While I’m planning a full “overview” reflection on EduCon 2.6, I was (pardon the pun) privileged to participate in a conversation entitled “The Privileged Voices in Education”, facilitated by Audrey Watters and Jose Vilson. Audrey has written about the session on her blog, and Jose has written about it on his blog, so you can refer to those for context. But I want to talk about my takeaways from that wonderful session and what came after while it’s fresh in my mind, and then work on a more general EduCon post.

Privilege

This is a Hard Topic to address in a meaningful way that actually effects change. It’s a hard topic to broach in general. I applaud Audrey and Jose for creating this EduCon session, for their facilitation of the conversation, and I’m in awe of how civil, insightful, and enlightening the discourse was.

Let me start by confessing: as often happens, I was unable to make it through the discussion without saying something (at the very least) bothersome. I talked about my initial reaction to #edchat, a hashtag-based recurring event for educators on Twitter, as an offhand preface to the difficulty of certain discussions in diverse media. Tom Whitby, founder of #edchat, was in the room. This actually opened a (in my opinion) constructive dialogue ex post facto, but I’ll return to this later.

The Session

This was the dialogue I want to have about privilege. We discussed and defined privilege, race/class/gender/etc., micro-aggressions, and all of the many terminologies applied in analyzing privilege. Coming from an extreme left-wing political background, it was the first time it occurred to me that there is a certain privilege inherent in knowing the terminology used to discuss privilege. So the discussion on definitions, and the subjectivity inherent in the very nature of, i.e., the experience of micro-aggression, was a valuable conversation.

Audrey and Jose did an admirable job facilitating the conversation, and although my purpose in attending EduCon was to learn more about current progressive practices in pedagogy, educational technology, and professional development (it was a work trip, after all), this was the most meaningful session to me in terms of my own experiences trying to address these difficult topics in my own day-to-day conversations, and my desire to elevate the level of discourse above snarky tweets and Hacker News comments.

Note: I’ll update this post when the video becomes available… it’s worth a watch.

I think everyone in that session came away with a better understanding of the effects of privilege on their daily lives and professional practice — educators and technologists alike.

Mon Faux Pas

I mentioned that I made a comment about #edchat that caused a bit of a stir after the fact… I’ll talk about that now. I was marveling at how well the session was addressing these issues, and wanted to talk about how hard it is to dive into sensitive, emotionally charged topics such as this in a medium like, for instance, Twitter. I mentioned my initial reaction to #edchat, i.e., “this is completely the wrong tool for this use case.” It was an aside I used to preface my comments on how much more productive I thought the conversation we were having (and the way we were conducting it) was vs. the usual privilege discussions on Twitter (and even blog posts, or HN posts) typically go.

I unwittingly made a comment, that without context, was interpretable as a criticism or dismissal of #edchat itself, and that was certainly not my intention. Tom wrote a blog post addressing my comment (and defending #edchat) here, which you should read. My apology (both in the modern sense, and in the sense of ἀπολογία), is in the comments. Both worth reading, for context.

My increasing disdain for Twitter for any kind of serious discussion is really about context. Twitter is, by design, a global cocktail party. You hear a comment that intrigues, enrages, or otherwise engages you, and you hop to another conversation, and then to another. That’s the intent. I won’t go to the detail I did in my comment, but I’m glad educators find #edchat useful. That’s fantastic. I still believe there are better tools for the use case, but knowing about other, perhaps less accessible, tools, is part of my privilege derived from living in software. So I’m not criticizing there.

I do believe that topics like privilege cut to the core of our existence as being-with-others (forgive my Heideggerian moment) to a degree that the stripping away of context that Twitter facilitates makes addressing Hard Topics that much harder.

Mea Culpa (Secunda Parte)

I’m no angel when it comes to having constructive dialogue in (I hate myself for using this word) “cyberspace.”

I’m fairly antisocial by nature, and I tend to deflect with (often inappropriate) humor. For people who know me well, it tends to be endearing. For completely anonymous environments (IRC, 4chan, etc.), it’s dismissable. Twitter (among other social platforms) is weird in that you’re interacting on a personal level with strangers or semi-strangers.

I don’t play well with others, at least until I know them well. Even then, my default response is the humor-deflection coping mechanism. I’ve definitely fucked up in the past in these Twitter discussions, from referencing The Rules Of The Internet to addressing Daniel Tosh’s terrible riposte to an audience member’s response to his joke about rape jokes within the frame of reference of “comedy club culture” and “heckling” instead of prioritizing the impact on the woman who initiated the critique.

