Engaging Your Local Community Online: The Overlooked Hard Work of #EngageMOOC

“What does polarization currently look like in YOUR workplace, or campus, or community…online and off? What resources are you turning to in order to try to deal with it? Is there anything you are currently engaged with that you can share with us?” These questions from the last week of #EngageMOOC are a bit difficult for me to answer. When most people read these, they probably think of things like block walking, or soup kitchens, or community groups, or things that are in our physical communities around us.

I certainly find those things important. My whole family climbed in a car to travel in the pouring rain to the meeting of local chapter of a political party in the new town we just moved to temporarily… only to find it canceled due to rain. What a bunch of snowflakes!

(it was actually pretty heavy and we should have known better ourselves)

Our attempts to get connected with people in our area have been a bit of a bust, as we just miss finding out about activities the day after or they get rained out. However, even once we find those activities, they will still be events for a specific political party. Polarization in our area currently looks like everyone doing political stuff with those that they agree with, and then not talking about political issues the rest of the time to avoid arguments.

Oh, sure – you ask any Republican if they know any Democrats and they will respond with “I have plenty of liberal friends!” or vice versa for Democrats. This will usually be followed by some statement that indicates they really don’t understand the other side.

A few weeks ago I saw our local HOA representative raving all over Facebook about “silly liberals.” I decided to message him about his activities, how public they were, and how they may make the few liberals in our community feel. Nothing accusatory, just asking him to consider their viewpoint. It was not a hostile conversation through DM, but he was pretty assured there was no harm in his words. Mostly just “liberals do it too” and “I have lots of liberal friends are okay with it” and so on. I don’t really think I got anywhere with him.

He is now leading a grassroots “community task force” to take a look at security at our community schools – and he has been clear he wants to push for armed teachers like neighboring school districts already have.

You see, the “arming teachers debate” is not theoretical to us in Texas. We already have schools that have armed teachers for years now (many of the “staff” that are armed there are teachers). This is the school district next to ours. People in my child’s school district are now asking “why can’t we have armed teachers like Argyle ISD?” People in Argyle ISD are also not content to just keep it there:

“I see a future where schools will be lumped into two categories. Gun free zones and ones that are not.”

“Argyle ISD and the Chief have done exactly what is needed to protect against the evils and evil people of this world!”

“Where Argyle is now, and where they started, and where they are headed is the future of safety in our world. They are not following, they and leading by example and showing everyone what must be done to protect our children at school.”

“Arming teachers is safety – they will not shoot without reason! Grow up people!!! Welcome to the millennial generation!!!”

To be honest, there really isn’t much I can do to change these people’s minds. But I have gotten through to some through debates on Facebook.

Yes, I said debates on Facebook.

Look, I know I am not going to change the world by debating on Facebook. I know that it is not for everyone. But so many people are so rarely exposed to ideas outside of their comfort zone – that silently reading a debate on Facebook might be the only time they are exposed to opposing viewpoints. You see, I bring up different points not to win the argument, but to expose the larger number of those reading the posts to different viewpoints.

Of course, I am not talking about arguing with “that uncle” on my private Facebook wall. I go to local newspaper and community groups and pages to bring up different views for consideration – from pro-vaccination to stricter gun regulation to transgender bathroom access to Black Lives Matters. Yeah, its not exactly what anyone would call “fun.” Usually it goes nowhere. But then there is that random DM from someone that tells me I have changed their mind on something. So I know it is getting through in some ways to some people, even though they might not let me know every time.

Look, if my strongly pro-Trump cousin can suddenly come out and post a rant on Facebook about how he is tired of Trump and will no longer vote Republican until they clean up their act… and he is quoting some ideas that I know I posted earlier… you know that I or someone else he is following on Facebook are getting through to him. We can’t just write these people off as extreme viewpoints that will never change. I get that it is hard work to get through to people, especially in online environments. It is not for everyone. But if that is something you feel you can do (and I wouldn’t recommend doing it constantly – I frequently will just get off social media for days at a time to recover from debates)… don’t feel bad for doing it. Don’t feel like your part is “less than” or “not as hard.” We need people to engage with different viewpoints, especially those where we are standing on issue of equality or safety that should be the baseline middle point (but has been labeled as “polarized” by others).

