Three thoughts on the “Essay,” assessing, and using “robo-grading” for good

NPR had a story on Weekend Edition last week, “More States Opting to ‘Robo-Grade” Student Essays By Computer,” that got some attention from other comp/rhet folks though not as much as I thought it might. Essentially, the story is about the use of computers to “assess” (really “rate,” but I’ll get to that in a second) student writing on standardized tests. Most composition and rhetoric scholars think this software is a bad idea. I think this is not not true, though I do have three thoughts.

First, I agree with what my friend and colleague Bill Hart-Davidson writes here about essays, though this is not what most people think “essay” means. Bill draws on the classic French origins of the word, noting that an essay is supposed to be a “try,” an attempt and often a wandering one at that. Read any of the quite old classics (de Montaigne comes to mind, though I don’t know his work as well as I should) or even the more modern ones (E.B. White or Joan Didion or the very contemporary David Sedaris) and you get more of a sense of this classic meaning. Sure, these writers’ essays are organized and have a point, but they wander to them and they are presented (presumably after much revision) as if the writer was discovering their point along with the reader.

In my own teaching, I tend to use the term project to describe what I assign students to do because I think it’s a term that can include a variety of different kinds of texts (including essays) and other deliverables. I hate the far too common term paper because it suggests writing that is static, boring, routine, uninteresting, and bureaucratic. It’s policing, as in “show me your papers” when trying to pass through a boarder. No one likes completing “paperwork,” but it is one of those necessary things grown-ups have to do.

Nonetheless, for most people including most writing teachers–  the term “essay” and “paper” are synonymous. The original meaning of essay has been replaced by the school meaning of essay (or paper– same thing).  Thus we have the five paragraph form, or even this comparably enlightened advice from the Bow Valley College Library and Learning Commons, one of the first links that came up in a simple Google search. It’s a list (five steps, too!) for creating an essay (or paper) driven by a thesis and research.  For most college students, papers (or essays) are training for white collar careers to learn how to complete required office paperwork.

Second, while it is true that robo-grading standardized tests does not help anyone learn how to write, the most visible aspect of writing pedagogy to people who have no expertise in teaching (beyond experience as a student, of course) is not the teaching but the assessment. So in that sense, it’s not surprising this article focuses on assessment at the expense of teaching.

Besides, composition and rhetoric as a field is very into assessment, sometimes (IMO) at the expense of teaching and learning about writing. Much of the work of Writing Program Administration and scholarship in the field is tied to assessment– and a lot (most?) comp/rhet specialists end up involved in WPA work at some point in their careers. WPAs have to consider large-scale assessment issues to measure outcomes across many different sections of first year writing, and they usually have to mentor instructors on small-scale assessment– that is, how to grade and comment all these student essays papers in a way that is both useful to students and that does not take an enormous amount of time.  There is a ton of scholarship on assessment– how to do it, what works or doesn’t, the pros and cons of portfolios, etc. There are books and journals and conferences devoted to assessment. Plenty of comp/rhet types have had very good careers as assessment specialists. Our field loves this stuff.

Don’t get me wrong– I think assessment is important, too. There is stuff to be learned (and to be shown to administrators) from these large scale program assessments, and while the grades we give to students aren’t always an accurate measure of what they learned or how well they can write, grades are critical to making the system of higher education work. Plus students themselves are too often a major part of the problem of over-assessing. I am not one to speak about the “kids today” because I’ve been teaching long enough to know students now are not a whole lot different than they were 30 years ago. But one thing I’ve noticed in recent years– I think because of “No Child Left Behind” and similar efforts– is the extent to which students nowadays seem puzzled about embarking on almost any writing assignment without a detailed rubric to follow.

But again, assessing writing is not the same thing as fostering an environment where students can learn more about writing, and it certainly is not how writing worth reading is created. I have never read an essay which mattered to me written by someone closely following the guidance of a typical  assignment rubric. It’s really easy as a teacher to forget that, especially while trying to make the wheels of a class continue to turn smoothly with the help of tools like rubrics. As a teacher, I have to remind myself about that all the time.

The third thing: as long as writing teachers believe more in essays than in papers and as long as they are more concerned with creating learning opportunities rather than sites for assessment, “robo-grader” technology of the soft described in this NPR story are kind of irrelevant– and it might even be helpful.

I blogged about this several years ago here as well, but it needs to be emphasized again: this software is actually pretty limited. As I understand it, software like this can rate/grade the response to a specific essay question– “in what ways did the cinematic techniques of Citizen Kane revolutionize the way we watch and understand movies today”– but it is not very good at more qualitative questions– “did you think Citizen Kane was a good movie?”– and it is not very good at all at rating/grading pieces of writing with almost no constraints, as in “what’s your favorite movie?”

Furthermore, as the NPR story points out, this software can be tricked. Les Perleman has been demonstrating for years how these robo-graders can be fooled, though I have to say I am a lot more impressed with the ingenuity shown by some students in Utah who found ways to “game” the system: “One year… a student who wrote a whole page of the letter “b” ended up with a good score. Other students have figured out that they could do well writing one really good paragraph and just copying that four times to make a five-paragraph essay that scores well. Others have pulled one over on the computer by padding their essays with long quotes from the text they’re supposed to analyze, or from the question they’re supposed to answer.” The raters keep “tweaking” the code to present these tricks, but of course, students will keep trying new tricks.

I have to say I have some sympathy with one of the arguments made in this article that if a student is smart enough to trick the software, then maybe they deserve a high rating anyway. We are living in an age in which it is an increasingly important and useful skill for humans to write texts in a way that can be “understood” both by other people and machines– or maybe just machines. So maybe mastering the robo-grader is worth something, even if it isn’t exactly what most of us mean by “writing.”

Anyway, my point is it really should not be difficult at all for composition and rhetoric folks to push back against the use of tools like this in writing classes because robo-graders can’t replicate what human teachers and students can do as readers: to be an actual audience. In that sense, this technology is not really all that much different than stuff like spell-checkers and grammar-checkers I have been doing this work long enough to know that there were plenty of writing teachers who thought those tools were the beginning of the end, too.

Or, another way of putting it: I think the kind of teaching (and teachers) that can be replaced by software like this is pretty bad teaching.

The Problem of Refusing Service to Bad People: A Not Completely Right Teaching Analogy

Two wrongs don’t make a right. I’m against all policies that boil down to “we don’t serve your kind,” even when “your kind” are bad people. And like the education industry, I think one of the challenges of the hospitality industry is an obligation to serve everyone– up until they give you a good reason to not serve them.

