Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Education’ Category

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).


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.


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


‘Idealism as Intrinsic Motivation’- (my latest post for the JREF’s Swift Blog)

Tonight, as I started to ponder what to write about in my next post for the JREF‘s Swift Blog, I realized that I’d forgotten to share my previous Swift post here. It’s called “Idealism as Intrinsic Motivation“.

A brief excerpt:

However, although idealism is a powerful intrinsic motivator for educators and skeptical activists alike, it is not enough. If we wish to be successful in our attempts to inform, educate, persuade, and promote critical thinking and evidence-based decision making (inside or outside of the classroom) we first need to accept that our passionate idealism is only a start. Idealism is a valuable, admirable, and useful personality trait, one that indicates a principled refusal to succumb to the apathy and cynicism that pervades much of contemporary society. That being said, though, we must also acknowledge that while our idealism motivates us to inform, enlighten, and promote evidence-based decision making (in the classroom or otherwise), in order to turn motivation into action, we must be willing to be both idealists and pragmatists. Idealism alone doesn’t accomplish anything. Although this may not be something we often consider when analyzing our own contributions to skeptical activism, the professional educators and/or skeptical activists who we admire and respect the most are almost certainly the ones who acknowledge (through their words and/or their actions) that pragmatism, discipline, and hard work are just as important as idealism.

The rest of the post is available here.

Thanks for reading!

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 (^‿^):



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!:


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.


More soon! Thanks for reading.

New post on the JREF’s Swift Blog

Hi! My first contribution to the JREF‘s Swift Blog, “The Hypothetical Audience“, is now up. This post is part of a series of articles by teachers who use various pedagogical techniques to promote skepticism and critical thinking in the classroom (many thanks to my friend and TAM co-panelist Bob Blaskiewicz for inviting me to contribute to this series!)

A brief excerpt:

Additionally, the ability to imagine a realistic hypothetical audience is a pragmatic skill and tool in and of itself, one that can be adapted to many contexts. It also provides a way to promote critical thinking and skepticism in the classroom. When instructing students to “imagine an audience”, most textbooks that I’ve used offer rather generic and imprecise directions along the lines of “imagine an intelligent and well-informed audience” or “imagine an audience that is similar to your classmates”. Such directions are inadequate primarily because they omit any discussion of the imaginary audience’s potential reaction to the paper’s assertions and claims. This omission is significant. Before we teach students how to craft effective arguments of their own (critical writing), we explain why it is important to be skeptical towards the arguments of others, asking questions such as “is the author trustworthy? Why? How do you know?”, “Does the author provide sufficient support for each of their assertions, or do they instead rely on assumptions or make unsupported generalizations?”, and “Does their evidence come from high-quality and unbiased sources?” (critical reading). We teach our students how to engage in critical reading, how and why it is important to scrutinize every argument carefully and thoroughly, and how to respond to an author’s arguments with charitable-yet-strong skepticism. When directing students to “imagine an audience”, however, we often forget that this imaginary audience must also practice that same skepticism, and that, without this skepticism, such an audience is a useless invention.

Read the rest here.

Thanks! More soon.

More on the intersection of rhetoric and skeptical activism (the first in a series)

TAM is less than three weeks away. Yay! I’m going to be on the Skepticism and the Humanities panel, and I’m very excited about that. To prepare for the panel, I’ve been reading, thinking, and writing about the intersection of rhetoric and skeptical activism, the topic that I spoke about at SkeptiCamp Denver in May. I love this topic and find it to be very interesting and exciting, both because it is a valuable tool and technique for skeptical activists, and because it allows me to use my knowledge of and experience in my academic field to contribute to a movement that I’m passionate about.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to write a series of brief blog posts on this topic. Because this is an introductory post, I won’t go into great detail here. However, in future posts, I will elaborate much more on various aspects of this topic, including context, goals/objectives, audience, clear and precise communication, logos/pathos/ethos, and the principle of charity.

Onward to the post!:


“Teach how to think, not what to think”. This phrase has become somewhat cliched, but that doesn’t detract from its truth or importance. My experience with teaching and thinking about various pedagogical practices and my research on the topic has led me to believe that teaching how to think, not what to think, is not only a highly effective pedagogical technique, but also one that is, at least to a certain extent, an ethical imperative.

However, despite the fact that my thoughts on the intersection of pragmatic rhetoric and skeptical activism are informed by my teaching philosophy and classroom experience, a classroom setting is just one of many contexts in which pragmatic rhetoric both can and should be utilized. Accordingly, when discussing this topic, I use the word “teach” to refer not only to classroom teaching, but also to any situation or context in which we, as idealistic and active skeptics, have the opportunity to use applied skepticism to inform an audience. Ultimately, these techniques can be put to effective use in any context (a conference, a classroom, a group discussion, a blog, etc.) and with any audience.

But, of course, informing is not the same as persuading. So how does rhetoric, a type of persuasion, fit into this particular discussion?

That’s a tricky question. I’d argue that, although informing and teaching is often accomplished without the use of any rhetorical techniques, rhetoric both underlies and shapes the informing that we engage in as active skeptics.

In the context of skepticism, informing and persuading are often intertwined. As active skeptics, we’re not just informing: we’re also encouraging our audience (of whatever sort) to think critically, to evaluate and examine the legitimacy, quality, and accuracy of the evidence and information with which they are presented, and to make decisions that are based upon accurate and trustworthy evidence. Informing is definitely a vital part of active skepticism, but it’s not enough. In addition to informing, we must also explain why the information is useful and accurate, how its accuracy and legitimacy were determined, and why it deserves to be taken into consideration when making decisions. It’s our job to “teach how to think, not what to think”, and rhetoric is one of the most useful tools that we can draw upon as we attempt to not just inform, but to also explain these “how”s and “why”s.

Unfortunately, “rhetoric” is sometimes perceived as a “dirty word”, so to speak. It’s viewed as sophistry and/or as a technique that prioritizes style over substance. In a similar vein, rhetoric is often thought of as something best left to debate clubs or to contentious individuals who enjoy argument for argument’s sake and who will do whatever it takes to “defeat” their “opponent”.

And rhetoric indeed can be all of those things. But that’s not all that it is. There’s another side to rhetoric, one that is pragmatic, practical, useful, one that anyone can use to further their ideals and to effect change in the world, one that is very relevant to skepticism. If you consider yourself to be a skeptical activist, then you almost certainly are, in one way or another, an idealist. You care. You’re passionate. You want to promote critical thinking and evidence-based decision making. You want to change things for the better. However, idealism and passion alone aren’t enough. If we want our activism to make a real difference in the real world, we must also have pragmatic and relevant skills, tools, and techniques at our disposal. And rhetoric, when utilized effectively, is one of the most useful tools available to the skeptical activist.

Accordingly, I want to expand the definition of rhetoric, to “take it back”, to propose the idea that we, as idealistic skeptics, should think of rhetoric as an important part of our “skeptic toolkit”. Rhetoric is a tool that every skeptical activist can and should possess. It’s is a form of “applied skepticism”. It’s a powerful, useful, and relevant tool for those of us who are more interested in communicating effectively and in “teaching how to think, not what to think” than in “defeating” an “opponent”. Rhetoric belongs not only to the debaters and the fighters, but also to those of us who are interested in promoting critical thinking, evidence-based decision making, and skeptical inquiry.


To be continued.

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.


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.

%d bloggers like this: