Dissertation isolation: Say it ain’t so…

Three years ago, if you’d told me I would be writing a dissertation having anything to do with social media, I’d have laughed at you. Three years ago, I had just gotten a Twitter account and had used it…oh…maybe five times. Social media was a fun distraction, sure, but not much more.

Flickr photo shared by Marc_Smith under a Creative Commons ( BY) license

But for the past few days, I have been intently focused on finally getting my proverbial s*** together and finishing a draft of my dissertation which deals, in large part, with social media and digital identity. But I don’t always have the best attention span. I get distracted by many things – organizing my books, vacuuming, obsessing over how many steps my Fitbit has recorded today, and, of course, social media. Some might even say that social media, and the Internet in general, gets in the way of my productivity. And sure, sometimes it does. Did I really need to re-read that hilarious blog post about why procrastinators procrastinate for the twentieth time? Probably not (but if you haven’t read it, you really should…). Did I have to look through the trending hashtags on Twitter to learn that the odd one that I couldn’t parse was, inevitably, about more One Direction drama (I kid you not – every single time). Well, no.


And that’s a big but (no pun intended).


Social media is also a goldmine of incredible information. The vast majority of the citations in my third comprehensive exam paper, which was about digital identity, came from Twitter – well, more specifically, from what I dug up by searching for my Twitter handle + #identity in order to access the scores of articles on the subject that I had carefully curated from others’ sharing over time. And social media is the gift that keeps on giving. Today, I was writing about why it is so critical that all of us, but especially educators, speak out for social justice in online spaces, even though it is potentially risky (and, as in my case, can lead to being trolled in a not-so-nice way). And on one of my social media breaks, I came across this fantastic post by Bonnie Stewart about the way that social media shapes our world. To quote Bonnie:

“Facebook – and more broadly, social media in general…but Facebook remains for the moment the space of the widest participation across demographics even while targeting ads designed to keep people IN their existing demographics – is the stage upon which the battle over dominant cultural narratives is played out.

Social media is where we are deciding who we are, not just as individual digital identities but AS A PEOPLE, A SOCIETY.”

Thanks for the dissertation material, Bonnie!

Writing, publishing, literacy in general – it truly is now all about participation and collaboration.

So writing my dissertation has been incredibly hard, but perhaps not for the reasons you might think. When I get into my groove, I am a prolific and rapid writer. But these days, I write mostly blog posts, and I find that my ability to write academically has been overtaken, in some ways, by my ability to blog. If I could blog my dissertation, I would. I’m a bit lost without the ability to hyperlink to other blogs or articles or people, and I feel that my writing suffers because of it. Because really, that’s the magic of social media, social writing, and Web 2.0: writing, publishing, literacy in general – it truly is now all about participation and collaboration. A good blog post is a good blog post because it links into a much wider web of knowledge, and it does so in a highly transparent and accessible way. Sure, we cite others in academic papers, but to access a cited work we would usually have to search for it in an academic database or – gasp – go to the library (I have helpfully linked to the Wikipedia page about libraries here in case you’ve forgotten what they are). The way we think about knowledge is changing, at least when it comes to the digital sphere: as David Weinberger said, “The smartest person in the room is the room.” I even watched this shift play out in my research. What began as an ethnographic study/discourse analysis rapidly changed into something much more collaborative. Instead of me sitting alone and analyzing my participants’ words, we sat there and picked them apart together – both their words and, at times, mine. We constructed (well, in the case of my research, deconstructed) understandings collaboratively. And the experience was so much richer because of it.

In a particularly depressing moment of Heart of Darkness, Conrad writes, “We live as we dream – alone.” In many ways, academia seems still to embrace this worldview – it might as well read, “I write my dissertation as I dream – alone.” But just as the magic of Google Drive means I will never have to edit documents alone again, the magic of social media means that I no longer have to write, read, think, or be an “expert” in isolation. Maybe it’s time academia embraced this incredible connected culture that we live in just a little bit more and took up a more social form of learning. After all, “We participate, therefore we are.”

