“Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table as a patient etherized in the sky…
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – T.S. Eliot
Fig leaves are good. No one enjoys sharing more than they want others to see. Since the moment you were aware of the gaze of others, you chose how you wanted to be seen. Even a simple game of “peek-a-boo” becomes a lesson in gaze, permanence, identity, and the interplay of actor and audience.
Nikolaos Gyzis (1842-1901)
Just a few years ago I went to an ISTE conference in San Diego. My friend Chris Long dragged me to a session on “Branding Yourself” by Steve Hargadon. I sat in a circle as “EDU famous” people shared the value of branding yourself online, of sharing not just your teaching, but your personal life with the world.
I remember walking away thinking it was the stupidest thing I had ever heard.
I’ve never wanted to be famous. I’ve never wanted to appear in US Weekly Magazine’s “They’re Just Like Us” with spaghetti hanging out of my mouth as paparazzi snapped away. The thought of a vanity url, a personal webpage, seemed silly to me. I’m a teacher, not a destination.
But the idea stuck fast. I couldn’t shake it. For years our district has blocked the infamous site: ratemyteacher.com, blocked it because the reviews hurt more than help. There are other sites. There was a site created by students where they took things you said out of context and put them next to your name. Pictures of teachers, of anyone, appeared on MySpace, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter without your approval. You could talk to supervision, talk to the student, try and get it removed, but it was just like putting a band-aid on a major incision.
If you thought about it just a little you started to feel like the patient in the famous Thomas Eakins painting:
The Agnew Clinic: Thomas Eakins (1889)
So I decided to take control of my own image. Instead of letting others define who I was, which they were, I would define myself. I jumped on Twitter and started sharing, then grabbed a WordPress.com blog site and dipped my feet into sharing just a few pictures of Fountain Valley High School and a lesson or two I use in class- then something interesting happened.
I got off the examination table. I walked out of a room that wasn’t of my choosing. I walked out of the nameless building and started choosing my own journey as a learner and as a teacher.
After a few weeks of sharing and interacting an interesting thing happened.
As I shared more and more I noticed that people weren’t that interested in… me. They were interested in what I was doing. They weren’t interested in what I laid bare of myself, they wanted to see what my students were doing. The more I watched this happen, the more I realized that a picture of me (or my class) that I share, isn’t a picture of me (or my class), but rather an opportunity for the viewer to reflect upon their own practice.
My sharing out, of my class, of my struggles, of my students’ work, was merely an opportunity for others to think and share about what THEY thought about what was going on in my class. The smarter the viewer, the more tenacious the viewer, the more likely they were to find something interesting, something worth discussing, something worth of wonder in the smallest share of mine.
It was as if I didn’t even exist. My sharing, that I struggled so much over, was just one more window for them to focus their gaze, one more painting to stop and reflect upon like this painting by Rembrandt.
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp– Rembrandt 1632
Shocking isn’t it? Not a single viewer of the autopsy is looking at the teacher or the subject, but rather at the instructional book. You can imagine each gazing inward, comparing the notes in the book with the previous knowledge kept within their mind. Supporting this notion is the student in the back gazing at his own notes to check for understanding.
Even if the viewers were commenting upon the good Doctor and/or his task, the comments themselves become a type of mirror. We worry about what others say about us online when the fact is that their comments say more about them then they do about us. The more extreme the comment the more this effect is evident. I’ve seen this happen in meetings as well as online. Someone says something extremely mean in a meeting and instead of replying you just wait for their comment to come crashing right back on top of them.
So let’s summarize.
- People fear being defined by others by going online: this is already happening, why not define yourself.
- People worry that they don’t have anything interesting to share: the level of engagement in the viewer will come from the viewer not the viewed… a molecular biologist is spellbound by a speck of dust.
- People worry about what people will say about them if they share their class online: what people will say about what they see will define them more than it will define you.
All that can happen when you share is that others learn, not about you, about themselves. We live in an age where life changes before a book is done being written, before it’s publication is finalized. We no longer stand on the shoulders of giants because almost everyone has the ability to be a giant through the internet and technology. The journey is no longer one of summiting a mountain, but rather a furious race to examine every minute facet of life and process, searching for the ultimate understanding of man itself. By daring to share, by daring to disturb the universe, you allow the rest of us to gaze inward, then outward, then forward.