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Practicing in Public

This week I ran across both a published scholarly article and an insightful teacher blog post that addressed the topic of kids living out their turbulent adolescent identity searches in public online spaces.  First, a Facebook friend drew my attention to John Spencer’s entry on a blog called Stories from School. He talked about how his #SaidNoTeacherEver hashtag, originally created to express his own reflections on his profession as a teacher, was picked up by his students and used to reflect their perceptions of teachers. The student posts progressed from crude humor to complaints about homework and finally to painful reflections on instances where they felt teachers had failed to acknowledge them as people.

Then today I read Neil Selwyn’s 2009 article on students’ education-related use of Facebook.  Selwyn did an ethnographic observation of some undergraduate students’ public Facebook pages, and found that one of the purposes Facebook appeared to serve was as “an arena for developing disruptive, challenging, dismissive and/or unruly academic identities” (p. 172). The posts he quoted consisted of profanity-laced whining and boasting about how little the participants cared about school. They were, in a word, adolescent.

My reaction to seeing these quotes was similar to the reaction Spencer had to his students’ tweets. I was initially shocked and dismayed by what I saw, but then I began to remember.  I remembered discovering sarcasm when I was 13, and being genuinely mystified when my unskilled attempts to use it as humor earned me a sharp scolding for my “snottiness.” I remembered dropping a whiny profane rant in an anonymous comment box in the dormitory cafeteria my freshman year of college, prompted not by genuinely bad food but rather by the fact that I was living away from home for the first time and thus had more freedom to “try out” the coarse and defiant personality I was never allowed to try out at home.  I only hope the unfortunate person who read my comment understood adolescence well enough to resist letting it ruin his or her day.

I’m certainly glad I didn’t have a public, archived medium available to me when I was practicing tricky humor and experimenting with disagreeable attitudes and personalities. Some forms of social media are very public (e.g., Twitter), and even when there are privacy options adolescents will not always make wise decisions about how to use them.  One of the things that surprised me most about Selwyn’s study was that 694 students at the university chose to make their Facebook profiles completely public!

For me, these two articles, and the reflection on my own adolescence that they prompted, made the importance of teaching media literacy much more salient.  We, as adults, need to teach kids how to use social media appropriately so that it can be more of a safe “identity playground” and less of a public archive of all the obnoxious personalities they briefly try on for size and then, in many cases, quickly discard.

 

References

Selwyn, N. (2009). Faceworking: exploring students’ education‐related use of Facebook, Learning, Media and Technology, 34(2), 157-174.

Spencer, J. (2012, September 9). A Highjacked hashtag and student voice. Stories from School (weblog). Retrieved from http://www.storiesfromschoolaz.org/2012/09/a-hijacked-hashtag-and-student-voice.html.

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