Ouch.

I’ve been away for a bit (as those of you reading this — and I quote — “US person’s boring memoirs about his travel trips” (ahem) already know), and since I’ve been back, I’ve been caught in the thick of semester start-up: first-year advising, grading placement exams, preparing for the first day of classes, and generally attempting to get reacclimated. So I’ve missed some things, over the last two weeks, particularly a great series of posts by both George and Elouise about the relationship between the professorial persona, or at least the imagined version thereof, and the personas we adopt online, in these semi-veiled but nonetheless public conversations.

Well. I find myself flabbergasted by the turn this conversation has taken, a turn that does nothing, in my mind, but highlight exactly the issues that George and Elouise were pointing to in the first place.

It began simply enough: George wondered how his students might respond to finding his blog online, and whether his knowledge that some of them might be reading his musings would alter the nature of his writing. This is a question that resonates for me; the first time a student of mine appeared in my comments, my heart did skip a beat. But that appearance was one of the factors that made me seriously reconsider what I was up to here, and which gave me the courage to unmask, to acknowledge that yep, it’s me, out here where I can be seen, and yep, I take this thing seriously. Elouise seems to have gone through much the same process, and has — way more bravely than I, I think — found ways to face the risks of being seen in all (or at least many) of her facets by those who have only come to know her in one.

But it’s a hard choice to make, deciding to let down the shields that protect us in the classroom, to drop the professor-persona and allow students to see us as fully human, warts and all. And so I absolutely sympathized, and agreed, when Liz suggested a private forum, a support group of sorts, in which blogging profs could talk about such issues in relative safety.

What ensued demonstrates exactly the reason that such a forum would be useful, and may be necessary. Liz’s suggestion was taken, both in the comments on her blog, the comments on Elouise’s, and — most hurtfully, given the ad hominem nature of the attacks there — on Wealth Bondage, as evidence of elitism, of a desire to close students out of a conversation fundamentally about them. Which, it seems to me, it was not: it was a self-protective gesture, a desire to reveal one’s vulnerabilities in a safe place. The furious result, and the bruised response — see George’s response today, as well as Matt’s — are precisely evidence of the dangers of stepping outside one’s perceived persona in this new, at times too-public, space.

6 thoughts on “Ouch.

  1. Well, Bob sure showed how long she devoted to that search.

    What is it about weblogs that inspire such rude responses? Do these people turn on others mid-conversation and say, “I wanted a critique of planned obsolescence & Capitalism and instead you’re talking about your travel trips. I have to say conversation with other people merely clutters my massive brain up with even more narcissistic crap. Please disappear in a few months as your obsolescence becomes apparent. Mother.”

  2. There’s certainly something about anonymity that allows for such rudeness — note Bob’s lack of linkage. It’s a lot harder to look someone in the face and tell him he’s a moron than it is to do so in disembodied, nameless text.

    Of course, even masked and linkless posters leave IP address footprints, so anonymity only goes so far.

    But I think there is something particular about the blog as a form that invites such responses; the author puts herself forward as sufficiently interesting subject matter (whether strictly autobiographical or memoirish or not) to warrant reading, and then — literally — opens the floor to comments. One can imagine that, if there were such a comment function built into the writings of Dave Eggers (to take a not-so-random example), similar rudeness might ensue.

  3. It’s the lack of linkage that gets me, I guess. As if it’s perfectly okay for the fearless critic to annoy you with a thoughtless (and ill-informed) spot of abuse, but heaven forbid you should actually have the ability to respond in a way that will reach them. (Writing about it on your blog doesn’t help much, because they’ve already made it clear they won’t be back.)

    It does have echoes of the professor/student debate you’ve linked in this post, particularly George’s last comment. We’re putting ourselves out here (putting ourselves out, here; putting ourselves out here) – even if it’s not every day or in every possible way, because sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way – and some anonymous blob interprets it as an infringement on their space, or feels they’re entitled to something else, or that webloggers should keep in their place and only write about one narrow subject so as not to taint those precious Google searches.

    But yes, this certainly predates the online world. Used to get similar anonymous morsels in response to student newspaper articles. The comments box just makes it easier.

  4. Welcome back, KF!

    Sometimes I wonder if people don’t try to stir things up just out of boredom. There’s not much substance, imo, to the criticisms of Liz’s call for a private conversation about these issues, and the person/people who started the criticisms don’t seem to have much to contribute in their follow-up comments beyond vague instructions to “Think about…” certain things they’ve already said.

    Ok, whatever.

  5. Hmmm…trying to retrace that academic brouhaha is a tricky one. It makes me think not just about the teaching relationship — the dance between performed authority and committed openness that so many of us have spent so much time on — but about the extreme intensification of the idea of “transparency” that I sometimes see as part of Net or Net-enabled culture. It makes me think of David Brin’s Earth — which posited a society which carried this notion to interesting conclusions.

    It’s hard to disentangle the personalities and their positions at this remove, but (speaking from outside the tower, these days) it does appear that to overly emphasize the “gesture of withdrawl” as an ideologically significant one is to miss out on the notion of “withdrawl” as a human need. Must all forms of activity which touch upon the professional sphere be scrutinized for their contribution to/destabilization of hegemony? Or is that attitude itself — one which denies us the freedom to believe in our choices to share ourselves with the world in a variety of ways — one which confines us, rather than liberates us?

    But maybe I missed the point of it all. I’ll easily submit that I may have.

    A follow-up — why is it that the trolling of some…thing like “Bob” gets our goats? Even I felt the “ouch.” It’s odd, since beyond the rudeness, the idiocy of the remark is plain, the insincerity of the “opinion” rendered even plainer: this particular toad wasn’t actually inconvenienced, but was happy to find an unexpected place to leave his slime.

    I guess it’s the act of rudeness itself that hurts, content aside; the notion that someone would pause and take the trouble to say something shitty. We invest ourselves in the agora, and then someone pisses in the fountain. It’s too bad that “Karma is a Boomerang” has been devalued by its appearance on a million coffeehouse tip-jars. It sums up what I more or less believe about the fate of toads.

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