Antigonish 2.0 – the plan

America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I’d better get right down to the job.
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts factories
I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

– Allen Ginsberg, America, 1956

The Backstory: Fifteen years ago, I lived in the suburbs of Bratislava, Slovakia, next to a corner store that sold absinthe.

Bratislava’s medieval city centre was all cobblestone and Hapsburg extravagance, but the suburbs where the teachers’ sublets were located were concrete sameness for miles, broken only by public statuary and tram stops and the requisite pubs and potravinys.

My apartment came furnished with an old secretary desk, two chairs, a bright red plastic rotary phone, and a folding couch that served as a bed. I thought of it as mid-century modern, even if was more Soviet than stylish. I loved that apartment.

In Bratislava in 2002, I drank absinthe and cheap wine and listened to mixtape CDs I’d burned on Napster: Tom Waits and Edith Piaf and Stevie Wonder and Allen Ginsberg reading America, aloud. I was thirty; a Canadian English teacher abroad. I only made $400 a month, but I’d paid off my student loans and I’d helped out my mother and I didn’t know enough to know that I should aspire to more. I read Umberto Eco. I was trying to self-educate my way into getting a grip on the 20th century, even as the 21st was shaping up post-911 to be a spectacle of a different sort.

I walked a lot. In the middle of Bratislava, in a square near the Danube, there was a monument…a striking, harsh-looking modernist metal sculpture topped by the Star of David, and chains. It stood out from the other Fathers of the Revolution monuments.

This sculpture is Slovakia’s monument to its Jews. It is a strange, stark public penance. A plaque tells its story.

In WWII, Slovakia sold its Jews.

The Slovak Republic – a client state of Nazi Germany established in 1939 after Hitler mobilized into Czech territory – made a deal. In exchange for keeping Slovak workers out the war effort, they agreed to deport their Jewish population, whose roots in Slovakia went back 500 years. In the deal, the “republic would pay for each Jew deported, and, in return, Germany promised that the Jews would never return to the republic.” According to Wikipedia, the deal was initially for “20,000 young, strong Jews,” but the Slovaks eventually agreed to deport the entire Jewish population for “evacuation to territories in the east.”

In 1942, the first mass transport to Auschwitz came out of Slovakia. In total, in 1942 alone, 58,000 Jews were deported by the Slovak Republic. 99% of them are reported to have died in the concentration camps.

I took the above picture of the monument one sunny autumn afternoon, in black and white film on an old Pentax K-1000.  I framed it in the frame with the little wooden doors, and it has lived with me on three continents since. I still don’t know entirely why.

It makes me think of Allen Ginsberg’s voice, intoning America aloud in that little Soviet-stark apartment, teaching me histories I didn’t know. It reminds me of things I’d rather not acknowledge about human nature.

We sell each other out, we humans, the picture cautions me. Our better angels regret it later. But we sell each other out.

The picture forces me to ask what part I am playing in the world, what wheel my shoulder is turned to, or turned away from.
***

The Rest of the Story: Back at the end of November, I wrote about adult education and a piece of history far closer to my own part of the world.

The Antigonish Movement was, in the 1920s and 30s, an adult education & cooperative movement based out of the Extension Department of St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. Led by Father Moses Coady and Father Jimmy Tompkins, Irish Catholic cousins from Cape Breton, the Antigonish Movement fostered the idea that ordinary people could take control of their circumstances and their economy through critical thinking, scientific methods of planning and production, and co-operative entrepreneurship, taught in kitchens and community halls, and via radio and whatever means were available.

It had a huge impact. Even today, the legacy of the Antigonish Movement dots the Maritime provinces in the form of credit union buildings, which got their start through the cooperatives that Coady and Tompkins fostered.

So.

I look at our media literacy and information literacy landscape – our democratic society, interconnected and border-blurred as it is – in the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States on January 20th, and I shudder. Arms race tweets. Putin. Fake news. White supremacists gloating. Wikileaks uber alles. Basically, it’s the West Wing version of what danah boyd calls the hacking of the attention economy, not just by trolls but by a Troll in Chief.  Messy through multiple lenses…and by my lights, potentially terrifying no matter where one lives or what one’s party affiliations are.

