I’d ask my Thought Leaders about rape, but they’re not talking

Last night, I had the privilege to be on a Twitter chat about Ferguson (h/t to @JessLifTeach).  It wasn’t the only tweetchat about the topic by any means, and I was glad to see a group of teachers talking about what they can do to talk to or teach their students about what has been going on.  Ferguson has come up a little bit, but it’s taken a back seat to a recent Rolling Stone article about rape at the University of Virginia.  This makes sense because we’re just north of Charlottesville.

If you haven’t read the Rolling Stone piece, it’s pretty grisy: a  first-year at UVA was gang-raped at a fraternity party by several fraternity brothers as part of some sort of disgusting initiation ritual.  This story is in addition another story on Jezebel about one student raping several girls and his victims basically being bullied out of school as a result.

#edchat yesterday was asking who the Thought Leaders are in education, a conversation that’s not only incredibly Orwellian in its concept but is an illustration of how Connected Educators are as out of touch with the real world as they say teachers are.

And of course, we aren’t.  We’re reading the news and talking about the news when we get the chance and doing our best to answer questions our students may have.  The problem is that it’s tough to answer those questions and talk about the story without fear of reprisal.  When a student brings up a hot, controversial topic and you want to talk about it with them, your head is bombarded with a mine field’s worth of thoughts.  Trust me, I’ve been there.  My advanced sophomores and I got into a heated discussion about the teaching of evolution a few years ago and two of them felt the need to go to guidance and say that I was “making them feel uncomfortable.”

So when someone, even an honors student, approaches the topic, I do my best to encourage the conversation but the entire time I’m thinking, “How do I stay neutral?  How do I not offend anyone in the room?  How do I keep this conversation civil?  How can I fit this into the curriculum?  How does this not turn into an angry parent phone call at the end of the day?”

Even if I did have a constructive conversation about rape with my students, it wouldn’t be enough.  What’s described in the articles is a cultural problem where boys of privilege are allowed to behave abhorrently and are excused for their behavior.  It’s wrapped up in victim blaming or worse, “tradition,” and it means that girls and women who are sexually assaulted are continuously afraid to tell anyone what happened to them.  And why would they?  They’re crying rape and ruining the lives of those “really nice boys.”  So I need to take a conversation about rape with students beyond a few minutes in my classroom.  How?

The classic response would be an assembly where you get a motivational speaker to come in and talk about why this is wrong.  You could even get news coverage for it.  It worked when that guy came and talked about bullying, didn’t it?  If that sounds cynical it’s because it is.  Those never work because every teenager in the room can see right through it.  Sure, some may come out with a slightly better perspective, but most will turn it into a joke and life will go on.  What’s needed is something along the lines of an actual curriculum.

That, however, is easier said than done.  Too many states have strict abstinence-only sex education policies and would probably rather bury their heads in the sand than acknowledge that: a) teenagers have sex and b) teenagers need to be taught and need to discuss responsible and correct behavior when it comes to sex.  I’m lucky that I had a fairly thorough education about sex, although I could nitpick it apart as well.  What I have seen in my teaching career isn’t very good and I can imagine that if we began to introduce the topic of rape it would become so quickly politicized that it would be shelved to eventually be abandoned and budgetary reasons would be the justification.  Or maybe that’s just my cynical view of things.

When we get back from Thanksgiving, my advanced classes and I will be looking at several essays and short stories that have something to do with the concept of identity and that will be the perfect opportunity to further the conversation.  But I’m frustrated when I see the award-winning Innovative and Connected Thought Leader Educators blabbing on about the same topics, ones that could stand to be put aside for another week or two.  You cannot possibly be wrapped up in your own sense of self-importance that you ignore what’s going on, can you?  If that’s the case, I don’t want to hear anyone tell teachers they need to make their classes “relevant.”

Snark aside, this issue will not go away and if it does it is because we ignored it away.  Changing our attitude and our culture toward rape is going to be difficult and will probably take years, but if we’re really concerned for the safety of our students, we owe it to ourselves to try.




Why we need to talk and keep talking about #GamerGate

I figured if I was going to post a picture of video games, I’d kick it old school. Photo by Kari Sullivan. Used under cc license.

I originally thought about starting this post off with an apology. The #GamerGate controversy has been going on for a while at this point and I had yet to post about it. Furthermore, when I saw a few other bloggers writing posts about it, I had a passing thought of, “Well, then it’s covered” and went back to grading papers, planning lessons, or whatever it is that I was doing. Then I read John Spencer’s recent post as well as the comments on the post and realized that was the wrong approach, too.

Both John and Audrey Watters approached the issue succinctly and eloquently and I encourage anyone reading this post to read those two posts first. But put simply, the issues at hand are those of the threats made against Anita Sarkeesian, who has been not just criticized for her series of videos, “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” but received rape and death threats as well as cancelled a speaking engagement at a university because extra security couldn’t be provided when someone threatened a mass shooting due to Utah’s concealed-carry laws.

Audrey and John both call out the educational technology community for their silence and rightfully so, pointing out how it’s an issue that goes beyond the niche of gamers, especially at a time when “Gamification” is still an edu-buzzword and online learning platforms are being marketed to children as young as preschool.

Audrey’s post does not have comments (at least not ones I could find), but John’s does and they are typical of the type of anonymous trolling this issue has been receiving. A quick sample (Note: they’re all anonymous, so I’m not sure if they are one person or many people):

Maybe the edutech circles aren’t talking about it because they know its not a big deal outside of the militant feminist circles.

