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When I was a teaching assistant and sessional instructor, I spent a lot of time worrying about fairness in my marking. I didn’t have much problem at the start of a semester, because I hadn’t put names and faces together. However, by the second and third week, I knew all the students, and how they behaved in class would start affecting how I marked their essays. Those I liked would get the benefit of the doubt, while I could never be sure if I was marking fairly those who disrupted their classes or skipped them. Worrying about such biases, I came up with an obvious but effective way of making marking fairer that I believe would also go a long way towards increasing the gender and ethnic diversity in hiring.

My solution was simple: early in the semester, I distributed a formatting guide. Besides the usual suggestions for font selection and citation methods, and a suggestion that students should not waste their time adjusting margins and fonts to fit each assignment’s page count, I asked students to provide a title page. I asked that the title page include their name and contact information, but no other part of the assignment. When students submitted papers, I asked that the title pages be folded back.

In this way, I had no idea whose paper I was marking, and could feel confident that I was marking the contents alone. Only after I had assigned a grade and made a final comment did I turn to the title page so I could enter the grade in my mark book.

I pride myself on fairness, and the ability to put personalities aside when considering an issue. Yet the first times I marked blindly, some of my worst suspicions about myself were confirmed. Before I started marking blindly, by the semester’s second or third assignment, I often would save certain student’s work to cheer me up after a dismal run of papers, or put off marking another student’s work because I knew it would likely challenge my patience. Naturally, my expectations tended to be confirmed, although if I had the time (which I rarely did), I would check the best and the worst and sometimes change my marks.

However, after marking blindly, I would often be surprised by the results. The students I judged as talented were still at the top of the class, but often their ranking was lower. Similarly, the students I disliked sometimes ranked higher than before.

But the real difference was in the middle. Students I had little sense of because they rarely contributed in class almost always received higher marks when I marked blindly – occasionally, as much as two or three grades higher. Even more so than the students at the extreme, I had been short changing those in the middle, due entirely to my personal reactions or perhaps their lack of social skills.

What I had been doing was no different from what other instructors were doing. In fact, in the department common room, I regularly heard professors and instructors exchanging stories about students. Sometimes, they even spoke with vindictive glee about how they would punish students with bad marks. I had generally keep aloof from such discussions, but now I was forced to admit that my sole saving grace was that I believed I should try to be fair. Too many of the other department members didn’t seem to care about fairness at all.

In fact, some tenured professors seemed to regard punitive marking as one of the perqs of their position. One even marked me down in a grad seminar because he had a longstanding feud with my mother, who lived near him. When I described my efforts to mark blindly, these professors were surprised that I would take such concerns for people who only students, after all.

All I knew for sure was that marking blindly made living with myself much easier. I was proud of the procedure, and, having discovered it, inevitably followed it.

Years later, I learned that I was not the only person to make such a discovery. I remember seeing one study in which the number of women in orchestras rose considerably when auditioners could hear the music, but not see the musician.

Why, I wonder, should employment policies not be required to be similarly blind? Obviously, a time comes when interviewers have to see the job candidates face to face. But we regularly hear that male or English-sounding names have an advantage in the initial screenings, so resumes, at least, could be screened blindly.

I can easily imagine other procedures, such as one person doing the interview and the decision-maker reading the transcripts. But such steps, although fairer, would make the arduous process of hirer harder yet, and perhaps are not essential.

After all, it is the initial selection that seems to be the main bottleneck for women and minorities. Discrimination is much easier when exercised against a name than a person on the other side of the table, and many women and minority members acquit themselves well enough in interviews if they can only get one in the first place.

In fact, I sometimes think that blind assessment would accomplish as much as affirmative action, but with less resentment. Arguments can be made against affirmative action, although I believe that I can disprove them. But what can anyone say about procedures that are fairer for everyone? Give everyone the chance to be judged on their accomplishments rather than their background, and equal hiring practices might follow naturally and unobtrusively.

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Growing up, I assumed that sooner or later I would be a teacher. For someone with the ability to write, it seemed the easiest way to make a living. However, my first semester as an instructor was so disastrous that it was almost my last.

