On Not Being a Thought Leader

My plans for the day — such as they ever are in the time of Covid-19 — have been scuppered by a barfing toddler, and I’m cuddled with him and the cat in bed. As I’m not as entirely carried away by Blue’s Clues as these two are, I’m thinking about the week that has been.

It’s June of 2020, which I hope will mean something to scholars of the future. I hope this date marks a transition: the defunding and demilitarization of police, the restructuring of society to dismantle systemic anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. My hope is likely naive. But this past week has been one of righteous protest and horrific state violence in America, and of increased attention to how these issues replicate across the colonized world.

For a lot of white settler scholars this has, I hope, been a week not of pontificating and self-promoting, but one of listening, reading, and amplifying. I’ve been sitting with my own discomfort and reframing my work, in small ways, to centre anti-racist pedagogies. It’s troubling work, and I’m not sure de-centring the self comes easily to any of us (she blogged, bloggingly). But I have certainly been heartened to participate in the sharing of resources — readings and tools, yes, but also money — that has transpired on academic Twitter this week. There is reckoning to be done, certainly. We work in colonialist, white supremacist structures, and if we aren’t working to dismantle that then we are complicit in all the harm that radiates out from it. That will be as true tomorrow morning as it was in the heart of the protests. 

Of course, some in our community, and I speak specifically of educational technologies here, are incapable of not positioning themselves at the centre. The CEO of Moodle — which positions itself as the more ethical Learning Management System (brb, lol’ing forever) — couldn’t help himself from making an “All Lives Matter” statement and then a nonpology (“I’m sorry you think I’m racist, when I am in fact all that is right and good in the world,” my paraphrase) and then a slightly better apology that the Bros of EdTech quickly accepted, as though they had any right to. Meanwhile, the official Moodle socials didn’t make a single equity statement all week. 

And in a moment of the US President calling for martial law against peaceful protestors — and amid images of obvious state surveillance of the same — we have the CEO of Proctorio defending his particular brand of kinder, gentler student surveillance and centring himself in every emergent Twitter conversation about whether these tools have any place in education at all. Indeed, the author of this piece reports pressure from Proctorio to retract. It doesn’t matter to me how you dress it up: surveillance edtech is surveillance tech. And I honestly don’t know how you see how the category of tools you work in is being employed globally and say to yourself, “Yes, everyone must hear my thoughts right now!” If I produced or contracted with surveillance edtech in this particular moment, shame would prevent me from lifting my head above the parapets. (Proctorio, too, could not find time to post support of anti-racist activism or in opposition to anti-Black racism this week; perhaps they recognize the brutal hypocrisy it would represent.)

What both Moodle and Proctorio show is how easy it is to behave as though it is business as usual when you are insulated from the everyday experiences of faculty and students, and when you aren’t processing their grief and trauma (or your own). Indeed, throughout the scaling and seemingly unending crisis that has been 2020, the distance between the people and companies who want to position themselves as Thought Leaders and those of us actually doing the work has become an uncrossable gulf. 

The benefit of not feeling called to be a Thought Leader in this bizarre world of for-profit EdTech and EduCelebrity is that you can quite happily keep your own mouth shut for a week and focus on learning and amplifying; if you can’t produce content that progresses the movement, maybe don’t produce content. I’ve been listening to powerful white men my whole life, and they haven’t fixed education yet; I’m certainly not interested in what they have to say now, especially those who can’t draw a line between the toxicity of the way our institutions treat data and surveillance and the way those same tools are mobilized to police Black and Indigenous bodies in our communities. I’m not here for performative allyship, but it would be nice if these companies and people could feign some awareness of the world around them.

And, as I recognize the irony of taking space to ask people to not take space, this Google Doc has helped me make decisions about where to place my resources now and into the future in a Canadian context (scroll down for excellent text to use in communication with public officials). And I strongly urge all white academics to follow the #BlackInTheIvory discourse on Twitter to sit with — and then work to change — the very real oppressions with which we are complicit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.