Over the past couple of months, about a dozen FemTechNet participants have presented work based on our research and teaching related to FemTechNet in a two-part FemTechNet Keywords Workshop at the CUNY Feminist Pedagogies Conference in April 2015, and at the Union for Democratic Communications Conference at the University of Toronto in May 2015. Since these gatherings brought together such divergent modes of FemTechNet engagement, we thought we’d collect and share this new work over the last two weeks of May, leading up to the 2015 FTN Summer Workshop and to the 2015-2016 season of FemTechNet’s Distributed Open Collaborative Course (the DOCC). For more information on this essay series, contact editor T.L. Cowan
by Melissa Meade, Colby-Sawyer College and Cricket Keating, Ohio State University
Comedian Tina Fey has recently foregrounded two key tenets of successful improvisation. The first she dubs the “Rule of Agreement.” In her words, “the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you” (Fey 2011). The second rule is that in addition to saying yes, you should add something of your own; that is, you should say “YES, AND.”
As an experiment in learning, the FemTechNet DOCC has been marked by an improvisational ethos. Indeed, from its open-ended organizational structure, which encourages educators of all sorts to join the collective, to its open-ended network of classes, to its key learning projects distributed across the network (such as Feminist Wiki-storming, Situated Knowledges Map, and Exquisite Engendering), FemTechNetters have said again and again “yes, and.”
In adding our “yes, ands” to the improvisation, we partnered the undergraduate students at Colby-Sawyer College (a private, liberal arts college of about 1400 students in central New Hampshire) and the Ohio State University (a large state university in central Ohio with about 44,000 undergraduates on a campus with about 58,000 students).
As instructors coming out of media and cultural history and political and feminist theory, neither of us particularly professionalized or skilled in digital media production, we joined this shared teaching and thinking project with a “DIY” mantra firmly in mind: a do-it-yourself feminist politics that suggests we ought not wait to be invited into circuits, but that we jump in and add our own.
As critical inspiration, we read Riot Grrrls and feminist DIY punk cultural production of the 1990s in our classes. They said, “Because we must take over the means of production in order to create our own moanings.” Yes, and we say “FemTechNet is a power tool” (FemTechNet Manifesto).
Animating a DIY approach with an improvisational spirit to us underscored that DIY is actually a misnomer. We need others — we need each other — to do the kind of work that will upend hierarchies, eliminate violence, create room for difference in the academy and beyond, and move past individual expressions of identity, the isolated and isolating digital practices. And so began our move from DIY to DWO (doing with others).
Much has been made of the role of the amateur in digital economies. Some have heralded its presence as a liberating creative spirit, with the ability to elide expertise and professionalism directly correlated to increased participation in the marketplace of ideas (see, for example, Lawrence Lessig and Clay Shirky). Carolyn Marvin has also critiqued the rise of the professional engineer and scientist of old technologies as tied to the exclusion of women and minorities in these fields (Marvin 1988). By squashing the tinkering impulse, and the tinkerer, we reinscribe hierarchies of thought, labor, and power.
Others have noted that amateurism is too easily coopted into the logic of neoliberal economies. DIY becomes a brand, and the amateur becomes a creative psychology useful to a growing economy. Astra Taylor has noted that “the grassroots rhetoric of networked amateurism has been harnessed to corporate strategy, continuing a nefarious tradition” and warns, “When we uphold amateur creativity, we are not necessarily resolving the deeper problems of entrenched privilege or the irresistible imperative of profit” (Taylor 2014, 63- 64).
In addition to jumping into the projects already in place in the network, we added some of our own, and invited others to join us. Inspired by the Object Making key learning project, and wanting to render visible what are often invisible gendered technologies, the Colby-Sawyer students developed a Bra Project that would be showcased at a Fem Fair. Inviting others to join us in this improvisation, we put out a “Call for “Bras” across FemTechNet. Here the network said yes, and sent dozens of bras, bindings and underthings through the mail. The students decorated, mutilated, and repurposed these into visual displays of gendered technologies. The Fem Fair took place in rural New Hampshire, while capturing the spirit of the dispersed and distributed FemTechNet.
Celebrating “The Bra Project” at Colby-Sawyer College, Fall 2013
At Ohio State, our class developed the idea of Freedom Recycling Bins. Taking inspiration from the “freedom trash cans” of the feminist protests at the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, we repurposed trash cans so that they could be used as depositories of objects that symbolized or that perpetuated oppression. We then brainstormed how each object could be recycled and repurposed to serve liberatory ends. Later, we developed a game based on the idea. Here’s how to play!
Freedom Recycling Bin: The Game
To play, you will need:
A trash can
Markers, paper, playdough and other repurposing supplies
How to play:
Label a trash can a “freedom recycling bin” and put it in the middle of the room.
Set the timer for five minutes. In that time, each person places an object that represents or perpetuates some aspect of oppression in their lives (either the actual object or a representation of the object) into the recycling bin.
Break up into even-numbered teams.
Set a timer for 10 minutes. Racing against the clock, each team picks an object from the recycling bin and repurposes it for liberatory ends. Keep going until all the objects in the recycling bin are repurposed or until the time runs out.
Groups share their repurposed objects with the others. The team with the most successfully repurposed objects wins the round.
Repeat as often as necessary.
Speaking of the imperative of coalition work, Bernice Johnson Reagon writes: “we have lived through a period where there have been things like railroads and telephones, and radios, TVs, and airplanes, and cars and transistors, and computers. And what this has done to the concept of human society, and human life is, to a large extent… what we have been trying to grapple with” (Reagon 2000, 365).
Reagon stresses that a consequence of these technological transformations is our vulnerability– “there is no hiding place”– and our connection– we have to build coalitions through and across difference in order to survive (Reagon, 365). Yes, and we say animating these coalitions, both on and off-line, with an improvisational spirit will help us to deepen, expand, and multiply them. There won’t be a place oppression can hide.
FemTechNet. “Manifesto.” Femtechnet.org, 2014.
Fey, Tina. Bossypants. Little, Brown and Company, 2011.
Marvin, Carolyn. When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. Oxford University Press, 1988.
McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Bantam Books, 1967.
Freedom Trash Can Photo: https://mediamythalert.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/bra-burning_freedomtrashcan.jpg
Reagon, Bernice Johnson. “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century,” Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Barbara Smith, ed. ([Kitchen Table Press, 1983] Rutgers University Press, 2000.
“Riot Grrrl Manifesto,” Bikini Kill Zine 2, 1991.
Taylor, Astra. The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. Metropolitan Books, 2014.
Over the last two decades, we have seen the emergence of a movement attempting to retain (or regain) democratic control of digital communications technologies. I’ve previously written about the activism emerging around this, framing it as a digital liberties movement (here and here), and Hector Postigo’s work on the digital rights movement offers another way of understanding it.
While the digital liberties movement is engaged in an important struggle, its politics create constraints in terms of the kinds of critiques – and solutions – it offers. It’s always tricky discussing the politics of social movements (which are always heterogeneous and fluid), but broadly speaking, the politics of the movement mostly fits within a liberal democratic framework. There are frequently challenges to aspects of the existing political systems activists are working within, but usually these go back to liberal ideals. So, for example, activists challenge state surveillance by appealing to concepts like freedom of association and freedom of speech, rather than by challenging the right of the state to exist. There’s also a strong streak of libertarianism in the movement, in the American sense of a politics which argues for greatly-restricted state power but few restrictions on the power of the market.
