Recently, I was invited to participate in the closing plenary about digital pedagogy for the International Communications Association in San Diego. Many, many thanks to Paula Gardner, President Elect of ICA and former fellow FemTechNet Co-Facilitator, for the invitation to speak, and for curating such a welcoming, inclusive, and feminist conference. It was reflected in the plenary speakers, in the self-care opportunities, child care, and gender neutral bathrooms. Despite some mishaps, I’m so proud to have participated alongside Dr. Maha Bali (American University of Cairo), who joined us virtually Cairo, Dr. Leah Komen (Daystar University in Kenya), Dr. Andrew Opel (Florida State University), and the #ICAPlay team: Dr. Jamie Banks (West Virginia University), and Dr. Allison Eden (Michigan State University). Dr. Anne Balsamo was also scheduled to participate, but unfortunately could not join us.
Additionally, before our plenary, I also hosted a Virtually Connecting session with Dr. Komen and opening plenary speaker Dr. micha cárdenas (UW Bothell). Sadly, Skawennati (Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace) was ill and unable to join us. That hangout with virtual participants was recorded and can be viewed at the link above.
My remarks from the plenary are shared below. I would be remiss if I did not also thank FemTechNet and the SCR+M group for their continued support and love.
Let me start off first with a bit of context, since I come from a slightly different institutional position than most of the people gathered here for this plenary. As Paula mentioned, I am the Digital Scholar and coordinator of the Digital Liberal Arts Collaboratory, located in the library, at Whittier College. Supporting digital pedagogy and research is quite literally my job at Whittier College. Though I teach my own courses as the Digital Scholar, I am not a faculty member. I am what has been referred to as an alt-ac staff member, an alternative academic. I am part of a recent wave of PhDs who have learned to be flexible and versatile in this new economy of scarcity in the academy. We occupy positions that “digital humanists,” or more accurately humanities PhDs with digital training, have been particularly well suited to take on. We work in libraries, we run labs, centers, and collectives. Whether mandated by our job descriptions or not, our work is to build the bridges and resources that make digital pedagogy successful. We are, in many ways conduits, connecting faculty to tools, methods, collaborators, and communities.
Now, a note about my institution: Whittier College is a small, formerly Quaker, residential liberal arts college located in Southeast Los Angeles County. We are a designated MSI, or minority serving institution, qualifying for both HSI and AANIPISI designations, Hispanic Serving Institution and Asian American Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution. Roughly 60% of our students identify as students of color, and over 85% of our students receive financial aid. In many ways our campus is rich in diversity, perspectives, student experiences, and faculty expertise, but in many other ways our campus is resource poor. When I say “resource poor”, I say this with love and admiration for what my colleagues are able to accomplish within their constraints, but I refer specifically to outdated network infrastructure, aging physical infrastructure, several years of budget deficits, rather sad dorms, and very limited staffing. Our campus is working on improving this issues, but as we know this takes time and money.
At the same time that we struggle with resources, we have been fortunate enough to receive grants from the Mellon Foundation to help spearhead efforts in digital pedagogy and research on our campus, much of that work done my two staff members (myself included) and a faculty PI. This has also meant that faculty are encouraged to teach using digital methods (something to add to your teaching portfolio for tenure review), and to teach online summer courses to help bring in revenue for the college. The problem? Despite the grants, despite the encouragement, the mandate from senior administration does not align with the resources available on campus. The offered infrastructure does not have the capacity to facilitate desired institutional outcomes.
That leads me to my major talking point today: we must recognize that digital pedagogy is labor. It is labor that in and of itself is resource intensive; it requires labor, time, training, expertise, and material technologies. Because of this, it is important to recognize that digital pedagogy is difficult to undertake alone. It demands that we, as teachers and scholars, reevaluate our models of teaching and prepping. The affordances of networked technologies means that we can practice teaching as collaborative work, as community work, whether that is teaching situated within our local communities and attuned to the politics and particularities of our neighboring spaces, or the larger communities of teachers that we build amongst ourselves. After all, we may not all have access to broadband Internet, our students may not all be able to afford or even check out laptops to take on digital projects, and we may find that as junior scholars we are expected to be leading the faculty in digital pedagogy, even mentoring our senior colleagues about tools and methods, BUT we can learn how to work around these obstacles by drawing on collective knowledge. I’ll explain what I mean by that.
