Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Respect, Niceness, and Generosity

According to these reviews from a popular apartment-sharing site, I am someone who is "nice" and "respectful" in person.  Perhaps a more substantive question -- for my future as an academic and scholar -- might be what kind of a person I appear to be online.  "Respectful" and "nice" can actually be contentious terms, I am going to argue, if they become valued by institutions and professional associations, so it may perhaps be better to aim to be "generous" instead.

Discussions about online speech and civility have decades of history in digital rights discourses.  This month many academics -- some of whom might be new to this conversation -- have been challenged to take unpopular (or popular) positions in the name of academic freedom and to explore their suppositions about how networked computational media function (or don't function) as a form of public sphere.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has finally offered a public explanation of their decision to retract a job offer made to Professor Steven Salaita, who was apparently punished for making comments on Twitter that were perceived of as anti-Israeli and allegedly antisemitic.  (See my first round of analysis of the Salaita story here.)

In a blog posting called "The Principles on Which We Stand" Chancellor Phyllis Wise has now broken her silence to purportedly defend academic freedom at her institution, which is now being boycotted by many faculty, but she also insists that respectful conduct is a fundamental precept as well.  According to Wise, participants in the university are supposed to be "learning from each other in a respectful way," to refuse to tolerate "disrespectful words or actions," and to conduct their debates in a "civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner."  (Wise had previously editorialized about abusive racist and sexist comments directed at her by disgruntled Twitter users in response to refusing a snow day for the campus.)

The Board of Trustees echoed Wise's emphasis on respect in a supporting statement that lauded "scholarship framed in respect and courtesy,"  wished to ensure that "students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views," and prohibited "disrespectful and demeaning speech."

Emails from students, parents, alumni, and even fund-raisers released in response to a freedom of information request reveal that respect was also a theme in these lobbying missives.  One student wrote, "If I happen to register for Mr. Salaita's course, how could I respectfully engage in conversation and learn material?"   As the reporter noted, many of these emails used the same language and may have followed a shared template.

On the blog of the American Association of University Professors, John K. Wilson mocked this sanctifying of respect at UIUC:

Respect is not a fundamental value of any university, and being “disrespectful” is not an academic crime. But it’s notable that Salaita really didn’t say anything personal about anyone. So here Wise greatly expands the concept, declaring that not only persons but “viewpoints themselves” must be protected from any disrespectful words. I am puzzled as to exactly how a free university could possibly operate when no one is allowed to be disrespectful toward any viewpoint. Presumably, Wise will quickly act to fire anyone who has ever disrespected or demeaned Nazism, terrorism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Since all “viewpoints” are protected, then biology professors must be fired for disrespecting creationism as false, along with any other professor who is found to believe or know anything.

Although I would avoid citing Hitler in any online argument, I would tend to support Wilson's position for two basic reasons.  First of all, respect doesn't necessarily support a good education.  Having watched virtuoso teaching in the University of California for decades, I know that a willingness to overstep bounds of comfort and propriety often distinguishes a memorable pedagogical performance from a forgettable class session.  Second, institutionalizing respect makes all forms of protest impossible.  At my 1987 Harvard graduation I joined other advocates for divestiture from apartheid South Africa by carrying distinctive red balloons and wearing large lapel pins in solidarity.  My parents were horrified at the disrespect students were showing for the occasion, but I certainly don't regret my participation.  How many activists groups have been charged with disrespect in my lifetime?  The Guerrilla Girls?  Act Up?  Protestors in Ferguson have also been chastised for their supposed "disrespect for police."

Of course, Ferguson, Missouri, where unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer has also been an important site of debate about the activist political stands that people take online.  The show of force by a militarized police force armed with anti-terrorism weaponry, the arrests of journalists and elected representatives, and blame-the-victim press releases and reporting has only stoked anger.  Among black Twitter users, the ability to control self-presentation and counter stereotypes of criminality has been just one of the issues playing out in the #iftheygunnedmedown hashtag.  Other hashtags emphasize proper names as a point of reference (#Ferguson, #MikeBrown) or the body at risk (#HandsUp, #HandsUpDontShoot).  The metadata matters, as Zeynep Tufekci points out in a posting on "Net Neutrality, Algorithmic Filtering and Ferguson," especially when the code running on social media shields users from material that doesn't sell products or pander to personalization.

