One of the shocks in moving from faculty to administration was discovering that I had to be much more explicit about when I was just thinking out loud. In my faculty role, I was free to speculate about all sorts of things, and to change my mind mid-sentence if the situation warranted. When I moved to the other side of the desk, talk intended as speculative was sometimes taken as definitive, or ideas half-formed were attacked as if they were concrete proposals. Part of the appeal of blogging, for me, was that it was a space for thinking out loud. And I’ve been lucky to have had (mostly) thoughtful readers and commenters who mostly address the merits of ideas, allowing for the possibility that someone could be barking up the wrong tree without necessarily being evil.
I mention that because of two pieces on the same day that addressed the “why” of internet conversations.
The first, by InsideHigherEd, is about whether and/or how to change its policy on comments. The piece notes that the ideal of informal academic conversation involves the thoughtful exchange of ideas, but that many comments are merely ad hominem and/or tangential to what a given piece actually said. I’ll admit some frustration when I read comments that are clearly nothing more than knee-jerk ideological responses to a keyword in a title; often, they’re nothing more than attempted intimidation. (I read somewhere that some sites require commenters to pass a content-based quiz on the article before being allowed to comment on it; it sounds labor-intensive, but as a writer, I definitely see the appeal.) IHE is trying, apparently, to reduce the amount of mobbing and verbal graffiti without losing the ability to foster useful discussion. It’s a great goal, and I hope they’re able to find a reasonable improvement.
The second is by Julia Galef at her own site. It’s about why she sometimes engages in online debates even when it’s obvious that she isn’t going to change her interlocutor’s mind, and why the ideal of maybe changing her own mind through conversation is so rarely relevant.
Galef notes that it’s sometimes worth wading into debates against people who obviously aren’t going to change their minds, whether to set an example of reasoned argument, to assure others who disagree that they aren’t alone, or to appeal to third party readers who may be swayable. I like her delineation a lot, partially because I’ve used all of those reasons at one point or another. Anyone familiar with the poli sci concept of the “Overton window” will know that “just ignore them and they’ll go away” can be a form of unilateral disarmament. (The Overton window refers to the range of opinions that are considered acceptable. In the contemporary United States, for instance, divine-right monarchy is outside the Overton window. In other times and places, it was the dominant ideology. The key fact about the Overton window is that it shifts over time. In the 1990’s, support for legalizing same-sex marriage was considered political poison. Now, opposition to legal same-sex marriage has become discrediting among younger voters. The window has shifted.) Failing to oppose popular but deeply objectionable ideas can mean acceding to a shift in the range of acceptable opinion.
Some boundaries are worth maintaining, and some ideas merit vociferous objection. When I write in support of DACA and Dreamers, for instance, I’m under no illusion that I’ll sway committed opponents; their premises are so different from mine that it just isn’t going to happen. But I like to think I’m interrupting the intended illusion of unanimity, offering moral support to some who feel attacked, and maybe, on my best days, helping someone who’s torn on the issue find some clarity.
The comments that help the most, both as a writer and as a practitioner in my industry, are the ones that propose angles or solutions I hadn’t thought of. They’re the ones that treat the more speculative pieces as exercises in thinking out loud, and they respond in a spirit of improving the thinking. I have learned from those, and still do. Sometimes they sway me on the merits, which is one thing; sometimes they suggest an interpretation utterly distinct from my intention, which helps me hone what I’m trying to say. (“How the hell did you get _that_ from _this_? Oh, right…”) Just knowing how certain phrases or terms sound to other people has helped me reduce the number of unforced errors I make. That’s useful.
The question of anonymous commenting adds a twist to the issue. For years, I wrote this blog under a pseudonym, for fear of the local campus falling prey to Carly Simon Syndrome. (“You’re so vain, I bet you think this post is about you.”) And occasionally that happens. But the pseudonym eventually outlived its usefulness. It seemed to limit readership, and to prevent some people from taking my posts seriously. Since writing under my real name, I’ve taken away one reason for people to dismiss posts out of hand. I’ve also had to be a little more thoughtful and less impulsive, which, frankly, is to the good; some of my early stuff is a little cringe-y. Over time, I’ve tried to vent less and think more. I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether it’s working.
While I’m glad to have dropped the pseudonym, I still see why many others would benefit from one. For people supposedly committed to academic freedom, academics as a group can be remarkably censorious. In a tight job market, I fully understand people not wanting to risk the roles they have. For what it’s worth, I’d support IHE continuing to allow pseudonymous comments, even if they clamp down a bit harder on the verbal graffiti.
Galef’s larger point, about not expecting your own mind to be changed, is sadly true. But hope springs eternal. For me, sometimes the surprise comes less from the interaction than from the writing itself; I’ve been surprised more than once to see where a topic went when I followed it for a while.
So, thank you to my wise and worldly readers for continuing to give me an excuse, and a venue, for thinking out loud. It helps, even when the connection isn’t obvious.