My mid-sized, semi-rural high school offered a whole bunch of extra-curricular opportunities, but alas, no debate team. I learned about the concept of debate from a very terrible 1980’s movie and to me, it represented the ultimate in discourse; two people presenting a claim and counterclaim with set rules and structures. Alas, I had to settle for a public speaking elective and Model UN. To be sure, I repped Liechtenstein to the best of my fifteen-year-old-hadn’t-yet-traveled-out-of-state ability, but I never really got the chance to stretch my debate legs in the way I wanted. Flash forward a few decades and suddenly, I had hundreds of discourse partners just a tap and scroll away.
I signed up for Twitter in February 2008, mostly on a lark while sitting with a group of colleagues waiting for a meeting to start. I picked an in-joke username I’ve since given away, started to follow educators, and realized quickly, it was a space where discourse was possible. Granted, it was limited to 140 characters at a time, but someone would tweet X, another person replied, “what about Y?” and the pair could exchange dozens, sometimes hundreds, of tweets on X and Y. In those days, EduTwitter was much smaller, and as such, more intimate. Observers could “favorite” a tweet but the complex meanings of the “like” button hadn’t yet emerged.
To be sure, early EduTwitter wasn’t a bucolic garden and my habits were often clunky. I fell into the less than helpful patterns adopted by White Feminists and I too often forgot the person reading my words had no idea how delightful, thoughtful, and full of good humor I was (or so my loved ones told me when I ranted I couldn’t persuade someone to see things my way.) Instead, I pushed too hard and earned a handful of blocks, showed up where I wasn’t invited, insisted on getting the last word in, and likely hurt people’s feelings through action or inaction. I started to collect data around my habits and looked for patterns. I got better. I actively worked to diversify who I follow, developed sentence starters for asking for permission to engage, got better at listening and letting go, worked on my biases and my racial identity, and developed my own Twitter rules of thumb.
One of my major a-ha’s was around the nature of discourse and debate. During the era of X and Y, debate was often the default setting. You said X. I say Y. Now let’s battle it out, 140 characters at a time. Due to the addition of gifs, the “like” button, threads, and quote-retweeting, complex discourse is easier in 2019. People start conversations, hash out ideas, and negotiate and sometimes debate. I’ve learned, though, that we define the word differently. I was reminded of that lesson when I read Peter DeWitt’s recent column laying out his position on why he will not enter Twitter debates.
I realized that if someone asked, I couldn’t identify the last time I “debated” on Twitter. This doesn’t mean I haven’t been in some epicly long threads and discussions or that I haven’t been challenged. To me, the fact they’re still going means they’re not really debates as there is no winner. Rather, I see them as conversations (that are sometimes brusque.) I can, though, easily identify the last time someone offered a perspective that changed my mind. The time someone brought my attention to sloppy or hurtful language in a tweet. The times someone thanked me for helping them see a different perspective. I make no claim my approach is best or the only way to tweet. We all use social media in ways that work for us and as long as we’re not actively working to harm or harass other people, there’s no right way. I’d like to offer three things for members of EduTwitter to consider when faced with a question or request for more information in your mentions.
First, I’d ask that you contextualize the tweet and the sender. One of the more startling things about EduTwitter is just how many white men with astonishingly high follower counts there are. Education is a field dominated by women but the Twitter recommendations for “education” are consistently white men. This demographic reality sits alongside our country’s long and painful history of putting demands on those historically marginalized by our laws, policies, and actions. A recent tweet by Bernice King lays out the challenges of responding to everyone in her mentions.
King is a Black woman who lost her father at the hands of a racist murderer. She owes no one an explanation or her time. This does not mean King is entitled to more humanity and grace than a high-profile white male educator on Twitter, but rather, one of the consequences of whiteness in America is the ability to leave conversations about race, as HS English teacher Tricia Ebarvia explores in this thread. In other words, it’s good humanity to be open to inquiry and conversations from those whose lived experiences mean they understand an issue differently than we do. For me, this means I will minimize demands for discourse on my terms with women of color and have no qualms about reaching out to white-presenting male educators on Twitter. It means that if an educator with a rainbow flag in their bio tweets at me about an issue related to the LGBTQ+ community, I see it as good humaning to engage. To be sure, these kinds of rules are messy and imprecise, because people are messy and imprecise.
Second, consider reframing a tweet before dismissing the person tweeting. There’s a great moment in the movie The Martian where a character is reading a worrisome message Mark Watney sent from Mars. “Do you think he means…” and he reads the line again, giving it a positive spin. One approach to Twitter discourse is to assume positive intent, unless there’s evidence such as a targeted slur or words in all caps or red flags in a user’s bio, but that doesn’t work for everyone and can often times put unfair demands on the person being tweeted at. It is possible, though, and often likely, we read an honest inquiry or attempt to engage in a conversation as an opening debate salvo. If re-reading and their bio doesn’t change your read of a question, consider a short reply such as “Thank you. I’ll think on that.” Or consider scheduling an individual edchat. For example, “I’m in-between meetings. This isn’t a good time for me. Can we connect tonight at 5 EST to talk this through?” Or be honest about why you don’t want to engage with a question. A simple “I’m not willing to change my mind about this” or “Help me understand what you want me to see/do differently.” is clear and to the point without being rude. Radio silence and blocking are valid choices, but again, I’d invite you to consider the nature of power and the implications of being asked about race, gender, disability, or pedagogy and making the deliberate choice to disengage.
If, on the other hand, you have no intention of engaging around things you tweet, it’s worth considering adding something to your bio to that effect. “I tweet to share resources and ideas. Email me at X @ Email” or link your blog or website with a nudge for people to contact you there. In the absence of such information, it’s reasonable a Twitter user will assume you’re open to two-way conversations.
Commit to Learning in Public
Last month, I reached out to a male educator with a high follower count about something he’d tweeted that perpetuated stereotypes of girls. I asked a question that I’d successfully used several times to start a conversation. I even started with a friendly, open greeting. He never responded and I discovered he blocked me, shortly after I sent my tweet. A friend reached out to a white, male teacher asking about his approach to anti-racism frameworks in a group he leads. Her language was thoughtful, focused on inquiry. He blocked her. It’s worth knowing my bio mentions my interest in gender in education. My friend’s bio reflects her anti-racist activism. A simple glance at our bios and timelines speak to our areas of interest and expertise. In other words, we were seeking to call in, not call out. To be sure, we could have tracked down their email, crafted a note inviting them to reconsider the language in a tweet but we lose so much when that learning and hard work happens only in private.
If I want to live in an academic and online world where we can be public about our growth and learning, be open about blindspots and knowledge gaps, be willing to change our opinion based on new knowledge, be willing to revisit and update old work, be willing to be vulnerable, be willing to acknowledge when we screw up, and to talk with each other with generosity — I have the opportunity [on my blog] to model that beautifully imperfect world.
I’d offer that EduTwitter is a chance for educators to build a “beautifully imperfect world” for our learners. We can model calling in, calling out, building allyships, becoming co-conspirators, and helping each other see what we can’t see ourselves. I think it’s worth it.
Note: A slightly different version of this post appeared in EdWeek, July 7, 2019.