And hey, I might even find a way to work this blog post into my dissertation.


#PrivilegeGate, or, How I Unwittingly Provoked a Troll Army

Yesterday, I tweeted this study about white privilege:

The tweet got a few likes and a few retweets, mostly from other professors in my faculty. I moved on. The study’s findings aren’t unexpected: they are in line with my own experiences working with pre-service teachers on topics of race and privilege, and they line up with other research about typical responses to learning about white privilege.

Today, I opened Twitter to find that I had 65 notifications, all from people responding to my tweet in various troll-like ways (most of which, ironically, included denial of white privilege and endorsements of meritocracy).

The responses ranged from cryptic comments to derogatory personal attacks, most apparently stemming from my tweet being retweeted by Twitter user @Nero to his 116K followers. Some of the worst include these gems: Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.47.44 PM Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.47.28 PMScreen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.46.58 PM Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.45.26 PM

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And my personal favourite: Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.49.21 PM @Nero didn’t actually comment on my tweet, but judging from his other tweets, it seems likely that he wasn’t retweeting me to signal his approval; scrolling through his recent feed, I found this tweet, which suggests that I’m not the only one who has experienced this:

This isn’t my first encounter with Twitter trolls, and I have a fairly thick skin; as well, a little digging also told me that most of the accounts in the troll army have few followers, and some are likely fake or paid accounts set up specifically for the purpose of trolling. Nevertheless, I found the situation a bit unsettling. At the very least, it paints a pretty depressing picture of the state of society. Also, it’s hard not to wonder if the reaction would have been the same had I been a white male tweeting the same article – I’m inclined to think that the answer is a resounding “no,” given the female-targeted responses to the Gamergate controversy.

But what’s more unsettling to me is that the trolls’ responses are likely an effective intimidation technique for most people. It makes it a whole lot less appealing to discuss social justice issues online when you know you’re setting yourself up for this type of hateful personal attack. As an educator, I am a huge proponent of speaking out about these types of controversial issues on social media, and I encourage my pre-service teachers to do the same, but this encouragement now needs to come with a warning about the potential ramifications.

Luckily, the Internet isn’t all bad. I received several messages of support:

I think that last one sums it up nicely. We still have a long way to go, but we’re on the right track.

In online spaces, silence speaks as loudly as words

Last week, as I taught my final #ECMP355 class for the semester, the topic of discussion came back to social justice (as it often seems to in my class, a tendency for which I am not at all apologetic). Because I work with pre-service teachers, we often discuss concerns around online identity; many of my students are worried about maintaining a “neutral” online persona because they fear that being controversial will make them unhireable in the future or could come back on them negatively in some other way.


Here’s my take on this, and what I said to my students: Silence speaks just as loudly as words. If we are online, as educators, and we remain silent about issues of social justice, if we tweet only about educational resources and not about the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in Canada, or about the burning of Black churches in the southern United States, we are sending a clear message: These issues are not important.  

Edtech, at its very core, is about privilege.

When I said this to my class, one of my generally quieter students commented in the chat, “This conversation makes me happy. Because I contemplate this EVERY DAY.” Such a simple comment, but one that I have been thinking about ever since. Technology in education is about so much more than gadgets and tools or about the latest backchannel app. Edtech, at its very core, is about privilege. We preach the virtues of universal access to knowledge, but who really gets to be involved in edtech? Those with access to technology and good quality Internet, those who have the educational background to comprehend the material, those with the time to devote to studying. That I am able to sit down and write this post, that I have the time to tweet, that I have access to the tools that make these things possible: these are markers of privilege.

