In Deep Water With Audrey and Tressie

As an educator there are plenty of reasons to be on Twitter or to engage on other social media platforms. I’m a PE teacher finishing up a year’s hiatus from the classroom and looking forward to getting back into the routine of working with real children.

That said, my intellectual excursions this year have taken me far beyond my classroom and the practice of teaching. Through extensive and very eclectic reading I’ve ventured into territories that may or may not have to do with education directly. What has happened is that my choices have become more political. In the opinions I seek, the analyses I read, the topics addressed reflect a deliberately more politicized interest. So when I do read about K-12 classroom practice or recent trends in ed-tech for instance, a filter I have added is political perspective – where is the author coming from? What factors may be contributing to this person’s take on the subject? How might this person’s perspective change and influence mine? What I have found is that reading in areas where I feel to some extent “out of my depth” has worked wonders in allowing me to zero in on what my core beliefs and concerns are when it comes to education.

Two authors who regularly challenge me to start treading in the deep end of my beliefs about education are Audrey Watters and Tressie McMillan Cottom. This week they appear to have double teamed on the intersecting topics of technology, education, markets and privacy.
First, Audrey goes to town with this talk given at a panel at the International Society of Technology and Education (ISTE) conference last week: Is It Time To Give Up On Computers in Schools?
Provocative? Yes, quite and by design. Her talk was published on hybridpedagogy.com. She says:

Sure, there are subversive features of the computer; but I think the computer’s features also involve neoliberalism, late stage capitalism, imperialism, libertarianism, and environmental destruction. They now involve high stakes investment by the global 1% — it’s going to be a $60 billion market by 2018, we’re told. Computers involve the systematic de-funding and dismantling of a public school system and a devaluation of human labor. They involve the consolidation of corporate and governmental power. They are designed by white men for white men. They involve scientific management. They involve widespread surveillance and, for many students, a more efficient school-to-prison pipeline —

Further she suggests:

We gaze glassy-eyed at the new features in the latest hardware and software — it’s always about the latest app, and yet we know there’s nothing new there; instead we must stare critically at the belief systems that are embedded in these tools.

It happens often when I read Audrey’s work that I am called to attention in a visceral way. Her tone is not alarmist, yet her message is alarming if you dare to sit with the implications of all that she is saying. She speaks to a much deeper question than “should I use Firefox instead of Chrome?” (Which is where many K-12 tech conversations are happening) Rather, she asserts that our homegrown brands of social and economic inequalities are not only baked into the tools we use but likely reinforce and exacerbate them.

If we want schools to be democratizing, then we need to stop and consider how computers are likely to entrench the very opposite. Unless we stop them.

Then I came across Tressie McMillan Cottom’s remarks prepared for a recently held panel discussion: “New Topics in Social Computing: Data and Education.”
Tressie is a sociologist who, in my mind, has moved mountains in the area of public scholarship. Her high profile Twitter account has helped promote the visibility of accessible scholarly writing happening both within and outside the academy. Delving into the broad area of “Data and Education” she asks the reader to get clear with what we mean by “privacy” in this context:

What if privacy is euphemism for individualism, the politically correct cousin of rational actor theories that drive markets that is fundamentally at odds with even the idea of school as a public good? If that is possible (and, I of course, think it is not only possible but the case at hand), then how can we talk about students’ privacy while preserving the integrity of data to observe and measure inequality? I suppose that is where I am on current debates about privacy and data in K-12: are we talking about everyone’s privacy or are we talking about new ways to mask injustice? Do you get to a Brown v. Board when schools that are also businesses own school data? I suspect not, because the rules governing data are different in markets than they are in public trusts.

To grasp what we are dealing with means that we will have to unpack our firmly held beliefs about what is at stake:

I question the assumptions about privacy that seem to be the only way we currently have to talk about how deeply enmeshed schools are in markets. Can we talk about privacy in a way that is about justice rather than individualism? If we cannot then privacy may be as big a threat to students as data mining because they are two heads of the same beast.