Part of the problem was that, like most people with a master’s degree in English, what I knew was literature – but the jobs available for newly-minted graduates were inevitably for teaching composition. The assumption was that anyone with a degree in English must be an expert in rhetoric, which only makes sense if you have never read an academic journal, and have somehow missed the fact that literature and rhetoric were two different subjects.

However, most of the blame belongs to me. While doing my degree, I had worked regularly as a teaching assistant, sometime without outstanding student evaluations. I was left with an exaggerated sense of my own competence, and no understanding whatsoever that leading a discussion did not prepare me in any way for designing a curriculum or taking responsibility for an entire class. In effect, I was like a corporal suddenly trying to doing a captain’s work without any idea of the shift in perspective that was needed.

To make matters worse, I had booked a full teaching load for the semester at two separate community colleges. One of these bookings required a two hour commute both ways twice a week. I barely had time to mark, let alone plan lessons, and I was soon lurching from class to class, struggling to have something ready to teach.

Another mistake I made was to start with the assumption that students would be in my classes in order to learn. I didn’t appreciate that community college was a continuation of high school by other means by teenagers still living in their parents’ house and not ready for full-time work.

Nor did I understand that, although I was interested in the subject of composition, I was usually a minority of one any time that I taught it. Composition is usually compulsory, and students imagine that, having passed high school, they already know how to write an essay. Consequently, they are so bored in class that, during one lesson when I segued from my lecture to reciting “Jabberwock,” it took nearly a minute for most of the class to notice.

Anyway, the result of all these circumstances was that I approached course design in the most clumsy way possible. My conception of what I was doing was so haphazard that I even scheduled one class to talk about sentences, their length, and how to vary them.

Almost immediately, I failed. What’s more, by halfway through the semester, the students and I both knew I was failing. Soon, I was entangled in a positive feedback loop, feeling I was a hopeless failure and desperately soldiering on while feeling I had no credibility. The other teachers at the two colleges seemed unapproachable, and the lingering tatters of pride kept me from asking for help from those who had been in graduate school with me.

The low point came with a final exam. The college had changed its time without telling me, but of course the English Department’s chair saw my non-appearance as yet another proof of my inadequacy. As she handed me the exams from my class, I didn’t even bother to ask about next semester. The disdain in her voice was so obvious that I knew what the answer would be. Also, I was afraid of what else she might say.

Miserably, I took the exams and cleared out my desk. Before I left the college for the last time, I went into the room where I had taught and wrote in block letters on the blackboard, “I AM NOT DAUNTED!” But it was an empty and melodramatic gesture, and didn’t make me feel much better.

My results at the other college were better, but only slightly so. The best comments on my teaching evaluations were that some of the students thought I was trying hard. After a pained discussion, the dean agreed to give me another semester to improve.

Given this reprieve, I knew I had to do something drastic. If I couldn’t teach, what else would I do? Work in a book store at minimum wage? That was the fate I had gone to grad school to avoid.

The next semester, I decided, I would throw myself directly into the snake pit. I spent extra hours sitting in on other instructors’ classes, asking them questions, and started reading on the subject I was supposed to be teaching, appalled at how little I actually knew. I set long office hours, and urged students to come to talk to me as they planned their essays and afterward to discuss the results.

In the class room, I concluded that teaching was performance, and set up conditions to remind myself constantly that I was always on stage. I had students circle their desks, with me in the middle, forcing myself to keep turning as I engaged, walking constantly back and forth as I spoke and kept an eye on how each student was doing. I channeled all my desperation into the performance, leaving me drained and hungry after each class, although I always took five minutes to critique myself immediately after. For three months, I lived teaching and thought about little else, determined I was going to do it right.

Somehow, miraculously, I did. Enrollment had dropped sharply by the end of the semester, mainly because the class was full of foreign students who should have been in remedial English and needed at least a pass to stay in the country. But the students who remained gave me all but perfect scores on the evaluations.

I continued working as an instructor semester by semester, for another seven years. Sometimes I was called in the night before the first class, but I had established myself as someone who could teach composition, and engage students’ attention.

True, I never tried teaching from inside a circle very again, but I had learned very thoroughly the dangers of complacency. A year after these events, and I was teaching upper level classes at Simon Fraser University, one of the few instructors without a doctorate permitted to do so.

