Blog Post

The Fine Art of Disagreeing in Public: Rsp to MLA and a Tribute to Great Listening

Last night, I had the marvelous opportunity to do a benefit for WUNC, our local public radio, with the incomparable Dick Gordon of "The Story."  I'd never met Dick before but was bowled over, meeting him in person, by his kind attentiveness in every conversation. At least three times I heard someone make a comment, and then I heard him ask a follow-up question that turned cocktail party conversation into something deep and real.  I've been interviewed maybe fifty or even a hundred times this year as part of my book tour for Now You See It and have come to have real admiration for a good interviewer, someone who knows not only how to listen but how to (yes, I know this is the subject of my own book!) pay attention.  Some do it better than others, but Dick pays attention to everything, the tiny tremor in the voice, the anomaly, the turn of phrase---and, because he does, he makes "The Story" deeper.   His generous curiosity was the catalyst for meaning and even learning.   I know.  Because last night it happened to me.

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Once the evening began, Dick asked me questions in front of the assembled group, all dedicated supporters of WUNC.  He was light in his touch, generous in his letting me be the center of the stage.  If you are a proponent (as I certainly am) of peer-centered learning, you know that only a truly great teacher has the gift of allowing the learner to be center stage.   I found myself, at the beginning, paying as much attention to his remarkable style as to our conversation and then the miracle happened:  I stopped thinking about the form, the audience, the interview and became totally absorbed in "The Story."   Soon, I was thinking about my own life in a way I never had before.  He asked me about Miss Schmidt, the formidable teacher charged with the duty of passing me, in eighth grade, on the Illinois state-required certification of memorizing and reciting the Preamble to the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address.  

I tell this story in Now You See It in a section about the historical contingencies and neuro-scientific conventions of what we now call “learning disabilities.”  I wasn’t diagnosed as dyslexic until I was 27.  I was already an assistant prof and had had a Ph.D. for a few years when I went with a friend who was having her daughter tested for this new thing called "learning disabilities."  I looked over her shoulder, had a flash of recognition, and decided to be tested myself.  I learned I was in the top 1% of dyslexics, really dyslexic!  That certainly explained my checkered academic past.  One aspect of my particular dyslexia is an inability to memorize pretty much anything by rote, even though it turns out (I subjected myself to just about every cognitive test out there as part of the research on neuroscience for Now You See It) I test high for other forms of memory. Like many dyslexics,  I remember by context and content, not by rote.   Miss Schmidt didn't know I was "LD"; she was sure I was being obstinate.  She punished me several times for not reciting those two required pieces, sure I was failing just to “get attention.”  Then one day, either as a punishment or because she had an insight, she assigned me the task of writing essays on each piece.  She was shocked when I came back the next morning with a one-hundred page spiral notebook full, on both sides, of my essays.  Of course, I still couldn't recite either one.  

I tell that story in the book to talk about learning disabilities as a category.  But Dick asked me what I learned about her from that exchange.  Now, I've told that story probably a hundred, maybe a thousand times.  I've never really thought about her "learning abilities."   Because of the way he asked, I was transported back to that scene and I could remember that very tall stern woman, turning page after page of my messy, penciled scrawled notebook, and I remember this formidable woman, with her lacquered raven updo and what, at the time, seemed like the world's most formidable, armored "bosom" (remember, it was eighth grade!).  Suddenly she softened.  Something changed in her.  "You still don't have them memorized, do you?" she asked me.  And I shook my head because I did not.  In front of me, in my presence, this rule-bound teacher got out the form for the state certificate and checked the box that needed to be checked for me to graduate from middle school. I passed.  My middle-school nightmare was over:  I didn't have to be a high school drop out and spend the rest of my life busking on street corners for a living, drifting from town to town . . .  I had passed eighth grade.

Dick Gordon listened to my story but he heard something else in it, something really complex.   He knew that, although I was focused on the relief of passing and passage, I had also related a story about a tough teacher's learning moment.  Miss Schmidt changed that day.  I passed.  But she broke a rule.  She suddenly saw me not as a willful child who needed to be broken, but as someone who really cared about the subject but could not pass the test.  And here’s the important point:  she saw that in me and then she let me see her break a rule for me.  Take that in, dear reader.  The toughest, sternest teacher in creation (from my eighth grade pov) let me see her break a rule because she appreciated how much effort I had put into that writing assignment.   And, that day, she must have learned something profound about being right, being wrong, and understanding that, sometimes, being right is just wrong, very wrong, and you have to be flexible, yield, give a little.


