the answer is not silence

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The title of this post is from Audrey Watters’s powerful talk: Men Explain Technology to Me: On Gender, Ed-Tech, and the Refusal to Be Silent. If you haven’t read it, please do. For those of us who’ve experienced what Audrey talks about, it is truth, and immensely moving. For those who haven’t experienced what Audrey talks about, it will be eye-opening.

I grew up in New York City in the 1960s/70s. My degrees are in engineering and, like Audrey, Women’s Studies. Over a 30-year career in multinational corporations, my own business, community organisations, and higher education, I’ve worked as an engineer, a software engineer, an educator, and a researcher. Recently it feels like many of these strands of my life have been converging. Increasingly, I think and talk about connections between education, technology, equality, social justice, race, gender, pedagogy — a full circle. The personal is political. The educational is political.

In one week I’ll be taking leave from my post as lecturer and academic coordinator here at NUI Galway to move to full-time PhD research. In studying open education and digital identity practices, I’ll be speaking with educators and students about their interactions in open online spaces. Where do students and educators interact online? What happens there? What identities are enacted? How is power enacted? What do students and educators think about issues such as privacy, anonymity, data ownership, surveillance, and online harassment? How do they deal with these?

Many important and urgent questions lie at the nexus of education, technology, power, and cultural values. I aim to explore just a few of these by learning from and engaging with others, and by sharing my thinking and my work, openly.

The answer is not silence.

Image: typewriter on Flickr CC BY-SA catherinecronin

10 thoughts on “the answer is not silence

    1. Thanks so much, Mags. In setting off on this path I’ve been inspired by so many people — students, educators, researchers, and all those who aren’t afraid to ask the difficult questions and to speak. You’re an inspiration there, Mags. Couldn’t do this work without you all, fellow and sister travellers.

  1. Audrey ‘ s talk was a tour de force as usual and I’d love to know how the students responded in both sessions.
    I can’t wait to hear the outcome of your research Catherine. I spent 4 years team teaching on a Y1 UG module that required students to reflect on their engagement in web spaces and to create a proof of concept Web site for a (dummy) business. In the discussion sessions I sometimes wondered what they weren’t telling us (as well as enjoying the wonderful tales about checking out prospective boyfriends). Sometimes we would see a glimpse of the sites that these young men and women called ‘home’ but I don’t recall any young men bringing tales of the football message boards.
    I am looking forward to seeing how you get past the patches of silence Catherine as I am sure that you will. I have started to read about the Spiral of Silence (there’s a link to a paper about Noelle Neuman’s work in this post http://francesbell.wordpress.com/2014/11/06/between-athenians-and-visigoths-what-lies-between-polar-positions-in-public-discourse-online/) I have been interested for some years in women’s participation in public discourse. Obviously, it’s not just women’s responsibility to make change but I am thinking about how conversation can be different in the ‘middle ground’. Is civil disagreement possible? I am occasionally but not always hopeful.
    Thanks for doing this good work.

    1. Thanks very much, Frances. Yes indeed, Audrey’s talk was quite something — such a powerful piece to cap off her outstanding work this year, both writing and speaking. I saw a few tweets during/after her talk (at UMW and online), but couldn’t get a feel for the student perspective. It would be interesting to hear this.

      Yes, I am thinking deeply about voices, power and silence with respect to this work. Thanks for the Noelle Neuman link. You remind me that I read your very thoughtful post and wanted to comment. I will do that! I do love the ongoing circles of writing, commenting and reflecting in all of our respective blogs. It continues to be one of the richest learning spaces I know – despite all those “death of blogging” pronouncements đŸ˜‰

      Megan McPherson recommended another related resource on Twitter last night — Inhabited Silence in Qualitative Research by Lisa Mazzei. Do you know it? Looks well worth a look. http://www.peterlang.com/index.cfm?event=cmp.ccc.seitenstruktur.detailseiten&seitentyp=produkt&pk=46516&cid=533

      Like you, and many women in technology, I’ve long been aware of issues of gender, culture and power with respect to technology — first through my lived experience (engineering student and engineer), then as a Women’s Studies scholar, and more recently as an educator in IT. It’s become increasingly clear that the particularly acute way that women in tech experience sexism now applies to women on the web, i.e. virtually all women. Audrey captured this powerfully in her post. As educators advocating openness and working on the web, this is of huge importance. No answers, just questions, and much thinking still to do. Thanks so much, as ever, for your thoughts and support, Frances.

  2. A big sunny sky over the seas congratulations for you, Catherine. You bring so much to the table, in a time that provides more reason than ever to be researching in the area.

    Knowing the students at UMW I am fairly confident there was rich conversation after Audrey’s talk; I am glad I got to hear the second version she did that night (she may be the hardest working person in ed techness”) in the online session for Alec Couros class. Lots of good dialogue in the chat.

