“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.

Adventures in Stigma and Depression

In many ways, this post has been a long time coming. In some ways, it started way back last summer when I read Nicholas Provenzano’s post about depression. It surfaced again on Bell Let’s Talk Day when a former student posted this personal story of his own journey, and just this past week when I read this story about a professor’s public discussion of his battle with mental illness. And I am reminded of it in small ways on an almost weekly basis, when I talk to my students about whether teachers with particular marginalized identities should speak out to act as role models for students (though this generally comes up in the context of LGBTQ teachers’ responsibilities to come out to students), or when students confide in me about their own struggles with mental health. But up until this point, the terrible stigma surrounding the issue has kept me quiet. Until now.

I struggle with depression. There. I said it.  

It’s okay to be depressed. It does not make me weak, or unreliable, or a burden.

I was diagnosed with major depression when I was a teenager. Since then, my mental health has been consistent only in its inconsistency. I have periods – days, months, even years – of happiness, and I also have periods of deep sadness, or even just numbness (perhaps best described in the awesomely illustrated blog, Hyperbole and a Half). It is a battle I know I will fight for the rest of my life. I am, thankfully, a person who functions well even on my worst days – I get out of bed, I feed myself, and I carry out my daily activities. Others aren’t so lucky.

Perhaps this revelation doesn’t come as much of a surprise to some people. If Twitter used an algorithm, it would probably already have diagnosed me: I read and share quite a bit about mental health. But I have never felt brave enough to bring myself into the story. And then a couple weeks ago I read this wonderful article about depression, identity, and medication. For the first time, I could really see my own experience in the author’s story – and it was an incredible feeling. I felt a little less alone in my depression. And then I thought, why have I never acknowledged my own struggle publicly? Of course, that’s an easy answer. To quote Peter Railton, the brave professor who spoke out about his own depression:

“I know what has held me back all these years. Would people think less of me? Would I seem to be tainted, reduced in their eyes, someone with an inner failing whom no one would want to hire or with whom no one would want to marry or have children? Would even friends start tip-toeing around my psyche? Would colleagues trust me with responsibility?” 

But as I often tell my students, saying nothing at all is a form of complicity – it creates a null curriculum that silently screams: “We do not speak of mental illness.” And this is no longer acceptable for me. To quote the insightful Dr. Railton again, “Why should I contribute to making it harder for others to acknowledge their depression and seek help?”

Photo Credit: katiahildebrandt via Compfight cc

So instead of struggling in silence, I am speaking out. I am using my own privilege to try to break down some of that ugly stigma. It’s okay to be depressed. It does not make me weak, or unreliable, or a burden.

 Ultimately, will this post make a difference? Perhaps, or perhaps not. In the end, everything we share online is sent out into cyberspace to await its uncertain fate – will it go viral, or will it fade away into the annals of Internet history? We share, perhaps, in the vague hope that doing so will be a comforting experience: that the globalization of grief made possible by social media might lead to increased empathy, to support from strangers, to the creation of new connections, and ultimately to a better humanity. And maybe, just maybe, my post will give another person the courage to speak out. We can only hope.


2015: A Year to Share and to Connect

A few days ago, my friend and colleague Alec Couros asked, via Twitter, about people’s personal and professional goals for 2015. My personal goals are still a bit muddled (2014 was a challenging year in many ways, both for me and, to be honest, for the world in general), but professionally, I have a pretty good idea of where I’m headed:

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So I’m ending this year by getting started on those first two goals with a blog post (second in a week – must be a record or something) that will hopefully hold me accountable in some strange, don’t-let-the-Internet-down kind of way.

I’ve got two plans so far – the first is to take part in the Photo-a-day Challenge, which I’ll be doing on my newly minted Flickr account (yeah, I know, it’s empty so far), and the second is to get much involved in Twitter chats and other Twitter conversations – I share resources a lot, but I could be so much better at engaging with others. I just need to work a bit harder on believing that others care what I have to say.

Thinking about all of this sharing, I’m reminded a pretty cool quote by Eric Raymond about gift economies:

In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away.”

This idea seems to align really well with what happens on Twitter – the people I respect the most in that space are the ones who comment, who reshare, and who engage with others: who give away knowledge, insight, sometimes even just a bit of humour or support.

So…in 2015, what will you give away?

Social Networks and the Globalization of Happiness and Grief

This past summer, I wrote about my mother’s battle with a terminal brain illness, which has left her blind and with dementia. After publishing the post, I sent the link to a few family members, but I also shared it on Twitter. Then I headed out for a run to clear my head.

