What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Connectedness

October was “Connected Educator Month.” In the US, it was also National Bullying Prevention Month. And in the midst of all of this was “Gamergate.” How do we reconcile the possibilities and the dangers of online connections? How do we, as Bud Hunt asks here, shine a light into some of the dark corners of the Internet? How do we help our students navigate these shadows?

For several years now, October has been celebrated by many educators across the country as “Connected Educator Month.”  Teachers flock to Twitter, Facebook and other social media spaces to proclaim the value of social media for teaching and learning, and they emphasize the need to bring students and teachers into social media spaces.

I certainly believe in the power of connectedness as an educator who has blogged and podcasted and tweeted and otherwise taught publicly with my students for the last ten years.  But social media spaces, like the physical spaces of teaching and learning, are complicated.

October is also National Bullying Prevention Month, in case you missed it, and that’s ironic because we’ve seen some pretty epic online bullying taking place around issues in gaming and gamers and the perceptions of some that gaming culture and many games themselves are shallow and demeaning in their depictions of female characters. Gamergate is all over mainstream media now, with even Stephen Colbert doing a segment on the controversy on a recent show. And, as Gamergate has reminded us, online threats can easily spill over into real world fear, uncertainty, and hostility.

Here in my hometown, we’ve experienced a significant online mess in the midst of a conversation around the name of a soon-to-be-opening restaurant. Friends and colleagues questioned the owner about the connotation of the name and what it might imply to other members of the community.  A hailstorm of rage and ridicule ensued in comments and emails and letters to the editor.

The questionable, potentially offensive, and violent behavior of grownups in these online spaces has much to teach us about online community, safety, and discourse.  These are difficult conversations to have, and I’m not seeing them happening in the rich and thoughtful ways they need to be happening among educators and in our schools.

This makes sense, of course.  Educators in the United States don’t even agree on the definition of “bullying.” So we have trouble recognizing it when it plays out online.  And we’re hesitant to engage in conversation around issues of power, bullying, and speech when they are playing out in real time.

I’ve been online with students for ten years, remember, and I’m still not sure how best to handle issues of online harassment and abuse.  And I’m, according to many, an “expert” on this.

How Do We Speak About & Respond to Online Harassment?

A few weeks ago, as I watched friends on Twitter attempt to respond to what had devolved to hateful and hurtful threats and name calling (yes – Gamergate), I did something I’ve never done before.  I reported a user to Twitter for what I found to be blatant harassment – outright threats of violence, repeated, after the target had requested they cease.

Twitter has easy to use automated tools for this.  It only took seconds.  The response I received, also quite quickly, was chilling and frightening and kind of made sense – Twitter wouldn’t allow me to file a claim on behalf of someone else.  The target of the alleged harassment had to take that stand for Twitter to investigate.  I couldn’t stand up for a friend in the torrent of anger in an online shouting match.

That feels like one more boulder in the way of forward progress in building communities online that we can be proud of.  If we can’t, in the eyes of the services that host these online communities, stand together against anger and vitriol, then why should we be putting our students into spaces like these, with people like these, engaged in conversations like these?

To be expected as teachers to facilitate these conversations can be so discouraging and scary that we avoid them all together.

These are hard conversations to have.  And acting in the best interests of ourselves and our communities is hard enough as individuals, but to, as teachers, be expected to facilitate these conversations can be so discouraging and scary that we avoid them all together.

But we can’t allow our students or colleagues to hop onto the Internet, to embrace “connectedness,” if we’re not ready, willing, and, in some small way, eager to address these issues head on.  We’re teachers.  We teach.  There’s learning that needs to happen here.

Seeing Children And Developing Students

A few days ago, I was sitting in a preschool lobby waiting for a staff meeting to begin.  A young lady, probably just about four, was playing with a puzzle as she waited for her mommy to arrive.

She’s cheerful and talkative, showing her Ariel necklace to the receptionist and fiddling with puzzle pieces.  Eyes bright.  Ready for the world and all it can offer her.

And I saw her only worry was when would her mother arrive, one easily held at bay by the warm smile of the receptionist and the allure of the puzzle in front of her.

