Article Image
read

Here are the notes and the slides from what is (I hope) my last talk of 2014. I gave this this evening to University of Mary Washington, and then turned around and presented it again (online) to Alec Couros and Katia Hildebrandt's class EC&I 831.

This is (I think) the last public talk I will give this year. It has been the most difficult one to prepare. 

I put a lot of myself — my ideas (obviously) and anecdotes from my life — into my talks. But when asked to speak to you today about gender and educational technology, I have found myself at a bit of a loss as to how much of “me" I wanted to include here, and how much of others’ experiences I felt comfortable invoking as well. 

I have lots to say, don’t get me wrong. I have personal experiences. And I have a Women’s Studies degree, dammit! But to say something publicly — out loud, in person or online, to commit these thoughts to writing, any of it — is a little intimidating at this very moment, particularly as I can still see the fallout from Gamergate and Shirtgate wreak havoc on people’s lives. I consider myself pretty damn fierce and fearless. But I’ve sat staring at a blinking cursor trying to figure out what to say and, I admit, a little apprehensive about potential reactions, particularly if I call out -isms and/or name names.

But I know I have to come right out and say it, because very few people in education technology will: there’s a problem with computer technology. Culturally. Ideologically. There’s a problem with the Internet. Largely designed by men from the developed world, it is built for men of the developed world. Men of science. Men of industry. Military men. Venture capitalists. Despite all the hype and hope about revolution and access and opportunity that these new technologies will provide us, they do not negate hierarchy, history, privilege, power. They reflect those. They channel it. They concentrate it, in new ways and in old.

Harassment — of women, people of color, and other marginalized groups — is pervasive online. It’s a reflection of offline harassment, to be sure. But there are mechanics of the Internet — its architecture, affordances, infrastructure, its culture — that can alter, even exacerbate what that harassment looks like and how it is experienced.

For advocates of education technology, this is a bitter pill to swallow: Internet technologies are not simply generative or supportive; they can be destructive. But this, all of this is an ed-tech issue. It is a technology issue. It is an education issue. It a societal issue. It is a political issue. We cannot ignore it. But that’s precisely what most people in ed-tech seem to do.

In my head, I hear that voice, that response from certain corners of the Internet: “Well, that’s just your opinion, lady."

OK. Sure. Indeed, all my work conceivably falls under the heading “opinion.” My analysis (that’s the term I prefer) is grounded in research, in observation, and in experience. Often I include personal experience narratives too — perhaps as a way to ground my authority in a field in which I am neither formally degreed nor formally employed.

In planning my talk today — specifically when thinking about what I have to say about gender and ed-tech — that opinion feels pretty vulnerable. Or rather, I feel pretty vulnerable. It’s not an intellectual vulnerability. Frankly, I feel some of that all the time. Like: what if this essay is dumb or wrong. What if the thing I think is a brilliant observation is just a mediocre version of what some smarter person wrote last week, last year, a decade ago, and so on. “Imposter syndrome,” I suppose.

I’m talking here about a different some of vulnerability — not intellectual but psychological and physical. That is, my work comes from a body — my body, a marked body. Gendered and therefore not objective. Always subjective. Always opinion. 

Gendered. This is the lens through which I write. It is how I experience the world. White cis heterosexual American female.

It is how I experience the Internet.

There’s that very famous New Yorker cartoon: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The cartoon was first published in 1993 — fairly interesting, I think, because it shows that by the early 1990s, the Internet had achieved if not a popular appeal, then enough of one that those who read the New Yorker could chuckle about the reference. The cartoon demonstrates too this sense that we have long had that the Internet offers privacy and anonymity, that we can experiment with identities online in ways that are severed from our bodies, from our material selves and that, potentially at least, the Internet can allow online participation for those denied it offline.

Perhaps, yes.

But sometimes when folks on the Internet discover “you’re a dog,” they do everything in their power to put you back in your place, to remind you of your body. To punish you for being there. To hurt you. To destroy you. Online and offline.

The following sentence sounds so weird, I realize, when I say it out loud: I have received death threats. I write about education technology; I write online for a living. And I’ve had people respond to my work by saying they wanted to kill me, they wanted to see me die. I’ve had death threats, rape threats — subtle and overt. Most often what I get are the sorts of comments of the type my friend Tressie McMillan Cottom describes as “Who the fuck do you think you are?” comments. I’ve been harassed. I’ve been told to shut up. I’ve been threatened. Some is sporadic; some serial. In response, I’ve taken the comments off my blog. The harassment continues via email. It happens on platforms like Twitter and Facebook and Google+. I block, I delete, I flag at spam. It’s up to me to monitor and respond to this. It becomes part of the “work” I have to do to do my “work” online. I have filed complaints and reports on these social media platforms, but rarely is anything done.

