I am a passionate listener to voices from many sources. Ideally, every conversation is a learning one and attentive listening makes that possible. This blog is the chance of a lifetime to share the fruits of so many edifiying listening experiences with friends who have appetites for inquiry and dialogue.
On being a Black woman educator/facilitator during an antiracism workshop boom
If I’m facilitating a group, my goal is for participants to do the work.
If my goal is to get people to interact in equitable ways, I need to provide structures that ensure the group’s success.
My facilitation tone is deliberately encouraging and invitational.
Listening as a central practice is ALWAYS on the agenda.
I see it as my duty to educate by introducing participants to potentially new voices – scholars, artists, new media.
This keeps my own practice fresh and my curiosity piqued.
When breakout groups are assigned I stay outside and welcome reflection after the fact.
I trust participants to do what they need to do.
That may or may not correspond with the given instructions and I still trust the people and the process.
It is not always a comfortable thing as facilitator to get out of learner’s way but I believe it’s necessary.
Every participant’s outcome is their own. I cannot predict or demand exactly what that outcome will be and what weight it will carry outside the learning space.
Every facilitation event presents a beautiful challenge: leading participants to see, appreciate and embrace whatever work emerges before them as a result of our time together.
I’ve been thinking almost non-stop about facilitation since March. In fact, since Mid-July I have led a 5-day online course, 5 virtual workshops, 1 live workshop, and given 1 keynote talk. My google drive is full of slide decks of varying lengths, reflecting a range of topical objectives. But it’s still me. I’m the same person fumbling with the screen share button, responding to questions in the chat, hanging out while participants delve into breakout room conversations. I still go to work every day walking my kids through the building, out to the field, then back up to the playground.
In my dream world of facilitation, I spend more time in the background than in the spotlight. In most cases I end up doing more talking than I intended and it’s usually in the service of providing adequate context for the steps I’m asking participants to take on their own. I also consider my own energy household – how much do I have to give? With that in mind, I remind myself that I am not the miracle worker, nor does anyone expect that of me. I am not alone in this effort. On the contrary, the participants are there to make their own miracles. I provide processes and touch points as vehicles to those ends. I do not have the answers and I’m deeply interested in responses. Every time I engage with a group these thoughts are on my mind.
As I have recently been called to facilitate specifically in and around the umbrella of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), my mantra has become: I am not the race whisperer. Grounds enough for a poem:
I Am Not The Race Whisperer
Didn’t know I’d be here.
holding forth, expounding on the state
we find ourselves in.
I am not the race whisperer I tell them.
I am not.
Not a diversity practitioner or equity consultant.
To facilitate – to make an action or process easier.
In some ways this feels, has long felt like my calling. The thing I am meant to do.
My teaching is a case study in active facilitation. I set the stage for practice. Offer a few instructions and a brief demonstration and the remaining time-space is for doing the thing. Over and over again.
Make it easier. I make it easier to try. To give it a go. Perhaps to keep at it for a bit.
I facilitate groups. Of adults. I set the stage for practice. Participant interactions with each other are usually at the core of my workshops. They should do more talking than me. Everyone should practice lots of listening. I create the conditions for fruitful conversation and exchange to take place. Then I get out of the way.
Getting out of the way is a habit. Especially when working with adults, it feels important to leave them space to engage each other without an audience. Their conversations are their own. When we come together as a whole group we typically reflect on the process, not the content. In some ways I want to stimulate an internal process for each individual. The conversations with others animate and stretch our own thinking.
I get out of the way and participants don’t owe me their enlightenment.
I will continue to wonder if and when I have taken myself too far out of the way. My faith is tested here and will continue to be.
I facilitate. I want to make it easier for each of us to try, to listen, to bear witness, to reflect, to take action. I practice getting out of the way.
I want to clap, say Amen and ‘Truer words were rarely spoken”
He produces a laundry list of reasons why America, home of the brave, is marching resolutely in unwitting pursuit of its own demise. Like ants in a circular death march. The comparison is apt and painful.
In a country that seems to prefer off/on switches rather than dimmers or dials for EVERYTHING including thought patterns, it makes sense that
“Showiness is often mistaken for effectiveness.”