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I came home last night, pretty exhausted.  I checked my calendar and, on the way, made the mistake of seeing a Twitter stream that indicated a lot of people were very upset about a blog post by Trent Kays, "I Haz Language: A Response to the MLA’s Latest ‘Statement.’”   Someone at HASTAC had tweeted it out, as we try to do for all who blog on HASTAC, and once the Twitter feed began to roll, someone else said something like “join a great discussion.”   Several people were upset that HASTAC had “endorsed” a “flame” and a “troll.”   Of course, the timing of all this was rotten:  HASTAC has been having terrible problems with our commercial server—a source of genuine consternation and incredible time and commitment by the tiny HASTAC team since this happens to us very rarely. And as it turned out, I couldn’t get on the site to see what people were so upset about. 

This morning the server was working again so I read the post that caused all the controversy in the clear light of morning. It is clear that it is written in what is the accepted over-the-top style, tone, and idiom of personal blogs (Trent originally posted it on his personal blog).  It's an aggressive tone that isn’t what our 8500+ community aspires to. But anyone who spends time on the internet has seen the tone before.  

Now, one reason we began HASTAC was to raise the level of discourse on the Web and to show people can disagree, even passionately, while still respecting one another.  I see why this post angers people.  It has some good points, some I don't find very interesting--but the tone is not "learning the future together."  It's harsh.  In some cases, when someone uses the “flame” tone on HASTAC, we write and ask the poster to reconsider.  We reserve the right to toss spammers from the site and sometimes we have someone who flames so badly that we bar them. But amazingly, for a decade our community has worked so hard to be a community, that we rarely have to even ask someone to rethink audience and purpose.   

I personally believe that the original blog post should not have been retweeted by HASTAC since it does not represent the community values we aspire to.  We're all in this together, we're all learning.  And it is hard to know the boundaries of private and public--and the minute gradations within those seemingly binary terms.  There is a difference writing for yourself on line and writing as part of a collective whose mission is “connected learning” and a goal, as we say on our home page, tohelp collectively envision new ways of learning based on technology that can best serve the goals of a global society.  There is a difference, but no one has yet defined it and so we're all trying to figure that out.  Tone, humor, rhetorical mode:  this is why the humanities have to be key to the Information Age. These are important communication issues, and HASTAC is dedicated to understanding them better. 

HASTAC is dedicated to community, to collaboration by difference as a method and “learning the future together” as a goal.  One of our mottos is “difference isn’t our deficit, it’s our operating system.”  We do not police the blog posts or comments heavily but we ask our community members to restrain themselves, to speak circumspectly and carefully and always RESPECTFULLY of difference because we want to foster the kind of deep, respectful, attentive listening that Dick Gordon exemplified last night.  

We believe that, in even the most intransigent position—the Miss Schmidt of Disagreement (ship-prow-formidable and helmet headed!)—there is always room for learning, as long as arguments are framed with enough generosity and attentiveness to allow for meaningful change.  Name-calling, assuming the other party is evil or stupid or wrong-headed has never led to a change.

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In the case of MLA, I feel particularly, personally terrible to hear that the MLA is “dead” or “dying” or “fractured.”  Trent, MLA featured HASTAC in its three most public, open plenaries this year on “The Future of Higher Education,” “The Future of Learning,” and “The Future of Teaching.”  The last of these featured one current HASTAC Scholar and two “alums,” in their first years of teaching, who demonstrated the most innovative, experimental, lively, exciting new forms of pedagogy imaginable.  It is rare for any organization to feature, so prominently, young, innovative scholars.  

Whether I or anyone else agrees or disagrees with the foreign language document, it is thoughtful and purposeful and we do live in an era where we have to fight for the humanities, arts, interpretive social sciences, and certainly foreign languages to be central to the curriculum and central to the very notion of “learning the future together” and a connected, global world.   We have governors and state legislators saying the humanities shouldn’t even be funded!  

The Modern Language Association is not only a bulwark against such a disastrous idea of a future, but it boldly is exploring new forms of digital learning, media, scholarship, new definitions of the dissertation, and other areas where professional leadership is not only admirable but hugely necessary.

As a community member, any one can express relevant opinions on matters vital to learning, education, digital technology, teaching, pedagogy, and on and on. “Difference is our operating system.”  So we are not censoringHowever, difference only operates well in a community based on shared respect and a desire not for simply expressing an opinion but for expressing an opinion in order to create a dialogue, including one that might lead to innovation and change.  It's ideal when dialogue is part of the process from which we all might learn more about ourselves, one another, and the worlds we inhabit.


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I learned so much from the conversation last night with Dick Gordon.  He’s a pro, and few of us have his ability to push a disagreement not to solidify positions but precisely to make them more liquid, less polarizing, deeper and more humanly understandable—even where we may not agree.  To my mind, that is the gift that we--as teachers and co-learners, in the classroom and far beyond--should all try to give one another as part of the HASTAC community.   It is the difference between disagreeing—and disagreeing in public.  And it is the difference between self-expression and interactive, connected learning.