This translates into campaigns with a strong focus on individual freedom from government oppression, particularly with regards to protections for ‘free speech’ and limits on government surveillance; tactics that aim at reform, rather than deeper structural change; and appeals to an idealised free market (so, for example, complaints about the ways in which intellectual property law creates monopolies, and claims that more nimble entrepreneurship could balance the power of large corporations).
Many geek feminists work within, or began by working within, this movement: women have been key to the framing, campaigning, and specific projects within digital liberties activism. For example, women (including those who identify as feminists) have had an active presence in free and open source software communities, and in campaigns against online censorship and surveillance. However, many women who were initially involved in the movement have raised important criticisms of it, while others have never found the movement to represent their experiences of online technologies.
Obviously, there is no single political approach in geek feminist politics. There are many different, diverse, geek feminist communities – here I’m talking mostly about North American and Australian geek feminists, and what I say isn’t true for everyone who’d identify in that way. However, again, (very generally speaking) geek feminism often reproduces the focus on liberal ideals, in part because this is the politics which is most visible and available. As Alex Bayley says in a 2014 talk on the history of the Geek Feminist wiki (an important resource for the growth of the geek feminist movement, but not the only site for it), when she first began the wiki she had no education in feminism, gender studies, or related areas, and so the wiki was partly a space to host her own self education. This isn’t unusual, with many women in the geek feminist movement coming from technical backgrounds in which the only ‘activist’ politics present might be those around free software. However, resources like the Geek Feminist wiki, spaces like AdaCamp, and discussions around feminism on Twitter and in other places, is helping to establish a specific (but fluid and heterogenous) politics.
One of the key features here is an interest in intersectionality, an understanding of gendered oppression as intersecting with other forms of oppression. While this concept was initially developed specifically in the context of Black Feminism, by Kimberle Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, and others, it’s much more broadly (and sometimes shallowly), understood in the context of geek feminism today. This is leading to important critiques of the digital liberties movement’s work. For example, ‘free speech’ is both central to the politics of many digital liberties organisations, and a key feature of the rhetoric of many of those harassing women online or in other geek spaces. In the latter case, free speech is usually defined in an expansive way, in which any form of moderation of a space is positioned as ‘censorship’: this can be seen as partly the result of implementing the values of liberal democracy in spaces beyond the state (seeing governance of a conference or online community as mirroring governance of the state).
A blog post by Jem Yoshioka summarises the geek feminist critique of free speech discourse well:
The fervent devotion to free speech over everything else ends up alienating me (and many others, I’m sure). Yes, I believe in the vital importance of freedom of the press and the freedom from being censored, prosecuted or incarcerated by governments based on the expression of thoughts. But I also believe that harmful and dangerous abusive behaviour by individuals and hate groups needs to be identified and actively stamped out. It needs to be the responsibility of us all, not just the people who find themselves targeted. This is the responsibility that we take on as members of a community.
This not only critiques the idea that ‘free speech’ should be prioritised over all other values, but also signals a shift towards a more communitarian approach to governance. The appeal here is not to a top down mechanism, but rather to ‘us’: members of the communities themselves. It also represents an important shift away from individualistic liberal framings of atomised individuals, and towards an understanding of communities as shaped by structural inequalities which must be addressed through solidarity and mutual aid.
Geek feminism is also beginning to raise important critiques of capitalism, in opposition to the digital liberties’ tendency to valorise images of more flexible and technologically-enlightened capital. This is, of course, varied: faith in the market as the primary means of resource distribution is not absent from geek feminist communities. However, at the same time, there’s a growing understanding of the ways in which capitalism is inherently linked to structural oppression. This can be seen particularly in the responses to Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book, Lean In, which have begun a broader conversation about the limitations of ‘success’ within a capitalist system.
Finally, whereas the digital liberties movement tends to frame government surveillance as a concern, geek feminists are increasingly arguing that for many women, trans people, queer people, and people of colour, the key threats don’t come from their government, or don’t only come from their government. For example, trans women, and particularly trans women of colour, are at threat of state violence, but they’ve also suffered from sustained harassment online and offline for years from trans-exclusionary radical feminists. Understanding ‘surveillance’ as enacted not just by the state but also by other citizens, and often even by peers (including other activists), radically changes the kinds of resistance we might envisage.
These challenges from geek feminists are broadening the way we think about the politics of digital technologies, and encouraging a more nuanced understanding of how we can struggle for more democratic control of vital technology. They’re not the only source of such challenges, and geek feminism itself is drawing on many other stands of activism, including trans activism and anticolonial analysis. Twitter’s recent policy changes around harassment are one sign of the impact of this work – hopefully there will be others, including more radical changes to communication technologies. I’m really looking forward to exploring this in more detail as I build on the work in Global Justice and the Politics of Information and start writing more about marginalised perspectives on Internet governance and online technologies.
Subway, bus, car, train, plane – I am travelling 600 miles each week round trip between Philadelphia and Boston to teach women’s and gender studies classes. I have done this for a decade now, for some 30 weeks a year. By now I have travelled over 150,000 miles just getting to work and back; I have never missed a class due to weather or because of the commute. This is referred to by some as a “two-body problem”; my partner has a tenure-track job in Philadelphia and my part-time position is at MIT (The Massachusetts Institute of Technology), 300 miles away. I spend a lot of time alone.
For that reason, it is at once ironic and fitting that I am writing about collaboration for the FemTechNet Roadshow blog series. To collaborate is, after all, “to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something.”[i] For me, finding FemTechNet meant finding a virtual community of feminist scholars, a collaborative network of people dedicated to fostering connection and unafraid of trying out new technologies to make it happen. For me this was like a life preserver thrown to a drowning person, steeped as I was in feminist thought but academically adrift in a sea of isolation. Technology enables collaboration across time and space, to be sure, but as we wrote in the FemTechNet Manifesto, “collaboration is a feminist technology” – so the two are mutually constitutive. Collaboration is an essential part of the FemTechNet DOCC (Distributed Open Collaborative Course), and it is happening at every level – between teachers as we establish new pedagogical connections across institutions, between teachers and students in Open Office Hours, between students in the completion of group projects, and between scholars through feminist video dialogues, writing and conferencing.
Some examples of innovative feminist technological collaborations we have explored, both in and out of the classroom:
Creative and often experimental, the open and collaborative nature of FemTechNet pedagogy actively breaks down conventional distinctions between teacher and student, performer and audience, inviting a different kind of scholarly conversation and discovery of new “truths” in situated knowledge and shared experiences. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes that “the classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility.”[ii] The feminist DOCC reinvents the classroom as we have traditionally known it, displacing it. Many of our assignments and projects are collaborative, experimental, interdisciplinary. By reimagining the writing process itself, the DOCC has the potential to destabilize power dynamics that can limit participation in conventional academic settings.