When I finally left teaching, it was for my own reasons, not for any problem with my teaching. But I left with my personal mythology fully evolved from its earliest origins in the story of how my namesake Robert the Bruce had persevered in his war against the English because of a spider.

Yes, I was capable of failure – deep and wrenching, wretched failure. But I was also capable of coming back from it, a fact that I have never forgotten since.

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Writers are supposed to have a history of different jobs, and I’ve always done my best to keep that tradition alive – even before I started writing professionally. But looking back, I see that three turning points have brought me to where I am today, each of which was driven more by desperation than careful planning.

The first was my decision to return to university. I had finished my bachelor’s degree in English and Communications four years earlier, but I had done absolutely nothing with it. I was working part time in a book store, because, after five years of university, I was burned out. Just as importantly, I had no idea whatsoever how I wanted to make a living. But the two years off I had promised myself had turned to four, and I was feeling trapped, and more than a bit of a failure. Book stores, I had discovered to my surprise, were not about loving books at all, but selling them, and I might as well have been selling slabs of raw chicken breast in a butcher shop.

Not having a better idea, I listened to the common wisdom, and decided that what my double major amounted to was the first steps in the qualifications I needed to teach. That seemed plausible; I had given poetry seminars at my old high school, and they had gone over well. So I scraped up the recommendations I needed, and applied to both the faculties with which I had an association.

For a while, I considered studying parrots in the Communications Department, and even wrote to Irene Pepperberg, the recognized expert in the field. But my moment of desperation was in December, and the department only took new grad students in September.

By contrast, the English Department would let me start in January. I still wasn’t sure exactly how I would use a second degree, but I could be paid as a teaching assistant while getting it, and the pay and the responsibilities were much better than at the book store. So, for four years as a teaching assistant and seven as a lecturer, I taught, finding the job mostly satisfying, aside from the necessity of occasionally having to fail students.

Slowly, however, that became a dead end job, too. Unless I took my doctorate, the best I could hope for was a non-tenured position as Senior Lecturer, and even those jobs were rare unless my partner and I were prepared to move. We weren’t, and I realized that I was not only in another dead end, but one where my choices could be limited by the whim of the department chair.

Trying to ignore the despair and panic nibbling at the edges of my thoughts, I attended a Saturday afternoon seminar on technical writing at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre campus. My partner picked me up so we could have dinner at her parents’, and, as we drove down the highway through Richmond, I summarized what I had learned about the profession to her.

A long silence fell as we considered the possibilities. Then suddenly, I turned to her and said, “You know, I can do this.”

So I did. I did it so well that I worked largely as a freelance. In four months,  I more than doubled my income, and, in nine months I was hiring sub-contractors. Unlike a surprisingly large amount of technical writers, I had realized that success required the ability to learn my subject – and if there was one thing that all those years of school had taught me, it was how to learn. I also discovered that being able to offer technical writing, marketing, and graphic design made me an all-in-one package that many employers found irresistible.

But that success made me an executive at a couple of startups. When they crashed, I found it hard to return to my base professions – I could see the mistakes that business owners were making, and I had just enough sense to realize that my opinions wouldn’t be welcome, particularly since I would have been correct more often than my employers.

I endured two particularly dreary jobs at companies that were being led into the ground. Then, one afternoon, walking along the Coal Harbour seawall in the autumn sunlight, I realized I could no longer be even conscientious about helping to prepare mediocre proprietary software.

I was already doing the occasional article for Linux.com. Now, in my desperation, I asked Robin (“roblimo”) Miller if he would take me on full-time. To my unending gratitude, he agreed to let me try. At first, I thought I would never manage the dozen stories he expected per month, but soon I was not only meeting my Linux.com quota, but writing another six to eight stories every month. Writing, I discovered, was like everything else, becoming easier with practice.

Looking back, I see that each of these turning points brought me a little closer to the work I did the best, even though I didn’t realize at the time what was happening.

More importantly, I realize that none were the rational, careful planned moves that the typical career advice suggest that you make. In fact, if I had followed that typical advice, I would probably still be at the book store. At each of these points, what motivated me was my unhappiness with my current position, and a realization that taking a leap into something new was no more chancy than staying where I was. It wasn’t ambition, or careful planning that made me move on – just a dim sense that I wasn’t where I wanted to be, and a growing awareness that I really had nothing left to lose.

