Like my actual IRL friend Bill Wolff, I found Matt Thomas’s recent bout of Twitterprov (AgitTweeting?) pretty compelling. Thomas, as active higher-ed-Twitter folks know, did various searches on Twitter involving the word Professor and then retweeted them.
Bill and Jon Goodwin did some interesting visualizations of the tweets, and their images help us see…a lot of stuff, I guess. (Update: Neither Bill’s not Goodwin’s viz were based on Thomas’s RTs–they each got their own corpus of tweets).
At the same time, it’s worth noting that Matt SELECTED (or if you’re into such terms, curated) the tweets that he retweeted from a larger pool. What his followers saw, in some ways, provided a broad picture; in other ways, they provided a view that was culled and constructed, whether or not Matt had any specific agenda or intent that guided his choices. As Goodwin noted in two tweets, his data-set had specific limiting factors, and lots of tweets in his visualization came from students in Florida. And some of the tweets also were tweeted during a Jewish holiday, so in a very sort of duh-type way, there are lots of caveats we could say about how various tweets are only representative of this or that kind of this or that. (I bring up the holiday because students at my own university wouldn’t have been in class to tweet about classes happening that day)
Among many this or thats, Matt’s RTs demonstrated the extent to which professors were bringing up Twerking in class. Professors were also talking about sex quite a bit. Though the tweets can not really provide credible insight into whether they did so inappropriately or not in a given case, many of the tweets lacked just enough context to be fair to the professors but more than enough to give us the impression that professors in general talk about it more than is necessary.
The most obvious effect of the retweets was that they presented the college classroom as a space in which sex is never absent. Those of us conscious of the power dynamics of teaching and being taught find this facet of them to be quite troubling. But those dynamics aren’t simple and tweets aren’t the only way in which such comments manifest–anybody who read Teaching Naked this past week knows that it isn’t always Professors who bring up the subject, and I suspect many of us would very much prefer that it never came up at all in any specific way. As in, “sex happens, but not to any of us in this room“; anything that we say in class is about this other world sex, an abstraction, or if it’s concrete in any way, it’s only because we can imagine that somebody like Miley Cyrus has it.
There are many smart things people have said about Miley Cyrus that could productively be used in academic settings, including a classroom; it’s also true that this person is also an easy way to project the idea of sex in a more appropriate way because she (and any other celebrity in the news) is a safe distance from the real space of the classroom. She is, in many cases, just a cipher that people use so that that sex can be a topic of discussion, or so that they may shorthand a sense of knowingness, a degree of hipness, or even a projection of professorial wry irony. She is a way to broach the subject of sex and other titillating things we assume people in their 20s care about without suggesting that sex is an actual thing we–professors or students–actually do. After all, the infamous VMA performance was already degrees removed from some acts by virtue of it being a choreographed performance.
I could easily show up for class and avoid making any mention of Twerking, but if I taught television like a friend of mine, or anything related to modern popular culture, it would be very possible to bring it up in a substantive way. Sex comes up in my classes as part of the content all the time. It’s a total cliche that English professors are obsessed with sex, but art and literature frequently depict it and to pretend that’s not the case is to ignore a significant facet of human history and culture. Of course we also often choose to teach works that feature it over those that don’t–Venus and Adonis is a lot more fun to me than Julius Caesar, though not just because the former is a tale of (mostly failed) seduction. As an early modernist, I find it difficult to teach works that have women in them at all in role that aren’t somehow defined by sex. Even when I teach works that aren’t early modern texts, sex comes up because women are defined in relation to it more often than they are defined by other qualities or interests. I think many literature professors talk about sex (and gender) so they can confront this fact and at least give students an opportunity to see that this period influenced how we understand ourselves, but we need not act or think in ways that reinforce its structures.
The worst tweets (for me) in Matt’s retweeting were the ones where there did not appear to be any projection, distance, or degree of removal in the comments about sex–those in which professors appeared to be talking about their own interest in sex or students who expressed sexual attraction to their professors. (Thankfully, if anybody tweeted about their Professor by citing “Blurred Lines,” I missed those retweets).
One of the things that I noticed as I read those retweets in particular was that such expressions were infuriating to me. Why did they make me so mad? Well, one reason is that anybody who feels comfortable talking about their sex life in the classroom is not at all worried about job security. Job security is far from the only reason I wouldn’t talk about my personal life or interest in sex (which I only bring up here because an some of those tweets articulated elements of both). But the fact that people can be so blithe about it–and, accordingly, quite possibly abusive of their power and role–kind of makes my blood boil. As for the student expressions of sexual interest, I tried not to be too struck by the fact that they were often tweeted by women (again given the fact that the tweets were selected rather than exhaustive), but it was sort of interesting that women endure unwanted sexual advances all the time and abuse online, but it seemed like male students were not tweeting about being attracted to their female professors. My first thought was “well obviously they don’t have to tweet about it for their profs to be made uncomfortable by various other behaviors…” and my second thought was that when young women tweet about their attraction to their older male professors, it seems less potentially harmful to male professors than it would be for a female professor. Maybe I’m unduly influenced by 80s films and songs here, but it seems men can casually speak about sex in a classroom because there is an archetype that makes it a recognizable “thing” rather than a real violation of conduct in a specific instance. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dr. Jones found the pointed eye-lashing attention from a young woman unsettling, but it didn’t seem like that attraction would have prevented him from doing his job after the first flustered minute or that it could railroad his career (though I guess we don’t get to find out, since Indy has to leave off teaching for more important things); the young teacher in that song by
Nabokov The Police gets discomfited by the situation with his student, and even if he regrets it as the accusations fly in the break-room, he’s basically a hero anyway. You know how bad girls get.