“Fixing systemic problems is more difficult than spewing moralism, …”
“…we started working our way through a serial monogamy of solutions, and, like spiraling army ants, marched forward with no sense of the future beyond the next few footsteps.”
That feels truthful. full of truth.
From where I sit and where I stand
I can know what it means to live in a country where the virus is managed, where health care is part of the package, where a pandemic federal response exists and can take effect. It’s not perfect but at least we know what works. And those are the things that get done.
Meanwhile, I read.
This time about feminism. Not in the abstract, not in the upper echelons of corporate management, no, feminism that is much closer to home, the kind I grew up around, the kind my mother and grandmother and aunts raised me in: Hood Feminism. A survival and every-day feminism of poor folks, working folks, queer and trans folks, Black, brown and Indigenous folks. I was familiar with academic feminism, with ‘we need more women CEOs’ feminism which felt like yeah-I-get-it-but-that’s-not-me feminism.
Reading Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism feels like a homecoming. She takes on everything from gun violence to housing to health care to eating disorders and explains how white feminism has managed to sidestep or purposefully limit the scope of concern about topics that affect a much higher proportion of women in the US and the world.
Over and over again, Mikki Kendall illustrates all the reasons mainstream (read white and middle class) feminism has failed women who do not fit that demographic, particularly women of color and poor women.
“…you can’t “lean in” when you can’t earn a legal living wage and you still need to feed yourself and those who depend on you.” (p. 36)
“Why is it that we’re more inclined to create programs to combat obesity than ones that meaningfully address hunger?” (p. 37)
“We expect marginalized voices to ring out no matter what obstacles they face, and then we penalize them for not saying the right thing in the right way.” (p.134)
“…the reality is that white, mainstream feminism has to confront the idea that the power to do harm rests in women too.” (p. 165)
“The fact is that harm-reducing votes of marginalized people will never be enough to outweigh the stupidity of white people who vote for racism at their own expense.” (p. 183)
So much truth!
I call it a felt truth. An undercurrent truth, the kind that runs through arteries – makes a heart keep beating. Experience truth.
Black girl woman experience truth. American truth. Slippery truth. Threatened-to-be-ignored-dismissed-overlooked Black girl woman American truth.
When Ed Yong is describing the American hankering for normalcy, the insistence on either/or framing, a media and public resistance to embracing necessary complexity, I hear reality speaking. I recognize the commanding voice of grade school film strips and pledge-of-allegiance-first holiday ceremonies. I know that America he’s talking about. I am a product.
Like most folks I want to believe that I will know truth when I see it.
For now I’d rather be honest.
Quantities of truth have not saved us so far. There’s more truth than we know what to do with. We’re not acting on the truths of climate destruction (we can really dispense with “change” by now). We’re not acting on the truth that rampant inequality is a societal design feature not a bug. So many truths!
Qualitative truth? Is that a thing? Should it be?
Truth with a quality that causes us to bend, to stretch, to reach, to remember.
These truths, the ones I feel and have felt, that have kept and keep me alive. I’m holding onto those and finding mirrors where I can.
Throughout the school year I want students to practice a variety of locomotor movements. From the very beginning in Pre-K we learn to differentiate between a skip and a gallop, between jogging and running, between a jump (two feet) and a hop (one foot). Whether we’re doing a freeze dance, stop and go, or follow the leader, we practice these movements and learn the vocabulary. They show up in just about every lesson. Repetition works.
Outside of my classroom I have other interests. I like to think about education more widely, about inequality and how it shows up in our schools, our policies, our curricula, our educator mindsets. To those ends, I read a lot. A recent blog post by a friend who works in university administration in Canada got me thinking. She wrote specifically about an ethics gap in the way universities procure and deploy educational technologies. While there is a tremendous openness to inviting technological solutions into colleges and universities as forms of innovation, she argues that not nearly enough attention is paid to the real and potential tradeoffs that may work to the disadvantage or even harm of students, staff or the institution. She writes:
It is therefore paradoxical that we have often given more ethical consideration to how we procure teabags than we have technology in institutions. In much the same way as we have considered issues like Fairtrade, living wage and modern slavery when selecting other goods and services within institutions, we need to look at aligning the procurement of educational technologies with ethical practices and principles. One aspect of that alignment must be a consideration of the ways in which companies conduct themselves, and the extent to which that is compatible with our beliefs and values.