This, I suspect is how most people make such decisions. These days, when someone comes to me asking for career advice (as happens two or three times a year), I don’t tell them to plan their career moves rationally. Instead, I ask them how they want to spend their lives, and what risks they are prepared to take to do it.

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A few moments ago, I changed the flapper tank ball on the toilet. That would be an unpromising beginning for a blog entry, except for the unwarranted satisfaction I took from the job. Not that the repair needed a plumber, but I grew up thinking that I wasn’t the least bit handy. The fact that I am now in any way competent at home repairs I attribute largely to over a decade of using free and open source software.

So far as I remember, nobody ever told me I was clumsy in so many works as I was growing up. But, with one thing and another, I certainly received that impression. For one thing, I am left-handed, and, while like many lefties, I am necessarily more ambidextrous than the rest of the population, to the average eye, I looked clumsy. More importantly, I usually had to reverse any demonstrations I was given, an effort that few young children can successfully make, no matter how bright they happen to be. Consequently, I was a long time learning to tie my shoes or swim – which only justified everybody thinking me clumsy – including me.

Probably, I wasn’t helped, either by the fact that I tried to compensate for my clumsiness by being energetic and aggressive when I played sports. These traits gave me a rough and ready ability, but I wasn’t initially chosen for the school soccer team in Grade Six, or as one of the Saturday morning players tapped for going into the premier division a few years later. I only learned the skills a soccer player needs to control the ball or work with a team a few years later.

Besides, I was bookish and liked academic subjects in school. Naturally I wasn’t supposed to have any physical skills as well. That would have been against all the laws of stereotyping.

Consequently, between one thing or another, I grew up thinking myself uncoordinated – a self image that, unsurprisingly, often made me just that. Whenever I tried anything new, I expected to do it poorly, so often I did.
Once, when I called myself a slow learner, a teacher replied, “Yeah, but I bet than when you do learn, you don’t forget it.” But that was not much compensation.

It was only when I became a university instructor and later a technical writer that I realized another source of my clumsiness: Most people are terrible teachers, even when they teach for a living. Few have the patience to work with beginners. Even fewer can remember the days when they were beginners. Inevitably, they leave out important steps when they try to instruct, or fail to mention what to do in unusual circumstances. Probably, the main reason why I taught English and wrote manuals successfully is that I tried to give students and users the instructions that I would need myself.

But the real revelation came as I started using GNU/Linux as my main operating system. Like everybody else, using Windows had taught me how to be helpless. The default resources discouraged me from exploring Windows, and the information I needed was mostly lacking.

GNU/Linux, though, is different. It is designed for users to poke about and configure. If you run into trouble, help is only an Internet search away.

Without making any conscious decision, or being aware of what was happening, slowly I started to learn how to troubleshoot. I learned that very little I could do would harm my installation, much less cause the motherboard to belch flames, as I half-feared. All I had to do was observe, take a few precautions, and work systematically, and I could do far more than I had ever imagined when I was a Windows user.

Gradually, I transferred this same mind-set to other parts of my life. To my surprise, I found that it was usually just as applicable to home repairs as those on the computer.

I won’t say that I have any particular talent for handiwork. But, somewhere along the line, I stopped thinking of myself as clumsy. I no longer approach every new physical task with the expectation of failure, and, far more often than not, I succeed at it. Even on those occasions when a real expert is needed, I often understand what the problem is . A surprising amount of the time, I just lack the tools or the parts to do the job myself.

This personal change is one of the biggest reasons that I am committed to free software. Using Windows only reinforced my belief in my own incompetence at fixing or improving things. By contrast, free software proved to my that I was capable of far more than I had ever imagined.

