Feminist Digital Research/Pedagogy/Writing as Community-Based Practice

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This blog post serves a second function: it is also my contribution to the Pitzer College publication, The Engaged Faculty Collection, a project spearheaded by my colleague Tessa Hicks Peterson as part of the Celebrate Pitzer at 50 festivities. This collection tracks the College’s forward thinking, active, and ongoing engagement, across its history, to practices and methods known variously as community-based learning, civic engagement, and action research. I am quite proud of my small part in this history, the large part that Pitzer Media Studies has played (with our core commitments to social justice and community-based media education), and the truly inspiring, and often unsung work of my colleagues and college in this regard.

In this short piece, I will frame, and then point/link to five of my most recent research/pedagogy/writing projects within my feminist media studies/practice, one that has always tried to at once understand, inhabit, teach in and about, and work for change within the communities and movements that matter to me. In the recent projects that follow, that “community” has become the Internet, a space both different from and indebted to the many other places with which I have engaged across my career.

1) When I arrived at Pitzer College in 1995, I was embraced as a committed mediamaker/theorist whose work was situated within the AIDS activist and feminist media communities, and the queer (of color) art and activist worlds. My work was, and continues to be about making and theorizing media production as part of social justice movements in which I am a member. When the digital emerged as a powerful place where all media can and often do converge, I moved parts of my practice there, developing a website connected to my Pitzer and sometimes CGU course, Media Praxis (in Ontario), that asked students to think about the 100 year history of activist media practice and theory while making a piece of such media themselves.

(To be clear: to read this article, you need to actually follow the links to things I’ve already made and already written, thus evidencing the new kinds of “Internet, or Multi-Modal writing” (and reading) I’ve been exploring and theorizing as part of my feminist digital practice: shorter, recursive forms, with a different tone that are often for broader audiences and based on the reading logics of the Internet, one of which is our hope for the fast and breezy. To be clear, this contribution is actually really long if you follow and read all the links!)

If you go the Media Praxis site, for example, you will see a great deal of activity, writing, and even more linking by my students, over several semesters. This evening-out of authority, this sharing of voice, has always been part of my media activism, and feminist pedagogy, but is much more easily realized in my “writing” when it occurs on the Internet where norms of “publication” begin to change in line with those of “authoring.”

You can also read more about my move to the digital  here, in an article called “You Get the Picture” for the Frames Cinema Journal #1, a special issue, Film and Moving Image Studies Re-Born Digital?

2) In 2007, I took my Media Praxis to YouTube, and taught a course on and about the site, Learning from YouTube, to much media fanfare. As I explained above, my feminist, community-based practice has always tried to reside in the spaces it hopes to know, change, and better understand, all the while speaking in vernaculars best suited for that place and its community.

I taught the course several more times, and in each iteration, I asked students to think critically about their learning in the lived space of the elite liberal arts classroom as it is pressed into and against the “democratic” spaces of the Internet. How do we learn in these linked spaces? How might we write? What might we demand of corporate space to function more like the learning communities that we inhabit (at great cost)? What do we lose when we “learn” for free in the wilds of the Internet? For the class, my students did all their work as YouTube videos or comments, thereby evidencing the same formal imperative I am demonstrating here: to think and write in the new forms, formats, and platforms that currently shape much of the ever-more linked world of ideas, culture, and commerce in our era.

My students’ brilliant “writing”—like the video above that comments on commenting culture using the vernacular of that very culture—prominently shapes my “video-book” about the course, also called Learning from YouTube (MIT Press, 2011). You can “experience” the video-book to learn more about what my students and I learned about/on YouTube (it’s fun and free! If you are intimidated by its unfamiliar form, take the “tour” called “YouTube Is” by clicking on the left bottom box: it’s a short introduction to the main ideas structuring the project). Or you can read about it here, in an editorial I wrote for Inside Higher Education, “A Truly New Genre.”

