Digital Access, Authority and Agency in the Afro-Francophone World

By Katrina Spencer, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Quiz Item 1

Which of the following is a French-speaking nation?

A. Senegal

B. Cameroon

C. Togo

D. Burkina Faso

The correct answer is E., all of the above. French is spoken as a language of importance and repute in 29 countries. The answer to the first item on this “exam” is a freebie.


Although when we think of the land of berets and baguettes, we in the United States tend to envision ‘European,’ ‘white,’ the Eiffel Tower, escargot (snails), Napoléon, Les Misérables, the Champs Élysées and delicious chocolate croissants, ‘reading France’ within such a narrow panorama of stereotypes and cultural production would be to deny its colorful, multifaceted diversity and

Quiz Item 2

A. rich

B. rancorous

C. rife

D. wretched

history in the Caribbean, in the Maghreb (a region on Northern Africa that includes primarily Islamic countries like Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco) and importantly for this post, in Sub-Saharan or ‘black’ Africa. It would be akin to saying the United States is hamburgers, Lady Liberty, American Idol and nothing else. And that’s not true, right?

Quiz Item 3

Like the Spanish, the English and the Portuguese, the French

A. approached

B. invaded

C. discovered

D. colonized

a broad swath of territories on both sides of the Atlantic (and sometimes, to a lesser degree, the Pacific) which has problematized the ideas of nationhood, citizenship, sovereignty and independence. Perhaps it needn’t be said, but this type of historical domination has ushered in a long era of instability throughout ‘post-colonial’ Africa. This is reflected in much of its underdeveloped infrastructures that challenge consistent digital access to open sources of information like Wikipedia, a central theme to this post. What’s more is that widely disseminated and popular depictions of the continent and its people are rarely created, framed, drawn or written by African authors. Despite the foreign voices that have supplied these images and scribed these stories, both have been widely published for and understood as truth by global audiences.

Now that you’ve completed your history quiz, know that Afripédia, in conjunction with Wikimédia France, has initiated a project with two major goals: one is to supply a number of Francophone (French-speaking) African countries and their residents with offline access to Wikipedia via plug computers like this one, given that many African nations still negotiate the difficulty of acquiring regular and high-quality connectivity to the Internet; the second goal is to supply these same parties with the authority, the opportunities and the instruction to digitally publish information and construct narratives about their places of origin, national events and developments. In other words, Francophone Africans are being provided with the platforms necessary to create information about themselves, to meaningfully shape archives, chronicles and narratives about themselves and to disseminate them all throughout the world.

Born in the summer of 2012, Afripédia comprises a series of campaigns aimed to educate Francophone Africans regarding the use of Wikipedia. Included in this instruction are themes centering on how to create a Wikipedia article, how to edit its existing articles, how to add images to these articles and more. The program has been met with a good deal of enthusiasm and supporters in the 11 participating African regions have been numerous. The program, however, is not immune to local hindrances: challenges like university strikes, restricted so far to two cities have delayed the speedy and effective implementation of the program in otherwise interested and invested sites. Afripédia’s  next step is to widen its scope by including countries like Madagascar that form part of the Afro-Francophone world, but have yet to engage these initiatives.

This program is unique in that it seeks to promote and respect an admittedly rare concept of African agency. Instead of assuming an entirely paternalistic role in indicating what articles must be written, how, why and when, the program has taken on a fraternal one in providing the tools necessary for Ivorians (people from the Côte d’Ivoire), the Beninese (people from Benin) and Chadians (people from Chad) and many more to craft their own histories and stories with a great degree of liberté. Afripédia’s ethos wins our admiration as it demonstrates a desire to reconcile an at times turbulent past and to welcome a newly defined, post-colonial legacy of teamwork and mutual, international and intercontinental support.

Updates on the program’s progress can be followed via Twitter @Afripedia. Any party interested in becoming involved is encouraged to contact Adrienne Charmet-Alix at the following e-mail address: adrienne.alix(at) With regard to the remaining multiple choice questions for Items 2 and 3, please create your own answer key and grade yourself accordingly.

