Mirror, Mirror, in the Words

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Have you ever caught a view of yourself in the mirror that surprised you? Where you suddenly notice a detail that betrays what you perhaps were feeling but you thought couldn’t be seen? That’s kind of what happened to me the other day, but the mirror I saw myself in consisted of words; a series of tweets, actually.  And each tweet seemed to bring that surprising detail into sharper and sharper focus. Then there were tears.

The tweets by Sonia Gupta described what’s at stake for people of color who decide to speak up against injustice on social media. She emphasizes that it’s not a show, and not about likeability or boosting follower counts but about claiming our right to exist in a society that recognizes us as fully human and worthy. She suggests that for those of fighting now, that we will not likely see significant change in our lifetimes; that “it’s a marathon we’ll never see the end of.” I think that’s the sentence that landed with a hard thud.

All of a sudden I had strange picture of myself ‘out there’ doing what I do: supporting, encouraging, reasoning, questioning, sharing, hearing, persisting and then crumbling under the weight. For some minutes I felt weak and deflated. Naming what was going on helped me recognize myself as both fierce and vulnerable these days.

The glimpse in that unexpected mirror reminded me of something I experienced in graduate school. Part of our coursework in Group Dynamics included attendance at a weekend Tavistock Institute. In a nutshell, a group of people convene under an artificial social structure which somehow forces participants to engage with each other and explore the elements of social organization: roles, authority, boundaries, tasks, and leadership, in the process. There were large group sessions as well as smaller group meetings where the structures given varied from nearly rigid to almost no structure at all. My whole cohort of 50 attended and another 30 or 40 people from another grad program were a part of this three day event.

A lot can happen in 3 days and being in close quarters with strangers and friends all bound to this emerging social structure we couldn’t quite understand but were constructing minute to minute – let me just say, it turned out to be pretty intense. Some folks behaved in surprising ways – they got loud, they broke rules, they challenged authority, they withdrew entirely, they broke down, they rose up. The experience proved quite unsettling for some. One breaking point came for me when I confronted the roles I had taken up in this process.

Leading up to the weekend there was a lot of excitement and also concern in my cohort about what might take place, how we might respond to this experiment of sorts. I distinctly remember being a voice of reassurance, counseling others not to worry, that we would be fine. During the weekend we were frequently asked to acknowledge the roles we were taking up in various settings. At some point it dawned on me that I, one of a handful of black women in my cohort, had taken up a “mammy” role in responding to the worries and fears mainly of my white male classmates before and during the institute. No one had asked me to take up the role, per se. I enacted it myself, with no particular forethought.

I can’t remember what event or words triggered my awakening. But I sat weeping for several minutes in the wake of that realization. Ever since then I have developed a greater sensitivity of how I select and take up various roles in different contexts. Sonia Gupta’s thread of tweets made me think deeply about the roles that I take up on social media. While my inclinations to nurture and support others remain strong, I have also become fiercer in my resistance to the social and political status quo. I find myself angry more often. I’m ready to fight.

And that new readiness – to fight, to assert, to push back, to protest – has me feeling like I’m holding my breath a lot of the time, trying to stay functional and constructive. But underneath there is sadness, fear, rage and exhaustion. Those are as real as my desire to assist and uplift. That the balance has become so delicate is perhaps the reality I hadn’t yet confronted.

image via Pixabay CC0

 

Unfinished Business

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You are not waiting for this post.

We’re only at the beginning and it’s not sure what it’s going to become. It’s a post. Words on a screen without a predetermined destination. There’s no requirement. No protocol. Rather, there’s a likelihood, a probability that something will emerge.

Sounds like a weather forecast.

My inbox is full of notices I will never read or even register. Announcements galore about products and publications, organizational milestones and upcoming events. They pile up under my radar and still I pay them no mind. They become a form of digital weeds that do no further harm than take up space.

At the same time, I still have a reasonable command of my attentional resources. I am capable of focus. I can read some articles from beginning to end. I can comment in ways that can help others make a decision “to click or not to click” in service to their specific interests. I try hard to respond to messages that matter.

Remember Dr. Seuss’s  Cat in the Hat and the way he begins showing off all the things he can do simultaneously? “‘…that is not all I can do,’ said the cat…” Of course he continues to add objects and feats to his performance until it all comes crashing down around him.

