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The Pretense of Neutrality: Twitter, Digital Literacy, and First-Year Writing

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Reviewed by Jessica Knott and Katheryn Wright
pretend” by Eileen McFall; CC BY-NC 2.0

Politicizing Critical Digital Pedagogy

This article is part of a series addressing the unavoidable politicization of education. The goal is to investigate how our work as educators is irrevocably linked with civic awareness and to understand how our responsibility to our students and our democracy intertwine. The discussion is ongoing — see all articles in this series or the original call for papers that prompted them and consider adding your voice to the conversation.

“You can’t be neutral on a moving train”
— Howard Zinn

As universities go, the ethos of my home institution is relatively conservative. Conservative parents believe their children will maintain conservative values by attending, and conservative students perhaps expect the same. I therefore likely run a risk every semester when I tell students that despite getting all “A”s and/or being in the honors program, they can nonetheless “fail” college if they leave with the same views, the same commitments, the same friends, with which they began. The challenge, I tell them, is to transform oneself. But is it possible to facilitate such transformation without being perceived as the stereotypical leftist professor who’ll do anything to brainwash students into hallucinating the need for social justice in the Greatest Country on Earth, and/or force them to become tolerant, accepting of others who are, in fact, “dangerous?” In short, can one justifiably call oneself a critical pedagogue, in Kris Shaffer’s words, one who “empower[s] students to be transformative agents in the world,” while maintaining the pretense of neutrality in the classroom? And to what degree should one desire or practice said neutrality?

This semester in First-Year Writing Seminar (ENGL 123) I felt compelled politically — pedagogically — to try something different. I began by having the entire class create Twitter accounts then follow upwards of thirty media outlets across the political spectrum, everything from The Huffington Post to Breitbart News. Students were therefore surprised to learn the research archive for the course did not consist of traditional academic articles but a media stream on their device(s) featuring content with which they only partially agreed. Though perhaps viewed in certain circles as a “dumbing down” of the collegiate writing course, by contrast, I contend it is necessary to meet students where they are and task them with becoming responsible users of the media they’re already using. As Anne Burdick et. al. remark, “the disconnect between methods of pedagogy inherited from cloisters and seminar rooms and those of a massively mediated culture are real” (23). It’s therefore up to technologically attuned educators to intervene, resisting media wielded in the service of authoritarianism in favor of so-called “liberatory” alternatives.

Assignment #1: Controversy Mapping

For their initial assignment, students in First-Year Writing were asked to select a contemporary, politically significant debate — something kairotic, exigent — but instead of articulating their own positions therein, they were assigned with charting/mapping positions across the debate itself (which they then presented to the class using timelines: Tiki-Toki, Timeline JS, Storify). They were to maintain the pretense of neutrality, to show they could live up to Aristotle’s observation that the mark of an educated mind is to entertain a thought without acquiescing to it (Ethics).

One hybridic pedagogical goal of the above undertaking is to burst students’ “filter bubbles,” requiring them to understand and write about positions with which they are unfamiliar or to which they are opposed.

Another outcome is for students to see just how much rhetorical spin any given outlet may put on an event, while realizing that “spun news” — which often feigns neutrality — is practically the only avenue to political truth they have. Or to put the point another way, what is at issue regards the mediatic production of subjectivities and recognition of said production. The critical pedagogue strives for students to eventually state, in Rita Raley’s words: “See what I have made, [and] [s]ee how I try to manage the ties that bind and produce me” (2).

Of course, despite the pretense of neutrality, the aforementioned classroom activities are ideologically loaded, as the dissoi logoi that would “consider all sides” and explore the production of subjectivities is arguably a cloaked progressive practice, one the hospitality of which has often been exploited when met with pugnacious political intransigence.

As evidence for this claim, consider the increasingly growing view — among conservatives and evangelicals — that merely being exposed to alternative, “fake” viewpoints is somehow oppressive, and should be protected against in “safe spaces”; and indeed, notes Katherine Hayles, “[t]his view of the self authorizes the fear that if the boundaries [of self] are breached at all, there will be nothing to stop the self’s complete dissolution” (290).