“New Domesticity” and Technology

By Angie Stangl*, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

After opening Pinterest for the first time in months, I remembered why I had avoided signing in; pins of cute babies in home-knit jumpers, DIY home organization solutions, canning basics, and cute little lunch ideas fill the screen.  It is not that these things aren’t cute, fun, or enjoyable but rather that they make me feel inadequate. These callings toward “domesticity” are all over the web and are popping up in most of the social media space I occupy.  Further, a pressure to participate in these domestic activities challenges the balance I’ve struck between home, work and graduate school.

baked cookies on a cooling rack suggest gendered domesticity

Emily Matchar in Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity (Simon & Schuster, 2013) examines the rise of this DIY culture and defines a “new domesticity” to explain the current movement of women participating in these things. Most importantly, in her book, Ms. Matchar illustrates many of potential pitfalls of areas that are a part of this growing new domesticity movement.  The new domesticity movement is not addressing the need for financial independence and a flexible workplace for women, it is largely disrupting gender-balanced parenting, and it is a movement for those who can afford to participate (often solidly middle class women with alternative sources of income).

To further complicate some of the arguments in Homeward Bound, technology is playing a key role in this movement as well.  The spaces that this new domesticity are being expressed are often online in the form of blogs, forums, and websites.  These online communities can offer support to fellow participants who partake in aspects of new domesticity but at the same time these are spaces that can be exclusive and reinforce the feeling of inadequacy for those who cannot find the time or money to participate.

Additionally, we need to be cognizant of the consumerist forces driving this movement, as is highlighted in the book.  Many blogs today have advertisements or the blogger writes about using (or not using) specific products or services.  Whether we want it to or not, these things shape our views.  Blogs voice personal opinions, so following a blogger’s advice may not feel so different than taking advice from a friend.

What I’d like to know is how is this new domesticity different than earlier notions from years ago about women wanting to have it all?  Haven’t we realized that we can strike a balance instead of trying to “do all the things”?  As much as aspects of this movement are compelling, I think we need to reconsider how technology has captured us and pushes us into this movement without considering some of the concerns raised in Homeward Bound.  Realistically, it is not possible to do it all.  So, how can we use technology to participate in a meaningful way (i.e. being inclusive and reversing the damage new domesticity has done)?

Here’s an interview with Emily Matchar.

*Angie Stangl is a participant in the UIUC Dialogues on Feminism and Technology graduate seminar.

Upcoming Video Dialogues

L to R in front row: Maria Fernandez, Anne Balsamo, Lisa Nakamura,
in back row: L to R: Kara Keeling, Wendy Chun, and Faith Wilding

The Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCADU) contributed this week’s dialogue on Difference, just recorded and edited this last month with Shu Lea Cheang and Kim Sawchuk moderated by Sara Diamond.

Shu Lea Cheang and Kim Sawchuk, and moderated by Sara Diamond.
–>Hat’s off to Katie Kotler for dedicating an enormous part of her graduate school hours to taping and editing this video, and figuring out the upload issues all in short time!

At Brown University, March 2013 L to R in front row: Maria Fernandez, Anne Balsamo, Lisa Nakamura, in back row: L to R: Kara Keeling, Wendy Chun, and Faith Wilding

Next up is a dialogue on the Body, just recorded at The New School, featuring Skawennati and Heather Cassils moderated by T.L. Cowan. That video will be launched October 21. At the end of October, we will launch Machine, done at Brown University last March (2013) with Kelly Dobson and Wendy Chun.

Editing, transcribing, captioning–it is all coming together! The first captioned videos should be ready next week…never as fast as we’d like, but we are moving in the right direction.

Canaries in the Coal Mine

By Ellie Brewster

We spent most of our first session talking about the Anne Balsamo / Judy Wajcman dialogue, although we did go off on a few tangents. We meet in Second Life at the Ada Lovelace Library, on the Ohio State Virtual Campus, (image courtesy of Sharon Collingwood).

Most of us are information workers, and there was a vigorous nodding of avatar heads when we discussed this quote from Wajcman:

“in creative industries, or whatever terms you use for these kinds of industries, that people are working extraordinarily long hours, they’re not unionized, they’re a perfect example of the blurring of private time and time for their employer, although they are self-employed and don’t think of it this way.  In old terms, we would think of it as very exploitative labour relations.”

I liked Wajcman’s analysis of the importance of reputation and autonomy for these kinds of workers — I think that many people are willing to give up a lot to be working outside the control of large corporate structures, and I think we should be very careful in examining what that means. We talked about this for a while, and wanted to do more on skilled, unskilled and deskilled labour.

FTN in Second Life

I liked a lot of what Wajcman said. She reminded us that there was a time when people asked questions like “why shouldn’t people who work in workplaces be part of running those workplaces?”  Why, indeed?