Just this week MIT Professor Noel Jackson staged what many saw as an over-the-top online rant about the absence of material about Ferguson on the Twitter feeds of prominent digital humanities faculty and about the supposed lack of concern among DHers about politics or race more generally.  (Although Jackson seems to feel that he is breaking new ground, this is actually not that new an argument. In Debates in the Digital Humanities Tara McPherson makes it in "Why are the Digital Humanities So White?" and I make it in "Hacktivism and the Humanities.")  In a  Storify created by Adeline Koh about "The Digital Humanities, Race & Politics (or the Lack Thereof)" Jackson's wrath about digital humanities "bullies" reaches bombastic proportions, as does his vitriol about his fellow white, tenured faculty.  He calls out people by name for unfollowing him and even reposts threatening-sounding text messages.

"Niceness" might seem to be an even more compliant, feminized, and passive stance in academia than "respect," but it does have its defenders.  For example, in "Why Digital Humanities is Nice," Tom Scheinfeldt claims that DH is concerned with method rather than theory and therefore is naturally less contentious in its interpersonal relations.  Recently -- in an article for Differences -- Koh has challenged this convention of niceness as a coercive social contract intended to police behavior.  (See resources at DHPoCo for more about the work of Koh and her collaborators.)

So what do we have left if we shouldn't settle for just being "nice" or "respectful"? In Designing Culture, FemTechNet co-founder Anne Balsamo lists the principle of "intellectual generosity" first among feminist virtues that include "confidence," "humility," "flexibility," and "integrity."  As Balsamo writes, intellectual generosity includes "the sincere acknowledgement of the work of others" that fosters "intellectual risk-taking and courageous acts of creativity."

As all this boils around the Internet, I've been watching the work of the other FemTechNet co-founder, Alexandra Juhasz, as a model for how to put the intellectualism and activism of that kind of generosity into practice.  For example, Juhasz has been sharing Palestine Docs and other resources for teaching.  I see this spirit of sharing among other FemTechNet participants, who are circulating different versions of the so-called Ferguson Syllabus, which began as #FergusonSyllabus on Twitter.    You can check out a Google docs version of the syllabus, as well as a version posted on About.com.

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Is the Water Hot Enough for You?

The case of Professor Steven Salaita has recently become a cause célèbre among faculty who once felt comfortable airing their political grievances on social media.  What interests me about this story is why a particular set of issues about academic freedom, political expression, and digital communication is getting so much attention precisely now.  I would argue it has a lot to do with a specific alignment of empathy and personal risk on the faculty side and the fact that university administrations have reached a tipping point in their public relations strategies toward social media that involves both emulating and monitoring network-savvy professors.  

Salaita's use of Twitter to object to Israel's policies in Gaza -- often in hyperbolic or crude language -- has been cited as a key factor in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's decision to rescind a job offer for a tenured position that was seemingly only waiting for the last pro forma approval from the Chancellor's office.  According to "Out of a Job," a story that broke in the blog Inside Higher Ed, Salaita had already resigned from his post at Virginia Tech and had made arrangements to relocate when he received the surprising news.

On the Internet there has been considerable outrage vented and analysis unpacked in the days since the revelations about UIUC's backpedaling.  Steven Krause notes Salaita had many more rights to digital expression than assistant profs, adjuncts, alt-acs, and anyone else on campus without tenure.  Ian Bogost contrasts "academic freedom" with the contractual tactics necessary for "academic paydom."  Roopika Risam writes a "love letter to Twitter" as a pre-tenure academic seeking networks and publication opportunities.  David Palumbo-Liu has been one of the most prolific critics of UIUC with blog posts about Salaita at Salon, Huffington Post, and Transformation.  Former MLA President Michael Bérubé weighed in with a castigating letter to the Chancellor warning that her campus would become a "fourth-rate" institution if the decision wasn't reversed.  The Illinois state chapter of the AAUP issued a formal protest.

