How might digital and media scholars and educators engage with the commons, both physically and online? What roles should we assume in such spaces or within such communities?
How many media scholars have been watching what is currently unfolding in the United States and Europe and commented to themselves (and others), “This is what we have been warning people about in our field for decades”?
But have we?
Yes, there have been thousands of articles on the problematic relationship between (to take but one example) the political economy of commercial media and racism, sexism, and politics. We have discussed these issues in classes, seminars, and public lectures. Yet, as is typical for academia, we (and I mean that as a collective “we”) have done a poor job of taking that avalanche of material and converting it into arguments accessible to the broader population.
I realize, of course, that the very word “accessible” is loaded—that we are perhaps venturing into the dreaded “dumbing down” territory, where the seriousness of academic labor and rigor is abandoned in favor of the dirty notion of being “popular.” It is one of the great ironies of the broadly-defined field of Media and Communications Studies that we, on the one hand, are constantly having to defend our turf from accusations of academic frivolity, while on the other refusing to take part in the production of popular content we claim (in our own defense) has social and political power.
I am someone who feels that, when given the chance, it is incumbent upon me to try and reach out to publics outside of my conventional academic sphere. For me, that usually takes the form of opinion pieces written in mainstream newspapers or online publications, as well as appearances and interviews in the media. I am also someone who is willing to engage via social media. These are, of course, personal choices, but the more I speak out publicly on issues that I feel are related to imbalances in power in society, the more I feel the need to continue to do so.
I realize that this is not the case for many of my colleagues around the world starting out in their academic careers, or those working in countries where the very institution of higher education is under attack from those who feel that knowledge and critical thinking are threats to their positions of authority. As an academic in Sweden (although American by birth), however, I happen to work from a position of relative privilege.
So, in concrete terms, I tend to write about issues that are of particular importance to me, and about which I feel I can say something of value. While I don’t always link to academic articles or make reference to scholars, the vast majority of my Opinion pieces are rooted in what I have been reading and writing about since I began my academic career as a Ph.D. student 20 years ago. Just this week, for example, I wrote a piece for The Guardian (in the UK) about the rise of “fake” Muslim attacks such as Kellyanne Conway’s infamous “Bowling Green Massacre.” Then, just 24 hours after the piece was published, Donald Trump spoke of a fictitious terror incident in Sweden. I was contacted by the editors of The Guardian, and asked if I would be willing to write a second piece. I agreed. Am I worried about dilution or over-exposure? That fear disappeared when I realized that these articles were excellent vehicles for public discussion, and that the benefits outweighed the costs.
Blow-back from the public for these pieces is common. That comes with the territory. But, it is worth saying that the negative feedback a white, male scholar receives is only a fraction of what is dished out to women and/or non-white writers, which can be brutal and scary. When I wrote about the need for feminism in politics, or about NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s stand against racism, there were a lot of comments on the websites, but very few people contacted me directly via email or on Twitter. That relative lack of harassment is also privilege that we cannot (and should not) forget.
So, what am I saying here? At a basic level, I am saying that public engagement is important. It is good. I get a lot out of it. I am not saying, however, that it is (or should be) for everyone. I have picked a form (opinion pieces) that I have become comfortable with. I have established a relationship with a few editors, and have learned how to distill my ideas down into 600-1000 words. The pieces are also a nice compliment to academic writing, which has its own particular demands.
It takes some time, and it takes a fair number of rejection emails (or no responses at all), but the effort, for me, is worth it.
Barnett Reuss Singh — Chelsea Barnett, Sophia Reuss and Nishant Singh are a writing collective based in Toronto, Canada 1 Comment view
In a germinal transgender studies manifesto, Sandy Stone launched a critique of the discursive force academe enacts on the transexual body. Stone investigates the ways in which the medical and psychological disciplines barr access to sexual reassignment interventions unless trans individuals adhere to a monolithic “trapped-in-the-wrong-body” narrative. By demanding a unitary understanding of transness, academia coercively enforces a reductive identity structure that reifies the gender binary in exchange for a medically sanctioned trans legibility. Published in 1998, Stone’s text emerged at a moment when a strong identity politic was becoming increasingly required for reputable scholarship. Yet, this framework’s legitimizing impact on trans acknowledgement was accompanied by the categorization of trans identity as fixed and containable. Stone argues:
"Bodies are screens on which we see projected the momentary settlements that emerge from ongoing struggles over beliefs and practices within the academic and medical communities. These struggles play themselves out in arenas far removed from the body… each of these accounts is culture speaking with the voice of an individual. The people who have no voice in this theorizing are the transsexuals themselves." (p. 297, emphasis ours)
Fast-forward almost twenty years and trans bodies still serve as the screens for ideological debate. Yet, what we see projected is a new form of erasure.
In late September 2016, University of Toronto Professor of Psychology Jordan B. Peterson’s frustrations about supposed encroachment on free speech by Ontario Bill C-16—legislation that proposes adding gender orientation and identity to the Canadian Human Rights Act—boiled over as an initial three-part YouTube harangue that now contains more than twenty videos. Peterson critiques the Bill’s language around criminalizing the active misgendering of people under the protections already disallowing hate speech, arguing in his videos that:
"[Gender expression] is nonsensical, absurd, it has no scientific-standing, ideologically motivated, dangerous, causes chaos, there’s no upside to it. For every one person that this potential legislation is going to free from oppression, it’s going to deathly confuse one hundred more. I say that as a clinician with some experience in this manner." (“Sept 27/16: 1. Fear and the Law”)
Media coverage of his videos and the subsequent responses by the trans and nonbinary communities at UofT and at large were co-opted to inflate Peterson’s online presence. Since many of Peterson’s 84k Twitter followers financially support him via a Patreon channel that amasses a safetynet of $17,000+ each month, Peterson can claim to effectively disentangle his ‘activism’ from his responsibility to his students as a professor at UofT.