Most of my students either lean kind of left (thanks to youth and many of them are coming from working class backgrounds in Southeast Michigan) or they are kind of apolitical, so this problem is more hypothetical for me than real. But if a student signed up for my class and it became obvious that he (and it would almost certainly be a he) was all about “Make America Great Again” and whatever, it would be a huge problem if I told him “look, you need to drop because I refuse to teach you, read your writing, or give you a passing grade no matter what you do.” I’d probably get in a lot of trouble and it would just be, you know, “wrong.”

But honestly, I’m not convinced I’m right about this analogy.

Look, I get it. I think these people are deplorable too. I completely sympathize with the owners and staff of the Red Hen restaurant refusing to serve Sarah Hucklebee Sanders and her people– because by all accounts (including from Sanders in her official government tweet) this wasn’t a situation of a group being “thrown out” so much as it was about the owner politely asking the group to leave and the group politely doing so. I don’t fault the owner for this, and if I had been in their situation, I might very well have done the same thing. I am okay with the public protests that have greeted these public figures when they’ve done stuff like go out to dinner or to the movies or whatever because they are horrible people doing horrible things and when they go into public, the public is allowed to express their feelings. That’s protest, and protest is never “polite,” and I think there’s a difference between people protesting outside the restaurant versus proprietors of a restaurant protesting. I’m a little less okay when the protest actually goes into the restaurant or movie theater, but still. Anyway, like I said, I get it.

And I’m not that interested in “civility” per se, though I think the “yeah, well, Republicans have done all kinds of uncivil things too like a baker refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding, so they deserve it” argument strikes me as a version of “I know you are, but what am I?” For me,  this isn’t so much “Us good liberal people should continue to be civil” but rather “Us good liberal people should try to not be stupid.” The conservative hypocrisy here is thick. But while the self-righteous feelings that come from refusing awful people like this service or yelling at them is satisfying in the moment, it’s ultimately kind of gross.

Plus there’s the bigger picture politics. These public shamings are like pouring gasoline on the Trumpster fire and they do nothing to change minds. Just the opposite. This is all part of the Trump chaos/bully playbook. The bully taunts his victim into doing something stupid, essentially “What are you gonna do? Wanna hit me? Huh? I dare you! Go ahead, hit me!” The victim lose their temper, hits the bully, the bully has the green light to be a bigger bully (because hey, who’s the victim here now), and that’s how the Democrats manage to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory in 2018. 

Plus plus this all seems to me to be just another example of how Trump is starting to make liberals crazy and turn on each other.  I’ve seen signs of this on social media with left-leaning folks being driven slowly insane by a never-ending news cycle dominated by a never-ending series of stories that are some version of “this affront against decency is completely unprecedented” and/or “Trump is going to kill us all.” I read Amy Siskind’s Weekly List.  I think Trent Reznor is right when he noted “the disregard for decency and truth and civility is what’s really disheartening. It feels like a country that celebrates stupidity is really taking it up a notch.” At the same time, there are just too many liberals trying to out-liberal each other, trying to create unnecessary distance amongst themselves over issues with which we fundamentally agree. I write these posts mostly for myself and the tens of others who read them, but there might be a few left-leaning folks reading this right now who think that I’m wrong because what I’m writing here doesn’t fall into the “party line,” so to speak.

And increasingly, I think that Trump et al are gleefully rubbing their hands together as these liberals argue with liberals and cackling “Just as we planned. It is all so easy…”

Anyway, all I’m saying is I think people on the left side of the spectrum– everyone from pretty middle of the road and old-school Democrats to “Bernie Bros” to folks on the more radical left– need to find ways to push back against the Trump administration while not taking the bait. That shit didn’t help Hillary in 2016 (though why and how she lost is a much more complicated matter of course), and it ain’t going to help the Democrats in 2018 or 2020. And that shit gets super real when things happen like Anthony Kennedy retires and you start to realize that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is freakin’ 85!

But back to where I started. Two wrongs don’t make a right, I’m against policies that boil down to “we don’t serve your kind,” and one of the challenges of both the hospitality and education industries is there’s an obligation to serve everyone who comes into the dining room/classroom. But also like I said, I’m not sure I even agree with myself about this.

For one thing, I don’t think it’s illegal to refuse service to someone because of their politics or who they work for, though I honestly do not know where the legal line is. It’s illegal (I presume) to refuse service to a person because of their race, but it is legal (I presume) to refuse service to that same person because you believe they are a shitty person. When it comes to teaching, I don’t know exactly if it’s illegal for me to kick a student out of my class before it even begins based on their politics or their boss or even their race, but it is certainly “wrong,” it would probably get me in trouble with EMU (there are limits as to what even a tenured professor can get away with), and it might get me on some sort of “liberal watch” right wing web site.

Hospitality businesses have other ways to refuse service– dress codes immediately come to mind– and it’s also reasonable for these kinds of businesses to ask people to leave if they start behaving badly. I have thrown students out of my classes for bad behavior, though not often and I’ve never taught someplace where there is some kind of dress code (and there have been some controversial stories recently about what can go spectacularly wrong with dress codes in college courses).

Then again, I might be wrong about this.

I wish we lived in a time where we didn’t have to deal with any of this nonsense.

Miscellaneous End of School Year Blog Post

I haven’t been writing here much lately (obviously). A lot of it has been I’ve been busy. A lot of it has been because I’ve had nothing I wanted to say– at least not here. A lot of it has been intensity of the school year.

The year started before the fall semester with me meditating over the realization (as the result of a “salary adjustment” promotion I earned after being a full professor for ten years) that I’m both getting old and I’m in all likelihood “stuck” at EMU. Also before fall got going, my former department head cancelled a graduate class in the writing program I was coordinating without bothering to tell me. Then this same department head took a different administrative position at EMU, further kicking up the mess of naming an interim department head, someone who is doing a decent enough job but who might also be “interim” for years and years. The faculty union and EMU administration continue to be embattled over various arguments, and, without going too deep into the weeds, I ended up to once again spending too much time trying to argue for courses counting as four credits rather than three, and increasingly, this all feels like it’s all going to shake out in a year or two so that we’re more or less still teaching a 3-3 schedule, which means that all of the arguing about this for the last two or three years will have just been a giant waste of time. My colleague and friend, Derek Mueller, is taking a new job at Virginia Tech, a career move that probably makes sense for him, but a move that will certainly leave a hole for those of us who remain, a hole that will probably take years to fill. More or less out of nowhere, the EMU administration announced in January budget cuts and staff layoffs, including of one of my department’s secretaries, a woman who had been at EMU for around 20 years. The administration also cut a few sports to save money, though there is some debate as to whether or not those savings will be realized, and, of course, the big sports remain untouched. Meanwhile, EMU hired a couple more assistant football coaches, presumably entry-level sports coaching positions that pay more than I make after 20 years and after a “salary adjustment” promotion I earned after being a full professor for the last decade. Oh, and EMU also sold its parking rights to a company with weird agreements in a variety of states, and the money that EMU has earned from this deal (I guess around $50 million?) is likely to be used in large part as collateral to borrow even more money to build sports facilities. I wasn’t teaching in the fall (more on that in a second) and I began the winter term of teaching more ill-prepared than I have been since I came to EMU, and it was unnerving to say the least. The department politics of the semester more or less concluded in another last crazy meeting of the school year, and my school year concluded without any summer teaching– a class I was scheduled to teach (which I am certain would have run) was cancelled before it could be offered.