One thing that's worth noting about Salaita's Twitter feed is the prodigious labor that he invested in maintaining it, apparently right up until just before he received the bad news.  Although he's picked up a few thousand followers since the controversy, the size of Salaita's audience was relatively modest in comparison to other high-profile academics, in spite of the energy and affect he obviously devoted to it.  After all, he composed almost ten thousand Tweets during his five-year period of activity and followed over three thousand other people to connect and stay current.  From all this effort he attracted about four thousand followers.

For scale, Juan Cole of the blog Informed Consent has about thirty thousand more Twitter followers than Salaita.  Certainly Cole has posted a huge volume of tens of thousands of Tweets to attract such a sizable following to his feed, but many of Cole's Tweets are reposted content, and he does not engage in context-specific debate about people's individual claims -- either agreeing or disagreeing -- to the degree that the micromanaging Salaita did.

I bring up Cole's name because he had a similar experience with the hazards of a having a noticeable social media trail for those on the academic job market.  Like Salaita he was also perceived of as an intemperate activist for anti-Israeli positions, and he failed to land a tenured job at a new institution as a result.  In 2006, a story in the Yale Daily News reported that Cole -- then at the University of Michigan -- had been denied tenure at Yale "in one of the final phases of the appointment process."  According to Yale's reporting, Cole had been characterized by fellow professors who had weighed in on his case as a potentially "divisive colleague"  Shortly afterward The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a forum called "Can Blogging Derail Your Career?" and invited seven prominent academic bloggers to expound on the crisis.    

Cole's travails ultimately didn't have the legs to stay a national story, and he didn't galvanize a movement of sympathizers to agitate for greater academic freedom in more digital contexts.  I would argue that there were a number of reasons that the firestorm of controversy around Cole's case was extinguished relatively rapidly.

For one thing, Cole was doing something that only a statistically small fraction of the scholarly population did at the time: academic blogging.  Even though academic blogging was actually in its heyday,  in retrospect, this activity might have made Cole seem like an outlier.  He was pursuing an enthusiasm for a rare form of hybrid writing and propagating an alien genre of self-sponsored op-ed with pretensions both to journalism and to short-form hyperlinked scholarship.  Today, in contrast, Tweeting is an activity that many more academics do than did blogging -- and if academics don't Tweet they are at least aware that the activity happens all around them at conferences.  Moreover, short-form and very-short-form digital postings by scholars circulate to a broader audience via Facebook and other social network sites.

In the eight intervening years faculty have also become much more aware of the contingency of their own appointments.  Fewer faculty members have tenure, legislative support for state-sponsored higher education seems more arbitrary and more dependent on political whims, and institutional governance structures are being eroded by risk averse administrations afraid of unhappy donors, bad press, and lawsuits.

There's also been a sea change in public relations for universities.  Every campus worries about its YouTube channel, Facebook page, Twitter feed, and other conduits of social media presence.  Every institution compares its social media profile to those of its rival institutions.  Social media "experts" (read "idiots") are hired to manage college messaging, and these drones from the public relations hive mind may find themselves directly vying for attention in opposition to faculty, students, and staff who might seem noticeably more human and appealing to the public.  Resentments build about "unofficial" messages getting out from challengers, and online behavior is policed by those who are both digital regulators and digital content-creators.

In The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University I discuss how students' digital rights to expression are often trampled, because faculty assume that their own privileged positions when it comes to the Internet could never come under attack.

Not surprisingly, current definitions of academic freedom already provide more rights for faculty than for students when it comes to free speech, and the leveling practices of digital culture seem to have relatively little effect on challenging divisions created by existing status barriers between teacher and pupil. As both consumers of web-based content and producers of it, students generally have fewer recognized rights and protections than faculty. Administrators loath to meddle with academic freedom often say little about faculty web pages, for example. Faculty content-creation on official institutional pages includes a heterogeneous collection of material that ranges wildly from the confessional to the satirical.  On university Webpages, one can find testimonials about personal trainers with links to their gyrating bodies, narratives about dieting that show shirtless faculty, heartfelt warnings based on personal tragedy about never leaving infants unattended, step-by-step instructions for destroying marshmallow peeps with lab equipment, and obscene mock-scientific acronyms. Ironically, political blogging and electronic civil disobedience may create more serious problems for faculty perceived as radical subversives than would more obviously off-topic or off-identity material. This might seem strange given how academic freedom is often defined in terms of political tolerance and the open marketplace of ideas, but the Internet has also generated cadres of students policing political utterances by professors. Otherwise, administrators generally do little to keep the online conduct of faculty in check.
Administrators didn't police faculty behavior online, because it was largely invisible to them, but now those days of mutually assured obliviousness seem to be over.

