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TAM 2013!

Exciting!: The Amazing Meeting 2013 is less than a month away. I’m thrilled to be returning for my second TAM (and to be returning to Las Vegas, one of my favorite places). I had an absolutely wonderful time at TAM 2012 (some of my photos are here): I learned a great deal, experienced many thought-provoking and inspiring talks/events and conversations, had so much fun with dear friends, met some of my “skeptic heroes” (forgive the cheesy phrase) including Ray Hyman (an absolutely brilliant and sweet man. We had quite a few one-on-one conversations last year, and I’ll always be grateful to him for taking the time to talk with me), and, most exciting of all, I was on the Skepticism and the Humanities panel (video here).

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TAM 2013

This year, my friends/TAM 2012 co-panelists/Skeptical Humanities bloggers/two-fifths of the Virtual Skeptics/fellow skeptic teachers Bob Blaskiewicz and Eve Siebert and I will be presenting the Skepticism Across the Curriculum workshop. Bob will be moderating, and, among other things, we’ll be discussing the various ways that we practice skepticism and promote critical thinking as educators and academics and how those practices and methods can be applied and utilized in a variety of contexts (both academic and non-academic). Or, as Bob wrote in the description of the workshop (also available here):

While many skeptics seem to conflate science and skepticism, the two terms are not equivalent. Science, it turns out, is just one form of skeptical inquiry that encompasses many academic disciplines, including those in the humanities. This workshop will introduce the audience to scholarship confronting extraordinary claims across the disciplines. Skepticism may be profitably applied to everything from Ancient Aliens’ mangling of art and art history, literary and folklore studies, mythology, and archeology, to young-earth creationists’ vandalism of all forms of textual scholarship, from Beowulf and Arthurian legend to Biblical studies. These and other extraordinary claims can also be used in classrooms to teach the critical thinking skills needed in all contexts and to introduce the disciplines to popular audiences.

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And here are a few links to some of the things that I’ve written/spoken about that are either directly related to or relevant to what we’ll be covering in the workshop (I’m sure that I’ll be discussing rhetoric quite a lot):

Blog posts:  1, 2, 3, 4

Posts on the JREF‘s Swift Blog: 1, 2

(& Be sure to check out my Lanyrd profile)

I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be a part of TAM again, and am looking forward to our workshop (and am glad that I get to work with Bob and Eve once more- they’re fantastic (ahem, “Derrida Zombies“, anyone?) )

There’s so much more that I could say about last year’s experience, or about what I’m looking forward to at TAM 2013, but I’ll hold off on that for now. Anyway, if you’ll be at TAM this year, come check out our workshop!

Vegas awaits… ♥

Las Vegas Airport- July 2012

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Video of the TAM 2012 ‘Skepticism and the Humanities’ Panel

TAM 2012 “Skepticism and the Humanities” panel. (Photo by Bruce Press. Click photo to see original.)

Yay!  The JREF has posted its video of the TAM 2012Skepticism and the Humanities” panel.  You may recognize that girl in the middle (^‿^):

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Below, I’ll paste a comment that I originally intended for YouTube. I wrote it out in a text editor, and when I went back to the video’s comments section to post it, I realized that YouTube comments are limited to 500 characters. So, instead of finding a way to cut out 2,500 characters, I’ll post it here instead. Just pretend that you’re reading it in the comments section on YouTube, okay? ;) It will make more sense that way. Thanks!:

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Thanks so much for posting this! I really enjoyed being on the panel (I’m the girl in the middle) & am so grateful for the opportunity.

I do think that there should have been two separate panels, though. In the months leading up to this, I’d been (based on conversations with a few of the others) envisioning and preparing for a discussion of how the skills that we (active skeptics who are also teachers/scholars of various humanities disciplines (rhetoric/composition, in my case)) study and/or teach (i.e. the importance of thinking critically, of research, of supporting our assertions with legitimate (i.e. not anecdotal or personal) evidence from quality sources, of expressing ourselves in the clearest possible manner, of analyzing and critiquing all assertions, including our own, of practicing the principle of charity, etc.) can and should become a part of every skeptical activist’s “skeptic’s toolkit” (for lack of a better phrase). That kind of discussion would have been much more relevant to TAM, as it would have stayed focused on scientific skepticism/skeptical inquiry, skepticism as a methodology, and skills-based skepticism. The humanities fall within the scope of scientific skepticism and are relevant to the methodology of skepticism *only* when the humanities can provide pragmatic tools, thought processes, and skills that all skeptics can put to use. That’s the only justification for including the humanities in a conference like TAM, and I think that a humanities-only panel would have been able to have the kind of productive, pragmatic, and interesting discussion that I outlined above.