So it’s been bad, one of the worse school years of my career, the hardest I can recall since my first year on the tenure-track way back when. On the other hand:

I was on a Faculty Research Fellowship in the fall, an award from EMU that bought me out of teaching. While I used (donated?) too much of my time back to EMU to do the quasi-administrative work of being program coordinator, I did “finish” a draft of a book manuscript about MOOCs (another reason I haven’t been writing as much here in the last year). The reviews came back earlier than expected, and while they did not recommend immediate publication without any changes (I assume that never happens), they did recommend publishing and they made constructive suggestions for the revisions I’m working on right now. Liz Losh’s edited collection on MOOCs came out in fall and I have a chapter in it. I quickly wrote and published a little commentary piece for Inside Higher Ed, “Why I Teach Online (Even Though I Don’t Have To),” which even includes a staged photo of me “teaching” “online” while wearing my bathrobe. The only downside to that piece is IHE has still not paid me, nor have they ever specified how much they’re going to pay me. Hmm. Despite a chaotic start, my teaching turned out well enough, I think. I tried to pull off an experiment of a collaborative writing assignment in the online version of Writing for the Web that ultimately (I think, at least) turned out to be not entirely successful but kind of interesting. Among other things, it resulted in this collection of readings and annotations from my students about social media. It is rough rough work, but I did learn a lot about what to do (or not do) the next time I try an assignment like this, and there is a lot here that will be useful for teaching next year. And as an important tangent: one of the things that’s really nice about being an increasingly old fart a senior and seasoned professor is I can try assignments like this and not really have to worry about what the student evaluations might mean to someone or my Rate My Professor ratings or whatever. I can get away with making things “break,” I can be a lot more honest with students now than when I started, and I also know better how to fix things when they break. So I have that going for me.

And just like that, I’m officially done with EMU things until late August (though of course I’m not really done). I would prefer to be teaching starting in May because, well, money. But I have to admit I do like the free time.

The first job (really, the only job) for the next month or so is to finish the revisions on the MOOC book, though I should probably say “finish.” I was talking with my father a couple weekends ago about nothing in particular and I mentioned I needed to finish my book, and he said “didn’t you say you finished that back in December?” I realized that yes, I had finished a draft, but now there is “finished” the revisions, and there will almost certainly be another stage of “finished” after the reviews on the revisions come back that will involve copyediting and Chicago Style (shudder) and indexing and…. Anyway, it really won’t be finished finished until it comes out in print, and that could be a while.

But once that gets off my desk, then I want to turn to other things. I had been saying for a long time that this MOOC book is the last scholarly bit of writing that I might ever do because I want to try to pivot to writing more “popular” things that people might actually read (commentaries on stuff I know about but for the mainstream press, maybe something pitched to a more popular audience, maybe something like the work Steven Johnson has done for years) and/or fiction (which I am under no illusions will find much of an audience) and/or more blogging. Derek and I were just talking about this the other day, that maybe it’s time to go back. Maybe blogging again– as opposed to just posting stuff on Facebook or Twitter or whatever other platform– is like the internet version of a new interest in vinyl.

Potter is not wrong, it’s just…

Clair “Tenured Radical” Potter seems to have struck quite the nerve with her Inside Higher Ed column “Angry About Adjuncting? The radical move might be to quit.”  The gist of the column is basically in the title: adjuncts who are angry and bitter about their working conditions ought to quit and seek employment outside academia. Lots of comments on the column and social media I saw more or less echoed the sentiment of “The Dude” in this exchange with Walter: Potter is not wrong, she’s just an asshole.

Actually, no— I don’t think Potter was being an asshole. I think she was trying very hard in her column to be kind with her mostly sound advice. It’s just not exactly the kind of advice adjuncts want to hear, especially if one is an adjunct and feeling trapped, depressed, desperate, on the edge of financial ruin, living in their car, contemplating sex work, etc. 

Seth “Here Comes Trouble” Kahn had a good blog post about this, where he points out the problems of Potter’s “just leave” advice (though I don’t think that’s exactly what she’s saying). He’s right– it’s not just that easy to give up sometimes because of personal and emotional investments, not to mention because a lot of adjuncts are “stuck” geographically or for family reasons or what not, plus a lot of adjuncts are “golden handcuffed” to the work in that it’s just barely enough money to get by and they don’t want to risk losing that. Though I think Seth kind of agrees with Potter too.

I’ve blogged about adjunct work and the job market frequently over the years because it has been a concern/topic in the academic media since I started caring about academic career things almost 30 years ago. I used to read the excellent Invisible Adjunct blog regularly. She (it was an anonymous blog) left academia and closed down her blog in 2004, and I do wonder once in a while how things turned out for her. I hope well. My point is none of this is new and there was never a golden age for being an adjunct, either real or imagined.

So while I realize that Potter’s advice might make her sound like she’s being an asshole, she’s still mostly right. I guess though I would add three other thoughts, all of which I’ve written about many times before:

  • Being an adjunct should be a temporary thing. Unless you can afford to work part-time because of life circumstances, being an adjunct should be a “transition” to a career and not a career in itself. Of course, this is advice to heed at the start of one’s adjuncting career, not after being in it for 10 or 20 years.
  • Don’t quit your day-job; make a gradual transition. I was an adjunct between my MFA and PhD studies, but I taught at night and had an office job during the day. This was really important for me professionally because I got a chance to see at least a taste of what a “real job” was like and also could (sort of) pay the bills and had insurance and such. But I think this advice works the other way too for the full-time/part-timer: that is, while I think there is a certain purity in Potter’s advice of just quitting, it seems to me the more sensible thing for the adjunct trying to leave academia is to try to ease into non-academic work a bit more gradually.