Let’s take a look at an example of collaborative feminist pedagogy in action, using the FemTechNet Situated Knowledges Map as a case study of “hacking the global map,” an innovative way to connect and engage students in actively thinking through the politics of location. Feminist thought has a long history of posing a challenge to the uncritical presumption of objectivity informing much traditional scholarship, particularly in the sciences and social sciences. The notion of feminist epistemology as particularly situated knowledge is the basis for rethinking methodologies in academic research, if not the very foundation of critical thinking in its attempt to shake basic assumptions about meaning and how we know what we know. As Haraway notes, “feminist objectivity means quite simply situated knowledges.”[iii]
The unique pedagogical application of the FemTechNet Situated Knowledges Map engages in an experiment in critical cartography by networking students asynchronously from multiple locations, inviting them to strategically locate themselves on a shared Google map. Students are invited to drop virtual pins on a shared map, authoring narratives in which they contribute a description including a relationship to place in connection with their own identity or lived experience. These may be text-based, or multi-media, integrating embedded images and/or video to provide a unique portrait of the chosen site, in many cases including explicit consideration of technology and feminism. They are able to read and respond to other students’ pins, facilitating inter-institutional dialogue, many times between pin authors physically located hundreds or thousands of miles apart who will never meet each other in person.
Students participating in the first semester of the map project were in DOCC nodes at Temple University, MIT, Yale, Ohio State University, Swarthmore College, University of Michigan, Colby-Sawyer College, The College of New Jersey, Flagler College, and West Virginia University. The pin narratives they wrote on the map strikingly represented a wealth of diversity and shared experience, and the resulting artifact became a treasure trove of teachable moments in some very intriguing and unpredictable ways.
For example, many students chose to write about travel or study abroad experiences, with varying degrees of awareness or interrogation of their own position relative to the non-Western and/or developing nations they visited. The map became a place of struggle to reconcile impulses to claim an essentialist global feminism with a robust critique of what T.L. Cowan termed the “White Savior Industrial Complex”[iv] in a pin comment aimed at complicating some unproblematized missionary narratives. The map became a place to work out theoretical problems and positions relative to feminist thought in a very direct and personal way for the students reading and writing into it.
Jeremy Crampton and John Krygier observe in their essay on critical cartography that “maps are active; they actively construct knowledge, they exercise power, and they can be a powerful means of promoting social change.”[v] Embedding a global map with feminist reflections about particular pin locations has the potential to challenge assumptions about space, place, and geopolitical boarders, or at the very least foster some conversations about what those look like from the vantage points of different identity locations. Feminist mapping, Keifer-Boyd and Smith-Shank argue, “demystifies and destabilizes the old cartographic binaries of inside and outside. It looks at ways cultural borders are crossed and hierarchies of place are normalized.”[vi]
We saw this playing out in another example through the emergent theme of street harassment and catcalling, which echoed through many pin points in different cultural locations, prompting dialogue around intersections of ethnicity, race, class, sexuality and gender presentation. One identified catcalling as the impetus for a feminist consciousness, describing the feeling of “that sudden fear that a stranger is shouting at you, the realization that this means you may be attractive, the crushing oppression once the attraction dissolves back into fear.”[vii] Others took a more direct tone of resistance in posts titled “Stop Telling Women to Smile” and “You Should Smile”: “Those words that seem so harmless to them make me feel exploited. Why do I have to smile?”[viii]
The map also invited cross-cultural analysis of catcalling, with students debating about the extent to which street harassment is culturally specific, or specifically reflective of Western beauty ideals and objectification of women. Tracing these pins thematically, the map documents a unique learning experience through the shared conversation about what it means to experience and/or report on harassment through specific embodied positions and boundary crossings across cultural differences. One Swarthmore student expressly addressed the cross-cultural conversation on street harassment she observed taking place on the map, integrating a reference to Cowan’s white savior industrial complex:
I’ve spent time working or studying in Chile, India, and the Dominican Republic, and found myself (a white cisgender woman) getting a lot of unwanted attention on the street in each place. I want to push back against some of the other pins that suggest that this attention is due to men being attracted to a standard of beauty that is white. Street harassment is about power and control, not attraction. Also, local women probably experience just as much street harassment (and outright violence). But maybe catcalling of women who look white and foreign in these places is a way that men say, “You shouldn’t be here,” and resist the white foreign presence that is often thinly veiled colonialism. Maybe it’s a way of expressing anger towards global inequality or the white savior industrial complex.[ix]
The map also offered situated analyses of gender and sexuality as they were read cross-culturally. In one example, “Bunny Means Cute, Not Gay!” a pin narrative describes the homophobic confusion that occurred after a Tweet depicted a South Korean eSports gaming team wearing bunny ears, and American fans questioned whether the team was gay as a result. The notion that male gamers wearing fuzzy bunny ears would be read as cute in Korean culture, rather than effeminate or gay, required special explanation by the photographer tweeting the photo.[x]
Several narratives addressed non-binary or transgender identities and some of the cultural confusion surrounding the reading of the body in physical space. Some of these featured interesting reversals of cultural assumptions or norms, as in “A Twist on Restrooms,” in which a trans woman trying to avoid a long restroom queue was ironically kicked out of the men’s bathroom.[xi] Cultural specificity of gender and sexuality was central to another insightful transgender pin narrative, “With the Aid of Strict Gender Roles.” Set in Singapore, the narrator explains,
I discovered the first time I went out to the mall alone to browse around, that the strict gender roles actually helped me to be “out” in Singapore. Because the roles were so strict and I wore “men’s” clothes and had short hair, everyone at the mall just assumed I must be male because otherwise why would I look that way? And it was great! It offered a welcome reprieve from all the misgendering at work and made me feel a lot more comfortable in my ability to be read as male. I actually got read way more often as male in Singapore than at home in Boston.[xii]
This ability to think and reflect with others in an active, living digital artifact such as the Situated Knowledges Map extends the classroom beyond four walls to powerfully engage students in feminist thinking in new ways. Reading peer perspectives that challenge their own thinking or reveal their experiential knowledge as culturally specific, students expand their understanding of how others encounter gender, race, and class dynamics in the world. This learning project is just one example of the many ways to think about collaboration in the DOCC.
[i] “Collaborate.” Merriam-Webster.comhttp://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/collaborate Accessed May 27, 2015. [ii] hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. NY: Routledge, 1994, 207. [iii] Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No .3 (Autumn 1988), 581. [iv] Cowan, T.L. “Thinking About the ‘White Savior Complex’” FemTechNet Situated Knowledges Map, Vol. 1 (Sept-Dec 2014). [v] Crampton, Jeremy & John Krygier. “An Introduction to Critical Cartography.” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies. 4(1): 15. http://www.acme-journal.org/vol4/JWCJK.pdf Accessed May 27, 2015. [vi] Keifer-Boyd, Karen, and Deborah Smith-Shank. “Feminist Mapping.” Visual Culture and Gender. 7 (2012): 3. http://vcg.emitto.net/7vol/Keifer-Boyd_Smith-Shank.pdf Accessed May 27, 2015. [vii] “Home is where the. . . catcalls come from?” FemTechNet Situated Knowledges Map, Vol. 1 (Sept-Dec 2014). [viii] Black, Shayna. “Stop Telling Women to Smile” FemTechNet Situated Knowledges Map, Vol. 1 (Sept-Dec 2014). [ix] Isabel, “Being Abroad and Intersectional Identity.” FemTechNet Situated Knowledges Map, Vol. 1 (Sept-Dec 2014). [x] “Bunny Means Cute, Not Gay!” FemTechNet Situated Knowledges Map, Vol. 1 (Sept-Dec 2014). [xi] Julie, “A Twist On Restrooms,” FemTechNet Situated Knowledges Map, Vol. 1 (Sept-Dec 2014). [xii] Ryker, “With the Aid of Strict Gender Roles,” FemTechNet Situated Knowledges Map, Vol. 1 (Sept-Dec 2014).