But the Cat in the Hat recovers. Quickly.

I feel a bit like the Cat in the Hat during his “Look at me” moment, scrolling through Twitter, “liking” this, retweeting that, heaping more think pieces onto my already massive stockpile – and (consciously or unconsciously) expecting it all to come crashing down sooner or later.

On the one hand, I experience the ego rush you get from multiple (almost exclusively positive and/or constructive) interactions, you know, feeling needed, wanted, and valued. On the other hand, I seem to be satisfying an internal ego drive to show myself what I can do – look at how I read that, see the way that ties into what I wrote last week? I’m active, engaged, contributing, consuming and producing – all the things. Both without and within – I look busy.

No crash so far. But certainly pressure points. Or pockets of depletion. Or a mixture of both depending on the day.

All this to say: You are not waiting for this post. Yet here it is. If I had the energy I would share some morsels from my bulging stockpile of resources, and recommend writing of the most extraordinary kind. But sleep is more important and you’ll be fine without more to ponder.

 

We can take breaks. We can put on the brakes. We can slow down. Do less. Wait. Stop. Breathe. Recover. Decide not to play the Cat in the Hat. For once, maybe we’ll listen to the Fish in the Pot who is really just trying to keep us all out of trouble. (Disclaimer: I identify deeply with the Fish in the Pot and always have.)

This is the end. I’m glad you weren’t waiting for this post. You have other things to do.

Storytelling Thoughts

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News flash: Storytelling has been co-opted by your nearest marketing department. In several circles it has become the heavy lifting arm of branding responsible for all the necessary work of attracting audience, fostering loyalty and reaching users/customers/stakeholders on that crucial emotional level. Companies develop stories in order to connect with their target groups. Schools and school districts have begun to position their stories among legislatures and policy makers as a means of advocating for programs and funding.

But there is of course more, much more to storytelling than its business potential in a variety of markets. And the rise of social media and digital communication platforms seems to have complicated our understanding and also processing of stories for business, for community, for individual relief or any combination of those possibilities. As humans we are made of stories, regardless of whether we tell them to others or not.

On the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Mia Steinberg took to Twitter to share some vital thoughts about distinguishing storytelling from testimony.

What struck me about this absolutely instructional thread was how it nudged me to think about how stories work in my own life and whom they serve at any given time. It also made me think about which stories are mine to tell and which ones may not be.

I don’t see myself as much of a storyteller. I enjoy commenting on my observations and drawing connections between other people’s stories. In particular I appreciate the way others use stories to tell us more about ourselves.

My 10 year old and I just finished our read-aloud of RJ Palacio’s Wonder. He loved it! “That’s my favorite book so far,” he said. It surprised him because as he pointed out, “It’s really just about a kid who’s deformed and going to school, but he’s really just a normal kid.” That he found himself teary at the tough parts and jumping out off the sofa to do a victory dance at the happy parts was new for him. After 6 books of Harry Potter and 3 of The Land of Stories, Wonder was the one that took him for a ride he never expected.

My friend, Bill Fitzgerald offered a link to a story that I stopped to read right away and I was captivated. Jaice Singer DuMars describes his difficult childhood that didn’t start off that way and a recovery in high school that allowed him to emerge on the other side of his experiences as a thoughtful, reflective adult. His essay “I am an impostor” tells several stories to convey a message of remarkable humanity and kindness:

I share my story because in my work supporting open source community, I see many people hiding in the shadows of their fear just as I did. They do not want to step into the light because they are afraid they don’t have what it takes, or are not good enough

When our open source communities focus on technical meritocracy, we are inadvertently creating an environment that promotes exclusion. All of the amazing talents, ideas, and gifts people have to share must find a home, or we are limiting the potential of what we can collectively accomplish.

DuMars uses his own story to build bridges especially to those in the open source community who may know those feelings and circumstances of inadequacy that hold us back from attempting the possible.

Meanwhile, as we hook ourselves up to the steady drip of social media updates, I can imagine that our individual appetites for stories, perhaps even our story metabolisms are undergoing changes which are challenging to recognize, difficult to diagnose. This is where people who help me tune in to the larger narratives in which we all have more than a bit part prove essential. Audrey Watters’ academic background in folklore studies is absolutely integral to the way she shows us and illustrates the stories we are being told about technology and education. Journalist Jordan Shapiro wants to correct our consumption of two popular narratives about the internet being the great social equalizer and that our digital tools are rotting our brains.