Getting Lost in the Four Moves of #EngageMOOC

This week we are looking at what to do about polarization and fake news in EngageMOOC. Our assignment this week was to look at Mike Caulfield’s Four Moves and use it to evaluate a web source. The Four Moves idea is a response to what Mike sees as the inadequacies of other information literacy checklists like CRAAP. Admittedly, these checklists do get long and cumbersome. For many people, this is not a problem. For others, it is. But in the end, my concern is that neither one will help with polarization.

So I am going through the Four Moves idea with common arguments that  I often see getting polarized online. To be honest, I really like the Four Moves idea… under certain conditions. I have not read through the longer book that is linked in the post above, so maybe all of this is addressed in there. For now, I will just focus on the blog post. The first step of the Four Moves process (which is not a check list… even though it technically is :) ) starts off with this:

Check for previous work. Most stories you see on the web have been either covered, verified, or debunked by more reputable sources. Find a reputable source that has done your work for you. If you can find that, maybe your work is done.

So this is great when dealing with a really simple new piece of news, like the example given of “Jennifer Lawrence died.” But the problem quickly becomes: what counts as a “reputable” source? Things like the CRAAP method are supposed to be about helping people determine what is reputable, so I am a bit confused as how the Four Moves would replace CRAAP when it technically starts after CRAAP is finished (yeah, I am giggling at that too). In today’s polarized climate, people look to very bad websites like Brietbart, The Blaze, and dozens of other extreme left and right organizations as “reputable.” Millions see these websites as “a reputable source that done your work for you”… even though they aren’t. Then there is the idea of being “debunked.” Of course someone that is anti-vaccination could look at Mercola as “reputable”… but that has been debunked, right? Yes, it has. But then the anti-vaxxers debunked that debunkation (is that a word?). Then the pro-vaccination side debunked that debunkination… and it has been going back and forth for a long time. Years. Decades. There are so many competing debunkinations that it is impossible to keep up with at times. The problem is, everything from the flat earth theory to the alt right to the anti-vaccination movement to the anti-gun control crowd have created an extensive network of websites that cite their own network of research, debunkinators, and reliable/credible sources. The problem is no longer “is this a reputable source” but “who do you say the reputable sites are out of all the competing ecosystems of so-called reputable sources”?

Go upstream to the source. If you can’t find a rock-solid source that has done your verification and context-building for you, follow the story or claim you are looking at to it’s origin. Most stories shared with you on the web are recoverage of some other reporting or research. Follow the links and get to the source. If you recognize the source as credible, your work may be done.

This flows from the same problem as the one above – going back to the source on most of the issues that polarize us will just end up at competing websites that all claim credibility and research. Even if you pull out Snopes or Politifact or Wikipedia, the response will often be “oh, those are leftist sites and I want something unbiased like Fox News.”

Read laterally. If you have traced the claim or story or research to the source and you don’t recognize it, you will need check the credibility of the source by looking at available information on its reliability, expertise, and agenda.

Looking at available information on reliability, expertise, and agenda is technically part of CRAAP… but again, some people see all of this through different lenses. When I look at Mercola’s website, I see an obvious agenda from people without expertise and lacking in reliability. But the anti-vaxxers sees a website that is full of reliability and expertise, with “no agenda but the truth.” The things is, if you see a new article questioning the safety of the flu vaccine, you can go through each of these steps and end up on Mercola and deem the flu vaccine as deadly.

Circle back. A reminder that even when we follow this process sometimes we find ourselves going down dead ends. If a certain route of inquiry is not panning out, try going back to the beginning with what you know now. Choose different search terms and try again.

Selecting different search terms on Google will pretty much give you similar results, because Google looks past those terms and gives you what it thinks you want based on past searches. Of course, using CRAAP you wouldn’t make that mistake… but that doesn’t automatically make CRAPP better.

(hopefully you are giggling as much as I am every time I use CRAAP. Oh wait…)

So the thing is, I really like Four Moves in place of CRAAP and other methods… when dealing with someone that would have the same version of “reliable” and “credible” that I do. And I am sure that someone with a very extreme conservative outlook on life would say the same thing… and would not trust me because of my views on what sites are “reliable” (that is actually not hypothetical – my name was released on the “list of worst pro-vaccination trolls” years ago because I have butted heads with so many anti-vaxxers online through the years). Polarization will continue as long as we can’t deal with the core issue that the different sides have a fundamentally different understanding of what counts as “credible, reliable sources.”