I should add that I am not speaking from experience on this one because I’ve been a professor/had the same job for about 20 years. But I will say that entering my fifties and the state of affairs at EMU has made me at least contemplate briefly a different career. I guess if I was serious about leaving my job, I would start by researching career counseling services, or maybe even temporary employment services. That’s how I got a “real job” oh so many years ago.

  • Higher Ed generally (and composition and rhetoric specifically) needs to find ways of cutting our dependence/addiction to cheap teaching labor. I blogged about this here with my “Modest Proposal” about MOOCs; in brief, I think my field needs to stop requiring every single college student to take first year writing. For me, this is not an argument about the value of the course because I think it is valuable. But the universal requirement perpetuates the exploitation of part-time instructors. In other words, part of the solution is of course on the “supply side” of things, which is what Potter’s advice and the call for decreasing the number of PhD students in the humanities (especially in fields like literature) are trying to address. But Higher Ed and the profession also needs to address the demand side of the equation as well.

Please excuse this post that is not entirely about the death of another grandparent

Earlier this week, a little attempt at humor appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a piece by Shannon Reed called “To My Student, on the Death of Her Grand­moth­er(s).” Over 300 comments later (as of this morning, at least), it’s a column that just keeps giving and giving, as a failure, a morphing rhetorical situation, and as a teachable moment. I wasn’t going to write or think about it any more (I actually have a blog post in progress about MOOC stuff!), but I’m having a hard time just away. So…

Told in the form of a satirical/humorous email or letter reply to a student asking for some sort of excuse because of the death yet another grandmother, this time during finals, Reed (or some persona of Reed) expresses sympathy and then offers a long and exhaustive list of things the student will need to do for Reed to “buy” the excuse. Terms of the deal include a videotape of the eulogy from the funeral, agreement that the student dress in black for a semester, and agreeing to remain chaste for a year.


Comment hijinks ensued. I didn’t read them all of course, but I did skim many. Almost immediately (and maybe this is the first comment?), there was “You’d think this was a lot less funny if your grandmother, with whom you were close, suddenly passed during finals week, as mine did my sophomore year.” There were many other references to personal experiences with deaths of loved ones while in college with no or little awareness that this was supposed to be a joke, as in “My mom died the Friday before finals, and all my teachers treated me with sympathy and kindness.This teacher, if this ever really happened, should be fired.” Then there were comments that seemed to go even further down the bureaucracy/procedure hole (again, as if this was real). There was this one in response to the previous comment, “Isn’t that pretty harsh? Would you like to be judged by the same standard?” and this bizarrely detailed comment on how FERPA plays into all this– though it is nice to see that this writer believes this was written as satire (though not very good satire). There were dozens and dozens of comments where the commenter thought this was a good moment to share their unique take on dealing with excuses like dead grandparents, dozens and dozens of comments about how Reed is an awful person, and even a few who tried to point out it was all a joke. Ha-ha.

Oh, and then there’s this blog response that for me walks that line between being completely legitimate and “holier than thou,” To my colleagues, on the death of their students’ grandmother(s).

First off, I think this is a fine example of how the medium alters the situation such that the rhetor completely loses control. The place where the audience takes all of this is far far away from the writer’s original intent. That’s not unique in web-based forums like this, but a) it remains for me one of the defining characteristics of “digital” rhetorics/immediate rhetorical situations, and b) this particular example seems pretty extreme.

Closely related is the fact that this is the audience disconnect with the genre. The Chronicle of Higher Education does not usually publish humor (or attempts at humor); rather, it usually publishes earnest pieces about the state of affairs in higher education. The subject matter here– venting about students and their “lame” excuses– is the sort of thing that usually comes packaged in CHE as some kind of commentary about the state of the “kids today” and/or advice for faculty. It is not McSweeney’s, which, if this had actually been funny, would have been a better venue. I think this explains why so many of the responses to Reed’s piece are so earnest.

Anyway, I think this article and the backlash around it is a good “teachable moment.” If I were still working with Graduate Assistants teaching for the first time, I might share this with them. In my view, it’s always bad form to complain about students in public (albeit online) places and publications. Oh sure, students can be incredibly frustrating and anyone who has been teaching for a while has all kinds of stories like this one. But those stories are the sort of thing that ought to stay in the office (or the bar) among fellow instructors. And especially never make fun of hypothetically dead grandmas.

As for what to do about these kinds of excuses, I’m not sure this is the best advice in the world but this is what I do:

I started teaching as a Graduate Assistant in 1988 at Virginia Commonwealth University, and in those days, the university had a rule that basically said that if a student missed more than something like three weeks of class in a term, that student couldn’t get a passing grade regardless of the reason why the student missed that much class. At EMU, the institutional language for this is a lot more convoluted and squishy, but basically, it says a student can’t fail only because of a lack of attendance. So, in a sort of combination of my past practice and what’s going on now, I usually have an attendance policy that allows students to miss up to two weeks of a course for any reason, but then there’s a heavy penalty where students lose the participation part of the grade (which is usually worth at least 25% of the overall grade). So if they miss a lot of class for any reason, the student generally (see below) cannot pass.

In other words, there are no “excused absences” for anything because (as I usually say to students on the first day of class) I don’t want to be put into a position where I have to ask for and then speculate about the validity of a death certificate, and I don’t need to dig into the details about how close you were to your now dead uncle or grandmother or whoever. I lay this policy out in pretty strict and stark terms on the first day of the semester since it is always easier to lighten up on rules later on (and it is absolutely impossible as a teacher to start the semester with no rules for things like attendance and then impose them later on), and also because it’s fair warning to students about how things are going to go. I’ve had students who showed up the first day and, faced with an attendance policy where missing more than two weeks of a class means they probably can’t pass, have raised their hands and tell me that they have to be gone for two weeks (for work, for a family trip, for a sporting event, whatever) and if I think that is going to be a problem. Yes, I say, yes it is.

(For what it’s worth, I have a similar though more complicated “attendance” policy for online classes as well. I’ll spare the details for now, but students just “disappear” from online classes all the time).

I have lots of reasons for this approach, but the bottom line is if learning is going to be a social and interactive enterprise that requires participation and presence, then you can’t do these things if you’re gone. Students often think of these rules as being “unfair” and “restrictive” or whatever, but the fact of the matter is attendance policies are usually for students’ own good. Attendance policy or not, show me a student who has missed too many classes and I’ll show you a student who is likely to fail the class for missed work anyway.

