As part of a project I am working on right now about feminism, digital spaces, and the first year writing classroom and as research for my committee work revising our online Comp I course, I read an article entitled “Incendiary Discourse: Reconsidering Flaming, Authority, and Democratic Subjectivity in Computer-Mediated Communication” by Timothy Oleksiak. Oleksiak argues that rather than treating the practice of “flaming” as inappropriate behavior or as the failure to internalize the rhetoric of classroom authority, we as instructors should see it as a moment of rupture, where the force of democratic subjectivity cracks the facade of the carefully constructed and carefully mediated classroom space. Flaming, according to the article, should be treated by the instructor and the community as a legitimate form of critique and frustration.
Since reading the article, I’ve been drafting a blog post about it that tries to think through some of Oleksiak’s challenges to professors and instructors about how they manage online space (particularly discussion boards) and understand their own authority. His example of the flame statement “You’re gay,” leveled at another student, is taken in the piece not as an insult born out of hate, but as a moment of rupture where the student who does the “flaming” feels that there is no other way to express himself (the author uses ‘him’ intentionally throughout the piece because of research he found that claimed men are more likely to engage in flaming than women). I have been chewing on these challenges, but more so on his example, since I read the piece.
As a feminist, I want my classroom to be a safe space where there is no discriminatory language or hate speech. I even have a statement to that effect in my syllabus. This article, however, made me rethink the way I have handled moments of “flaming”–in person or online–in the past. Coming from the very conservative school where I did my PhD, a school ranked in the top 10 most LGBT unfriendly campuses in the country, I wondered if it was possible for me to take a position where I did not immediately shut down speech or discussion that was discriminatory or demeaning to LGBT individuals in the class or at the school in general. This particular example of flaming used by Oleksiak in the article has been tough for me to wrap my mind around because of the way I have experienced hate and bigotry related to LGBT people and subject matter in the past. I’m still working through it, trying to think about how I might merge my two allegiances together, an allegiance to maintaining a safe classroom space and to allowing for exploration and frustration. I am hoping to get the post up in the next week or so, but I really would welcome any advice or suggestions for reading from folks who have dealt with the issue of “flaming” in their classrooms or their online spaces.