And let us not forget the hundreds of stories shared in response to this question posed by Chris G at the close of 2017:

Chris’s tweet received nearly 5000 retweets and 480 direct replies, plus many more responses where his tweet was quoted. Which is to say, people had tons of stories to share about absurd and/or invasive tech platform and product practices.

Then there was this one short tweet reminding me that certain stories become a ticket that must be presented to satisfy the gatekeepers:

Meandering through these examples, I remember that I started with the idea of how stories carry the potential to tell us more about ourselves. Now I see that I’m also thinking about how stories are packaged and delivered; how they reach us and I’m wondering about how these ancillary factors figure in the mix.

From our story appetites to story diets to our story metabolism – that is, how we digest and process the stories we hear, respond to or even internalize –  this feels like something we should be looking at in our day-to-day studies of life in progress. Consider, too, the stories we literally are served via algorithms which always learn more about us in the process rather than less. These same algorithms also allow platforms and third party entities to create their own stories about us and our friends, interests, habits and plans – in order to lubricate the economy through piercingly targeted advertising which should lead us from thought bubble to checkout in the space of a few clicks and keystrokes.

Those of us deeply engaged in social media and immersed in digital spaces face enhanced challenges to our understanding and application of story (which sounds very clinical to my ears, but hey).  As we’ve learned, just about anything can be weaponized in the attention economy and narratives are no different. Part of me dreads the extra cognitive load of rethinking my story diet and metabolism – paying closer attention to my sources, balancing my intake, noticing immediate and latent effects. At the same time, remaining receptive to the magic that stories can give us – like my son responding to Wonder – that is worth working to preserve.

 

 

What’s Worth Sharing

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I’ve asked myself this question often but as my attraction to and involvement in social media have grown, perhaps not often enough. When I arrived on Twitter in 2013 I lingered on the periphery, mostly lurking from a safe distance. My interactions with other users were typically non-controversial and in direct relation to a third point – an article, blog post or tweet. In the four years since that arrival, my usage has changed.

Besides sharing my own writing, I now like to highlight others’ contributions, share in their celebrations, empathize with their disappointments. I willingly enter into relationships and by the nature of the medium, our interactions become public record of those relationships. Given that, I find myself increasingly inclined to share more about my thinking and life in progress. At some point, I began offering increasing numbers of unbidden statements. I began saying things about what I was experiencing, feeling, thinking. Just like that. Without a particular shared reference point.

That kind of sharing only “works” when there’s some kind of reward and in social media speak that means generating a “like” or a reply, even. Someone or something else (a bot, perhaps) needs to respond in some way, in order for our processing brains to chalk up a success. More frequent interaction increases the likelihood of “successful” exchanges. Over time and with adequate repetition we become conditioned to both anticipate reward responses which further bolster our inclination to share our little hearts out. And algorithmic sorting, ranking and boosting work their magic to insure that we find it difficult to step away and shut it all down.

So coming back to the question: What’s worth sharing?
Definitely not everything. And of course, it depends.

While transitioning to the New Year 2018 I found myself in an idyllic Alpine winter wonderland. I was so swept up with emotion in this setting that I gladly shared images with accompanying reflections about the ways I hope to claim 2018 as my own.

The way the familiar will ask me to embrace its changes and I’m not sure I’m ready but I do it anyway. #my2018 pic.twitter.com/CwDJEXvX9D

— Sherri Spelic (@edifiedlistener) January 1, 2018

While I was collecting these images and sharing them directly I asked myself the purpose. And one of my answers was to create a real-time record of my impressions for myself. Of course, there was also the desire to seek resonance with friends and colleagues. Perhaps some would also be able relate and even appreciate the beauty I was aiming to spread in my timeline.

I decided these images and these ideas were worth sharing. And I was rewarded. Generously.

The reward mechanisms that ultimately fuel our devotion/addiction to our social media and other digital activities of choice emerge as remarkably strong, influential and challenging to divert once they have established themselves in our neural pathways. That’s a reality that should give us pause. Along with the question of what’s worth sharing, we need to remain equally curious about and attuned to asking ‘what is the cost?’