While Professor Peterson’s videos sparked controversy manifesting as protests on campuses across Canada, the debate surrounding his interpretation of Bill C-16 unfolded primarily on YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit—a transnational digital commons where important differences between the Canadian and American legal systems are neglected in favour of a fear of censorship and an anti-PC rhetoric. Peterson’s videos claim evidence-based rationality, which instead couches a conflation of freedom of speech with license to abuse. These videos therefore target and mobilize an online community more aligned with the alt-right than his university classroom. However, the videos are also bolstered by his academic position thus giving rise to a rightist campus culture that perpetuates violence against trans communities.
Returning to Stone’s argument, one can view Peterson as projecting a frightening moral message on the bodies of trans students: “culture speaking with the voice of an individual”. While the specificity of the attack on transness is surely relevant since ideology crystallizes around the most vulnerable, the cultural implications of Peterson’s actions are more pervasive than transphobia alone. Not only can we can see in Peterson the embodiment of a burgeoning alt-right, but his status as professor has additional consequences. Despite Peterson’s attempt to bifurcate his status as an anti-PC activist and psychology professor, he is inherently endowed with institutional power. Accordingly, as long as UofT allows Peterson to continue to teach, the institution is complicit in the violence enacted on its trans and non-binary students. By taking Peterson as a case study a question emerges: How does a professor who leverages the commons in reactionary arguments and ‘activism’ of the far right hinder the call for scholarly activism? As the trans body comes under attack through Peterson’s YouTube projections, bodies emerge as screens once again, this time to theorize a disturbing alt-right ideology.
Stone, Sandy. 1998. "The empire strikes back: a posttranssexual manifesto". The Visible Woman. 285-309.
Higher education is again under attack, raising the stakes of public engagement for scholars higher than ever. The disdain for truth, research, and critique is palpable: Within days of the inauguration, we have seen the White House impose stop-work orders and media blackouts on federal scientific agencies like the EPA and USDA. We have seen proposals threatening to eliminate the NEH and the NEA. And we have seen the administration nominate an unqualified Secretary of Education, all while spinning official narratives that willfully oppose evidence (think “alternative facts” or the “Bowling Green Massacre”).
In this environment, scholarly work that looks only inward is doomed not only to irrelevance, but elimination. We as scholars must ensure our work can reach broad audiences in a powerful way. Institutions may not recognize that work, but especially in the current political climate, when our research and writing has the potential to influence policy, public opinion, and more, there is much more at stake than simply tenure.
Plus, public interest in the humanities is growing. Orwell’s 1984 has seen an enormous rise in sales since the election; there is a thirst to understand Islamic history and culture (see this interview in Business Insider with Graduate Center President Chase Robinson, a historian of Islam); and many are turning to the writings of Hannah Arendt and others to understand the rise of fascism in the early 20th century. Humanities-related work is also being incorporated into non-specialist publications; for instance, The Vault, by historian Rebecca Onion, is a regular feature of Slate, and BuzzFeed recruits humanities scholars like Anne Helen Petersen as analytical writers. But if such work is not respected by universities, then it remains an extracurricular pursuit or a plan B for emerging scholars.
With this in mind, I believe critical reflection about what constitutes academic success is crucial to deepening public engagement in the humanities today. Such reflection must include not only changing modes of scholarly communication, but also career paths, with the goal of improving the health and inclusivity of the humanities for the public good.
One often-overlooked element in discussing new modes of scholarly discourse is the relationship between innovation, equity, and public engagement—all of which contribute to an understanding of higher education as a public good. Though innovation is frequently considered something for elite, well-funded institutions, through my work with the Futures Initiative and the international scholarly network HASTAC I have witnessed countless ways that innovative solutions can be developed organically to solve real needs and connect communities.
If equity and innovation are linked, then it follows that recognizing more varied scholarly work enables a broader range of scholars to break new ground. This was apparent in a 2014 event at CUNY called “What Is A Dissertation,” in which graduate students shared projects that didn’t resemble the protomonograph of most dissertations. Their work included the use of Tumblr and other social media to share and discuss historical photographs of black women; ethnographic work on contemporary youth created using video and the multimodal platform Scalar; the ecology of proprietary data, explored and shared using mapping visualization tools; and a dissertation on comics in comic form.
Living in an increasingly interconnected world—under an administration hostile to knowledge—means we need the humanities more than ever. Recognizing the expansive social value of humanistic knowledge and methods means understanding the myriad ways scholars can make a significant impact beyond academe. Even as the specific types of work are constantly evolving, we have an opportunity to adjust graduate program structures to better equip students to take on a wide range of roles where they can apply their training.
Our country needs more, not fewer, scholars trained to understand and contextualize the cultural, historical, and linguistic valences of contemporary geopolitics. We need more scholars who can read, critique, and synthesize complex arguments. We need more scholars who know the national and global histories of systemic racism and institutionalized bias and who are equipped to speak out against ongoing inequalities. We need them in the classroom—but not only there. The impact of humanities training could be far greater if we trained students not only to teach, but also enabled them to pursue careers that carried them beyond the university.
Rigorous, deeply creative work makes research and scholarship more accessible to broader audiences than ever before. When the academy embraces a wider range of outcomes as signs of scholarly success and merit, I believe the result will be a deeper connection with local communities and more powerful exchange of knowledge among them. In moments of great uncertainty, scholars can do their best and most important work by applying their expertise in ways that engage broader publics.
This response is adapted in part from a book project on career paths, academic labor, public engagement, and diversity.
