April 13, 2015
On Sunday, April 5, an invaluable opinion piece was published in the New York Times: “Help Us Learn in Prison” by John J. Lennon. An inmate at Attica Correctional Facility in New York, Lennon makes a nuanced request about education and technology within the American prison. He considers why inmates are allowed and even encouraged to watch television all day while their access to the Internet is limited or more often than not prohibited. He ends with a plea: why not change the accessible technology of choice from TV to MOOCs?
In this post, I’d like to use Lennon’s piece as an opportunity to continue several avenues of thinking and activism of grave concern for me, namely:
- a situated critique of MOOCs
- a situated critique of education and technology in the prison
- a situated critique of education and technology outside the prison, particularly on YouTube and social media more generally
As a founding member of FemTechNet, the collective that successfully offers the DOCC (Distributed Open Collaborative Course) at places of higher learning around the world, I have worked with others to criticize MOOCs from feminist perspectives on education, technology, and neo-liberalism. One of our ongoing claims is that education needs to be situated in the lived environments of learners, whether that be institutional (are you at a community college or an art school?), regional (California or Calcutta?), cultural (what traditions and values matter where we live and learn and how do we speak about them?), or personal (what matters to me?) In their top-down, one-size-fits-all, elitist, scale-and-profit-driven underpinnings, most MOOCs are not particularly responsive to or even interested in the situated, lived differences that make learning (and teaching) both exciting and challenging.
This situated critique of MOOCs allows me to heartily second Lennon’s request. I believe that MOOCs are terrific for prisoners and support unlimited access to them as part of a technologically-assisted education.
I began to understand a critically unnamed truth about social justice and social media only made visible through the structuring denial of access to the Internet and other technology as a fundamental feature of contemporary punishment: technologies of care, conversation, and personal liberation through education need no more tools than access to each other. I was more than ready and able to teach about YouTube this Spring without an Internet connection. I was going to assign books on the subject (with a few pages excised, mostly due to their discussion of sexuality on YouTube), exercises where prisoners would write screenplays to be shot by their fellow-students who had access to cameras and the Internet, and conversations about the meanings of all of our varied and regulated access to technology. (Along this vein, prisoners’ near universal access to cellphones as a contraband of choice, despite prisons’ concerted efforts to keep phones out of the prison, radically underlines what it means to say “prisoners don’t have access to the Internet or social media.”) I had learned before that while the prison and its administrators can systematically strip me, and my students, of tools and technologies (pens, videos, the Internet), our desires and abilities to communally learn—and thereby escape its lines, signs, limits, and holes of available information, if only fleetingly—falls completely outside the of logic of technology-based punishment.
That is until I was denied access to teach and learn inside.
Which gets me to my conclusion: my situated critique of education and technology outside the prison, particularly on YouTube. For I am indeed teaching the class, again, for the fifth time since 2007 at Pitzer College. I did not get to stretch and learn and teach as I had hoped with my prisoner students who have so much to teach us about technology, as they are denied access to social media and are therefore uniquely situated to see it, but I have learned about social media and social justice this semester from other students and teachers.
Since I began teaching the class in 2007, in the matter of just these few short years, access to social media has exploded (for those not denied it as a condition of their punishment). We have been told (and sold) that this access is critical for our expression, community-building, political citizenship, and well-being. We have been led to believe that access to social media is a form of liberation. As Nicole Rufus, a current LFYT student explains in her class video below, YouTube matters because it has made her a better person and contributed to her education, just as Lennon suggests.
But two more related things have also become quite clear in the 2015 iteration of the class Learning from YouTube (sans prisoners):
- In contra-distinction to the experience of prisoners, for my students, the Internet is the very air they breath in a way that was simply not true in 2007 (as much as my students thought it was). Young people today (as is true of their teachers) inhabit the Internet, speak its language, and have an agility, familiarity, and jaded acceptance of its norms and (aspects of) its history that is at once stunning and enervating (see Samantha Abernathey’s class video on memes below):
Stunning is the speed and complexity of this familiarity; enervating is its occlusion of familiarity with and interest in the other norms, places, and histories that we might once have understood as part of being institutionally, culturally and personally “situated.” The current version of the course makes me feel at once stimulated and enervated because I have seemingly nothing and everything to teach them. Nowhere and everywhere to go. “The internet does not exist. Maybe it did exist only a short time ago, but not it only remains as a blur, a cloud, a friend, a deadline, a redirect, or a 404. If it ever existed, we couldn’t see it. Because it has no shape. It has no face, just this name that describes everything and nothing at the same time. Yet we’re still trying to climb on board, to get inside, to be part of the network, to get in on the language game, to show up in searches, to appear to exist.”