How does the concept and practice of openness structure FemTechNet? And what does the open mean in our Distributed Open Collaborative Course (DOCC)?
As I approach these questions, I want to begin by recognizing and valuing how our shared and distinct ways-of-working as community organizers, political activists, cultural producers and scholars shape FemTechNet and its various collaborative projects, including the DOCC. I come to FemTechNet as a performer in, and curator and producer of, trans- feminist and queer DIY/grassroots cabaret and as a performance studies scholar. These histories inform my ways of working, and my ways of thinking about the work we do, and how we work at FemTechNet.
The experiment of this short essay is to think through FemTechNet and the DOCC as practices of cultural production that privilege openness as an ethical-methodological principle. I approach this experiment as a cabaret organizer, and want to suggest that whatever openness FemTechNet has achieved has come through what I’m calling a cabaret methodology; that the DOCC is an exemplar of cabaret pedagogy; and, that—in the context of the labour conditions of the majority of contemporary academic workers particularly in the US, the UK, and Canada—we might equally understand these cabaret methods as characteristic of an adjunct, contingent, precarious, differential methodology.[i] In fact, I suggest that it is only by practicing something like a cabaret/adjunct world-making methodology that we will create the “accessible, open, accountable, transformative and transforming educational institutions of our dreams” (FTN manifesto). This is not to say that many of us are not already doing this, but let me just ask: what happens when we think of FemTechNet as cultural production, as cabaret, or as mobilizing cabaret technologies? What happens when we think of FemTechNet in relation to genealogies of feminist cultural production and activism at least as much as we are in relation to genealogies of academic cultures? In addition to studying the digital technologies that we use and make as we work together face-to-face and across distances, and the many other forms of technologies that we theorize in our teaching and research, what happens when we foreground our open organizational structure itself as a user-generated, improvisational and collectively-designed ethico-methodo-techno-logy[ii]? What happens when the world-making impulses and desires that drive our cultural production and community organizing, begin to (re)structure our university cultures? What happens if we think about cultural production and academic production as the same project in open access and design? And what happens, of course, when these cabaret ethico-methodo-techno-logies hit an institutional wall[iii] and we are told, explicitly or implicitly, where do you think you are? this is not a cabaret.
You are at a Cabaret … If you bought a ticket in advance or at the door and paid what you could. If you are seeing and being seen. If you are drinking liquor. If you are sober. If you know someone who is performing. If you are performing. If you are pleased that you left the house. If you wish you’d never left the house. If you are glad you changed your outfit at the last minute, since there she is, that hot butch you’ve had your eye on. If you are in a community hall, an attic gallery with black mold, the back of a coffee shop, a strip club, a church basement, some woman’s living room, some guy’s studio, or a gay bar. If you are wearing lipstick, or intend to get lipstick on your collar. If there’s a good cause. If there’s been dancing, film, storytelling, rant, drag, burlesque, comedy and a girl with a guitar singing about her ex, her cat or her ex-cat. If you are thinking about how you can get back on stage, or backstage. If you got a reminder email from the organizer. If you are surrounded by the same people that you saw at the last show, at every march and rally, in the coffee shop in the neighbourhood, in your pottery or Pilates class. If there are information tables. If you signed a petition. If there is nudity. If someone started their set with “I’m really nervous.” If someone started their set with “You are all so beautiful, and you listen to poetry!” If you are sitting there energized, irritated, turned-on, embarrassed, confused, thoughtful, emboldened, self-righteous, inspired and charmed. If you are thinking, “These are my people” and, “These are my people?”
Grassroots cabarets are those shows that so many folks from cash-poor but people-rich communities and scenes put to use as entertainment, as fundraiser, as pedagogy. It’s a show with many different people performing; usually there will be a theme for the night, whether it’s a fundraiser for a medical procedure that is also an exploration of trans-poetics, or reproductive justice, or a showcase of the work of femme performers, or women of color, or folks with working class or low-income histories, or Indigenous poets, or celebrating “Pride” or “International Women’s Day,” or “Black History Month.” Cabaret is about people working together to make something that they couldn’t make alone, and its economic structure is more often driven by mutual support than by big cash rewards. Most of the grassroots cabarets that I write about are either very low-cost, Pay-What-You-Can, Sliding Scale and/or no one turned away for lack of ability to pay. In cabaret spaces emerging and established artists split the door, share a stage, share an audience.
FemTechNet employs similar ethico-methodo-techno-logies; in particular, like cabaret, people join and contribute to FemTechNet across professional status. This is a place where folks with hugely divergent institutional positions work together for each other. But being structured by openness, means that we also have to be accountable for the materially different realities in which we live and how institutional hierarchies, wage disparities, and tenure-status structure our lives. Rather than bury these realities, we try to stage them openly, to work across a horizontalized power structure in which responsibilities and resources are (re)distributed.
Cabaret, like FemTechNet, privileges variety, pleasure, risk, excess, flopping, challenge, confusion, amateurism, fractalism, translocality, hybrid temporalities, explicit politics, and a wide range of social configurations both on stages and in everyday social-political life. Cabaret as a form/method functions across temporal and regional boundaries as a community-building, -challenging and -sustaining set of activities where artists and activists, as performer-audiences, can come together as a dynamic, labouring, often frustrated, but ultimately transformative scene of political and aesthetic activism and experimentation, as a mode of loving-struggling-creating-living-being-knowing that is both produced by, and produces, pragmatic-optimistic trans- feminist and queer lives. As a performance/audience practice, cabaret reflects what we might understand as an ethics of recognizing that this thing we scare quote as “community” is always both fractured and durational and that as individuals we are all multiple, responsible to and accountable for the multitude. It is an example of what Sandoval called ‘differential consciousness’ – a methodology of the oppressed, bound by that complex kind of love she calls “affinity” (2000: 170). Cabaret is where I have participated in some of my most challenging knowledge exchange experiences on class and classism, race and racism, gender, trans-phobia and feminist trans-misogyny, sex, sexuality, violence, consent, decolonization and empire, cultural and intellectual imperialism, safety and risk and so much more. I see the same potential for FemTechNet.
Like many feminist organizations, FemTechNet is a network that is people-rich and cash-poor. It’s here that I think it is generative to extend my analysis beyond the cabaret and to think about the ways that the realities of adjunct and other contingently employed academic workers are working in and with precarity not only as a condition of existence, but as a method of living. Since so many universities structurally exclude part-time faculty from full participation in the social life of institution-building, program-setting, curriculum design and research culture, world-making projects like FemTechNet need to understand and value the particular skills—technologies, techniques, methods—that are the domain of contingent faculty.
