I feel this intense need to apologize immediately if I learn that I’ve hurt someone’s feelings. IMMEDIATELY. Profusely. Extensively. This feeling emerges regardless of whether or not the hurt person was partially or completely in the wrong, or whether or not I was also hurt in the process. My therapist might have some things to say about that (“not everyone needs to like you”), but it’s my truth.
If you read my blog or follow me on Twitter you can probably guess where this post is going. Yes, I’m going to talk about THAT Twitter exchange, because I think it needs talking about and reframing. I understand if you don’t want to read about it, but I still feel the need to write about it.
You can gain some context for the situation by reading Zoe Fisher’s blog post , Erin Leach’s blog post, or Meredith Farkas’ blog post, and you can see Erin Smith’s very public apology on Twitter. As Zoe mentioned in her blog post, folks were very quick to praise Erin for her public apology and openness (which I 100% agree with; that was brave, gurl) and equally ready to brand #LibraryTwitter as sneaky, snarky, and hurtful (which I do not agree with).
Switchtracking, Sort of
One thing I’ve found troubling about this conversation is the shift in focus from (a) the way we talk about and treat our students to (b) social media civility, etiquette, and professional courtesy. I’ve written about switchtracking before, and I can’t help but see a version of that playing out in this situation as well. I think the focus on the “social media pile-on” as Meredith mentions is overshadowing the larger issue that it is socially acceptable to put-down our students in public in order to express librarian-solidarity or get a laugh at conference.
A Running Theme
I wrote to Erin after her apology thanking her for being so proactive, but also offering context for my own statements on Twitter. Her presentation was not the only one that spoke about students in a negative light. There were at least two others I attended that made, I thought, very hurtful comments about students in a “humorous” way. I don’t know about other sessions that I didn’t attend, but I would venture to guess this kind of “students, aren’t they silly?” sentiment gets expressed fairly regularly in public spaces. The especially troublesome part of the sessions I attended in which these comments were made was that most of the audience LAUGHED. There’s been a lot of push for those us who were upset on Twitter to make our disagreement known at the conference session during the Q&A, which I think can be difficult given the tenor of the room. (That said, I do need to challenge myself to speak up at conferences.)
These negative comments about students were happening at the same time that there was a running theme of student peer assistance, peer learning, and student empowerment at the conference. The UNLV Libraries include three bright, engaging, and frankly, charismatic, student peer leaders are co-presenters, which made me wonder, “What if those students were at any of these sessions? What must they think of us? How must it make them feel?” That was the point of anger for me. These students’ stories were amazing — being peer leaders helped them work on their shyness, gave them teaching experience they could use towards their chosen career, and helped them become better researchers. One of the presenters admitted to never having written a research paper before college, and qualified it by saying, “If you know the high school I went to, you would understand why.”
Students: They’re Just Like Us
This student’s comment was so important to me, because it centers something we often lose sight of in libraries and in academia more broadly. It’s simple, really. Our students are people. Yes, they are younger people, but they have experiences, hopes, fears, likes, and dislikes. The make decisions based on what they think is best for themselves or others, and shocker: Our classes may not be the most important things going on in their lives.
Students, as people, have absolutely gotten on my nerves, but so have colleagues in and out of the library, and people in my day-to-day life. Students aren’t unique in their capacity to frustrate me. I’ve vented and complained about students to my friends and colleagues, but I’ve also vented and complained about faculty, librarians, family, and friends to other faculty, librarians, family, and friends. I know I’ve made my own mistakes in how I talk about and treat students, but I don’t ever want to give my stamp of approval to this sentiment of general, constant eye-rolling about students. They are the reason my job exists. They can be the best part of my day. They were the point of the “collective outrage” on Twitter, which was really just collective critique, in my opinion, and I don’t want us to lose sight of that.
For better or worse, when we write or present, we put our work out in the public sphere, and we can’t control the way others respond to it or discuss it. Nor should we. Our work becomes a separate entity and may not be interpreted in the way we intended. I don’t agree with personal attacks. I do agree with challenging ideas and being critical of problematic attitudes and structures. I deeply regret things I’ve written in the past.
I think, that in making this conversation about social media, we aren’t challenging the right idea.
This is not about social media.
This is about how we talk about our students in public spaces, the attitudes and sentiments that make certain comments socially acceptable, and how those feelings can then shape the way we treat and interact with our students.