Recently I was interviewed by Henry Jenkins, who asked about how the University of Kansas Board of Regents had imposed new restrictions on the use of social media by faculty.
In the book I argue that part of the reason that faculty have been slow to advocate for their students when it comes to their informal learning practices and online knowledge networks is that faculty have been much less coerced than students by administrative efforts to police their computer use. Faculty bloggers might come under pressure for disclosing information that colleges don’t want shared, but they have been such a tiny minority that not many people took notice. Faculty hacktivists might be threatened for acts of electronic civil disobedience, but they are an even smaller contingent.

Twitter users like David Guth at the University of Kansas, who was suspended for an anti-NRA Tweet, are also still relatively rare among academics, but faculty see Twitter being used at conferences, and they know Twitter is part of a continuum that includes Facebook, which they might use to communicate with friends and relatives, so I am hoping that the water is finally getting hot enough that the frog might finally jump out and protest in good faculty fashion.
In the boiling frog anecdote it is supposed that an amphibian might leap out of hot water sensibly --  if dropped in -- but foolishly stay in cold water that is slowly heated to the boiling point because incremental change discourages prompt action.  Let's hope that the temperature doesn't get any hotter in these digital expression cases before faculty collectives finally intervene at the policy level

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Monday, June 16, 2014

The War on Learning

The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University is out!  Check out the first review (which appeared in Nature), a great three-part interview by Henry Jenkins, the official podcast, and this excerpt in Salon.com.  Many thanks to all of the colleagues who shared ideas and the many readers who provided feedback on the manuscript.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

DH without the DH

Today I did not tag any content with metadata.  Today I did not write any code. Today I did not work on my Scalar project. Today the plugins for Neatline did not get installed.

Today was the Day of DH, except it seems that I didn't do anything recognizably associated with digital humanities work, even though the entire day -- like almost every day -- was devoted to the digital humanities.

Which is to say that a lot of DH isn't coding or hacking or tagging or building.  A lot of DH is just about regular typing.  A lot of DH is writing e-mail, instructions, reports, and even text messages. It's about filling out Doodle polls, filling in spreadsheets, and filling in names in Google hangouts.

Some of the day was defined by the Academic Scholarly Print Industrial Complex (otherwise known as ASPIC).  I am working on finishing an article for an open-access online journal, which I promised to the wonderful Annette Vee, but the whole process of working with a stack of library books is basically the same as the one I follow for a print publication.

Of course, a lot of the day was doing digital humanities work that one can't write about on a blog.  It's about serving on committees that handle the business of people getting hired or people getting reviewed.  It's about the strange set of knowledge domains that prove to be useful to the institution that are gained from being part of the DH community for over a decade: digital archives, open access publishing, information literacy, multimodal scholarship, rich media production, and hands-on experiential learning.  It's about the need for campuses to have people to assess if they have the right people and enough people too.  It's about the Weberian bureaucracy of files, files, and more files, which are conveniently accessible online but differ little from their paper counterparts.

Yet, like most days at UC San Diego's Sixth College, it was an interesting day.  As soon as I came into the office, I sat down to do a Skype interview with Pia Mancini of the Net Party in Argentina for DML Central.  Purists would say that her work with Democracy OS isn't really a DH project.  After all the NEH Office of Digital Humanities prohibits work with a political agenda.  But I tend to argue that the continuum between politics and culture includes blended areas, and hacktivism and the humanities are not so separate.

