Feminist Digital Pedagogies in the Polar Vortex

By Sharon Irish, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

On January 22, 2014,  I arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, courtesy of Lisa Nakamura, for a two-day event, “Feminist Digital Pedagogies,” that she organized with colleagues at the University of Michigan. Jessie Daniels (CUNY) was not able to make it to Ann Arbor in time to give her keynote—due to storms in New York–but she did make it for a dinner with us that evening.


Dinner with participants in Ann Arbor, Michigan, prior to Feminist Digital Pedagogies conference. L to R: Faithe Day, Andre Brock, Jessie Daniels, Carrie Rentschler, Sharon Irish, Lisa Nakamura, Jessica Moorman

The following day (Jan 23), under the rubric of FemTechNet, Lisa Nakamura and Sidonie Smith moderated a discussion on the keyword, BODY, with Alondra Nelson and Jessie Daniels. This fascinating discussion covered a range of topics. Alondra began by referencing #BBUM, the Being Black at Michigan effort by the Black Student Union to raise the profile of and increase options for Black students at Michigan, who are only 4.6% of the first-year class, down from 6.8% in 2008. Students have made seven demands of the UM administration to address a lack of diversity and inclusion.

Alondra went on to cite bell hooks’ definition of feminism—that it is a movement to end oppression–and James Baldwin’s discussion of birthright vs. inheritance. (In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin talks about birthright being the particularities of what is, and inheritance being a vast realm of possibilities.) Jessie Daniels also referenced earlier scholarship—Sadie Plant and Donna Haraway–and spoke about how we now bring the body along with us to the Internet, compared to previous “disembodied” experiences of the web.  She mentioned Julie Cohen’s Configuring the Networked Self. Sidonie asked “how can feminists use data differently?” Jessie suggested reading Deborah Lupton’s work in critical public health, and its relationship to the earlier women’s health movement. Lisa Nakamura asked about how social media forces a rethinking of the body. There was discussion of how visual the Internet is now: while Facebook was created in a sexist moment to enable the male gaze, visual forms shape identities now. The book Blinded by Sight (by Osagie K. Obasogie, 2013) discusses how people without sight still respond to cues signaling racial difference. Jessie stressed how she is less interested in theorizing that is not linked to practice, and mentioned Radhika Gajjala’s work with SAWNet, as well as Stephanie Greenlea’s Jena 6 work. She also mentioned Valerie Harwood’s fat activist network. The moment to make feminist interventions is now, given the predominance of young white men in digital humanities and web-theorizing. Alondra talked about the fractal nature of discrimination, and the need to develop new ways to critique racism. #BBUM challenges us to think beyond “access”—now that students are in the academy, “under the umbrella,” they are still excluded. Inequality is always shifting. One strategy would be to look at Octavia Butler’s work, when she asks, “what happens [when the world as we know it ends]?” New forms of hierarchy emerge. Jessie Daniels pointed to Anne Balsamo’s work to underscore the need for feminist critique of ICTs. We must make our own tools and mash-ups. Hollaback, a movement to end street harassment, is problematic because it feeds the carceral state, since it lacks a critical race consciousness. Student asked about the Representation Project.

Tweets from Video Dialogue on BODY in 2014 with Alondra Nelson and Jessie Daniels, Ann Arbor, MI

Tweets from Video Dialogue on BODY in 2014 with Alondra Nelson and Jessie Daniels, Ann Arbor, MI

Liz Losh then spoke about “Designing the Virtual Campus: From Ubiquity and Telepresence to Banality and Mess.” Her bookThe War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University , is coming out from MIT Press this spring.

My notes don’t do justice to her talk, but here goes. She asked, “Is digital media creating a divide between students and teachers?” In short, “yes!” but she had some suggestions: Media mediates communication, often to the detriment of learning. But if we keep in mind that the media participates in social relations, then we can at least be aware of possible effects. Powerpoint, for example, tends to amplify the message of the instructor.  She noted that institutions were digital media makers and regulators, as discussed in her previous book, Virtualpolitik. Digital course materials are somehow seen as better, when in fact computer-aided instruction can be harder to decipher (ie, proprietary software.) There are viable alternatives to the classroom as war room, especially in the realm of “mess,” Liz said, citing Paul Dourish on the reality of technology and its mess (in Divining a Digital Future, 2011 https://www.dourish.com/digitalfuture/.) The signal theory of communication still informs teaching. Mess has politics of labor and property, which is often sidelined and its obsolescence is not considered or thought about. John Law https://www.cresc.ac.uk/people/prof-john-law is another thinker to draw from (see his Heterogeneities.net work.) Projects of digital culture link to past efforts—they are not built on a tabula rasa.

Liz’s great talk touched on many topics. Speaking of her own pedagogy, Liz asks students to suggest a song to play at the beginning of each class related to the class topic that day. If the student’s suggestion is used, that student gets a mix-tape of the whole quarter’s songs. She also discussed how cheating and learning are intimately connected, because you have to unpack the system to learn it (to an extent.) YouTube videos demo how to hack into powerful systems, including cheating on tests. Allowing students to bring “cheat sheets” into tests provides a means for them to digest the material and reduce stress. This is a type of distributed cognition.  Betsy DiSalvo https://betsydisalvo.com/and Amy Bruckman (2010) studied African American teens interning in game companies and the conflicting value systems there.

All kinds of digital tools can divide faculty and students, working against learning itself. “’Distance learning’ begins in the second row!” There is an array of videos where students record professors’ (mis)behaviors—some of them are spoofs.

Clark Kerr’s multiversity (1963) requires human listeners; Liz referenced Lucy Suchman on computer-mediated communication vs embodied knowledge.

Synchronous learning is important; old media should still matter.