In my work as a teacher, I have big dreams for these young people. That they’ll do amazing things. That they’ll challenge wrongs. That they’ll explore new ways of doing things.  I think most teachers dream big like this for their students.  We hope for the best.

But we don’t ever wish or hope that they’ll be harassed, shamelessly harassed or demeaned only because they challenge those paradigms.

How To Shine the Light?

I’m a white male with an established Web presence, a steady job, and a reputation for solid online behavior.  All of those attributes seem to give me a bit more protection online than my friends who might happen to be of color, or female, or otherwise in a perceived minority position.  And I’m frightened of some of what I’ve seen in response to reasonable calls for change by my friends and colleagues involved in Gamergate conversations and the conversations occurring in my hometown.  It seems that change, or the potential of it, can deeply, deeply frighten folks, and fear turns quickly to anger.  And that anger just rushes forth.  Stopping that is bigger than online/offline dynamics, but is important.  Essential.  And the stuff of public life in schools.

How can we balance the need to help students navigate these online spaces with a desire to keep them safe?

I’m not certain of the best way forward.  I know that hiding or avoiding the issues here is certainly wrong, but I don’t know the right first steps.  And the bromides of “use pseudonyms” or “use walled gardens” don’t do the job.

We must help students to participate in the world.

I remember introducing blogs to some high school counselors several years ago, and suggesting that they might be spaces where they could follow along and check into the lives of the students in their schools.  They were frightened of what that might mean for them, and what they might be expected to do beyond their work days.  I understand that fear and hesitancy.  But that ship has also sailed.  If our schools are to be places of care and concern for our students, we must, from time to time, go forth into the world with them, eyes open and ready to teach, to help, to model.  We must help them to participate in the world.

Power Anger Fear

In watching the Gamegate controversy unfold in the midst of Connected Educator Month — the juxtaposition of those two contexts appearing daily in my Twitter feed — I am struck by how urgently we are encouraged to connect online, and to bring our students into online environments. Without as much urgency, at least at first blush, on helping us navigate once we get there.

No one is asking us to protect our students from harassment. What are we connecting to?

Who builds the nodes in Connected Educator Month, or other celebrations of connected learning, around supportive cultures and preventing sick and dangerous and hurtful communities?  Where and when does school talk about care?  How do we redirect seemingly inane goals of “connecting” beyond upping friend, follower, and subscriber counts towards notions of community and care and concern for each other, especially in places and conversations that are fraught with anger, frustration, and deep, deep potential for harm?

How Do We Teach Kindness to Strangers?

I say often that the Internet isn’t good or bad. It’s a mirror of our best and worst selves. And we can be pretty wonderful sometimes.

Other times, we can be downright terrible.

When do we stand with our students and model how to resist bullies?   And how do we reconcile our desire to connect students to a world that is sometimes sick, twisted, and just plain mean?

How do we encourage educators and students to be brave and compassionate and firm with each other and strangers both online and off, and how do we support each other along the way?

I have no idea. But I have three daughters. And only so much time before they are potential contributors to online discourse.

Or only so much time before they are targets.

Image credits: Kevin Dooley

1 thought on “What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Connectedness”

  1. Michael W

    Bud, Thanks for your thoughtful post! As someone encouraging teachers to “connect,” it gave me pause to reflect on the questions you raised.
    I’m currently working with a group of educators in a course on Collaboration and Community with a Global Perspective. One of the assignments is to work towards building a PLN and making connections that could lead to a collaborative project for their students. Another, is to develop a plan for incorporating Digital Citizenship within their curriculum. I see this as a way to tie together the goals of connectedness and the need to talk about care and supportive communities.
    I also have the role of working with parents in our community, talking about parenting in the “digital age.” One of the issues I bring up is the importance of modeling. I share examples (like gamergate) of adults who have not acted appropriately online or using digital tools.
    I too, am a white male with a Web presence, and hopefully a reputation for solid online behavior. It is my hope that by tying together digital citizenship and responsible behavior online with the positive aspects of connectedness, along with modeling positive behavior, that I can support them in the endeavor to be brave, compassionate and firm. At least that is my goal.
    A wise man once said, “Do you ever want to say to folks who scream they don’t want their private lives online: “Maybe you should just try to be a better person.” ? 😉

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