Monday, February 21, 2011

The Power of Persuasion, or, Why You Must Buy [Brand] Jeans Right Now

This past Thursday my classes discussed Athanasius' "On the Incarnation of the Word." The text is a 4th-century treatise, and since one of the main goals for the course is helping students learn how to read a variety of genres of theological literature, I explained to the class that in a treatise, the way the author makes his argument is just as important as the argument itself.

To illustrate this point, we began our class time with an exercise in salesmanship. The class divided into three groups, each of which had 10 minutes to look over a product description and plan their pitch to the rest of the class. One group was assigned to sell a high-end HD TV, a second a $2M luxury "green" home, and a third group the 2011 Ford Fusion hybrid. The presentations were (predictably--I love this exercise) hilarious, and gave us the opportunity to talk about the various kinds of appeals marketers use to convince us that we should buy their products instead of those of their competitors. That's really what a late antique treatise seeks to do, too, except that instead of selling a product, the author is selling an ideology.

The next day, while this activity was still fresh in my memory, I had the TV on and saw one of the most ridiculous commercials I've ever seen. I say "ridiculous" because the advertisement's claims were so over-the-top that the producers must be either be hoping that their viewers will purchase the product because the sheer inanity of the commercial makes it stick in the memory, or they must believe that they are selling to a bunch of lemmings who have forfeited or chosen never to develop their right to independent thought (but that's a subject for another post, I think).

The commercial in question is the newest commercial for a well-known jeans store chain, and it features a skinny 20-something woman singing about how cute her jeans make her. I thought about including a link to the commercial on YouTube, but 1) doing so would probably violate copyright law and 2) I actually find a couple of scenes in the commercial offensive. Besides, what I want to do in this post is analyze the rhetoric of the commercial. Let's think about the kinds of arguments this commercial is making.

1. The commercial's basic claim is easy to spot: you should wear [brand] jeans because they make you look cute. "Super cute," to be exact. So the first appeal is to vanity. I'd like to think that I'm immune to the baser instincts (vanity is one of the seven deadly sins), but I'm not. At some level we all make judgments about others based on nothing but appearance. If I go for a job interview, I want the interviewer's first visual impression of me to be one of confidence and professionalism, and I know that what I wear contributes to that impression. But at ## years of age and 5'2", I definitely don't want to look "super cute." So this argument doesn't get very far with me.

2. A second claim is embedded within the many scenes of the commercial: when you wear [brand] jeans, you can do anything. The model croons that she is "super cute" whether she's getting a mani-pedi (that's a manicure and pedicure, for you guys out there) or a root canal. Thus, the second appeal is to usefulness or some other practical benefit. Now the marketers are speaking my language--I'm all about practicality. But the extreme to which this commercial takes the appeal is, well, extreme. These jeans will make oral surgery a breeze? I'd better run out and get a pair right now, since I have a spot in the back of my mouth that doesn't respond to local anesthesia. Maybe I'll finally be able to drive a stick shift and parallel park, too! To quote one of our favorite British comedies, "a remarkable garment, indeed!"

3. A third claim of the commercial is that wearing [brand] jeans will get me out of traffic tickets. Now, I realize that in the overall context of the commercial, this claim is a direct by-product of looking "super cute" (a link presumably underscored by the model's dancing/gyrations in front of the "officer"). But think about it: do you really want your local law enforcement officers to show favoritism based on "cuteness?" I mean, what chance would those of us who aren't models or Hollywood stars have? On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, the producers are really saying that [brand] jeans include complimentary legal representation in court. Now that's value for money. But somehow, I doubt that's what they mean...

We may not read many treatises in our (post)modern era, but we are bombarded every day by attempts to persuade us: buy this product. Vote for this candidate. Support this cause. The more aware we are of the types of appeals that speakers employ in their cause, the better informed our decisions will be. If my students only remember one thing from last Thursday's class, I actually hope it will be the point of the opening exercise: the way an argument is made is just as important as the argument itself. Oh, and just in case there was any doubt in your mind, this post is a shameless attempt to persuade you to think critically and independently. How did I do?

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Case for "Traditional" Foreign Language Instruction

I have some long-awaited good news to start off with this week: my dissertation proposal finally passed the last stage of review about a month ago. Turns out, the anonymous external reviewer who was holding up the process is a member of the faculty of the School of Canon Law, and when he (?) saw that my project would involve comparing attitudes toward ecclesiastical authority in the Irish and Roman churches, he (?) took more interest in it--and made more comments--than external reviewers usually do. As my director pointed out, however, the School of Canon Law is easily the most conservative school at CUA, and if anyone was going to have a problem with a project that investigates divergence of "tradition" in the medieval Church, it would be someone in Canon Law. So the fact that the proposal has been endorsed--with helpful comments--by such a reviewer is a really, really good sign.

What on earth does this have to do foreign language instruction? Well, since the proposal has been approved, the only thing--other than teaching--standing in the way of a marathon months-long writing session is a 25-page article on one of my primary sources written by the only scholar in North America who is working in this field. And it's written in German.

Of all the languages that I have had to learn, German is my second-worst. There are two reasons for this. The first is simply that I have had less instructional time for German than I have for my better languages--5 years of French, 3 years of Greek, and 2 years of Latin vs. 2 quarters (= less than one full year) of "German for Reading Knowledge." One of my Latin teachers once said that you need to work with a language for about 10 years before you become truly proficient, and his words have certainly held true in my own experience.

The second reason my German is so bad is because my German teachers espoused a different philosophy of language instruction than the others did. My French, Latin and Greek instructors all took a "traditional" approach that involved a balance between the systematic treatment of grammatical principles and reading practice, along with an emphasis on memorizing vocabulary. For example, in order to pass the second half of Medieval Latin, we each had to get a 90% or higher on a 1000-word vocabulary test and a 90% or higher on the department's (deservedly) dreaded morphology exam. The exams weren't easy--we all had to take the morphology exam multiple times before reaching the 90% mark--but I have retained much of the information I memorized in the process, and as a result, my reading speed in Latin is pretty respectable. In contrast, my German instructors took a more "progressive" approach that retained the grammar instruction but placed a greater emphasis on reading from day one and dispensed with the vocabulary memorization. They insisted that the better way to learn vocabulary was to read as much as possible and look up unknown words as necessary. Read in context, they said, the meanings of the words would "stick" in the memory more effectively.

The progressive approach clearly hasn't worked for me. Even after a fair amount of reading practice, I still have to look up every third or fourth word in a German text. Worse, I frequently find myself looking up the same word more than once per page. Here's a
picture of the worst page I've encountered in this article so far. You can see that the actual text only occupies about half the page (the other half is the footnotes), and I've marked a whopping 73 words for definition in the margins. Additionally, looking up words is only half of the problem. Because German is an inflected language (i.e., a language that conveys meaning through grammatical forms rather than through word order, as English does), it's easy to lose track of the meaning of a sentence when you have to stop and look up as many words as I do. Consequently, my reading speed in German is abysmal. I'm doing well to get one page done per hour (for comparison, I can read about 8 pages of French in the same hour).

My sense is that the "progressive" philosophy of language instruction probably works well in early childhood or elementary school foreign language classes, in which the focus is on getting the child to speak the new language quickly without worrying overmuch about grammatical accuracy. And, since young children are still learning the rules of their native tongue, it makes sense to try a more "organic" approach to a second language at that age. However, older students and those who need to read and/or write the new language really are better served by the traditional approach with its emphasis on memorizing forms and vocabulary. Spending 20-30 minutes per day making and reviewing flashcards can seem like a waste of time, but the long-term payoff--faster reading speed and better comprehension--makes the investment worthwhile.