I want to now talk about my work with a specific project of FemTechNet, a network of feminist teachers, artists and activists. I’ll leave the broader discussion of FemTechNet and the Distributed Open Collaborative Course (DOCC) to Anne Balsamo, and will focus on the work of the Situated Critical Race and Media Committee (also affectionately known as SCRAM or SCR+M), and our Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Pedagogy Workbook, as an example of tactical networked pedagogy, a model of collective work that can be used to alleviate these issues of disparity between institutional, or market-driven expectations and technological and human infrastructure. It’s a toolkit for survival in the current academy, especially for teachers who identify as women, people of color, queer and gender non-normative. It is only one of many projects made by and within FemTechNet, other powerful resources include the Center for Solutions to Online Violence, publications, and key learning projects. The Workbook is built on the open source Scalar digital publishing platform, hosted by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture at the University of Southern California, the Workbook is an open access project that curates and highlights the existing transnational and multi-ethnic projects being done in FemTechNet courses: crowd sourced syllabi, assignments, activities, videos, reading lists, and other materials to help instructors. This is a collaborative, living document that grows when we have time to devote to it, and stalls when we don’t, but it expands as more instructors teaching at the intersections of gender, race, and technology share their materials.
As a committee of primarily junior women of color scholars we keenly feel the pressures of women of color in academia. We understand that for junior scholars the labor of developing one’s pedagogy is extensive, because it involves so much more than just prepping and teaching. So much of this work is affective and unquantifiable. For these teacher-scholars, experimentation in the classroom can be a risk. Even though our institutions encourage and exhort us to practice digital pedagogy, to teach online, to design blended learning environments, and to otherwise be innovative teachers, it is not necessarily safe for us to do so, and this is especially the case when an ever growing percentage of our profession is contingent and precarious. Our Workbook is an attempt to mitigate that risk by leveraging the collective intelligence and experience of the FemTechNet network to produce resources for feminist engaged digital pedagogy and for building human systems of support. Acknowledging the challenges of teaching these sensitive and contentious topics of race and gender in a time of political contention, economic retrenchment, and increasing institutional precarity for departments of ethnic, gender, and humanisitic studies, this workbook is an ongoing project to build resources for faculty members who are often overburdened at their home institutions, but are willing to take on the difficult task of teaching about gender and racial inequity as they relate to information culture.
Though I am often skeptical of the techno-utopianism of much of the rhetoric surrounding EdTech, the work of networks and groups like FemTechNet, which often hacks free and open sourced networked tools for community building, resource sharing, teaching, and face-to-face connection, has provided a safe haven for folks like myself, who may find ourselves the lonely only on our campus. Contributing to FemTechNet, has been incredibly valuable, even life-sustaining, but we know from experience that this work also has a cost. That cost, of time, stress, can be balanced by the love of the network and its members, and a commitment to facilitating networked pedagogy, which we believe can be used to link geographically and ideologically disparate classes and institutions to allow for fruitful intellectual exchange and public scholarship. We understand, that because of its resource intensive nature, digital pedagogy is best developed in a networked manner… where we can learn from, test, iterate, and revise the work of others, and where others can do the same with our work. It also has the potential to make the work of teaching more sustainable, because the work is hard, it is taxing, and distributing that work across a network can help us to manage it. We’re still working on this part. Very few of us know everything and can teach everything we are called on to teach, and networks like FemTechNet offer us a way to support each other in this work.
FemTechNet may not be the solution for everyone. It is a large, amorphous, and sometimes intimidating network, but alternate communities that serve a similar tactical purpose can be built at the local level anywhere in the form of faculty learning communities and workgroups, collaborations with instructional technologists and librarians, at professional conferences such as this one, or even on Twitter and Facebook. In the end, the work of teaching is hard, let alone incorporating digital tools and methods. If your digital pedagogy is a tool-driven pedagogy, this model won’t work for you. If your pedagogy is guided by learning objectives, critical inquiry, and skepticism then having a robust community of teacher-scholars can not only help you to develop your skills as a teacher, but it can help you to survive the labor expected of you in the academy. That work doesn’t have to be done in isolation, and for your health and safety, it shouldn’t be.