Please don't pee in the pool: ethics and swimming the backchannel

Since returning from the NWP annual meeting, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which I engage with the backchannel.  First of all, I believe that the ways in which the backchannel functions depends on me and the responsibility I take for my own actions.  I need to evaluate every tweet to make sure that it is not noise, know when it is important to validate what others are saying by sharing links or posting comments, and also when to just be quiet and watch the backchannel flow by.  In short, I have to make sure that I am not the one peeing in the pool. This year at the NWP annual meeting, we were all encouraged to engage in myriad digital spaces,  including twitter, where we engaged by hastagging with #nwpam09.

For the most part, I am an avid surfer of the backchannel and enthusiastically encouraged my fellows to engage there with me.  But there was one moment where I felt the little pangs of an ethical dilemma during my Philadelphia conference experience.

It was Billy Collins’ keynote speech to NWP.  After meeting Mr. Collins that morning, I was truly excited to hear him speak.  I am, after all, a poet at heart and loved what he accomplished as poet laureate with his Poetry 180 initiative.  Billy Collins is a dynamic speaker, and he takes unapologetic aim at all manner of societal annoyances.  Because I find Twitter a bit clunky for a key note, I switched over to to live blog the keynote.  A few people joined me there as I followed the keynote.

Here is where it got tricky for me.  Billy Collins began to discuss the discourse practices of young women, what is commonly known as the “OH. MY. GAWD.” phenomenon.  He skewered this phrase and followed it with a poem about a young woman on a date who overused the phrase into absurdity.  The whole room laughed.  Shortly thereafter, he read his poem, “Simile” in which he responds to what he described as what “women truly want…to be compared to things.”  The poem, if you are not familiar with it, is a satire of love poetry, in which the woman is compared to more and more ridiculous things.

As the self-elected live blogger for the keynote, I felt a responsibility to maintain an objective voice, to not editorialize too much and to certainly not criticize.  But here was a man who was mocking the discourse practices of young women, who indicated with his comments and his poetry that women care for nothing more than to be compared to something, anything.  I squirmed under this mockery and struck me that if Billy Collins were mocking the halting English of a recent immigrant or any other non-standard English speaker, that we would not be laughing with him.  We would find it racist.  But here we were, a room with a majority of women, laughing as Billy Collins mocked women.  We did not name it as chauvinist.

Meanwhile, in the backchannel, I wrote “Billy needs to take it easy on us girls.”  But I felt the ick in my stomach.  Because what I wanted to say was: I am offended by this.  I am tired of young women being characterized in this manner.  It’s too easy.  You can bemoan the destruction of the English language, but that is a tired topic. Don’t dress up this chauvinist rhetoric and call it poetry.  Don’t make me laugh with you at myself (who, admittedly, blogged this phrase only moments before he took aim at it, “OMG. I am getting teary-eyed.”)

In the end, do I think that Billy Collins is anti-feminist? Not really.  Was it really so bad? Again, not really.  But if I had some of my young female students in the audience, I would have wanted to shield them from that.  Because it is hard enough to be a young woman sometimes, without the poet laureate making fun of the ways in which you speak, these little discourse practices that are used socially, as jokes, as a way to engage without thinking too hard.

So in the end, I keep questioning my role in the backchannel.  I want to keep it a place to learn, to play, to splash around and laugh. I don’t know that there are always easy answers to this, because before the back channel, I would never had to have considered my response.  It would not be immortalized in a live blog or on a twitter feed.  What we as teachers have to realize is that the way we are growing writers these days is to also grow ethical contributors to the conversation.  And for me, being an ethical contributor can be fraught: to comment or to stay silent?  Does my silence indicate assent or apathy?  I am still struggling with both the questions and the answers.