'I Learn Things on Twitter That I Don’t Learn at Harvard': Clint Smith...

column | EdSurge Podcast

'I Learn Things on Twitter That I Don’t Learn at Harvard': Clint Smith on Inequality and Technology

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     May 23, 2017

'I Learn Things on Twitter That I Don’t Learn at Harvard': Clint Smith on Inequality and Technology

There are few individuals out there who can list both “two-time TED speaker” and “doctoral student at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education” on their resume. Clint Smith is one of those people—though when you ask him about his work, he doesn’t immediately voice those accolades. Rather, he talks about his writings, and the time he’s spent teaching poetry to incarcerated men in Massachusetts.

There’s also something else he brings up—his beliefs, specifically his concerns that educators across the U.S. aren’t adequately teaching about the history of inequality and how it has come to manifest itself in this country. Smith is not one for silence (he delivered a TED talk about the “danger of silence” in 2014, in fact) and has used digital venues including Twitter to encourage others to speak up and recognize how history shapes the present.

But what are Smith’s thoughts about the role that technology plays in the ways that students navigate the world, online and offline? And when it comes to Twitter, are users merely “preaching to the choir,” or is it truly an effective medium for changing minds? EdSurge had the opportunity to speak with Smith this week on the EdSurge On Air podcast to get his thoughts.

EdSurge: Clint, you’ve played a number of roles. What are you working on right now?

Clint Smith: I study the history of racial inequality broadly, and right now, I'm thinking about what social stratification looks like in the context of incarceration and education. I've been working in prisons over the course of the last three years, thinking about what education both formally and informally looks like inside of incarcerated spaces. For my dissertation, I'm thinking about what education means to people who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

In my other life, I'm a poet, I'm a writer… I do freelance work, through different magazines, and had a poetry book come out less than a year ago.

I would also consider you a unique sort of historian, in the sense that you've also been a teacher, so you've had that first-hand experience. You’ve covered this briefly in past interviews—How you do educators teach (or fail to teach) the history of inequality and how it's come to manifest in the United States?

Well, I taught high school English in Prince George’s County, Maryland, for a few years before I went to graduate school, and for me, that experience very much served as the catalyst for every decision that I've made about how to navigate my life moving forward. Part of what it did was to illuminate the way in which we have failed to properly diagnose the reason that our education system works the way that it does, and how our education system is really a microcosm of a much larger set of political and historical phenomenon that shape what these schools look like, because they're shaped in what the communities look like. I remember we had a student get shot at our school, a few years ago. So many of my students were despondent, and they were sad. It was a really difficult time at the school, but they also carried this sort of mentality around, "Oh, this is just what happens around here, Mr. Smith. This is just how things are in this area."

I realized that my students were accepting, or had accepted, or assumed that [the violence and] these socio-political realities of their community… are somehow an inevitability, or somehow reflective of the group of people who live in those communities—which is a predominantly black and immigrant community. Students didn’t have an understanding of the reason why their communities’ experienced disproportionate violence or is disproportionately impoverished or has such disparate health outcomes. It’s not because of the people in those communities themselves, but it's because of things that have happened, decisions that have been made about your community, and resources that have been taken out of your community for decades and decades and decades.

I realized that nobody was having that conversation with my students. So what happens is that our students begin to accept the idea that the realities of their community are somehow static or concrete, or innate to who they are culturally or genetically or racially.

I remember that when I was training as a teacher, there was very little instruction about that in my teacher prep courses. I wonder how do we do a better job, then, of helping these teachers to both be more aware of this history but also to be aware of their own implicit biases.

One hundred percent. I think that part of what has to be done is an acknowledgement that these implicit biases exist in the first place.The problem is, people become paralyzed when the words “implicit biases” or “prejudice” come up, because they then see that as a commentary as who they are as a person, rather than something that they have the ability to unlearn.

Part of it is being honest about those conversations, but also, we have to fundamentally rethink the way we talk about what future education looks like. Similar to you, I never had any conversations about housing segregation or prison or or immigration or poverty, or the ways that all of these things affected the lives of my students.

What about conversations in online contexts? You yourself are extremely active on Twitter, but in this onslaught of the internet, digital tools and technology in students' lives, I wonder whether these conversations can truly happen in digital spaces. And the students! Do you think technology has either improved or worsened the ways in which they navigate the world?

Like any sort of changing social landscape, the advent of technology and its relationship to education has produced a range of things—some that are really great and others that are more difficult to navigate. Our students are more connected to their own than ever. Anybody who's teaching in a school with students who are above 10 or 12-years-old are keenly aware of that—SnapChat and Instagram and Twitter. Face it, all of these different things are keeping their attention in ways that can make classroom engagement sometimes seem more difficult.

