Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Manners and the live-tweet

It's strange to see a conversation happen in your Twitter feed, mainly among people you know, and then watch that conversation get written up at Inside Higher Ed. Such was the recent "Twittergate," ironically so dubbed by Roopika Risam. The question was whether and under what circumstances it is ethical to live-tweet a conference.

I have a hard time taking the question seriously. I tend to sympathize with Eleanor Courtemanche's quip:

If we do any sort of public writing, whether on blogs, in print, or elsewhere, then we have had to make our peace with the partible personhood function of writing. You will be misread, misquoted, taken out of context, and distorted. And that's if you're lucky and are read. How dreary to be somebody!

Conferences are a sort of academic Facebook; they give the illusion of privacy and safety, while you're under a diffuse but constant surveillance. A certain segment of Facebook fans has a horror of Twitter and its public ways, because on Twitter that illusion of privacy is gone. But you know: it was only ever an illusion. Live-tweeting a conference only reveals and makes searchable (and renders amenable to response) the Telephone-relays already pervading our academic life.

I think the earliest blog post on the subject, Tressie McMillan Cottom's, is also the most interesting and nuanced. She addresses the most substantive critiques of live-tweeting: that it participates in the tendency of "openness" to devolve into commodification, and that it violates the speaker's expectations.

Still, the Inside Higher Ed article seems to unintentionally make the case that we have less to fear from Twitter than from journalism. As Alexis Lothian and Mark Sample observe, Twitter was responsible and careful where Inside Higher Ed was not.

I want to add only one thing, which irks me every time a conversation on the etiquette-ethics spectrum comes up. (That etiquette is so often discussed as an ethical imperative is itself, in my opinion, a problem, but a different one.) Inevitably there are calls for "BASIC MANNERS" and "COMMON CIVILITY" and "just don't be RUDE didn't your mama teach you better" and the like. I have no sympathy with the position that live-tweeting is just obviously rude.

There is no such thing as "basic manners." "Polite" (or socially affirming) in one context is rude in another, and vice versa. Or your mama may not have taught you "better." Maybe you had a bad mother; is that supposed to be the point? Why bring people's mothers into it? I like a fast conversation in which the conversants are so excited that they interrupt one another; I interrupt people, they interrupt me. Is this rude? Sometimes. Other times, as a friend once said to me when our interruptive conversation turned meta, "whatever; I'm from New York."

In Gender and Discourse, Deborah Tannen argues that the social meanings of linguistic acts are cultural, contextual, and mutually produced by conversants. Interruption can produce sensations of affirmation; the linguistic gestures of solidarity can be confining as well as affirming. "For example," she writes, "one can talk while another is talking in order to wrest the floor; this can be seen as a move motivated by power. Yet one can also talk along with another in order to show support and agreement; this must be seen as a move motivated by solidarity" (19). Moreover, "the two...are not mutually exclusive" (19).

So what is "basic manners"? If we take seriously the diversity of experience, then it's certainly not a universal baseline about which we get to wag our fingers. We need an academic bestseller on "the dorky art of faux-pas," because I feel that this fact is underappreciated. Academia remains deeply riven with racial and especially class codes that are absolutely inscrutable to, for instance, first-generation academics. ("Didn't your mother...?" "No, my mother has no notion of how to comport oneself at an academic conference, nor is she especially clear on what an academic conference is.") As Lisa Delpit has so powerfully shown, a white teacher's politeness can, to her black child student, be no more than a maddening obfuscation.

I taught Melville recently, so I'm going to leave the last word to Melville:

Shifting the barrow from my hand to his, he told me a funny story about the first wheelbarrow he had ever seen. It was in Sag Harbor. The owners of his ship, it seems, had lent him one, in which to carry his heavy chest to his boarding house. Not to seem ignorant about the thing—though in truth he was entirely so, concerning the precise way in which to manage the barrow—Queequeg puts his chest upon it; lashes it fast; and then shoulders the barrow and marches up the wharf. "Why," said I, "Queequeg, you might have known better than that, one would think. Didn't the people laugh?"

Upon this, he told me another story. The people of his island of Rokovoko, it seems, at their wedding feasts express the fragrant water of young cocoanuts into a large stained calabash like a punchbowl; and this punchbowl always forms the great central ornament on the braided mat where the feast is held. Now a certain grand merchant ship once touched at Rokovoko, and its commander—from all accounts, a very stately punctilious gentleman, at least for a sea captain—this commander was invited to the wedding feast of Queequeg's sister, a pretty young princess just turned of ten. Well; when all the wedding guests were assembled at the bride's bamboo cottage, this Captain marches in, and being assigned the post of honor, placed himself over against the punchbowl, and between the High Priest and his majesty the King, Queequeg's father. Grace being said,—for those people have their grace as well as we- though Queequeg told me that unlike us, who at such times look downwards to our platters, they, on the contrary, copying the ducks, glance upwards to the great Giver of all feasts—Grace, I say, being said, the High Priest opens the banquet by the immemorial ceremony of the island; that is, dipping his consecrated and consecrating fingers into the bowl before the blessed beverage circulates. Seeing himself placed next the Priest, and noting the ceremony, and thinking himself—being Captain of a ship—as having plain precedence over a mere island King, especially in the King's own house—the Captain coolly proceeds to wash his hands in the punch bowl;—taking it I suppose for a huge finger-glass. "Now," said Queequeg, "what you tink now?—Didn't our people laugh?"

Moby-Dick, Ch. 13


Delpit, Lisa. Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. New York: The New Press, 1995. Print.

Tannen, Deborah. Gender and Discourse. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.

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