play-the-numbers-game

Who Taught Educators To Hate Themselves? (About Lists and Authenticity)

Jose 6 Comments

play-the-numbers-game

The following is a debate I’ve had with a few folk, so here is an uninterrupted fleshing out of these thoughts.

Michael Petrilli put out another list of edu-influentials this year. This list, unlike the last time I wrote about this, didn’t need any particular prodding from me regarding diversity and inclusion of women who discuss education policy. This list, unlike the last time, kept Sabrina, Audrey, and me, and added Xian Barrett, too. I generally feel ambivalent about lists, awards, or any special recognition unless I know there was a concentrated effort by a group of folks to put me on. For that, I must be thankful.

At first, I felt as strongly as Audrey Watters does about lists. For the most part, I do agree with her assertions:

We can debate, as philosophers have for ages, the meaning of these terms – “intelligence,” “influence.” But more importantly, we should ask: why do these characteristics matter? To whom do they matter? And once there’s a practice in place that has defined these terms and has designed measurement tools to assess them and a scale to rank them, we should ask what purposes these designations serve. I don’t mean what sorts of perks do you get with your Klout score or your IQ; I mean for us to consider how might these ranking systems reinscribe hierarchy and inequality, all the while purporting to offer an “objective” tool that reflects ability.

Sorta like “science,” but not.

But then something hit me: there’s a lot of connected educators and edu-activists saying they don’t care about lists, awards, and recognition but taking them anyways. Before I became fully acquainted with the intricacies of social media and the worlds of ed-tech and edu-activism, lots of folks received plaudits, gifts, and followers just for existing, willing to include corporate sponsorship in their message as long as their “numbers” flew. Now that there’s a wider range of folk getting in the door (and yes, I do mean me), there’s a problem?

I’m suspicious.I’m suspicious when, out of 100 educator types that Secretary Arne Duncan follows, only two have the courage to say, “Hell no.” (Audrey and John Spencer, if you must know.) I’m suspicious when we say we don’t care about lists, but won’t ask the creators of the lists to take our names down because we want our numbers to go up authentically, whatever that means. I’m suspicious when we’re OK with everyone from celebrities, education professors, and other expert-types speak for us, but the minute an educator comes in that slot, it becomes an issue in our community. Some of the critique I see from educators about actual teachers seems counter-intuitive to building up a profession already favored by the general public.

In other words, who taught educators to hate themselves, specifically each other?

Sabrina Stevens also reminds us that, in spite of what others think, lists and awards do matter because they often lead to other opportunities, other ventures, and more recognition from within communities and from the outside communities, too. This leads to having more influence, getting to speak to others, having your ideas spread, and, yes, more opportunities. Human nature, for better or worse, often has us believing in numbers even when a part of us considers them irrelevant.

Is this a game of “don’t hate the player, hate the game?” It’s more like “Hate the game, and change it so everyone has a better chance to win.

Or don’t play at all.”As for me, I’m suspicious when we act like crabs in a barrel and never question the actual barrel. I’ll keep doing what I do in promoting the great works I see all around me. I also have an obligation to promote the great works of folks who also don’t get on the same lists others do, and I’ll keep opening doors that were once only held open for folks with 20K followers and above. It’s weird that people profess to hate the game yet embrace the benefits bestowed upon them from it. Reminds me of another type of privilege …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 6

  1. Audrey Watters

    I have lots of thoughts in response to what you’ve penned here. One thing I want to clarify: I understand that humans seem to enjoy making lists, constructing hierarchies, rating and ranking one another. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. But it is a thing.

    The problem I have with certain ranking systems — Klout scores, IQ tests, standardized tests, etc — is that they pretend to be scientific. They pretend to be “objective.” They invoke algorithms and wave of the magician-statistician’s hand, that means that these rankings are “true” — and that they’re better than someone just saying “hey, these people are THE BEST.”

    See, truth be told, it’s often the same list. That’s how the privilege of naming and ranking works. Lists reinforce power. Even when we think they crack open the door to new voices, that’s how this works, particularly when we act as though it’s not nepotism but “science” and “merit” that allows the door to be opened.

    1. Post
      Author
      Jose Vilson

      Audrey, of course, we agree, and that’s why I probably should have pre-empted this with “This isn’t a direct reply to Audrey’s post.” If anything, your post reminds me lots of Nicholas Lehman’s “The Big Test,” a book that directly speaks to why the SAT isn’t meritorious at all, despite the best intentions of its originator. This post isn’t as much about the lists as it is about the idea of merit, and who / what we merit. Suffice it to say, everyone has different standards depending on who’s on the list and if they’re not on the list. That’s my gripe. I certainly think YOU have integrity when it comes to such things, but I’ve seen my share of “The lists don’t matter unless they do and I won’t reject the list if I’m on it. Ever.”

      None of it actually should matter, or, it doesn’t actually measure that which it says it does. But at this point, if we don’t point out its major flaws, the winners keep winning, no matter where we “stand.”

  2. Bill Ivey

    Thanks for making me think (I should probably just let you know that on, basically, a daily basis). I find it’s really easy to set most listings aside, and to react to people’s comments about them with a “Well, lists can be fun to talk about. Personally, I always find myself wondering what criteria they used to make the list and what that means for the conversation.” kind of response.

    From my perspective, I think it’s not even “Hate the game, and change it so everyone has a better chance to win.” but rather “Marginalize the game and get about the business of valuing people for what they individually have to offer without even worrying about ‘winning’ in the first place.” You know I hate hierarchies with a passion; Gloria Steinem’s observation that “Hierarchies are based on patriarchy, and patriarchy isn’t based on anything any more.” is one of my touchstone quotes and hopes for the future. And I wrote a whole essay on the famous “You’re not special” graduation speech from 2012 that said, essentially, “Actually, you are. You’re just not *more* special than anyone else.”

    I know, that’s sometimes easier said than done. We all want to be heard and appreciated, and whatever their other failings, lists do let us know someone heard and appreciated us. And of course I’m writing from the perspective of someone who has never, and probably will never, be in a position to weigh whether or not I want someone to take my name off a list. I have no idea how exactly that shapes my own thinking though, not without a degree of embarrassment, I am quite sure it must.

    Anyway, as a gender activist, anti-racist, and general social justice advocate, whatever the honorable and less honorable reasons for holding my position, I’ll consistently come down firmly against hierarchies of any sort.

  3. John T. Spencer

    I’ve been a vocal critic of lists and awards, but that’s mostly because I don’t see value in ranking and sorting in a profession governed by social norms. I wouldn’t rank family. I wouldn’t rank neighbors. The people I know closely on Twitter are people I consider to be friends. So, the whole awards and list thing feels . . . odd. I find it especially odd when folks who are anti-homework and anti-awards and anti-behaviorist turn around and tweet out about how honored they are to be included in a list or nominated for an award.

    That being said, I’ve always felt conflicted. When I’m nominated, there’s a part of me that cares. The one time I got an award (for my research in my graduate studies), I showed up to the ceremony and then felt like a hypocrite afterward when I said I didn’t believe in awards. In other words, I didn’t send them a note saying, “No thank you. This goes against my beliefs.”

    So, I guess my feelings on it are far more complicated than what I explained in a tweet. I just don’t like what it does to me, in terms of stirring up insecurities and thinking about rank.

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