Why I Teach with HASTAC: Platforms as Critical Pedagogy

This post is part of a two-part series that considers digital learning platforms as an issue of critical pedagogy.

HASTAC as Critical Pedagogy

I teach students to write and research with HASTAC.org because I’m committed to critical, engaged, student-centered education that prepares students for the world beyond the classroom. For me, this involves both preparing students for a rewarding career and helping them better understand how language is a source of power that can reproduce and challenge conditions of inequality. As I’ve said elsewhere, having students write not just for the professor, but for an audience beyond the classroom teaches them the power of their voices and stories. It helps them understand that they are critical participants in longer, ongoing conversations, and that learning offers an opportunity to contribute to the public and social good. But we also have to be careful in encouraging students to join these conversations: careful because they are capable, but still learning, because public writing always entails the risk of exposure, because students live complicated lives that may require the cover of confidentiality, and because the digital leaves traces everywhere.  

This is the work of critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy encourages students to participate in the construction of a shared learning environment, involving those who will be affected by decisions about readings, assignments, and classroom policies in the decision-making process. At its best, students then use this critical approach to think about how they can use their decision-making power in the world beyond the classroom to address social issues.

I am writing these remarks at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where debate and disagreement abound, but all participants seem to agree that software is not neutral, and that teaching students to think critically about digital technologies is a central component of engaged pedagogy. Here, I discuss how HASTAC.org can function as an open learning platform that protects student data while helping their writing reach an audience of readers beyond the classroom. As such, HASTAC plays a key role in facilitating student-centered learning.

HASTAC.org is “an interdisciplinary community of humanists, artists, social scientists, scientists, and technologists changing the way we teach and learn.” It is the oldest academic social network and blogging platform, co-founded in 2002 by Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg. It currently has more than 16,000 members from over 400 affiliate organizations. Many join HASTAC because of an interest in race, class, gender, and sexuality; technology; pedagogy; or interdisciplinarity. It is a space to have the important conversations that may be missing in other spaces and to connect with others who are doing this work. It is free to join, free to participate, free to share CFPs and job opportunities, and free to organize a groupco-author a book review, or publish an interview. But unlike other free digital platforms, HASTAC is committed to never, ever sharing users’ data with third parties, which recently earned it the moniker, “the ethical social network.” Given how much we know about data breaches on social networks and the dangers of proprietary edtech software (thanks to people like Audrey Watters), HASTAC offers a crucial platform for safely reading new perspectives, exchanging writing, and conversing beyond the silos of our institutions, disciplines, and classrooms.

I am one among many who have turned to HASTAC as part of student-centered learning. My approach is indebted to Cathy N. Davidson, who creates HASTAC groups for all of the courses she teaches. Davidson blogs publicly about what she and her students are learning each semester, and encourages them to do the same. As the graduate assistant for Davidson’s seminar, “American Literature, American Learning,” I experienced firsthand the pedagogical power of HASTAC. That semester, instead of authoring traditional final papers, graduate students used what they learned through literary, theoretical, and pedagogical texts, combined with their in-class experiences as graduate assistants and professors to co-author a book, Structuring Equality: A Handbook for Student-Centered Learning and Teaching Practices. Part of my responsibility was helping to publish this co-authored book on HASTAC. After publication, HASTAC Scholars (primarily graduate students from different disciplines and institutions around the world) co-authored a book reviewStructuring Equality has now been viewed more than 2,700 times, and is available as a free PDF, an ebook on Manifold, and a paperback on Amazon. In a moment when many are decrying the death and irrelevance of the humanities, these graduate students used what they learned to make an impact on the lives of educators and students worldwide. HASTAC allowed all of this to happen.

I teach with HASTAC for two primary reasons: because it connects my students to a community of readers and writers and because it allows me to teach digital literacy. Learning how to tailor one’s writing for a specific audience, familiarizing oneself with ongoing conversations, carefully planning one’s point of entry, and exploring the creative possibilities of different genres is one of the most valuable skills we can teach – what many educators call kairos. And lucky for us, that’s exactly the kind of education our students want: as Andrea Lunsford and the team behind the Stanford Study of Writing have shown, students value writing the makes something happen in the world. But I also love teaching with HASTAC because it allows us to have conversations about digital identity, privacy, security, and the potential benefits and risks of public writing. Each semester, we discuss how their research and perspectives can become genuinely useful to others. But we also discuss how their writing will be attached to their names and appear in search results for years to come, including those of their potential employers, internet trolls, and ICE. I always offer students the option not to publish if they think it will jeopardize their safety in any way, and I am continually impressed with the creative methods students invent to mitigate these real risks: publishing with a pseudonym, omitting their names altogether, or announcing their subject-positioning as students. Next semester I am taking what I learned in Jade E. Davis’ Digital Literacies workshop and having students scrutinize the HASTAC Privacy Policy and Legal Agreement. While institutions often speak abstractly about the importance of “digital literacy” (the new “critical thinking”), this assignment, which asks students to write publicly on HASTAC, actually teaches students to interrogate the implications of the digital platforms and interactions that have come to structure so much of our daily lives.