Losing a Friend in Times of Polarization: an #engageMOOC Side Thought

We have probably all experienced either ourselves being defriended on Facebook over something, or seeing others cut off contact with each other due to disagreements. Losing friends like that is definitely difficult due to the evolving constraints of social media, but I am referring to a different kind of loss here.

I met my friend Jeff in college, but we connected better later due to spending a lot of time hanging out during the after-college years. My wife actually knew him before I did. We moved away and somewhat lost touch. However, we would reconnect and catch up as much as we could. When we all got on social media, Jeff and I would connect more often and discuss life as well as our favorite topics: music and/or religion. Our views evolved away from the evangelical bubble we had been stuck in during college. Or, to be more honest, none of us felt the need to try to pretend to fit in with a label that really didn’t fit in the first place.

Jeff was really more vocal about becoming a liberal. This cost him a lot of friends from our college days (but I also lost many of those friends as well). Jeff would get frustrated with the way he was treated and would shut down his social media accounts every so often. After a couple of months, he would pop back up with either a new account or new name and start asking me about music. Sometimes he found me, others I would go looking for him. This was his pattern for the last few years until it changed at the end of 2017. He shut everything down in early November and didn’t come back. So in January of 2018 I decided to do some digging to see where he had popped back up.

All I found was his obituary from mid-November.

What really enraged me about this was that I found out about it so much later. I was still connected with some of his friends from his hometown, but none of them bother to contact us and tell us. he had passed. Additionally, no one from our our college/post college circles seemed to even know he had passed away. We had all become so polarized that we had failed the basics of human decency: let people know when their friends have died.

Jeff had lived a hard life. He was a black child that was adopted by white parents in a small rural town in east Texas. Our mutual friends from that town would have known he passed away, because they all knew Jeff. Jeff often talked about not knowing anything about his birth culture growing up and only discovering it at Baylor University (and even then, he recognized it was a bit skewed there). After getting out on his own, he struggled with discovering he had mental disabilities. He changed his faith to agnostic and his political views to “true” liberal (what most people call neo-liberalism today). He explored different sexualities. All of this caused him to be ostracized by his friends, his old church family, and most people in his home town. My wife and I were the few that stuck with him, because we don’t have conservative views on any of those aspects of life.

But here was his obituary, ignoring all of that, and speaking of all of his activities at our old church. They used that time to describe him, but didn’t bother to tell any of us from that time of his life that he had passed away.

It was all about illusion. As a small town, they had to present the adopted son of a prominent bank manager as a “good Christian boy,” while making sure no one showed up to share any stories that might destroy that facade:

“I really haven’t talked to him since he went so radically liberal on Facebook.”

You see, his Facebook account was completely deleted after he passed away. He shut it down on November 6th. He died from a heart attack in his sleep on the 13th. His posts were deleted a few weeks later. I had thought it was him that deleted them right after Thanksgiving (I noticed his funny comments vanished one day in the “On This Day” section I am addicted to reading every day). Now I know it couldn’t have been him.

One of his Twitter accounts was also deleted. His other one? Still up. I don’t think they ever knew about it. If they did, it would probably be gone. If for anything, just to remove the profile picture he took of himself sticking his finger up his nose at conservatives. That was just Jeff’s sense of humor.

Of course, he was the one that was told he was polarizing others by speaking up for Black Lives Matters, progressive Christianity (and later agnosticism), and systemic injustices against those with mental disabilities. People cut him off for being “divisive.”

That is my biggest concern with the conversation of polarization today: what counts as the “norm” that people are “polarizing” away from? If people were being polarized over the size of the government, or socialism vs capitalism, or some other purely political issue… that is one thing. But when one person is fighting for equality for all, and the other is fighting against it because they think the status quo is just fine…. what can you do? Why is equality a pole to be polarized to, rather than the norm in the middle?

Sorry that I can’t fix that one Jeff. Also sorry that I never convinced you to like King’s X. You won me over on Rush, though – so you won that debate in the end. I guess I had hoped that some day we could actually record our parody of “Staying Alive” that mocks charismatic church culture. But maybe it is for the better that the world is forever spared from “Speaking in Tongues”: “Well, you can tell by the way I speak in tongues, I’m a Holy Ghost guy, no time for talk….”

Vygotsky vs Spivak: Sociocultural Theory and Subalterns in #EngageMOOC

To be honest, I am not sure if I am convinced if the world has become more polarized, or if we are just becoming more aware of how divided we already were. If you go back and look at ideas like sociocultural history, there certainly is ground work for the idea that we are all different. But one thing is sure: we need to improve where we are regardless of whether we just got here or have always been here all along and just didn’t know it.