In agreeing with Audrey’s call to rid our schools of computers she remarks:

I would add: give up on computers and get up on politics. Computers can be fine. Computers are politics. Personalized learning may be fine. Personalized learning is politics. Apps are fine. Apps are politics. Tech is politics. Tech is politics. Tech is politics. Unless and until that is the conversation, then tech is most likely a politics at odds with my own.

So there’s that political thing: connecting the things I do, use, and promote to their effect on me, on others, our our collective existence and making decisions about my actions based on the outcomes I say I want. If I say I want a more just world, what am I doing to support and promote that? How does it show in my voting behavior, in my media consumption, in the way I choose to raise and educate my children, in the friends I keep, in the organizations I endorse and those I decry? Those are political questions, just as they can be deeply existential questions. The choices I make as an individual do not happen in a vacuum. They occur and have implications in and for my surroundings and also express views and beliefs that relate to those surroundings. This why reading Audrey Watters and Tressie McMillan Cottom has become so important for me. Both point to intersection after intersection where individual decisions collide or overlap with societal assumptions and outcomes.

It’s dizzying and disorienting to do this kind of reading on a regular basis. Feeling “out of my depth” comes at a price. I finally understand that smh is shorthand for ‘shaking my head’, but often I am too bewildered to do even that. Being confronted with how much I don’t know is not nearly as trying and uncomfortable as recognizing how little thought I have given to some very central facets of my daily existence. Tressie and Audrey take me there and what I choose to do with these fresh insights is entirely up to me. I feel like I may be getting a little wiser, gaining a bit more nuance in my political views, stretching my critical thinking muscles a little further.

Tressie’s concluding sentences trigger a peculiar response in me: I think about weightlifting:

 I believe education is a human right when education is broadly defined as the right to know and be. Period. I believe schooling can still do education but it cannot do it and be a market. Information symmetry is at odds with most market relationships and schools have to be about information symmetrically produced, accessed and imagined. Schools can be valuable to markets without becoming them. I believe there is such a thing as a social category that subsumes markets to societies. I believe those are political choices and only effected by social action.

“Schools can be valuable to markets without becoming them.” That feels to me as though a weight has been lifted – off of my shoulders, somehow. There’s that blessed moment of recognition: “yeah, that’s what I wanted to say.” So there’s some comfort.

At the same time, “schooling can still do education but it cannot do it and be a market” which is where so much neoliberal rhetoric and policy is leading us: to education systems as markets -There’s the weight bearing down on me, on us; the likelihood of freeing ourselves shrinking before our eyes. Unless of course we wake up and see that we in fact have choices. We can lift the weight. We needn’t simply succumb to it because it’s heavy and makes us incredibly drowsy.

Audrey and Tressie are here to wake us up. And K-12 educators, this is a conversation we need to be in on. Not only listening but dialoguing. This is how we build critical thinking into our curricula and lesson plans: we do it ourselves. Regularly. We wade into the deep waters and have our beliefs challenged. Readings like these provide necessary starting points.

Welcome, THICK!

Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom has a new book out and I’m beyond excited to have it in my hands very soon. In THICK she offers us a collection of essays which connect the personal with the political, the theoretical with oh-my-God-that-really-happened real. I can tell you this because while I wait for my own precious copy I am reading as many tweets, excerpts, and early reviews as I can to get ready.

More than a fan of Tressie McMillan Cottom, I am a deep admirer of her writing, her wit, her generosity and leadership. If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll know that I reference her work often. I consider her one of my primary digital mentors who has in ways large and small helped me arrive at a form of digital presence that is meaningful, critical and increasingly bold. Her capacity to apply theoretical frameworks to illuminate the scope and scale of tragedy and treachery of modern American life, particularly for Black women, has given me pause on too many occasions to name. She is a scholar I would stay up all hours to catch an hour’s or even just a few minutes’ worth of her wisdom live.

Knowing that in this new collection of essays she tells us more about herself than ever before, I am eager and also wary of a voyeuristic impulse that occurs in any of us, I suppose, when we have a chance to gain greater access to the people we most admire. I’ve never met Tressie in person. That’s on my bucket list. But I have had the opportunity to be in conversation with her and to benefit from her generosity. Just 3 years ago, she was instrumental in helping me put my publication, Identity, Education and Power on the map by writing a wonderful opening essay.