On a cold Saturday in November of 2014, journalism students, immigrant workers and HIV/AIDS activists converged on a classroom at Rutgers University to discuss how to use media to tell the stories of poor and working people across New Jersey. During the eight-hour media institute participants discussed the power of images and explored strategies for using media and journalism to lift up struggles and experiences often hidden from view. The goal of the institute was to begin to build connections between Rutgers students and community-based organizations in the region.
The institute and associated media projects fall under the rubric of a new social justice journalism lab at Rutgers, NJ Spark. The foundational understanding of NJ Spark is that while we are saturated with digital technologies (from the Internet to cell phones), poor communities, which have consistently been underserved by local journalism, have the least access to these technologies. Recognizing this, students at NJ Spark work to report on issues of poverty and inequality (often hidden from view), while building relationships with community based groups that are comprised of, or work in, disenfranchised communities. Using this perspective, we are trying to re-imagine undergraduate education by creating a hand-on approach to journalism instruction, while creating community-driven news and media that highlights issues of social justice across the region.
This outlook is exemplified by our project with immigrant workers. In the weeks and months after the initial media institute, one group of NJ Spark students began meeting with staff and members of New Labor, a community organization comprised of thousands of Spanish-speaking immigrant workers. Through a series of discussions, Rutgers students designed media projects with New Labor.
The starting point for these media projects is distinctly different from that of traditional media. We began our conversation with New Labor asking: What are you struggling with? How does the media represent you? What do you need in order to tell your stories? And what stories do you want to tell?
Together we decided to make a forty-minute documentary, “American Made,” focused on a rapacious temp-work industry that preys on workers on the margins (here is an eight-minute teaser). The goal of the documentary is to shine a light on the inscrutable temp work industry, while rooting the narrative in the powerful organizing immigrant workers are doing to change their conditions.
Our decision to prioritize immigrant workers was purposeful. Rutgers University’s largest campus is located in downtown New Brunswick, where Spanish-speaking immigrants make up fifty percent of population. Moreover, because of language barriers and immigration status Spanish speaking immigrants are socially, economically and politically isolated and disenfranchised.
This vision also led us to partner with the Philadelphia-based Media Mobilizing Projectas well as workers and faith communities in Atlantic City to produce a 13-minute documentary on the struggle of workers at Taj Mahal casino. The video, Building a Sandcastle: A Broken Promise to Atlantic City, was rooted in the experiences of working people, in an effort to bring their stories to the fore.
We have established some best practices that we think are important if scholars want to take on similar student/community projects poised at the intersection of media, power and social justice:
- Perspective:We focus our media on issues of socio-economic justice and the life and experiences of those communities traditionally disenfranchised from the mass media.
- Respect:At the foundation of this work is respect for the communities we work within and amongst. This means listening first, and collaborating from a place of unity and caring.
- Accuracy:We do not claim to be objective, but we put a premium on creating media and news that is accurate and factual.
- Visibility:A critical goal of our storytelling is to make visible the communities and stories often submerged from view.
- Agency:We aim to show how people are agents, working to change the conditions in their own lives and the lives of those around them.
- Community:We focus on telling stories that are rooted in local communities, and the stories we tell aim to build the power of those communities.
NJ Spark is an experimental undergraduate journalism project that asks how students can learn their craft while engaging with local communities. All of us—students and faculty alike—are animated by the quest to figure out new ways build meaningful practice that connects to the future of digital media in a moment when these very things are in a state of flux.
How should we think of “the digital commons?” The commons is widely referred to as a repository, but as well, it is a space that makes possible democratic discourse and practice. This commons signifies the role played by “public” spaces, wherein individuals can engage in the free circulation of ideas and the common construction of public rules and ethics. Famously, the public sphere concept put forth by Jurgen Habermas meant to secure a space that prohibits undue influence of those with corporate, government and corporatocratic power. This concept was subsequently critiqued for: implying a false separation of public and private; homogenizing the human subject as one or “the other;” assuming that democracy ascribes to consensus, and finally for ascribing privilege to white and upper “class” males. Concerned about the uneven power dynamics that come from “othering,” feminist, postcolonial and post-marxist scholars have offered corrections to the polarizing imaginaries produced by this exclusive commons. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe argued that the commons should aim not for consensus but agonism; Nancy Fraser shows that dialogue in publics becomes impossible due to a lack social equality and contends that publics must be complex, diverse and transnational. The digital commons too must reflect on how this space privileges those with greater access and centres industrial capitalist northern states, reifying a problematic narrowness and centredness.
The editors have invited us to discuss the nature of the commons or the communities we craft as digital media scholars. The conflation of the terms community and commons is, for me, a provocation. A commons, if it is to function with diverse agonistic dialogue, must take on issues of access, social inequalities and exclusionary practices that plague how we imagine and act in these spaces. We must think deeply on ways to incorporate diversity, share power and space if we are to manifest community.
The construction of “community” is a pressing problem in academic environments where grants contain objectives that academics engage with “community” to achieve “knowledge transfer” and “innovation.” We are encouraged to “other” community in these project formulations— to collaborate in order to create outward flow to “them.” I have one such federally funded digital project grant in Canada, entitled Efect,1 in which we are working with “community partners” Ladies Learning Code and anti-violence group, METRAC. Space has been afforded and yet we still wrangle with unfair habits of interaction. We struggle to overcome the imagined university/community divide to form ourselves as a community that engages in equitable and agonistic exchange.
To address this, we are writing an Ethics Manifesto for Digital Collaboration, borrowing from feminist, postcolonial and indigenous scholarship that imagine productive and just working relationships that can incite socially responsible digital innovation. We draw on Gayatri Spivak to train ourselves to recognize privilege and to privilege speaking from “subaltern” spaces. We draw on indigenous scholarship to understand the difficulty in finding ethical space (Willie Ermine) and to engage in cross-epistemological discourse (Lee Maracle). Feminist scholarship (Wendy Brown) shows us how to engage in this messy work via self-reflection and rethinking moments where power is grabbed or privilege employed.
