, if you used the blinds to create the common boundary between classes, the windows became reflective surfaces. I imagine this room was meant to serve some observational purpose for education students, though I can’t help but still think of it as some interrogation room for Vic Mackey to use after police shakedowns). Other interests stem from my commitment to making learning enjoyable and entertaining: a desire to make it both as performative and as comfortable as possible for everyone.

The challenge of optimizing learning in any space goes beyond stifling physical conditions to include pretty much everything else involved in a class: the core requirements of the course, the expectations of the instructor, the expectations of students, the nature of the content, the structure of class time/lessons/activities/assignments/etc etc etc. These conditions are also unique in every class.  No learning habitat is the same, because they can’t be.  Of course, different sections of the same class may share common practices, assignments, and other things in between; however, even these things can’t remain static if they don’t work within the particular classroom dynamics.  In this sense, establishing a learning environment is always a rhetorical act: a negotiation between students and instructor given every salient condition for learning.   When thinking of my ideal learning environment, it’s not in a classroom with my peers.  It’s not in my office around my colleagues, or in a workshop group, or a coffee shop around people.  It’s probably by myself with all of the relevant tools around me (my books, my laptop, my coffee) listening to something like this in a room with no overhead lighting and my dog asleep next to me.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t value class time or collaboration–I love working with others and sharing ideas, and think I make this very apparent.  It also doesn’t mean that I’m always sacrificing something when trying to learn in other environments. “Optimizing learning” as I think of it excludes calcified practices and static settings because truly optimizing anything requires an attempt to understand something holistically. Because of this, we should think of learning spaces as things we construct in real time with everyone involved: what we can create together given everything present in the situation at hand.   And this will never come in one conceived “ideal” learning habitat.