Behind the Scenes: Digital Media Responses to a Feminist Scholarly Article

In the first Behind the Scenes essay, I briefly discussed the alt-right response to my first publication, a feminist critical discourse analysis of STEM higher education syllabi. In this essay, I’ll discuss more about those responses, my critical analysis of them, and the resulting publication Digital Media Responses to a Feminist Scholarly Article: A Critical Discourse Analysis published in Feminist Media Studies. Doing the literature review, analysis, and writing of this manuscript was perhaps the most personal work I have ever done – but in saying that, I also hoped that by doing the work and publishing what I learned, my findings could help others also under attack from the alt-right world to understand the nature of the attacks against them, see how those responses were to a recontextualization of their work, not the original publication itself, and that the linguistic tools used in the responses were designed to silence or provoke not to begin an authentic discourse.

While findings are discussed at length in the full manuscript, in sum, in exploring 31 documents (13 twitter conversations, 3 discussion boards, and 15 articles), analysis suggested that the linguistic tools of stance and deixis were used across the corpus to create and reinforce an “us versus them” argument where I was the enemy. Second, analysis revealed how trolling strategies were used to provoke an emotional response and to silence me and those who might defend my article or do similar work. Finally, thematic analysis indicated that the linguistic tools and content reinforced the idea of knowledge as objective, the masculine nature of STEM education, and the appropriateness of a chilly STEM classroom climate.

Methods

This research refined what has become my approach to critical discourse analysis (CDA) research. I followed many of the same methodological steps as the Syllabi CDA research, and I approached the entire process systematically. Because I was analyzing digital media responses to my own work, it was especially important to seek external validity.  It was never my intent to theoretically distance myself from the process (or to pretend that I even could) – this was personal, and I was analyzing written attacks that were framed as personal attacks on me or my work. As such, I was not ready to begin that analysis immediately, so even though I recognized that I needed to save the emails I was receiving, I simply moved them upon receipt to an inbox folder I called “trolls.” For the most part, I stopped reading them completely.  I knew that I could return to them when I was ready to begin the analysis. It took almost a year and a half to return to the emails, articles, reddits, discussion boards, blog posts, and tweets I had been saving.  About a year after the original article had been published, I started searching the literature for what research was out there on similar attacks.

Seeking understanding of how others had analyzed and interpreted digital media responses to their work led me to Schmidt (2017) and Kamenetz (2018) and the theory of recontextualization.  As Attenborough (2014) explained, recontextualization, or when an event is described by another, leads to content that is responding to the recontextualization of the event even when it is being framed as a response to the original event. Understanding recontextualization was critical in understanding how so much vitriol and misunderstanding was being directed toward me when it was clear that most responses either hadn’t read or had just skimmed the original article. Those messages were in response to the recontextualizations of the article in the conservative media outlets, not the original article itself. At that time, the body of literature was still growing (although there is much being written about it now), so I expanded my search to include the research being done on trolls and trolling (trolls are the comments themselves, not the troller, a person, or the act of leaving trolls, referred to as trolling). This, in addition to the linguistic tools of stance and deixis, provided the additional linguistic tools I would code for in my analysis (See Hardaker, 2013 and Cole, 2015). Before I started analyzing data, I built a plan for analysis that built on prior research and utilized relevant linguistic tools, as discussed by Gee (2014). The CDA methodology process I follow for each study follows these steps:

  1. Develop the research questions
  2. Explore prior linguistic research on similar corpuses and genres
  3. Explore prior research on the research question and identify gaps or areas that need future research
  4. Create a plan for data analysis that builds on the body of research on this topic, both from a linguistic and thematic perspective.  Thematic analysis is always the final step in my CDA data analysis process.
  5. Identify the corpus (documents that will be analyzed) and seek ethical approval if required (most of my CDA work has been publicly available documents, but our IRB still requires a Request for Determination of Human Subjects submitted and a determination that it is not human subjects research before I can proceed with analysis and publication)
  6. Analyze data systematically, one analysis pass through the entire corpus for each linguistic tool, concluding with thematic analysis which will take as many analysis passes as necessary for saturation

In addition to building a strong theoretical and methodological framework for my analysis before I began the data analysis process, I also sought validity through the analysis and writing process, most importantly through critical friends. One particularly important friend provided critical feedback throughout the process, calling my attention to areas I had missed and also prompting me to consider which critiques might be valid. She read and re-read several drafts of the manuscript, helping me think critically about how my own bias and emotional responses to the comments might blind me to themes and implications resulting from the analysis.