Writing with HASTAC

For the past several years, most of my English courses on composition and literature have concluded not with a term paper, but with a co-authored project that students publish online. Often, this takes the form of a blog on HASTAC. I’ve sometimes called it a “research response blog” to foreground the research that goes into it.

Students select a topic that they want to learn more about that relates in some way to our course material: they have written blogs on Black Lives Matter, student activism, gender, and the history of public education, with titles like “The U.S. Has Plenty to Learn About Learning.” Similar to the assignments leading up to a traditional research paper, students develop a research question, perform background research, and go through several stages of outlining, drafting, and revision. We also read examples posted to HASTAC and discuss blogs as a genre, addressing questions like, What do we know about HASTAC’s user community? What are the conventions of the platform? What works well? How are citations attributed? How is media incorporated?

Throughout the semester, students blog and comment using WordPress, and teach short mini-lessons based on their blogs. Towards the middle of the semester, we begin to explore HASTAC: students read articles they find interesting, we talk about how the platform organizes content, and students create accounts and join the Scholarly Voices, group, created in 2015 by Steven L. Berg to showcase undergraduate writing. Navigating the transition from WordPress to HASTAC allows us to have important conversations about content management systems, website organization, data, privacy, navigation, user experience design, accessibility, and the differences between proprietary and open-source software. While students often prefer the WordPress interface to HASTAC (built on Drupal), this shift offers an opportunity for us to discuss choosing the best digital platform for what you want to achieve–yet another example of kairos. Whereas WordPress sites are designed for our classroom community, HASTAC shares writing with the world, and my students’ blog posts have often been featured in both their newsletters and on social media.

Knowing that their words will be read publicly by others encourages students to think rhetorically about audience (how much does your reader know?), evidence (how can you provide enough to persuade your reader?), organization (how can you ease the reading experience? Or be provocative, if that’s your intent), and to be extra careful about editing, proofreading, and citation practices. Teaching all of these skills feels less like a forceful imposition on the wills and desires of others when students are guided towards research topics that they want to learn more about and are excited at the prospect of having readers engage with their ideas.

Useful Pedagogy for the Digital Age

As I discuss in my dissertation, publishing student writing has been part of feminist and antiracist pedagogy at least since the 1960s, when teacher-poet-educator-editor-activists like June Jordan and Toni Cade Bambara included their students’ writing in collections like The Voice of the Children, Soulscript, Tales and Stories for Black Folks, and The Black Woman: An Anthology. This was inspired both by organizations like The Teachers and Writers Collaborative, which generated a public audience for student writing, and the emphasis on self-publishing in the Harlem Renaissance, Black Arts Movement, and later the formation of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. Now, more than ever, I think we should be asking the kinds of questions Bambara and Jordan’s pedagogies bring forth. How can our classrooms be most useful, both to the students who show up and to those beyond its walls, those who don’t have access to the same resources and privileges, however relative and modest? What can we do in this space, in the short time we have together, to make a difference?

HASTAC isn’t the shiniest tool out there, but its community has been doing the slow, unglamorous labor of challenging power hierarchies by foregrounding the voices of students amidst a culture that typically values the wealthy, white, male, elite — those with cultural capital — above all else, and connecting people interested in this work. I care about HASTAC because it is part of the material infrastructure that allows critical, creative, and social justice pedagogies to thrive.

It is not an overstatement to say that HASTAC, as it announces in its description, has fundamentally changed the way I teach and learn. More than ever, I see my role as an educator as creating the conditions for students to write extraordinary things: writing that they are excited to sit and struggle with; writing that challenges dominant narratives; writing that they want to share with the world. And thanks to HASTAC, they can.

These remarks reflect many ongoing conversations with beloved interlocutors, especially Lisa Tagliaferri (you can read about our efforts to design a digital student-centered learning environment) and Erin Glass, who coined the term “software of the oppressed” to bring a Freirean perspective to education technologies. Thank you also to Jade E. Davis for scaring the bejesus out of us and then helping us find our footing in “Digital Literacies.” You didn’t ask for a final project, but I wrote one.