One of the things that excites me most about Tressie’s new book is seeing how excited she seems to be about having it out in the world. I am happy that she has given us more of her delicious writing and overjoyed that she appears to be more than pleased with the outcome. She has done so much for Black women, so much for me; my greatest wish is for Tressie to be able to truly enjoy and celebrate the fruits of her labor.

Welcome THICK into the world: order it, buy it, read it, share it.

2018 on edifiedlistener, selected blog posts

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January 2018

I published a book of poems. In German.

February 2018

I visited Cairo and got to spend time with Maha Bali and Paul Prinsloo. I discovered

The care is real,
The warmth is genuine,
The trust is grounded,
The love is what we thought it could be.
Yes.
Yes, it is.

March 2018

I gave a speech at the Vienna #MarchForOurLives demonstration against gun violence featuring thoughts shared by public school students from across the US.

Also, inspired by Tressie McMillan Cottom’s thinking, I reached this conclusion:

Democracy, and what we think we mean by that term, is in danger. And Facebook (along with other platforms) – its fundamental architecture, business model and incentive structure – packs enough of a corrosive effect for its users, unwittingly or not, to dissolve citizens’ trust in democratic institutions or even the desire or need to maintain such political practices.

April 2018

I attended the Education Collaborative of International Schools Physical Education (ECISPE) Conference in Dusseldorf, Germany and returned with many thoughts about professional learning and conference structures.

We are physical educators working to improve our teaching practice by practicing teaching, learning, demonstrating, discussing, and observing. This conference is professionals’ development – the kind we create for ourselves, the kind that sustains us for the long haul, the kind that invites us to question and re-evalute our practices, the kind that makes us leave loving our work, the kind that makes us come back for more year after year, if we can.

May 2018

I used liberation in a blog post for the first time in response to an especially impactful talk by Dr. Danny Martin at a meeting of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Perhaps what I found so refreshing about Dr. Martin’s address was his insistence on centering Black children and their flourishing in his research and practice. His advocacy is fierce, unapologetic and precise. And his bravery in articulating a way forward that does not aim to first assuage white sensibilities came as a little shock to my system but then as a useful corrective to my previous understandings.

June 2018

A thread by Valeria Brown gave me pause. Our Work Is Everywhere We Look is a meditation on Black identity in relationship to whiteness. And my Uncle Thad commented which means a lot.

July 2018

I wrote about how I do fitness now in middle age and I think this post has more likes than any other. Go figure!

And Tricia Ebarvia had me thinking deeply about identity and reading.

August 2018

The Director of my school described it as a PWI (predominantly white institution) at our opening all staff meeting and I nearly fell off my chair.

September 2018

My youngest son is a ski jumper and I wrote about being a spectator-parent.

October 2018

What I Will Fret Over 2018 – new worries layered on top of the usual.

…this morning I have fear and some faith. I have community and back up. I know which side of history I am on. Today I will fret. I will also fight.

November 2018

I had a lot going on. I attended a conference and actively followed another conference on Twitter enough to write about it. And I read some poetry which moved and challenged me. Laura Da’ s Instruments Of The True Measure left an impression I was eager to share.

I hesitate to tell you what I believe I read because I fear I could be wrong. But there are moments where we see with our own eyes the greedy claims of Manifest Destiny.

From “Greenwood Smoke”

To the south, a surveyor

crosses the river

once called simply

after the shape of its bend,

soon to be baptized anew

with an Irish assessor’s surname.  (p.36)

December 2018

I read a book almost in one sitting so I wrote a letter to the author.

 

Thank you for reading my words and thinking alongside me this year. I’m glad you could make it. Let’s see what 2019 holds. More words are nearly a given.

 

 

 

I’ve Been Thinking

I’ve been thinking about growth and learning and the value of reading widely and I’m on vacation this week so I’m not completely exhausted by the process.