What struck me about this remarkably concise post was the illustration of the ways in which ed tech companies have rushed into a gap in educational structures at every level. While the bounty of services and capabilities available to students and teachers remains impressive, they are not without costs. Concerns about privacy, surveillance, the overwhelming profit motives among others are regularly voiced by scholars and users.
Going back to my classroom example, part of my job involves establishing clear pictures and physical associations between words and action. Running looks and feels a certain way; walking is something very different from running. What would happen if I offered my students new words? What if I asked them to rush? Or race? Or parade? Or stumble? I suspect that many of them would create a corresponding movement. They are familiar with rushing and being rushed. To race they would know that comparison with another student is called for. My students are creative, lively beings. I have no doubt that they could easily show me what it would mean to parade or stumble around the gym.
I wonder if our vocabulary around ed tech tools and associated actions are narrowing rather than expanding. In our haste to respond to (constant) urgency, we leave out critical steps like carefully understanding terms and conditions agreements before insisting that students and families sign on to personally invasive tech tools. We hire one service to address one problem which then creates a host of other problems with its implementation (think exam proctoring software).
Beyond asking what the tool does, we need to ask ‘what does it demand in return?’ We need to be clear about who is profiting and precisely how that profit will be generated; through whose data? As institutions, we need to be concerned with how are students will be protected when we require their use of a particular tool. And we better make space for student questions and objections regarding their use of a mandated tech service. Why are we rushing to adopt this tool? How is this service being paraded in front of parents before teachers have had time to feel confident in its use? How can policy makers be dragging their feet on funding the necessary hardware while touting plans for universal remote learning?
Over the last five or six years, I have found out so much about my teaching by reading about topics that are not in my wheelhouse. After reading Anne-Marie’s post, I’m thinking about expanding my own thinking about locomotor movements, about broadening the vocabulary and lending more creative license to our routine activities. Which, in the grand scheme, is what I want education to be about: broadening, expanding, widening, welcoming.
Reading is so often about searching, whether we realize it or not. An excitement, a secret revealed, a worry, a fulfillment – we don’t always know what it is we’ll get, but when it comes, we know it and recognize it as ours. This is for me. We feel seen, realize we’re not the only ones. Sometimes it’s a comfort. But horror is also a possibility, I suppose.
To read is to be on the lookout. To have your eyes peeled. Reading lets us pretend that we’re ready. At least that. The truth of our inner state is not the point. Words on page after page that mysteriously hold us – in suspense, in awe, in shock. Reading is a magic trick we keep learning and relearning. The same trick that keeps changing and changing every time we perform it. I do it but I don’t always understand exactly how.
To write feels less like a trick, more like a bodily function, sometimes voluntary but not always.
I regret that this format is so boxy. My blog posts show you boxes of thought (paragraphs), neatly stacked which is a very poor and inaccurate semblance of what I would rather express. What I would rather show you today is the chaos of my thinking, the conundrum of too many threads which resist being woven alongside each other.
The platform itself wants to steer me towards greater boxiness with its “block editor” which I continue to reject as long as I can. I want less standardization, not more. And yet, I keep writing here, where whatever I type begins Black against white but once published, lands Black against cornflower blue – a design choice of questionable merit. The typeface is always Black like me, though.
I will now plunge this post into the chaos I intended.
Never have I felt a need for a king. But now that the greatest of fictions has left us, I mourn. Wakanda forever.
Identity has become my latest soapbox, the one folks ask me to speak from of late. I have mixed feelings about this.
Sometimes I feel a little guilty about how well our school reopening is going so far.
In a conversation about the link between acknowledging the multiple aspects of one’s own identity and seeing the need for anti-racist action, for a brief shining moment it felt like I had an answer that made sense.
I hope that folks do not make me out to be wiser than I am. I try to remind myself that I am more parts ignorance than knowledge. I keep reading. I listen.
Reading can be such a delightfully private affair, especially offline. No one is tracking my tastes, habits or timing while I read a bound book. I wonder how relevant this will be in the long run.
I am grateful for a lifestyle which affords an incredible access to the printed word in myriad formats. This is my parents’ most enduring legacy. They raised me a reader.