Balancing value and cost, exposure and privacy, noise and quiet, outward and internal – these also belong to #my2018. That seems worth sharing.

 

image: ©edifiedlistener 2017

Nobody’s Version of Dumb

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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.

Because Someone’s Listening

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The sign that’s not on my fridge but should be:

“Don’t go there.”

Of course, I go.

Damn social media. Damn me.

The time I spend in my own head is no longer solitary.

I can hear myself think (still)

but

my voice is tempered for your possible reception;

my words carefully tested for palatability

before they can be released.

And I keep writing, writing, writing

straight onto the screen, so few

filters between this thought

and what you might make of it.

 

But let me say this:

I have an Alice Walker T-shirt from the Writing Project and the quote says:

“Writing has saved me from the sin and inconvenience of violence.”

And every day that I come to terms with concentrated power

in the (tiny) hands of a federal administration bent on

harm, revenge and unmitigated selfishness,

I thank God for writing saving me from the sin and inconvenience

of violence.

 

My moral outrage is but a drop in the bucket of

untold suffering among

too many.

Some of whom understand what is in the making and many more

who have no inkling that they will not be spared

the pain and humiliation

of being discarded, dismissed, and annulled.

 

I regret to inform you that

I have spent time reading the incomprehensible

transcripts of a figurehead

who struggles to express one thought

coherently.

 

I regret to inform you that

these elementary and primitive

patterns of speech

appeal to some,

to many, in fact.

The joke that was now lays like detrimental oil spill

over the gulf of what we thought

was a semi-functioning democracy.

 

The bill for the clean up will be paid

by our children and grandchildren

But the spill is ongoing,

widening its toxic reach

seeping and tumbling past each new measure

designed to contain it.

 

I can be angry about social media

about myself on social media

and I can write

because someone, somewhere

is listening.

and sometimes that is just enough

of what is needed.

 

 

Speaking Digital PD

I recently held a workshop entitled: Navigating The Blogosphere and Social Media for Professional Growth. It’s a long title for a few simple ideas. I designed this 90 minute session as an interactive, experience-sharing and question-growing learning event and that’s mostly what it turned out to be according to participant feedback. I’m glad about that.

While part of my aim was to encourage participants to seek out social media opportunities to grow their professional practice and connections, I found that there was more I wanted to say. So often in promoting digital tools in education spaces, we emphasize all the things we can get from them: lesson plans, snappy ideas, old wine in new bottles, new wine in virtual bottles and on and on. There is no doubt much to be had, to be consumed, to be added to our overflowing professional plates.

At the same time, there is a piece that is so often ignored or hardly mentioned: the potency of our contribution. Yes, bloggers will tell you to blog, and that others can benefit from your hearing your story. This is true and frequently shared. The missing piece, however lies not simply adding to the jumble of voices but to take an active part in creating and sustaining community. That means finding ways to acknowledge the voices you respect,  giving credit where it is due, providing feedback and links which may benefit others. I summed up this idea in the slide below: “Go for what you crave, stay to make the space a richer one.” Show up on social media and be an example of positive digital citizenship: be kind, be thoughtful, be you. Make social media spaces better by being a good human.

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The other point I wanted to emphasize with regard to social media use is that only you know (and will find out) what (and how much) is good for you and your aims (recognizing, too, that this will shift and change over time). Resist the pressure to try all platforms or to be everywhere at once. Let those impulses die a quick death. Instead, find the things that you find useful, do those and skip the rest. If Pinterest works for you in your private life, it may be a tremendous resource for your classroom or office needs. On the other hand, if you feel especially comfortable with Facebook, why not seek out like-minded groups there to begin your journey into education conversations in the digital sphere? Start somewhere and go from there.

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If our goal is to encourage and empower colleagues, students, parents, administrators and policy makers to engage in education conversations on various channels, we need to think about how we welcome them into spaces which are new to them but territory to us. In that process we also need to break open our ideas about what PD is and can be. This is as true for us as it is for the systems we inhabit and sustain.

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I don’t consider myself a digital evangelist. I do consider myself an active member of the commons who appreciates and uses digital tools. This distinction matters to me. And that is what I aim to share with colleagues when I find myself speaking digital.