Source: Matt Cornock (Flickr)
On one hand, labels stifle us. They box us in. They present only one aspect of who we are and push to the back the thousand other things that make us a complex, complicated, mess of a human being.
On the other, labels are shorthand. They communicate quickly where our hearts and minds reside. When we select a label by which to identify, we are communicating to the world what we value, cherish, or see as important.
Labels we chose to apply to ourselves can offer comfort and camaraderie. Labels applied to us by others can denigrate and dismiss. They are a ridiculous way to describe a human being. They are the best tool we have for creating social groups and communities. They’re terrible and they’re wonderful. At the same time.
With and because of their strengths and flaws, labels prime us. When it comes to conversations that take place on Twitter, that priming plays a role for both the account holder and those who interact with them. On Twitter, we can pick whatever words, including labels, we want to use to describe us. The space in our bio communicates quickly who we are and how we identify. It gives a cheat sheet to the reader. Identify as a Red Sox fan and Yankees fans will know where you stand. “Grade 5 Teacher” in their bio? They know a bunch of ten-year-olds and don’t need their time wasted being told about “kids these days.” Which brings us to accounts with the word feminist in their bio.
2015 was the year I labeled myself a feminist.
I picked the label because I wanted to identify myself with a community. I’ve done my homework, and I keep going back for re-education. I try to focus on intersections and systems, not just individuals and events. I know I can’t control what a reader is primed to think when they see the word but I’m not ashamed or worried about what the label implies. I picked it. I find comfort and camaraderie in it.
2016 was the year I decided to act like a feminist on Twitter.
Adopting a label doesn’t come with a rule book so I bumbled around a bit, trying to figure out what that might look like. I started by culling and updating who I follow. I kept track of who I re-tweeted and at what frequency. I set up my own website to share thoughts in 140 plus and I sketched out the plans for a podcast with an education and feminist bent. The year started off quietly — I mostly burned my bras off-line. It wasn’t until February that I actually used the word feminism in a tweet. However, on January 5th, I started using the phrase “paired texts” (it took me til October to wise up and use #pairedtexts to make them easier to track.) My first paired text was about birth control in response to a post written by a male, conservative education reformer. In 2016, I tweeted out paired texts or text sets 350 times. It wasn’t my goal to do it once a day but it appeals to my data-loving heart that it kinda almost worked out that way.
I think it was around this time that Twitter lifted the character limit on DMs so I ended up having a whole bunch of really interesting conversations with conservative men around birth control and abortion. Some of those conversations are still happening, some of them ended with one of us blocking the other. I started 2016 by navel-gazing about being blocked. By November, I no longer cared about being blocked.
In late January, a Canadian educator and passionate progressive, Joe Bower, passed away and it was sudden, surprising, and sad. He and I had been exchanging thoughts in 140 snippets, emails, and blog comments since 2010, back when I had the handle DataDiva, and though we disagreed vehemently around details, we agreed on core values. Having a discourse partner as stubborn and as committed to an idea as you are is a rare gift, provided you’re both willing to bend. I don’t know if Joe identified as a feminist but I suspect he would have if asked.
In February, I went all in around intersections and feminism. I was fascinated by the role of white women in this system made in our image. Writing it helped me identify where my passions and interest were really anchored. I decided to give it a voice and words and I wrote a book manuscript to go with the idea. Kinda? Maybe? I struggled with negotiating the space between writing about teachers and loving teachers. I focused on being a better, more precise writer. Between February and December 2016 I used the phrase “white and female” when talking about the teaching profession more than a dozen times so I got better at explicitly describing demographics.
In March, I made the decision to speak up about something written by one of Joe’s co-authors, Alfie Kohn. Unlike Joe who would respond to any and all tweets, Kohn doesn’t respond to any. He wrote a piece about technology and it made me a bit cranky. It went… well-ish? Since Kohn doesn’t directly engage on Twitter, I’ve no idea if he read my piece but friends of his did and shared their thoughts.
