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Expanding the Conversation about Teachers and Blogging

“We should call for institutions to state explicitly what they owe those who venture into public waters.”

 

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Assistant Professor of Sociology

Should teachers blog more?

In his post “Why aren’t you blogging more…“, George Couros conveys an uplifting message about our individual potentials: “You may feel like you have nothing to say, but you do have a story to tell.” We always benefit from listening to more voices, reading more stories, and crafting our hectic lives into narratives. Our lives take a new shape as we try to fit them into stories, as Margaret Atwood writes:

“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”

Storytelling helps teachers to make sense of the whirlwind and wreckage of the classroom as we talk to each other in the hallways about what we might do better next time. Always deeply personal, our stories are lifted up the successes of our students. Committing our stories to writing makes us alive to the craft of words, and journaling has always been a powerful form. But I’m not sure that the availability of digital tools means we teachers need to craft public stories, whether on blogs or twitter.

In his analysis of reasons why teachers might not blog more, Couros considers questions all related to the idea that we are ‘overthinking’, which can of course be a real obstacle to writing and publishing. However, ‘overthinking’ frames the question about blogging in terms of our personal biographies and obstacles we face. In my own biographical story about blogging, I would talk about my personal anxieties about the tension between being critical of what I read and building connections with others. I enjoy writing, but may well-over think what I publish.

I suggest that to understand why most teachers don’t blog, we need to shift our imaginations beyond the biographical stories about the individual obstacles we face towards the sociological analysis that illuminates the larger institutions and forces that influence our lives.

 

The Sociological Imagination

 

In the opening paragraph of The Sociological Imagination (1959), C. Wright Mills writes about how in our daily life, our awareness is  “bounded by the private orbits” of our experience. What lies beyond our awareness of our personal troubles? What imagination do we lack?

Mills makes an important distinction between troubles which “occur within the character of the individual”, and issues which concern the “institutions of an historical society as a whole.” As Mills observes, “people do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change and institutional contradiction,” and so the job of the sociological imagination is to illuminate our internal struggles in the context of history and institutions. Henry Giroux calls our growing inability to do so the ‘new illiteracy‘: we see unemployment as indicative of a character defect, rather than a symptom of larger neoliberal economic and social forces; we see a failure to blog as indicative of the technophobic character of individual teachers, rather than a symptom of increasing labor demands and lack of institutional protections.

We could instead understand blogging as part of a larger issue related to the institutions and structures that make it difficult for teachers to function as public intellectuals. What prevents teachers from making the “pedagogical more political and the political more pedagogical”?

 

Let me come back to one of Couros’ questions in some detail. He suggests that we might ‘overthink’ the question, “What does this make me look like as an educator?” It’s all too easy to slip into personal biographical reasons here: will people judge me for expressing frustration? will this look good to a future employer? what will parents think if I confess that a lesson failed?

These are all valid and important questions, but they’re not the only questions.

Employing the sociological imagination, the question might read more like this: “What institutional and historical factors make teachers vulnerable when they share their thoughts publicly?”

Scott McLeod compares Twitter to offline conversations and implies that we should not worry about such vulnerability: “Because you’re not on Twitter, what you don’t realize is that Twitter is the back fence you share with your neighbors. Except your neighbors are people all over the world.” (The bold is in the original post) However, digital technology makes our communications more visible, spreadable, searchable, and persistent. (danah boyd, p. 12) Networked publics also increase the chances of context collapse, where the norms and expectations of a larger public audience may not align with my expectations as a writer. (boyd, p.31) For example, if I grumble about my students, my neighbor knows the long and hard hours that I put into working with them and the care that I give them, whereas people reading my blog post may not.

I think McLeod is right to emphasize that “educators have certain public and private speech rights that must be legally respected,” but teachers need to be aware of the scope of those rights. Many of the terms spelled out in policy are subject to interpretation. Kimberly W. O’Connor and Gordon B. Schmidt discuss several prominent cases of ‘Facebook firings‘ and advise that “all employees should strongly consider making their own “cost/benefit” analysis when posting any comment on social media.” What happens if an employee publicly criticizes their district’s new iPad initiative? Or exposes that the PD their school pays for is worthless? Or publicly supports Black Lives Matter under Betsy DeVos? Since online posts persist, we also need to anticipate how what might be acceptable now may later draw fire in future contexts.

Blogging makes teachers vulnerable, and we need to think this through on an institutional level. Tressie McMillan Cottom, Assistant Professor of Sociology, suggests that “we should call for institutions to state explicitly what they owe those who venture into public waters.” Original and critical thought is rarely well-received, and women are harassed in comments sections and on Twitter, especially women of color. Audrey Watters, a strong critical voice in Ed Tech, needs to disable the comments section on her blog and proactively block people on Twitter. McMillan Cottom and Watters are brave and we need to carefully listen to their voices, especially when they speak about how history, systems, and institutions shape individual biographies.

 

What does it really mean to be connected and to share?

 

Educators already learn and share in many ways and, on balance, may decide that blogging isn’t worth their time or energy given their range of options. Right now, an important conversation about self-care and community care (read this link!) is taking place in higher-ed, and that should be an explicit topic in any post about teachers and blogging. Maybe cooking, exercise, sleep, or attending a protest are more important uses of our energy. Yes, some people may find blogging and tweeting helps them to recharge and feel connected. However, there’s no technological imperative that makes blogging more important than discussing books and our experiences in person with friends and colleagues.

Going home after work ought to offer us a chance for self-care, however digital technology creates what Melissa Gregg calls the ‘presence bleed’ of work into our home life. The idea that blogging and Twitter offer “a professional development seminar at your fingertips 24/7” creates a kind of flexibility that cuts two ways. In Work’s Intimacy (2011), Gregg argues that this disproportionately affects women. “The flexible workplace facilitated by technology merely enables the opportunity to move long hours around” and it doesn’t change the gendered nature of household work or “reluctance of husbands to engage in household chores.” (Kindle, 832) “Women are prepared to wait until the cooking and cleaning are done, and the rest of the house is asleep, to have time alone to work.” (Kindle, 238) In America, many teachers work second jobs or are single parents (26% of children live in single parent families), and women still do most of the housework.

We need to think through what ‘connecting’ and ‘sharing’ might mean when presence bleed competes with time self-care. I personally prefer reading books and academic articles at night, and discussing them over coffee or lunch with my colleagues as a way to feel connected and share. It allows for honesty without fear of context collapse, and a more vibrant discussion not limited by the length of tweets or having the energy to write. We ought to ask about the quality of connecting or sharing, and focus less on the medium.

The important thing, C.Wright Mills argues, is that you keep a journal, a place for ‘fringe-thoughts’, where you “will try to get together what you are doing intellectually and what you are experiencing as a person” as part of learning “how to keep your inner world awake.” While we might think of such journaling as merely a step towards the ‘real’ intellectual work of writing papers or publishing blog posts, crucially Mills argues that “the maintenance of such a file is intellectual production.” That message should be just as inspiring as the idea that we can all blog because we have stories to tell.

 

Header Image Simon Petrol

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