Living in—but not sanctioning—the current state of academic labour, the maldistribution of career and life chances within the academy and the vastly asymmetrical system of access to resources (financial, affective, etc.), contingent faculty are resourceful and we attend to the relations of power that situate us all. As a site in which many of us are working with/towards an adjunct methodology, FemTechNet opens up these relations of power and identifies the ways that they work and how we work within and across them: we work where we can, when we can, and how we can. And through these methods we build with/towards an open infrastructure for our network and for the Distributed Open Collaborative Course, sustained, in large part, by the care we have for each other’s well-being. Like much feminist collaborative labour, it is not work that is particularly understood, recognized or rewarded by our home institutions (if we have them), and it is a form that, in its distribution of expertise and attention, pushes back against the individualist, exemplary modern/colonial subject, of the solitary genius, cultivating instead tactical cultures of collaboration, shared resources, and coalition and affinity politics.
The DOCC as Cabaret Pedagogy
One of the goals we had for the DOCC was to build an open source syllabus and create a course that could be offered in university & college classrooms, in off-campus community-based learning environments and that anyone with an internet connection could access for free. In the summer of 2014, I put on my cabaret-producer hat and wrangled about 15 DOCC faculty to help produce this syllabus, and to offer a course we called “Collaborations in Feminism & Technology.” I did this by saying what I’ve said to hundreds of cabaret performers over the years: “You won’t make any money and it’s possible no one will show up, but it’s going to be totally cool and look at all the other people who already said yes!” So the 10-week open access syllabus supported by our Online Open Office Hours (OOOH) came into existence, and, yes, we didn’t make any money, and yes, sometimes no one showed up, but it was totally cool.
The OOOH schedule for Collaborations in Feminism and Technology reflects FemTechNet’s foundational collective belief that anyone can contribute, regardless of their status within the university. Some senior faculty contribute by directing resources to the collective, mostly to subsidize travel and to compensate the work of underemployed university and community-based faculty; mentoring junior faculty, and lending their experience to the sustaining work of collective processes; faculty across rank design and develop new collaborative key learning projects; and many junior faculty and graduate students contribute through the labour of chairing our committees and working groups, taking and circulating notes, providing tech support, video editing and production, writing web content, hosting OOOHs, and building the distributed research-teaching infrastructure and philosophies of the collective. Undergraduate students contribute by participating in the experiment of the DOCC, completing the key learning projects, developing Keyword Videos, even writing grants and producing the labour-intensive Video Dialogues.
I return to my opening questions: How does the concept and practice of openness structure FemTechNet? And what does the open mean in our Distributed Open Collaborative Course (DOCC)?
I’ll suggest that openness is a political, ethical and affective structure that is at once method, technique, challenge and critique. FemTechNet and the DOCC are research and creation sites in which we seek out participation and contribution from feminist artists, activists and scholars—with the recognition that simply calling a network ‘open’ does not an open network make. “Open” is not a performative utterance; it is a call to action.
[i] Here I’m looking especially to Chela Sandoval’s (2000) Methodology of the Oppressed and her “differential consciousness” as an early theorization of what I identify here as cabaret, adjunct ethico-methodology. With thanks.
Unlike the MOOC, the point of the DOCC has never been to reach masses, but rather to build collaborations across and between institutions and organizations and to build a network of feminists who are committed to inclusive, democratic learning. MOOC Instructors are at a single institution where their expertise is “branded” and centralized in terms of structure, access, and participation. Unlike the DOCC, the MOOC is scripted with fewer opportunities to make changes, shift learning directions, or engage the world outside an online experience. The learning formula of MOOC reflects the corporatization of post secondary education, which has made it increasingly difficult for educators to advocate for accessible education and for more democratic learning environments. The one-teacher model of the MOOC acts as if there is only a single purveyor of knowledge who can’t be interrupted or questioned because MOOC learners are receivers and not active participants in their own learning. However, connective learning experiences happen when Other perspectives, geographies, corporealities and subjectivities become key components in challenging static narratives. To this end, the DOCC disrupts origins by disseminating pedagogical resources that come from everywhere and must therefore go everywhere.
In contrast to this, I’ve come to observe the MOOC as a peculiar commitment to Oedipal structures whereby everything leads back to a profit driven institution that is centralized, hierarchal, and origin based. Like an oedipal structure, the MOOC’s purpose is to keep knowledge in the normative-institutional family.
The DOCC on the other hand, interrogates what Jack Halberstam sees as “Oedipal models of generationality” that faithfully disseminate knowledge between the symbolic and essentialist bond of “mother-daughter”(Halberstam, J. 2011:124). Oedipal models don’t rupture the stasis of essentialist claims, for example, nor do they undo the hierarchy of teacher-student relationships because contrary to movement, Oedipal models rely on fixed and predictable points of exchange.
Celebratory completion of DOCC course at OCADU, Toronto Ontario. April, 2015 (with permission).
The break from “Oedipal models of generationality” can be observed as “counterintuitive feminism” which Halberstam argues derives from a “queer, postcolonial, and black feminism that thinks in terms of negation of the subject rather than her formation, the disruption of lineage rather than its continuation, the undoing of self rather than its activation” (ibid). Halberstam points to a classic example of “counterintuitive feminism” in Yoko Ono’s 1965 performance, “Cut Piece”. Here, Yoko Ono invites her mainly male audience to cut a piece of her clothing with a pair of scissors and she doesn’t influence what they cut or how much they cut. In Halberstam’s words, “Ono stages her own vulnerability…” (p.138). Thinking alongside a “counterintuitive feminism,” a distributed pedagogy creates paths of communication by fostering cross-class interactions despite the sometimes tenuous milieus of online misogyny. The value is no longer located in promoting the expertise of one institution and one instructor, instead, value derives from varied sites of collaboration and tension which contribute to feminist discourses about what patriarchy means and does in specified cultural contexts.
Halberstam credits some of this necessary disruption to postcolonial critiques, which demand a decolonization of precarity, feminism, oppression and justice. Specifically, Halberstam thinks with Gayatri Spivak’s well known essay, “Can the Subalteran Speak ?” (1988) which critically observes a Western feminist logic that has been (and continues to be) committed to colonial formulations of “saving” Other women. In this instance, oppression is universally knowable and identifiable through a supposedly clear set of desired (liberal) rights. These efforts to “save women” from their own oppression is so absolute that not seeing oppression as defined by some feminists presumably contributes to (self) oppression. Thus, other feminist logics are invalidated in their claim and/or disclaims for autonomy, desire, freedom and (non)subjectivity.
“Distributed” in this context and in the DOCC renders the nuances of embodied experiences, making it difficult to claim an overarching and singular feminist project or source of oppression. This is particularly evident in the production of keyword videos and dialogues that are not bound by a central organizing unit; instead, any FemTechNet participant can share and contribute to the cacophony of voices. This may be organized in terms of a cross-class assignment where students are asked to respond or comment. It may also exist in the network itself, where material can be accessed and discussions initiated and generated in numerous locations.
Another influential “distributed path” for me in the DOCC is Donna Haraway’s classic 1985 essay, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” which highlights the importance of being unfaithful to origins, specifically those associated with goddess feminism. Haraway’s cyborgs of the late 80s were the “illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism” (1990:193). Today’s cyborgs are also illegitimate offspring of Western feminism and true to Haraway’s conceptualizations, cyborgs must navigate in the in-between spaces of an informatics of domination. No longer faithful to either the mother or the father, both are inessential to constructing new concepts. No longer tied to a specific disciplinary order, feminist pedagogies in the DOCC activate tools for staying alive where what matters is the right to do rather than the right to consumption.
