Nobody’s Version of Dumb

Shoes by Vincent Van Gogh CC0

I spend a lot of time on Twitter. I follow more people than I can actually keep up with and miraculously a bunch more follow me and I apologize that I can’t just follow right back. I’m overwhelmed. I lose threads and also get lost in reading. I miss a lot and what I catch can probably be attributed to Twitter’s algorithmic sorting which keeps the folks I most interact with close to the top of the tweets I will see. It’s an imperfect system. My interests and responses are being guided, steered, nudged to achieve the golden data outcome of ‘maximum engagement.’ As long as I keep clicking around on the platform and rewarding the algorithm that delivers those precious “In case you missed it” messages, I am holding up my end of the user-platform bargain. Twitter stays in business and I cultivate my little networked worlds almost as intricately as my 9 year-old’s Minecraft creations.

Then along comes a short thread like this:

There’s more but that’s the core.

I know this lamentation. It is familiar and well worn and different figures deploy it at different junctures. Of course, @gsiemens is not just anybody. He’s a public intellectual, well recognized in the tech and higher ed circles I frequent. So I also hesitate to publicly push back on this particular take. But, alas. I get tired of authority type voices telling me and others that Twitter is making us dumb.

Speak for yourself, I say. Rain on your own parade, not mine.

Look. Not everyone who comes to social media is looking for a fight. We have not arrived here to recreate Greek forms of debate. We are not showing up so that we can rattle our intellectual sabres. We are not turning up to punch each others’ academic lights out, argument for carefully crafted argument.

I, for one, came because I was looking for others who could help me grow. I was in the market for good writing and good people and I found them. The longer I stayed and the more I engaged, good people found me. Good writing – I mean, strong, critical, robust and also sensitive writing walked right up to me and said, “Hi!” I got involved. I created adjoining spaces and fashioned a new home to welcome some of that rich writing. And I found art, humor, compassion, support, care, and (*praise hands*) Black Twitter. My life has been tremendously enlivened and broadened through my social media connections. I am a smart person who is more open, more aware, more vocal and more critical due to my connections via social media.

You will rarely find me putting up my verbal dukes on Twitter but I will support those who do it well. When authority type voices trot out these blanket statements about our shared intellectual demise, they offer a point of view that can be as narrow and constrained as those they accuse of the same offense. And often such voices enjoy the comfort and yes, privilege, of established recognition through institutions, publications, speaking invitations and considerable social media reach. These statements seem to come when these, usually male, individuals no longer feel “challenged” – when their membership in the social media ‘Gifted and Talented’ program is losing clout.

When I first ran across this thread, I wanted to ignore it. Give it the ‘ho, hum, somebody’s bored’ non-response. But the annoyance stayed with me because I felt in those few tweets that my experience and the experience of too many others were being denied. And thoughtlessly so.

Some of us are here for community; to gather and confer with the like minded. To remind each other that our presence matters. For someone with a particular kind of status, this aspect might easily be overlooked. Not for me. I come to Twitter to prove to myself again and again that I have a voice and know how to use it. In other circles, my voice, my presence runs the very real risk being inaudible, invisible. But for an authority voice type, this instance may not occur or even register.

Formulating this kind of push back takes energy. It takes energy away from some things I’d rather read and write about. And I don’t wish to expend more energy delving into the right-left Twitter divide article which prompted these tweets. When George Siemens claims that his network is fairly homogeneous, that is something that he can fix if it’s a priority. But to drag us all down into a space that he in a later tweet describes as “closed, intolerant, narrow minded, and short sighted” is decidedly unfair and unnecessary and I refuse to be placed there by proclamation from on high.

Maybe this is precisely how and why I persist on social media: Refusing to be placed somewhere by someone who is not me. I place and position myself. I speak my own mind. I pick my own battles. I am nobody’s version of dumb.


Note: The image is from the The Met collection of Public Domain images which is well worth a visit.

Learning to Push Back

image via
image via

As a kid, I was the proverbial “good girl,” a rule follower, a goody two-shoes, and I liked it that way. Truth be told, I still like it that way. Not surprisingly I put a lot of stock in correctness and being polite. In high school I avoided debate, opted for tech theater instead. Crafting arguments and counter-arguments has never felt natural or pleasurable for me. Yet, in the course of my academic career, I certainly learned to write convincing prose; to back up assertions with data and evidence.

When I encounter a position with which I do not agree, I mentally prepare my pushback, yet hesitate miserably before I dare to write anything.  My disagreement is usually real, has both an emotional and intellectual anchor, and something in me wants to speak out.  As I hash out my thoughts, I often second-guess my ability to build a coherent and air-tight rebuttal.  I talk myself out of using my voice with conviction. Instead, I wait until someone else – who is braver, more eloquent, given to snark – posts the protest I wish I had written and I piggy back on it with a modest retweet.

I could stop there and say, well, it’s a case of individual choice. Which it is. And it is also indicative of a larger pattern.

Since I have become active on social media, on Twitter in particular, I have learned to pay attention to the dominant narratives and what constructive pushback looks like. To do that I had to find some  models and there are plenty.  And in choosing my models I have been highly selective: I have sought out women of color who comprehend intersectionality;  who understand from the get-go what it means to be more than “just one thing” in society, most often from a marginalized perspective.

For both artful and substantive pushback I turn toTressie McMillan Cottam @tressiemcphd, Melinda D. Anderson @mdawriter, @RafranzDavis, @nicloecallahan, @arissahOh, Shireen Mitchell @digitalsista,  and Nicole Sanchez @nmsanchez. These women regularly point out weak argumentation, demonstrate skillful presentation of evidence, employ sass, snark and nuance at will, and tirelessly remind whoever will listen about the issues which mainstream media typically neglects,  higher ed research may sidestep, and industries would rather gloss over.

Some worthy examples:

Tressie McMillan Cottam points out that while everyone rushes to quote Paul Krugman in his NYT Op-Ed, he’s not the first to make the case that education is not the great equalizer:

Because of course, she has said as much and more so often in her writing about  inequality in higher education with a special emphasis on the for-profit sector.

Or Melinda D. Anderson raises questions about what appears to be white paternalism towards civil rights groups with regards to educating children of color:

On another note, Arissa Oh diplomatically distances herself from the widespread Oscar kerfuffle:

And following an exhausting exchange over the wage gap comments of Patricia Arquette at the Oscars, Nicole Sanchez tweeted  a series of portraits of women of color at the top of their game and in conclusion offered this as a positive reset cue:

The lessons here for me are several:

As I cultivate my own voice of dissent, I need to

  • Pay attention: to the message, the messenger, the power dynamics, who is speaking out and who’s voice is missing.
  • Know my intention first and then think about how I will speak my mind.
  • Be clear about what is at stake and prepare to be heard (and also misunderstood).
  • And if I think my voice doesn’t matter, I must know that someone else who is not in my corner is counting on precisely that.  Here is where I have to give myself the benefit of the doubt, rather than defer to the status-quo.
  • Finally I have to recognize that baby steps count. Each teaspoon of resistance contributes to the next. Pushback can be learned and accommodated without becoming a default stance.

It seemed to take a long time to get this post out. And the more I write and participate in social media, the more I think of that as a good thing. I want to remain wary of knee-jerk reactions and the tendency to pile-on after a celebrity misstep. Role models are important throughout our lifespan and I take great pleasure in seeking out new models in new territory.  These mavens of artful pushback provide me with guidance, inspiration and positive examples of meaningful social media engagement. No doubt, I too, will learn to disagree without becoming disagreeable, to bravely push back rather than holding back.