Then there was the teaching I did today.  In an upcoming volume edited by David Theo Goldberg and Patrik Svensson, I argue that teaching is often a marginalized activity in the digital humanities.  Right now I am teaching an exciting FemTechNet course with the amazing Lisa Cartwright, in collaboration with many people who have built scholarly databases and digital collections.  It was true that much of the day's communication with students entailed educating them about their Blogger IDs and Twitter hashtags for the course.  But the bulk of our dedicated face-to-face class time involved chalkboards, raised hands, and a presentation by a performance artist.

Future projects mostly require coordinating with other people.  It turns out that the most important tool for executing our Innovative Learning Technology Initiative Grant will probably be the humble calendar.

Jacque Wernimont and I are also planning to teach a Digital Humanities Summer Institute course together, but we weren't debugging code in Processing or tinkering with our Arduinos, which are the activities slated for June.  Today we were handling more mundane tasks, such as slimming down the size of our course-pack PDF.

As usual, not every effort to coordinate was successful.  Today Jessica Pressman and I had to cancel a planning meeting.  We have an upcoming DHSoCal event slated for April 18th to prepare for, but she had an ASPIC obligation too.

On Twitter, Ian Bogost quipped that "Digital Humanities is the process of creating infrastructure in which to discuss the concept of 'digital humanities."'  Given the nature of DH work, that might be a fair assessment.  If only there were time for conceptual speculation and discussion in my typical day.  If we do it, we have to spend twice as much time scheduling it first.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

The MLA and Continuing and Distance Education

This year I was honored to be nominated as a special-interest delegate for the MLA in "continuing and distance education." Now I am officially on the 2013 Modern Language Association Ballot that goes out to thousands of instructors in literature and language departments across the country to support the governance of the major scholarly association for the discipline in which I was trained.  The MLA handles influential publications, conferences, job resources, and policy statements and advocates for the role of the humanities in public life.

Adeline Koh has also been nominated, and knowing her work I have to say that she is a great candidate too.

No matter which nominee you choose this year, I would urge MLA members to do some research about the issues involved.  Too often the discussion about distance education has been dominated by snippets from op-ed columns or sound bites, but the issues are actually very complex, and technologies of remote instruction inevitably impact faculty at all types of institutions because the informal learning practices of students are very difficult to control.

The growth of university-sponsored MOOCs has spurred a national conversation about institutional practices in higher education. Yet even as the “massiveness” and “online-ness” of MOOCs seems novel, this kind of “course” does little to promote innovation in teaching or learning. Unfortunately many distance learning efforts often replicate modes of scientific management from the industrial age that are poorly adapted to collaboration based on social and ubiquitous computing.  Others remain willfully blind to the problems of plagiarism, cheating, harassment, and invasion of privacy that may characterize online learning environments.  Yet we can't divorce ourselves from huge archives of knowledge or ignore the desires and voices of our students without regrettable consequences, so we need to figure out sensible and respectful strategies to adapt.

As a candidate I combine the perspectives of theory and practice developed over a decade as a scholar of the digital humanities and new media theory.  I have published peer-reviewed criticism about digital pedagogy for over twelve years, and the rhetoric of distance learning is one of my major research areas. My forthcoming book from MIT Press, The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University, explores the assumption that digital media deeply divide students and teachers and that a once covert war between “us” and “them” has turned into an open battle between “our” technologies and “their” technologies.  It covers current trends that range from gamification to iPad distributions with a critical eye, and the work is grounded in substantive theories about new media, procedural rhetoric, embodied interactions with technology, and co-presence.

I also direct a writing-intensive interdisciplinary "core" program that satisfies the university's composition requirement devoted to the study of Culture, Art, and Technology.  Having come from a Humanities Core program in my previous position, I am sensitive to how the mission of a traditional English department may be under pressure to change radically in response to technology, globalization, and deskilling with little infrastructural support or long-term vision for preserving the values of an institutional culture.

I am an organizing member of two national efforts to support progressive experiments with networked learning: Reclaim Open Learning and Dialogues on Feminism and Technology. With my colleagues, I believe that it is important -- in a time of pressure for rapid adoption of new instructional technologies -- to consider the theoretical frameworks, historical legacies, pedagogical philosophies, and objects of study that have shaped our profession, even as higher education continues to be transformed by social interactions shaped by computational media and distributed networks.

