Thursday, May 10, 2018

What started as a proposal to present at a conference became this blog post

Print tabloid journalism was one-way information distribution. No matter how much the headlines yelled at passersby from the newsstand, they couldn’t yell back. Standing in the grocery checkout line, all you can do is scan the all-caps headlines yelling at you from the pages and passively receive their messages. To dispute the claim that Elvis fathered an alien love child, required that you purchase the journal, write a letter, stuff it in an envelope, find the address in the journal, address and stamp the letter, deliver it to a mailbox… Right. It wasn’t going to happen because it likely wasn't worth it. Digital delivery of and access to information happens at an ever accelerating pace, and we can and do respond, instantly, from anywhere, at any time. The limits of time, place, and access imposed on us by in-real-life civic participation sometimes also serve to temper our contributions to these discussions. So how do we foster productive, thoughtful, effective engagement in digital communities?

Perhaps we could debate the notion that digital citizenship (not the behaviors, but the state of being connected) is a choice. After all, being born (as I was) in the United States by default conferred citizenship status upon me. But digital citizenry required me to make a choice to join a community (actual, multiple communities) and agree to their standards of conduct. Even though I periodically self-impose a digital citizenry hiatus upon myself, I can’t imagine this as a permanent state of being. Whether we distinguish ourselves from our children, our students, or a younger generation as digital immigrants vs. digital natives, joining a digital citizenry is, to some extent and at least at some point, a choice. If we choose to be and to educate digital citizens we must hone a new and complex skill set. We must:
  • Develop graphicacy: the ability to unpack images that blend data, text, and iconography
  • Think like fact-checkers: triangulate the information we consume to verify its origin, purpose, and accuracy
  • Understand our own bias: know when our bias prevents us from critically seeing someone else’s and inclines us to confuse opinion with evidence
  • Empathize: understanding and accepting the hopes, fears, and other motivating factors in another person’s life is essential to building constructive dialogue
  • Employ emotional intelligence: recognize when an emotional response to something is suppressing our ability to speak or write with measure. 

Consider Dylan Marron starting a podcast of phone calls with the people who leave hate comments on his videos. Marron’s conversations help him and his detractors build empathy with one another. Marron invites people who posted rather hateful comments to and about him to discuss their opinions with him. He doesn't seek to convert, only to understand them. In return, they reflexively dial down their vitriol in favor of a reasonable exchange of ideas. Proving that agreeing to disagree can be an acceptable and productive outcome to dialogue.

We could make Dylan Marron's life a little easier (although that might rob him of an incredible podcast) because it is possible to teach our students to engage in effective digital dialogue. Empathy and emotional intelligence, combined with media literacy are the keys to healthy digital citizens and productive digital community interactions. Kristin Mattson writes convincingly and authoritatively about how to foster a networker's mindset and build students' effective digital communication skills through guided practice unpacking digital conversations that scaffolds to the ultimate goal: positive and productive digital agency.

A couple of months ago I was fortunate to work with a group of students at my school piloting the anti-cyberbullying curriculum designed by the Trust and Safety group at Google in partnership with media production company, Harmony Labs. The key to the effectiveness of this curriculum is that all the material is delivered via virtual reality. By immersing themselves in the scenarios they are going to discuss, actually becoming a part of the scene, students are drawn to certain characters in the video they are watching. They are likely also put off by or dislike characters. And they can be guided to watch and follow a certain character as a story unfolds seeing the action as that person sees it. Again, it's all about empathy. All of the videos are accessible on YouTube via the phones students carry in their pockets and the virtual reality experience is made possible with a Google Cardboard. I like the symmetry of using the power of media access provided by their phones to teach them to use their phones (and all they can access via them) to conduct themselves wisely.

This experience with the anti-cyberbullying curriculum reminded me of Anna Deavere Smith's TED performance: Four American Characters. When I was a history teacher I used her talk in my US History classes to show students why primary sources mattered to understanding history. "Look what she is doing," I used to say to my students, "spending so much time with a person that she can become that person. That is what primary sources do for you. If you can wrestle with them and unpack them, they return you to a place a in time to live a moment the way a real person experienced it." After I discovered this 2005 TED talk, I started building living tableaux with my students. I would present them with an iconic historical photograph and let them work in teams to pose one another in order to replicate the action of the photo. Then, they worked together to unpack the image we had reconstructed in order to understand the motivations of the people depicted. We would consider how the image we were examining was distributed, what voice the subjects of the image had in its making and distribution, and what we need to keep in mind as viewers of this snapshot of a moment in time composed by someone else with his/her/their own purpose or agenda. Finally, we compared the historical image to a very current one to illustrate the challenge in applying these skills to media that incites a visceral response and inclines viewers to unsavory, hateful, or otherwise nonconstructive posts. Or inhibits viewers from engaging in dialogue about posts that are hateful, discriminatory, or in some way offensive. (For more on this methodology, see this post.)

That's empathy.What Deavere did, what Marron does, what we must do as educators, is provide our students as many ways as we can, to develop empathy with the subjects of their studies, with the authors of the information they consume; so that they can compose their reactions (whether those reactions are research papers or social media comments and posts) from a place of insight into the motives and experiences of the original author and self-awareness about what their digital relationship with that person is and can be.

So, given that this started as a conference proposal, would you attend this workshop?


  1. Jacqueline, this is such a terrific post! I love the focus on empathy - it is something we definitely need to be working at developing in all areas of education, and life! I love that you are finding powerful ways to weave it into your library/media program!

  2. Jacqueline, such an interesting idea! Love it and yes, I would attend.

    : ) Jenny

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