Here’s what I’m reading right now: Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, In The Country We Love by Diane Guerrero, Überseezungen by Yoko Tawanda, and How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism by Cory Doctorow.
My thoughts are scattered, fragmented. I am used to this state. My young students call me back to attention in a heartbeat. I need them to keep me upright and on task. While I’m away from them I read and write with abandon. It’s a form of balance; the very nature of my both/and.
Weekends are for remembering. I forget so much as I go. I fall apart as the week goes on. I pull myself back together – re – member – in these few days of rest.*
Yesterday I had no words but lots of feelings. Today I have the morning and an almost clear conscience.
I wish I could make this post into an assortment of baskets for you to rummage through at your leisure. Instead, I and wordpress give you these boxes of thought. Packaged, contained, labeled.
Even our freedoms are full of constraints.
*The idea of re-membering was introduced to me by Gregg Levoy in his book, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life.
(Below is the text of my keynote talk from August 18th, 2020 including a sample of responses from participants.)
Thank you, NYSAIS (New York State Association of Independent Schools), for inviting me to spend some time with you today. I am honored and nervous.
Thanks, too, Jane Anne for the very kind introduction!
I want to share some thoughts about our field, PE, and how we can incorporate anti-racism into our daily practices with students.
First of all, I want us to consider a few things:
This is my first keynote address.
I’m an actual teacher. A PE teacher, in fact, who just finished her first day of classes.
I want us to interact, so I invite you to use the chat to respond to a couple of prompts later and we’ll also leave some time for Q & A at the end.
You heard a bit about me in Jane Anne’s introduction. Here’s a slide to go with that. 😉
Thinking about what a good keynote should do for folks, here’s what I hope you’ll be able to take away from our time together.
I want us to appreciate what’s special about what we do.
I hope to encourage us to be braver and more critical observers of our own practice.
Help prepare your hearts and minds for the learning ahead.
That’s a lot and think for a moment about our classes: We have students of mixed abilities, interest levels and preparedness, put them all into a class called “PE” and in many cases manage to help those students find ways of engaging, contributing, and applying themselves that can be fun, challenging, awkward, or awesome or all of those, and have most of them leave feeling as good or better than they arrived.
So of course I’ve planned a talk with multiple positive aims!
PE tends to be an all-comers affair, right? and because we as teachers can anticipate that our students will each have their own way of appreciating and/or coming to terms with our offerings, we know that we have to adapt; that one size never fits all. We differentiate and modify our activities. We offer a wide range of movement experiences to give students ideas about the many different ways they can enjoy physical activity. We read up and stay current on new developments in the field and open ourselves to change as we grow and progress. These are the steps we take to be able to serve the remarkable diversity we find in each of our classes, every time we see them. We also know that no two lessons that we give are ever exactly the same.
Given that, I want us to think about what it means for us as PE teachers to become anti-racist and wholly inclusive in our teaching practices. Now that anti-racism is topping the bestseller lists and making its way into institutional policy and mission statement revisions, most of us are familiar with the terminology and have come to expect to hear about it from a variety of organizations, but what does anti-racism really mean? And what does it mean to teach from an anti-racist stance?
Christina Torres teaches 8th grade English at an independent school in Hawaii. She’s also a prolific writer on education whose thinking I hold in high esteem. She recently published an article on the Teaching Tolerance website that I’ve been quoting a lot lately.
“Anti-racist work means acknowledging that racist beliefs and structures are pervasive in all aspects of our lives—from education to housing to climate change—and then actively doing work to tear down those beliefs and structures. Those beliefs and structures don’t just exist in primarily white and/or privileged institutions—they thrive there.” – Christina Torres, “All Students Need Anti-racism Education,” Teaching Tolerance, July 30, 2020.
Consider, throughout your day and beyond, that last part about racist beliefs and structures not just existing in our privileged white institutions but actually thriving there.
A good part of our work from here on out relies on us
1) Opening our eyes to see those beliefs and structures.
2) Adopting beliefs and structures which demand and support full inclusion.
