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How do we as citizens, educators, parents, neighbors and consumers deal with the flood of political messaging in a polarized and polarizing phase in our society’s history? Amid the concerns about the crumbling of democratic practices and institutions, the widespread anxiety among individuals and groups on both ends of the political spectrum, how do we maintain our capacity to be critical in our thinking, empathetic in our relationships, and alert in our engagements?

Considering the breathless pace of events accompanied by official and unofficial statements from the US Executive branch, from foreign leaders around the world, from mainstream media, much of which we take in through the constant whirr of social media churn, we run the risk of being buried by the mountains of information we attempt to process and make sense of. Taking time to think about and respond to questions like those mentioned above can seem like untenable luxuries in moments of upheaval. If this is how many of us experience the current political moment, how are our students coping? How do we know?

What I propose here is an approach to information and data sorting which may offer us and our students potentially fresh and unusual ways of seeing the evidence before us while at the same time opening windows into our individual means of pattern-seeking and meaning making. This is an invitation to a conscious practice of noticing described by John Mason in his book, Researching Your Own Practice (2002). While the book focuses primarily on the act of teaching, the author suggests that noticing can be applied to any existing area of enquiry and is best suited to working on one’s own practice. In the introduction, Mason explains how noticing as a deliberate practice can be applied:

Every act of teaching depends on noticing: what children are doing, how they respond, evaluating what is being said or done against expectations and criteria, and considering what might be said or done next. It is almost too obvious even to say that what you do not notice, you cannot act upon; you cannot choose to act if you do not notice an opportunity” (emphasis mine, p. 7).

By studying our collections of information and canvassing them for details, we seek out opportunities to know ourselves better and through this process “becom[e] more articulate and more precise about reasons for acting.”

What might you learn about yourself and your habits by sifting through your collections? What’s in all that material you’ve read, shared, commented on, or railed against? These sample questions invite us to conduct an informal inventory and may help reveal our individual patterns of information gathering and organizing. Rather than attempting to track events or political figures, this approach raises questions like:

In response to the election of the 45th president of the United States,

  • which memes have you found and liked on social media?
  • what are some examples of humor you have liked and shared with others ?
  • which 3-5 news items featured prominently in your online forums this past week?
  • which forms of creative expression have left a significant impression on you?
  • whose links are you most likely to open and read?
  • what are some things you miss from the time before the election?
  • how much news is enough? How much news is too much and in which forms?

In your own writing or commentary,

  • which topics have been most prominent?
  • which phrases or words have you used most often to describe
    • the US President?
    • his advisors?
    • the current political climate?
  • which words or topics do you actively avoid using?

This serves as a sort of starter pack of questions for students and teachers to begin investigating habits and tendencies. Ideally this process has three steps: 1) Selecting one or two questions to focus on, 2) collecting the data, 3) summarizing the findings and drawing conclusions. Most of these questions lean on an assumed degree of social media consumption. We could also ask ourselves how one’s take might differ relying on one-way media streams such as television and radio.

What I appreciate about this method is that it encourages us make sense of our pile of data on our own terms, within our own quirky parameters of processing and understanding. And there’s plenty of room for fun, surprise and discovery. It’s an opportunity to raise questions about which themes draw and hold our precious attention. By looking at what we collect we open the door to learn about the why of our collecting as well as the meanings we derive from what we find.

Following the election of the 45th president of the United States, I began taking note of the word “stunning” appearing in article headlines or tweets. Stunning was often used to describe a certain sense of surprise or alarm on the writer’s part. Over days and weeks there seemed to be a visible uptick in this particular phrase and I began tweeting out examples as they came up.

When I return to those headlines and the referenced articles, many provide significant claims of inappropriateness of various actions on the part of the new President or his inner circle of advisors. Repeated instances of “Stunning” indicated to me an ongoing sense of disbelief at the current state of affairs on multiple levels.

My perceived prevalence of the word “stunning” reminds me that many within my particular filter bubble are struggling to navigate this brave new world in which our previous assumptions about fairness, respect, and institutional integrity are clearly being challenged. We find ourselves “stunned” by the wielding of executive power in observably undemocratic ways.

Other matters I noticed when I investigated various aspects of my collections:

These are just some examples of my preliminary findings. Looking them over, reminding myself of what made me laugh or when my decision to follow a link was rewarded with an insightful read, I can recognize their collective role in providing necessary sustenance and signposts in the disorienting wilderness of events. Wayfinding is a process relevant not only in our classrooms but in our living rooms, kitchens, and faculty lounges as well. Pattern seeking as a hobby and diversion may bring us closer to what we need to understand about ourselves and each other in troubling times and beyond.

And once we’ve identified some patterns, then what? I think there are several things we can do. Before we leap into public action, however, perhaps the most essential work we can engage in, is the most frequently overlooked: to sit and be with our patterns. And what I mean by that is carving out a reflective time and space to literally contemplate what we’ve found. The point is asking: who am I in light of these piles of data I’ve created or circulated?

For example, in noticing that I now follow and trust more women with regards to resistance reporting and commentary, I acknowledge being fed up with years and years worth of majority white male punditry. Add to that the simple optics of the current White House staff which mirrors that demographic in the most unflattering ways and I become aware of a lack I failed to appreciate previously. Looking at patterns encourages us to register the various filters we are applying.

If we are serious about the critical in digital pedagogy, then interrogating our motives in the actions we take is work we dare not side step. We are deeply accustomed to examining outside phenomena in our institutions and systems, reading, assessing, discussing, evaluating and concluding on what we see, hear, and think. Our filters are internal, not always conscious, yet essential to our individual meaning-making processes. Often, we forget that they are there coloring our view, skewing our perspectives.

Sometimes it’s easier for us to decide to march or call or retweet than it is to stop and clarify our deeper purpose. One of the traps in observing some of our online behaviors is overlooking the critical aspect of display. With my selection of tweets, blog posts and articles that I share, I create an outward image. What you see and respond to are my professed preferences and opinions. Putting things on display does not guarantee their authenticity or honesty, however.

Pattern-seeking nudges us to try to catch our filters on duty; to notice the intricate services they perform. Sitting with our patterns, perhaps silently for a time, just looking at them, we may be able to find beauty in the mess and encounter filters we didn’t even realize were switched on.