In Gilles Deleuze’ essay, “What Children Say” (1997) the idea of movement and creation is further elaborated upon in the concept of a milieu. Deleuze sees milieus everywhere as sources of engagement. He argues that: “Parents are a milieu that children travel through: they pass through its qualities and powers and make a map of them” (ibid:1). But children are not limited to the milieus of their parents.
Likewise, participants in the DOCC are not limited to the milieus of instructors and it is the ongoing contributions and participation that effectively multiply feminist networks. Teaching the DOCC (for me) includes asking, what are the maps we create in conceptualizing the world as we’d like to imagine it, and at the same time, move in it ? How might this include queer non-conforming genders who are always becoming in new and (im)possible milieus?
A brief but relevant example as to how I observed this in the most recent DOCC at OCAD University in Toronto, was in a cross-class assignment with Dr. Karen Keifer Boyd at Penn State University and her DOCC class. As a general introduction between classes, Dr. Keifer Boyd and I arranged for students to meet online through a selected course reading. We did this as an exercise of embodied theorizing, which entailed communicating a selected moment/event in a student’s life in conjunction with the theoretical threads of the assigned reading. It was a way to divert students from presenting classic “shopping list” introductions that tend to fall in line with a narrative of identity politics. True to a DOCC (anti) structure we were not limited by a specified style of presentation—we didn’t have to use the same reading, nor did we have to use the same format for both classes. What mattered was the online space that we created for the exchange of ideas between institutions and disciplines. At OCADU students uploaded their introductions on Sound Cloud (as sound performances), Dr. Boyd’s class presented their introductions as “identity maps” (in drawing and text) online.
These mediums of text and technology facilitated student’s exchange and also actively engaged with Erin Manning’s politics of touch and Allison Weir’s ideas of global solidarity and transformation. Students then had the opportunity to respond and comment on each other’s introductions. With permission, I include DOCC participant Theresa Slater’s sound cloud introduction here . For students in my class, the recording of their voice without the visual was an experiment that resulted in powerful narratives that connected aspects of their lives with the practice of “reaching towards” difference. We initiated the course by designing relation-scapes with another DOCC class, not in order to relay summaries of what was read, but rather, as an exercise of mediating the potential impacts of an “introduction” of self as fluid and becoming. This kind of “Distributed” is unfaithful to institutional origins as much as it is unfaithful to conceptualizations of essentialist identities. These are different flows of desire that have not been reduced to Oedipal codes (Deleuze, 2004) whereby reading an assigned text requires learning an inscribed interpretation generated by an expert. Instead, resonance was given value in reflecting on why and how students might communicate both in our specific courses as well as with each other.
It is important to acknowledge the struggles that may come with movement and with the idea of distributed in institutions that don’t operate this way. It is relevant therefore to incorporate and track how these struggles impact different realms of our lives. The internal logic of an institution, for example, will not move at the same pace as those in distributed networks. Meanwhile FemTechNet keeps moving and continues to meet but not for the purpose of settling (down) or keeping things as they are. Distributed knowledges in the DOCC motivate the creation of new concepts for living, loving and resisting.
While in New York for the CUNY conference, I visited the MOMA PS1 gallery. On display was an exhibition by multimedia artist Simon Denny — “The Innovator’s Dilemma” — for which he had détourned the language and imagery of tech corporations and the New Media economy. On a posterboard within one installation, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is quoted thusly: “A lot of the new rules are being written by people who don’t even know they’re writing them…Everyone now has the power of voice.”
Without really even deconstructing the blatant contradiction of her imagined society of networked individuals who are intellectually divorced from their own generative powers as “prosumers” — while ostensibly still being “empowered” by the highly regulated social media network that she oversees — i offer her comments here as representations of dominant conceptions of networks, labor, and the erosion of boundaries between social and political work online. Put differently: tasks that were once functions of the communicative or social become layered with additional meanings for the market; subsequently, the primary ways in which networks become conceptualized are similarly dictated by market values.
An objective of FemTechNet has been to recuperate online methods of communication, to connect self-directed-learners and course facilitators in the development of educational praxes based on feminist principles — to actually negotiate a network around the politics of a multitude, as opposed to authoritatively administering a “voice” from a homogenized platform.
As cyber-feminists, we take an interest in how a given network’s topology and architecture shape discourse, and how questions of access are addressed by a decentralized, digital pedagogy. What might be useful, inclusive tactics for broadening and diversifying our network? How do we conceptualize it, and its potential for advancing a more radical, non-hetero/patriarchal pedagogy — despite these systems having been designed and maintained from inside dominant paradigms? These question have been useful in navigating the expansion of FTN and the DOCC into a more international project, while remaining sensitive to neoliberal connotations of “globalization.”
Possibly the most basic and reasonable explanation of a network is: a model of communications between myriad nodes, which may or may not feature an informational center. Theorist Kevin Kelly defined the network as “the least structured organization that can be said to have any structure at all,” and also is “one of the few structures that incorporates the dimension of time.” He writes, “we should expect to see networks wherever we see constant, irregular change, and we do.”¹ A grand mesh, the network exists as a form that supports and enables variations and mutations–an ‘abstract machine’ that transcends the model as such, and comes to constitute the real territory on which complex behaviors are enacted.
Yet, “sociability-as-proprietary-ethic” has somewhat dislodged the revolutionary capacity for this model. As we know, “social media” and its constitutive networks are used as metonymic shorthand for the processes of Self-production/curation within the digital commons. The logics of consumer-capitalism inhere in this space — users are anchored on a plane of selective autobiography, surrounded by ad copy algorithmically generated by and for themselves, as micro-economic entities. Moreover, current efforts on the part of NGOs and tech firms to expand and strengthen ICT infrastructure within the Global South — for example, Facebook’s deployment of an app through which users in these regions may access the internet² — exemplify a drive towards globalization and the privatization of this utility and its functions, which is abetted by a hegemonic and classist theory of the network.
It follows, then, that the language of “networks” is currently in vogue within mainstream academia and the realm of advertising, because it displaces and disperses informational accountability from a structural perspective (i.e. virality without an immediately identifiable origin), while it paradoxically heightens the individuated and nodal quality of information dissemination, thereby complementing neoliberal frameworks of interpersonal relations. It is an intractable problem that — regardless of the political affiliation of a given actor-network — feminists are subject to the corporate ethos endemic to the interface, the hardware; to the capitalist infrastructure that a priori determines the valence of oral and graphical communication. I cite the aforementioned lack of an informational center as being crucial to the installment of sociocultural and aesthetic regimes, wherein images and texts appear immersive and total: the participant becomes decentered, as the mode of transfer is the thing on display, as opposed to the content itself. The spectacular politics of many contemporary network practices preclude subversion or innovation, as they rely on ICT fetishism rather than user-empowerment.