My interest in sociocultural theory came about in an Advanced Instructional Design course, where we had to take some educational theory and argue 1) why it was an instructional design theory, and 2) why it counted as an advanced one. There are different flavors of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory out there, but the way that I look at it that will suffice for this post is that we all belong to various sociocultural groupings that are constantly changing and affecting who we are and how we learn. These groupings can be anything from physical characteristics to employment status to educational study topic to even where we are currently eating a meal. The first set of videos in EngageMOOC touch on many different ways to look at some important sociocultural groupings, for example.

Because we are all slightly different socioculturally, and who we are socioculurally is in constant flux, making something like education into an unchanging constant becomes counter-intuitive to who we are as the human race. But those unchanging constants are what most theories look to codify.

Was I successful in defending sociocultural theory as an advanced instructional design theory? You can read the paper to judge for yourself (“Sociocultural Theory as an Advanced Instructional Design Method: Examining the Application, Possibilities, and Limitations”), but our instructor also admitted to us that there really is no such thing as “advanced” instructional design theories. The Master’s Degree program had an “instructional design” course, so the Ph.D. program was given an “advanced ID course… just because.

Not too long after that, I became aware of the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and especially her most well-known work Can the Subaltern Speak?  (good one paragraph summary here, or full text here). The basic problem she was addressing was how many post-colonialists were trying to help the untouachables in India, but were speaking for them instead of having them speak for themselves. Additionally, there was also the assumption that all of these groups had one collective opinion on any topic, thus erasing individual differences.

What does this have to do with our current polarization? We seem to throw around solutions like “just listening to the other side” or “just respond in kindness”…. but to those of us that have tried those methods, we find they rarely work. I have responded with kindness. I have responded with heated debate. I have responded with seeking to understand. Sometimes good dialogue is the result, but most times they keep arguing.

However, I have taken note of what starts many fights online. There is usually a provocative thought about the opposite side thrown out by a person, typically containing vast misunderstandings and outright hyperbole about the “other.” This enrages those “others,” who jump in and start swinging. For example, you will rarely see a fight start over someone saying “I am pro-life because I want to see all babies born.” You more typically see enragement ensue after some statement like “I am pro-life, which is so much better than you evil liberals that just delight in killing babies like your leader Killary does in her secret pizza basement ceremonies!”

Obviously, those of the liberal viewpoint take offense at this. But do we ask why they would get offended? I mean beyond the obvious reason that these statements are not true, and cast them in the most evil light. They know people think that way about them already – so why is it different when they see a FB comment from an acquaintance saying so?

I would submit that they feel their ability to speak for themselves has been violated by being cast into the wrong sociocultural grouping, based on assumptions from someone that didn’t even bother to ask what they think in their own voice.

They didn’t let the subaltern speak for themselves.

Spivak spoke about how subalterns can be anyone that is in a position of less power and control in a given situation, and not just the untouchables of India. In education, our students are typically subalterns to the instructors. In online conflicts, those that propose some wild misunderstanding of the “other” tend to quickly jump into the seat of power in those encounters, setting those they unfairly characterize into subaltern roles because of the language they utilize to tear them down.

So, of course, part of the task is getting everyone to realize that we all have unique sociocultural characteristics, and therefore we need to be allowed to speak for ourselves rather than have our beliefs dictated to us. But on the other side, when someone has attempted to erase our own voice in a situation, we should try to realize that it is okay to feel upset by that. It is okay to get “butthurt,” no matter what someone says. It is okay to push back. It is okay to ignore it. It is okay to respond in kindness, and it is okay to be angry. We are all unique people. We can all react uniquely. There is no roadmap.

But I would also suggest that we all need to learn from how we react, to make sure we don’t turn around and make others feel the same way.

Too many times, it seems like our solutions to “fake news” involves finding ways to get rid of anger. That will never happen. Other methods seem to point fingers at every time people get things wrong online. That will never end, because the first time people stamped letters into clay tablets was the first time people misunderstood something and wrote about it. People misunderstand – we always have, we always will.

None of this is easy. There will be no finish lines to cross to say “we fixed fake news!” or “we finally unpolarized everything!” It’s a process. You and I can only be our own unique part in it all.