I long for the views of my prisoner students: humans who can teach us a thing or two about place, liberation, punishment and control sans the Internet.
- for, this place of liberation, the Internet, has quickly become its opposite (“emancipation without end, but also without exit” according to Aranda, Wood, and Vidokle)—a prison (although not a punishment, as it is always entered willingly and ever with the promise of pleasure); a highly-structured corporate-dominated sink-hole. “In the past few years many people—basically everybody—have noticed that the internet feels awkward, too. It is obvious. It is completely surveilled, monopolized, and sanitized by common sense, copyright control, and conformism. (Hito Steyerl)
“This moment,” according to my students, is defined by anxious, cynical, consumption-based Internet experience that is linked to ever more desperate Internet-based attempts at escape into a nostalgic (“old”) Internet that is imagined as low-tech, slow, user-made, fun, real, innocent, awkward, less-sexualized, and de-politicized (outside or before the petty, bitter Internet “politics” about the Middle East, feminism, racism, rape, and the environment from which escape deeper into the Internet is so desperately needed.) The new Internet is a prison from which escape is to fantasy of an older, innocent Internet.
In her contribution to the eflux journal issue “The Internet Does Not Exist,” from which I’ve been quoting extensively in this last section, video artist Hito Steyerl pens an article entitled “Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?” There she answers herself: “the internet is probably not dead. It has rather gone all out. Or more precisely: it is all over.”
But of course, Steyerl knows, as must we all, that while the Internet feels like it is the whole world, or perhaps too much world, there are blank spots on the map where the Internet can not see, there are ways not to be seen, and there are dark spots in our situated communities where the Internet can’t or perhaps is not allowed to go.
If we theorize the Internet, or education, from these blank spots, from the place of too-little, (in)access, quiet, and darkness (as does Lennon), we see values, uses, and needs for MOOCs, YouTube, technology, and education that are not clear from an anxious state of hyper-abundance. This is not to romanticize the punitive lacks of the prison. Rather I ask us to draw from what becomes visible when we situate thinking about learning, technology, punishment and escape in places where education is not primarily linked to tawdry pop-songs, tutorials, consumer goods, flame wars, and self-reference to Internet culture but rather to the fundamental questions of liberation, learning, and empowerment that those stripped of technology have unique access to in the quiet and (in)access of their punishment.
January 19, 2015
Tamsyn Gilbert at New Criticals kindly invited me to write a piece about the changes in networked new media and feminist scholarship about it for the section of the publication called Lady Justice. I used this as an opportunity to revisit Learning from YouTube given that I’ll be teaching it again this spring with some interesting new twists and turns. The intro to the piece is here, and you can read my five provocations as well. The rest of the piece is found via the links above I’d love to hear from you!
In 2007, I engaged in what was at the time perceived to be an audacious pedagogical experiment. I taught a course both on and about YouTube. At that time, I opened out the private liberal arts classroom into the wilds of the Internet. These many years later, looking back at the experiment and also moving forward, I imagine what there might still be to learn and where there still might be to go within social media networks. Certainly much happened in the first class—virality, hilarity, hundreds of videos and interviews, caution, discipline, challenges to higher education and collegiate writing and a “book“—but here I ask, how might the continual growth of YouTube demand new places and tactics for its analysis?
In response to both my own needs as a theorist, activist, and educator, as well as what we might consider the “changes” of YouTube eight years later, I have decided to teach the class again this spring semester while taking my evolving experiment in several new directions including Inside-Out of the private college and prison. The body of this post explains the history and growth of my thinking about and activities within and without YouTube since its inception in 2005. Given the interests of Lady Justice, I will use this opportunity to consider transformations in digital and network culture over the past decade. I will also forefront how my feminist commitments to pedagogy, public intellectualism, the politics and practices of visibility and community within social media networks, and an anti-corporate media, anti-corporate academia, anti-corporate prison-industrial stance influence my many critical incursions into what I see as a pretty consistent YouTube. This has been somewhat harder to do in the course proper, and even my writing about it, as I have often taken a more “closeted” approach to my motivations in these more generic spaces (the class is an Introductory level course in Media Studies and most of the students have neither a feminist nor activist orientation to media, nor do they need to. In this and many other ways, I structure the course so that it reflects the dominating logics of YouTube, more on this below).
