When the authentic audience is a hostile audience

Image copyright Joakim Westerlund. Used under cc license.

As an English teacher who really loves to focus on strengthening my students’ writing skills, I’m often reading about better ways to do so. Because as a (wannabe? struggling?) writer myself, I know that I don’t have all the answers as to what makes great writing, let alone all the answers on how to transfer that great writing to the mind of another person. So I seek answers elsewhere while knowing that I have to continue to focus on the all-important fundamentals of writing: fully fleshing out and organizing your ideas, writing a full draft and then (most importantly) revising that draft before presenting a final copy. Often lately, I have heard the same phrase repeated over and over in what I’ve read: authentic audience.

I’ve posted on this before and at the risk of repeating myself (which you don’t want me to do) or quoting myself (which … ugh), I’ll just say that my feelings on what so many refer to as an “authentic audience” are mixed. On one hand, students getting their work out to an audience wider than simply their teachers and classmates can be a fulfilling and rewarding experience and it can push them in the direction of trying to develop those skills further and becoming better writers.

On the other hand, I still think that the phrase is used to further put teachers in their place by people who obviously don’t think that teachers play an important enough role in education. Yes, I’m painting with a very broad brush in that last sentence, but there is a passive-aggressive “you’re not good enough” thing going on in the insistence on giving them an “authentic audience.” And then there is the fact that this authentic audience that is so sought after is often sought using the internet. After all, “student work + authentic audience + technology = INNOVATIVE!,” right?

Well, that would be absolutely great if the internet was a field of amber waves of grain where there are rainbows and puppy dogs and lollipops all the time, but let’s be authentic here: you don’t need a “digital native” to tell you that the internet is more like a dark forest filled with trolls and pornography. Okay, you can avoid the pornography pretty easily, but one of the big downsides of the internet’s biggest upside is that while the internet has been able to give everyone a voice, that voice can often be anonymous and particularly nasty.

Again, this is nothing new. Anonymous idiots and trolls have been around since before I got my very first email account in the fall of 1995. Entire studies have been done on how we feel safe hurling vulgarities at someone from behind the cloak of anonymity that a user name can provide. Want some proof? Take a look at the current campaign of harassment being waged against Anita Sarkeesian, who runs a great blog called The Feminist Frequency and has been looking for funding via Kickstarter for a video series she calls Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. A look at the video on Kickstarter shows what promises to be a great series–in fact, I’ve been looking at some of her other entries and am going to go and watch her previous series, Tropes vs. Women  because what I’ve seen so far is brilliant–and being that there is quite an amount of negative depictions of women in our popular culture, a necessary piece of education.

However, as detailed on both FF and in a couple of other blogs, her trailer for Tropes was the recipient of an enormous amount of trolling by means of misogynistic comments that were often vulgar, harassment that got so bad that her Wikipedia page was even vandalized with porn, as detailed in “The All-Too-Familiar Harassment Against Feminist Frequency, and What the Gaming Community Can Do About It” on The Mary Sue [warning: language]:

Whether or not you like Sarkeesian’s work is utterly moot. You might disagree with some of her points. You might disagree with all of her points. You might even vehemently disagree. That’s not the issue here. The issue lies in this: A woman declared her intent to publicly voice her opinions about video games. For that, she was called a bitch, a whore, a slut, a cunt, a dyke, and a baffling assortment of racial slurs. She was threatened with violence, rape, and death. She was told to shut her mouth, get back in the kitchen, and die of cancer. Her video was repeatedly flagged for terrorism in an effort to get YouTube to pull it. Her Wikipedia page was defaced with pornography and profanity. All for the crime of being a woman talking about women in video games. No, not for being a woman talking about video games. For being a woman who had announced that she would, at some point in the future, be talking about video games.


There’s also a piece on Wired, “Feminist Take on Video Games Draws Crude Ridicule, Massive Support,” which gives another good account of the story.

Now, I could easily go the route of the paranoid teacher/administrator and claim that the internet is a tool of the devil and there’s a good reason that so much is blocked at schools via chastity belt-like filters, but to me taking away the opportunity to share students’ work over the internet is not a proper response to the type of jackassery that can occur on sites like YouTube, neither is keeping student work off of YouTube or Twitter or Facebook or whatever site that you or I as a teacher choose to use. Oh sure, it probably will get you out of any potential trouble, but let’s be authentic here, right? I suppose filters would be one approach, especially if you are thinking of CYA. I have a comment filter on this blog, although it’s really only there to catch spam and not filter those who are anonymous or are posting things I disagree with (I’m sure you’ll forgive me if I block comments that encourage my readers to buy Viagra from a site that steals your bank account information), and there are plenty of websites out there that are well-moderated so that commenters do not post vulgarity or threats toward writers or that the conversation doesn’t go completely off topic (read any article about President Obama and then follow the comments to the point where the TEA Party nutjobs start chiming in and you’ll know what I mean), so it’s not out of the question.

But is that just a lighter form of the firewall that is put there to “protect” students? Not that it’s not our job to protect students, of course.

See how complicated this gets? If you stop thinking about how the internet is a wonderful place to do things and that every authentic audience is going to shower you in bright-eyed compliments, you begin to see how complicated putting work out for an “authentic audience” really is, and why it’s not something that you as a teacher should half-ass.

First, you have to acknowledge that giving students the opportunity to create does not automatically mean that they will amaze you with their creativity. Some will blow you away, yes; however, some will come up with something half-baked because it needs to be turned in.

Second, you also have to acknowledge that some of your students do not particular want that lauded “authentic audience.” Oh sure, there are natural performers who will relish any opportunity to show off how awesome they are at writing/singing/dancing/filming/whatever it is; however, there are kids who are brilliant writers who would rather die than share their work with the general public. Sure, they’ll give it to you because you’ve asked for it or you’re grading it, but putting it out for everyone to see is the last thing they want to do (and the last thing they’ll ever do — their poetry might be just their therapy as opposed to their desired career).

Third, you cannot completely shield students from criticism. You obviously don’t; after all, you spend a decent amount of your nights critiquing their work. But there is a hostility out there that they need to be prepared for and exposed to. In other words, there is a vast difference between”writing” and “publishing” and both teachers and students need to be well aware of that difference.

Okay, so don’t throw them to the wolves or anything like that, but when you are gearing up for that big project–that innovative, tech-filled, students-centered project with an authentic audience–remember that one of the fundamentals that you should be teaching is that of VAP. Voice. Audience. Purpose. One affects the other affects the other in that particular equation, and when you intend to publish your writing, no matter who the audience, you have to account for how that audience will react. Hopefully, they’ll have the common decency to not be jackasses.


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