However, such technologies have the potential to undergo vital transformations — and thusly, transform their operants — via a systems theory inoculated by egalitarian, feminist ideology. New ICTs have allowed transnational feminist networks (of which FTN could be considered apart) to retain robustly adaptive features while also ensuring efficiency in our operations, without the necessity of formal or bureaucratic organization. These distributed and horizontal pathways suggest a form that may be more conductive to our organization’s goals of “inclusive, participatory, decentralized, and nonhierarchical structures and processes.”³
From a historical perspective, the conservative bias of early sociologists practicing systems-thinking necessarily meant that this bias became entrenched in systems theory, and set the pattern for how it is currently utilized in the humanities. Systems-theorist Barbara Hanson posits that, given this view, it is “not surprising” that feminists in the social sciences would not immediately identify routes for mobilization within this field. Hanson continues:
Feminist analysis with its strong component of praxis, political action, and change would seem antithetic to status quo ideology. However, systems theory can be usefully considered by feminist scholars in its broader range. This means looking at work done on social work and pan-disciplinary theory, chaos theory, and peace and conflict studies. Within this broader view of systems theory it is possible to see an epistemological alternative to traditional theory that is based on mechanism, linear cause or ideological assumptions in use of relational units, cybernetic causality and a non-assumption approach.4
This syncretic methodology greatly informs my work as a facilitator of the DOCC (Distributed, Open, Collaborative Course) “Dialectics of Feminism and Technology,” initiated in summer of last year. The class itself serves as an example of Hanson’s “epistemological alternatives,” in that the open and collaborative nature of the course and its larger support network of FemTechNet was nested in yet another networked alternative to top-down, bureaucratic educational structures: the Bay Area Public School.
The Public School is an expressly anti-capitalist project that began in 2007 in Los Angeles, and expanded to New York, the Bay Area, Berlin, and beyond. Essentially a ‘free school’ — one with no agenda, curricula, or Regents — TPS’s main goal is to collectivize people around shared resources and intellectual experimentalism. Anyone can propose a course and facilitate classes, and each course’s structure is determined on an individuated basis. Freed from the constraints of awarding credentials or meeting Statist criteria, TPS is able to expand definitions of ‘higher learning,’ and this model results in a liberation of academic space. Because it is run as an extra-institutional node, i feel the siting of this DOCC reflects the diversity of pedagogical strategies deployed by our larger organization. We are all composed of interacting layers enmeshed between physical and digital space; while our topographies are generally isomorphic, each can be considered dynamic, as well.
In closing, I concur with Rodrigo Nunes when he writes: “Network-systems…allow us to look beyond explicitly or self-identified political expressions, as well as any suggestions of shared goals, practices etc., and to picture a broader moving of social relations. It is, so to speak, a movement as it exists in-itself, its capacity to produce effects existing independently from its being consciously registered by all who belong to it.”5
1. Kelly, Kevin. Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, & the Economic World. New York: Perseus Books Group, 1995.
2. Murphy, Helen; Acosta, Luis Jaime. “Facebook’s Zuckerberg brings free Internet to Colombia, mute on China.” Reuters. 15 Jan 2015.
3. Moghadam, Valentine M. Globalizing Women: Transnational Feminist Networks. Baltimore:John Hopkins University Press, 2005.
4. Hanson, B. (2001), Systems theory and the spirit of feminism: grounds for a connection. Systems Research, 18: 545–556. doi: 10.1002/sres.412
5. Nunes, Rodrigo. Organisation of the Organisationless: Collective Action After Networks. Post-Media Lab/Mute Books, 2014.
We met as Instructional Technology Fellows (ITFs) at Macaulay Honors College of CUNY (MHC). The ITF program matches CUNY doctoral candidates who have expertise in instructional technology with faculty teaching the core Macaulay seminars. The goal of the program is to embed pedagogically appropriate digital work in Macaulay’s courses in order to foster digital literacies amongst our students; the ITFs help facilitate this work. With a cohort of fellows contributing to the collective hivemind of technological and pedagogical innovation, the result is a community of practitioners that the ITFs themselves create and sustain beyond the program.
Lisa moved into a postdoctoral position at MHC around the same time the first FTN DOCC was starting to gather momentum, and was able to put the course through our curriculum committee, without even thinking of having an ITF to work with herself. Finding out that she would be paired with Emily–a trusted colleague and friend–meant she knew the class could take on an ambitious project in a nurturing environment.
As ITFs, we were both accustomed to working with varied needs and priorities in interdisciplinary classrooms and contexts. As such, we were able to sidestep the initial negotiations that are part of forging relationships between instructor and ITF, and approach the class as a united team. We were prepared. We were structured. We were bold. In class, our students matched us.
So it was much to our surprise when class forums and blogs failed to ignite. Posts were made–but in a perfunctory “I did my work” way. We had a great class, but we had tech failure. How could it have happened to us, two people with lots of experience in applied instructional technology?
When we turned to our class project–a digital companion to Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood–Emily researched and suggested a new tool, Mural.ly, a virtual whiteboard space, for planning the project. (One caveat: though it was successful for our class, the pricing structure has now changed, as so often happens. We are searching for an alternative, and hope an open-source platform with similar functionality will emerge.)
The white board format is different in that it removes much of the hierarchical structure found in blog posts/comments or forums. The mural allows students to add shapes, text, draw lines, overlap ideas, and add post-it notes. It also has a standard commenting feature, but one that can be attached to any element on the mural. In this way, even the comment threads are spatially located within a broader discourse or subject. Within 24 hours of setting up the mural, students were posting and responding to each other in an open, engaged, and frequent fashion that we had tried–and failed–to foster all semester. The video below shows a rough estimate of the development of the mural in a matter of weeks. The experiment was so successful that we abandoned the class forum and started another mural for class readings and general discussion. It, too, proved productive and prolific, and students continued to use it beyond the end of the semester.
This is just one example of the need for experimentation when it comes to online spaces. When we think about how and why online learning should inform our pedagogical practices, we think it is useful to consider the importance of pedagogical and student-centered disruption in the educational process. This type of disruption is the willingness to experiment, fail, and try again. Standard teaching methods, like lectures, do not always allow for this. It wasn’t that our students weren’t willing to engage each other outside of face-to-face class, it was that we hadn’t yet found the space where they felt comfortable doing so. Whiteboards might not work for other classes, but it is worth considering that sometimes our students need online spaces that match the messiness of classroom interaction where a call and response–that matches the forum or blog/comment structure–may not be the most effective way for them to draw connections, engage with each other, and learn.
I became involved in FemTechNet in 2013, about a year after Anne Balsamo and Alex Juhasz dreamed and schemed this project up, interested less by the focus on technology studies than by the ways that it galvanized and promised something like a feminist academic, artist, activist collective at a time when we (by which I probably mean me) most need it. I think of FemTechNet as loosely bound not by an area or object of study, but by experiments in pedagogical “technologies” – understood as styles, structures and redistributive priorities – that function as “queer survival economies” within our increasingly predatory and deadening academic industrial contexts (“queer survival economies” is of course the title of a research initiative propelled by Amber Hollibaugh and emerging from the dearly departed organization, Queers for Economic Justice).
FemTechNet used the sudden surge of enthusiasm and publicity for MOOCs, in the United States, as a kind of hook to design and launch a feminist alternative in the form of the DOCC. The most compelling thing to me about MOOCs is the promise of “free” and accessible education. This promise is particularly striking for feminist scholars who have been advocating for and innovating accessible education for decades – we can think back to Jane Addams’ work, in the early part of the twentieth century, to provide free university-level education for working poor and immigrant populations in Chicago (Addams 1985; Oakes 2000; Hamington 2010); or to the Cambridge Women’s School which taught hundreds of free feminist courses to thousands of students in Boston from 1971-1992 (Burgin 2011); to feminist ‘bridging programs’ throughout the US and Canada, offering courses and university resources to encourage low-income (primarily women) students to start and continue their higher education (Conway 2001; O’Reilly 2009; Biemiller 2011); as well as the ongoing practices of transformative feminist pedagogies which have developed as critical correctives to the economic, social, political and physical inaccessibilities which continue to haunt higher education in the US (Hull, Bell Scott and Smith 1982; hooks 1994; hooks 2003; Ferguson 2012). Indeed, the promise of free and accessible education appeals to no one more than feminist educators and scholars, who have been working towards precisely these goals for over a century.