The notions of the commons and community share similar burdens fostered by ongoing social biases and inequalities, as well as structural biases constraining access to space— the same problematics that plagued the public sphere plague the digital commons and community spaces where we do our collaborative work. Solutions, we contend, can be found by identifying ethical practices that enable access and diverse voices to these spaces and agonistic work within them.
1 Experimental Feminist Ethical Collaboration Tools
"All I want for Christmas is white genocide." Last December, this satirical tweet from political theory scholar and radical activist George Ciccariello-Maher made headlines after it was picked up by far-right blogs and cable news channels. Almost instantly, the author became the target for aggressive and sustained online abuse, while his university's administration flip-flopped confusingly on whether or not the expression of a political view via his personal Twitter account should be disciplined or supported by the academic institution that employs him.
The incident, in which one of many scholar-activists suddenly and quite unexpectedly found himself singled out for far-right criticism and online abuse, vividly illustrates how vulnerable individual academics are when they express themselves critically about political issues via social media. While commercial platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr are attractive and easily accessible spaces to express political positions and discover like-minded allies, they also offer very limited controls over what happens to the content one posts on them.
As the shameful GamerGate incident demonstrated, Twitter makes it all too easy for semi-organized radicalized groups of MRAs and "alt-right" neo-nazis to single out individual users for attack. Besides the torrents of abusive language, threats of rape and murder, and the terrifying specter of doxxing, Ciccariello-Maher's "white genocide" joke shows how these attacks are also organized via public and media pressure on academic institutions. Universities, themselves already nervous about being perceived as "too liberal," can be easy prey for organized negative campaigns, and often have little experience in dealing with this dynamic.
The effect of coordinated attacks like these ultimately serve to establish a culture of fear among academics in terms of their public engagement with progressive political activism. For the staggering numbers of precariously employed members of the academic community, public controversies and social media attacks can easily become acute threats to career advancement and even their direct livelihood, certainly for as long as academic institutions can ill afford to be tarred by the same brush under a US administration hostile to public education and intellectualism.
But as completely understandable as it is for progressive scholar-activists to retreat from public political debate, the alternative must clearly not be the gradual erosion of academics as public voices of criticism and dissent. For progressive scholar-activists like myself, it seems obvious that our weakness is neither in numbers nor in a lack of agreement on the most basic issues at stake in the current debate.
Our real weakness lies in the societal epidemic of individualization that is partly the result of neoliberal reorganization, and partly of the basic design of corporate social media. It's therefore not so much a question of "breaking out of one's filter bubble," as far-right conservatives have been demanding from the supposedly myopic "academic elite." It should in the first place involve an expansion of that bubble in a way that creates and fosters a sustainable collective.
In other words: academics need to organize and unite in order to develop robust, meaningful, and long-term activist engagement. As easy as it seems to express dissent as an individual on Twitter, online groups like 4chan have the advantage of being relatively well-organized, high-tech, and mostly anonymous. As we begin to realize the scale of organized far-right trolling, doxxing, and online intimidation, the obvious way for scholar-activists to mobilize and express ourselves politically is by developing organized collectives of our own.
As I considered how scholars could or should engage with the commons, I kept returning to one answer: carefully. Digital and social media offer scholars the opportunity to participate in public discussion more than ever before. But, they also increase the risk of doing so, especially for continent faculty and scholars from marginalized groups. The same technologies that make our contributions and analysis more readily accessible also provide powerful tools for those who wish to decontextualize and misrepresent our ideas in an attempt to delegitimize us. Combine this with the context collapse that accompanies social media, a deeply fraught political landscape, and the perennial harassment that occurs in digital networks. The resulting terrain requires understanding and caution on the part of those wishing to engage as public intellectuals.
Increasingly, as we navigate what many have dubbed the “post-truth” era, statement of empirical fact can provoke charges of political bias. For example, media scholars concerned with media literacy who want to address the ways misinformation circulates through social media networks face backlash by those who see such work as a politically motivated. Take the recent case of Dr. Melissa Zimdar, Assistant Professor of Communications and Media at Merrimack College, who created a list of fake, biased, and click-baity websites for her students. The list, which is over fifty pages long and contains sites ranging from across the political spectrum from far-left to far-right, quickly went viral because many were searching for media literacy resources in the wake of the 2016 election. As a result, Zimdar was attacked, ironically by many of the sites on her list, with a series of misleading ad hominem attacks designed to belittle her and delegitimize her work rather than critique her ideas. Headlines about her work included, “Meet the Leftist Prof who Wrote ‘Hit List’ Of ‘Fake’ News Sites” and “Meet the LEFTIST Assistant Professor Who Made Up Bogus List of ‘Fake’ Conservative Websites That Went Viral.” These attacks mined Zimdar’s social media accounts and professional bios for statements that could be used to undermine her credibility, with 100percentfedup.com using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to find old posts. The site suggested that Zimdar’s list could be motivated by “wanting to pay back the sites who helped to topple Hillary.” It then went on to present screen captures documenting her “Trump bashing” and her support for Bernie Sanders and the Movement for Black Lives as evidence of her political agenda.