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(The following is a handout from my days of teaching first year composition at university. It consists of some informal examples of opening paragraph strategies, but should be equally useful for formal essays. Anyone who finds it useful can reproduce it, so long as they give me credit for it)

Explanation of Topic’s Importance (Anticipatory Summary):
Computers abound in our houses and offices, exchanging information via modems. Programmers are constantly finding new applications for existing software, and computer technicians are refining the hardware so fast that a new computer is no longer state of the art six months after it is sold. We live in a computer-dominated age, and every citizen should have some knowledge of computers. They make routine decisions in business, education and government, and monitor our defense systems. They help individuals to manage their private affairs, to organize their personal records, and to access goods and services, and municipali­ties and legislatures depend on them for planning future develop­ment. Since a knowledge of computers is so necessary for all of us, computer education–“computer literacy,” as the jargon has it–plays a significant role in our society. To understand this role, we must first consider the importance of computer education to the individual citizen and to the country as a whole; next, we must assess the present quality of computer education at all levels; and, finally, we must examine the ways in which computer education can be improved.

Examples:
For many years, automatic vending machines have dispensed such products as salted peanuts, chewing gum, cigarettes, soft drinks and candy bars. Now these robot sellers are becoming more ver­satile. At one eastern airport, the simple act of inserting a coin in a slot will get you a magazine, a pen, a toothbrush, a pocket comb, a handkerchief, a necktie, a suit of underwear, a cup of hot coffee or chicken soup, a set of puzzle toys, a spray of perfume, an insurance policy or a shoe-shine. There are other machines that will take your blood pressure or give you a thirty-second dose of pure oxygen. One corporation has designed an automatic snack bar–a cluster of automatic vending machines that offer toasted sandwiches, hot soup, chili, baked beans and hot pastries and pies. Another firm has produced an automatic cafeteria with a menu of over fifty dishes, including a roast-turkey dinner; the machines even say “thank-you” in a computer-generated voice. These are only a few examples of the many types of vending machines. How are these mechanical conveniences constructed? What effect do they have on buying habits? As we shall see, the vending machine plays a major role in modern commerce.

Definition:
Although manufacturers are reluctant to discuss it except in general terms, copyright violation is becoming increasingly common in our society. Briefly, copyright violation may be defined as the unauthorized use of an artistic product such as a book or a software program by anyone other than the creators or their representatives. It may involve the use of material in slightly altered form, or the copying and distribution of the work, with or without profit. Some people, especially artists, are violently opposed to copyright violation; others, especially software users, consider it their right and something which is inevitable. However it is viewed, it raises ethical issues of great importance.

Cause and Effect:
For the past two years, I have run an average of four to six miles every morning. The results have been amazing. The daily exercise keeps me calm and alert for the rest of the day. It allows me to eat what I want without worrying about calories, and to sleep well every night. It gives me more energy, and, most of all, it gives me a self-confidence that carries over into everything I do. My experience has convinced me that everyone should have some form of daily exercise.

Comparison and Contrast:
For many years, we have thought of the Vikings as bloodthirsty savages who did their best to destroy European civilization. Now, we are starting to understand that this view is too limited. The Vikings were certainly no more bloodthirsty than those they attacked (who generally defeated them, after all), and in many ways they were more advanced. At a time when merchant ships hugged the coast both for safety and for ease of navigation, the Vikings were building sturdy yet light boats that were capable of surviving all but the roughest storms, and boldly sailing across the open ocean using their navigation skills. At a time when most people lived and died within ten miles of where they were born, the Vikings ranged from North American to Russia, and from Greenland to central Africa. Most European art during the Dark Ages was a crude attempt at representational art; the Viking had an intricate abstract art style that we are only now starting to appreciate. Similarly, while most European literature was oral and poetic, the Vikings had complex poetry and detailed prose stories about the deeds of their ancestors. Until early in the twentieth century, a woman in France or Italy had little say in who she would marry, and almost no right to property or divorce; a thousand years ago in Iceland, women had all these rights under written law. As archaeologists have started to reevaluate Viking culture, we have learnt that, far from the horn-helmeted savages of popular imagination, the Vikings were a literate and sophisticated people who were probably closer to us in their assumptions than the southern Europeans of the Dark Ages.

Rhetorical Question:
Can chimpanzees talk in sign language, or do they simply learn what to do to get what they want? Are dolphins and whales possessed of an intelligence equal to ours, but subtly different in nature? Can parrots really have the intelligence of a five year old child? Biologists are divided about the answers to such questions, but the fact that these questions can be asked at all challenge our assumption of our uniqueness. How the question is eventually answered will have a sweeping effect upon our religions, science and ethics.