But I am not a foreign policy analyst. I am a digital literacies educator…and that is the lens I focus through.

So I proposed a new adult education movement for our times, an Antigonish 2.0. With a media and information literacy focus.

I said: To me, at this current moment, it is our societal lack of understanding and agency regarding media literacies and digital literacies – and thus the stories we tell ourselves about truth, decency, and each other – that is the poverty I know how to address.

And a whole freaking whack of you said…ME TOO.

So I’ve spent the past month in conversations with people – individual educators, people on the street, government folks, the excellent & quick-thinking Wendy Kraglund-Gauthier from the Coady Institute (yes, named after THAT Coady) at St. FX University – and we officially really and fer real *do* have an Antigonish 2.0.

We’ll draw on the model of the original Antigonish Movement of participatory learning – see below – but re-tooled for the 21st century and the local and global connections that digital makes possible. It’s particularly meaningful to get to do this with Wendy at St FX.

The Plan, As It Stands: As I noted in the first post, the Antigonish Movement had three key structural components: mass meetings, organized with community members from villages and towns around the entire region, study clubs, where community members gathered together in homes to study materials available, and the school for leaders, where members of the study clubs could attend six-week programs at the university in Antigonish, to prepare people for action and minimize business failures.

I see Antigonish 2.0 as having three potential layers or structural pieces, too.

The first layer will likely be mostly the people who commented on the original post – a distributed international network of people. Maybe mostly educators, with relatively high digital presence and the knowledge capacity to lead this kind of work, but in need of something to coordinate around and up-to-date resources on specific media/information literacy conversations. And the broader epistemology and truth conversations that we all need to work our way through to understand the times we’re living through.

Building a site and awareness and a hashtag around this first layer – and getting people connected to the work that initiatives like the Digital Polarization Institute are on about – would be how this layer would get started. INPUT WELCOME ON WHAT IT WOULD ACTUALLY NEED TO FUNCTION FOR PEOPLE. But basically the first layer would be self-selecting and networked; our mass meetings, for people who might be interested in taking on aspects of levels two or three in their institutions or their communities or spreading the good word.

The second layer – from our perspective here in the Maritimes – would be capacity-building among local institutions as well as among any Layer One individuals interested in joining in with an eye to building institutional media/digital literacies and capacity. We’re looking at a grant to hold a summer institute or mini-conference – essentially our school for leaders – that would be open both to members of Layer One but also focus on getting buy-in from Atlantic institutions, for faculty and staff development….for people interested doing media literacies and critical literacies stuff in formal classes. We’re looking at August 2017. We have a lot to figure out.

The third layer is my real, original goal, the study clubs: getting past institutional boundaries to having the Layer One and Two people starting up localized workshops for people in their own communities, people not necessarily affiliated with higher ed. Workshops at libraries. Discussion series in bars or restaurants. Participatory art events. Kitchen parties. This is the part where people get – collaboratively – the kind of information they need to be critical citizens and consumers within an attention economy run from the top down; our Hunger Games mediasphere come to life. This is the part where people (maybe?) learn to rise and hold mass media accountable for the narratives we are sold. This is where, in whatever small part, I can put my queer shoulder to the wheel of spectacle that’s turning our time, right now, and try to make a difference.

So that sometime down the road I don’t find myself standing in a square in front of a sculpture, saying about some population being symbolized in wrought iron, Yes, a terrible shame. We sold them out, to Nazis. We even saw it coming. (shrug) What can you do?
***
If you’d like updates on this initiative as Wendy and I work to get it up and running…send an email to bstewart@upei.ca. We welcome you. :)

temporarily embarrassed millionaires

(This one’s long. Sorry.)

Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress (2004), quotes John Steinbeck as saying:
“socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but temporarily embarrassed millionaires” (p. 124).

This expression has stuck with me for nearly a decade.

When I first read it, it sent me back another decade or so to a small book I read when I first went back to school after teaching in the Arctic.

