classrooms · Facebook · grad school · reform · social media · teaching

How Should We Talk About Our Students Online?

A few weeks ago, in my digital world at least, there was a flurry of activity around the issue of online ‘student-shaming,’ specifically in response to the new Dear Student column on Vitae. The Dear Student column presents hypothetical situations involving students making unreasonable requests of professors, with a slate of profs providing satirical email responses to the situations, such as missing textbooks, late enrollment, or family emergencies the day before the final exam. Jesse Stommel, an assistant prof at U of Wisconsin-Madison, objected to this column, and in a much-shared broadside, withdrew from his new post as columnist for Vitae. The internet responded, and various scholars chimed in: Dorothy Kim, responding to comments on Stommel’s post, scrawled an epic twitter manifesto in support of Stommel about treating our students as humans and giving them the benefit of the doubt. Kelly Baker (of Vitae) storifyed a number of her twitter conversations and concludes, ultimately, that there are strong material reasons for ranting against students, but we should be pairing these rants with success stories: “instead of shaming students, we should publicly celebrate those who have inspired us,” @joshua_r_eyler writes on Twitter. Others have argued that we should rant up, not down. One rebuttal points out that Dear Student is largely satirical and gives voice to a diverse ensemble of writers and respondents, including many women of color.

I like the Vitae. They’ve reposted one of my H&E blogs, they are geared toward young scholars like me, and they seem engaged with #alt-ac and #CAF issues. Not many involved in this debate have recognized that Stacey Patton, the Vitae reporter who began the series, is herself a woman of color with a PhD in History; she does not currently hold a tenure-track job. ((She runs a website, Spare the Kids, whose stated mission is “to provide Black parents, families, and communities with a full range of alternatives to corporal punishment.” So we could say that she seems…cool?)) The attack has been leveled, strangely, at Vitae rather than engaging with Patton herself.

Of course, I echo others; we shouldn’t student-shame. But let’s take a moment and think about why many of us do it, even though we shouldn’t. I’d wager that many of the worst culprits are actually those who are just starting out in the profession, who are having a hard time starting out in the profession, whose working conditions are precarious, who are underpaid, who are underrecognized, who worry about their own ability to manage a classroom and occasionally project that worry onto students. Sometimes I do it because I’m constantly plagued with imposter syndrome, because I search for validation through the distinction between my students and myself, because I am comforted with the thought that I am, in fact, smarter than them, and have the authority to stand in front of the classroom. I love my students, and am known as a very caring, devoted professor. But sometimes I, too, fall prey to the temptation to scoff at a sweeping “Since the beginning of time” opening to an essay, or carp about students who feel comfortable enough to accost me about a mediocre grade the moment I hand back the papers, without even pausing to read, let alone digest, my comments. It is worth noting, though this comment may be for another post, that the hierarchy is not always clear in large, corporatized universities; when students come from rich, privileged families and educators are  not granted basic working rights and benefits–is complaining about students always “ranting down”?

So, with all this in mind, how should we talk about students online? I recommend the following guidelines.

  1. Let’s not shame students for succumbing to the immense pressure put upon them to succeed, to work hard to get better grades, to go into debt in the name of education, to fit in to a society that is still largely dominated by rich, white, cisgender men. Let’s stop calling our students “kids.” It’s infantalizing, in the most literal sense, and perhaps reflects a larger attitude of superiority and inattention to our students’ complexity, adulthood, diversity.
  2. Instead, let’s think of our students as allies. I blogged a couple weeks ago about undergraduate student support for the graduate strikes as one of the most inspiring things to come out of the collective bargaining movements, in both New York and Toronto. Undergraduate students–those we sometimes refer to as ‘kids’–fight for us. They fought for the unioners at NYU, and the unioners won; undergraduates have thus had a direct impact on the material conditions of grad students at NYU, present and future. It’s worth taking a few moments and contemplating this fact. 
  3.  Let’s not screenshot or copy sections of our students’ papers online, even the good ones. It’s condescending, and disrespectful of our students’ rights to privacy. How would you, as a scholar, feel if you discovered that some of your unpublished work was posted somewhere without your consent? Joke about it with friends, perhaps–and marvel at the great papers too.
  4. Relatedly, while celebrating rather than shaming students is a great idea, be careful–let’s not [humble-]brag about how great our students are online. At least not too much. You’re often not reeeeally praising the student; you’re praising yourself (especially when done within the privacy of facebook, when the student must remain unnamed and ignorant to your praise). In general, feel comfortable and confident celebrating your successes on social media (see: H&E’s Boast Post column!), but be aware of others, and practice moderation.
  5. Instead, let’s share teaching strategies online, the things we do with students. Talking about what activities you’re trying, what material you’re using, how your pedagogy is shifting, and soliciting advice: these are all appropriate uses of social media.
  6. Let’s ask our students for their permission if we want to celebrate their achievements online. My class website has a page for “Excellent Student Writing” where I post A papers with the authors’ consent, using the papers both reward and model for others. 
  7. Let’s treat students as humans. 
  8. But let’s be honest with ourselves, too, about the realities of our working conditions, about the hardships of higher education, for educators as well as students. Let’s recognize our need for outlets and validation, and perhaps for productive anger, for brainstorming possible solutions to the problems of higher education.

Other suggestions? How should we be talking about our students online?