Much of the rest of your learning plan for today with Erica Corbin, Lauren Stewart, Worokya Duncan, John Gentile and James Samuels involves unpacking the specifics of what anti-racism is and is not, how racist beliefs and structures show up in our PE practices and also the ways we can mitigate them. They’re the main event. I’m calling them “The Highlights!”
I’m the warm-up act.
Opening our eyes and ears for equity and inclusion takes practice. And that’s where we’ll begin: with a thought experiment. To practice.
Three years ago I was asked to contribute a video response to a provocation for a workshop my friends were doing at a conference on open education.
The prompt was this: What would you do to create a non-inclusive learning environment?
It is truly a provocation!
I made my response specific to physical education and the result ended up being surprisingly clarifying.
Before I go on, I’d like to ask you to imagine what you would do to create a non-inclusive learning environment in PE.
To do that you need to create a picture of what non-inclusive might entail.
What kinds of behaviors would you encourage and for whom?
Which criteria for success would you set?
Please add some of your ideas in the chat box.
[Reading aloud some of the responses.]
Audition. Group kids by ability level. Assume everyone understands the game. Only focus on the students who need the most skill work. Certain sports for girls, other sports for boys. No positive feedback. Only play “American” sports. All games competitive. PE for athletes only. Group by body size. Make every game about winning. Focus on Win/lose only. Play the game without explaining the rules. Charge for PE participation.
Y’all are great at this!
Now I’ll share my response:
In my own response, I identified three main things I would do:
Design all the learning around my needs and preferences
Keep my evaluation criteria a secret
Be absolutely OK with failing students
“What learns us this?” – this is from an old Austrian friend of mine who remembers using this question learning in English back in the 1970’s. It always makes me laugh to hear it but it also reminds me that learning often happens without explicit teaching. How does the experience change us?
What can we learn from such an exercise?
First of all, what I like most is that it forces us to think in practical terms. What am I doing in my classes? What does it communicate to students about our priorities?
Second, it can help us see our practices in a new light. We can really ask: where is the truth in the ideas I’ve just put down? How much time do I really spend on the things that I love versus the things that I like less? Thankfully, at my school my colleagues and I have a pacing guide to keep us on track.
And third, It helps us clarify what the most desirable steps in the opposite direction, that is, towards fully inclusive learning environments, could be. For instance, it has become a much higher priority for me to discuss the assessment criteria with students and agree with them on some of the parameters. Transparency.
Here’s the second opportunity for practice:
One of the struggles we face as high achievers is the not always conscious striving for perfection. We want to get things right. We want all of our students to get it right. In my opinion, education and educators tend to wear out superlatives, especially “best”: best practices, best scores, best schools. Because in pursuit of those highest achievements, we may lose sight of growth, progress and movement. We get so tied up with the end goal, the shiny results, that we take less time and effort to appreciate and recognize the deep value of the process.
When we talk here about clarifying our practices towards inclusion and even better, the assumptions underlying those practices, my request is that you and I, let go of our need for perfection and instead be deliberate in our process (which I expect and hope will be a long one. :-)).
What that means for each of us will vary. We have unique social identity intersections which will influence our starting points and hold particular meanings in our respective contexts. And this is where we have to be radically honest with ourselves:
we can no longer pretend that who we are does not matter in the school house.
I am a middle aged Black American woman teaching in a predominantly white American international school. I am cis-gender, straight, of Christian upbringing and the product of a decidedly elite education. All of those things matter in how I show up professionally and personally with students, colleagues and parents. My challenge, our challenge, is to use our experience and expertise to create learning environments that honor the complexity embodied in each of us and in each student we encounter.
Take a moment to identify yourself. Use the chat box if you like. Just say it in your head or toss a few words down in your notes.
Father. / Black. Cis woman. Mom. Wife. / White privileged male / Woman, White, Lesbian / black american cis gender male christian from low socioeconomic class / Latino adopted male / White, cis, male, straight, christian, able body – / white woman from the midle east living and rasing my kinds in the usa today / human / white male, older in age (young at heart), blue collar, middle class / Asian, Female, Christian, Aunt, Sister …
What do you notice when you do that?
