Feelings? A Note to Students

Note to Students: Don’t Tell Me How You Feel

Far too often, when I am reading an undergraduate student paper, José Neto’s lyrics come to mind: ‘Feelings … nothing more than feelings, …”.

I truly don’t want to hurt a student’s feelings, but I have to tell them time and again that I am not really interested in reading about how they feel. Please show me what you know about the topic and how you view the topic in a structured way and on the basis of your reading of the literature, empirical evidence, logic, ethical principles, or any other approach to analysis.

What is leading so many students to center their essays on how they feel about any given topic? Perhaps it is watching television interviews in which journalists or media personalities often ask people how they feel about a candidate, an issue, or an event. But I also sense that many instructors might be encouraging students to express themselves by asking them to write about their feelings. This is an easy ask: How do you feel about any given topic is something that requires no research, no analytical perspective. But surely this is a mistake to invite students to write in a way that frees them from reasoned analysis or critical thinking.

The ability of a student to critically address a question by drawing from literature, evidence, and a variety of analytical perspectives, is one of the fundamental skills and habits that should be instilled by a college education. It would be tragic if we reinforced a tendency for students to simply express their feelings, primarily because it was an effective means to encourage them to write. It might be that teaching writing skills in general, without writing being taught in the context of a substantive course, makes it difficult for the instructors to lead students to appropriate evidence and perspectives. It is undoubtedly important for instructors in all courses to constantly think of their role in teaching students how to write about the subject matter of their courses. feelings-morris_albert_ly

Nothing more than feelings might work in a song, but not in conveying knowledge, questionning conventional wisdom, or writing a substantive term paper. Therefore, I sometimes shock my students by telling them – gently but clearly − that I am not interested in how they feel about the topic of their papers.

Am I wrong?

Killings Can Be Information (or Procedural) Disasters

In the aftermath of a rash of murders captured on mobile smartphones, and mass shootings of civilians and police officers, debate has focused on assigning blame. Videos from mobile smartphones provide some evidence for fueling such debate over who should be held responsible for any killing of a civilian or police officer. And these discussions most often move into a broader debate over major societal issues, such as institutional racism or mental healthcare, and policy issues, such as gun control. All these debates could be valuable and often constructive, and must take place. However, I seldom, if ever, hear discussions of procedural problems that led to what might be called a ‘information’ or ‘procedural’ disaster – that is, misinformation, or lack of information, or practices, that might have enabled the disaster (the killing) to unfold as it did.

Think back to airline hijackings. These could be viewed broadly, such as around issues of international relations and terrorism, but also, the analysis of these events can focus on procedures at airports and on airlines that can minimize the potential for a hijacking to take place. The changes in information gathered, and the procedures at airports and on planes post-hijacking episodes and post-9/11 are well known, and arguably have had a cumulative impact on reducing risks. But I don’t hear analogous discussions of mass shootings and other killings, even when there is video evidence, however limited, and many eyewitnesses in some cases. Perhaps the analysis of procedures is going on behind the scenes, but unbeknownst to me.

This comes to mind because of earlier research I explored around what we called ‘information disasters’.* We originally defined these disasters around the use of information technologies and telecommunications, such as when the USS Vincennes shot down a domestic Iran Air Flight 655 ascending in the Persian Gulf on 3 July 1987, mistaking it for an Iranian F-14 fighter descending towards the ship.

What most impressed me about the study of such disasters was the meticulous investigation of the unfolding events that led to each disaster. These studies often led to lessons that could be learned, such as practices or procedures could be changed.

This kind of study is not new. Our discussions often referred back to a long history of efforts to investigate accidents involving trains. Every train wreck, for example, is examined in great detail to determine what procedures, technical changes, or training could be implemented to avoid a similar type of disaster not only in the same location, but system wide. Train wrecks still occur, often with horrific consequences, but each incident can lead to changes that make the next incident less likely to occur.

http://abcnews.go.com/International/dead-dozens-injured-head-train-collision-italy/story?id=40509997
http://abcnews.go.com/International/dead-dozens-injured-head-train-collision-italy/story?id=40509997

It might well be possible to study these very unique circumstances surrounding each killing or mass shooting with a greater focus on addressing lessons learned about obtaining better and more timely information, or instituting new procedures or practices that would prevent a repeat of the sequence of events that led to particular disasters. One thing we learned from our review of a number of well-known information disasters was that they usually entailed many things going wrong. This does not mean that solutions are hopeless. To the contrary, if some problems can be fixed, many of these disasters might not have occurred.

I certainly would encourage more discussion of these issues, as they might be more successful than focusing on bigger and more long-term changes in society. Apologies if this is blindingly obvious, but I am not seeing the discussion that should be taking place.

*References

Dutton, W. H., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Peltu, M. (1995), Computer Power and Human Limits: Learning from IT and Telecommunication Disasters. Policy Research Paper No. 33. Uxbridge: PICT, Brunel University.

Peltu, M., MacKensie, D., Shapiro, S., and Dutton, W. H. (1996), ‘Computer Power and Human Limits’, pp. 177-95 in Dutton, W. H. (ed), Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brexit: A Response from the UK by Richard Collins

In response to my blog about Brexit, Richard Collins sent me the following, originally as a personal email message. Since Richard does not have a blog, I’ve asked and received his permission to post his thoughts here:

“I am surprised by the result, it is momentous and intimidating. But, in fact, I voted for Brexit – as the least worst of unattractive alternatives. Briefly, economics points to remain; politics to leave (EU contempt for popular sovereignty, obsession with further integration, inability to retreat from mistakes notably the euro etc). But I am not excited: it will be very tough for years.

