Our Good IHE Conversation

A counter-example to Farhad Manjoo’s observations in The Internet’s Loop of Action and Reaction Is Worsening.

December 9, 2015

I really like reading Farhad Manjoo.  

His NYTimes columns are always smart, informed, and well-written.

Are you a fan as well?

Farhad's latest column is about just how polarized, bombastic, and ugly the conversation on the internet has become.

He writes in The Internet’s Loop of Action and Reaction Is Worsening:

"Your social feed has always been loud, shrill, reflexive and ugly, but this year everything has been turned up to 11."

"The extremists of all stripes are ascendant, and just about everywhere you look, much of the Internet is terrible."

Perhaps Farhad should spend more time in our IHE community.

While the conversation on IHE is not without its rough edges, and of course there are invariably outliers, I’d say that our IHE community is generally characterized by the following 6 attributes:

1 - Informed:

When I read an IHE News, Views, or Blog piece - I also read the comments. What about you?

What is clear is that ours is a community with deep postsecondary domain knowledge.

I think that it was David Weinberger who first said that the “smartest person in the room is the room itself” (from his book Too Big To Know - do I have the origins of the quote right?).  It is certainly true that the best thinking in our IHE community comes from the community itself.

The first reason that we are an informed community is that we are all discussing the same set of quality News, Views, and (hopefully) Blog pieces. We have all done the reading - and therefore we start with at least some common ground to base our discussion. Perhaps it is the old professor in me, but all you can really ask is for everyone to come to the discussion prepared.

The second reason that I think that our IHE community is so informed is that most of who participate in our community are practitioners. We all bring both our higher ed experiences as well as our understanding of the research to the discussion. We are experts in our own experiences - and we bring what we have learned over years (sometimes decades) to the discussion.

2 - Passionate:

What our IHE community does not suffer from is groupthink. There is no violent agreement on the site. We argue and we disagree.

Why is our IHE community so passionate? The reason, I think, has to do with the fact that for most of us higher education is more of a calling than a job.  It is the mission of higher education that really motivates all of us.

One of the reasons that I always try to listen to passionate arguments on IHE is that I think that our community mostly (mostly) shares a common set of values. We all want higher education to be high in quality, affordable and accessible.  Almost all of us want to do what we can to support and celebrate our educators. 

We may define these goals differently, and we will certainly disagree on the best means to reach the goals. However, knowing that almost all of us come to this community with good intent should help us listen to those that we disagree - and who disagree with us.

3 - Respectful:

It is important to remember that online discussions are inherently polarizing. We come across online (and in e-mail) much more strongly than we do in-person. For this reason we should all cut each other some slack, and value the passionate arguments and views as gifts to our community.

Active online listening is a hard thing to make visible. Most communication is non-verbal, and therefore most of communication is lost when we cannot see each other. What compensates for this loss is that online there is no scarcity of space. We can all contribute to the conversation. We can think about what we want to say.

I think that mostly our IHE community discussions are respectful and positive. Some members of our community model this behavior beautifully, and some of maybe less so. But, overall, I’d say that we do a pretty good job of transcending the inherent limitations of any public online discussion platform.

4 - Diverse:

Do you every think about how great it is that IHE is free? Beyond the need to be able to get online, there are no economic barriers to participating in our community. 

In all of our depression about public disinvestment from higher education, the corporatization of the academy, and the fact that robots will be taking all of our jobs - we should at least by happy that IHE is free to everyone. Right?

The open and free nature of our IHE community encourages a diversity of voices. Every sector and level of the postsecondary world is represented on the site. Voices that would otherwise be marginalized are given equal access to our community.

It is the diversity of the IHE community that accounts for the quality of the IHE discussion. The relationship between diversity and quality is something that we should all remember as we build our academic communities.

5 - Safe:

Finally, I think that our IHE community discussion is so strong because this is a safe place to talk about difficult issues.

I like that our community members can comment on the site anonymously. This is not a universally (or maybe commonly) shared view, and it is certainly true that anonymity in many online groups is the fastest route to kill civility.

In the case of IHE, I think the advantages that we get of providing a safe place for people to really speak their minds is worth the cost of some occasional hostility.

If members of community choose to remain anonymous, I figure that they are making this choice for a good reason.  That it is to everyone’s advantage that members of our community can feel free to express their views without fear of reprisal or censure.

For those of us who do put our names to our thinking, I also feel that IHE is a pretty safe place to try out ideas and test out our thinking.  Our IHE community tends to be pretty cohesive, and I think that we recognize that all of us need some space to air out our thinking.

6 - Moderated (Lightly):

Every word that is published on IHE is read first by the IHE editorial team. (Although not by the bloggers - I don’t see or approve / reject any comments to this space).

The commenting policy on IHE is spelled out for everyone to read, and is visible at the place where we all comment. See:  Please review our commenting policy here.

Comments on IHE most conform to the following 5 guidelines: 1) They must not engage in libel. 2) They must stick to the subject (or subjects) discussed in the article, column or blog post.  3) They must not contain spam, commercially promotional material, or self-promotional links. 4) They must not engage in personal attacks. 5) Comments may contain links to articles that back up their points.

I have no idea about the proportion of comments that are rejected, but from what I can see the IHE editors apply this policy as liberally as possible.  In other words, there is no shortage of critique, argument, and strong opinions.

Do you share my overall positive views of the quality of the conversation in our IHE community?

Where do you differ, and where do you agree?

Do you think that our IHE community has a responsibility to model responsible and positive discourse?

Can the IHE community be an example for how we can come together to address difficult issues on our campuses?

How do you think we can increase the diversity of voices and opinions in our IHE community?



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