As a longtime digital humanities practitioner who has engaged in many debates, I have had to negotiate conflicts created by new forms of digital labor and intellectual property with attention to complexity.  I am committed to representing the concerns of many different types of stakeholders and will continue to emphasize the mature scholarship and multi-campus collaboration that has characterized my career.  Feel free to e-mail with questions about my candidacy.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Feminist IT: Legacies (Leigh Star, Beatriz da Costa, and Anne Friedberg)

The Feminist IT conference devoted time to celebrating the legacies of three feminist scholars who represented the group's commitment to doing interdisciplinary work and the interpersonal networking that supports such field building.  Since members of this assembly do research that crosscuts "STS (science and technology studies), film and media studies, sci-art, digital humanities, informatics, and critical media practice" it was also important to emphasize exemplary thinkers who worked in the different traditions of ethnography, media arts practice, and archival criticism represented at the conference.  (In my opening I noted that it was an assembly both in the sense of representing multiple delegations and in the sense of the term "some assembly required.")

Leigh Star was remembered by Adele Clarke and Martha Lampland.  Clarke noted how Star was a polymath who worked on neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and ecologies of knowledge, but she also humanized her by describing her personal struggles and by showing her at leisure in photos interacting with different types of environments, including a palm tree oasis. Ever the responsible pedagogue Clarke provided a handout and began by providing context for Star's work in Ecologies of Knowledge. She argued that Star rewrote the narratives of scientific discovering by presenting scientists as "citizens neither villains nor heroes" and asked fundamental questions like "Who is doing the dishes?" or "Where is the garbage going?" or "Who owns the means of knowledge production?" This focus on everyday practices, organized what Clarke called her "work commitment."  She also spent some time trying to demystify the "boundary object concept" that was a critical part of Star's intellectual legacy.  She showed its roots in pragmatist philosophy, in the Chicago School, in And in Anselm Strauss's theories about social worlds and arenas, and in the Everett Hughes classic, The Sociological Eye.  Star's conception of workplace as a site of "cooperation without consensus" continues to be extremely influential, and -- as Les Gasser notes -- two thirds of the citations of Star's work actually come from computer science.   Clarke also cautioned that Star's seminal work on "Institutional Ecology," which looks at negotiations among professional and amateur communities working with taxidermy specimens in museums, appears in science studies readers in abridged form.  Often overlooked was the fact that boundary objects are "loosely structured in common practice" and "a sort of arrangement that allows different groups to work together."  She also pointed out that her work on "boundary infrastructures" in Sorting Things Out (co-authored with partner Geof Bowker) was important to consider.  Clark said that "interpretive flexibility" tends to get more attention than structuring and processual dynamics.  She also remarked on the role that "lack of fit" played in creating new boundary objects.  She then focused on the importance of the concept of "torque" in Star's work as a "twisting of time lines."  Clarke closed by returning to the diversity of experiences that Star's life represented, which included "the importance of  writing poetry and fiction" as well as the fact of "being allergic to onions" in a life of "drinking and dancing" as well as "mentoring and loving." In the slide above we see Clarke citing Star on how "forming a scientific self entails a peculiar kind of pain and of joy that remains almost unspeakable" (Star 2007: 76).

Lampland began her remembrance by emphasizing how Star engaged with "fighting for social justice" in ways that recognized the complexity of causes and consequences.  For example, the SAT could be both the test that allowed Star to attend Harvard University without class connections and a potentially discriminatory gatekeeping examination.   Lampland, who co-edited Standards and their Stories with Star, admitted to occasional disagreements and also asserted that Star's method of quickly being able to identify commonalities did not necessarily contradict an engagement with sustained empirical research.  She also emphasized the "mistake of championing transparency" that "could hide what doesn’t fit."