[this lengthier part about changes in YouTube and my decision to teach part of the class in a prison is at Lady Justice]
Conclusion: 5 Questions for the 2015 class and others:
As was true for the 2007 class and all following, I am legitimately interested in learning from YouTube: its users, uses, and logics. My statements above and questions below are provocations for further analysis, argument, and activities. I look forward to where they will take us over the next few months:I am curious whether these many recent changes may have inaugurated significant and not superficial changes in YouTube (and social media) culture itself. Frankly, I doubt it. I challenge my students to locate, name, and analyze structural differences:
How has YouTube changed since 2005?
What are the relations between social justice and social media?
What are the relations between social injustice and social media?
How and why do we leave social media?
How and why do we stay in social media?
What is a social media of our own?
September 5, 2014
I was recently interviewed by Julia Fernandez for the Library of Congress’ blog: The Signal. It was a pretty cool platform in which to be able to talk abut my problems with YouTube as an “archive” and otherwise. The interview begins like this:
Julia: In the intro to your online video-book “Learning From YouTube” you say “YouTube is the Problem, and YouTube is the solution.” Can you expand on that a bit for us?
Alex: I mean “problem” in two ways. The first is more neutral: YouTube is my project’s problematic, its subject or concern. But I also mean it more critically as well: YouTube’s problems are multiple–as are its advantages–but our culture has focused much more uncritically on how it chooses to sell itself: as a democratic space for user-made production and interaction. The “video-book” understands this as a problem because it’s not exactly true. I discuss how YouTube isn’t democratic in the least; how censorship dominates its logic (as does distraction, the popular and capital).
YouTube is also a problem in relation to the name and goals of the course that the publication was built around (my undergraduate Media Studies course also called “Learning from YouTube” held about, and also on, the site over three semesters, starting in 2007). As far as pedagogy in the digital age is concerned, the course suggests there’s a problem if we do all or most or even a great deal of our learning on corporate-owned platforms that we have been given for free, and this for many reasons that my students and I elaborate, but only one of which I will mention here as it will be most near and dear to your readers’ hearts: it needs a good archivist and a reasonable archiving system if it’s to be of any real use for learners, teachers or scholars. Oh, and also some system to evaluate content.
YouTube is the solution because I hunkered down there, with my students, and used the site to both answer the problem, and name the problems I have enumerated briefly above.
It continues here.
This blog post serves a second function: it is also my contribution to the Pitzer College publication, The Engaged Faculty Collection, a project spearheaded by my colleague Tessa Hicks Peterson as part of the Celebrate Pitzer at 50 festivities. This collection tracks the College’s forward thinking, active, and ongoing engagement, across its history, to practices and methods known variously as community-based learning, civic engagement, and action research. I am quite proud of my small part in this history, the large part that Pitzer Media Studies has played (with our core commitments to social justice and community-based media education), and the truly inspiring, and often unsung work of my colleagues and college in this regard.
In this short piece, I will frame, and then point/link to five of my most recent research/pedagogy/writing projects within my feminist media studies/practice, one that has always tried to at once understand, inhabit, teach in and about, and work for change within the communities and movements that matter to me. In the recent projects that follow, that “community” has become the Internet, a space both different from and indebted to the many other places with which I have engaged across my career.
1) When I arrived at Pitzer College in 1995, I was embraced as a committed mediamaker/theorist whose work was situated within the AIDS activist and feminist media communities, and the queer (of color) art and activist worlds. My work was, and continues to be about making and theorizing media production as part of social justice movements in which I am a member. When the digital emerged as a powerful place where all media can and often do converge, I moved parts of my practice there, developing a website connected to my Pitzer and sometimes CGU course, Media Praxis (in Ontario), that asked students to think about the 100 year history of activist media practice and theory while making a piece of such media themselves.
(To be clear: to read this article, you need to actually follow the links to things I’ve already made and already written, thus evidencing the new kinds of “Internet, or Multi-Modal writing” (and reading) I’ve been exploring and theorizing as part of my feminist digital practice: shorter, recursive forms, with a different tone that are often for broader audiences and based on the reading logics of the Internet, one of which is our hope for the fast and breezy. To be clear, this contribution is actually really long if you follow and read all the links!)