It’s not always easy to achieve and everyone stumbles some times—I certainly have!  I hope Trent will go back and reconsider the public forum and public form of address and what it means.  I'm not saying he should change it, only to think--as a professor of rhetoric--how vitally important modes of address, context, public and private expression are, in what context, received by what audience, and all of the other ramifications of being a community of discourse and a community of practice on line.


Again, I've often gone back and edited my work--including this piece which has had the additional "delight" of being lost a few times in medias res because of our server problems (not the best way to formulate a chain of thought).  I find myself rethinking and re-editing sometimes during the course of a day.   I'll say something thinking it means one thing and, the beauty of a community and the internet, I'll realize it was not taken in the way I intended and is actually hurting rather than helping us to think something complex and even radical or revisionary together as a community.    I’m not always a moderate person in my opinions. I'm proud of being plainspoken and having strong opinions.   And, in that mode and in other modes, I realize that sometimes I miss the mark I'm trying to hit.  Thank goodness editing is a feature of the World Wide Web.  We can go back and make it better next time.  That's what learning is.


Re-thinking, revising is important, and the process embodies an important pedagogical lesson for all of us, at any time.  Miss Schmidt learned the lesson many years ago, looking at the scrawl in a twelve-year old’s smudgy notebook.  I learned it again last night, when a sensitive interviewer asked me a question I thought I’d answered a hundred times before.  I hadn’t.  Not definitively. There was still more to be learned. And that, to my mind, is "The Story."



Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.   NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, [NYSI cover]




Thanks for including me in this lengthy response, Cathy. I appreciate your point of view immensely, even though I disagree with some of it.

First, let me say, that I apologize for the timing. It was, of course, not my intention to cause you more exhaustion (perhaps, hair pulling?). I didn't know the official HASTAC account would tweet it out, though I suppose I should've assumed. My post had already gotten a lot of play before that happened, and I thought the mini-storm died down.

Second, I published my post simultaneously on HASTAC and my own personal website. It's an easy way to keep track of my writing output. This is probably a trivial point, but I just wanted to make sure we’re on the same page.

Third, I am not surprised at the response I received from some. I knew that there would be some people who would be upset or not want to hear what I had to say. In my experience, academics do three things when they hear or read something they don't like: 1) They outright dismiss and ignore it, 2) They respond in almost the same manner as the exigent discourse, or 3) They accuse you of being unintellectual and trolling. I have a lot of problems with the last one.

It appears that academics accuse people of trolling or flaming when they don't like what they're hearing or reading without actually engaging with the points of the discourse. This is a problem, especially since my post wasn't trolling at all. However, it was intentionally hyperbolic in some places (because that seems to be the only way some people will listen), but I think there are points I made that are important and spot on. Despite the response I received (mostly on Twitter), there are quite a few people who told me that not only was my post correct, but they appreciated my directness. I think that's the problem in the modern academy: no one wants to be blunt anymore because egos might get bruised. Well, I'm sorry, but sometimes when nuance fails, bluntness must prevail.

I don't much like being called "unintellectual" by the Executive Director of the Modern Language Association, but it happened, and it dripped of snobbery. Indeed, I found it humorous because the Executive Director was engaging in the same behavior that I was being accused of. There's not much I can do about that though, since she won't engage in dialogue. (C'est la vie, n'est pas?)

Fourth, I think the point you make about being respectful is important. Perhaps some of my intentional hyperbole in some places might be construed as disrespectful, but I don't think I was disrespectful. I was blunt, direct, and passionate about something that I truly believe is reckless. It is not respectful for the Modern Language Association to advocate for more time to degree completion, more debt, more stress, and more, in many cases, unnecessary schooling, especially in the current economic climate. It's disrespectful to the PhD students who are undertaking their studies because, essentially, the Modern Language Association is throwing up more hoops that cause said students more grief. How is any of that respectful?

Fifth, my tone may have been aggressive, but that's only because higher education is sorely in need of change. It's stagnant, and it requires change. It requires people with aggressive opinions to jump up and say, "This is enough." Otherwise, we will remain stagnant. Overall, I consider my tone more impassioned than aggressive. I am no stranger to writing about polarizing topics, and I welcome them. Furthermore, I have never once said I wouldn't engage in dialogue with anyone about my post. I want dialogue. I want people to get upset and want to change things. That's what a writer should do: kick the hornet’s nest when needed.

Sixth, and finally, I didn't get into higher education to keep things the way they are. I jumped into higher education because it needs to change. I'm tired of organizations recklessly advocating for things without regard to the economics of college, I'm tired of people just not caring, I'm tired of people getting angry and acting like children on Twitter because they don't like what someone wrote, I'm tired of seeing my students suffering, I'm tired of seeing my colleagues suffering, and I'm tired of working within an institution that does almost nothing to better itself and perpetuates privileged class systems. These things need to change because if they don't, higher education won't survive.