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I’ve been thinking about arrivals – how we get to places, how we navigate routes, select paths, decide which destination comes first. Learning involves movement in one form or another, right? Whether a shift, an expansion, a step, climb or drop – as educators we are on the lookout for signs of movement – evidence of a change in location, appearance, behavior in something, anything that will tell us she moved, he changed, they got it.

I ran across a pertinent thread on Twitter, thanks to my no-fail network. A college-level instructor of composition reminds us and herself that her one semester course will not suddenly transform students into adept, critical academic research writers. @k8simply writes:

…critical literacy happens/should happen over time, in non-writing classes or writing-intensive classes in other subjects

writing isn’t something that you just learn and check that box and hey, look, you’re done as a writer

the skill of even just academic writing (excluding other types for now) unfolds as the writer learns, grows, and is challenged in life

I appreciate the point she makes about how learning unfolds. It’s a process for which ‘one and done’ can never be an adequate metaphor. This is as true for writing as it is for any type of skill or capability we will likely practice throughout our lives.

We become adults and perhaps know some things about writing, reading and the way the world works but we are so very unfinished. So much development takes place during the years we consider ourselves “grown” and this fact seems widely ignored in the popular discourse. We can find tons of books on childhood and adolescent development, yet it is rare to find comparable literature on the features of adult development – physical, mental, emotional. (If you have some good resources in this area, please help me out!) Adulthood seems to happen to us as we take on various responsibilities in our families, institutions and communities. We get busy and busy is at least something that everybody seems to understand.

So when I consider some of my own arrivals, particularly into online spaces, into communities of interest and practice, I like to step back and consider how it came to pass.

 

“And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”

This means thinking more about my own travels as a reader. I’ve covered quite a bit of ground over the last few years and part of that experience has involved reading up, challenging myself not simply to read but to work with the text, to make more of it, to ‘write back’ as I have described elsewhere. I’ve become a more ambitious reader which in turn has allowed me to become a braver writer.

I wish there were an easy way for me to map the connections here. I thought of trying to create a nifty infographic, a sort of reading map to illustrate how connections have emerged.

Let me try to write a story.

Once upon a time there was a eager non-fiction reader new to the Twitterverse. She was keen to dig into education circles and started a blog called edifiedlistener. Although Twitter was overwhelming at first, through following a few big names in edutwitter she soon discovered folks who were writing about more than lesson planning and classroom management.

She came across ed tech critic Audrey Watters. Initially she had a hard time following the thread. It took a number of false starts before she landed on one post that changed everything.

On Twitter she noticed that Audrey was friends with Tressie McMillan Cottom and that they both often had spicy words for current intellectual events. The eager reader was enthralled with the way these women handled detractors and maintained a humor that was at once fierce and well,

Quickly, she encountered other folks who were equally critical and also as witty. Over time they became like her personal crew of tech and society critics: Chris Gilliard, Paul Prinsloo, Bill Fitzgerald, Kris Schaffer, Mike Caulfield. They kept her up to date on all manner of platform shenanigans aimed at eroding privacy and increasing surveillance.

In fact, it was Bill who recommended ‘Black Box Society’ by Frank Pasquale to edifiedlistener – a fascinating book about the implications of opaque algorithms in our day to day dealings; a reading adventure which sparked two separate blog posts.

Meanwhile, another group of educator-writers appeared on this reader’s radar. Maha Bali and Kate Bowles were two writers in particular who spoke of the professional and personal in compelling and authentic ways, role modeling what was possible for an edu-writer looking to mix and match themes and topics in new ways. Maha and Kate also introduced edifiedlistener to the richness of the hybrid pedagogy network and before long, posts by Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris became staples in her digital reading diet…

There’s no end to this story but I’m tired of speaking in the 3rd person. You get the gist.

So it goes. I am always discovering and engaging with more voices, different perspectives but the people in my story have felt like guides and yes, teachers. Beyond reading their articles and links, I have been studying them – paying attention to their cues, engaging them in dialogue, commenting on their contributions. With their support I have learned to identify and carve out my own writing path.

I still want to think about other ways to do this: How to share a reading resume or an intellectual timeline. In the meantime, I keep moving, reading, developing and occasionally, I arrive.