A little red book, but not THAT little red book. Still, a book that brought ideas of communal action and adult education home to me, in a very literal way.
screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-9-43-41-pm
Myles Horton
and Paulo Freire‘s We Make the Road by Walking is one of those dialogic educators’/theorists’ conversations captured as texts that education faculties were very fond of teaching from in the late 90s. It was my intro to adult education as a field and an ethos, and in a sense, a reintroduction to my own Maritime history and sense of place.

It was my introduction to the idea that education need not be a lofty enterprise separate from the lived experience of being somewhere, and from somewhere.

With the death of Fidel Castro last weekend – and even my own FB feed making evident the vast difference in the narratives Canadians and Americans have been sold about Cuba over the past nearly sixty years – it feels maybe *too soon* to be talking about socialism and public education and communal action.

But with the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency this month – to which my FB feed had a more coherent response of pretty broadly-distributed OH SHIT – and his appointment of the Amway-adjacent & public-school-attacking Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, it feels maybe too late NOT to be talking about public education and communal action, at least. (I can take or leave the socialism, depending on the interpretation. It’s the totalitarianism and cults of personality I’m wary of.)

And here we circle back to the temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

(Bear with me. I swear all these synaptic connections cross.)
***

One of the interesting parts about coming of age as an adolescent and (semi)conscious citizen of smalltown PEI, Canada, in the 80s was that – in spite of lacking both social media and cable TV – I inhabited two equally-confusing places simultaneously: my own latter-day Avonlea, with its dour social mores passed on relatively unchanged since their airing in Anne of Green Gables, and Reagan’s America.

I lived in both.

I was a kid of the 99 Luftballons era. I listened to the words…and I wrote poems about nuclear disarmament to the United States President. I did not write to my local mayor, or to Trudeau Senior.

As the twelfth-grader is to the ninth-grader in the classic high school pecking order, so the US is to Canada on the world stage of power and Mother Do You Think They’ll Drop the Bomb? I learned to understand that whatever risks nuclear weapons posed to my possible survival in that brief window of the reheated Cold War, when I was twelve, it wasn’t a matter of President Reagan *wanting* to blow me up in any personal rendition of The Day After.

(I realize now he’d likely have been hard-pressed to find PEI on a map.)

But in a place tacked onto the edge of the continent and economically downtrodden for the better part of a century or more, you gradually figure out that you’re not at the centre of anyone’s calculations about the world.
***

What this has to do with Horton & Freire is all about education, to me.

(NOT education as a simple, linear path to success and prosperity for the marginalized…or those who think they are. That’s a complex mythology that tends to serve up false expectations and disappointment, at best, across cultural, racial, geographic, and economic marginalization. Not that there are necessarily better answers, only that the playing field Simply. Does. Not. Level. On those fronts, read Sara Goldrick-Rab on the costs that education exacts from those least prepared to pay, and Tressie McMillan-Cottom on the link between for-profit schools and increasing inequality.)

I’m thinking more in the vein of adult education.

In We Make the Road by Walking, one of the threads of conversation between Horton and Freire – the one that stands out most in my memory – is this question of whether systematized education can be transformational for marginalized people(s), or whether it replicates all the inequalities baked into society’s/societies’ existing systems.

Horton and Freire, lions of educational practice and leadership in their own Appalachian and Latin American contexts, have differing perspectives on this, with Horton asserting that change within a system gets co-opted by the system itself, while Freire suggests a “one foot *in* and one foot outside” approach to systematized learning.

My own career has been more in the vein of Freire. I work for an institution, however precariously.

But in the context of these strange days of Trump’s pre-presidency, I find myself drawn to concepts that go beyond the boundaries of institutions as ways of trying to rethink education and communal action and where we all go from here.

Concepts and initiatives like #4YOS – four years of individually-pledged, distributed service as means of fighting hate in local, concrete ways. Efforts to make communities stronger, more inclusive places.

For myself, I’m particularly interested in how we fight the strange cocktail of victimization and entitlement that hate leeches onto and deploys in its service. I’m interested in how media and social media are part of the problem, and what we do about it.