I want to like the Modern Language Association so much because I feel like I should, and I feel like they could do good work. But, I find it more and more difficult for me to like them with every haphazard statement they push out that does nothing but create barriers to a student's graduation. I think HASTAC is a wonderful organization, and I think it's changing things. That's why I like it, and I consider HASTAC the future and the Modern Language Association the past. So, I will always support HASTAC as long as it keeps doing what it's doing. It's important to me because it encourages diverse and passionate opinions.

Maybe I was just too passionate about something important to me: change. 


Hi Trent, I appreciate your passion, even when I don't agree.  I think without the kittens and the funny spelling and five or six of the most egregious lines your piece would have been controversial but not offensive.   Whether I agree or disagree with this comment, I find it debatable.  And I am glad you are passionate, even when I don't agree with your assessment (or when I do).   it's when there's no avenue for discourse and difference of opinion because there is overstatement and ad hominem argument that I feel despair.  How to be passionate in a way that encourages rather than undercuts change is, to me, the challenge of our lives as activist/academics.  I'm delighted outgoing MLA President Sidonie Smith, for example, is a national champion of the newer Ph.D. that helps shorten the time to completion and offers new, more flexible models.  I'm delighted MLA has hired Kathleen Fitzpatrick to think through new modes of publication, peer review, electronic publishing, credentialing toward tenure for digital publishing, and new forms of online assessment.   Very, very few academic organizations are as forward-looking on these two aspects.  And I'm delighted they asked HASTAC--including a panel of graduate students and very new assistant profs, former HASTAC Scholars--to run panels on The Future of Higher Ed, The Future of Learning, and the Future of Teaching as public plenary sessions at MLA 2012.   The blanket comments you make, even in this second reply, about MLA being "the past."   It is possible for an organization to be traditional in some ways, progressive in others, and it is just my style (for better or worse) to want to celebrate the progressive in a world when so much mitigates against it.   That said, I repat:  thank you for your passion, and for working toward the most productive ways to make that passion work for positive change.


Well, Cathy, you may have me on the kittens. Either way, I agree with you regarding activist/academics. It is quite possible my passion jumped my argument, though I'm mixed in my feelings because some say it was over the top and some say it was spot on. 

It's good to be progressive and want change. Even then, though, I've been told I'm too progressive in an already progressive department at my university. So, I think it's a fine line. 

Thanks for the discussion! :)


Thanks for such a brave public conversation.  I know people all over are learning from this.   And your courage in your progressive positions is something I laud, even when I don't find the over-the-top language useful and, sometimes, even counterproductive--especially when it is a complex, huge professional association like MLA that has to both "represent" its most traditional constituents, by its very mandate as an organization, and has many leaders who are working to pus that organizatio and our profession to change.    It's never an easy line, never.


Did you see this piece I wrote "Strangers on a Train"?   I don't quite say that our profession is rather like an arranged murder, where we are complicit in our own demise, but I do think that, unless we made radical changes in how we structure our thinking about the role of the humanities, then we will have the peripheral role and marginal fate we have scripted for ourselves.


The trick--and it is so so tricky--is how to applaud progressive institutional change when you see it, even when you disagree with other institutional intransigence.   The world needs both radical dreamers who push the boundaries and then those who slog through and implement change in the real world, making it work even though, to get it done, requires endless negotiation, capitulation, and compromise.    Would that one could criticize and, voila, institutional transformation would happen!   I used to laugh about progressive friends who would lament that political change on the presidential level wasn't happening totally and completely two weeks after an election . . . and then would be department chair for five years and manage only to change the major from one required course to two (or vice versa).   On the ground, change is grindingly slow and requires so much patience.


The real lesson, for me, in our exchange--and it is why I am taking the time to write again--is that it is so easy to write off "the other guy."   Progressive voices at MLA were so upset by the flaming in your piece and I am sure, believe me, they get it from all quarters, typically from the opposite, traditional side.  So when "HASTAC" flames them, they feel scorched everywhere.   I empathize.  Been there, done that! 


On the other hand, often in the most "trollish" of outraged responses, there is some grain of truth and sometimes far more than a grain.   It's almost impossible to hear it amid the kittens and the sarcasm and the statements that clump your hard-earned and controversial progressive accomplishments with things that may not seem as much in that vein--institutions change in different ways at the same time, and at different times, it's all uneven development.   But I sometimes am far kinder to "trolls" than others would be and amazed at how often reaching out with some empathy and attention to what may be legitimate then results in reasonable, convincing, compelling conversation.    Sometimes the trollish affect (those kittens!) is about real frustration.

So, again, thanks for the courage to perform this conversation in public.  We may not agree but "collaboration by difference" is HASTAC's method and I think we just performed it and I hope others can profit by our exchange.