A Guest Blogger Writes About Tweets, Links, and Stigma

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Tisdale.JPGGuest blogger Ashely Tisdale is an English MA candidate, writing consultant, and graduate teaching assistant at Florida Atlantic University. She is the curator of StoriesofSisterhood.com, and contributor to the digital lifestyle magazine Black Girl Fly. She hopes to pursue a PhD in English, concentrating on contemporary African-American fiction. Her research interests include race, gender, and sexuality, hip-hop/pop culture studies, and the digital humanities.

Helen Epstein’s “AIDS Inc.” compares several different attempts made by African countries to heighten HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness. Epstein’s focus was on South Africa’s loveLife program, that merged the “cool factor,” “lifestyle branding,” and community centers in the hopes of reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS. She decided that despite these “bright” advertisements and methods, the program was ineffective because of the lack of direct conversations about the virus. Our writing program asked students to “evaluate the effectiveness of direct versus indirect approaches to educating and changing the behavior of young people.” Students were urged to consider how HIV awareness could be marketed effectively, and how the “cool effect” could be balanced with education and raising awareness.

Although the writing assignment for this text was relatively straightforward, I felt it necessary to push my students and myself. I felt that ignoring the racial and sexual stigmas that often run parallel to those surrounding HIV/AIDS would do a disservice to my student’s development of critical thinking and analytical skills. As a first-time and first-year teacher, I found myself extremely nervous with the task at hand. I wondered how I might prompt discussion about sexuality, race, HIV/AIDs, and Africa in my apathetic 8:00am class. In order to meet my goal of making a positive and lasting impact, I would need to revise our syllabus and make room for “Cultural Connections.” Armed with my Emerging textbook, “newbie” optimism, and a PowerPoint, I mapped out a presentation to address stigma surrounding Africa and the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

First I assigned the reading (with the threat of a quiz) to be sure that students would have some context to frame our discussion. We then had a discussion about what stigma is and how it develops and spreads. My students recognized that stigma is a negative association that in some cases develops from a lack of understanding. Next I revealed the Cultural Connections PowerPoint. This set of slides was important because they were prefaced with some simple but powerful rules. One of those rules included stating which country in Africa a person was referring to, whenever they addressed anything surrounding the continent. Students were not allowed, for example, to simply say “over there” or “In Africa everyone…” or make any similar generalizations. The point of this conversation was to clearly identify the people being discussed out of respect and understanding of their differences. The content of the first set of slides dealt directly with some stereotypes and misconceptions associated with the African continent. One such misconception was that it was completely destroyed by the HIV/AIDS virus. I wanted to share the reality of Africa as a diverse continent and also real examples of Africans’ lives. 

Here, I wanted to create an opportunity for interactive engagement. Luckily, one of my incredible co-workers provided me with the hashtag, #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou. Its function is to combat archaic popular media images of Africa as a disease-ridden and impoverished continent.  Since most of my students were familiar with Twitter, it intrigued them to use it academically. We scrolled through the tagged images, and watched a short video summarizing the frustration of Africans with negative images of their cultures in popular media. Using Twitter to have a conversation about the misconceptions about Africa worked well because the tweets are being produced by people with no other motivations than to broadcast their reality. The tweets also work in “real time” so students can watch the tags and perspectives increase at the same time as their own perspectives change. I learned later from one of my students that this medium and hashtag was a useful example of the power of united digital activism.

We then shifted our focus to a YouTube video explaining the HIV/AIDS virus. We discussed who was at risk and reviewed local statistics for our area. Our final slide was a set of exploratory questions I presented to the class and had them respond to with no risk of penalty. These questions asked students to consider how intersections of class, race, gender, and/or sexuality could affect HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness campaigns. Here are some of the questions I presented them with:

  1. What kind of economic obstacles exist that prevent all people from gaining access to the same helpful information and medication as others?
  2. What about people who don’t conform to either gender (they are non-binary)?
  3. If campaigns are solely heteronormative, how do people outside those boundaries protect themselves?

These questions were not simple, or comfortable. But they got my students to (re)consider some new and familiar subjects. They analyzed HIV/AIDS, class, race, gender, and/or sexuality alongside stigma and surprised themselves. Because we tackled such a big set of issues so early on, we were well equipped to deal with Dan Savage and Urvashi Vaid’s “It Gets Better and Action Makes it Better” essay on the bullying of LGBTQA students. I believe that if we had not created an open and exploratory environment earlier in the semester, we may not have been able to discuss the comments on Savage’s YouTube video as well as we did. That’s right, we read the article, and broke internet rule #1. We read the hate filled comments below some of the It Gets Better videos and read the stigma associated with homosexuality. I realize now that our previous discussion on Epstein provided a frame of reference with which students could more easily approach social issues like stigma and sexuality.

Source: It Gets Better Project It Gets Better: Dan and Terry - YouTube

Integrating technology helped me broach Epstein and Savage. I was able to place my students in control of their learning, by utilizing modes of technology they were familiar with. They were also able to participate in conversations non-verbally, which was an excellent option for those students who are uncomfortable speaking in class. I am proud of the work my students did, and I’m excited to integrate more technology/social media into my pedagogy. For more information on the benefits of teaching with social media check out this article or scroll through the Bedford Bits tags like multimodal, social media, digital composing, or teaching with technology.

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About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.