[Reading aloud some of the responses]
I see that I’m not the only one. Ideas I hadn’t thought of. Diversity of who is here. Identity is more than I think. Hard to decide which comes first: race or gender. We’re all more than one thing. my own definition has become broader in listening to others. you feel pride. What matters? What doesn’t?Complexity. Exciting with so many things that identify you 🙂 I noticed many of us stated our race when defining self.
Thank you for sharing those.
My students can see that I’m Black. How each of them assigns meaning to my being Black will naturally vary. I also know that I might easily be the only Black teacher these students even encounter in their entire school careers. Their experience with me really counts in a particular way and I want us to develop awareness for those kinds of nuances.
Another example: I wonder about how we honor the complexity of gender identity and acknowledge a spectrum rather than a binary. I’ve trained myself to say “friends” and “folks” instead of “boys and girls” or when forming groups ask students to include “all the genders” (which also gives us an opening to talk about what that means).
And I still feel new at this, still very much ‘under construction’ in this area. I’ve had to let go of perfectionism and embrace the process.
When we look at our programs, I see a few areas where identity and inclusion are very much at the center of students’ thinking in PE, whether we acknowledge it or not. During this talk, we’ve practiced thinking about inclusion and identifying ourselves. We can begin to think about how we invite students to identify themselves, the methods we use to form groups, our protocols and norms for class discussions. These are aspects of our field that are familiar and well worn. Let’s take the opportunity to review these habits and see where we can make them more inclusive, more sensitive to and welcoming of difference.
Remember, process over perfection: Make the attempts, make more attempts, notice growth.
Finishing up here… As you begin your new school years under challenging circumstances, I want to remind you and also myself that students are partners and resources in our classrooms. Yes, they learn from us AND they also use all of their powers to teach us. While they are learning about who they are and wish to be, they are pushing and pulling us to be real with them, to tell the truth.
And guess what! You already have all the resources you need to welcome your students as partners and resources in your learning endeavors!
It’s called listening.
I want to share a little anecdote about dodgeball in a 5th grade class which highlights this idea of students as resources. In a nutshell, some of my more dominant boys wanted to make it harder for tagged players to get back into the game. Some girls objected and pointed out the disadvantage it would create for certain players. Another student, a boy, suggested an alternative way to get back in the game by doing some exercises on the sideline. His idea was shot down in a heartbeat. We had a discussion.
While there was much more to the conversation – more voices, more opinions than the ones shared here – the point for me was developing their awareness. We’re talking about a game and we’re also talking about who we are in the game, and who has power in the game, and how the game makes us feel when we play it and according to whose rules. The conversation was not about dodgeball, yes or no, this conversation was about how we play and what we are creating in the way we choose to play it.
And there’s the key – how we – actually they, students, choose to play. What rules can we agree on and how do we negotiate rules which produce fair and satisfying game experiences not only for a few ‘skill privileged’ but for the entire group? These are the questions I want us to wrestle with from time to time. Because the notion that “it’s just a game” strikes me as a cop out, a way of denying how much more we invest in becoming and staying ‘players’.
In closing and with this example I want to emphasize again the wealth of creativity, passion and purpose we have in our students. They are amazing and so are we!
It’s going to take all of us to create learning environments that are fully inclusive, that make space for complex identities and challenging discussions. We have to be able to see ourselves as champions of equity, not spectators. As PE folks we are action and movement oriented, let’s show that in our anti-racist stance. I’m with you.
We have a little time for questions.
Thank you all so much for having me. All the best for the rest of your learning and for a successful school year!
It’s happening. Next week Digital Pedagogy Lab will commence. Participants across multiple time zones will be chiming into conversations from kitchens and living rooms, attending keynotes, workshops and their selected course. As circumstances require, we’ll be all online for this explosion of digital exchange and encouragement. The lab will be different this year and we’ll be creative in building the special world that has marked the on-site event in past years. In my corner of the DPL world, we’ll be unpacking, examining, then likely repacking Digital Identity for ourselves and each other. I’m hopeful and excited.
I’m hopeful that I and my mighty cohort will develop a shared space that offers plenty of opportunities to speak up, share out, meet up and hear each other across varied media, time zones and modes of communication. I suspect that the variety of ways each of us is able to show up during the week will, in and of itself, give us plenty to think about in trying to get a handle on what digital identity is and can be.