When I tell people that these are my experiences, they often respond, “Are the threats real?” That’s a question that is hard to answer. No, nobody has come to my door. But yes, they are real. I experience them as real. Even if nobody physically hurts me, these threats take a very material toll on me. They affect my work, my mental health, my physical health, my relationship with my partner, my life. 

For a long time, I wondered what it was about my work, about me that was really so controversial. I hear that too. If I could just “soften it up.” “Say nice things every once in a while.” “Smile.” And true, my work is critical, sometimes bitingly, angrily so.

But I know that the threats and the harassment are not, at their core, about the content of my blog posts or the substance of my arguments. They’re not about tech or ed-tech or “ethics in video game journalism.” They are because I am, quite simply, a woman who expresses an opinion on the Internet.

Because I am a woman.

One of my favorite essays is by the writer Rebecca Solnit: “Men Explain Things to Me.” She first wrote the essay in 2008 and since then the term “mansplaining” has become so popular — we use it often to describe the Internet version of men explaining things to women — that she published a whole book on the topic earlier this year.

“Mansplaining” is a microaggression, a practice of undermining women’s intelligence, their contributions, their voice, their experiences, their knowledge, their expertise; and frankly once these pile up, these mansplaining microaggressions, they undermine women’s feelings of self-worth. Women then decide not to speak.

Let me quote Solnit (my apologies, at length):

“...I was in Berlin giving a talk when the Marxist writer Tariq Ali invited me out to a dinner that included a male writer and translator and three women a little younger than me who would remain deferential and mostly silent throughout the dinner. Tariq was great. Perhaps the translator was peeved that I insisted on playing a modest role in the conversation, but when I said something about how Women Strike for Peace, the extraordinary, little-known antinuclear and antiwar group founded in 1961, helped bring down the communist-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities, HUAC, Mr. Very Important II sneered at me. HUAC, he insisted, didn’t exist by the early 1960s and, anyway, no women’s group played such a role in HUAC’s downfall. His scorn was so withering, his confidence so aggressive, that arguing with him seemed a scary exercise in futility and an invitation to more insult.

I think I was at nine books at that point, including one that drew from primary documents and interviews about Women Strike for Peace. But explaining men still assume I am, in some sort of obscene impregnation metaphor, an empty vessel to be filled with their wisdom and knowledge. A Freudian would claim to know what they have and I lack, but intelligence is not situated in the crotch–even if you can write one of Virginia Woolf’s long mellifluous musical sentences about the subtle subjugation of women in the snow with your willie. Back in my hotel room, I Googled a bit and found that Eric Bentley in his definitive history of the House Committee on Un-American Activities credits Women Strike for Peace with “striking the crucial blow in the fall of HUAC’s Bastille.” In the early 1960s.

So I opened an essay for the Nation with this interchange, in part as a shout-out to one of the more unpleasant men who have explained things to me: Dude, if you’re reading this, you’re a carbuncle on the face of humanity and an obstacle to civilization. Feel the shame.

The battle with Men Who Explain Things has trampled down many women–of my generation, of the up-and-coming generation we need so badly, here and in Pakistan and Bolivia and Java, not to speak of the countless women who came before me and were not allowed into the laboratory, or the library, or the conversation, or the revolution, or even the category called human.

After all, Women Strike for Peace was founded by women who were tired of making the coffee and doing the typing and not having any voice or decision-making role in the antinuclear movement of the 1950s. Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. Things have certainly gotten better, but this war won’t end in my lifetime. I’m still fighting it, for myself certainly, but also for all those younger women who have something to say, in the hope that they will get to say it.”

Thanks to feminism, to feminist pedagogy, we can recognize when incidents of mansplaining occurs in academia or in the classroom, right? We can see when a young woman or a person of color perhaps has something terrifically smart to say — perhaps based on their research, their analysis, their personal experience — and a man will interrupt and interject and explain whatever the topic is more loudly, more forcefully, with all the assuredness and the “well, actually” that comes with male privilege.

I think — I hope — that as educators we try to elevate the marginalized voices in our classrooms. Online, we don’t do that so well. The mansplaining can be overpowering.

I speak from experience. On Twitter, I have over 26,000 followers, most of whom follow me, I’d wager, because from time to time I say smart things about education technology. Yet regularly, men — strangers, typically, but not always — jump into my “@-mentions” to explain education technology to me. To explain open source licenses or open data or open education or MOOCs to me. Men explain learning management systems to me. Men explain the history of education technology to me. Men explain privacy and education data to me. Men explain venture capital funding of education startups to me. Men explain online harassment to me. Men explain blogging to me. Men explain, they explain, they explain.