In May, I became full on obsessed with patterns. I started to pay more attention to who was saying what and speaking up. Sometimes it went well and the conversation ended with a “I hadn’t thought about that” but more often it ended with:
So I shifted from observing patterns to actively working to interrupt them. And sweet chickens, I could give a master class in passive-aggressive-aggression around butting in. I clarified tweets with the word “but” 127 times. I apologized 2 dozen times and was aggressive enough on several occasions that I was blocked. I was very single-minded in my focus — despite education being a female-dominated profession, women are mis- and under-represented, overlooked and treated differently than male experts and educators. This, to me, was made explicit in how the field responded to Angela Duckworth — not her science, not her theory, but her personally. She came to the forefront of EduTwitter in 2016 when her book was published. I put down some words about her and had some conversations.
In July, a male reader of my blog kindly read all of my posts and submitted comments on them as he read. He stopped, alas, before he got to Overconfident Men. Double alas, I never approved his comments and they’ve disappeared from the comment queue so I can’t revisit them.
A blogger on Ed Week sent out a call around feminism in education and I did some research around the representation of female leaders. And with each post I wrote or assertive tweet I sent, I recognized the hubris in assuming my words would change anything or that I was always right. But, I’d come to dislike more the feeling of regret after not speaking up. Along with the hubris and regret came frustration about patterns and inaccuracy. I tried to organize my frustration into thoughts when I spoke up about a clear wrong and was told I wasn’t qualified to speak up. I was told I was wrong a lot in 2016. I met a bunch of cool new people and had a bunch of neat conversations.
The pattern endures. Men lead.
Women teach, guide, and support.
In September, I had a bit of a “come to Steinem” sort of moment. I saw an exchange that was, to me, a clear parallel to what happened with Duckworth as a critique on social media become about the woman not her work. Quick summary of what happened: Professor A, an expert in field A, saw a handout designed by Professor B, an expert in field B. The handout had mention of something from field A and Professor A felt it was wrong, wrong, wrongly wrong, wrongest. So Professor A shared a correction on Twitter. The tweet included a picture of a handout with the corrections and Professor B’s Twitter handle right in the middle of the tweet. Which meant everyone who followed Professor A saw it and unless Professor B happened to check Twitter mentions right then, they saw it before Professor B. And howdy oh boy, did Professor A’s followers have opinions: “How much money is [Professor B] making off education right now?” and “Why can’t you just admit you are in the wrong, [Professor B]?”
Patterns aren’t always nefarious. Sometimes they’re just patterns. But sometimes the majority of avatars replying to and about Professor B belong to men. Their avatars presented as male faces and their Twitter handles had names like David, Adam, Carl, Robert, Mark, and Joost. And here’s where theory becomes practice. Professor B is Jo Boaler: a smart, kind, patient, always enthusiastic mathematics educator and researcher. Jo and I followed each other on Twitter and hadn’t connected much. I did, though, know she’s gone through the wringer. What’s more, the pattern Jo describes in her post isn’t unique — other women from academia have shared similar experiences.
How we chose to describe the pattern I saw, I suspect, relates back to the labels we assign ourselves. I connected the pattern to systemic sexism — in academia and social media. In I jumped. I raised the issue of not giving Jo a heads up in private and the unintended consequences of calling out a woman in public. Cue the tweets telling me I was being silly, sexist, and quibbling over details. Talking about the finer points of social media discourse in the midst of a social media tweetstorm is well… about as effective as it sounds. But *stomps foot*, I was determined to do it.
Many of those in the thread who I suspect would label themselves as an academic appeared to see it as critiquing someone who got their field wrong and oh, by the way, if they brought up other stuff, well… it’s important people know about that other stuff. The discussion became one of those mighty threads that ended because of exhaustion, not because of closure. I was annoyed and insulted. Jo was hurt and insulted. Professor A was defended and possibly insulted. Jokes were made (but not by me) about safe-spaces and PC culture. I’d like to say it ended with hugs and bridge-building. It didn’t. A month after the exchange petered out, the following appeared in Jo’s mentions:
And then, while working on this year-end review, I came across this.
