Blog Post

Down with Nuance? Dealing with Speed

Last week, on a different blog, I mused about how teachers and critics can/should deal with speed.  By speed, I mean this: given a cultural moment where texts move instantaneously, how are we to deal with nuance and recontextualization?  We (in the humanities?) often teach students to understand all angles of a controversy/question before joining the conversation.  This is a great approach for academic circles, but how does it work outside of the academy?  I'm conflicted.  I like this model, but I worry that I'm doing my students a disservice.

Karl Rove is suggesting that Obama cut the nuance during the debates.  Another critique of Obama's debate strategy mentions the same issue:

"Because his major speeches were so influential, long, and carefullywrought, it seems natural to conclude that today?s bear-baiting debatesare just the wrong vehicle for him. ?You?ve got to remember, he is aconstitutional-law professor,? I was told by Newton Minow, who aschairman of the Federal Communications Commission under John F. Kennedydeclared television a ?vast wasteland? and who as a partner in theChicago law firm Sidley Austin hired Obama as a summer associate 19years ago. ?He?s used to seeing all sides of an issue, and he tends tolay out all sides before giving his own view.? By that time, the clockhas run out."

I'm thinking about these issues a lot as the presidential campaign continues to dominate my infosphere.  When I'm debating with people, I always treat topics as nuanced.  I attempt to discuss any issue from any number of angles.  And I attempt to provide evidence for my claims.  In short, I try to argue in (what I would call) an ethical way.  However, that style of argument is a very poor fit for discourse outside of the academy.  Some of the arguments I'm having involve me trying to convince people that we should argue a different way.

So, my big question is: Is this a battle worth fighting? Or, is there another route to take?  My discipline (rhetoric and composition) has long argued for nuance, mapping the conversation, and carefully considering the opposition.  But should we assume that this is the best way to go?

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5 comments

Hi, Jim, I'm not sure I would take Karl Rove's advice to an adversary . . . Also, although people said the debate was a "draw," the bounce back three days after is all in favor of Obama who seems to have conveyed the impression that he is not too inexperienced, that he is calm and knowledgeable, and NUANCED. Whatever your politics (and because state universities are not allowed to fund partisan party politics I am being very cautious here), it is clear that the sound bite is important but it is also clear that, in a complicated economic crisis like this one, people may well prefer the rational, calm, thoughtful, nuanced article. Maybe the real issue is the right mode of rhetoric for the right situation . .. different for a cereal box than an inauguration, different for a debate than for a keynote address. That seems to be a clear and important principle for rhetoric: knowing one's forum, knowing one's audience, knowing one's time limit and the genre----and making sure the mode of address is appropriate.

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At the risk of digressing a bit let me give you an example of the distinction between focusing on nuance vs the meat of ones position that has been giving me some trouble of late. I'm teaching intro courses at a college that has a fairly recently contructed minor (in philosophy) so there are a handful of seniors who have taken many upper division courses but find themselves now needing to take intro as it is required.

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Implicit for me in considering all sides of a discussion for me is simply hearing the other side or sides. Determining the urgency of the decision making and scaling the time I take to consider options took a little longer to learn in a time-crunched environment :). Perhaps not every decision point has enough time to fully consider the nuances, but I agree with Kylie that I don't think you are doing your students a disservice by teaching them the way you have been taught - when they have the time to do so, they will have the training to be able to.

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Presidential politics is a tricky example, since lack of nuance seems (to me at least) built into the party system. Either you're all in, or you're all out. There's the sense that one can't both support a politician, AND criticize how they deal with a specific issue. We use the word "supporters", but campaign supporters often behave more like fans.

And I don't know that there's anything wrong with that. I wouldn't expect fans to act like unaffiliated bystanders who carefully weigh all sides of an issue, because that's not their job -- they're there to rally the troops. (I'm fond of saying the same thing about DailyKos. Not much political debate goes on there; but it does a great job of exciting a certain group of liberal voters. That doesn't make it any better or worse -- just different.) I don't think nuanced debate has diminished in our society; it just seems to be taking place in different spaces.

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As it happens, this week I am reading Writing Machines with my first-year writing classes. Hayles calls for a "robust and nuanced account of how literature is changing under the impact of information technologies" (19). I am borrowing the idea from her for my students, emphasizing that as readers and writers we need to be robust and nuanced in how we read and write. It strikes me that 'robust' is a particularly evocative way to think about nuance in terms of writing and critical thinking--a relevant analogy for her purposes (thinking about writing in relation to a computational perspective), but one that also opens up some new ways of thinking about "close reading" and nuance--the kinds of things we might associate with literary and constitutional scholars. In the context of a political debate, it certainly seems more appealing to call for a robust understanding of complex issues rather than more nuance. Robust is a stronger word and a word that means strength. Does it also recognize complexity and complication, what we also want from nuance? Must complexity imply weakness?

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