Though as I said a few paragraphs ago, this is generally my attendance policy. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, I do realize that students are indeed people and, like the rest of us, shit does sometimes happen. Plus after doing this for almost 30 years, I’ve gotten pretty good at sniffing out the real and fake dead grandmas– at least I think I have. In any event, I’ve had good students over the years who missed more than two weeks of class because life/shit has clearly happened to them and we’re able to work it out pretty much on a case by case basis.

The more troubling cases for me are the students who have completely legitimate reasons for missing class who bend over backwards to not miss class. A completely made-up and extreme example: “My mother was shot in a drive-by shooting last night and I’m the oldest kid so I have to deal with all the details of the funeral and the house and everything. Is it okay if I miss class Wednesday? I promise I’ll be back Monday.” In those situations, I will often offer my sympathies, of course excuse them from class, and remind them that school is school and it is not necessarily life. You can take this class later, but you have to deal with all of the complexities of life as they happen.

What I did in the 2016-2017 academic year: a memo for Dean TBA

I was already planning on writing something to reflect on the 2016-17 academic year, and then two things happened. First, my department head (at the request of our interim dean) sent an email to all faculty suggesting that we individually write something up to let the new dean know what it is we’ve been up to for the past year. This request didn’t come with much context, and (as far as I know) the new dean has not yet been announced. Second, I just finished reading Julie Schumacher’s very funny and too accurate academic satire Dear Committee Members.  So this post is with a small and not as funny nod toward my department head’s/dean’s assignment and Schumacher’s book written in letters of recommendation.

From: Steven D. Krause, Professor, Department of English Language and Literature

To: Dean “To Be Announced”

Re: Introducing Myself By Highlighting What I Did Last Year

Dear Dean TBA–

First, welcome to EMU (unless you are already here?)! Congratulations on your new position as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and may the gods have mercy on your soul.

My department head (really, our interim dean– who, pointedly, did not submit her own name for this position) asked faculty in the department to “showcase” accomplishments and activities from the past academic year, I suppose as a way of introduction. As I understand it, the goal is to “brag” about accomplishments and, simultaneously, demonstrate the ways in which we are worthy of resources. This strikes me as a challenge because a) if I highlight all that I accomplished without resources, then I am supporting the administration’s claim that faculty don’t require any additional resources, and b) given that you are at present only an unnamed potential, it’s difficult for me to address a specific audience. But I’ll give it a shot.

Let’s take it chronologically:

On the plus-side of things, my scholarly work got off to a great start in September when I was once again invited to Naples, Italy for a conference about MOOCs held on the Isle of Capri. Goodness, that seems like a lifetime ago. In any event, I was honored to once again participate, I was able to represent for EMU, the conference helped fuel my own MOOC book project (which is under contract/underway right now), and it was a nice trip to Italy before classes got started.

In the not so good news for EMU, September also brought with it the beginning of an ugly incident of racist vandalism that continued to hang over the rest of the academic year. Students of color were (justifiably, of course) angered and frustrated, and the administration seemed at a loss to respond. Also in not such great news: my department had yet more meetings about the equivalency mess, which is a theme I’ll be returning to again and again here.

For much of October, I settled into more routine duties. In fall 2016, I taught an online version of “444: Writing for the World Wide Web” and a face-to-face version of “328: Writing, Style, and Technology,” two courses I’ve taught many times before. Both were good groups, though one thing I noticed in my section of 328 that I hadn’t seen much of previously is student interest in (dare I say demand for?) a grading “rubric” that spelled out in exacting terms exactly what was demanded of each writing assignment. When I told my students that I didn’t think a rubric was necessary or even advisable for an advanced writing course, they seemed perplexed, wondering aloud how it was even possible to have a writing assignment without points dedicated to explicit components. I am not much to complain about the “kids today” since I have been teaching long enough to know that the early 20 somethings of 1990 have a lot more in common with the early 20 somethings of 2016 than today’s students’ parents (who were the early 20 somethings of 1990) would care to admit. Still, this demand request for codified assessment at every turn seems to me to be the main legacy of “No Child Left Behind.”

I also settled into my duties as the associate director of the First Year Writing Program. (A slight tangent and in all seriousness: there is A LOT to say about the FYWP, Dean TBA, both in terms of bragging and in terms of demonstrating the need for ongoing support. But since I am transitioning out of that role this year, I’ll leave that work to others.) As the Ass. WPA, most of my work was duties as assigned, though I did launch a large survey of students in the program for the purposes of assessment (the details of the results will come later in May or June or when I get to it, though generally speaking, students do report that they think they learned a lot in our first year writing course, and that has to count for something), and I did a lot of classroom evaluations of graduate assistants. I do have a funny story from one of those observations. I had the chance to sit in on one GA’s class that began at 8 AM– one of our better GAs too. Students shuffled in and were in place by 8. Five minutes passed and no GA; students chatted and seemed a little surprised. More time passed; I asked “is so and so often late like this?” “No, never” the class responded. More time passed and I finally called so and so and, it turns out, woke so and so up. So and so was mortified. But again, this is all something to laugh about now. I came back to visit so and so’s class later, it was great, and so and so is still one of our best and brightest. And now, so and so owns a couple of alarm clocks.

And of course, I did lots of paperwork tied to the ongoing equivalency nonsense inflicted upon us by both the EMU-AAUP and the administration. Among other things, this work included writing and rewriting documents in an effort to prove to the powers that be that our courses in written communication are indeed “Writing Intensive” and attending marathon department meetings where we tried to work out the various ways equivalencies could work for all.

At least some of my time in November was spent “campaigning” (well, blogging about at least) why faculty ought to vote out the leadership of the EMU-AAUP. Dean TBA, this might not seem like official “work” or even something to “brag” about, especially if you are not from the inside at EMU. But believe me, this was a significant accomplishment. The new leadership of the union has made some stumbles, sure, but at least it’s not the jerks who were in charge. The racial vandalism problems continued— again, maybe not exactly the sort of “accomplishment” or “brag” I’m supposed to be highlighting, but something that certainly helped fuel the poor morale on campus. And the equivalency drama continued as the outgoing leadership of the EMU-AAUP and the administration agreed to end discussion about the equivalencies, even though faculty had been explicitly told that we’d have until April to sort things out and/or make our case for additional class activities that would make our classes count as “four.”

And of course there was an unfortunate presidential election.