Illustrative Anecdote:
Once, I made the mistake of telling the woman who was cutting my hair that I wrote poetry. “Must be nice,” she said. “Just light up a joint, sit back and wait for inspiration, then write whatever comes into your head.” At the time, I could have told her that I didn’t smoke tobacco, let alone anything stronger, but, when I think of all that I have learned in the intervening years, I realize that I could have said a good deal more. Like most people, she had a romantic view of writing that is almost totally unrelated to the reality. The truth is not only that few writers use any stimulants stronger than coffee (at least, while they are writing), but also that they hardheadedly plug away at lonely and time-consuming work that, far from being easy, can ruin your nerves in a week if you take it too seriously.

Opposing View to Be Refuted:
Many people think that keeping parrots is like keeping fish. Just as you keep fish in a bowl, feed them, and sit back and watch them, so you keep parrots in a cage, feed them, and sit back and watch their antics. Pet-store owners tell me that this assumption is so strong that some people buy parrots to match the decor of their living rooms. I don’t know how many people act so careless­ly, but I do know that they are in for a surprise. Far from being passive animals, parrots are curious, intelligent birds, that have to be watched constantly and demand hours of attention each day.

Relevant Quote:
“Violence,” Isaac Asimov writes in his Foundation series, “is the last refuge of the incompetent.” Salvor Hardin, the character who adopts this aphorism as his motto, goes to great lengths to prove it, inevitably outwitting his enemies when he applies it. Cynics may doubt that avoiding violence in real life is as easy as it is for Hardin, but, if my personal experience is any indication, Asimov may have a point. Admittedly, avoiding violence is harder than giving into your impulses, and requires more patience. Yet the simple fact of making the effort is worthwhile for at least two reasons: it leads to creative thinking about problems, and, if successful, to more permanent solutions.

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(The following is a handout from my days of teaching first year composition at university. It is meant to be a very basic introduction to the complicated study of logical fallacies. Anyone who finds it useful can reproduce it, so long as they give me credit for it)

For thousands of years, people have been cataloging invalid arguments. These are arguments are invalid largely because they are illogical. That does not mean that they cannot be extremely effective; the associational fallacy, for example, is the basis of a good deal of advertising. But the illogic does mean that they should not be accepted in an essay, which is meant to be the construction of a logical structure of ideas.

Over-Generalization:
Too large a conclusion is drawn from too specific evidence.
Example: Three regional airlines have just gone bankrupt, and many of the larger lines have discontinued flights on certain routes. The North American commercial transporta­tion system is in chaos.
Airlines are not the only form of commercial transportation, and bankruptcies and discontinued routes might not be enough to justify calling the result “chaos.”

Over-Simplification:
Too many considerations are left out for the conclusion to be valid.
Example: Getting a good grade in English is easy. All you have to do is write essays of the required length and repeat the teacher’s opinion.
Grammar and punctuation, structure, and even original thought are also factors in getting a good grade.

Either/Or:
Only two extreme positions are acknowledged, and no alternatives or mixed positions. Sometimes called “the excluded middle.”
Examples:
a.) America: love it or leave it (a statement made by political conservatives in the 1960s)
b.)What do you want: good grammar or good taste? (a slogan once used by Winston cigarettes)

You can criticize your country and still want to live there, and good grammar has no relation to good taste, so it can hardly be its opposite.

Post hoc ergo procter hoc (Latin, “after this, therefore that”)
Because one event occurs after another, it must be caused by the second event.
Example: I carry a gun so I won’t be robbed. It must work. After I was robbed a year ago, I started carrying a gun, and I haven’t been robbed since.
From this statement alone, you can’t be sure of any cause or effect. The speaker may not be going to the same parts of town as before, or maybe they have just been lucky.

Non sequitur (Latin, “it does not follow”)
No logic exists between two parts of an argument
Examples:
a.) “I made the decision myself, because if we listened to experts, we’d have a tyranny of expertise, and then where would we be?” (John Fraser, former Minister of Fisheries)
b.) “I couldn’t have kicked that girl to death. I wear soft shoes” (a murder’s explanation of why he was innocent)

Why should Fraser insist on making the decision when the whole point of experts is to have someone with advice worth listening to? Similarly, you can still kick with soft shoes – or even when you’re barefoot.