If you go the Media Praxis site, for example, you will see a great deal of activity, writing, and even more linking by my students, over several semesters. This evening-out of authority, this sharing of voice, has always been part of my media activism, and feminist pedagogy, but is much more easily realized in my “writing” when it occurs on the Internet where norms of “publication” begin to change in line with those of “authoring.”
2) In 2007, I took my Media Praxis to YouTube, and taught a course on and about the site, Learning from YouTube, to much media fanfare. As I explained above, my feminist, community-based practice has always tried to reside in the spaces it hopes to know, change, and better understand, all the while speaking in vernaculars best suited for that place and its community.
I taught the course several more times, and in each iteration, I asked students to think critically about their learning in the lived space of the elite liberal arts classroom as it is pressed into and against the “democratic” spaces of the Internet. How do we learn in these linked spaces? How might we write? What might we demand of corporate space to function more like the learning communities that we inhabit (at great cost)? What do we lose when we “learn” for free in the wilds of the Internet? For the class, my students did all their work as YouTube videos or comments, thereby evidencing the same formal imperative I am demonstrating here: to think and write in the new forms, formats, and platforms that currently shape much of the ever-more linked world of ideas, culture, and commerce in our era.
My students’ brilliant “writing”—like the video above that comments on commenting culture using the vernacular of that very culture—prominently shapes my “video-book” about the course, also called Learning from YouTube (MIT Press, 2011). You can “experience” the video-book to learn more about what my students and I learned about/on YouTube (it’s fun and free! If you are intimidated by its unfamiliar form, take the “tour” called “YouTube Is” by clicking on the left bottom box: it’s a short introduction to the main ideas structuring the project). Or you can read about it here, in an editorial I wrote for Inside Higher Education, “A Truly New Genre.”
And here’s a short interview I did about the class with “design guru” Bill Moggridge, as part of his influential Designing Media Project. There, you’ll find me sandwiched (the nasty cream filling…) between some truly powerful and sometimes great forces within the new media industry. My Pitzer-esque critique of capital and other powerful forces shaping this environment plays a critical role in this very public conversation.
3) While I believe that the critical (and sometime local) community that I produced in the class about YouTube, and our interventions into corporate media space were successful, the great amount of time I spent inside of this hostile, stupid, and unruly environment led me to want to build my own Internet spaces better aligned with my values as educator, activist, and artist, rather than merely criticizing those that have been handed to us for free. This led to my next large teaching/research/building project, Feminist Online Spaces: a website, course, and set of lecture/performances that asked the question what the Internet might look like if it was more like the lived space of a feminist classroom: safe, principled, activist by definition, open, collaborative, and committed to the co-production of knowledge and community. Built from my writing and research, that of my students over several years, and little feminist objects made by workshop participants from around the world, this site/class asks participants to think about the making and circulating of media fragments as part of/distinct from the larger aims of political communities (online and off). How do we bring the values, norms, methods, and affect of lived and local (feminist) spaces to the Internet and how do we bring the Internet to these spaces?
This line of work led me to three more places:
- a theoretical and political plea to leave, cede, or link to the Internet (from the lived world) as core to activist media production. I end my piece for The Militant Research Handbook by saying: “Finally, my ‘research’ and teaching on the Internet—in the feminist spaces I build and interact in—have led me to believe that the writing and object-making that happens there, in the name of understanding and enacting feminist expression online, begs us to think past the digital, beyond representation, and back to bodies and lived spaces. This means two things: we need to continue to be critical of the Internet inside of the Internet, and we also need to leave it by linking (or editing or organizing) out to the world and other activists and actions and thereby into realms of behavior, interaction, and feeling that are neither commodifiable nor stuck. Activist digital activities need to create linked projects of secession. It is in the leaving that our feminist digital activism truly begins.”
- 4) an art show, PerpiTube, about YouTube and community-building, co-curated with Pato Hebert, that lived for a summer in the Pitzer Art Galleries, and in perpetuity on YouTube, and was produced in engagement with several of our local community-based partners, while also connecting these communities to like (virtual) partners around the world.
- FemTechNet, my most recent, and even more ambitious “x-reality” project (built within the connected fabrics of on and offline community spaces and experiences, the term is Beth Coleman‘s). With co-facilitator, Anne Balsamo, and a network of feminist educators and artists from around the world, we successfully took on the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) with our feminist reevaluation, the DOCC, Distributed Online Collaborative Course. I am proud to admit that I may be one of the few college professors around to have been lambasted twice, for two separate media projects, by Fox News!