In December 2016, I relaunched a slightly new version of the blog I ran for the EMU community for many years, now renamed It hasn’t been quite as busy or important a community-building tool– at least not yet. But it gives a place for people to talk about EMU things who don’t want to do so on the EMUTalk Facebook group.

Winter 2017 (Dean TBA, we don’t have “spring semester” here at EMU; it’s winter, because it really is winter well into March in Southeast Michigan) began with lots of activity. Teaching-wise, I taught another section of “328: Writing, Style, and Technology” (this time online) and a face-to-face section of “354: Critical Digital Literacies.” 354 made at the absolute last minute– I was literally emailing my department head over Christmas break to find out if I should prepare to teach the class or not– and it turned out to be an interesting class with a very chummy and small group of students. Among other things, they developed their own regular rotation for who brings snacks.

Also in January: I was busy as a committee member for a search we were conducting for someone to (more or less) replace me as the Ass. WPA (we were able to make an offer to our top candidate, too!), busy writing up the documentation for my “salary adjustment” promotion (to the mythical rank of über-Professor or fuller-Professor), the reward ultimately being a pretty decent raise come Fall 2017.

And again, the equivalency nonsense continued, though much of the time spent in the Winter 2017 amounted to asking about the status of paperwork we thought we had completed months ago and also to asking various administrators to explain how it was they were planning on adding threes and fours together and get to twelve.

I will admit that during much of February 2017, I was immersed in depression and outrage at the turn in our national politics and the rise of Michigan’s own Besty “Grizzly Bear” DeVos as the US Secretary of Education. I do believe though that’s when I did the wrapping up/finishing touches on a chapter I have forthcoming in a collection edited by Liz Losh called MOOCs and Their Afterlives: Experiments in Scale and Access in Higher Education that’s been in the works for a while (it will come out in August 2017). And I’m sure we had some kind of mind-numbing meeting about what to do about course equivalencies.

The main highlight of March was the annual Conference for College Composition and Communication meeting (this year in Portland, Oregon), which meant I missed that month’s department meeting in which faculty discussed once again what we could not possibly know because of the many unknowns of the course equivalencies that are going to be forced upon us. In theory.

Really, March was just a bridge to the cruelest month in academia, April. So much always happens then, and this year was no different. There were the celebrations (including the last Celebration of Student Writing I am likely to have much of an organizational hand in [and since most of the logistics were handled by the very able Joe Montgomery and Laura Kovick, I didn’t have to do much]), the wrapping up of grades, the last minute and impossible administrative requests, and one of the craziest last of the year department meetings I’ve attended in my 18 years at EMU (perhaps it is best to leave out the details).

But to end on two positive notes. First, I’m not teaching this summer, which means, Dean TBA, I hope you forgive me if I don’t get back to you on your feedback on this report until August or September. Second, I was awarded a Faculty Research Fellowship for fall 2017. It does raise questions and complexities about my duties as coordinator since the equivalency mess (have I mentioned the equivalencies issue yet?) does not clarify things like “reassigned time” to do quasi-administrative work. As I have said to my colleagues and my department head, we will “muddle through” for Fall 2017 and beyond, though if the equivalency stuff doesn’t get sorted out soon, our department head is going to have to take on a lot of the details handled by the many folks in our department currently on some kind of reassigned time. But I am looking forward to more concentrated time to spend on finishing my book about MOOCs before too many people forget that MOOCs were a “thing.”

There you have it, much more detail than you could possibly imagine, Dean TBA. In Dickensian terms, the 2016-2017 school year was the best of times, the worst of times: good students as always and lots of other pleasures, but quite frankly, I think morale remains low thanks to unsolved (and swept away) problems of racist incidents on campus and the unsolvable mystery of how the equivalencies will change the way things work at EMU– if they change things at all or even go into effect. What “interesting times” to come into your position!

Again, best of luck with/I’m sorry about your new Deandom.


Steven D. Krause

Professor of far too many details about what happened last year.

That horrible and strange article about writing by John G. Maguire

I have some time on my hands right now. I am completely done with the 2016-17 school year, I am not teaching this summer (and thus not contractually obligated to do much of anything until late August), I won’t be teaching this fall because of a research fellowship, I’m trying to work on finishing a book about MOOCs, and, just to top it all off, I am currently on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (and thus don’t really have that much to do). So I have some things I can/want to write about right now. But I’ll start with this really horrible and strange article about writing instruction from The Washington Post.

“Why so many college students are lousy at writing — and how Mr. Miyagi can help” is a post/article from WaPo’s “Answer Sheet,” which is essentially their education “beat” page. The byline is Valerie Strauss, but it’s really a post by John G. Maguire, who describes himself as a “man obsessed with clear writing” who has been teaching writing in one form or another at a bunch of different places over the years. He has no training or scholarship in writing pedagogy, and, as far as I can tell from his resume, he is a freelance writer and an adjunct professor. Maguire is the author of a textbook called “College Writing Guide” and a champion of a method he seems to believe he invented called “Readable Writing.”

Frankly, there is not really much of anything in Maguire’s article that is accurate. There’s the uncritical citation of the book Academically Adrift, a study with some clear methodological shortcomings; there’s the claim that first year writing courses are about all matter of things but not writing sentences. There’s a quote from someone named Phillip Mink about how the college writing profession has stopped teaching style, which comes as a bit of surprise to me since I’ve been teaching a class specifically about style (albeit at the 300 level) for going on 20 years now at EMU. There’s this unsupported claim that students don’t know how to write sentences, and so the solution to making first year students into “readable writers” is to teach them how to write sentences, presumably at the expense of everything else.

As a slight tangent: I’ve been teaching writing and/or writing for a long time now, and I think when people (like this guy, like professors in other departments, etc.) say “students can’t write good sentences or good paragraphs,” that’s not quite what they mean.  By the time they get to college, the vast majority of students can indeed write grammatically correct sentences and paragraphs, though not necessarily particularly “good” sentences and paragraphs. So when people like Maguire or whoever say “students can’t write,” I think we need to parse that out and ask for some more details.