Antoinette LaFarge, who described herself as fortunate to benefit from colleagues in the UC Irvine "brain trust" who have been part of FemTechNet, then remembered critical sci-artist Beatriz da Costa in a talk called "Less Dismal Science" that made a number of implicit connections to the previous discussion of Star's work by noting the role of "standards," "tools," and situations" in her art.  Beatriz da Costa co-edited Tactical Biopolitics with Kavita Philip, one of the PIs for UCFemTechNet, and she was part of conference planning until her untimely death from cancer.

In unpacking the art practice of "Shani" (the name she preferred to Beatriz), LaFarge described how da Costa's projects were often designed around hands-on workshops and situated in a participatory ethos from her beginnings in Critical Art Ensemble.  LaFarge chose to analyze da Costa's work in relationship to Nietzsche's The Gay Science and Carlyle's The Dismal Science to consider science as an end not a means and critique science's "offer for radical truth," which Avital Ronell also challenged in The Test Drive in questioning the ostensibly sovereign presence of truth in science, politics, and religion and the compulsion to dis-identify and deny attachment.  LaFarge also argued against scholars "strip mining Nietzsche" without attention to his chauvinistic remarks about how women are weak, conniving, and characterized by disgusting natural functions and his ideas about the present moment as a time of virility.

In an oeuvre that included microbes, biodiversity, air pollution, RFID tracking, and genetically modified food, da Costa engaged in a series of public actions oriented around expanding the notion of citizen science in ways that were mutually positive for creators and participants.  For example, LaFarge pointed to her work in Invisible Earthlings with CO2-sensing yeast colonies and in Pigeonblog undertaking a "collaborative endeavor between homing pigeons, artists, engineers and pigeon fanciers engaged in a grassroots scientific data gathering initiative."  Like other speakers, LaFarge acknowledged the presence of disagreement among feminists, and the fact that her friend and colleague thought that LaFarge's interest in "computer games was a complete waste of time."   The difficulty that Beatriz da Costa addressed was described by LaFarge as "how much has to be left out in order to make an argument" and "how test results are used to conceal a lie."  Visitors to the conference were encouraged to visit an installation of da Costa's Dying for the Other in the Consume show at the Calit2 Gallery, which interrogates the relationship of the dying artist to the mortality of laboratory animals. 

The final tribute was devoted to Anne Friedberg.  Co-organizer Lisa Cartwright actually had Friedberg as a teaching assistant and recollected being given names like Irigaray, Cixous, Althusser, and Mulvey by this early mentor.  Heidi Rae Cooley gave a tearful and moving remembrance of Friedberg that drew upon the memories of Sheila Murphy as well.  She emphasized the radical rewriting of four centuries of the history of perspective that Friedberg undertook that went far beyond how the work of film historians was traditionally constituted.  (See her digital companion for The Virtual Window for an interactive version of her argument.)

Friedberg founded both the UC Irvine Ph.D. Program in Visual Studies and the IMAP program at USC and launched the careers of many interdisciplinary students.  Cooley pointed to Mark Sample's essay "When Service Becomes Scholarship" to explain the depth of Friedberg's contributions and how she made public and circulated the work of others, even "taking in freeway fliers" who were normally outcasts at the university or sitting on information technology committees.  She also discovered talents by recommending people for one-year contracts that later developed into long term institutional presences, as she did for Daniel Herbert who chronicled the rise and fall of the video store.

A particularly beautiful and lyrical moment in Cooley's talk came when she described how Friedberg made homemade temporary tattoos with "SCMS" for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies when the "media" part was still new.  Friedberg also took on DIY with gusto by making her own pamphlets for an improvised MIT Press booth, since she was not one to hold herself above others, according to Cooley.   As in the case of the other founding mothers remembered, we learned much about the details of Friedberg's passions worthy of remembering: Gil Sans as Friedberg's font of choice, Conan Doyle on camera, stuffed Furbees speaking Furbish, writing about the Aibo robot dog, and Vaucanson's infamous duck.   Although Friedberg changed theories of "windowed visuality" and the mobile virtual gaze, she also recognized the temporality of the apparatus and the impermanence of institutions.

Note that attendee Wikipedia maven Adrianne Wadewitz periodically reminded conference participants that they could improve these three women's entries on Wikipedia.

