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Comparisons and Politics

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Sorry I’m still not blogging much. Some family health issues have popped up and I’m very short on time and energy. In a couple of weeks, things should clear up.

Briefly, though, if you have students who are interested in American politics or if you’re teaching compare-contrast writing, now’s a great time! I’ve had a couple of Japanese clients ask me for some insight on the current elections. Our system and our political reality is very different from theirs. One client remarked that he finally understands why Americans get so worked up about politics: because our presidential election is likely to result in direct effects on our lives. He doesn’t feel that the Japanese elections do much of anything, and for that matter, their prime ministers aren’t elected by the people. They’re appointed by the party in control–not to mention that the last two have resigned after only a year in office! Right now Japan doesn’t have a prime minister at all.

Because of these big differences, I guess, some of my clients are pretty interested in the process. One asked me to explain Obama’s and McCain’s positions simply. That’s a tall order! I directed him to the Summary Chart at procon.org, but many of the questions are hard to explain. Some I don’t quite understand myself. Today’s USA Today had a nice comparison of the candidates’ energy positions, though. Each subtopic is written in a classic mini-essay style, complete with a thesis statement. I rarely recommend journalistic writing to students–for some reason, many teachers use newspaper articles as models for students who are learning to write academic essays. I think this is a terrible idea because most newspaper articles are written in a style that simply does not match up to the style of essay that students are expected to produce. (Students should get to see expert student essays as models, but that’s a rant for another time.) This article is also not a perfect model for student essays; for example, one introductory paragraph includes the sentence “But Obama’s plan is more aggressive.” Most academic writing instructors wouldn’t allow this kind of sentence.

Anyway, “To Win The Race, It Takes Energy” is available online. The comparison part really starts under the subheading “Oil Drilling.” I hope the other topics are online and are as useful! I’ve underlined the thesis statements and paragraph topic sentences, so we’ll be talking about that today.

Since I have my own tutoring business and am not in a classroom, I’m totally free to talk about my own politics. I try not to emphasize that, and I don’t try to convince students that I’m right. However, my clients know that I have political opinions and that I will share them if asked, since they’re sometimes curious. I make sure to preface my statements with phrases such as “In my opinion…” and “I think…” and “It seems to me…” I also remind them that many other Americans have totally different opinions.

I agree with critical pedagogy theorists who feel there is no such thing as a politics-free classroom. Even if you try to avoid all explicit mention of politics, your politics and the surrounding politics will manifest one way or the other. (For example, teachers who spend a lot of time unquestioningly teaching pure test preparation are endorsing a certain political attitude. Other teachers subconsciously choose readings that only reflect their own worldview.) Although the discussion on this topic got very heated and angry in my MA course, I feel that politics are unavoidable to some degree, and thus are better if they’re somewhat out in the open. This lets students know you’re human; that these are real issues; and that it’s normal to be informed and have an opinion. It’s also easier for students to reject a position if the teacher acknowledges that she has that position, rather than trying to conceal it–does that make sense?

Of course, this assumes that a teacher can make herself be fair, and won’t really push her own views or punish students for expressing different views. It’s a delicate subject, but when handled carefully, I think it’s fine for politics to come in one way or the other. You can always leave it up to the students to decide, such as when my husband gave a word problem to his math students in which they examined the initial cost and possible future savings in buying a hybrid car. He encouraged students to take into account all possible factors, not just purely numeric ones–would they need to then buy a second car because they need more cargo space? Would it be different if they mostly drive in town as opposed to their classmates who commute long distances over the highway? What if the cost of gas goes up to $5/gallon next year? This semester he’s also assigned a graphing problem in which students look at when women’s wages for equal work will be exactly the same as men’s if past trends continue. This lets students look at information themselves. If they ask him what he thinks about these topics, I expect that he’ll tell them. But I don’t think they’ll be intimidated into changing their positions because of his answers, because he has established an open and safe classroom environment (unlike a couple of my undergrad professors, who were definitely doing the politics thing the wrong way!).

Okay, back to preparation for me! Feel free to leave your thoughts on this thorny issue in the comments.

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2 comments to Comparisons and Politics

  • Internet Explorer 6.0 Windows XP

    Or not so briefly…

    I always wonder about teachers who say these kind of political topics just come up, because they almost never come up in my classes… When I was studying French I found such conversations difficult, often boring, likely to leave one person dominating the conversation and not using language I wanted to talk about my usual conversational topics. Maybe my students can see that traumatic experience in my expression and back off from such topics??

  • Internet Explorer 6.0 Windows XP

    PS

    Thanks for the Cognitive Daily link, hadn’t come across that one before

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