Honestly, when I found out that it was going to be an arts *and* humanities panel (this was a few months after initial planning and discussion began), I was a bit frustrated/disappointed, as I knew that the type of panel I’d been envisioning and preparing for wasn’t going to be happening, and I had no clue as to how we were going to include two very different fields/subjects in one discussion, let alone keep that discussion relevant to skeptical activism and within the scope of scientific skepticism/skeptical inquiry. The arts are relevant to skepticism in their own way, and a separate panel on that topic would have been interesting, I’m sure. But meshing the arts and the humanities together like this just didn’t work all that well. I still think that the panel was good, and that some valuable points were made and that some important discussion occurred, but I kept wanting to return the focus to the pragmatic skills and topics that I mentioned above, and that didn’t happen nearly enough, unfortunately. Nevertheless, I am *so* grateful to have had the opportunity to take part in a panel, I loved being a part of TAM (it was seriously amazing and wonderful and so lovely ♥), and would love to be involved again next year. And, again, thanks so much to the JREF for filming and posting these talks and panels. They’re a great resource for both educators and for the skeptical community as a whole.

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More soon! Thanks for reading.

Catching up and planning for adventures…

Hi there! It’s been a while, I know.

I’ve been teaching, planning, writing, reading, listening to hours upon hours of “Rat Pack Radio” on Pandora, etc. etc. etc.

Oh, and I went to Washington D.C. a couple of months ago. That was pretty amazing. I mean, the Library of Congress and the National Gallery of Art? Swoooooon. (I’ll post some photos soon.) And I’m going to Denver next week and to Las Vegas in July. Yay travelling!

So, a few things:

1) As I mentioned, I’m headed to Denver next week. I’m going to visit my friends, whom I’ve dubbed The Cool Colorado Kids, and I also get to do a talk at SkeptiCamp Denver on May 5th. Yay! I’m excited & grateful for the opportunity. SkeptiCamps are awesome. They’re the brainchild of my friend Reed Esau, who is perhaps the coolest of the Cool Colorado Kids. Anyway, my talk is called (or, well, will be called, as I’m not done working on it yet) “Pragmatic Rhetoric for Idealistic Skeptics”. I’ll probably be talking about similar ideas on the humanities panel at TAM 2012 in July, but I’m not sure yet.

2) I’ll try to blog here more often. Having a clear focus helps me, so I’ll probably stick to writing about rhetoric, writing, teaching, critical thinking, skepticism, and such (I’m currently quite enamored with and fascinated by the concept of “the rhetorical situation” and I’ll most likely be posting about it soon). I’ve also started using Tumblr again (well, there’s nothing there yet, but…), and you can find me at mirandaceleste.tumblr.com. It will be a blog-ish place for me to fill with fun posts about lovely/pretty/swoon-worthy/poignant/delectable/wonderful things that I like.

3) Speaking of rhetoric (well, it’s sort-of-related, at least), here are a couple of my favorite Ryan Gosling “Hey girl…” meme images from the “Rhet/Comp Ryan Gosling” Tumblr. Hee! (& Here’s a list of other Ryan Gosling “Hey girl…” Tumblrs):

4) I can’t stop listening to Sinatra’s “My Way” lately ♥. Here’s a fantastic performance of it from 1969:

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More soon! Thanks for reading ♥

Visual literacy as applied skepticism

For better or worse, we live in a visual era, one in which images are ubiquitous. These images, and their messages and/or arguments, compete for our time and attention. I think of it like this: just as Penelope endeavors to remain faithful to Odysseus and to keep her 108 suitors at bay in the Odyssey, we must fight off the inescapable images that endeavor to distract us.

That’s not to say that all or even most images are worthless, of course. Far from it. We’re surrounded by and bombarded with images, in both the physical and the virtual world. That’s just a fact, not a value judgment. And many of these images make claims of one sort or another. We can “read” them as texts, so to speak. Sometimes these arguments are subtle and nuanced, intended to unconsciously nudge us towards a certain perspective or stance on the issue at hand, while some are heavy-handed in their rhetoric, unmistakeable in their intention to persuade. Arguments made by images appeal not to our reasoning skills or to our intellect, but to our emotions.

The study of the arguments and messages conveyed by images is referred to as visual rhetoric. Each semester, I discuss visual rhetoric in my rhetoric/composition courses and encourage students to “read” images, analyze them, practice skepticism towards them, and to determine their message and/or argument. Whether you greet the visual era with optimism, see it as the downfall of western civilization, or something in-between, it’s difficult to deny the importance and necessity of visual literacy.

Upon first encountering the concept of an image as a text and of  “reading” and/or “uncovering” an image’s implicit meaning and/or argument, I imagine that most of us think of visual advertisements. And while it certainly is important to analyze and practice skepticism towards the claims of advertisements, I think that most people are aware of that and already do so, at least to some extent.