And here’s a short interview I did about the class with “design guru” Bill Moggridge, as part of his influential Designing Media Project. There, you’ll find me sandwiched (the nasty cream filling…) between some truly powerful and sometimes great forces within the new media industry. My Pitzer-esque critique of capital and other powerful forces shaping this environment plays a critical role in this very public conversation.

3) While I believe that the critical (and sometime local) community that I produced in the class about YouTube, and our  interventions into corporate media space were successful, the great amount of time I spent inside of this hostile, stupid, and unruly environment led me to want to build my own Internet spaces better aligned with my values as educator, activist, and artist, rather than merely criticizing those that have been handed to us for free. This led to my next large teaching/research/building project, Feminist Online Spaces: a website, course, and set of lecture/performances that asked the question what the Internet might look like if it was more like the lived space of a feminist classroom: safe, principled, activist by definition, open, collaborative, and committed to the co-production of knowledge and community. Built from my writing and research, that of my students over several years, and little feminist objects made by workshop participants from around the world, this site/class asks participants to think about the making and circulating of media fragments as part of/distinct from the larger aims of political communities (online and off). How do we bring the values, norms, methods, and affect of lived and local (feminist) spaces to the Internet and how do we bring the Internet to these spaces?

This line of work led me to three more places:

  • a theoretical and political plea to leave, cede, or link to the Internet (from the lived world) as core to activist media production. I end my piece for The Militant Research Handbook by saying: “Finally, my ‘research’ and teaching on the Internet—in the feminist spaces I build and interact in—have led me to believe that the writing and object-making that happens there, in the name of understanding and enacting feminist expression online, begs us to think past the digital, beyond representation, and back to bodies and lived spaces. This means two things: we need to continue to be critical of the Internet inside of the Internet, and we also need to leave it by linking (or editing or organizing) out to the world and other activists and actions and thereby into realms of behavior, interaction, and feeling that are neither commodifiable nor stuck. Activist digital activities need to create linked projects of secession. It is in the leaving that our feminist digital activism truly begins.”
  • 4) an art show, PerpiTube, about YouTube and community-building, co-curated with Pato Hebert, that lived for a summer in the Pitzer Art Galleries, and in perpetuity on YouTube, and was produced in engagement with several of our local community-based partners, while also connecting these communities to like (virtual) partners around the world.
  • FemTechNet, my most recent, and even more ambitious “x-reality” project (built within the connected fabrics of on and offline community spaces and experiences, the term is Beth Coleman‘s). With co-facilitator, Anne Balsamo, and a network of feminist educators and artists from around the world, we successfully took on the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) with our feminist reevaluation, the DOCC, Distributed Online Collaborative Course. I am proud to admit that I may be one of the few college professors around to have been lambasted twice, for two separate media projects, by Fox News!

5) You can read about FemTechNet’s inception here, or here, or look at its pretty impressive media coverage here. I’ve lately found myself speaking to university administrators, IT leaders, and fellow humanities professors about how digital technology can better on-the-ground learning. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the successful challenge of FemTechNet’s DOCC to the more corporate, top-down, imperialist, unresponsive course offerings modelled by MOOCs is a collective application of many of the feminist principles of pedagogy and community-based learning I’ve been discussing throughout. It’s been invigorating and gratifying to see people who might be unconvinced about “feminism,” become quite impressed by the platforms, structures, methods and outcomes it produces for teaching.

And so, I haven’t come full circle, really. I’ve stayed true to Pitzer, and at home in its communities and values, while entering the Internet to bring Pitzer there and the world (of the Internet) to Pitzer. This is an exciting expansion of community that also stays true to the small and local, that honors and thinks about difference without flattening it, that lives and teaches ethically, that co-creates knowledge while being self-aware of power both in outside the room, all the while staying invested in self- and world-making, and staying true to the community-based practices we’ve developed at the College even as it departs (at times) from lived community to do so.


Filed under: critical pedagogy, feminist, feminist digital space, FemTechNet, praxis, web 2.0, YouTube