Anyway, there’s a lot of appropriate outrage and frustration on Facebook, on the WPA mailing list, probably on some blogs, etc., and also in the comments on the article itself. I’ll just add three other things to the discussion:

  • It is incredibly annoying that Main Stream Media routinely runs these sorts of pieces written by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Yes, Maguire has taught writing for a long time, and expertise in teaching writing is a bit more fuzzy than expertise in something like cancer research. Still, would it really be that hard for WaPo and similar publications to stop and think about the qualifications of someone like Maguire to speak in such sweeping terms about teaching writing? And can you imagine a newspaper publishing a thought piece on the shitty state of journalism written by someone without any demonstrable expertise in journalism (other than reading it?)
  • At the end of the day, what Maguire is really trying to do here is sell his textbook. So really, what the WaPo did for him is run an advertisement in the form of an op-ed piece. I hope they charged Maguire appropriately.
  • In earlier drafts of my failed textbook project The Process of Research Writing, I actually made reference to The Karate Kid for reasons similar to Maguire. I think a good way to teach lots of things (like research writing) is to try to break it down into smaller parts, exercises to be practiced before attempting to do the whole thing at once. This is what textbooks generally do, but my references to The Karate Kid fell flat because (surprise, surprise!) students nowadays don’t necessarily know a movie that was made 15 or more years before they were born.

Pre-CCCCs 2017

I’m heading to Portland, Oregon next week for the annual Conference for College Composition and Communication. My involvement this year is kind of in the “alternative” category of things. On Wednesday, I’ll be participating in the Research Network Forum for the first time. On Thursday, I’ll be participating in the Digital Praxis Poster sessions and I just finished creating the stuff I’ll have for my bit, “The Semester of Social Media Project.”

It’s a pretty straight-forward “show and tell” about an assignment I give in Writing for the World Wide Web where I ask students to “inhabit” some different social media platforms and to write about it. It’s not the fanciest of slideshows– maybe its even a little too simple to share in something called a “Digital Poster Session”– but my hope is that someone finds it kind of interesting and useful.

Responding to DeVos at CPAC: Oh, if it were only that easy….

Among other things, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said at the Conservative Political Action Conference the other day:

Now let me ask you: How many of you are college students?

The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.

As Secretary, I don’t think the Department of Education in Washington should have more power over your decisions than you do. I took this job because I want to return power in education back to where it belongs: with parents, communities, and states.

Ugh, I wish.

If my students did say what I told them to say and think what I told them to think, then teaching would be incredibly easy. Education generally would be a non-issue, just pour knowledge in. Do you remember that scene in The Matrix where Trinity calls and instantly gets a program on how to fly a helicopter? Man, I wish that’s how teaching worked. Reality is far different. Heck, I have students who don’t bother to read the syllabus, who don’t follow basic instructions on assignments, don’t do the reading, don’t show up to class. How am I supposed to just tell them what to say or think?!

Actually, that previous paragraph isn’t true. I wouldn’t want to tell my students what to say or think, and I don’t know any teacher at any level– certainly not at the college level– who would want to do that, regardless of that teacher’s/professor’s party politics. Part of a college education is to try to get students to learn how to think for themselves. (And yes, professors and higher education as an industry tend to vote for Democrats, but it’s a lot more complicated than assuming we all think the same thing and that there are no conservatives amongst us).

This is not to say that everything is fair game, that I’m all about students (or anyone else) saying and thinking whatever they want. Climate change is a real thing. Black lives really do matter, and there are good reasons to support that movement. We should base the arguments and claims we make in academic essays (and really, in the world in general) on research and reason and not “gut feelings.” CNN, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and other news outlets that report things you don’t agree with are not “Fake News.” None of these statements should be controversial, though I suppose each is now in dispute with a group like CPAC and in the era of President Donald Trump, who has only been president for a little over a month but it already feels perfectly reasonable to describe these times and his presidency as “an era.”

I do tell students what to think in the sense that there are indeed facts that are based on conclusive evidence that cannot be dismissed by wishing them away or conspiracy theories or baseless assertions. Attendance numbers at Trump’s inauguration really were much lower than they have been for the last two inaugurations for Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton really did receive millions more votes than Trump did, there really were not millions of illegal voters, and Trump  really did not win the largest Electoral College victory in recent memory.

Fortunately for me, none of this is that controversial because where I teach, most of my students already know and believe this. Clinton won the county where I live (home to both Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan) by like 25 or more points, and the vast majority of the students at EMU lean politically left. That is, to the extent that they have time for any party politics at all– so many of my students are spending so much time working a couple of different jobs and dealing with life generally while going to school, I think there’s a significant percentage of them who cannot afford the “luxury” of partisan politics and protest. But yes, my students at EMU do not require a lot of elaborate and devious left-wing brainwashing to get them to question the way things are going with Trump et al. As far as I know, faculty weren’t really involved in organizing the “not my president” protests that popped up after the election, and it’s not like I made my students go to the various womens’ marches the day after the inauguration either.

And no, none of these students are getting paid or getting extra credit in my classes.

Testing the Difference Between “Fake News” and “Unsubstantiated Reports” with Provenance and Plausibility

I’ve been thinking a lot about “fake news” versus “alleged” or “unsubstantiated reports” lately– heck, anyone who has been paying any attention to last week’s news about Donald Tump has surly been thinking about this too. And it’s not just Trump labeling BuzzFeed and CNN as sources for “Fake News;” it’s other “news” people like Chuck Todd and the mainstream/traditional media across the board— at least that’s how they responded to the claims about Trump in Russia when they first broke. Within twenty-four hours of that initial story, even the New York Times was reporting on it.

Trump is going to label anything that doesn’t support him as “fake news” or coming from “losers” or being “sad” or whatever, and maybe BuzzFeed shouldn’t have published something that was as “unsubstantiated” as the stuff that was in this report. The journalism ethics here are complicated, though I have to say I think the MSM response has less to do with the question of when is proper to publish something and more to do with the “icky” factor of the alleged “golden shower” shows. BuzzFeed’s editor Ben Smith has been pretty smart about responding to the criticism– here’s a link to an interview he did on CNN. And once again, Teen Vogue has had excellent reporting/thought pieces on Trump, as in this piece “So You Read That Scandalous Report About Donald Trump and Russia– Now What?”

Anyway, in writing now about this, I’m not that interested in the ethical question of whether or not BuzzFeed should have published this in the first place. I’m more interested in playing around with/thinking about what sorts of strategies and processes can any of us use in evaluating these kinds of stories, and not just between something that is “fake” versus something that is “true,” but also between something that is “fake” versus something that is “alleged” or “unsubstantiated.” I think these are two different things and need to be treated differently: that is, something that is “fake” does not necessarily equal something that is “unsubstantiated,” and vice-versa. And as a rhetorician who has been influenced by a lot of postmodern/post-structural theories, this is also important to me because I kind of feel we’ve painted ourselves into a corner by the ways we have tended to academically approach “Truth.”