(I want all the cookies for the self-control it took to obscure the handle because it’s not about him. It’s about patterns.) And we’re reminded that even good, kind, smart men can be sexist. Heck, even good, kind, smart women can do things that contribute to sexism. Case in point? Professor A is Dr. Yana Weinstein. And because the difference between calling someone a sexist and saying, “this is sexist” isn’t often recognized, the implication here is not that Dr. Weinstein is sexist and Dr. Boaler’s work is above reproach. Rather, it’s that even academics can fall victim to forgetting the person at the other end of a Twitter account is a full person with feelings and emotions and that social media is a different beast than a critique published in a peer reviewed journal.
I tried to remember that lesson as we went into the final push before the 2016 elections; that people could not support the candidate I wanted them to support and still be decent human beings. Shocking, I know. I worked on a local campaign, knocked on doors, declared #ImWithHer on Twitter, and talked politics with friends and family until it became untenable.
Just before the election, I had a crisis of conscious around whom I deemed worthy of defense from a feminist perspective. A former Sanders’ supporter, turned Jill Stein advocate, raised the issue in my Direct Mentions that women weren’t speaking up around the sexism leveled against Stein. I kinda hemmed and hawed. I could point to explicit things that happened around Clinton or female education researchers and say, “This. This is sexist because…” but with Stein, I couldn’t finish the sentence. Which lead me into a loop of introspection and reflection around for whom, why, and when I make the choice to speak up. I messed it up earlier in the year when I reflected on an EduColor chat and I knew right away after that I was wrong and I could totally be wrong again and I’m really just a bad feminist after all because I’m not seeing what I got wrong about Stein and ….
The election happened. So many white, college-educated women voted for Trump, demographics say teachers voted for him. I planned on writing a whole series around different demographics but I couldn’t find the words after the first post. I was one of the many bewildered white liberal Americans who had lost sight of just how deep racism and sexism go in our country. And then I got angry that more white, liberal Americans hadn’t bother to vote. I was primed for a fight when more than few male educators immediately put the blame on Clinton and the female presidents of the the major education unions. One particular post, listed the names of all of the people who should be fired because they supported Clinton and not Sanders. When I pointed out in a rather ranty rant that all of the names he listed belonged to women, I was eventually given this advice.
And I thought, isn’t that kind of him. Isn’t that lovely. I’d offer him the label of “mansplainer” but he blocked me and I suspect he wouldn’t like that label.
I spent the middle of November, like many, trying to reconcile what happened with what I thought was going to happen. I changed my avatar to a safety pin. I changed it back. My husband and I put Black Lives Matter stickers on our cars. We took another look at how we invest, shop, and donate. I went back for more education and double-checked to make sure I was following as many Black feminists as possible.
Then, the other proverbial shoe dropped. The new PEOTUS released the name of his proposed Secretary of Education and she introduced herself to the field by saying:
That’s the first thing she wants us to know about her. She’s a grandmother. A statement that would make some of the earliest education reformers delightfully happy. The person that will be leading a profession that is 75% female — a demographic that has a long history of sexism behind it — wants America to know, first and foremost, she identifies with the label “grandma.” My mind… it does boggle.
Then, at the end of November, this blog post was published on Ed Week’s site and just like that, I saw the bottom of my bag of righteous, feminist anger. The field, as they say, was empty.
I have no idea what 2017 holds for me personally or for this profession and institution I hold so dear. I know I’ll continue to learn, unlearn, and learn better. I’m hoping I can refill my bag of righteous anger. I hope I can find the words again to speak up and out. I hope I can meet some new minds at the intersection of feminism and education and persuade them to think differently.
That’s what I hope. But then I get advice like this:
… and I think, goodness, what labels would he ascribe to me?