Sunday, April 30, 2017

Oops and Ouch; Reflecting on my gendered critique of an author

When a renowned ed tech blogger blocked the use of annotation tools like on her blog, she posted a rebuke of readers who employed the tools for commentary and discussion. I responded to her post via Twitter, where I took issue with her public criticism of a tool and a practice that colleagues of mine and I have been using to read and respond socially. After a distributed discussion that played out 140 characters at a time with a few other opinionated readers and the author herself, I felt chastened when she asked me to consider how gendered my critique was, adding, “Please leave me alone. Thank you.”


Though this author is something of an Internet and ed tech celebrity and her audience is huge (she has over 35K Twitter followers), I felt that I was a part of a specific, targeted audience for her post since I have organized professional learning online in which educators have discussions about her writing via I’ve done so because I was a fan of her work and I thought her voice, which is highly critical of ed tech trends, would help foster deep discussions about ed tech and equity. 


I can be dense and headstrong during any interpersonal communication and I surely was forceful in my defense of online annotation. Though I was frustrated by her admonition that my critique was gendered and unfair, I took her advice and reflected on the way our gender identities colored the conversation. On a flight from Seattle to Denver, I reconsidered my critique of her decision to block reader notes. Here’s what I came up with: 

As a white guy who engages in the precarious practice of convening equity conversations online, I have to be willing to say, “Oops,” when I offend. Then I have to reflect and learn. It is my professional work, seeking to understand other perspectives and the roles of identity and culture. Also, it is my professional responsibility to investigate my privilege and the blindspots it leaves me, whether I’m assigning reading to teens or tweeting with a professional writer. 

On the Internet, my identity as a man can be a threat, especially for a popular female blogger. Since she’s been trolled and harassed, I can imagine that she would be wary about the potential for my Twitter commentary to turn ugly, especially as I discussed my critique with other men. My discussion about her choices with other men in a public space could definitely feel to her as though I was rallying support against her. In my fervor to test my analogies and defend a practice, a tweet or two surely mansplained. I sounded judgmental, which is never a good move. That is all gendered and I was blind to these considerations as I tweeted. 


In equity conversations identity matters and shapes the context. My blindness to her feelings stemmed from a few different identities of mine that led me to feel as though I was being fair when the person whose actions I challenged felt decidedly otherwise. My identity as a public school teacher emboldened me as I wrote directly to an author whose work I take seriously. She writes about schools and I work in schools. My identity as a bookworm who loves to discuss a recent read with friends online loomed large. She writes about modern reading and I am a modern bibliophile. Last, I donate a small amount of money each month to her in support of her work, so my identity as supporter and as a crowdfunder also gave me a head of steam.


In another post, I’ll write about the evolution of copyright and the importance of analogy as we seek to understand the digital tools that shape our experiences online. I can and will make an argument in favor of open online annotation without putting a female author at the center of my argument. 


  1. Just to clear, though: there was a nearly even mix of insightful women and men in that Twitter conversation, and the word "censorship" was brought up by one of our female participants (which some of us, including myself, called the wrong word, and allowed the conversation to move forward). I can understand her sensitivity, too, as you explain it here, although I believe her barbed response to you ("leave me alone") was more of a defensive approach due to being critiqued as a writer who often focuses on the open web and marginal voices shutting down her corner of the web to all voices. I don't think the discussion that unfolded was gendered, until she brought up that word. But then again, I am a white male, so maybe I didn't see all of the underlying assumptions that she was reading into the exchange.

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  3. The cudgel of gender was profoundly unfair to you. I know you are careful in how and who you annotate with. To brandish the gender weapon is a way to silence. Can't very well change what you are, can you? All one can do is honor her wishes toward you and everyone else: leave her alone. Leave her blog and podcast and keynotes and newsletter alone. And mos def leave her Patreon alone. There is a world of reciprocal conversation out there to be had. Explore and keep on sharing.

    1. Hey Terry,

      Thanks for this note. Somehow I missed it in my notifications. The Twitter conversation that led to this post was definitely something I have reflected on a great deal. I really appreciate your comments here. The interaction with this author reminded me to be more careful in my criticism of writers online but also to be careful about who I support.