I’m also interested in the not-solely-American concept of the temporarily embarrassed millionaire. The person – whatever their economic circumstances – clinging to idealized privilege in the rearview mirror with their cold dead hands. Sure that Trump’s gonna make them a contender again.

I went looking for historical models for what to do about this mess, systemically. And Horton was the first person I thought of, because the temporarily embarrassed millionaires have always – somehow – made me think of Horton.

Horton and Lilian Wyckoff Johnson, a teacher and professor, established the legendary (and interracial) Highlander Folk School in the mountains of Tennessee during the Great Depression. It was both an educational and political space, for organizing and training labour unionists while conserving and enriching the local cultural values of that specific geographic place. Highlander later served as a site for Civil Rights and social justice organizing, and ultimately had its charter revoked under accusations of communism. It re-incorporated as the Highlander Research and Education Center, and continues to do work in local leadership training, environmentalism, and economic justice.

Highlander operated outside systematized, institutional, formal education.

Part of me thinks whatever we’re going to do now, we don’t have time to wait for systematized, institutional, formal education to address the blossoming of outright bigotry that Trump’s election seems to have released on both sides of the border (I mean the US and Canada, for those of you used to the word “border” meaning Mexico). The system can catch up later if it wants.

But Highlander had a Canadian equivalent that fewer people outside my neck of the woods know about.

It was called The Antigonish Movement, a Maritime adult education, cooperative, and microfinance movement of the 1920s and ’30s that led to the development of local credit unions that still dot the landscape around Maritime Canada. Its vision was as education-focused as it was economic: it was a vision of human emancipation. And for all it was a relatively radical movement for its time, it had its roots in two stalwart institutions of Maritime Canada: the Roman Catholic Church and the extension department of St. Francis Xavier University, located in a tiny little rural industrial town called Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

The Antigonish Movement centered around the endemic poverty and marginalization people in these small rural towns experienced.

Geographic marginality is often a marginality of benign neglect rather than overt oppression, at least where the ongoing benefit of systemic white supremacy operates. But – and particularly in the economic context of the 1920s and ’30s, before Canada had any form of social safety net – benign neglect can nonetheless result in grinding, structural, seemingly inescapable poverty. And this experience – among others – can produce temporarily embarrassed millionaires, who feel victimized by their lack of what they perceive as their rightful status, but are disinclined to examine why.

The Antigonish Movement was about examining why. It was formed to fight the “weird pessimism” of constant outmigration from the Maritime provinces and its attendant social attrition and decay among those who remained. It was about working collectively to change that.

It was about the idea that the “local economy could be revitalized if the right type of learning was cultivated in ordinary people: especially critical thinking, scientific methods of planning and production, and co-operative entrepreneurship.”

The Antigonish Movement had three key structural components: mass meetings, which Extension Department members organized with community members from villages and towns around the entire region, study clubs, wherein community members gathered together in local homes to study materials available on economics, cooperative principles, and business organization, and the School for Leaders, wherein members of the study clubs could attend six-week programs at the university in Antigonish, to prepare people for action and minimize business failures.

In the late 1930s, at the peak of the Antigonish cooperative influence, there were 1100 study clubs around the Maritimes, with 10,000 participants. Wikipedia says, “by 1938 these study clubs had formed 142 credit unions, 39 co-operative stores, 17 co-operative lobster factories, 11 co-operative fish plants, and 11 other co-ops.” In provinces as small as these, it is impossible to over-estimate the human effect of this level of industry and change.
***

They used technology as part of this educational change process.

I remember learning about Antigonish back at the time I first read We Make the Road By Walking, and a prof told us stories of Father Moses Coady, one of the great lights and voices of the Antigonish Movement, using radio to broadcast to communities and villages throughout the Maritimes.

I thought about that as this post germinated the other day and I began to wonder what a modern-day Antigonish Movement would look like, could do.