 

 

Words Worth Reading

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image via Gratisography

For days I was eager to get back to my laptop to finally be able to write again. Really write. And here I am with a little time and peace and I feel empty rather than full. At the same time I do have a need and desire to share a few helpful/useful/peace-bringing reads which have made this challenging political moment a little less dim, a bit more manageable.

Tressie has become a trusted source of wisdom, clarity and wit. In this post-election essay, she explains how so many “professionally smart people” completely misread the signs and signals that the Republican candidate could win. Understanding how she arrives at hopelessness as a point of departure requires more of the reader than surface comprehension, it demands empathy.

My hopelessness is faith in things yet seen and works yet done. Hopelessness is necessary for the hard work of resisting tyranny and fascism. It is the precondition for sustained social movements because history isn’t a straight line. It is a spinning top that eventually moves forward but also always goes round and round as it does.

I love this conversation because it’s probably the only way I can “be in the same room with” these people I so deeply admire.

I described this essay on place and identity as a “gentle and exquisite read”.

“We live in a world where love of land, love of place, love of home, means very little. We might value it in literature, but if a place must be sacrificed for a higher use, meaning a use that generates money, then love will not save it. That doesn’t make the love any less real.”

This article is the most uplifting yet practical piece I’ve read since the election. Taking care of ourselves and our loved ones while resisting political bankruptcy is a tall order for long stretch. The article shares how to do both.

Our first task, then, is to get ready to resist in ways small and quiet, and large and loud…

Much of the progress in the coming years will happen locally—in cities and neighborhoods, and sometimes statewide. Cities are locally accountable and far less gridlocked by partisanship, and they have some latitude to get things done, even with a hostile federal government. City leaders understand the need for living wages, they value their immigrant populations, and they see firsthand the impacts of climate change. Change is still possible in our communities.

This collection of White House photos of the first family are, well, a little bit of comfort in stormy times.

By the way, The New Yorker has had some outstanding cartoons out these last few weeks. go treat yourself to some well crafted humor.

Be well, everyone. We have work to do and we have each other.

 

 

What is an institution?

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These last few days I’ve been following the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute going on at Mary Washington University in Virginia. I tuned in first for  Tressie McMillan Cottom’s keynote on Monday and enjoyed a “hallway conversation” via Virtual Connecting with Tressie, Sean Michael Morris and Cathy Davidson and about 7 other virtual guests via Google Hangout. Since I’m following from my laptop in the living room surrounded by my very personal, yet significant clutter, I’ve been feeling pretty comfy, laid back, fully at ease.

In between sessions my mind has been very active, particularly at night. After Tressie’s talk I woke up thinking about institutions and money. There was one sentence near the end which kinda grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. It came up while she was describing the actual mission of her department’s launch of a new degree program in Digital Sociology. She asked:

“How do I develop a space for critical learning while also giving my students the benefit of an institution?

That’s what I’m trying to do.

Institutions actually do still matter. They are one of the ways that we accrue resources.” (emphasis mine)

She explained that for marginalized folks who do not have equal access to resources, institutions are a pretty good place to be. This made sense to me and mirrored much of my experience both as a student and teacher. I have benefited from the prestige, stability and opportunities of the schools I attended as well as at the schools where I have worked. This thinking also lines up with my parents’ strong belief in and commitment to a variety of institutions including our church, all the schools my siblings and I attended, and other civic and religious organization in which my mother in particular was very active.

Institutions and resources, sure. Pooled resources, shared commitment attached to tangible things: buildings, events, property, furniture…

But something was still itching. I began thinking about now. About the culture we have now. Our very digital culture which is stored increasingly in a so-called “cloud,” the companies we create are no longer “built to last” in the sense that Jim Collins writes about it. Rather, companies are called, “start-ups” as if that’s all they will ever need to do – to get started (and wait to be bought). While we are told that everything is open for “disruption” increasingly we need to ask ourselves if this is indeed what we want. So when we talk about institutions – of learning, of social value, of prominence, of tradition, it’s easy to create the mental picture of the special building, the rooms inside it, the purposeful people who inhabit such spaces. We can even imagine the habits, rules, norms by which the institution may operate based on our experiences of various forms. We do not lack notions of what an institution is or can be.