This strategy of mining the social media accounts of those you seek to discredit is standard practice in our digital society. It remains common because the context collapse of social media makes it exceedingly effective. In offline contexts, we often tailor our performance to the context. We are the most appropriate version of ourselves for the setting – our professional selves at work, our fun and goofy selves with friend and family. Social media brings those audiences together (Marwick and boyd, 2011), causing us to blur our performances. Thus, as scholars we use our Twitter accounts to tweet links to our latest work and make professional commentary, but also to express our personal opinions or live tweet our favorite TV shows. Zimdar and many other scholars have deployed social media in this way, leaving their critics a rich backlog of statements they would not have had access to in the pre-digital world. The highly publicized “Professor Watchlist,” a website that aggregates “pre-existing news stories” about professors they assert “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom” is replete with scholars who made statements made via a digital medium.
On their own, such blog posts and watchlists would be relatively trivial. But, they are invariably accompanied by a deluge of harassment that has become commonplace in the digital world. Targeted scholars face social media harassment, doxing,1 death threats, a steady stream of graphic threats of violence and rape, and campaigns for them to be fired. (You can see examples compiled by Zimdar here and by Dr. Anthea Butler, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, here.) I know many scholars – particularly those who study race, gender, and sexuality – who must take ongoing measures to secure their personal safety after being targeted in this way. The personal and professional toll of these tactics can be damaging for any scholar. But, they are particularly dangerous to junior faculty, contingent faculty, and graduate students. Junior faculty on the tenure track lack the protections of tenure. But, Adjuncts, Lecturers, and graduate students are by far the most vulnerable as they often lack the institutional support and protection often afforded track faculty.
This reality should not cause scholars to shy away from contributing to public discourse and engaging in healthy debate, particularly given this is the very clear goal of such practices. Academics have long understood that challenges to our ideas are necessary to push the bounds of our thinking in important ways. However, it is crucial to recognize that it is often easier to for our critics to launch a campaign of harassment than a substantive counter-argument. Those undertaking public scholarship should understand the risks. Senior faculty, administrators, and those with institutional power must commit to supporting scholars who find themselves at the center of these campaigns of harassment and delegitimization. If we fail to engage thoughtfully and carefully, both as individuals and as a profession, we simply aid those who would rather our analysis be absent from public discussion.
 Doxing is the publication of private information such as home addresses, social security numbers, or other identifying information.
“Meet The LEFTIST Assistant Professor Who Made Up Bogus List Of ‘Fake’ Conservative Websites That Went Viral.” 100percentfedUp.com. (2016, November 17). Retrieved February 12, 2017, from http://100percentfedup.com/meet-leftist-assistant-professor-made-bogus-l…
Marwick, Alice and boyd, danah. (2011). “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.” New Media and Society 13(1), 114-33.
Schilling, Chelsea. “Meet the Leftist Prof who Wrote ‘Hit List’ Of ‘Fake’ News Sites.” WND.com. (2016, November 17). Retrieved February 12, 2017, from http://www.wnd.com/2016/11/meet-leftist-prof-who-wrote-hit-list-of-fake-…
The outcome of the 2016 election shook many of us to our core, to the point that many of us are apparently struggling to focus on our jobs. Following the projections of Nate Silver and others, I had taken for granted that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency, potentially by a large margin. But thanks to a toxic storm of innovative data analytics strategies, fake news articles, and unbalanced media coverage, Democrats lost an election that has the potential to do significant damage to our very concepts of democracy. With so many of our vital institutions at risk, it now seems more vital than ever that media scholars not only engage with the commons but even to immerse ourselves in the more rudimentary aspects of political activism, even if these tasks are outside of comfort zone. Media scholars of all stripes—especially those working in digital media—have ample opportunities to rethink political activism in an era dominated by the challenges and possibilities presented by social media.
Since the election, I have devoted much of my energy to political action—partly to keep my sanity but also to push back against the assault on civil rights and the attacks on journalism. In my case, I’ve written and shared call scripts for two North Carolina-based political groups virtually every day since the election. I’ve immersed myself in literature on political strategy such as the Indivisible Guide. And I’ve participated in strategy sessions with a number of local political groups. And I’ve worked with colleagues to craft infographics and memes that can be shared quickly. In many ways, all of this work seems consistent with my expertise in political communication. We can begin to think about how to craft messages that will support progressive values, using popular narratives to brand ourselves—welcome to #TheResistance, everyone. But we also need to think about how to create media events, political spectacles that will compel favorable media attention. Much of this has focused on conveying the message that our representatives are unresponsive to their constituents’ needs. One of my North Carolina Senators, Richard Burr, played into this narrative when called constituents’ phone calls a liberal “strategy.” And even though most of our calls will not result in policy changes, they are part of a long game.
But, in addition to this, I’ve found myself rethinking questions about how our specific interests in media literacy can be brought to engage with the current political media crisis associated with the concept of fake news. While I share Ethan Zuckerman’s reservations about the term, it has provided a useful shorthand for describing a range of media ranging from overt propaganda, disinformation, or conspiracy theories, whether those stories are published for political or financial gain. With that in mind, I devoted one of the units in my first-year writing class to a discussion of “fake news.” Using Melissa Zimdars’ Washington Post article as a starting provocation, I sought to challenge my students not just to identify fake news but to understand the mechanisms that make it possible and the potential effects that it might have on our political system. We can bring these skills to the commons as well, as Zimdars’ intervention illustrated.
Ultimately, there are countless opportunities for media scholars to engage with the commons. We do need to enter these spaces humbly, prepared to learn from those people who have been working in these areas. But our training in crafting and analyzing political narratives will continue to remain essential both inside and outside the classroom.
The accessibility of online archives such as the commons creates a dynamic set of media that can be remixed, appropriated, drawn from, or extended in a creative practice. As an artist and educator, I demonstrate how the commons is a potential for poetic sampling and recombination to produce an object, experience, or text that in turn reveals something about the dataset. I have played in the sandboxes of various archives to produce The Women of El Toro (with Dr. Daniel Sutko) and The Library of Congress, Remixed. For this post, I will expand on The Women of El Toro.