I came across an example of inspired critical thinking in a short talk by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom in which she dissects the cultural and political significance of the Harper’s Letter which made the rounds in early July, . #TheLetter as it was soon called on Twitter was signed by several prominent knowledge and culture producers railing against the toxicity of “cancel culture” and in defense of free speech (on their terms). There are numerous hot takes on the letter and its intent but for me it was Dr. Cottom’s analysis in conversation with radio host, Chris Lydon that sparked all kinds of creative thinking in its wake. Describing the relevance of social media in catapulting this debate onto center stage among the thinking class, she commented:
Social media, as we now know it, which is, let’s be clear, just because we can all freely participate in social media does not mean that it is a democratic space. So Twitter and Facebook for example are actually not the public square. It is just that, this is what the public square has been reduced to. They’re a new set of terms that have been introduced about how discourse will happen because platforms have incentives. They are there to make money off of our engagement and our intention and the platforms are designed to drive, aggressive interaction, because those are the types of things that drive people to participate in the platform, we become valuable to Twitter, when we are angry. It really is that simple. It is our attention that is being resold to advertisers. It is not the public square that we are seeing in Twitter. Pew data shows that fewer than a quarter of the American population are engaged in Twitter, even casually. This is not a huge swath of America, right. It is a highly self selected group of people who want to have a certain type of discourse. The problem that makes for a lot of academics and I think especially public intellectuals, is that we want to be in that space. It is a space designed for us! It’s text-based, is discourse based, but the terms of the space are just a bit too democratic for them to dominate the space the way they probably prefer.
In under two minutes, she offers us clear and accessible means to make sense of this portion of the online world many of us subscribe to, for better or worse. Particularly when we disagree with others on online platforms, we believe ourselves to be responding to that person or that group. Yes, and. As Dr. Cottom asserts, we are also responding to an environment that rewards our discord, that actually generates profit from and through every stage of outrage. Further, we may think we’re talking to our city, country or even the world, when in fact we are addressing a fraction of it, of which only a fraction of that fraction is likely to register our loudest cries.
For those of us who have willingly immersed ourselves in some form of digital media presence, it’s possible to overestimate our relevance. And when Dr. Cottom notes how traditional print-based public intellectuals may be experiencing the widening of the public discourse via social media as a damper on their assumed influence and reach, it serves as a tiny reminder that all of our efforts to speak and be heard on public channels are fundamentally about exercising power and agency. So when we talk about digital identity next week, power and agency are the canvas upon which we will draw our maps of digital engagement and purpose.
In a structured dialogue with a colleague which I recorded in preparation for DPL, I responded to the prompt: “Tell me something you wish people thought more about regarding digital identity.” My response on the second round surprised even me.
“I want people to understand positionality…Now that more folks, I’m going to say white folks in particular, have learned to call themselves white and recognize that that’s a thing. That whiteness is a thing. We’ve always known that being male was a thing. And now we have to also recognize, oh wait, there’s a gender spectrum; that non-binary is a thing. So understanding positionality means recognizing, first of all, who am I? … What are my social identity markers?
I identify as a Black woman, American, cis-gendered, straight, able bodied and all those things contribute to how I move through the world, those are all lenses that I apply in the way that I see things, perceive things, the way that I respond to things.
So, I need, I really, really need people, especially online, when I engage with them to have some grasp of that; to understand who they are when they are speaking; from what position they are speaking.
For some that may sound like a burden, an extra set of things to think about, that perhaps gets in the ways of speaking more freely. If that’s the case, it suggests that it’s not a way that a person has ever had to think because they fell into the default or assumed group. Naming things is an act of power that takes some practice. In Digital Identity, naming ourselves, claiming our full identities will be part of what will allow us to more critically investigate the platforms and services that claim to want to help us in those endeavors (read:personalization).
Alas, I’ve invited a wonderful group of people to come talk about digital identity for a week. We’ll listen and explore, question and respond, create and convene. Digitally. In that unique space we’ll consider both who we are and who we think we are. We’ll try to come to terms with how different platforms see and treat us as users; that is, who platforms think we are and what they encourage us to be more of.