Facebook · fast feminism · social media

The Politics of Facebook

It’s no secret: I spend a lot of time on Facebook. One friend recently told me that I am “the world’s most facebook-active woman,” which I know is untrue, considering the posting rates of, well, some other people I know (which I use as a moderating compass).  Recently a friend posted on my fb wall a link to an article making the rounds on the interwebs arguing that women with short hair are deranged and masculine, with the comment that she “knows I like infuriating posts.” This is also true, to an extent–I like getting enraged about stupid things people say about feminism, and then sharing in the hopes that other people get riled up as well. Sometimes that process backfires, and friends seem to fall into more of a state of existential despair; I get comments like “I-am-so-angry-why-did-you-post-this??” (<paraphrased, in response to a clip about a new book arguing that America is declining because there are fewer manly men in leadership roles. I will not provide a link.). The last thing I would want is to foster apathy or powerlessness in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

In truth, it tends to be relatives or old friends who tend to follow my Facebook postings the most closely, and often my more overtly feminist or political posts are aimed at those outside an academic setting who may not otherwise have the same exposure to those ideas. Sometimes, in my sheltered academic world, I forget how non-ubiquitous feminism is. Recently I mentioned to a 30-something friend-of-a-friend who was visiting New York that I am now a writer for a Canadian feminist blog, and she stopped me a few sentences later to ask “I noticed you said you write for…a feminist blog?’re a feminist? What…does that even mean?” Almost choking on my chicken paillard, I tried to explain that, you know, there’s still a myth that feminists are man-haters, but really we’re just aware of and trying to address ongoing structural inequalities in the world. I had a similar conversation with a guy in the hotel industry whom I encountered at a party last year, who actually laughed in my face when I said I’m a feminist. This word still has a sting, despite attempts to rid feminism of its stigma (though I have problems with such simplified equations as well, as I don’t think feminism should equate to passive belief in some abstract notion of “equality,” a fraught term in itself).

So, call me a slacktivist if you will, but in my limited sphere as I pick away at my dissertation, Facebook has become an outlet for advancing my own political agenda while remaining receptive to the responses and positions of others (and of course striking is far preferable, hurrah Erin!). Sometimes my timeline simply blows up with debate, which I both love and fear (SMAD is a real thing, people, and I think I have it!).

But how emotional or extreme should our posts be? Should we all be social media provocateurs? Obviously, the answer to that question would differ according to the person and situation–I know plenty of activist-artists who seek to raise raucous, and good on ’em. But I worry about my own more emotional posts that often dive right over logic or rational discussion in their expression of outrage. Aren’t I just lowering myself to the same level as these ludicrous pockets of culture when I post inflammatory articles, adding an equally inflammatory comment to the top, with the intention of eliciting other extreme responses? And, in reposting offensive beliefs, isn’t there a chance that someone will step in and counter with “hey, but this guy has a point! Feminine men are ruining America!” I’m not sure a further polarization of issues is really what we want, but neither is avoidance; it’s important that we don’t remain ignorant of or (worse) become desensitized to the dangerous hogwash that emerges from the likes of Fox News.

I’d like to argue here (with shaky reference to Greek tragedy) that anger can be a useful incitement to heightened awareness of crucial issues facing women and activists today–either online or elsewhere. This week I’ve been reading Bonnie Honig’s Antigone Interrupted for a Fem Theory Reading Group  at Fordham. Honig addresses the politics of lamentation, claiming that we must learn how to mourn without fetishizing or romanticizing the object of mourning, how to call for change without undermining the power of the particular–all part of the “agonistic humanism” that Honig wants to advance. In chapter four, Honig argues that our grief, like Creon’s when he learns of his wife’s suicide as he holds his dead son in his arms, should be both ruptural and concessive: we should allow ourselves to be interrupted by grief, to let ourselves be overtaken by emotion, but also to attempt to reinstate our grief within or against a recognizable political structure. “Lament, as différance, is not a basis for politics but is a sign of the partiality of our codes of grief and of the limited ability of our codes of grief to control or redeem our losses by embedding them in economies of meaning that are supposedly themselves impervious to rupture and interruption” (120). That is to say, lament, though not necessarily political in itself, reveals that the institutionalized structures we have in place for dealing with grief are insufficient in covering it over. Our grief is always partial and singular, but should be put to productive use, while recognizing the limitations of such concessions. Ritualistic burial ceremonies may attempt to harness and contain grief, but lingering ruptures remain that must touch and affect some kind of political system.

So public outcries of sorrow, frustration, suffering, or angst, are okay; sometimes there is a need for the nonerudite and unreasoned in response to shitty things. Antifeminism is awful, and feminists should be allowed to respond in flaying gestures of lamentation, even in the somewhat flimsy sphere of social media; not every act needs to lead to revolution for it to be politically powerful or rejuvenating. But you sometimes have to put up with some pretty shitty responses in return, and you often have to follow up with a more rational explanation of the article or clip you’re posting and the argument you’re advancing against it, to try to prevent alienating or polarizing opinions even further. Social media culture is admittedly a far cry from fifth-century Athens, but today, as I [over-]analyze yet another long debate about feminism that transpired on my wall (this time in response to the response to the article about short hair and derangement, which does deserve a link!), Honig offers me some reassurance that emotional indignation can sometimes be productive.

Similarly, and on a lighter pedagogical note, such expressive possibilities account for why I’m a defender of attention-grabbing ejaculations from texting culture such as emoticons, emojis, and capslock abbreviations (“HAHA WTF I KNOW”), because they can sometimes communicate more effectively than drawn-out, rational discourse. Of course, we need to speak the same language here, and as Honig claims, lamentation should never be in itself the basis for politics. But it can be a starting point.

So I guess I’m offering a defense of inflammatory online posting in certain situations, with many caveats: know and be sensitive to your audience, be ready to explain in cogent language what the limitations of the argument you’re both exposing and attacking are, and sometimes, it may be best to forgo the link. But also, quick tip…there’s a great privacy function on Facebook that allows you to hide certain individuals from your posts. Sometimes, friends, it’s simply not worth it…