Caption: The Women of El Toro was released as an iOS app in 2016. It is available on the iTunes store.
The Women of El Toro (WoELT) is an iOS application I co-created with Dr. Sutko with the aid of a California Humanities, “Community Stories” Grant. WoELT used digitized oral histories from CSU Fullerton’s Center for Oral and Public History (COPH) to create a location-based augmented reality tour of The Orange County Great Park (OCGP), formerly Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro. Visitors to the park can listen to oral histories of female veterans and military wives who lived and worked at El Toro, transforming the space of the park into an educational and cultural experience of historical significance and intergenerational connectivity. We made this app to amplify women’s voices captured by COPH just after the close of the El Toro base in 2007. We read at least one thousand pages of interview transcripts to select quotes made by the women that we imagined could pair interestingly with various park locations and activities, including: the hot air balloon, Hangar 244, the carousel, the kids park, the soccer field, the reflection pond, and the visitor’s center atrium and restroom. Pedagogically, there is a cultural significance to re-asserting these women’s voices back into the geographical location where they were once assumed second-tier to the men who occupied MCAS El Toro.
Caption: For viewers without an iOS device, The Women of El Toro website features a Google Map that includes several of the locations and media files for in-browser viewing.
As a creative endeavor, my primary interest in developing this project was to create a poetic moment for the person at the park who engages in our cross-temporal tour. Imagine riding a horse on a carousel. The carousel is meant to be an entertaining park ride. However, it literally sends the rider in circles. After handing your ticket to the carousel operator, you are left to watch the park pass by, wave to friends or family, or, what I end up focusing on most of the time, staring at the back of the head belonging to the person sitting in front of you. If you ride the carousel at the OCGP you can open The Women of El Toro app and listen to Vera Nelson, who will speak into your earbud, “I loved it there at the college until I went into the post office that day in July of ‘43 and saw that picture of a beautiful Marine girl in uniform with the big slogan that said, ‘Be a Marine and Free a Marine to Fight!’ And I thought silently to myself, ‘I think I can free two of ‘em.’ So, I enlisted in August of 1943. I went to boot camp in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in the fall. I remember October in North Carolina was beautiful. All the trees looked like a Persian carpet, yellow and gold and brown. But all I saw was the back of Millie Lancer’s head. (laughs).”
The Women of El Toro brings a collection of archived media that typically sits on the shelves of COPH in Fullerton, California to the public. It creates a new experience for park goers and recovers the voices of women who served during WWII, including veterans and wives of veterans, positioning them as the featured voices on the land where they once served our country.
The commons—I think, all public archives or datasets—holds a similar potential. One can find granular elements to unify across a single theme in order to reveal the set as a whole, or to recover or reposition parts of its data.
As a teacher of first year composition, I believe (like all teachers) that students need to read and be exposed to high-quality, complex arguments written by reputable sources. This seems more important than ever given our recent election in which teachers, academics, and “the media” are decrying our “post-truth” world (Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 “word of the year”) in which the truth is not nearly as important as one’s personal or emotional beliefs. Because most of my students are coming of age in this atmosphere, one of my most important obligations is to expand their knowledge through the use of quality sources. While I never ask my students to personally agree or disagree with what they are reading, we still sit down to evaluate source using a series of quality tests. This test assesses measures including the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose (often referred to as the CRAAP test).
In attempting to meet the educational goals that I believe are important for my students, I have often shied away from discussing social media as part of our conversations on source evaluation. This is mostly because I recognize that student knowledge of social media vastly outstrips mine, but it is also because studies have shown that students spend somewhere around fifty minutes a day on Facebook alone, and far more than that behind screens throughout the day (Stewart). Therefore, my previous goal was to move students a bit further away from social media and towards other more critically engaging forms of media.
That goal changed near the end of last year when I was astonished to learn that a majority of Americans get at least some of their news from social media (Gottfried and Shearer). Less astonishing but even more problematic is the fact that some of that news is fake or helps to create echo chambers in which readers fail to see political beliefs and arguments of their opponents. Most of us are versed at least a bit with Eli Pariser’s argument on filter bubbles, in which he points out that websites such as Facebook rely on algorithms to examine the stories users click on (or the stories users closest friends have read) and offers news based upon these clicks in their news feed (37-38). Such a system is increasingly allowing fake news or filter bubbles to proliferate, and can be very damaging to those who do use social media as a primary source of news.
So what is a teacher of media and critical reading and thinking to do? We certainly can’t get our students off of social media, nor do most of us want to – it remains an excellent tool for literacy engagement. However, I am only beginning to wrap my head around how to teach students to be critical readers of social media. Some ideas that I have so far involve going well beyond the CRAAP test – we have to assume students will be well off the beaten path of The New York Times when they are assessing stories. We will have to work with students to pull media and stories from their social media for analysis as a first step. We have to begin to help them understand that their media and forms of literacy matter and can change things as important as an election.
Additionally, my goals for this year are reinforcing student understanding of all news as a product of a creator – someone who may have left out certain facts or viewpoints. We will discuss the biases seen in articles, both those that appear visible and those that may be unconscious. We will have more discussions about power and authority and how both the creator and the audience must see beyond the face value of the message to analyze what issues of power are at play and what the creator has to gain from that production. We will see if we can confirm news on other sites and discuss how these stories have been “spun.” We will talk about the filter bubble and try to unearth examples of it. We will talk about the importance of social media and other platforms as transformative spaces for both professional journalists and for people like students to be creators and transmitters of news and the power and responsibility that this brings. I may also change my end-of-term creative project, traditionally a remixing of an argument essay into a visual form, into one in which they are the creators of social media news and must acknowledge their biases, their audiences, and their power as a creator.