Although the emails I received were often the most terrible – threatening harm and calling me terrible names, they were not public, and so I chose not to include them in the analysis. Ethically, I felt like that was the right choice, and the emails were simply more aggressive versions of the same tactics used by the more public digital media responses.  It is lucky, perhaps, that the original manuscript had contact information for me from an institution that was quick to shut down my email address after I graduated.  After 2016, for the most part, I stopped receiving the emails except for the ones from those especially upset individuals who hunted my University of Louisville email address.

Publication Process

One way to identify a journal for publication is to look at the journals where the work I am citing have been published.  One that recurred in my literature review was Feminist Media Studies, so while it is not a higher education journal, as I read about the mission of the journal, it seemed like the best option and had published similar work in the past. One time-consuming part of the publication process was transitioning to Chicago Style. While Chicago isn’t a difficult publication style on its own, it did take some time to transition the manuscript that I’d written in APA to a new format.  I also had to learn endnotes, and instead of doing them the right way (e.g., letting Word organize them for me), I painstakingly did them by hand. That meant that any time I needed to add a reference to, say, the methods section, I had to revise the entire reference list and each superscript throughout the entire manuscript. That was a poor choice. I was being lazy, and it ended up adding way more work to what should have been a simple process. Luckily, the manuscript was accepted without revisions (aside from the editorial edits and proofs), so I was saved from more reviewer-suggested additions to my literature review. Otherwise, working with Feminist Media Studies was delightful, and the publication process was fast.

After Publication

I felt like this work was important, so I submitted it to the 2019 NASPA Ruth Strang Research Award which, “recognizes individuals for outstanding contributions to the body of literature concerning women in higher education.” Despite feeling like the article was an important contribution, I didn’t expect it to win, so it was a wonderful surprise when I received the notification that I had won!

Finally, I have never responded to a single trolling email, troll, or article aside from this manuscript. I’m not suggesting that this should be your approach, but once I understood that despite any messaging to the contrary, the trolls, tweets, and emails were not an attempt to open up the discourse but to provoke a reaction, I felt like it was not worth my emotional energy and time to respond.  That being said, I also acknowledge that there is value is others seeing a response to trollers and trolls – indeed, it literally makes my day every time I see Roxane Gay clap back.  Responding to them individually is not the path I have chosen for now – and it is your choice whether or not you respond.  Either way, if you choose to respond, know what you are responding to with the knowledge that enlightenment or even an apology are unlikely to occur.

References

Attenborough, Frederick. 2014. “Jokes, Pranks, Blondes and Banter: Recontextualising Sexism in the British Print Press.” Journal of Gender Studies 23 (2): 137154. doi:10.1080/09589236.2013.774269.

Cole, Kirsti K. 2015. “‘It’s like She’s Eager to Be Verbally Abused’: Twitter, Trolls, and (En)Gendering Disciplinary Rhetoric.” Feminist Media Studies 15 (2): 356358. doi:10.1080/14680777.2015.1008750.

Gee, John P. 2014. An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method. New York: Routledge.

Hardaker, Claire. 2013. ““Uh…Not to Be Nitpicky, but…the past Tense of Drag is Dragged, Not Drug’.: an Overview of Trolling Strategies.” Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict 1 (1): 5886.10.1075/jlac

Kamenetz, Anya. 2018. “Professors Are Targets in Online Culture Wars; Some Right Back. nprED, April. https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2018/04/04/590928008/professor-harassment.

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