It’s exhausting. It’s insidious. It doesn’t quite elevate to the level of harassment, to be sure; but these microaggressions often mean that when harassment or threats do occur, we’re already worn down. Yet this is all part of my experiences online. My experiences. Women’s experiences. My friends’ experiences. 

I started to make a list of all the women I know who’ve experienced online harassment in the last year or so. Adria. Sarah. Another Sarah. A different Sarah. Sabrina. Brianna. Shanley. Suey. Tressie. Julie. Another Julie. Rose. Ariel. Anita. Kathy. Zoe. Amanda. Ashe. Catherine. Felicia. Mikki. Mia. Melinda. Molly. Lauren. Jenn. A different Jen. Jessica. Jessie. Jess. Caroline. Katie. Sadie. Bridget. Alyssa. Lyndy. Rebecca. Roxane. I could go on, but I have to stop. I should be clear: for many of these women, this harassment has moved offline as well. They’ve been doxxed, for example — that is where your address and phone number and other identifiable information are posted online in forums like 4chan for the specific purpose to offline harassment. 

Take the actress Felicia Day, who recently posted her thoughts about Gamergate — what’s become an ongoing campaign of harassment against women in gaming. "I have tried to retweet a few of the articles I’ve seen dissecting the issue in support, but personally I am terrified to be doxxed for even typing the words 'Gamer Gate'," she wrote.

I have had stalkers and restraining orders issued in the past, I have had people show up on my doorstep when my personal information was HARD to get. To have my location revealed to the world would give a entry point for a few mentally ill people who have fixated on me, and allow them to show up and make good on the kind of threats I’ve received that make me paranoid to walk around a convention alone. I haven’t been able to stomach the risk of being afraid to get out of my car in my own driveway because I’ve expressed an opinion that someone on the internet didn’t agree with.

HOW SICK IS THAT?

Almost instantly after she posted this to her Tumblr, she was doxxed. Almost instantly. That’s how it increasingly works.

For many of these women, myself included, our profession, our work demands we be online. We are writers and artists and journalists and actors and speakers and educators and students. We cannot not be online. 

It’s easy for some people to suggest, I think, that some of us are targeted because of our high(er) profile. And we are, I suppose, easier — or more recognizable at least — targets. Perhaps. But that’s also beside the point. Because here’s the thing that comes with being “Internet famous": as high(er)-profile Internet users, some of also have powerful connections to, say, staff at Twitter or Tumblr that elevate and prioritize our complaints, that shut down the accounts of our harassers more rapidly than “regular” users will ever experience.

And “regular users” do indeed experience online harassment.

The Pew Research Internet Project recently published the results from a survey on online harassment. Among the findings: 

"60% of Internet users said they had witnessed someone being called offensive names. 53% had seen efforts to purposefully embarrass someone. 25% had seen someone being physically threatened. 24% witnessed someone being harassed for a sustained period of time. 19% said they witnessed someone being sexually harassed. 18% said they had seen someone be stalked.”

According to the Pew survey, 22% of all Internet users reported being harassed online. One in 5. About 55% of those said they’d experienced the “less severe” forms; that means 45% said they’d experienced the “more severe” forms, including serial harassment, sexual harassment, and stalking. Young women — those age 18 to 24, those we still label as “college age" — experience the most severe harassment online. "26% of these young women have been stalked online, and 25% were the target of online sexual harassment.” 

All this in the Pew survey is self-reported, I should note. So when Pew says something like, "Overall, men are somewhat more likely than women to experience at least one of the elements of online harassment, 44% vs. 37%,” we should probably make it very clear, again, that the harassment that men and women receive online is different — in degree, in purpose, in intended results. A different organization. W.H.O.A. (“Working to Halt Online Abuse”) has found that 73% of cyberstalking victims are women, for example. A University of Maryland research project created fake online accounts and set them into Internet chat rooms. "Accounts with feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day. Masculine names received 3.7."

But again, I want to make the link to our offline bodies. An earlier Pew study found that "five percent of women who used the Internet said 'something happened online' that led them into 'physical danger.’" From the World Health Organization:

"Violence against women is widespread around the world. Recent figures indicate that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. ...Women who have been physically or sexually abused have higher rates of mental ill-health, unintended pregnancies, abortions and miscarriages than non-abused women. ... Increasingly in many conflicts, sexual violence is also used as a tactic of war.”

We do not escape our material bodies online, as much as that New Yorker cartoon suggests we might.