    I hear in some places “shut the ____ up” and others “don’t be silent”. Twice recently, I’ve felt my own reluctance as privileged white / male to question some statements I do not agree with. It’s actually useful to experience being silenced (though I silenced myself). The way forward ought to be conversational.

    Along with important areas of power, gender, race, values… I look for ideas about– I reached for “civility” but might take Martin Weller’s “niceness”, or better yet, the ideas of Kate Bowles on how we extend care for others online.

    But mostly I wanted to again beam some smiles for your new area of inquiry, and look forward to maybe one day going on a photo walk

    1. I agree with Catherine that the answer is not (total) silence. Temporary silence is useful if it means that we really listen to others in a conversation and think before we speak. I don’t think ‘niceness’ is the answer if it excludes disagreement. For me, the challenge is to create spaces for civil disagreement where we don’t just let each other speak but also allow the possibility that minds might change however slightly and that misunderstandings/mistakes can be resolved. Sometimes totally ‘nice’ spaces can be almost as oppressive as toxic spaces in that they both make very clear what can’t be said. For me an ethic of care that tries to address problematic interactions and their impact on people is better than one that categorises people. The latter might work at the extremes but risks putting ourselves as care givers and/or receivers and never as someone whose behaviour made someone else vulnerable. Anyone who has watched a relationship break down knows that there can be hurt experienced and damage done by both parties, knowingly or unknowingly.
      so Alan, I just wonder what sort of space and behaviours (not just yours) would have enabled you to question and continue the conversation?

      1. I wish I knew. I’m experiencing outfall of trying to communicate both support and query and getting a backlash of vitriol.

        This extends from the complex neural mess we are of our own internal struggles, how they filter to the outside world and intersecting with the filtered presence of others. A place where one might disagree without it being seen as attack. A place where questions are not laden or seen as laden with expectations, where they are simple queries of understanding. A place where we might have different opinions but still hug and laugh or can toss mud pies.

        Yeah, not the plasticine total nice, twas not what I meant. All of this comes with the risks of vulnerability/ that are largely key to making caring connections.

    2. Thank you for your comment, Alan — and for your warmth and encouragement, it means a lot. And I very much look forward to that photo walk too… maybe on the Flaggy Shore.

      I’m interested in your mention of situations in which you say you were aware of your privilege, and chose not to speak. I’ve had a a number of conversations with male colleagues recently, who have quietly asked for my views on Shirtgate, planning inclusive tech conferences, etc. As a woman who has worked in and around tech for a long time – these discussions are something new, and not unwelcome.

      I’d like to help bring these conversation forward, however. As Frances suggests in her comment above, advocating “an ethic of care that tries to address problematic interactions and their impact on people”. I see the smaller, private conversations-about-difficult-topics as a step towards that. Listening, caring, and having the sometimes difficult conversations — on a wider scale — this is the path to change. What do you think?

  3. Catherine, I’m so moved by this post and your quest approach to your PhD. It really resonates for me at the moment as I’m just setting out on my own quest to try to understand a little better what makes it possible for us to care for each other in the weave of the digital nets (and this weave image for me comes straight from Megan McPherson’s art practice so I’m delighted to find her woven in here.)

    As educators and digital creatives all caring about the future of these networks and the kinds of people who come along after us, I want to share—and she said “sure, go ahead”, when I asked, as if I was slightly mad—something my daughter just put on her own blog this evening. She’s carving her own path through the weave, and she’s thinking about how these issues affect her as a person, a reader, a person who puts words on the internet, a young woman with an interest in a tech future, maybe.

    You can read what she says here: https://clementinethinking.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/tact-and-frank/

    The girls and younger writers growing up online all around us are bringing something new to the conversation and I’m so glad you’ll be listening to them.

    1. Thank you, Kate. The #weaveofcare metaphor is beautiful (I’m following Megan McPherson on Twitter but will now seek out her artwork — thank you). I’m bouncing from blogs to Twitter tonight, as this conversation flows… you and Richard Hall have been touchstones for me, and for many of us, in deeply exploring some of the intricacies of care, vulnerability and power in university systems. I’ve been thinking about this a great deal lately, most recently in the #scholar14 course/community (thanks to George Veletsianos) as well as with some colleagues at my own university. I’ll be re-reading the the posts you and Richard shared again on Twitter tonight — touchstones:
      http://www.richard-hall.org/2012/11/17/do-universities-care-too-much-about-students/
      http://musicfordeckchairs.wordpress.com/2012/11/29/under-pressure/

      I’m so grateful to Clementine for agreeing to share her voice, clear and true, with us also.
      I’ve sent this link to my own daughter tonight — more weaving đŸ™‚ Thank you both.

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