The dialogue ended on a positive note. As Anne Balsamo said, one robin doesn’t make a spring, and one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Although we are still dancing around the essentialist point that being female somehow grants us a better perspective on human relations, many agree that a critical mass of females in the upper echelons of power will change our culture.

What the dialogue didn’t bring up, and what I wish we had talked more about in our group, is why women, or anyone, would want to support such a toxic system by striving to succeed in it.  It reminds me of what Audre Lorde said shortly before her death: we race for the cure for cancer while we are drinking, eating, breathing, and bathing in carcinogens. Lorde was critiquing the breast cancer industry, but I think she identified a pattern that we see elsewhere. Can we really change the system by subscribing to it.

In the face of all the problems we have to deal with today, perhaps the breaking the glass ceiling is at least an achievable target. However, I wouldn’t want a focus on corporate success to distract us from other ways to effect change within the workplace.

Our discussion group meets in the virtual world Second Life on Sundays at 11am Pacific, 2pm Eastern, and 7pm GMT. Find our island by typing MINERVA OSU into the address bar of the Second Life browser, or use this link to arrive in the classroom (you must have the group “Minerva Guests” activated):

Awkward, Cumbersome, Inclusive and Sensitive?

Katrina Spencer, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Many Romance languages, like Portuguese and Spanish (and French to a slightly lesser degree) have a grammatically ingrained predilection for sexism. As you’ll remember from your high school “SPAN 1AB” or college “SPAN 101” course, whenever there is a group of people and any one of them is male, they are referred to with “los,” the Spanish language definite article, as in: Los chicos, María, Juan e Isabel visitan la playa todos los veranos.

This default mode for masculine markers also shows up in what we call “demonstratives” in the world of language:  Otros, por ejemplo Fernanda, Marcos, Luis y Estrella, prefieren ir a las montañas.

As you can see in the two examples above, female figures either (1) represent the majority of characters in the statement or (2) represent exactly half of the group, but the masculine article is still used.

This is an interesting and problematic space to explore for me as someone who is working as a translator for this feminist collective. On the one hand, I’ve been taught for years that respecting the conventions of formal language use is a vehicle of strong communication. This applies in arenas such as the use of the subjunctive, indirect object pronouns and precise vocabulary. On the other hand, as a 21st century learner, employee, woman and feminist by essence and association, I realize how exclusive these conventions can be when it comes to conversations about the sexes. The “o” in “los” excludes, ignores or overshadows the females it represents. What do we do?

Hi, my name is Katrina Spencer and I have used sexist language.

In this area of the FemTechCommons, periodical press releases can be found regarding the goings-on in our community. As a “grad hourly” at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Graduate School of Information Science, one of my jobs is to translate these press releases from English to Spanish in order to include wider and even international audiences. The sexist language constraints I’ve described, however, are ones I encounter, consciously or subconsciously, every time I open my mouth to speak Spanish.

It is my belief that a good deal of the pedagogical resources shared in this space are intended for women and used by women. As a matter of fact, for every ten females I see using this space, I have seen only one male. But when I translate a document about FemTechNet users, my inclination is to type, “los estudiantes” and “los instructores.” Grammatically speaking, I’m “right” but socially I am diminishing the strong, ubiquitous and pulsing female energy that has created and developed FemTechNet.

Is there an easy solution?

María González Aguado, another FemTechNet-er like myself, brought this to my attention, although it wasn’t the first time the issue had been raised. In her words, “Feminist scholars and women’s associations consider that plural in masculine invisibilizes women, so we try to use non-sexist language using an x or @ to avoid linguistic sexism.” So, per her suggestion, the statements above would appear as Lxs chicxs, María, Juan e Isabel, visitan la playa todos los veranos. OR L@s chic@s, María, Juan e Isabel visitan la playa todos los veranos. The other sentence would be: Otrxs, por ejemplo Fernanda, Marcos, Luis y Estrella, prefieren ir a las montañas. OR Otr@s, por ejemplo Fernanda, Marcos, Luis y Estrella, prefieren ir a las montañas.

Yes, okay, that’s fine, but how, now, do I pronounce it/ say it out loud/ read it aloud?

Also, what happens when I want to say “The participants in the Video Dialogues will include Judy Wacjman, Anne Balsamo, Julie Levin Russo, Faith Wilding and many others”?

Indulge me for a moment. The only participants listed are female. “Many others” does not identify sex. Should the sentence start off as “Lxs” or “L@s” in order to leave the possibility open of men participating in the future? Or should it be “Las” because up until this point, only women have shared the space?

