Thoughts on Feminist Pedagogy, Trolling, and Flaming in First-Year Writing Classes

In my last post for this year’s Day of DH, I blogged about an article I read recently in the context of a current project.  I am working on a multifaceted project about the opportunities for feminist teaching and pedagogy in new forms of writing and in online spaces.   Right now, the project is in the shape of a conference paper and panel accepted to this fall’s National Women’s Studies Association conference and a proposed series of workshops with my campus Teaching and Learning Center on building research assignments that are alternatives to the traditional research paper.  I am also planning on a series of blog posts related to my research and classroom assignments, and perhaps a journal publication in the future.  I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on regarding radical forms of pedagogy and online spaces.  The article I blogged about for Day of DH was by Timothy Oleksiak, “Incendiary Discourse:  Reconsidering Flaming, Authority, and Democratic Subjectivity in Computer-mediated Communication.”  The post inspired some good conversation thanks to Adeline Koh and Michele Moravec about “safe space” in the classroom and the responsibilities of a feminist professor.  Since then, I’ve been noodling around on the subject and its possibilities.

To a certain extent, I think responses to flaming must be governed by the subject and purpose of the course.  Michele Moravec pointed out in a response to my original post that a “safe space” in her women’s and gender studies courses is not really possible, and is perhaps not even a desirable goal.  She reminded me of the productivity of discomfort for learning and for critical thinking about new ideas.  Her comment also added a new facet to my thinking, which was about the directionality of discomfort and the productiveness of safety.  When confronted with new concepts that contradict a person’s preconceived notions about gender or resist integration into normalized gender paradigms, discomfort and the feeling that one’s previously held convictions may be “unsafe” are desirable outcomes. In this scenario where students are exposed to unfamiliar theories or methodologies, discomfort and lack of safety are directed at disrupting normative structures and prejudices toward social justice ends.  The purpose of feeling unsafe here, however, strikes me as markedly different from feeling unsafe because of “flaming” or “trolling” as they are generally conceptualized online.

“Trolling” is most often used to describe the practice of purposely antagonizing certain people or disparaging certain topics in online spaces.  It calls to mind a person sitting at home in front of their computer, scanning websites for people or topics to “attack.”  “Flaming”, open hostility to another person online, seems to carry the same affective responses as “trolling”, and these responses seem highly dependent on context and directionality.  In poking around online for definitions of these two terms, they are often defined as or associated with “bigotry”, “name-calling”, “childish arguing”, “profanity”, and “hate”.  Trolling, apparently, also leads to flaming.  These definitions and associations seem to indicate that their purpose and effect is the opposite of the lack of safety or discomfort Moravec reminded me of and other scholars and professors have found to be productive in learning environments.  Oleksiak argued in his essay that flaming (he uses the example of “You’re gay!”) should be read not as a failure to internalize appropriate online behavior, but as a genuine and productive expression of frustration at being confronted with new ideas.  He argues that the professor should not shut down the student who flames, but rather draw him or her further into the conversation by trying to get to the root of the reason for the flaming.  To some extent, this sounds exactly like the productive discomfort described above.  But I would argue that the purpose of the flame statement “You’re gay!”, while perhaps expressing a student’s genuine frustration, is directionally and affectively different from productive discomfort—it is directed at shaming and shutting down conversation instead of opening it up.  Flaming and trolling (outside the classroom) are nearly always used as an attempt to scare someone off or make them feel so ashamed they stop engaging.

This semester I discussed trolling and flaming with my students in the context of women in technology and gaming communities.  I assigned the article “Game Changer” from bitch magazine, which discusses how often women are subjected to flaming and trolling whenever they point out that sexism is alive and well in tech and gaming communities or dare to suggest that women might have a place or specific role to play within those communities.  I also blogged earlier this year about how “jokes” are used to maintain misogyny, further underscored by the trolling and flaming of Adria Richards, who lost her job because she reported a sexist “joke” at a technology conference.  These incidences seem more akin to the “You’re gay!” flame described in Oleksiak’s article—they are expressions of frustration, yes, but frustration directed at politically or socially “vulnerable” communities and individuals.  Their frustration, as discussed in “Game Changer”, is evidence of feelings of discomfort with perceived encroachment into spaces “safe” from feminist critiques, but the flames and the trolls also result in real consequences by producing shame and fear in community members (Adria Richards lost her job, though that could be an extreme example).  When thinking through the possibility of flaming and trolling in online class spaces, I consider not only the discomfort felt by students at confronting new ideas, which may be productive, but also the effects of flaming and trolling on other students who may feel shamed or shut down by the flame statement.

Oleksiak’s example also struck me particularly because I did my graduate work and teaching at one of the most LGBT unfriendly schools in the country. The flame statement “You’re gay!” as an expression of frustration carries so much affective and political weight that it is difficult for me to conceive of it as productive.  The directionality and effect of the statement matters, as does the kind of work we are doing in first-year writing classrooms, where our purposes are perhaps different than a women’s studies course, for example.  The question for me then becomes, what feminist goals can be met through a discussion of online flaming and trolling in the first-year writing classroom?  Are there ways to introduce students to flaming and trolling that are not also possible triggers?  One thought I had in this regard is to look at and analyze an example of a “flame war” for its rhetoric and effects.  Discussing the politics of flaming and trolling with first-year writing students seems crucial to digital literacy and a critical part of feminist writing pedagogy.  The next question for me, however, is whether or not to expressly “prohibit” flaming and trolling in first year writing courses or online learning spaces and what the response of the feminist professor might be in situations where it occurs.

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