There are ups and downs to doing a major in Philosophy and a minor in Women’s Studies. For the first part, and maybe this is endemic to post-structuralists, it gives you the leeway to critique anything, at any time, on any basis. The critique may be correct (within a narrow frame of reference), but cannot subsume the human, emotional factor in the response it will (often predictably) invoke.

I have also denigrated Radical Feminism as a degenerate, self-destructive current within feminism (as opposed to Third-wave Feminism, Marxist Feminism, Postfeminsim, etc.), not intending to offend RadFem advocates, but simply as an extrapolation of my work (supported by my professors), on the theoretical insufficiency/incoherence of RadFem (and most second-wave feminism). I’ve had these conversations in person (and in symposia), and it was most productive; on blogs and Twitter, they become a perceived threat; whether to received dogma or social positioning I do not know. I don’t want reiterations of my undergrad theses to become a perceived micro-aggression. I don’t hate people who consider RadFem a constructive analysis of their social situation, and perhaps it is a privileged position to consider philosophy qua philosophy; but I do not see a possibility of constructive dialogue without the possibility of objective reasoning about basic concepts.

Privilege as #firstworldproblem

We have to admit, at some point, that the ability to discuss privilege is, in and of itself, a privilege. In sub-Saharan Africa, one does not have the opportunity to discuss the privilege of the warlords who have conscripted one, at the age of eleven or twelve, into an “army” intent on the rape, murder and subjugation of surrounding villages.

This is the irony of discussing privilege: to do so, one must have the degree of privilege which allows for its discussion.

Prior to this, there is only the experience of extreme oppression, which does not provide room for dialogue; productive, civil, antisocial, shrill, or otherwise.

Contrary to popular belief, irony is not always comedic. It has equal standing in tragedy. If nothing else, Aeschylus taught us this. For that matter… Shakespearean tragedy hinges on irony. The fact that ironic humor is the default mode of irony… I blame ignorance of classical drama, and hipsters.

Privilege Checking Is Hard

One of the things I appreciated about Audrey and Jose’s session at EduCon was that it made it much easier to engage in reflection before responding. One of the reasons for my critique of Twitter as a medium for Important Topics was that there’s an impetus to reply immediately, without time to reflect. There’s also decontextualization, opening oneself up to misinterpretation, etc.

Privilege checking is hard. My first (emotional) response to Tom’s post was to this:

That was when it occurred to me that he might be speaking from a position of privilege as an educator who is exposed to education discourse. He certainly is an educator who was afforded an opportunity to attend a $200 conference in Philadelphia. His experience is not that of educators in other regions of America and even further from those of educators outside America.

My initial reaction was: doesn’t that exact analysis apply to everyone in this room?

You can read my comment (linked above) which (among other things) explicates the the false assumptions (i.e., that I’m an educator) in the post; but that isn’t the issue. I’m trying really hard to check my privilege in these kinds of conversations. Clearly, though, it’s hard for everyone, not just me. We need people to call us out. We need people to help us check our privilege. That’s what community is about. What I saw in the session, however, that was different from my typical experience was this: I’m going to check my own privilege, then explain how you can do the same. Often, what I’ve seen on the interwebs is more along the lines of “You need to check your privilege or GTFO.”

Sadly, this seems to be about as constructive (albeit far less sexist) as the 4chan response of “Tits or GTFO.”

Concluding Unscientific Postscript

Whatever else happened, I think this was one of the most illuminating sessions at EduCon. As I mentioned in my reply to Tom’s blog post, I think we in the hacker community can learn things from the way this conversation unfolded in the 90 minutes allotted.

To that end, I’d like to suggest to my new friends in the education community, that they might like to engage with some of the folks in the hacker community who are working on this very issue. The following list will include people I’ve come to respect and appreciate, and people I’ve disagreed with both vehemently and disagreeably. N.B. the two sets pretty much have a 100% intersection, and names might be either IRL or nom de web.

And anti-oppression hackers, here are some educators you might like to follow:

There’s so much more to be done, and so much more to be said. This post deserves a sequel, which I hope I will have time to provide in the near future. I want to address so much more, but I’ve already gone on for (prior to these parens, 1,845 words according to wc), and I think that’s enough for one post.

I’m inclined to see how the comments go and direct my follow-up from there. Thanks for reading, please be civil in the comments, and let’s work together to find constructive ways of addressing the issues that lie just beneath the surface in our cultural milieu.