In fact, I want to argue that online — computer technologies, Internet technologies — actually re-inscribe our material bodies, the power and the ideology of gender and race and sexual identity and national identity. Why? Because of who is making these tools.

News organizations have been pushing for several years for the major technology companies to release their diversity numbers — that is, the make-up of their workforce. In fact, many of these companies have fought attempts to publish their EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) data. But this year, perhaps recognizing that they must at some point address the “pipeline issue” — how to get more women and people of color into STEM-related fields — some tech companies have released this data. And it’s not pretty.

70% of Google’s employees are male. 61% are white and 30% Asian. Of Google’s “technical” employees. 83% are male. 60% of those are white and 34% are Asian.

70% of Apple’s employees are male. 55% are white and 15% are Asian. 80% of Apple’s “technical” employees are male. 

69% of Facebook employees are male. 57% are white and 34% are Asian. 85% of Facebook’s “technical” employees are male.

70% of Twitter employees are male. 59% are white and 29% are Asian. 90% of Twitter’s “technical” employees are male.

So gee, I wonder why blocking violent harassers, reporting rape threats, banning sock-puppet accounts, and so on hasn’t been a priority for Twitter. I wonder.

And I wonder too: what do these demographics look like for education technology companies? What percentage of those building ed-tech software are men? What percentage are white? What percentage of their engineers are men? How do these bodies shape what gets built? How do privileges, ideologies, expectations, values get hard-coded into ed-tech?

We tend to view the education profession as a female one. At the K-12 level, three-quarters of teachers are women, and over 80% are white. (It’s worth noting that, this school year, for the first time, minority students outnumber white students in public schools.) At the higher education level, 48% of college instructors are women; again, almost 80% are white. But it’s a mistake to think that education is somehow “female-dominated,” that women are well-represented in leadership or decision-making roles, or that women in education do not experience work-related harassment or discriminatory treatment. And once we add technology to the picture, I daresay it gets worse. 

What percentage of education technologists are men? What percentage of “education technology leaders” are men? What percentage of education technology consultants? What percentage of those on the education technology speaking circuit? What percentage of education CIOs and CTOs; what percentage of ed-tech CEOs?

Again: How do these bodies — in turn, their privileges, ideologies, expectations, values — influence our education technologies?

So I’m speaking to a group of educators and students here. I’m probably supposed to say something about what we can do, right? What we can do to resist that hard-coding. What we can do to subvert that hard-coding. What we can do to make technologies that our students — all our students, all of us — can wield. What we can do to make sure that when we say “your assignment involves the Internet” that we haven’t triggered half the class with fears of abuse, harassment, exposure, rape, death.

The answer can’t simply be to tell women to not use their real name online. If part of the argument for participating in the open Web is that students and educators are building a digital portfolio, are building a professional network, are contributing to scholarship, then we have to really think about whether or not promoting pseudonyms is a sufficient or an equitable solution.

The answer can’t be simply be “don’t blog on the open Web." Or “keep everything inside the ‘safety’ of the walled garden, the learning management system.” If nothing else, this presumes that what happens inside siloed, online spaces is necessarily “safe.” I know I’ve seen plenty of horrible behavior on closed forums, for example, from professors and students alike. I’ve seen heavy-handed moderation, where marginalized voices find their input are deleted. I’ve seen zero-moderation, where marginalized voices are mobbed.

The answer can’t simply be “just don’t read the comments.” I would say that it might be worth rethinking “comments”  on student blogs altogether — or rather the expectation that they host them, moderate them, respond to them. See, if we give students the opportunity to “own their own domain,” to have their own websites, their own space on the Web, we really shouldn’t require them to let anyone that can create a user account into that space. It’s perfectly acceptable to say to someone who wants to comment on a blog post, “Respond on your own site. Link to me. But I am under no obligation to host your thoughts in my domain."

And see, that starts to hint at what I think the answer here to this question about the unpleasantness — by design — of technology. It starts to get at what any sort of “solution” or “alternative" has to look like: it has to be both social and technical. If, as I’ve argued, the current shape of education technologies has been shaped by certain ideologies and certain bodies, we should recognize that we aren’t stuck with those. We don’t have to “do” tech as it’s been done. We can design differently. We can design around. We can use differently. We can use around.

One interesting example of this dual approach that combines both social and technical — outside the realm of ed-tech, I recognize — is the BlockBot. Having grown weary of Twitter’s refusal to address the ways in which its platform is utilized to harass people, a group of feminist developers wrote the BlockBot, an application that when you install it, lets you block, en masse, a large list of Twitter accounts that are known for being serial harassers. That list of blocked accounts is updated and maintained collaboratively. 

