clickbait

A long time ago, (in a city by the sea,) I stopped watching television. Exactly how it happened – I remember the moment like it was yesterday: I was at home after work, I sat on the sofa, I picked up the remote control, I turned on the TV, I started flipping from station to station and noticed that all the white, blond, female newscasters had the same haircut. I felt sick to my stomach, got a bit angry for reasons I can’t quite explain, and, save a Williams sister tennis match here and there, I now only use the thing to watch movies and programs I own or to edit video art. No struggle. A clean break. It was easier than one might think; I simply replaced TV with the internet. Most of my time online is spent reading articles in various national news, art, education, and music publications.

I’ve been casually keeping track of how content is presented – or, rather, displayed – on these sites that I visit, noting in the back of my mind the juxtaposition of types of information, their scale, positioning, and tone. Tone. I keep screenshots of things that just… (My students say I have a ‘face‘ when they say or do something incredible, and not good incredible.)

Like my TV break-up, without fanfare, I’ve parted ways with a few internet media outlets. Sometimes a racist or sexist undertone will rub me the wrong way, and I’m out. No big deal. Quality online information abounds. But, a couple of days ago, I lost it when one of my favorite publications blew the tone of a headline. I hastily wrote a poorly edited but honest and passionate Letter to The Editor – my first! – and have not since visited that site. This separation has been harder than turning off the TV or any previous online partings as I genuinely enjoyed that publication’s content. Oh, well.

(Just thinking about it makes me make the face my students recognize as the one they encounter when we both know they’ve had serious failures of character.

Truthfully, I rarely feel this way about my students. They know that in my classes it’s most important that they act earnestly, ethically, with integrity and perseverance; grades are secondary. During a study hall this past exam week, one of the kids cursed. It’s not a huge deal, but I and a few of their classmates don’t like it, and they know that. “Watch the language.” “Sorry! That was me.” One of the other kids said, “Look at us owning our curse words. I’d never do that in another class.” I said, “That’s because I make this classroom a safe place to be ethical.” Sanctimonious, sure, but the kids agreed that my class is, indeed, a safe place.

What makes a safe place? In a learning community, a safe place is one where everyone is welcome. It’s a place where people have at hand the resources to succeed – and if not, they’re acquired. It’s a place where people can try and fail and try again with encouragement. It’s a place where communication is open and honest and constructive and supportive. It’s a place where no member of the community is ever rejected. There’s been so much nonsense in the media about participation trophies and gaining admission to college though Affirmative Action without demonstrating academic merit; that’s not what happens in my classroom or in healthy learning communities.

When, based on our contemporary selves, I think about our ancient selves, it is clear to me that we needed one another as much as we needed sustenance. As a result, even now, withholding dignity from people who don’t ‘produce’ or ‘win’ is short-sighted, unethical, and dangerous.)

Just as TV depends on viewers, online media outlets depend on readers – or, rather, users – for their survival. Unlike TV, these outlets operate as though they depend on advertisers even though advertisers spend based on how many users come to a site. From my angry letter:

I didn’t click the link to the article because I know that publications like yours thrive on click-bait (sic) headlines. Everything is NEW and EXCITING or a QUESTION? or a CONTROVERSY! That’s the nature of your industry.

That’s it. My protest is doing nothing. I didn’t click. Doing by non-doing. So much of standing up against the contemporary reduction of human relations to numbers and money is doing nothing. I suppose there are far more users than there are alternative online media outlets. They won’t miss me. Right?

The clickbait headline for the article in question posed a QUESTION? that echoed Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia’s questions from earlier this week that wonder whether, as I wrote in my angry letter, “Affirmative Action is inept, or worse, illegitimate, because it might be to blame for incompatibilities between students and institutions.” But, not once in 12 years of classroom instruction have I ever had students removed because they were ‘mismatched’ with the curriculum – and we don’t come close to doing a perfect job of ‘matching’ kids and levels or courses of study based on ‘demonstrated ability’ or ‘academic background’ or ‘test scores’ or any of the other bullshit lie (excuse my language) dog-whistle words for ‘merit’. Some kids with no ‘background’ end up in advanced courses and thrive, some who start with ‘high academic drive’ sputter in the middle and flunk out.

If colleges can admit legacy students or students whose siblings have attend that school, if someone can pull strings to let the kid of a friend in – without even seeing their metrics – then, at the very least, Black students should be awarded race-aware ‘points’ in the admissions process. I mean, look what Affirmative Action did for white women from 1972-1993.

Earlier today, at NYTimes.com, off in the far right corner ‘above the fold’, I came across:

The 'Benefits' of Black Physics Students, Jedidah C. Isler

I clicked the link.

This admittedly clickbaity headline and its huffy excerpt, unlike that other headline, promise to address Black students as students and not like “tongueless, earless, eyeless” (thank you Zora) pawns to be moved around the post-secondary chessboard. Jedidah C. Isler is far more eloquent than I in her response to the situation (all emphases mine):

Their questions left many black scientists, myself included, reeling from the psychological blow.

As a black woman and astrophysicist, I immediately became defensive of my own worthiness, and that of the black students I mentor and support every day. I wanted to scream my credentials from the rooftops: I have physics degrees from two historically black universities and a Ph.D. in astrophysics from an Ivy League institution.

I’ve thought a lot about who winds up in science classrooms and whose perspectives are cultivated. I went from sitting in a classroom full of brilliant black physicists-in-training to one in which I was the only person of color pursuing the same subject.

Of course I deserved to be an astrophysicist, and my achievements prove it; but that’s not the point. I was worthy the first day I walked into the classroom.

The truly damaging part of Chief Justice Roberts’s question is the tacit implication that black students must justify their presence at all.

Black students’ responsibility in the classroom is not to serve as “seasoning” to the academic soup. They do not function primarily to enrich the learning experience of white students. Black students come to the physics classroom for the same reason white students do; they love physics and want to know more. Do we require that white students justify their presence in the classroom? Do we need them to bring something other than their interest?

And what of media outlets?

At Miami Art Week earlier this month, the things I enjoyed the most were conversations with colleagues and friends and panel discussions. During Trevor Paglen and Jenny Holzer’s joint Art Basel artist talk, Paglen suggested that, while he is constitutionally pessimistic, he acts optimistically as an ethical choice. I would like for media outlets – I mean Editors – to do this with their headlines. Take a chance on users – I mean readers – and display – I mean present – content without the shock and awe. What’s the story? If you agree with the Supreme Court Justices, say so. If you don’t, say so. Don’t pose false QUESTIONS? that rile readers just to keep advertisers happy. You have the power to advance the conversation. Which might not, likely will not, happen, but try anyway. We all might be surprised.

Jason said I should have written my letter in a way that allowed for back-and-forth rather than one that closes the lines of communication completely. He’s right, of course. Maybe I’ll soften my non-clicking protest, but not in what remains of this calendar year.