FTN Roadshow Blog Series* – Improvisation

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).

Marshall McLuhan once intoned that “the amateur can afford to lose.” Yes, and we say: “Irony, comedy, making a mess, and gravitas are feminist technologies” (FemTechNet Manifesto).

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.

femfair1Celebrating “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










Players: Unlimited

To play, you will need:

A trash can

Markers, paper, playdough and other repurposing supplies

A timer

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.

References Cited:

FemTechNet. “Manifesto.”, 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:

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.


*FemTechNet Roadshow Blog Series – 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 deadline for our 2015 FTN Summer Workshop. For more information on this series, contact T.L. Cowan


FTN Roadshow Blog Series* – Collaborative

by K.J. Surkan

Status update: in transit.

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.

In Fall 2014, FemTechNet launched the Situated Knowledges Map.


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.” 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. Accessed May 27, 2015.
[vi] Keifer-Boyd, Karen, and Deborah Smith-Shank. “Feminist Mapping.” Visual Culture and Gender. 7 (2012): 3. 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).