False Analogy
A poor choice of metaphors or of similar situations.
Examples:
a.) Some people cannot be educated. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
b.) A well-run office is like a machine. You should be able to replace people without disturbing the office’s efficiency, just as you can replace a bolt or a gear in a machine.

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, because silk isn’t made of pigskin, but it’s not clear that people are that inflexible.
As for an office being like a machine, every organization has an informal organization that compensates for problems with the official organization. For instance, a receptionist may compensate for a company officer’s inability to keep to deadlines. Replace that receptionist, and the office may become disorganized.

Ad Hominem (Latin, “to the person”)
Attacking the person who holds the argument, not the argument itself.
Examples:
a.) People who complain about the conduct of Cabinet Ministers have a vested interest in attacking the government.
b.) Ignore what teachers tell you about writing. They’re all frustrated journalists and novelists who aren’t good enough to compete in the commercial market.

Both these statements may be true or false. But, either way, they do no mean that the attack isn’t valid or that their advice isn’t worth following.

Ad Populum (Latin, “to the population”)
An argument that appeals to popular prejudice or belief.
Examples:
a.) Canadians have worked too hard to see their jobs stolen by recent immigrants, or, even worse, to support them when they go on welfare or unemployment.
b.) Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

The first example tries to appeal to anti-immigration prejudice, the second to the popular wisdom of a cliché. Neither replaces a reasoned argument.

Associational Fallacy
A position is made attractive by who holds it – either a famous person, or people with desirable qualities.
Example: I have no crystal ball. But based on our previous mailings, I’m willing to go out on a limb and make a prediction –
Of all the people who receive this invitation, only a very special group will select accept.
You can easily spot them in any crowd. The young in mind, no matter what their age. Eternally curious. Open to new ideas. Alert to future possibilities. Those fortunate few who didn’t stop growing – intellectually – the day they left school. (a magazine subscription offer in the mail)

The implication is that, if you subscribe, you will prove yourself open-minded and curious, too.

Appeal to Authority
A position must be correct because of who holds it. Alternatively, some greater force such as God or a natural order may be mentioned. Note that this has nothing to do with citing who you got an idea from.
Examples:
a.) Biology is destiny. Women must be dependent on men.
b.) It is historically inevitable that capitalism give way to socialism.

Here, “biology” and “historical inevitability” are represented as greater than human forces with which no one can argue.

Circular Argument
An argument in which the first statement depends on the second, and the second on the first.
Example: There are no drafts of the last half of the poem because Shelley never finished it. If he had finished it, we would have had the drafts.
Besides being faulty reasoning in other ways (the drafts could have been lost), this argument simply goes round and round.

Dormitive Explanation
Similar to a circular argument, the second statement simply repeats the first one – bu tthe repetition is disguised because of a change in wording.
Examples:
a.) Opium puts people to sleep because it contains a dormitive principle.
b.) Ted Bundy killed young girls without remorse because he was a sociopath with a disturbed libido.

“Dormitive” is an adjective that refers to sleep, and a sociopath does things without remorse.

Value Judgment
A position is attacked or defended because of its moral or ethical qualities.
Examples:
a.) That is an evil position to hold.
b.) My plan is simply common sense.

Arguments are supposed to be about logic. The morality or ethics of them are irrelevant.

Equivocation
A word or phrase is repeated, but with a different meaning each time.
Examples:
a.) The law is clear on this point. You can’t argue against it any more than you can argue against the law of gravity.
b.) Since evolution is just a theory, my theory about the origins of life are just as good as any biologist’s.

You can’t argue against gravity because it is a description of how the universe works, but the laws of a country are made by humans and regularly argued. Similarly, a theory is just below a law in science – a position that best explains the evidence – while a “theory” in ordinary conversation is just an opinion.

Confusion of Logical Types
A logical type is a level of organization. For example, a body is of a higher logical type than an organ like the liver, and an organ is of a higher logical type than a cell. You cannot compare or contrast different logical types because they create the absurdity of the parts of something being discussed as equal to the thing itself.
Example:
a.) The needs of the individual are more important than the needs of society.
b.) Ignore the details and concentrate on the larger picture.