Provided such obstacles to raising so-called “critical consciousness,” it is important not to naïvely contend the above pedagogical strategy is inherently “liberatory,” for as Alexander Reid remarks:

[A]s a critical pedagogue, even if one finds a relatively open space and can create an opportunity for students to move out from under the careful management of their thought undertaken by ideology, the students as subjects often cling to the psychological and emotional ties that have been built between them and the dominant ideology. (167)

In other words, one may facilitate exposing students to a plethora of views different from their own, but nothing guarantees they’ll “see the light.” Reason-giving, empirical evidence, rigorous argumentation — all pale before the rhetorical force of pathos­-bound commitments forged across a lifetime of ideological exposure. And this goes for all parties involved. That is, “liberation” really means supplanting one deleterious or damaging ideology in favor of an/other more compassionate, mobilizing one. It’s ideology all the way down, since — as Foucault, Deleuze, and others observe — there is no subject without a concomitant production of subjectivity. There is no “liberation” without (re-)subjectivation.

With regard to their controversy topics and media outlets, students quickly grew adept at predicting and identifying political/rhetorical biases in everything from titles and photos to text and video content. However, I was concerned they might deduce that because all news is biased, it is all of equal value — that is, support the maddening bastardization of post-structuralist/sophistic non-foundationalism that drones “everyone’s entitled to his/her opinion” because “everything’s relative.”

I think it’s clear, though, despite Donna Haraway’s observation that “[r]eleasing the play of writing is deadly serious” (311), deconstruction is not the problem. There have never been ontological foundations, and truth has always been a rhetorical production — it’s only just now frighteningly obvious in the so-called “post-factual world.” The pedagogical imperative, then, is to teach deconstruction’s (para-)logic, namely, that just because “there is no final truth,” no non-rhetorical ground for debate, doesn’t mean you can’t criticize someone for lying/deception. That there is no Truth does not mean that there exist no provisional truths.

In-line with such concerns, students suggested the importance of information/digital literacy, spoke of the value of developing a “trained eye,” and emphasized practices like checking sources prior to retweeting. Some suggested they would alter where and how they got their news, striving in particular to frequent more neutral and international sources so as to obtain non-partisan and global perspectives on domestic issues. Certainly, these were practices I encouraged, and highlighted in class discussion in order to drive home the point that the ubiquity of bias does not render pointless the quest for knowledge. The last thing I would want is to contribute to student apathy or “nihilism” in the attempt to foster critical thinking.

During class discussion, some seemed surprised President Trump claimed a number of the outlets students had been following constituted “fake news,” but were able to parse that this is different from affirming the inescapability of bias. When I suggested none of them could dodge the assignment by claiming half their feed was “fake news” — simply because they disagreed with it, as the current President is wont to do — they mostly just laughed … grimly.

It’s certainly an unfamiliar/precarious scenario for American educators to find themselves suggesting to (or wanting to suggest to) students that the President’s disdain for the First Amendment and Free Press constitute a clear and “unpresidented” danger to democracy. Yet I do not think educators can afford to dodge observations/questions of this kind and the non-neutrality they imply. The President and his cabinet should be living models of civic virtue, and when he/they are not, professional “duty” demands we call it like it is.

Indeed, we speak now or lose the right to speak. And we are called to open the administrative and publication-oriented gates preventing so many brilliant voices from speaking at this time of desperate need. We cannot afford to remain silent while waiting for tenure, slogging through traditional — slow, print-biased, restrictive, “elitist” — routes to publication, as the Republic collapses around us and we lose autonomy over our classrooms. “Here comes everybody” might thus become a contemporary academic rallying cry.

Assignment #2: Rhetorical Analysis

For their second major assignment students were asked to rhetorically analyze one of President Trump’s tweets or tweetstorms (along with media responses thereto), which involved everything from looking at Ethos-Pathos-Logos to fact-checking, scanning for fallacies, and highlighting lexical patterns via the platform Voyant.

Students then visualized their analyses via the platform Genius, which allows writers to paste a text then annotate it in the form of multimodal marginal comments. Such an assignment is certainly fraught, as it involves scrutinizing a form of media that “opposes” itself to traditional (lengthy/print) scholarly expression, and is being wielded by someone many regard as antithetical to the portrait of intellectual life. Moreover, here again, one finds a pedagogic undertaking operating via the pretense of neutrality, yet upon closer inspection it is deeply critical/political.

Despite one’s understandable desire to look away from the demagogic sludge of President Trump’s almost daily Twitter diatribes, we scoff at and/or ignore them at our own peril. As Burdick et. al. point out, “social media not only enables democratic ends but can also make possible domination and subjugation” (81). Trump’s Twitter account does just this — indoctrinate, interpolate, subjugate — and therefore constitutes a field of struggle. Yet it’s not as easy as simply denouncing what Trump tweets or the bombastic manner in which he tweets it.