Yet linking institutions to accruing resources reminds me of how institutions are often created with very specific hierarchies in mind. An order is specified and forms the basis for how the institution will be run. Of course, then, an institution’s original resource is power. Power to make the rules, set the tone, define the group, determine a focus. That seems important to understand. Especially as we speak of disrupting institutions of various forms, let us keep in mind for whom “disruption” is likely to produce wins and for whom it may well manifest the opposite. I find no reason to believe that the power supposedly unleashed in the act of “disrupting” the institution will be evenly or equitably distributed.  On the contrary, it seems far more probable that the power may grow or shrink and likely remain consolidated in the hands of the few.

Over a year ago I published a post entitled, “How Much Higher, Education?” in which I wondered aloud about the sustainability of higher education (particularly in the US)  in its current set up of exploding financial costs to students minus the guarantee of improved standard of living in the short, medium or long range. In that essay, I expressed this wish:

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Then that warning wisdom arrives: “Watch what you wish for because you might receive.”

Do I wish for my children and grandchildren to create institutions? Do I aim to create institutions? Let’s say this. As I participate – as a parent, alumna, employee, donor, board member – I am part of the process of sustaining and shaping the institutions to which I belong and in which I have been a member. The degree to which I exercise my influence in different contexts involves choice and self-awareness. Only when I recognize my role and acknowledge my power, can I actively decide to become a force for change or to preserve the status quo.

So when I clumsily asked Jesse Stommel, founder of Hybrid Pedagogy, during a differnt “hallway conversation” at the lab about Hybrid Pedagogy and its status as, or part of an institution, I think what I really wanted to ask and understand and explore was:

What is an institution?

How do we understand it? What do we mean by that term? Are you and I talking about the same thing? What happens when we add “digital” as a descriptor? What is different about digital institutions if they, in fact, exist?

My wish for my children and their children is perhaps not so much that they go on to create a lasting thing or things – rather I wish them ample resources in the form of opportunity, fortitude, empathy, and purpose to grow their dreams into realities they can enjoy and take pride in. And the question of what an institution is, isn’t, should or shouldn’t be can stay on the table for all of us to contemplate and respond to.

 

image via Pixabay.com CC0

Mentor, vb. trans.

I recently shared a list of role models and mentors on Twitter.

This is all very nice and may seem like the kind of mention praise that shows up a lot in my feed. But I want to make some things perfectly clear:

The names I have named have each made significant contributions to my learning and growth out here in the digital universe. Here’s how:

  • Rafranz Davis (@RafranzDavis) actively welcomed me to edu-twitter 3 years ago. When I was lurking and wondering and gradually daring to toss in my 2 cents, Rafranz offered encouragement through retweets and prompt responses. She showed me that Twitter was more than a cacophony of disassociated voices. She read my blog posts and introduced my voice to her wider network, with kind and affirming statements. As I have watched Rafranz continue to expand her platform and receive greater recognition of her critical work in ed-tech, I have felt inspired and emboldened to pursue  projects which speak to me and my particular strengths. Rafranz is someone I gladly seek out for feedback and whose judgment I deeply trust. She was my first online mentor.

 

  • Sarah Thomas (@sarahdateechur) has to be among the most upbeat connected educators I know. She is passionate about offering her students possibilities and sharing those possibilities far beyond her classroom with colleagues across the globe. Like Rafranz, Sarah welcomed me aboard the Twitter train with all kinds of encouragement and good dialogue. It was through Sarah that I got to know some of my long time banter-buddies, people with whom I felt comfortable tagging (once I understood how that worked) in certain tweets and starting a conversation. And Sarah, through her early app of intro videos on how to use various tech tools, gave me this feeling that I could learn how to do just about anything – the key was in learning to just ask someone for help. These days, Sarah has a following that stretches into the tens of thousands and she still responds to tweets in no time! She’s working on her doctorate and seems to be at an EdCamp every weekend and I don’t know how she manages all the stuff she does but her level of care and personal engagement is consistent and incredible at the same time.