And given that “lxs” and “l@s” cannot be pronounced, should every sentence sound like, Los miembros y las miembras publican sus opiniones en los foros?

Is it acceptable for language to be awkward and cumbersome in order to also be inclusive and sensitive? What does “fair” and “feminist” language representation look like? Do you type/write “s/he” when referencing a figurative, anonymous and sexless third person?

Join the discussion!

Knee-deep Feminist Waters at Colby-Sawyer College

By Chloé Di-tommaso, Colby-Sawyer College

As week four of the semester approaches, our team at Colby-Sawyer College is now knee deep into feminist waters. Together, we have studied the history and impact of Riot Grrrl and have had the opportunity to express our thoughts and opinions on Judy Wajcman’s Technofeminism. The readings define feminism in similar terms, however, each approach takes on the diversity of feminist thought, with entirely different techniques. Riot Grrrl preached their need for feminism through punk rock, poetry, and DIY technology.

Students and Melissa Meade at Colby-Sawyer College meeting for the first session of the DOCC2013 nodal course.

Wajcman’s needs are portrayed through groundbreaking research in science and feminist studies. Such different methods has confirmed to us (our class) that feminist theory and activism are diverse and still relevant. With this understanding, our team is currently brainstorming ways in which we as a class can “promote” feminism together. A more comical approach to this campaign we found would be to string together an array of bras, on which we will iron-on and print the many moving quotes given by both Wajcman and the Riot Grrrls. We will continue to plan and organize our campaign during this week’s class meetings.

Re-cap of Week 2 at the FemTechNet ¡Taller!

Week 2 at the FemTechNet ¡Taller! in San Antonio, TX, October 1, 2013 @ Geekdom

By Penny Boyer, co-facilitator with Laura Varela of FemTechNet ¡Taller! in San Antonio, Texas, at Geekdom.

The theme for Week 2 was SEXUALITIES.

As talleristas arrived, Salt n Pepa’s Let’s Talk About Sex was playing on YouTube.  After brief introductions, we played the weekly FemTechNet video dialogue which this week was between Faith Wilding, Paraguayan-American multidisciplinary artist/writer/educator and Julie Levin Russo, New Media faculty member, Evergreen College on the theme Sexualities.  Wilding framed her sex talk by discussing the collective SubRosa’s recent work with the egg donor experience within the biotech industry as it touches on eugenics, economics (fertility tourism) and cyberculture; JLR discussed her research into fan culture and their contextualized subcultures.

Laura Varela (L) and Penny Boyer (R), co-facilitator of FemTechNet ¡Taller! in San Antonio, Texas, at Geekdom.

(Penny Boyer is pictured on the right, with Laura Varela.)

Our conversation, led largely by guest facilitator Rebeca Lopez, was triggered by the final question laid out in the video by Faith Wilding, “Do we have a concept of a sexual public good?”  This conversation began with a clarification of the term “queer” for one member in the Taller to a nuanced discussion of the reading Amy Adele Hasinoff’s article, “Sexting as Media Production: Rethinking Social Media and Sexuality.”  We watched, as a group, one of the AdCouncil’s PSA’s, “Think Before You Post/Sex Texting Sexting PSA Video” that tallerista Joy-Marie Scott had embedded in her FemTechNet Taller Blog post on the Commons:

Amy Adele Hasinoff’s work on sexting, social media, and sexuality is cracking relevant today.  Hasinoff deconstructs an AdCouncil PSA campaign that warns girls against sending a “hot pic” to a boy who requests one. In this campaign, and much of the national dialogue around sexting, the onus is on the girl to not produce an image of her sexuality. She produces the image and sends it to a trusted partner, and she is blamed. The people who forward the image, against her will or knowledge, are not held accountable for sexual harassment.  Hasinoff compares this anti-sexting campaign to one which blames sexual harassment on the way a woman dresses. Here, it’s not the medium that is the problem but it’s the continuation of blaming the victim. Hasinoff posits: “Instead of ‘think before you post,’ how about ‘think before you forward?’

The group discussion about this PSA led a few talleristas to conceive a FemTechNet project of their own in response to the AdCouncil’s PSA–a PSA explaining to boys how to behave on the receiving end of a ill-distributed sext–a project they may pursue.  The evening evolved into a general discussion about self-perception issues regarding womens’ bodies and ended with a viewing of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines [Feminist Parody] – Defined Lines.”  After that, we adjourned.