So here’s my argument: I have a responsibility to use my privilege to speak out and use my network for more than just my own benefit or self-promotion; not doing so is a selfish act. Being a good digital citizen is about so much more than being safe and responsible online. It’s about participating in meaningful ways to promote equity in networked spaces. This is especially true for those with significant online audiences: we cannot let silence speak for us, and we can no longer cling to cliches or educational buzzwords as safe topics of conversation.

As I was finishing up this post, I saw this tweet from Alec Couros:

For me, the answer is simple:

We have a responsibility to risk our privilege to give voice to social inequities and injustices. We have a responsibility to risk our privilege to give voice to those who have no privilege to risk.

The 3 Minute Thesis

This weekend, I participated in the 3 Minute Thesis competition at the University of Regina. Although I didn’t win, the experience of putting together a three-minute version of my dissertation was a surprisingly helpful experience, because it forced me to really consolidate my thinking.

As part of the competition, we were allowed a single slide:


Below, you can find the text of my 3 minute speech, or check out the video (minus the very first line):

In higher education, more and more courses are taught entirely or partly online. But this can be problematic, because while online spaces can promote social justice, they can also perpetuate hate.

So take, for instance, a space like Twitter. Ugly, hateful hashtags are common, from #ThatsWhatSlutsSay to #NoMoreIslam.

On the other hand, when Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, the issue only made it onto the national news once it started trending on Twitter.

So the question is, how do we ensure that online spaces in courses work to disrupt oppressive ideas rather than reinforcing them?

I teach future teachers in the Faculty of Education. One required course deals with anti-oppressive curriculum, or teaching for social justice. As part of the course, students participate in two online spaces: an individual blog, where students reflect publicly on course content, and a course hashtag, where students discuss class topics on Twitter. However, students express a lot of discomfort around discussing the “controversial” course content online, so they construct “neutral,” digital identities, which do nothing to challenge oppressive ideas.

And this is troubling, because if our students are online and not talking about social justice issues, the message conveyed is that the issues aren’t important.

So my research explores how we might help students to recognize how they unintentionally contribute to oppressive narratives in order to shift their online behaviour. Seven students participated in a series of conversations about digital identity and anti-oppressive education, and we worked together to unpack the underlying perceptions of teaching that shaped their understandings of both.

Some key themes emerged:

First, students described what psychologists would call cognitive dissonance: that is, holding two opposing ideas that cannot be reconciled. In this case, students wanted to be social justice advocates, but they also wanted to live up to stories of the good teacher as neutral. In order to reconcile this dissonance, students had to downplay the importance of social justice. Students also believed that speaking out for social justice would make them unhireable, because they would be perceived as biased or politically radical.

But not everything was discouraging:

While students felt that, individually, they did not have the power to speak out about social justice online, several noted that they did feel able to do so as part of the collective class group – one student described it as a “community of discomfort” that added a layer of safety. Also, students noted that the act of performing the role of anti-oppressive educator online as part of course requirements allowed them to try on that self until it eventually became a part of their identity.

Ultimately, my research suggests that there are indeed structures and supports that educators might use to transform online spaces into places of equity and societal betterment.

“Being nice doesn’t cut it anymore:” Conversations with pre-service teachers

Last week, I finally finished my research interviews. Yay…I think?

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Qualitative research is a funny thing. After spending 4 or 5 hours with each of these students, I feel that I’ve gotten to know them pretty well. Over the past few months, I have been constantly overwhelmed by my research participants’ incredible insights and the amazing generosity they have shown with their time, meeting with me in the midst of their busy semesters. And now that it’s over, I feel a little lost and wish I could keep having these conversations (and I do have them, sometimes, but there’s something about that sacred time designated to nothing but the interviews).

Now that I’ve finished my interviews, I’ve started listening to the recordings, making notes, and going over the writing I did throughout the process. And I have just one word: “Data.” Here’s some of what I’ve thought about based on just a few of the first round of interviews.