A simple example: in recent years, I’ve been very fond of showing a video called “In Defense of Rhetoric” that was put together by graduate students in Professional Communication at Clemson University in 2011. I think it does a very good job of explaining the basics of rhetoric for an audience who has only heard of the negative connotations– as in “that’s just empty rhetoric,” or (as an example from the video) the “art of bullshit.” But I have to say that this semester, in light of everything that has happened with the election and what seems to be a rise of a “post-truth era,” I did wince a bit when, at about the 10 minute mark in discussing “Epistemic Rhetoric,” the faculty interviewed here talk about how reality itself is constructed by rhetoric, about how everything we decide is based on judging between claims. I agree with this in theory, but the problem is this approach to reality is part of what’s enabling “Fake News” in the first place. It certainly has enabled Trump and his supporters to dismiss a story he doesn’t like as “fake” because if reality is based simply on how I see it being constructed rhetorically or on simply competing claims, why do we have to choose the same thing?

So how do we evaluate these claims of “Fake” versus “alleged,” and how should the press report the “unsubstantiated,” if they should report it at all?  This is what I am getting at with this idea of the tests of “provenance” and “plausibility.” By provenance, I mean an understanding of the origin of the story. I’m thinking here in particular of the way that term is used in the art and antique world to help determine authenticity and value. An antique that is accompanied with documentation that traces the history of an object is a whole lot more valuable than the same object without that documentation, and forging those documents is always a problem. (As a tangent here, I’m reminded of the novel The Goldfinch). By plausibility, I mean the potential that a story might be true based on the other things we know about the story, such as the people and places involved, when it supposedly happened, and so forth. I think I mean something here like ethos, but I think it is beyond just the individuals or even beyond the available evidence. Plausibility for me doesn’t mean whether or not something is (T)rue, but more along the lines of the odds that it’s (T)rue.

A sense of provenance and plausibility probably exists on a spectrum of “truthiness” I’ll call Fiction and (T)rue, and here I am mostly thinking of part of what Derek Mueller and I talked about the other day and/or the way that Bruno Latour talks about “black boxes” in Science in Action. I am far from a Latour scholar/expert so this reading might be a bit off, but basically, Latour points out that new discoveries/theories in science always depend on previously made discoveries/theories that are now presumed to be “(T)rue”– not in a “Platonic ideal across all space and time” notion of “Truth,” but in a “we’ve done this experiment a lot and gotten similar results so now presume it is a fact” sort of (T)rue. Geneticist are not running the experiments to determine the structure of DNA anymore because that is now just (T)rue and tucked away into a “black box”– which is to say there could be something we learn about DNA later that changes that and thus reopens that discussion.

To tease this all out, let’s compare the “fake” news that has been dubbed “Pizzagate” versus what I think is an “unsubstantiated” story about intelligence the Russians have about Trump.

“Pizzagate” was a conspiracy theory which claimed members of the Democratic Party– lead by Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta– were running an elaborate human trafficking and pedophile sex ring housed in the basement of a a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant called Comet Ping Pong (apparently, you can play table tennis while eating pizza). has an extensive entry about the controversy here, and the Washington Post also published this article tracing the origins of this story here, too. In my mind, this is about as extreme of an example of “fake” as it gets, but I think it’s an especially important example in at least two ways. First, the story spread through social media via ‘bots along with other conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. Millions of people (and machines) reposted/retweeted this. Second, this story had real life and potentially very dangerous consequences since a North Carolina man named Edgar Maddison Welch, convinced the story was true, showed up at the pizza place with an AR-15 ready to free the children. Here’s a story from Mother Jones about Welch.

The allegations released by BuzzFeed about Trump were contained in a document supposedly a part of an intelligence report/briefing about stuff the Russians have on Trump to potentially blackmail or otherwise compromise him. Here’s a link to the original BuzzFeed story that contains the entire report. As a slight tangent: much of the sensationalism has to do with the practice of “urolagnia,” which is sexual excitement associated with urine. I’ll admit, I find the idea of “golden showers” both gross and, as it has been reported, darkly funny. But a) this is far from the most unusual “kink” out there, and b) hey, if it’s between consenting adults and no one gets hurt, who am I to criticize anyone’s sex life? What is frankly more troubling in these allegations are the other things that the Russians supposedly have on Trump in terms of real estate deals, grooming Trump as an “asset” to Russian intelligence, and the communications between Trump’s campaign and the Russians during the election cycle.

So, how do these stories stack up in terms of “provenance” and “plausibility?”

The provenance of both stories have already been explored and reported in some detail and the difference between these two examples are quite clear. Pizzagate emerges as a combination of pure fiction and rumors; in contrast, the allegations about Trump and the Russians was part of an intelligence dossier that has apparently been in the hands of a variety of folks (including journalists) for months. This is not to say that the allegations against Trump are accurate or even close to (T)rue; however, we know a lot about the origins of this story.

The plausibility of these two stories is also quite stark. As even Edgar Welch discovered once on the scene at Comet Ping Pong, it’s just not possible because of the building itself– never mind the craziness of the rest of the details. On the other hand, the allegations of Trump’s behavior in Russia strike me as completely plausible– although it probably didn’t actually happen. After all, Trump really did make a trip to Moscow when this is said to have happened (this was during the “Miss Universe” pageant). Further, we already know that Trump has made some cameo appearances in Playboy videos,  has bragged about grabbing women by “the pussy,” and, as reported just this morninghe is being sued by a former Apprentice contestant for sexual harassment and defamation. Obviously, these past activities don’t prove the allegations of his behavior in Moscow; however, I do think these past activities do help explain the plausibility of these allegations.

In my mind, this test of provenance and plausibility also works if we change the actors in these stories. I think it is implausible that Trump and Kellyanne Conway were running a pedophile sex ring out of a pizzeria pretty much for the same reasons it was implausible for Clinton and Podesta. But I think the plausibility changes a bit with the Russian allegations, particularly the specifics of the “golden shower” show. I think these allegations brought against politicians like Hilary Clinton, Obama, or either of the Bushes would be dismissed as just not plausible. However, would we be as quick to dismiss this kind of story if it were about Bill Clinton?

Anyway, I don’t know how useful it is to think of fake news versus allegations versus real news this way, as on the spectrum of fiction and (T)ruth, as being about measuring provenance and plausibility. I’m not sure how necessary this is either given that there are lots of schemes and advice out there for testing the “truthiness” of news of all sorts, particularly as it manifests in social media. I do know one thing: we’re all going to have to get a hell of a lot better at thinking about and describing the differences between the fake, the alleged, and the real.