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.