Dualities: Teaching College Literature and Being an Internet SJW

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Brenna Clarke Gray

Staff Writer

Part muppet and part college faculty member, Brenna Clarke Gray holds a PhD in Canadian Literature while simultaneously holding two cats named Chaucer and Swift. It's a juggling act. Raised in small-town Ontario, Brenna has since been transported by school to the Atlantic provinces and by work to the Vancouver area, where she now lives with her stylish cyclist/webgeek husband and the aforementioned cats. When not posing by day as a forserious academic, she can be found painting her nails and watching Degrassi (through the critical lens of awesomeness). She posts about graphic narratives at Graphixia, and occasionally she remembers to update her own blog, Not That Kind of Doctor. Blog: Not That Kind of Doctor Twitter: @brennacgray

Walking in the hallway today, a former student passed me and thanked me for an article I shared on Twitter because she’s going to use it for her sociology class. I gleefully mused about how great that was to hear, and then caught a glimpse of a colleague who looked utterly horrified.

“Your students have your Twitter account?” he asked, clearly mortified. And look, I get it. I don’t make a point of giving my Twitter and Instagram handles out and inviting students into that part of my world, but I don’t have the most common name ever conceived of and I am my real, whole self in the online realm. Sometimes, the twain meet.

The decision to be entirely myself in all parts of my life is not something I did lightly. I made extensive use of pseudonyms for a long time, and even had separate accounts for my “teaching” identity and my “internet” identity. I had real anxiety about students finding my personal spaces online and learning something about me that would make me uncomfortable. I especially worried, as being more outspoken here at Book Riot and in other online spaces led to more online harassment, that students would see that part of my life, too. I’m not sure what I feared about that, exactly, but it seemed like it might be considered unprofessional. But slowly, the divisions began to dissolve.

I don’t have a Facebook account and I don’t lockdown the social media spaces I do use, so my entire internet persona is public. It’s also entirely me. When I was 22, the idea of students seeing me for myself was petrifying; at 32, it seems exactly right. They might see a picture of a stack of books and a glass of red wine on my Instagram. They might see my completely justified swearing at the Ghomeshi verdict on my Twitter feed. I am okay with that. I am not a high school teacher: they are adults, and I am an adult, and I don’t post anything in my online spaces that isn’t an honest reflection of my whole self. My years of debauchery never really existed, and if they did they are long behind me and predate Twitter and Instagram. The person they find online is likely to be in an argument about an issue she cares passionately about, not posting photos from under a beer bong.

More and more, I have come to realize a very important truth: teaching literature is also teaching life. The places where I focus my social justice eye online — higher education, publishing, Canadian politics, gender issues — inform at every moment the way I talk to my students about books, and especially about the particular books I choose to teach. Will they be surprised to find out that the person who introduced them to I Have AIDS! by Sky Gilbert and The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill would have strong feelings about sexuality and race issues and what diversity means to the social fabric of this country? That the person who assigned them This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki and Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant is deeply invested in how women are represented in comics?

I do not particularly invite my students into my online home, but I am not ashamed of the woman they find there. And I hope that students who find me online will engage with me there, disagree with me there, teach me there, and learn from me there, just as they do in the classroom.

But what do I say to that colleague, who has very good and very valid reasons for believing that his personal online spaces and his professional teaching spaces must be separate? What else is there to say but simply, to each their own? I would never force him to make the choices I have, and of course I understand the desire to keep the two worlds private. But I’m not sure that it must ever be thus. I hope the work I do online means something to everyone who encounters it, and my students are no different as an audience.

Being public on the internet means thinking about audience and deciding with each post what is appropriate in the moment. But teaching literature is about the intersections of art and life — and life is messy sometimes. I was teaching a history of comics course when Charlie Hebdo happened; of course my feelings and opinions about that informed my teaching of the event, and students who saw my tweets that day saw that my response in the classroom was authentic and a reflection of all the complicated parts of myself. I am cognizant that students may be in the audience when I am online, but I don’t fear them. The internet informs my teaching practice in so many ways, and extending the classroom into that space seems completely natural.

Two roads diverged in a community college hallway today. To each of us, I’m sure, it makes all the difference.