 

  • Rusul Alrubail (@RusulAlrubail) has shown me how to tap into my own fire. In a recent interview, Rusul revealed that she has only been on Twitter for a couple of years. But what a presence she has! From Edutopia to #Educolor to the EdSpeakers Co-op, Rusul writes, tweets, facilitates, edits; leads, collaborates, and develops.  But what makes Rusul a mentor for me is her consistent willingness to boost the work of others and her striking availability to help and support. When I was wondering how to set up my publication on Medium, Rusul provided really wise advice about options to consider and feedback on getting started. On a more personal level, Rusul’s writing on racism in the last year has been fierce and unapologetic and has moved me deeply on more than one occasion. Rusul makes me want to be braver.

 

  • If it weren’t for Rusul I might not have met Maha Bali (@Bali_Maha) who quickly welcomed me into the digital humanities community by way of Hybrid Pedagogy (@HybridPed). One of the first posts I read of hers spoke of applying love (!) in the peer review processes of academic publications. I was struck by her sincerity matched with a spot-on process savvy that gave her arguments both heft and warmth. Through our exchanges I have come to appreciate Maha’s critical eye, her intense commitment to inclusion and her unassailable humor. Last November, Maha invited me to be a guest contributor during Digital Writing Month. That experience – of being invited, of having my essay selected to open the festivities, of being welcomed into the wildly diverse community of writers, readers, speakers, and musicians – changed me. It opened me up simultaneously to the possibilities ‘out there’ as much as those within. That’s mentoring.

 

  • Audrey Watters  (@AudreyWatters) has been a remarkable role model for me from early on. I remember that it took me a while to read her posts on ed-tech and really understand what she was talking about. Because her writing is always about more than tools and their marketing claims, a reader needs to be prepared to look deeper when Audrey writes. She’s here to challenge assumptions, to question not only the tools but what they represent, whom they serve and privilege, and how that instructs us about the society producing said tools. I have written before about a sort of conversion experience I had as a result of one of Audrey’s posts. The mentoring comes in after that. Audrey was open to dialogue and when I announced my plans to launch “Identity, Education and Power” she was among the first to sign on with a brilliant reflection about Twitter’s toying with the algorithmic feed and what that tells us about Silicon Valley’s intentions for further influencing our minute to minute behaviors. Audrey is a big fish in my internet pond and I know that her essay put IEP on the map. Mentoring means opening doors when and where you can. Audrey did that for me and continues to do and be so much more.

 

  • And of course, this list would not be complete without Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd). I discovered Tressie’s loaded tweets often in response to Audrey’s. It was clear that they were friends and shared a command of Twitter sass and snark that was powerfully on point and in certain cases, merciless. I was fascinated by this of course. Then I began reading Tressie’s blog posts which place the realities she describes in social science context without overwhelming the reader with academic jargon. I was smitten. In my own way, I became a sort of academic fangirl. While I have no designs on completing a PhD, to be able to write with a confident expertise as Tressie does strikes me as a worthy aspiration, even at this age. (Perhaps precisely at this age.) Over time, I began to comment on her blog posts and do my own analyses here on this blog. And she noticed me, replied, said thanks, and we developed a firmer connection via Twitter. In the conceptualization phase of “Identity, Education and Power” I knew, was convinced that Tressie was point guard in my dream team starting line-up. And she delivered, offering the inaugural guest post. With that opening, Tressie lent the publication an immediate credibility and legitimacy. Again, real mentoring: providing the specific thing to help a dream get off the ground.

 

It seemed to take a while to get this post written. But it is important. For those of us who engage deliberately and widely, I find it helpful to step back and recognize how we arrived at this position or another. Who helped us? Who listened? Who sponsored us? And in turn, how have we contributed to others’ growth? What steps have we taken to mentor others? The other piece here lies in distinguishing distant admiration from the real life, hands-on support through relationship and action that defines mentoring. I feel remarkably privileged to have made these important connections and see them grow into friendships.

Who are your mentors and how have they helped you get closer to your goals?