Undoubtedly, developing a curriculum around the new challenges that social media news brings to the classroom will be an ongoing process, as social media certainly changes faster than our teaching can. However, developing such a curriculum is of the utmost importance. Learning to engage productively in social media and Web 2.0 goes well beyond an individual need to develop solid literacy practices, but is also important for an American democracy that prides itself upon first amendment rights of free speech and freedom of the press. As our interaction with media is rapidly changing, we must prepare our students to be thoughtful and engaged readers and thinkers now more than ever. Yet I am hopeful that our students are prepared and excited to face these new media challenges and will work with us to create the type of literacy and media education that they as digital natives need.
Gottfried, Jeffrey and Elisa Shearer. “News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016.” Pew Research Center, 26 May 2016. http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2016/05/PJ_2016.05.26_social-media-and-news_FINAL-1.pdf
Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing what We Read and How We Think. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.
Stewart, James. “Facebook Has 50 Minutes of Your Time Each Day. It Wants More.” The New York Times, 5 May 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/06/business/facebook-bends-the-rules-of-audience-engagement-to-its-advantage.html.
Questions of place and role dance prominently in my mind with aggressive repetition as a first-year PhD student. In a time where anyone with access to the internet and to a computer can start a blog and publish daily think pieces, why am I striving to join an academic community that traditionally values publishing in niche, socially invisible journals? If one of my primary objectives as a scholar-researcher is to offer meaningful analyses to the widest possible audience, I have a responsibility to make my work accessible, in terms of medium and in terms of readability.
In an article titled, “Erasing the Pop-Culture Scholar, One Click at a Time” on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s website, Amanda Ann Klein and Kristen Warner argue, “What pains us more than the absent citation [of a professional academic’s work] is the unsupported claim, the anachronistic parallel, the apocryphal anecdote.” They assert that writers, and specifically pop-culture and media journalists, should be reaching out to scholars to help augment their work. In this way, the scholar can play a critical role in positively developing the communities about which we care.
However, this seems far too passive for me.
I focus much of my research on the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (specifically the Sherlock Holmes stories) and the many film, radio, theater, dance, and novel adaptations that have followed since 1887. For nearly 15 years, I have run a website devoted to this interest, and I have enjoyed interacting with very bright, opinionated fans who are excited and encouraged by me to tease out their reactions to any number of productions, including the original Doyle stories. As I advance my academic career, I see my role changing. I appreciate embracing the democracy that the internet affords us in terms of letting people voice their more-or-less researched work. However, I now see myself reaching a place of information augmenter. My education does not give me permission to act as the sole authority or arbitrator of “correct” readings, but my education does give me the opportunity to have read theorists and other obscure tomes that have likely escaped lay people.
For example, the latest season of Sherlock, the wildly successful BBC series, just aired in January 2017. Fans, as well as film and television critics, have flooded websites, blogs, and tumblr with a fair amount of generic whinging, but also many thoughtful, engaging pieces. What they lack, in general, are opportunities to better explain their frustration through relevant theories and theoretical frameworks that could even possibly offer recommendations for future productions. I see myself itching to include my work in the online prosaic canon of responses, perhaps in the form of a reworked version of a piece I hope to publish in a journal that no one will read. This holds true also for Sherlock Holmes fan communities (termed “scions”), in several of which I am a participant, where members routinely present papers. My challenge would be to recognize what theories or theorists may be esoteric and in need of properly straightforward explanation that an academic community may not require.
Klein, Amanda Ann, and Kristen Warner. "Erasing the Pop-Culture Scholar, One Click at a Time." The Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 July 2016, http://www.chronicle.com/article/Erasing-the-Pop-Culture/237039.
Experts provide an important service, they provide expertise. Kathleen Hall Jamieson has argued that these experts serve as agents of “knowledge-certifying institutions.” In public interaction, scholars are expected to provide key insights into what has been established through the best methods and strongest arguments in their fields. When you are invited to a public forum, you are tasked with serving in the knowledge-certifying role.
The role of knowledge-certifying experts will only grow more important and more difficult in the coming years. Expertise is under constant scrutiny. Public culture in the United States emphasizes individuality and skepticism to the point that they have become ends in themselves: a smart person believes nothing. Scholars run counter to this skeptical impulse: they believe something.
Please bear with the following extended form sports metaphor: the hot-stove story. People talking about baseball news in the winter would gather around the hot-stove of fresh baseball news talk about winter meetings and soon-to-arrive spring training. These stories help fans prepare for the coming season by thinking about the game. Academic blogs, micropublishing platforms, and boutique magazines have a role today — they are the hot-stove of media theorizing. These are quick stories that can provide important insights that keep the collective train of thought moving, but we should be careful to distinguish our provisional thinking out loud or public explainers from our finished peer-reviewed research. When you take on the role of the knowledge-certifier, you are being asked for an expert opinion informed by a deep well of confirmed findings and coherent methods.
Data scraping and analysis tools are increasingly available and user-friendly. Quantitative and computational approaches are increasingly accessible. The boundary between public and professional will no longer be technical sophistication or production value. Scholars add value in this new blended environment by playing the role of the serious believer of the research in their area. In this sense, the scholar approaches the public from a counter-cultural position. In practical terms: read your journals, know the answers to frequently asked questions across your domain of specialty, and be ready to show your work - in this skeptical time scholars need to believe in scholarship and to explain how they know what they know.
Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. “Implications of the Demise of ‘Fact’ in Political Discourse.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 159, no. 1 (March 2015): 66–84.
Fine arts communities are some of the most active and productive—but overlooked—sites for Digital Humanities scholars looking to make meaningful connections with the public. When considering how one might engage the public in the humanities, I think back to my experience with the Kansas Renga, To the Stars through Difficulty: A Kansas Renga in 150 Voices (2012). Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg as Kansas Poet Laureate (2011-2013) engaged poets, within and outside of academia, in writing this project. Mirriam-Goldberg’s purpose was to celebrate Kansas, its nature, and its poets.
