A Strange Confluence of Readings

This weekend I read two disparate pieces that got me thinking of how much they had in common about life in today’s world. It is an unlikely pairing to say the least, but I think one reveals something about the other.

The first piece was Nitsuh Abebe’s thoughtful look at “The Amanda Palmer Problem: How Does a Cult Musician Become a Figure to Be Mocked?” from Vulture.com. Abebe quickly charts and comments on the  small scale rise of cult musician Amanda Palmer into what I generally refer to as the digitarati, Internet celebrity-types from various fields.

Being a Boston-area resident and a high school teacher, I would have not been paying much attention when Amanda Palmer‘s early Brechtian punk cabaret duo with Brian Viglione, The Dresden Dolls, emerged on the scene. While appreciate her work, I am not necessarily part of her cult fanbase. In fact, I really become more familiar with her as a result of her collaborations and then marriage to another cult figure, author Neil Gaiman. I would put myself in the Gaiman camp of cult fans, however.

Still, Palmer has risen to some prominence in the last year or so, which is well chronicled by Abebe. Most notably, she crowdsourced the funding, via Kickstarter, for various projects, including rasing over a million dollars for her next lable-free solo effort. The buzz of this success landed her a TEDTalk and subsequent backlash. However, it is in Abebe’s framing of the problem Amanda Palmer illustrates that is most fascinating. Abebe writes:

I think there’s a lesson to be learned from Palmer, and it’s not the falling-into-the-crowd lesson she offers. Yes, she’s correct: The web offers an opportunity to fall into the open arms of fans, in ways that weren’t available before. Here’s the catch: The web also makes it near-impossible to fall into the arms of just one’s fans. Each time you dive into the crowd, some portion of the audience before you consists of observers with no interest in catching you. And you are still asking them to, because another thing the web has done is erode the ability to put something into the world that is directed only at interested parties. Its content isn’t like a newsletter mailed discreetly to private homes; it’s like a magazine on a newsstand, asking to be purchased.

This is the heart of the piece, and Abebe captures a truth not only about Plamer but also social media and sharing part of one’s life online. Using the web as a way to connect. For  Palmer it is connecting to fans for many tech savvy educators is about connecting to like-minded colleagues. In either case, every time someone shares something online, the risk is that more than just followers and those interested will see it. Thus, responses may not always be welcomed or desired. In some cases, they may even run afoul.

This brings me to the second piece, a recent top post from Diane Ravitch’s blog, “This Teacher Sets the Record Straight.” In it Ravitch reblogs, with some commentary, a post from a New York elementary teacher, chronicling a harrowing story of a tweet triggered nightmare.

This past Wednesday, the teacher, whose Twitter handle is @rratto, fired a math problem and some commentary into the Twittersphere, lamenting the demands of standardized testing and their link to evaluatory judgements about teachers and schools. Within hours, another educator, Allison Sitts, replied suggesting he refrain from posting questions from the New York state assessment. This, in turn, triggered a reply that clarified the math problem was not from the test but practice. Nothing was particular alarming about the exchange.

Now anyone paying close attention might realize that Pearson developed the New York test. An even more attentive person that reads Daine Ravitch’s blog might also have noticed that  Pearson textbooks seem to present a distinct advantage to students taking Pearson tests. So if @rratto pulled the problem from Pearson practice material it is conceivable that it may have looked a whole lot like an actual test question. Still, the problem posted was not a test question. Yet that didn’t stop Sitts from contacting @rratto’s school and suggesting  malfeasance, which started a harrowing chain of events worth reading.

Taking in the whole story, what is clear is how the school and district overreacted. All of which says a lot about why @rratto felt compelled to further share his story. Of course, when Diane Ravitch picks up the story and posts it on her blog, it is going to reach a whole new scale of audience. In truth, I question the timing of the tweet, just a little, only because the test was continuing to be administered. Were it posted this week, it might not have resulted in the firestorm that occurred.

Plus, while the school and distict is the primarily responsible party the responder is not without some culpability. My initial response was to question what consequences there are for making a false allegation about a fellow educator. Needless to say, a backlash reigned down on Sitts, resulting in the termination of her Twitter account @IthacaGorges. Yet, I doubt very much that she recognized @rratto was not in the wrong. For all I know, she may not have believed it mattered and that the problem was close enough to be problematic.

Nevertheless, all of this brought me back to the Amanda Palmer problem. Of course @rratto doesn’t necessarly have fans, but he does have followers. Morever, when he or anyone tweets or blogs, it is visible to those that may not be interested in catching them crowd-surfing-style. So posting a math problem, despite it being a practice one, during the period in which the state test is being administered, is tantamount to putting it on the cover of a magazine screaming to be noticed at the newsstand, as was Sitts initial condemnation. It is now just an unfortunate part of living part of life online.

It is my sincere hope that both educators are allowed to recover. Everyone makes mistakes, but the price of public error has risen dramatically, as the Internet has a long memory.

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