However, feminist scholarship has also taught us that technological innovations alone do not make structural changes – just as new cleaning technologies have not reduced the average amount of (vastly unequal) time that women spend on unpaid domestic labor (Vanek 1974; Bittman, Mahmud Rice, Wajcman 2004); the ‘freedom’ of cyberspace is not free of racism or sexism (Nakamura 2007); the portable computers, smartphones and tablets that liberate us from the office do not free us (particularly women) from unremunerated overtime work (Gregg 2011); the celebration of MOOCs obscures the high costs and limited access that they in fact deliver. It seems that the resources going to the development, maintenance and teaching of massive online courses could be better used to increase support for the faculty and graduate students (ie. teaching assistants) working with smaller groups of students, and the development of existing feminist instructional infrastructures.
The promise of low- or no-cost MOOCs also dovetails quite nicely with the increasing institutional reliance on low- or no-cost academic labor (in our era of unprecedented increases in tuition costs. Given that seventy-six percent of university and college courses are taught by underpaid and insecurely employed contingent (adjunct) and non-tenure-track faculty who earn an average of $2,700 per course, we can see that our universities and colleges are already dependent for a vast majority of their instructional services on free labor. This faculty majority join their tenure-track and tenured colleagues in what Melissa Gregg calls a culture of “‘sacrificial labor’ [which] is clearly ingrained in an industry where the notion of ‘service’ neatly obscures the amount of unpaid work inherent to major activities like journal publishing” or course development (Gregg 2010: 189). Indeed, research on academic labor conditions shows that with dramatically less institutional and monetary support for faculty, this is an industry that demands and obscures dramatically more work from all faculty, contingent or not – though it remunerates its male workers at a much higher rate than its female workers (tenure-track or tenured men make an average of $18,000 more than equally positioned women and non-tenure-track men make an average of $2,650 more, despite there being many more women working in these positions.) Moreover, with the presumed ubiquity of smartphones and personal laptops, all faculty are subject to the pressure of what Gregg calls “professional presence bleed” – the expectation that faculty will be digitally available for work at every hour every day, responding to emails, updating shared online documents, posting on academic blogs, joining video meetings, etc. – but when the domestic and under-paid division of labour by gender and race remains as Bittman, Mahmud Rice and Wajcman put it, “remarkably resistant to technological innovation” this pressure can be particularly hazardous for faculty who are women and/or people of color (Gregg 2011).
FemTechNet promises a kind of insurgent collectivity and distributive technology of care that engages what TL Cowan and I have written about as the ‘shadow archive’ of anti-racist feminist and queer social movements which have made possible our ambivalent, highly fraught, painfully compromised and usually exploited positions within or relationships to the contemporary university. Thinking along with Roderick Ferguson’s book, The Reorder of Things, one of the acute ironies of contemporary feminist academic work is that we are operating in a moment when the US university has already said, and continues to say, ‘yes! but of course!’ to the demands, made by anti-racist and feminist movements from the 1950s through 80s, that universities become institutions which meet the needs and interests and reflect the knowledges of minoritized populations — working classes, people of color, immigrants, women, gays and lesbians. This institutionalized ‘yes’ is precisely the productive operation of power that Michel Foucault began to chronicle for us in the 1970s and which our feminist academic collectives negotiate today. FemTechNet operates in a climate where so many of the demands and struggles for redistributive gender, racial, ethnic, sexual and economic justice have been incorporated, archived and affirmed as rights (and sometimes departments, disciplines and degrees) and administered by universities which don’t resist but claim to share our dreams. These insurgent movements and histories have not been denied or negated but their potentialities archived, appropriated and disciplined. Feminist collectives in the contemporary university might, thus, be understood as doing archival work, tending to the shadow of the institutionalized archive, to the dark radical politics that the archive seeks but cannot contain.
FemTechNet might be considered a repository of the intellectual, political and affective traces of the university’s fraught recognition. Such a collective is the embodiment of unlicensed hope, an affective survival economy and a network of shared purpose, driven by a refusal to be consumed by the lived experiences of these ironies of power in which we receive tacit intellectual support for this work– “yes, teach a course on feminist pedagogies, queer politics, crip theory, or critical race studies”–and explicit employment negligence–“no, as a part-time faculty member you will not be allowed to make enough money to live, have a predictable income, nor have access to a research stipend, nor to a regular office” and so on. These collectives, these shadow archives and repertoires, are the residues, excesses, of affect, analysis and action, left unresolved in the face of the university’s ironic institutionalization of these knowledges and movements–incorporating their scholarly practices as an inoculation against their politics.
Addams, J. (1977). On Education. Edited by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.
American Association of University Professors. (2012-2013). Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession. Washington, DC.
Balsamo, A. & Juhasz, J. (2012). “An Idea Whose Time is Here: FemTechNet – a Distributed Online Collaborative Course.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media & Technology. 1. http://adanewmedia.org/2012/11/issue1-juhasz/
Behrmann, Boyer, Cole, Cowan, Gajjala, Losh, Rault & Wexler. (2015). “Transforming Higher Education with Distributed Open Collaborative Courses (DOCCs): Feminist Pedagogies and Networked Learning.” In MOOCs and Open Education Around the World Curtis J. Bonk, Mimi Miyoung Lee, Thomas C. Reeves, eds. New York: Routledge Press.
Bittman, M., Mahmud Rice, J., & Wajcman, J. (2004). “Appliances and their impact: The ownership of domestic technology and time spent on household work.” The British Journal of Sociology, 55(3), 401-423.
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University Committee on Planning and Budget Systemwide Academic Senate (2010). The Choices Report. Oakland, CA: University of California.
Vanek, J. (1977b) “Uncertainty and the investment decision under labor-management and their social efficiency implications.” In The Labor Managed Economy: Essays by Jaroslav Vanek. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
 Sections of this talk are published in the essay “Transforming Higher Education with Distributed Open Collaborative Courses (DOCCs): Feminist Pedagogies and Networked Learning,” co-authored with Radhika Gajjala, Liz Losh, Laura Wexler and T.L. Cowan, in MOOCs and Open Education Around the World Curtis J. Bonk, Mimi Miyoung Lee, Thomas C. Reeves, eds. New York: Routledge Press, 2015
 Over the past decade tuition at private and state colleges and universities in the US has increased at a higher rate than at any time in recorded history, with the average four-year public university tuition increasing 27% since 2008, but in places like California and Arizona it has increased 70% (U.S. Department of Education, Ed.gov, June 27, 2013; Kellie Rowe, USAToday.com, June 24, 2013; Christine Armario, USAToday.com, June 13, 2012).
 AAUP “Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession” 2012-2013; Curtis and Thornton Academe, March-April 2013; Tamar Lewin New York Times, April 8, 2013.