5) You can read about FemTechNet’s inception here, or here, or look at its pretty impressive media coverage here. I’ve lately found myself speaking to university administrators, IT leaders, and fellow humanities professors about how digital technology can better on-the-ground learning. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the successful challenge of FemTechNet’s DOCC to the more corporate, top-down, imperialist, unresponsive course offerings modelled by MOOCs is a collective application of many of the feminist principles of pedagogy and community-based learning I’ve been discussing throughout. It’s been invigorating and gratifying to see people who might be unconvinced about “feminism,” become quite impressed by the platforms, structures, methods and outcomes it produces for teaching.
And so, I haven’t come full circle, really. I’ve stayed true to Pitzer, and at home in its communities and values, while entering the Internet to bring Pitzer there and the world (of the Internet) to Pitzer. This is an exciting expansion of community that also stays true to the small and local, that honors and thinks about difference without flattening it, that lives and teaches ethically, that co-creates knowledge while being self-aware of power both in outside the room, all the while staying invested in self- and world-making, and staying true to the community-based practices we’ve developed at the College even as it departs (at times) from lived community to do so.
CFP: Ada, Issue 4, Queer, Feminist Digital Media Praxis
We invite contributions to a peer-reviewed special issue that brings together artistic, theoretical, critical and empirical responses to a range of questions around mediation, technology and gender equality. In particular we are interested in exploring what the concept of praxis could offer in our thinking about the intersections of gender, digital media, and technology.
Praxis in both Marxist and in Arendtian political thought brings together theory, philosophy and political action into the realm of the everyday. Inspired from this premise, and continuing the conversations that started during the workshop Queer, feminist social media praxis at the University of Sussex in May 2013 (queerfemdigiact.wordpress.com), we focus here on the conditions for a feminist digital media praxis. Media praxis, in other words the “making and theorising of media towards stated projects of world and self-changing” (mediapraxis.org), could be a vital component of feminist and/or queer political action. We are interested in the different modes of political action for social justice, enabled by digital technologies and social media, including theory, art, activism or pedagogy. What kinds of possibilities or impossibilities do these technologies and platforms offer for interpreting and intervening in the world?
The fourth issue of Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media and Technology seeks submissions that explore the concept of feminist, queer, digital media praxis. We welcome unpublished work from scholars of any discipline and background, including collaborative, non-traditional, or multimodal approaches that can especially benefit from the journal’s open access online status.
Topics and approaches might include, but are not limited to:
– Affect, desire and disgust
– Diffractive readings
– Digital storytelling
– Herstories, archiving and remembering
– Feminist pedagogy
– LGBTQ Youth
– New media bodies
– Imaginaries, futures and technological utopias
– Radical art practices
– Science, technology and social justice
We invite submissions for individual papers on any of the above themes or related themes. Contributions in formats other than the traditional essay are encouraged; please contact the editor to discuss specifications and/or multimodal contributions.
Find submission info on Ada
I begin my talk with this video about repurposing social media spaces, such as this one, for the specific purposes of multi-disciplinary and multi-modal teaching and learning, as well as for its scholarship by showing this video, so representing, in form, my feminist commitment to engage in self-reflexive, situated critiques of the Internet that model here the kind of culture I hope it to be, a place that enacts collaboration, connections between the classroom and the world, intentional and ethical links between and within real and virtual experiences and private and public knowledge, and a commitment to finding, teaching, and using the forms of literacy best suited for these places and practices.
I self-reflexively argue above, here, and in the talk: engaged, situated pedagogy and research in the digital humanities demand new writing and speaking forms, as well as the presentational and publishing platforms to hold them.
March 15, 2013
Please feel free to share:
Children “share” during “sharing time” at school: my mouse, mom, yo-yo trick. Academic bloggers share details about what is behind-the-scenes: my lunch, boss, anxieties. Sharing as inclusion of personal experience into public spaces where such information has been deemed inappropriate, off-limits, non-academic. Sharing at its juvenile and narcissistic best and worst. The risks are both obvious and gendered: an embarrassing myopia, a gross mis-step in propriety, a female fall into feelings. No professional wants to be treated like a child (or a woman). The risks are in vetting; the rewards come by way of expanded expression …
I continue on Media Commons