The writer wants to take away “neutral spaces” on the internet so they can be policed by an authority. fascism? I’d love to see the objective research done on that. Basically you want to push an agenda without recourse.

Advocating censorship in the guise of concern, the girls I knew never needed to be babied.

You admit that you’re not a gamer so why are you writing about something you don’t even understand?

Some of these completely miss the point of John’s post and others are trying to deflect from the issue. He was questioning why Important Connected Educators and Education Social Media Icons were not addressing this when it clearly is an issue that hits home with a number of students; furthermore, not saying anything about it shows that they are living in an #edtech bubble wherein being online is a happy place where ideas are free to flow without consequence or repercussion.

All is well. Move along. Nothing to see here.

And like I said at the top of this post, I was silent on this until I read John’s post and thought about a few things:

1. Anita Sarkeesian has been dealing with this for two years and has not backed down. When she was seeking funding for her series of videos via Kickstarter, the Kickstarter campaign was similarly trolled and similar threats were made. I actually wrote about it back then in a post called “When the Authentic Audience is a Hostile Audience.” And I’m not saying that to promote my own stuff, but to point out that the whole controversy surrounding Sarkeesian and #GamerGate is not brand new, nor was it ever brand new.

2. While I’m not a gamer myself, I’m a geek. A comic and pop culture geek, to be exact. A month and a half ago, I attended the Baltimore Comic-Con and while the convention was awesome and a great atmosphere, the organizers of the con felt the need to clearly post a policy that read “Cosplay Is Not Consent.” This is in response to stories out of quite a number of comic conventions where women who have dressed up in superhero costumes have found themselves sexually harassed (or worse).

3. On Saturday, while I was getting ready for dinner, the local news here in Charlottesville tweeted that a press conference would be held at 5:30 to discuss a body found on a farm south of town and how that related to missing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham. While an announcement has been made that the Graham investigation is now a death investigation, a suspect is in custody (and has been indicted on a separate sexual assault and attempted murder in Fairfax County), as of this writing the police have not announced the results of lab tests that are currently being run on the body.

So wait, if #GamerGate has to do with video games, why am I bringing up cosplay and Hannah Graham? They’re not connected, are they?

Or are they?

Table any discussion you’d like to have about ethics in video game journalism or the specific video games and tropes that Sarkeesian is talking about in her video series. Both are topics that are worth the discussion and whether or not Sarkeesian is right about what she’s saying in terms of women and entertainment can be debated; in fact, I’m sure she’d welcome a civil debate.

But let’s make one thing clear: rape threats are not civil debate. Threats of violence are not civil debate. Death threats are not civil debate. Sarkeesian is not being “too sensitive” and neither are any of the other bloggers or tweeters who have shared their disgust with the way she’s been treated and threatened.

Of course, I’m not the first person to say this, so why did I finally write this post? Because when I watched John’s post go down in the flames of trolls, I realized that it doesn’t matter if I’m being timely or relevant here; it matters that I’m opening my mouth.

I am a man who is currently raising a boy. I want that boy to grow up to be a strong man who treats his fellow human beings with respect. I do not want him to see an inequality between men and women because I do not believe in inequality between men and women–don’t get me wrong, it certainly exists in our society, but I refuse to contribute to or perpetuate it. I want him to know that violence against anyone is wrong and that rape is a horrible, disgusting, vile act and that to be the better man means not to be the louder man but to be the smarter man, to speak with intelligence and understanding, act with respect and empathy, and give help to those who need it.

And that is the conversation we need to be having in the Connected Educator circles. How do you teach young boys and men not to grow up to make rape threats against a woman because she has said something they don’t like? How do you teach them that just because she has a different anatomical makeup it doesn’t mean she is weaker or somehow lesser? How do you teach them that because she’s wearing a certain outfit, it doesn’t mean that she “wants it?”

When are we going to have that #edchat? When are Innovative Educators everywhere going to talk about that? When are the Education Social Media Icons going to stand up, look around and say, “This is wrong and we need to talk about it?”

I am writing this to add my voice to the myriad others who have said the same thing. And when this post goes down in flames, I will continue to say what I’m saying and I will try and pass the baton to someone else who will write the same thing.

And I want them to do the same.

And I want the next person to do the same.

And the next.

And the next.

This is not a news cycle. This will not end. If it’s not #GamerGate, it’s a football team in Ohio. If it’s not cosplay, it’s a coed in Charlottesville. And it’s bullshit.

This is supposed to be a community and clearly there is a segment of the community that feels that it is not being heard, that it is being ignored, or maybe even worse. Be a true community. Make the next #edchat about this topic and this topic alone. No putting it up for a vote against the usual topics of professional development or formative assessment or teacher dress code (and no, I don’t want to suggest a topic or moderate myself–you should be doing it without me writing about it, that’s my point). You want to truly be an Innovative Educator? Go online and interrupt the bumper sticker sayings that people retweet at an expotential rate with a serious discussion of how to talk to our fellow teachers and our students about what goes on. You want to be an Educational Social Media Icon? Make that the topic of your next widely read, Bammy-nominated blog post. You want to stand for Student Voice? Spend an hour chatting about how you are helping your fellow students overcome bigotry, misogyny, harrassment, threats, and violence.

Take this issue head on. Take it and don’t stop. Shout down the trolls. Encourage, help, and support those who feel victimized, whether it be online or in the hallways at school to stand up for themselves. If you don’t, you’re as out of touch with students as you claim teachers are.

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.