(Photos from Lisa Parks)

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Friday, April 19, 2013

Feminist IT: Infrastructures

The Feminist IT conference devoted to "Feminist Infrastructures & Technocultures" featured a number of prominent feminist scholars of technology in the morning sessions, which were devoted to questions about infrastructures and legacies.  With over three decades of scholarship to draw upon and a strong concentration of work done in the University of California, this conference tried to facilitate more conversation between people doing interdisciplinary work, specifically those who might be positioned in either the Society for the Social Studies of Science or the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.

In my opening welcome I pointed to the work of fellow organizers and panel moderators who approach questions about mediation from the perspective of material culture, the study of the apparatus and embodiment, and engagement with particular communities of practice, such as Lisa Cartwright on 3D printers that can produce guns, Lisa Parks on drone vision, and Kelly Gates on the truth claims of facial recognition technologies and surveillance footage, which have been much in the news this week in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.  I also noted that the particular context of public institutions devoted to big science provides affordances as well as constraints for this work on "making science, designing culture, shaping the technological imagination, sorting things out, and determining 'the right tools for the job.'"

The UC FemTechNet group is a regional research offshoot of the larger and more distributed FemTechNet initiative currently archived at the FemBot Collective and slated to move to new space at a FemTechNet site at The New School.  Many of its members use the UCFemTechNet Facebook page as a site for cross-campus coordination and introductions, although there is also a mailing list for announcements.

The opening panel featured a dialogue between Anne Balsamo and Chandra Mukerji about infrastructure that focused on their shared scholarly interest in uncovering women's roles in the labor force of expert knowledge workers who played a key role in shaping the technocultures of the modern administrative state.  Balsamo famously wrote about how her mother was a "computer" or person who performed mathematical communications, a topic that I also wrote about in the last chapter of the Virtualpolitik book and that was memorialized in N. Katherine Hayles' classic text My Mother Was a Computer.  To commemorate the occasion, we included a non-human participant on the panel, "Nancy," the actual type of comptometer that Balsamo describes.  (The machine is literally labeled "Nancy," presumably with the name of its former operator.)

The first question posed by disability activist Louise Hickman asked "How can we slow down time to shape participation in discussions?"  Mukerji, who does research on how female engineers played a vital role in hydrology projects in Bourbon France, laughed about the fact that mostly she lived in the 17th century and was well aware of how time functioned as a technology as well, particularly when the cyclical time of women's labor differs so radically from linear time.  Balsamo talked about how members of the FemTechNet initiative struggled to coordinate with each other and talked about how to align schedules at professional scholarly conferences in order to gain critical mass.  Balsamo also recast Marx with feminist temporality, by pointing out that women make the present and the future, but not under conditions of their own making.  Temporality has also been a concern for the panel's third moderator, Lilly Irani, whose recent work on hackathons looks at the bias toward action in the compressed time of such events.

In addressing the main topic of infrastructure, which Mukerji defined as the "structure of impersonal rule," panelists discussed how even social infrastructures, such as laws and regulations, had connections to material culture, in that they were written down.  Balsamo acknowledged the work of Leigh Star and many other feminist scholars who published important work on infrastructure, as as way to think about the challenges and opportunities of feminist networking.  As Mukerji pointed out, the actions of largely female staff members in human resources charged with the Weberian task of the maintenance of files, played a more important role in implementing affirmative action than any piece of legislation or judicial decision.  Codes of politeness that allow flexibility in infrastructure that make continual function possible are also infrastructural, as I noted, where women's labor also mattered.  Such codes are also important to FemTechNet, as are the peer promotion practices of those who might be maintaining tenure and promotion files, but the object-oriented character of the panel was also emphasized with Mukerji's object, which was also passed around, a rock and leaf to demonstrate the laundry techniques that she argued were important for understanding the cultural innovations associated with daily life.  (She is famed for arguing that the Canal du Midi is much more than the sole achievement of Pierre-Paul Riquet, a tax farmer and entrepreneur, because it was also the product of collective intelligence, depending on peasant women and artisans--unrecognized heirs to Roman traditions of engineering--who came to labor on the waterway in collaboration with military and academic supervisors.)

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