A renga is akin to a haiku and collaborative in nature. Each poet was to contribute ten lines after reading the previous poems. Poets did not need to live in or be from Kansas as long as the poets had a meaningful connection to the state. In my case, I had attended Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas, and I lived just over the border in Oklahoma.
The project was created using Google Docs, with each poet adding to the document at their turn. The entire project was produced online by poets from all over the country who had connections to Kansas. The Google Doc was not without its problems. Lines of previous poems were accidently erased, so communication was necessary in order to amend the errors, but by and large, the process went smoothly. Throughout the project, Mirriam-Goldberg maintained a blog of the project as it evolved, making the text available to the public in installments. Other digital environments—such as shared blogs, wiki spaces, and so on—might enable a smoother process and could create an immediately consumable public text.
The method for selecting poets allowed for word of the project and calls for participants to make their ways out into the community since poets tend to meet in groups to workshop their poems and gather together at public readings. When asked how she found participants, Mirriam-Goldberg said, “I just asked around and asked people to ask their people.”
Participants in the project included professors, published poets, students, a farmer, a high school teacher, a massage therapist, a high school guidance counselor, and others who consider themselves “occasional poets.”
The seemingly piecemeal project was produced as a whole and cohesive unit with the authors’ names placed in the title position for their ten lines. The project was similar to the Media Commons project here, but the renga strings each piece directly to the next and incorporates the voices and experiences of the community outside academia.
Although this particular project resulted in a print book, the final product of such a project could result in a digital-only document. Further, this creative example could be applied to other scholarly considerations. By including the voices and opinions of those outside academia, scholars open themselves to new perspectives and new approaches for study.
With the understanding that contemporary political projects are material and offline in some sense and that they leave digital and online traces at a minimum, what kinds of resistance efforts exert transformative pressure on structures of oppression or contribute to our release from them? In my own work, wrestling with this problem and this question has yielded several approaches to engaging the commons.
Embedded Advocacy Livestream Journalism
Environmentally catastrophic practices of extraction and neo-slavery and corporate conglomeration have made it possible to record and broadcast very high-quality video through platforms such as Facebook Live, Ustream, Livestream, Periscope, and others. After being trained to stream in during the Ferguson protests, I began to contribute to protests by participating in them while also streaming for broader audiences. In addition to simply “documenting,” this form of media production has helped to make the reality of ongoing protest more widely visible. This is particularly valuable in locations that are thought to be singularly acquiescent, or reactionary in the dominant narrative.
#NoBanNoWall Rally Against Trump’s Travel Ban in Greenville, South Carolina
However, relatively quickly I realized several limitations of this form of journalism as political engagement. While my streaming was appreciated by those who watch and by the protesters themselves who like to have a record of their work. I began to see these televisual productions, the comments and discussions that surrounded them, and the physical protests themselves as deeply vulnerable to critiques such as Jodi Dean’s analysis/warning regarding a set of conditions that she calls “Communicative Capitalism.”
Dean (2005) worries about a phase in late capitalism where there is a proliferation of political utterances with many worrisome qualities. First, these utterances exert little if any counter –leverage against oppressive practices of resource distribution and governance. Second, the digital versions of these utterances that are exchanged and distributed on an unprecedented scale provide the illusion of deliberative democracy and resistance. This warning, written twelve years ago, continues to haunt and inform my media, and social media production. Partially as a result, I began to think about how to connect to more sustained and strategic efforts of resistance and embed myself with them in a more committed and tactical fashion.
One example of this was my participation in a series of #ShutDownBlackFriday shopping interruptions in St. Louis Missouri in the fall of 2014. Broadcasting in this context required a longer process of offline relationship building, more process planning about when and where to film, changing outfits, and the decisions about the extent of my civil disobedience.
Livestream Link to Ferguson Mall Protests
More recently, during Trump’s 2017 inauguration in Washington D.C., I embedded with a group of Palestinian rights organizers that staged protests and blockages at several checkpoints.
#DisruptJ20 Inauguration protests
Transforming Campuses into Sanctuaries for resistance away from and in front of the keyboard.
In the wake of the Trump administration’s war on science, reproductive rights, voting rights, public education, religious freedom etc. and other unethical and unconstitutional efforts at governance, scholars must use our skills and our privilege to draw a line. We must transform our campuses into sanctuaries, and nodes of resistance. Resistance work on our campuses provides the added benefit of allowing us to escape the random, expressive, episodic, tourism approach to activism and to instead commit to longer sustained strategic campaigns that can move beyond awareness building to other kinds of long-term institutional and societal changes.
In the spring of 2016, several students occupied Sikes Hall a key administrative building to demand that the administration draft approach to issues of diversity., acts of hate, and other problems. http://seestripescu.org/history-today/
This nine-day occupation and the arrests that resulted from it provided numerous opportunities for faculty and community solidarity through, legal support, digital storytelling, networking, archive building and physical presence.
Currently, here at Clemson we are in the midst of efforts to encourage our university’s administration to make a stronger statement denouncing Trump’s Executive order/Muslim ban.
This effort began professors Todd May, Mike Sears and I committed to a six day #FastAgainstSilence during which we didn’t eat any solid food.
We used Facebook and Instagram were primary platform to amplify this and invite other forms of solidarity and pressure.
We also used Tumblr to collect and display letters to our administration other from faculty, students, alumni, community members and other prominent scholars.
Dean, Jodi. "Communicative capitalism: Circulation and the foreclosure of politics." Cultural Politics 1.1 (2005): 51-74.