…it feels like every user inherits a job, an unpaid library science gig, just for having to think about classifications and representation, the epistemic meaning of data and the written word and images. Identity becomes scraps of enterprise, content and dis-content, an unceasing whirl of desiderata and refuse. p. 6-7
There were are, people as users, users as people; amalgams of a gazillion data points over a lifespan – individuals with unique identities. “Scraps of enterprise…and unceasing whirl of desiderata and refuse” – this may not be the way we are most accustomed to seeing ourselves in digital environments. Yet in the massive churn of internet facilitated activity across the globe, in that context, the description strikes me as apt, although not especially flattering.
Our challenge in the coming week will be to make our power and agency tangible while simultaneously acknowledging stations of positionality along the way which necessarily will shift depending on the context. Seeing – differently, more consciously, generously; Listening – more intently, less defensively; Discovering – openly, bravely, collaboratively. I hope some -or even all – of this is possible in our cohort. That’s my excitement.
If you’ve read my blog or my tweets before, you’ll know that I use swear words only sparingly. That doesn’t mean I’m not thinking them or using them in more private contexts, I am simply cautious about when and where I write them out or share in other people’s posts for public consumption. But this morning, however, I had an experience that was swear-word worthy, in a good way.
I tweeted this as part of my thread of #delights:
July 17: Getting on my bike and riding with abandon. What's that called? It's CONFIDENCE and it is fricking #delightful, y'all. Feeling like a boss is a delight sometimes. pic.twitter.com/SPcYuGYZzK
In my late 30’s I lived with a bike messenger for 4 years and he taught me how to ride my bike like I belonged on the road. Once, I shadowed him for a half day and it was certainly one of the best forms of teaching I have ever experienced. We were riding assertively, intentionally with speed, drive and adequate caution. While getting shit done. I live that learning every time I jump on my bike now.
I was thinking of that this morning and how my well of confidence is largely rooted in my body – my body’s ability to perform. In my early thirties I had a phase as a competitive runner. I ran road races and on the track. The 800 ended up being my favorite but my 400 and half marathon best times are objectively the more impressive ones. As a competitor I learned to trust my preparation, to risk more than I thought possible and also to cope with the disappointment when it didn’t work out the way I wanted.* In those countless processes of trials and testing and proving, I enjoyed some great successes. My efforts were rewarded more than a few times. I won some races, picked up my fair share of trophies.
This makes a difference.
I know how to win.
I know how to kick ass
and enjoy doing it.
So now that I’m this older lady and spending time on very different pursuits, I note: the roots of my confidence extend deep into the soil of so many wins. Not only the physical ones, also the intellectual and academic successes along with some professional and personal highlights. It also means that I have learning templates that allow me to grow confidence.
This summer I’ve been doing more inline skating. I’ve got a nice routine that involves about 30 minutes of biking and 50-60 minutes of skating. I LOVE IT! Every time I repeat this exercise, I get a little better, a little stronger, more enduring, more confident! As a middle aged person I chalk this up as a big friggin’ win! It’s something I’m doing for ME! Because I WANT TO! And in those brief shining moments when I can feel the full effect of all that healthy growth and striving and satisfaction and reward – all of that coursing through me while I pedal or push off – well, you better believe I am gonna celebrate LIKE A BOSS!
So the next time someone wants to disparage you for thinking back to your glory days of whatever, know that they are missing the point. Glory Days remind us of who we really are, what we’re capable of and that we are here to do the thing! Check your confidence roots. How are you feeding and nourishing them? Are they housed in the right soil? Do you require a repotting, replanting, relocation or, in other words, a significant change?
Writing this post felt urgent, probably because that sense of badass confidence tends to be so fleeting.** I don’t usually wake up feeling like this but I do know it’s possible. I’ve learned how to increase the probability that it will show itself again. And again. Getting on my bike often works a charm. It’s a little lesson and extremely effective. Find your confidence roots, friends. Especially my friends who identify as women. Make sure you own some confidence somewhere. And feed it. I’m here to support that.
*On this vidcast with Rissa Sorenson-Unruh, I got to talk about the background to this understanding which I hadn’t thought about in a long time. Our general topic is self-care but the elements contributing to growing confidence run throughout our conversation.
**This is simply too true. I could barely get this out before I felt someone actively stealing my joy. (Perhaps not intentionally, but still.)