Indeed, notes Jesse Stommel, “[a] tweet could be seen … not as a paragon of the many potential horrors of [writing], but as a model of writerly concision.” So, hard as it is to accept, it’s perhaps necessary to admit the perverse rhetorico-digital brilliance POTUS exhibits in his use of Twitter as a platform, and to challenge this use by imbuing students with the skills to critically scrutinize it beyond determining audiences to which claims appeal or whether they are true.

While we may turn away in disgust and anger, millions are being swept up in the potent suasive force of Trump’s tropes/topoi, and rhetorical analysis is a way to resist. The theory/praxis binary is ultimately a false one, and ergo, analysis “is” praxis. It not only exposes how something persuades and whether such an appeal should be persuasive. Analysis “inoculates” students against propaganda via the deployment of critical reception and reasonable doubt.

In short, one goal of this particular assignment is honing students’ “crap detectors” (Shaffer), encouraging them not to accept any information at face value, even/especially if it comes from the Commander-in-Chief. Every claim made by those in power must be subject to “rigorous vetting” — whether fact-checking, rhetorical analysis, etc. — and students must come to see such vetting as something other than non-patriotic.

Never forget, many perceive analysis itself as un-American, anti-American, something obviously non-neutral, when in fact the practice resides at the heart of engaged civic life. Never underestimate that something as simple as asking students to analyze a statement by President Trump may be perceived as sour grapes. You, the “cuck” professor, have only assigned such a task “because you lost so badly” and are indeed a fragile little snowflake.

As with the initial assignment, then, one cannot claim the analytical practices at issue are intrinsically liberatory. One can only content oneself with Reid’s observation that “[critical pedagogy is] a proprioceptive process of becoming where pedagogy’s abstract mechanisms shape cognition in a non-deterministic way” (160). For instance, as part of the analysis unit of my course, I have students learn a number of logical fallacies along with how to spot them. However, one person’s informal fallacy is not another’s. I can teach someone what constitutes a false analogy, but nothing guarantees a student won’t, for instance, perceive Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With” remixed to feature Education Secretary Betsy Devos as the young black Ruby Bridges as somehow apt, insightful.

The same holds for rhetorical appeals. One can teach a student to understand and identify instances of pathos, but nothing guarantees they’ll perceive a Trump tweet featuring ALL CAPITAL LETTERS as hyperbolic, emotionally manipulative, and not merely “passionate.” On the other hand, that via analysis students might reach conclusions so different from one’s own, is perhaps evidence of the assignment’s quasi-neutrality.

Regarding Trump in particular, though most students seemed to understand the value of analyzing the Twitter account of perhaps the most powerful person on the planet, when asked to identify fallacies, manipulative appeals, or even outright lies — as part of one’s civic and/or intellectual duty — their reticence was often palpable. I wonder, however, if this has more to do with them being shy about opinion-giving generally, or more insidiously, if the swamp of misinformation that constitutes contemporary life, rather than simple apathy, has rendered them deeply unsure about their positions on practically everything. Perhaps this is precisely why “we scholars” must drop the pretense of neutrality, exhibiting the courage to risk exposing our views in the name of advancing struggle.

We are authorities whether we like it or not — potential “public intelligences,” conduits of iterative power — and quite often students are listening, respecting our judgments and insights.

Likely, such are the risks we cannot afford not to take in our profession. Silence will only bring about our downfall all-the-more quickly, and indicates we have already been cowed into submission and self-censorship. Furthermore, with Shaffer, “[w]hen we witness oppression, abuse, or harassment and do nothing, we allow it to continue, to gain inertia, to be normalized … we make it less likely that others will stand up, as well.” So I implore you, my colleagues, friends, start speaking out and/or keep speaking out — or risk losing the right to speak. We hold far more in common than that which separates us, and should put “merely academic” differences aside in the name of a newfound solidarity “inside”/“outside” the university’s digitally-enhanced classrooms. There is no intrinsic reason why “ed-tech in a time of Trump” should undermine “we educators.” There are responsible and prudent ways to wield hybrid pedagogy so as to bend the arc of history towards justice — strategies that, if necessary, uphold the pretense of neutrality — and actualization of a future with which we can live may depend upon them.

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