As such, I believe that it’s more important to focus on images that are not advertisements, and to analyze how and why these images attempt to persuade us to feel, think, and/or act in a certain way. Images are symbols to which we ascribe meaning and value (this concept is referred to as “the symbolic perspective” or “the symbolist perspective”). In visual rhetoric, audience is key. The way that we react to images determines both their meaning/argument and the effectiveness of that argument. As Keith Kenney explains in “Building Visual Communication Theory by Borrowing from Rhetoric” (PDF), because of the symbolic nature of visual rhetoric, “understanding the intentions of the communicator is less important because meaning is now the result of an audience’s efforts as much as, if not more than, whoever created the message” (66).

Extending our visual literacy beyond advertisements equips us with the necessary tools to analyze, think critically about, and be skeptical of the claims presented by all sorts of images. In the Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition, William Nothstine and Martha Cooper explain that “the symbolist perspective centers on the notion that all persuasion is really to a significant extent self-persuasion, involving the active participation of an audience” (509). Visual literacy empowers us to decide whether or not we will “buy into” the message or argument presented by an image. When we analyze images and their arguments, we question, we think, we reflect, and we become an “active participant” in our decision making. In other words, we apply skepticism.

Ultimately, viewing images as persuasive “texts” can help us to apply to images the same skepticism that we already apply to written rhetoric and to oratory. Visual literacy is an empowering tool because it is a practical tool. It doesn’t matter whether or not you welcome the increasingly visual nature of our culture, as we must apply skepticism towards the world we have, not the world we wish we had, and visual literacy is one of the easiest and most useful ways to apply that skepticism.

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Works Cited

Cooper, Martha, and William Nothstine. “Persuasion.” Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication from  Ancient Times to the Information Age. Ed. Theresa Enos. New York: Garland Pub., 1996. 509. Print.

Kenney, Keith. “Building Visual Communication Theory by Borrowing From Rhetoric.” Journal of Visual Literacy 22.1 (2002): 53–80. Print.

John Haught, Jesuit education, and the real-life consequences of Catholic teachings

When an educational institution prioritizes adherence to a religious ideology over rigorous academic inquiry and intellectual development, students suffer. They are not only deprived of the opportunity to develop and utilize critical thinking skills, they are also, to varying degrees, actively discouraged from doing so. True academic and intellectual growth cannot occur in an educational institution in which a specific ideology and its associated tenets are actively protected from questioning and scrutiny.

These arguments are widely-known and widely-accepted. There’s another important aspect of this issue that is rarely discussed, though, and a recent event made me realize that it’s also worth consideration. Like students, some members of the faculty of religious schools, particularly religious universities, are also deprived of the opportunity to engage in legitimate and rigorous academic inquiry and intellectual growth. However, while I feel a great deal of sympathy and empathy for the students who attend these schools, I feel no such compassion for the faculty, particularly those who actively and vociferously discourage both their students and their colleagues from questioning, critiquing, scrutinizing, or applying their critical thinking skills to the ideology in question.

Through their actions, these faculty members create a comfortable, insular, and safe little bubble for themselves, one in which both their religious beliefs and their pedagogical/andragogical/scholarly actions are protected from scrutiny. Jesuit educational institutions are a textbook example of this. Jesuits believe that they are called to educate. And, to be fair, their educational institutions often do a wonderful job of educating students on the subjects that pose no threat to Catholicism. My first-hand experience with Jesuit education was at the high school level. The school I attended is a “preparatory school” for a Jesuit university (most Jesuit universities have one or more affiliated “preparatory” high schools). In many ways, this school provided me with an outstanding education, offering academic opportunities unavailable to students at most public high schools. However, the critical thinking skills and intellectual abilities that I developed in certain courses and areas of study were not welcomed in the (mandatory) courses that focused on Church history, doctrine, tenets, or teachings. This was extremely jarring. It forced me to develop of a particular form of cognitive dissonance and it further reinforced what I had been taught from a very early age: Catholicism must never be questioned.

While the actions of these high school teachers is motivated by a desire to indoctrinate children, professors and other educators at Jesuit universities aren’t as concerned with indoctrination. They don’t have to be: their students are adults who have, most likely, attended Catholic schools and/or participated in Catholic religious activities since they were small children. The indoctrination is done. Free from that responsibility, these professors can instead focus on creating and maintaining that insular academic bubble, one in which they can express their opinions and beliefs without facing scrutiny or rigorous academic inquiry. This bubble is an echo chamber, filled with “yes-men” who are fully committed to a religious ideology that is not only their personal belief system, but also their livelihood. And there is no better example of this phenomenon than a professional theologian, for they are the ones who have the most to lose. A theologian’s primary job is to produce faux-sophisticated nonsensical apologetics intended to distract from the actual teachings and practices of the Catholic Church. Their work is so utterly and transparently meaningless that it cannot stand up to even the mildest of scrutiny.