Give too much priority to either the individual’s or society’s needs, and you are likely to have trouble. In much the same way, the larger picture is composed of details, so you cannot ignore them.

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Like far too many North Americans, I remain unilingual. I understand French well enough that when I met the exiled King of Ruanda and his aide-de-camp (which is a long story in itself), I could understand about eighty percent of the conversation, but I couldn’t participate in it. Otherwise, I can read a reasonable amount of Anglo-Saxon (which will come in useful if I ever travel in Frisia.), and even less Latin – and that’s it. In other words, compared to the average continental European, my linguistic education is pitifully inadequate.

The reasons for this common ignorance is obvious. For several centuries, one of the dominant powers in the world (if not the dominant power) has been English-speaking. Even now, with the United Kingdom reduced to a second-rate power and the United States possibly tottering, English remains the language of trade and the Internet. You can tell this because, while you often read people apologizing for their lack of English skills, you hardly ever see English-speakers apologize for their lack of another language. The best you can say is that these days we at least have keyboard locales with a decent array of accents, so that we can spell the names of many non-English speakers correctly.

Just as importantly, with the exception of Quebec and possibly a few Inuit villages around the Arctic Circle, once north of Mexico, you can travel for thousands of miles without knowing anything except English. Even in ethnic enclaves, you have a strong chance of finding someone who speaks English. The result is the most North Americans feel little need to learn a second language, much less a third. By contrast, you have a greater incentive in many countries in Europe, where you are unable to travel more than a few hundred miles without finding another language useful.

Still another reason for the ignorance of people like me is that, given the language instruction we did receive, we would have been better off memorizing a tourist’s phrase book. I was in school before French immersion began, and forty minutes a couple of times a week – or fifty-five in high school – is not enough to learn any language, even if you have competent teachers – and I, for one, rarely did.

My first French classes consisted largely of playing bingo with the numbers from 1 to 50. Similarly, in high school, my French teacher for two years could always be distracted by asking her about her travels in France. I never did figure out if she had gone there several times, or just the once, but it didn’t really make a difference; ask her about Mont St. Michel or omlettes, and the members of the class could lean back and relax, confident that no other word of French would pass their lips for the rest of the lesson. As for my French teacher in my last year of high school, she was so dully stolid that I earned the only C+ of my school career while staring out the window of her class room.

I did have one native speaker who taught French. But he was my elementary school’s science teacher, and while his French lessons were dutiful, they were not inspired. His heart was not in it.

The combination of such teaching with a lack of any chance to practice meant that most of us had no clear concept of what another language might actually mean. If pressed, most of us probably would have said that it was like a cipher that mapped one to one with English words; if the structure wasn’t the same, it would always come out a match by the end of the sentence. As for idioms and dialects, they were not even concepts. The handful of us who knew better – one girl who was my main competitor for high grades, and another on whom I had a crush once or twice – were seen as having almost mystical powers because they could actually speak French, and not just recite memorized phrases from the textbook.

I could, of course, have cured my ignorance as an adult. In fact, a wish not to be so limited was the reason why I learned the little Anglo-Saxon and Latin that I know. Together with a small knowledge of linguistic sound changes, they remain enough for me to sometimes puzzle out German and to see cognates in the Romance languages or Middle English, but it seems indicative of my failure to understand the usefulness of languages that I never tried to studied one that might have a daily usefulness.

I wanted languages that would improve my understanding of English. Yes, that was the problem – I was too absorbed with learning English to make the effort to learn other languages. But that excuse sounds lacking even in my own ears.

The only mitigation I can plead is that I am aware of my defect. Unlike many North Americans (all right – unlike many Americans), I do not think that English is the default language, or that the Bible was written in English. I know that I am lacking this basic piece of education, so painfully so that I wince when I read 19th century novels that blithely mention school boys translating pages of Latin and Greek, or even Hebrew.

I know I should know better, and, maybe one day I will. Wasn’t it Queen Victoria who undertook to learn Hindu when she was in her eighties? If so, maybe there’s hope for me yet.

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