The question, then, is in what way do you recognize that, instead of trying to ignore it or insist that those things have no role in a classroom, you can be more proactive? There are so many different teachers who have found good effective ways to use Twitter in their classroom. I just saw recently an article about a teacher who had their students do an oral history project using Instagram and taking pictures of different people in their lives. There's always been a new technology that is “disruptive.”

There has never been more resources for teachers than there are right now. I mean, for people who are interested, as I am, in critical pedagogy and what it means to create classrooms that are cultivating civic, social, and political identities within young people, there have never been more resources and websites and organizations doing that sort of work. Facing History and Ourselves, Teaching Tolerance

And so, for me, Twitter is (at its best) this remarkable encyclopedia of information and people and ideas that you have access to instantaneously, that you simply might not have had before. And like anything, [Twitter] should be done in moderation, and also recognized for what it does well and what it doesn't do, because it also can become something that creates a barrier—a sort of insular community. That's something that that I think every social platform is attempting to navigate right now.

Let's talk about that for a second and the concept of speaking up. I do worry sometimes that going on Twitter is just preaching to the choir… or that Facebook and Twitter are not necessarily effective mediums for changing people's minds and their inherent beliefs. What do you think about that?

Social media is not going to fundamentally take someone who doesn't believe in climate change and then make them believe in climate change. It's not going to work like that. But I, for example, have followed and learned from a lot of black feminists on Twitter over the past several years, and it has pushed my thinking around issues of intersectionality, queerness, blackness, femininity and gender, and how we think about the relationship again between all these things. The same way, you can't think about a school without also thinking about prisons, without also thinking about immigration, without also thinking about food insecurity.

I joke with people—but it's not really a joke—that I often learn more things from Twitter than I do from my graduate school classes at Harvard. And that's not a knock on Harvard, necessarily, because I love the institution. But it is to say that it is an important thing to remember how many really thoughtful, smart, committed people there are doing work in the world. And Twitter is an incredible place to get on and see people who are committed to building a better world.

And even if those people are close to your tribe, they might not be directly in it—maybe they’re "tribe-adjacent," or people you might never have come across live and in person.

You've talked about, too, in one of your TED talks (shown above) about the dangers of staying silent, but I have to pose this question to you. While I was watching one of your TED talks, I noticed that someone had commented on it, saying that silence—when it's a lack of ego—is the answer for world peace. What do you think about that concept? How do you balance both speaking up for what you believe in with not letting one's ego overrun one's willingness to listen to others?

That's a really good and important question. That TED talk is obviously speaking to silence in the specific context of what it means to be someone experiencing an injustice that might not directly affect you, and to recognize that to not engage or not act is to be complicit in the injustice that you see happening around you.

For me, as a straight man, that means that it's incumbent upon me to recognize that it is not okay for me to stay silent in the face of homophobia, or sexism, or patriarchy. And I demand that I unlearn so much of what I've been taught throughout my life, and instead recognize the necessity of me being an advocate on behalf of communities that I might not necessarily be a part of.

On the other end, to your point, I think it also demands the recognition of when it… time to say listen. Sometimes, I think the best advocacy on behalf of the communities can be simply to listen and lift up voices that aren't often lifted up—to amplify the voices of those who are often on the margin.

On that last note of listening to others... I'm curious. You write your own poetry, but when things are hard, what do you read to keep you going?

The 22nd of May is the 50th anniversary of Langston Hughes' death. So, Langston Hughes died fifty years ago in 1967, and he has an essay called the "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain". In it, what's happening is that he is addressing implicitly, but passively, Countee Cullen who he sort of had literary beef with in that age of the Harlem Renaissance.

Countee Cullen is a very successful poet who won many awards because he was writing poems in a very traditional, western, Eurocentric context with regards to form and structure, and often content, as well. And so, what Langston Hughes was talking about is that if you want to write about the trees, and the flowers, and the beautiful landscape, write about those things because they are beautiful and deserve to be written about. What's not okay is if you write about those things simply because you think that that is the only way to be considered a legitimate writer.

The artistic integrity of your work... a sort of political and social urgency…. We should never consider them mutually exclusive. Part of the way that institutional racism works is that it makes you feel that you can't write about your experiences because those experiences don't count as real part.

That essay is a reminder. I would love to sit around and write about flowers and Cheetos and donuts and other things that bring me lots of joy—and I do write about those things. But for me to not write about the conditions of the people and the community that I love simply because I don’t think that would make people take my work seriously… that simply runs counter to my scholarly and political commitments. Those commitments are important and necessary.

Mary Jo Madda—@MJMadda—is Manager of Audience Development (previously Senior Editor) at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up