That gets, just a bit, at what I think we can do in order to make education technology habitable, sustainable, and healthy. We have to rethink the technology. And not simply as some nostalgia for a “Web we lost,” for example, but as a move forward to a Web we’ve yet to ever see. One that is inclusive and equitable. Perhaps education needs reminding of this: we don’t have to adopt tools that serve business goals or administrative purposes, particularly when they are to the detriment of scholarship and/or student agency — technologies that surveil and control and restrict, for example, under the guise of “safety” — that gets trotted out from time to time — but that have never ever been about students’ needs at all. We don’t have to accept that technology needs to extract value from us. We don’t have to accept that technology puts us at risk. We don’t have to accept that the architecture, the infrastructure of these tools make it easy for harassment to occur without any consequences. We can build different and better technologies. And we can build them with and for communities, communities of scholars and communities of learners. We don’t have to be paternalistic as we do so. We don’t have to “protect students from the Internet,” and rehash all the arguments about stranger danger and predators and pedophiles. But we should recognize that if we want education to be online, if we want education to be immersed in technologies, information, and networks, that we can’t really throw students out there alone. We need to be braver and more compassionate and we need to build that into ed-tech. Like Blockbot, this should be a collaborative effort, one that blends our cultural values with technology we build.

Because here’s the thing. The answer to all of this — to harassment online, to the male domination of the technology industry — is not silence. That is after all, as Rebecca Solnit reminds us, one of the goals of mansplaining: to get us to cower, to hesitate, to doubt ourselves and our stories and our needs, to step back, to shut up. 

I’ll repeat: the answer is not silence. 

I think the most important cautionary tale, if you will, about gender and equity and silence comes not from Gamergate or from Shirtgate but from the revelations last month about Canadian radio celebrity Jian Ghomeshi. Ghomeshi, the host of a popular radio program, was suddenly fired by the CBC, and allegations quickly emerged of violent sexual assault. Ghomeshi, for his part, said this involved spurned ex-lovers and he was being punished for what was, in his words, consensual BDSM. The women — and there are over 8 accusers now — say otherwise. It was not consensual. It was assault.

But it isn’t just these women who’ve come forward. A large number of members of the Canadian media, of the Vancouver music scene, and so on have spoken out too, confessing that “they knew about Jian.” There was talk. Chatter. Warnings. One woman wrote a piece explaining carefully that when people asked “do you know about Jian,” the question didn’t imply “do you know Jian Ghomeshi, popular radio host?” It meant “do you know.” “Just be careful. He’s weird with woman,” a male friend had warned her when she first joined “the scene.”

And she writes,

"Warned by this, I kept my distance and just watched. I saw the way he moved towards women, introduced himself, and pushed his way into their space. … Nothing you’d call a crime, not quite. Nothing you could name. Just a sense, all the little things that added up to say — this isn’t safe. This person is not safe.

Boundary issues, call ‘em, and they were persistent. I saw it on other occasions after that, though only a few — other parties, where I’d lean my head against another woman’s so that we could exchange our warnings in the night. Through these other women I started to hear stories, filtering through in little bites: it felt like everyone had a friend with a story. A friend who was was hurt or leered at. A friend who had been uncomfortable, cornered or afraid.

But how could you say that, in a way that would ever be believed? How would you describe that for the world, in a way that the world would ever believe?

So instead, you start to turn to the women around you, and you say: 'do you know about Jian?'

And you watch them nod, and pass it on.”

That’s how networks work, isn’t it. You exchange important information. You try to build community and keep that community safe. But we can see in this anecdote how much access to that network matters. Networks offer protection. If you weren’t part of the right network, perhaps you didn’t hear the whispered warnings. Or perhaps you were part of an adjacent network, a network of powerful media people that “knew about Jian” but chose not to say anything or do anything publicly.

It’s not a perfect analogy to ed-tech, by any means. But I want to draw the comparison because I feel like the stakes are very high. We have to think about the networks we are building and we are using. How do they reflection information and power. Who do they protect? Who do they put at risk?

We can’t sit back and let harassment and abuse go on. We can’t ignore it, or pretend that it doesn’t exist or that, because it’s online it isn’t real. 

We can’t retreat behind walls. Women know that violence happens there too, of course. Being out in the public space — and these days, that means being on the Internet — is how we fully participate in civic life.

Yes, we can whisper tips to our friends, our colleagues, our students. We can work quietly or loudly to resist. We can build alternative networks and alternative education technologies. But we cannot be silent. 

Blog Logo

Audrey Watters


Published

Image

Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

Back to Blog