Many of my female friends and I talk about the various ways we hope to ensure that our students don’t notice we have bodies at all–to the extent that we don’t get a haircut during the semester because looking different in any way necessarily draws attention to our physical selves. I recently started wearing a necklace until I reckoned that students might be invited to look somewhere in the vicinity of my chest. And when I got a second tattoo that was more visible than my other one, I had to weigh the fact that it would be a reason for students to look at my arm. Never mind that they will do so regardless of whether there’s a mark there, and never mind that sometimes an arm is just an arm.
Ultimately, my reactions to these tweets are in line with things that Bill and Alan Jacobs have said, though I think (as hard as I find it to admit) being a woman without job security made the tweets at times a lot more anger-inducing than interesting.
I think Bill’s basically right when he posits this:
What makes these tweets so unsettling, I suspect, is that students, without any malicious intent, are shining a spot-light on ourselves. And even if you or I are not the ones being tweeted about, we identify with that person in front of the class and wonder just what our students say about us outside of the confines of the classroom and the structure of course evaluations (and even the anonymity of RateMyProfessor).
But the other side is that many of also don’t identify with the person in front of the class when that person is talking about sex in a way that appears to be, well, gross to me and embarrassing for the student tweeting. It is not hard for me to believe that some professors run with the privilege of having a youthful and captive audience, and out of the desire to perform an identity that is desirable, they say things that probably don’t belong in the classroom. The thing is, Academic stereotypes undermine what all of us have been hired to do, and anything that perpetuates them, whether student- or professor-driven, bothers me. Some of these tweets may reflect a generation of academics who are on their way out…but I don’t identify with the people who use their time with students in this way and find the prospect that they so casually bring it up to smacks of the…well, of the asshole culture I’ve seen in and outside of the academy, and one that has fueled a half century of angry feminists within and beyond it.
Jacobs’ reading is pretty reassuring on this front; he suggests that the tweets don’t reflect a reality–and he is, I think, right to note that the tweets are out of context, and that it’s possible the Tweeter missed the professor’s good pedagogical rationale for broaching a subject because he or she was too busy tapping 140 characters to hear it. I think he’s probably right in many cases in those tweets that “The world of real speech was never quite as lively as the one his bad hearing enabled him to imagine.”
The downside of his read, as Bill points out, is that it implies that students are liars. I sympathize with Bill’s response, though here too, I think it’s somewhat a luxury to imagine students are en masse deserving of defense from accusing teachers. I certainly don’t think all students lie, or maybe not even many, but I do find that many of my interactions with individual students involve small contests in which I’m supposed to arbitrate some version of something they are presenting as truth–when their very presentation is an invitation or challenge to say aloud that I think it might not be. I don’t know that this kind of interaction is something women face more often then men, but it is something that I find myself facing a good deal more than I’d like. But I think my point here isn’t that students do or do not lie (obviously they do because people do, and as Bill reminds us, none of us is very original), but that their Tweets are just more evidence of a variety of things that make this job so hard.
It doesn’t really make much difference to me whether their tweets are lies or half lies or accurate presentations of classroom speech or their perceptions of their professors; I think tweets can not adequately show what’s going on anywhere, sometimes even on Twitter itself. I don’t denounce the enterprise of collecting the tweets or visualizing them or anything, and without knowing what people are doing in their classrooms, I don’t even denounce the specific professors whose comments were invoked or interpreted. Certainly, they do provide data of a sort, of some things, and they are, perhaps, worth looking at more over time. But I’m not sure I want to look at them much more or try to learn from them.
My thought overall is that they are unsettling not exactly because they are “a spotlight on our selves” as Bill suggests, but because I (and probably other professors) do not want to be a fully-interpretable self while teaching, or even much of a self at all. I would prefer my words to be taken as words and content on their own, not as words uttered from a specific subject position. I don’t want to talk about sex in relation to my self or in relation to students, even if, on occasion, I want to talk about its representation in Venus and Adonis. What those tweets suggest is the sheer impossibility of doing so in a purely intellectual sense and the multiple factors that make it so. It’s not a surprise really––those Tweets taught me almost nothing I didn’t know or wouldn’t have predicted––but they did force me to acknowledge the sheer amount of time and energy I expend trying to work against or shut down these things that are, for some students and some professors, always out in the open.