This first round of conversations was geared towards developing biographical profiles of my participants, but already I am overwhelmed by the richness of the data that I have gathered. Because my research is about the ways that anti-oppressive education intersects with digital identity and digital spaces, these conversations delved into what Kevin Kumashiro terms “troubling knowledge” in his book Against Common Sense. We explored students’ childhoods, experiences with racism, feelings about the social justice-oriented curriculum in our Faculty of Education, and thoughts about teaching as a profession.

As I got to know each of the students better, their descriptions of their formative years were punctuated by moments of tension, discomfort, and realization. One student, describing her rural-Saskatchewan upbringing, told about how her mother would tell her and her siblings to go into a back bedroom and lock the door because an aboriginal person was at the door. Another thanked me for the difficult questions, noting that she had never thought about her earliest experiences of racism. A third student, attempting to describe what she felt she needed to be a successful teacher, went through a series of answers, each time unpacking and revising her responses as she questioned how her thinking might be oppressive or problematic, and finally settling on the idea that there was no perfect answer and that searching for one was a product of her own conditioning.

To be a good teacher, “being nice doesn’t cut it anymore.”

Several things became clear in just these initial conversations. First, I was struck by the degree to which these students have embraced and committed to the idea of anti-oppressive education. One student noted that she has learned, in the past 2 years, that to be a good teacher, “being nice doesn’t cut it anymore.” Even when students’ initial reactions to a question were clearly influenced by dominant narratives of race, the students were able to identify these patterns in their own thinking when I pressed for clarification. For instance, one student, when asked whether she still saw racism in the program, immediately drew on the discourse of reverse-racism/sexism and noted that Aboriginal students and men were more likely to be accepted into the faculty; however, when I asked her a follow up question on this, she began to unpack her motivations for saying this. Clearly, we are doing something right in this program. Of course, I need to keep in mind the type of student who is actually willing to volunteer for research about anti-oppressive education, and I need to consider the degree to which my participants (many of whom are self-described teacher-pleasers) are taking up the role of good student and giving the “correct” answer.

I also noticed the significant amount of tension around teaching anti-oppressively and fears around job-loss or negative repercussions due to creating too much of a stir. Much of this stems, I believe, from what Deborah Britzman would describe as the common-sense discourse of the “good teacher” as neutral and objective – this ingrained understanding bumps up violently against public displays of advocacy for social justice ideals. This is the very same tension that inspired this research in the first place, and it is one that I struggle with myself each time I post to my Twitter account or write on my blog. Just writing this post is uncomfortable for me – it makes me vulnerable and opens me to attack or criticism. But I am reminded of a conversation about blogging on controversial topics that I had – on Twitter – with Alec Couros, a professor of educational technology and media and one of my committee members. After encountering some resistance from my students about posting online, I put the question out to my PLN: Why should pre-service teachers be blogging? Many answers flowed in, and at some point the discussion turned to what content should be made public and what should be kept private:

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Alec’s last tweet sums it up nicely, I think. What is considered controversial is always relative to the position of the individual – a person’s power and privilege determines the degree to which s/he can speak out against dominant narratives without negative fallout. 

What we do not say speaks just as loudly as what we do

When I struggle to post online, I need to be mindful of my own privilege, which is perhaps limited in academia but is quite significant relative to that of many other people. For students, however, I wonder how the balance of power and vulnerability plays out with respect to anti-oppressive education, and I expect that this tension will increase and shift as we move into discussions of enacting social justice in open, online spaces.

And amidst all these other realizations, I found that after only one round of interviews, I have already had to think a great deal about the tension between what is public vs. publicized when it comes Twitter and other social media. These is certainly a precedent for PhD bloggers and for discussions of research on social media sites, but I still need to be cautious in respecting the rights of my participants by ensuring that I’ve shared my writing with them and that their own online writing cannot be traced back to them (unless they’ve opted not to be anonymous), while at the same time trying to enact my belief in the need to ensure that social justice does not go ignored in online spaces – for what we do not say speaks just as loudly as what we do.