In the days immediately after the result, the sabre rattling by Juncker, Schultz etc made staying in look even less attractive – punish the UK so no-one else leaves. Their vision of a Europe bound together by fear is deeply unattractive. Merkel is being very sensible. Geography will not change. We remain neighbours and need, as she says, a co-operative and constructive relationship. I agree. Once the anger and hurt subside there will be time for sensible – difficult – negotiation. Cameron etc is right to insist on a delay. The weekend felt a bit too much like August 1914 where hasty decisions and angry rhetoric risked getting everyone into a position they would rather not be in.

My wife, originally from Finland, was pro remain and is upset by the result fearing anti-foreigner sentiment. I hope and believe she has nothing to worry about. But there have been some unpleasant anti-foreigner insults. A striking instance is that at the Polish cultural and social centre, POSK, in west London where some idiots awarded it anti-Polish graffiti. This elicited a flurry of good wishes, flowers etc, from sympathetic locals and a solidarity eat in on our part (ie, we went there for dinner – no hardship since the food is both good and good value). The offence to the Poles is particularly unwelcome since Poles made so signal a contribution to fighting Nazism alongside Britain and other allies. If ever there is a group who has earned a place in UK society it’s the Poles. More history lessons required for graffitist idiots.

Flowers and Notes received by POSK following "Poles go Home" Graffiti
Flowers and Notes received by POSK following “Poles Go Home” Graffiti

I think the Brexit decision is one from which both sides will lose. Some parts of the EU more than the UK (the financial crises in Greece, Spain and Portugal have been intensified post Brexit referendum far more than the financial pain the UK has experienced). However, I think after five – admittedly very difficult – years there is a very good chance we will be fine (depending on trade negotiations with other economies – including the EU). I am not so confident about the Eurozone. And Scotland will not find it easy to join the EU after any proximate separation from the rest of the UK (Spain will block admission fearing that Catalonia will follow). So it’s a great pity to leave – the EU has made possible notable achievements as well as the failings which stimulated more than 50% of UK voters to say “no more” – but I think the least worst thing for the UK. We will see how the EU adapts.”

Richard Collins

Brexit: No Advice from this American

After working over 12 years in the UK, I was frequently amused by visiting academics from the USA (my home), who would start giving me advice about everything from the university to the UK and Europe virtually as they were walking off the plane. So I am resisting my natural US-instinct to weigh in on Brexit, and what should be done.

What I have learned from working in the UK is that this nation of nations has a wealth of brilliant people, who will inform debate on the issues arising out of Brexit and, with the civil service and Parliament, will come up with a number of sensible and pragmatic ways forward. In due course, the leadership selection process will be pivotal to arriving at one or more compelling visions for the nations and regions of the UK. The process is already progressing.

Brexit Direction Sign
Brexit Direction Sign from Facebook

I won’t end with the quote from Churchill on democracy being the worst form of government, as I prefer another familiar quote attributed to a Dick Tuck, a political dirty trickster of the Nixon era (he organized tricks against Nixon), who later became an elected politician. In giving his concession speech after losing his election for the California State Senate, he said: “The people have spoken, the bast….!” I know that my British friends would not be so vulgar, but many of my friends feel very angry over the vote. It is frightening indeed.

That said, the voters have spoken, and the people of Britain will make this work. Count on it. I – for one – will not panic. But I will follow the course of the coming debate with great interest and with much at stake in a successful outcome.

Coda

I’ve read with interest that the Prime Minister has put together a group in Whitehall to focus on Brexit. I have high expectations for them to arrive at some sensible scenarios for the next PM and government to refine and move forward with. This would be a wonderful time for the House of Lords to rise to the occasion as well. If ever the best and the brightest need to prove their worth, it is in this context.

The Fifth Estate Comes to the Floor of Congress

In the aftermath of 49 people being killed in the June 12th 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre, Congressional Democrats struggled to vote on legislation that would control gun sales. The Republican majority refused to bring a vote to the floor of the House, and Congressional Democrats began a sit-in to force a vote. It was led by Atlanta’s John Lewis, who has been a long-time Congressman and a hero of the civil rights era. He worked with Dr Martin Luther King Jr., and participated in the march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, during the Johnson Administration. This march  helped bring restrictions on voting rights in the South to the attention of Americans after violence against the demonstrators generated coverage by the press – network news.

When the Republican Speaker of the House adjourned Congress, even while the sit-in by Democrats continued, all cameras in the House were shut off. This blocked access to events in the House by the news media and cable news channels. It might have taken away all the oxygen of the media from this event. However, in response, a few social media savvy Democrats with mobile Internet phones used social media, such as on Periscope and Facebook live, to live-stream video from the House to their followers.  News outlets quickly picked up these streams and began covering the sit-in via the social media. Rather than stop the sit-in, the use of video from the House floor made it a major news event.

Members of Congress sit-in via social media
Members of Congress sit-in via social media

The House sit-in ended 23 June after 25 hours, but this may have been the first time that social media was used in ways parallel with other Fifth Estate strategies widely used in other arenas. The Internet enabled members of Congress to directly source and distribute content independently of major institutional actors – the leadership of the US House of Representatives, in this case.

Responses to this Fifth Estate activity were immediate. Some members of Congress saw this as a brilliant strategy, others saw it as a ‘stunt’, others as the rise of anarchy in the House. But the House of Representative came face-to-face with the Fifth Estate on the floor of Congress.