As long as these theologians remain within their echo chambers, they are safe from criticism. Within their protected bubbles, they never have to acknowledge the true harm done by the Catholic Church. They are coddled, surrounded by yes-men who ensure that they will never have to face true academic scrutiny.

But when they step outside of that comfort zone and are confronted with the teachings of the Catholic Church and the real-world consequences of those teachings, all bets are off. The bubble bursts and their “sophisticated theology” is quickly exposed for the obfuscatory nonsense that it is.

Enter Catholic theologian John Haught of Georgetown University (a Jesuit institution). Long story short: recently, at the University of Kentucky, he debated Jerry Coyne on the question of whether or not science and religion are compatible, a debate in which Haught performed poorly. Then, a few days ago, Dr. Robert Rabel, the head of the institution that sponsored the debate, the Gaines Center for the Humanities, informed Jerry that Haught had demanded that the video recording of the debate not be posted online (Jerry had been eager to post the video on his site). Rabel, for whatever reason, decided to give in to Haught’s demand. Further, Rabel refused Jerry’s request for a copy of the video with Haught’s parts edited out, and, together with Haught, proceeded to deny Jerry’s other reasonable requests. Haught’s reason for refusing to release the video? The debate: “failed to meet what [he] consider[s] to be reasonable standards of fruitful academic exchange”. Back to that in a minute.

Yesterday, Jerry posted about Haught’s refusal and Rabel’s enabling of that refusal. This post received a great deal of attention, put Haught and Rabel under scrutiny, and gave both men a crash-course in “Streisand effect“-ology. After engaging in blackmail of a sort, Haught has apparently now agreed to release the video. Anyway, be sure to read Jerry’s two posts (1, 2) on this for a more detailed explanation of the whole mess.

Haught’s claim that the debate wasn’t a “fruitful academic exchange” is very telling. Although I imagine that it’s primarily an attempt to “save face”, it’s also indicative of Haught’s warped notions of academic standards. Haught’s experiences in the echo chamber of Jesuit higher education have led him to conclude that rigorous academic inquiry is acceptable and “fruitful” if and only if it presents no real challenge to his beliefs or to the career that he has built around those beliefs. Remember, theologians have the most to lose.

He wasn’t prepared. He didn’t realize that Jerry was going to confront him with examples of the real-life harm that the Catholic Church causes. Haught was forced to acknowledge the fact that all Catholics must eventually face: whether or not they personally adhere to the most damaging dogmas and practices of the Catholic Church, their support of the institution makes them at least somewhat complicit in the harm that it causes. And Haught has a lot more to answer for than the average Catholic, for he supports and defends the institution much more publicly and vociferously than most of his fellow laypeople. Haught is angry because Jerry provided a clear explanation of the horrible consequences of various Catholic beliefs and actions. In other words, when Haught claims that the debate “failed to meet what [he] consider[s] to be reasonable standards of fruitful academic exchange”, what he’s really saying is that “Coyne dared to question me. He had the gall to question my Church. I didn’t want to be challenged. I shouldn’t have to be challenged. Such scrutiny is unacceptable”.

Haught’s warped view of what constitutes “fruitful academic exchange” is the direct result of the Jesuit echo chamber in which he and so many other educators reside. The Jesuit motto is Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, “all for the greater glory of God”. And it’s more than just a maxim, for when academic inquiry and Catholicism come into conflict, Catholicism wins every time. In the Jesuit world, God trumps all. Over the past few weeks, Haught has learned the hard way that when he ventures too far outside of his protective bubble, he will be confronted with the dangerous beliefs and actions of the Catholic Church, the institution that he has dedicated his life to promoting and defending. Many of the Church’s actions aren’t pretty, and, until Haught is willing to acknowledge that, he shouldn’t be surprised or angered when he gets thoroughly trounced in a debate.

Yay! I’ve been published in a textbook

Yay! I’ve been published in a textbook. (Sorry about the tiny picture- I can’t find a larger one.) The book is called Opposing Viewpoints: Church and State (publisher’s page, Amazon page, and WorldCat entry), and is part of Greenhaven Press‘s Opposing Viewpoints series, which are used in high school and college courses.

I haven’t yet seen a copy of the book itself, but I found its table of contents (.pdf) this morning, and seeing this made me smile:

(The article was originally published in 2009 as “School voucher programs are both ineffective and dangerous“)

A few months ago, I made a note in my to-do list app reminding me to check and see if the book had been published, but that reminder wasn’t scheduled until next week, so it was a nice surprise to find a check from the publisher waiting in my mailbox when I got home last night.

Although I’ve written quite a few articles/reviews/interviews/etc. for various publications (both print and online) over the past ten years or so, this is the first time that my writing has been part of a book, and I’m pretty excited about that. :)

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