Design your own Virtual Experience: Windows or Mirrors?

Johannes Vermeer “The Astronomer” Louvre in 1668.  Notice the location of the celestial globe in relation to the window…

Norman Rockwell “Girl at Mirror” March 6, 1954. Notice the magazine looks a lot like her…

There have been so many provocative conversations over the past week at Klingenstein’s Summer Institute for Young Teachers. Whether it was in the plenary sessions with incredible speakers, or in diversity group addressing tough, but critically important issues, in the history cohort where we get to delve into the essential questions of our discipline (and some dorky videos), or around a breakfast, lunch, dinner table, or changing the tire on my car with new friends, I feel like my head is circling with probing questions all day. A conversation at the lunch table today seemed to bring so much of what we have been learning together for me, and I was led to a new understanding I thought I would share….it will take me a while to get there, but bear with me, I am a bit verbose. Yesterday, Dr. Eliza Byard spoke about the importance of having windows and mirrors in our curriculum for all members of our communities. Windows into the unknown. Windows to expose students to new knowledge. Windows to challenge students’ misconceptions of the world. But we also need mirrors. We need to see ourselves in our community, in the curriculum, in the faculty, in the staff and in the students. The many different identities we bring to the table need confirmation and acceptance. What too often happens, are that the dominant and powerful identities of white, straight, male, and wealthy can eclipse any recognition of others’ sense of “normal”.

I learned at an earlier professional development through SPHERE when I worked at the Ethel Walker School, of the importance of recognizing I am white to my students. I am by no means an expert in this research, but I have found this simple recognition, early in the school year, allowed for a more open and honest discussion of race in my classroom. I couldn’t feel guilty that I was white, and I couldn’t pretend we lived in a “color blind” society.  Now, when I introduce myself to a new class I tell the classic “what-if” used in international politics classes to describe nationalism: “who would I trust with my bags at the Paris airport?”  I introduce them to a picture of my family, then friends,  then members of my immediate communities, perhaps alumni from one of my past schools, maybe a fellow New England native, then perhaps an American. Perhaps I would have to go to the bathroom so badly I would just bolt?  Then I ask my students “would I trust that same American in New York City?” “Why would I trust them at all if they are a stranger?”, “What would be positive about this way of thinking?,” “Negative?”, Why do we operate this way?”, “Is it because an American will likely speak English?”, “Or is there something bigger at play?”

I am a bit off topic, but this intro is a way for me to examine and introduce  the various lenses which color my interpretation of the world, and the importance of recognizing they are, in fact distorting and guiding my interpretation.  I then move on to global identities. I am able to recognize verbally my identity as a member of the developed world, as white, as female and as straight. Now, I am not off the hook after I recognize these parts of my identity, but it does let students know I am open to talking about these issues, and I recognize my privilege. We then move to an introductory “get to know you” essay about how their positionality (their place in the world) impacts the way they think (epistemology), (totally copied it from this author). Ultimately this also allows me to introduce ideas of historiography, and debunk the misconception that history is a single narrative. Click here for more on white anti-racism and the negative impact of the image of a “color blind” society

In my introductory exercise I am putting up a mirror of myself and hopefully, honestly reflecting into it. When I was thinking about how I could prompt students to write better postionality essays (some were good, some talked about watching the news with their parents, and  others were very superficial) I was thinking about their virtual identities. Was there a way I could engage them with the complexity of their identities through what they put online? Their virtual identity is so important to many of them. I thought about prompting them to think about “what the web knows about them.” If they Google themselves, what groups do they obviously belong to? I would encourage them to observe their pictures, tweets, instagrams and the collective message they send to the world. This a bit of digital citizenship exercise, but I am more interested in them thinking about how this “window” to the world, might in fact actually be a mirror. THEY get to construct their worlds online by who they follow, the various media forms the read, who their friends are. They also don’t have control over their virtual worlds in terms of the software that tracks them and tailors their advertisements to their specific preferences, or what they just looked up the day before.

As I was talking about this idea, a new friend Leslie brought up, the notion of “net neutrality” and how the internet is seen as an equalizer in terms of “access to information” by virtue of seemingly “unfiltered” access to information. The conversation turned to the ways internet is filtered, from countries that do block certain sites, the parameters we set on our school’s internet (although easily bypassed by 3G), and the times when the US does have limitations/consequences of “free” internet use. Who owns the internet? What does it actually look like? Leslie directed me to the book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet written by a friend of hers on the actual infrastructure of the internet. She also discussed the various reasons cable companies would like to filter our web use (to make a profit of course), and then notion of Google Fiber. (So much! You can see why my head was swimming!)

So why am I fixated on mirrors and windows? Students need these in our schools, but we also need to teach them to craft their virtual worlds not only as a deceptive mirror of the things they believe and affirm, but also windows into that big ‘ol world. Too often, they will see the internet as a window, but when they look into it, they will only see confirming ideas and faces reflecting back at them. We need to encourage them to follow news outlets that do not necessarily match up with their politics, or their countries, to follow people that they can both question and re-tweet. We need to encourage them to construct their virtual worlds in the same way we construct our classrooms, schools and communities: as both mirrors and windows. 

I just scratched the surface in the ways in which students could add complexity to their virtual worlds. Any ideas?

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