Building an Accessible DOCC

By the Accessibility Committee

“Access” may not be the topic of a Video Dialogue or the subject of weekly reading, but it’s a central concept for DOCC 2013 in particular and the Distributed Open Collaborative Course in general. While the MOOC may eliminate structural barriers of access associated with traditional college courses—tuition, admission, location, evaluation—the DOCC goes much further: eliminating cultural barriers of patriarchal pedagogies, broadening access to suppressed histories, and remaking its learning archive through an open collaborative network. That is to say, the “O” in DOCC is different than the “O” in MOOC: the DOCC is radically open to enable access and invite transformation. Unfortunately, in building this course with an activist ethos on freely available platforms, we’ve unwillingly incorporated new barriers with our new technologies.

Difference between A DOCC and a MOOC

We are currently working hard to make sure that course materials associated with the DOCC 2013 are accessible. Our initiative is beginning with Video Dialogues, transforming audio-visual content into text-only transcripts. Transcripts are crucial to participants who are Deaf or hard of hearing, watch the videos in a silent or a very noisy environment, have slow or intermittent connections, or process information at their own pace. Text transcripts furthermore make video content searchable and open to translation, citation, and other forms of transformation. In addition to creating text transcripts, we are working towards providing closed captions on all videos and optimizing our webpages for users who access them with assistive technology.

Accessible materials are necessary—especially for our participants with disabilities. And disability necessarily makes us re-examine our materials. Folks with disabilities have been as crucial to the history of tech as women have (which Mara Mills has shown compellingly). The very concept of assistive technology helps us rethink our concept of technology. And thinking about accessibility means thinking critically about the barriers and limitations that come with technologies we use. DOCC 2013 should be open to all interested collaborators and to the insights of critical disability studies as we think through historical and future intersections of feminism and technology.

How can you, as a member of this network, help? Provide transcripts for all videos you create, document usability and accessibility issues around the sites, or volunteer to help in the efforts already underway by contacting MassFTN (at)

First Meeting of FemTechNet ¡Taller! in San Antonio

By Penny Boyer

At Week 1’s FemTechNet ¡Taller! session there were a total of 21 women present.  As the talleristas arrived into the Lidliker Room at Geekdom between 6:30 and 7pm, Martha Rosler’s 1975 video, Semiotics of the Kitchen, was playing on a loop  (6:29 min. performance video).

Penny Boyer began the Taller with an overview and orientation of the various FemTechNet websites and an introduction to the Suggested Syllabi/Reading Lists.  To prove the readings were not necessarily onerous, Boyer projected the essay, “A day without feminism” <> and had the group read the beginning of it in round-robin fashion with each woman reading aloud one sentence.  Part of the Riot Grrl Manifesto was also read aloud by a woman who had some familiarity with it.

First meeting of the FemTechNet ¡Taller! in San Antonio, Texas, at Geekdom. Facilitated by Penny Boyer and Laura Varela

The VNS Matrix manifesto was projected momentarily.  Boyer explained that other media was on the syllabi, like video; she showed the trailer for Forbidden Voices: How to Start a Revolution with a Laptop and introduced the group to the work of Cuban writer Yoani Sanchez and her blog, Generation Y.  The talleristas then introduced themselves.

Laura Varela (L) and Penny Boyer (R), co-facilitator of FemTechNet ¡Taller! in San Antonio, Texas, at Geekdom.

Following a five-minute break, we watched the first FemTechNet weekly themed video, Labor: History of the Engagement of Feminism & Technology, Judy Wajcman, Professor of Sociology, London School of Economics, interviewed by Anne Balsamo, Dean of the School of Media Studies, The New School.  To transition from the “Labor” video into a group discussion, ¡Taller! facilitators had invited Kelly Schaub, a Geekdom entrepreneur, to discuss the program she directs, CSA-San Antonio: Community Supported Art! “CSA-San Antonio is a subscription service for locally produced art.  Similar to the boxes of fruit and vegetables that one might get from a local farm as an agricultural CSA, CSA-San Antonio offers ‘shares’ of art to feed the public’s cultural appetite. Over the last 20 years, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has become a popular way for consumers to buy seasonal food directly from nearby farms. With the same buy-local spirit in mind, Community Supported Art is a similar endeavor to support local art and artists, and to help sustain a healthy arts environment in San Antonio.”  This presentation led to a group discussion followed by adjournment at a little past 8:30pm.