Incongruity Theory and #RaceTogether

I’ll admit: The Starbucks #RaceTogether campaign has my attention. I’ll fault Twitter which is, of course, where I caught wind of it and began noting the numerous witty retorts appearing in my feed. Above all, I was amused. Then curious, then amused, and now back to curious.

The amusement came mainly through the #NewStarbucksDrinks group of tweets which were ingenious, clever, and in some cases, piercing. Here are a few of my favorites:

You get the idea. Lot of wit out there. Lot of wit and humor in the face of exasperation at what appears to be going on. Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz thinks it would be a good idea for the company’s “partners” or baristas to offer patrons a little race conversation outreach along with their beverage by writing “Race Together”on the cup. The concept, which appears to be full of good intentions (and simultaneously swimming in cultural and societal obliviousness), misses the mark in many ways.  Read this post by Tressie McMillan Cottom which lays out the prickly nature of this initiative in remarkable clarity and also with a modest dose of snark.

I can’t offer that kind of analysis but I can appreciate and share it. What grabs me about this topic is seeing it from its origins: in white corporate America. I watched the 6 minute video where Schultz explains the thinking and in-house community forums on race that were held in the previous 6 months.

Overflowing with good intentions. And seen as a white-to-white communication venture, it might work. There are plenty of white people who may want to engage and participate in this kind of activity and perhaps shed some guilt in the process. But the assumption on which #RaceTogether actually rests is that we all (POC included) have an equal need for the same conversation and nothing could be further from the truth.

For corporate America this initiative is novel. It’s eye-catching and bold. For the rest of us, particularly people of color, it just looks stupid and clueless. And so it becomes a source of mockery and derision because we see an outrageous incongruity. In explaining where comedy gets its fuel Kathryn Schulz says this:

As its name suggests, incongruity theory posits that comedy arises from a mismatch – specifically, a mismatch between expectation and actuality. According to this theory, funny situations begin with an attachment to a belief, whether that attachment is conscious or unconscious, fleeting or deep, sincerely held or deliberately planted by a comedian or prankster. That belief is then violated, producing surprise, confusion, and a replacement belief – and also producing, along the way, enjoyment and laughter. In other words, the structure of humor is – give or take a little pleasure – the structure of error.

Being Wrong, Portobello 2010, p. 323

That seems to be what has happened here. There’s the corporate belief: “we really need to have this conversation about race. Let’s get our partners to do the talking.” And there’s the wider response, especially on social media, which says, “LOL, are you serious? you have no clue, no preparation. Just keep your “conversation”and give me my latte.”  Incongruity and the resulting sense of “surprise, confusion”-  this can happen to white people in these situations who fail to grasp or anticipate that fundamental incongruity of belief and experience when we, people of color and whites, venture to just talk about race (not to mention racism).

One other problem I have with this is the commercial piece. The initiative is a PR-thing designed to sell beverages and newspapers (USA Today is a partner in this massive effort). How clever of some people to seize this opportunity to build on the buzz and profit from the dramatic events that have pushed this agenda to the fore. Part of me resents the idea of having a corporately branded/sponsored conversation about a topic of significant importance to me. Even if more information regarding racial disparities in the US is disseminated, circulated, proclaimed from every major media outlet, it will not suddenly elicit changes in behaviors, attitudes, environments, policies and structures which perpetuate them. Again, if you are operating from a place of more or less unchallenged privilege, then talking more about race while drinking a nicely flavored warm beverage will probably sound like a good idea. A great idea.  A noble and also cool idea. Corporate America lives consistently in this space, so sure “Race Together” sounds harmony-inspiring and paradigm-busting, it must be a ‘win-win’ proposition. Who wouldn’t want to “Race Together” with their favorite barista?

If nothing else, the Starbucks example offers us a unique “comedy of errors” from which let’s hope the originators are learning. We have the #NewStarbucksDrinks hashtag to provide us comic relief throughout and an avenue to once again showcase some of the sharpest minds in the country. I am choosing to celebrate the ingenuity I have seen arise from this fraught scenario and for the time being I’ll enjoy my tea at home.