The first person to respond to my tweet was a former student, who thanked me for sharing my story. I remember so clearly seeing the notification, mid-run. My immediate reaction was one of confusion – some part of me had not considered that by sharing my post on Twitter, definitely the most public and professional of social networks for me, everyone would see it; my social contexts, so carefully separated in real life, were collapsed online. I felt vulnerable, but I also felt a sense of comfort and relief.

When I asked my family if it was okay to share what I’d written about my mother, my sister asked me why I wanted to post it online. I wasn’t sure then, and I’m sure not entirely sure now. Sharing online is an odd business, really, one that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. So much has been written about the ways in which social media has changed the way we relate to one another, from the digital dualists who argue that we need to privilege our face to face connections by unplugging, to those, like Nathan Jurgenson, who argue that Facebook is real life – that social media has merely shifted and augmented our relationships. Certainly, social networks have made it possible for us to share wonderful moments with a wide audience (like the recent video of a son who paid off his parents’ mortgage). But they have also shifted the nature of mourning, from private and localized suffering to a new, globalized grief.

Of course, this is not always a positive: our public/publicized mourning has led to hoaxes where people take advantage of human generosity and kindness, and it also backfired recently for Facebook, where the automatically generated “Year in Review” feature brought back painful memories for some users. It has led to the strange phenomenon of grief porn. And it has made it difficult at times for us to move on from traumatic events, as we are constantly reminded of them.

But the sharing of pain and trauma is also (for me, at least), on some level deeply comforting. Research suggests that social networking sites are so satisfying (and at times addictive) because of the endorphins that are released when we post or receive feedback from others in the form of likes, favourites, or comments, so perhaps this plays in role in why we share. And certainly there is something wonderful about receiving words of encouragement and sympathy from complete strangers, who reach out online out of simple human empathy. It is, in a sense, a reassurance of the deep-down, fundamental kindness of people: a reminder that grief is in many ways the great equalizer, a feeling to which we can all relate.

As I write, I watch my terminally-ill mother sleeping on the couch beside me. I am struck by the rapid decline in her functioning even since this summer, when I first shared her story. The moments of clarity come rarely now for her, and this Christmas has been tough for my family. And once again, I am drawn to share this, not only to write about how I am feeling, but to put it out into the world – to feel connected and, perhaps, simply to feel human in the midst of difficulty and pain.


Tragedy, Politics, and Grief in an Age of Immediacy and Networks

I’ve been working on a blog post for awhile now about digital identity, in an effort to get my ePortfolio and blog up and running before the craziness of a new semester sets in. I thought that soon, maybe today, I’d finally click publish on that post.

But then, just as I was gathering the courage to post, this Sunday my social media feeds exploded with sadness and injustice and hate, and I felt that I needed to write something different. I watched as news broke about the killing of an unarmed black teen in Missouri by police. Through the tweets of a few people in my Twitter feed, I followed the emerging stories of racism and violence and grief.

Yesterday, those stories continued. Last night, I saw tweets and news stories about the protests in Ferguson and about the rubber bullets and tear gas being used on protesters. And amidst all this, I learned of Robin Williams’ apparent suicide, which sparked an outpouring of grief, of sympathy, and of support for other sufferers of depression across both my Twitter and Facebook feeds.

I’ve seen it before, but perhaps the confluence of these very different tragedies made it more apparent. Networks, the Internet, our digital existence — all of this has changed the way we grieve and experience sadness and loss. Tragedies no longer break in the mainstream media — they break on Twitter, through the voices of the many, not the few.

In a networked world, tragedy and grief are quick to appear and then remain ever-present. There are constant reminders of those we’ve lost and of horrific events; it is hard to escape tragedy when it is everywhere in our new feeds. Of course, networks can bring support, comfort, and a feeling of solidarity, especially when we are far, physically, from those we love. But the immediacy and ubiquity of the news of tragedies also seems to bring quick politicization. In some ways, this is a positive — the coverage on social media will (hopefully) bring necessary attention to the events in Ferguson, Missouri. The outpouring of sadness in the wake of Robin Williams’ death may generate much-needed awareness about mental illness.

But the immediate politicization of tragey is also problematic. In the wake of the Ferguson shooting, I saw an argument arise on Twitter between two activists, Suey Park and Tim Wise, about the idea of privilege and the appropriate ways of being an ally in discussions of race. After Robin Williams’ death, debates over suicide and mental illness sprang up on social media. This is not new: after the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, there were immediate calls for gun-control, for arming teachers, for tighter screening of gun owners.

These conversations are important, no doubt. We need to talk about the entrenched racism that surrounds the events in Ferguson. We need to discuss mental illness, and guns, and privilege, and all of the other hard issues that tragedies bring to the surface.

But perhaps, first, we need a little time to mourn, alone or together, individually or through our networks. Perhaps, as outsiders looking in on tragic situations, we can just let grief be grief, for a little while at least.