There’s a poster in my office on campus that means a lot to me — I’ve been out of the office for some time, obviously, but coming back today I was struck by it.
Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead people to join you.Ruth Bader Ginsburg
I am no massive RBG fangirl — how much can you love a representative of carceral state power? — but this really speaks to me, because it’s how I try to do my job. It’s also how I think the job has to be done: higher education needs a culture shift in how we think about so many things, including accessibility, integrity, and data privacy, so it’s not enough for me to fight for better practice. I need my faculty to care about these issues too, and I need them to join the fight.
It’s not an excuse for tone-policing, though, and I seem to be seeing a lot of that online lately when it comes to folks earnestly engaged in the struggle for equity in higher education. People who don’t like the message begin shared have a tendency to complain about the manner rather than the content — especially if they feel attacked by the content. It’s how we got to a place where white people are more scared of being called racist than they are of doing racist shit. Going hard over the way people ask for change is one of those super-duper red flags.
I do acknowledge there’s a certain amount of privilege in being a short, white, feminine, soft-voiced person who does this work; not every body is perceived as non-threatening. I used to get upset at not being taken seriously, but now I treat it like a superpower that allows me to have difficult conversations — and say no! — with a gentle tone. I think I have the power to be persuasive in many spaces because of this. A kind of weaponized gentleness, in the words of a close friend. It feels gross, and at the same time, our privileges are our privileges. We can’t pretend they don’t exist; we just have to mobilize them in the service of positive change.
I am aware of others who share my superpower and use it for evil. The ingratiating emails to faculty. The well-funded conferences. The smiling face. The kinder, gentler surveillance technology. I’ve been increasingly aware of the way pleasantness in edtech in particular is weaponized as an entré. I know, welcome to the world of sales, Brenna — but I guess I am still naive enough to think that educational tools shouldn’t be commodified in this way.
When I get these emails forwarded to me by concerned faculty, I am always troubled by how good they are. It gives Lionel Hutz pitching the monorail vibes — it’s persuasive stuff. They use language to show they understand the difficult position of faculty and the challenge of the role, and honestly, they come off a lot like contract cheating firms: I’m your friend, I know things are hard, I can fix this. The problem is that it’s not academic integrity that hangs in the balance but student data. You can’t un-ring that bell.
Anyway, it’s all got me thinking about how we lead people and how we share our message, and then need to be more persuasive and more honest (because we can’t be more slick) than the kind faces of EdTech’s bullshit. Centring the fight — the values! the reasons! the goals! — and telling the story in a way that makes people want to join the fight. I have to believe that’s the best remedy.
Although the assholes are clearly winning at the moment. So who knows.
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