The original was about collaboration and cooperation to address poverty and people’s lack of understanding and agency regarding their own circumstances. To me, at this current moment, it is our societal lack of understanding and agency regarding media literacies and digital literacies – and thus the stories we tell ourselves about truth, decency, and each other – that is the poverty I know how to address. To ask “why” about.

Media literacies as an educator has been what I *do* for the better part of twenty years. I have a Ph.D in Twitter and social media, more or less. And yet the contemporary media landscape and the fake news and the climate change news and the mainstream media’s failure to consistently label white nationalism by its name all have me overwhelmed.

If I am going to learn and teach against this tide I won’t be able to do it alone.

Could we? Together? In a systemic, local-global organized fashion? Is there value in an Antigonish 2.0?

The mass meetings would be easy, I think.  We would need each other for study groups. We could break out the best of what we all bring to digital and media literacies and dig in hard until we figure we can see behind the curtain for a moment.  We could then start our own local study groups/digital literacies initiatives in our own contexts. I personally happen to coordinate a Maritime university adult ed program – not *quite* an extension department, but hey – that I’d love to use in a School for Leaders capacity, if that part is still relevant.

I believe that education is a process of offering people tools – conceptual as well as technical – to understand their identities and possibilities and those of others within a structural framework that points to various paths of possible agency.

The temporarily-embarrassed millionaires won’t all be interested, nope. But is there something here, in examining the why and how of contemporary #digitalliteracies in ways that help people understand the systems shaping all our lives, that could make a difference?

I’m curious. I’m listening. I invite your ideas and feedback.

 

Opening the Dissertation: Why We Need to Make Open the Default

I want to talk about open. And academia.

And the outmoded gatekeeping process of the dissertation, world’s most glorified and inflated five-paragraph essay.
***

Last week was Open Access week, and just before I got on a plane for Australia, Dave & I coordinated a series of Lightning Talks at UPEI about a bunch of different facets of open, and cool things people are doing on campus. There was a GONG. It was fun. I talked about doing my dissertation research in the open…and managed to limit myself to talking for *only* five minutes. There were bets.

Then I went to Australia and talked for waaaay more than five minutes. One talk was specifically on academic Twitter but the other was more me trying to frame out the whole open scholarship thing for folks new to digital pedagogy. I built out an ABC structure that I’m looking forward to digging into more deeply soon…and for the “blasphemy” piece I got to talk Donna Haraway so I was happy.

THE ABCs OF OPEN SCHOLARSHIP:

Then I flew homewards and I was unhappy for approximately 32 hours. I swear the whole “let’s do Sunday twice over with zero connectivity and connections timed so you never seem to go to sleep” gig was harrowing. My mental health and I had to just grimly dog-paddle our way through screaming newborns and back spasms and tiny tiny seats, trying to hang together and forebear. We made it, ragged and ghastly, just in time for Hallowe’en!

Which is my segue into dissertating, because hey…there are parallels.
***

OPENING THE DISSERTATION
I am not getting on any more planes this week, though a part of me wishes I were. #OpenEd16 at VCU in Virginia starts today. A Very Large Proportion of my personal/professional “everybody” is there, and while Dave and I had hoped to be too, in the flesh, we are not. Life.

But we are part of a couple of panel conversations about open, including one tomorrow that launches the followup from last year’s #dLRN15 – go check out #SoNAR, the Society for Open Narrative Research.

But this narrative is about the OTHER panel.

Opening The Dissertation: Exploring the Public Thesis Spectrum is Friday afternoon, a hands-on session with Laura Gogia and Jon Becker. I proposed the panel back before I, erm, realized I totally couldn’t go. It was supposed to be us and my committee member Alec Couros and Sava Saheli Singh and Katia Hildebrandt…but. Life. Sigh. Yay Laura and Jon for picking up the slack!

I proposed the panel because for all I shared much of the process of my dissertation research here on the blog, there was a great deal that remained an unspoken long strange trip that no trip back from Australia can hold a candle to.

I want to open up the dissertation to the light of day.

To some extent, this conversation is about open dissertations and open defences. Laura and I both opened up our defences in various ways, with the support of our supervisors and committees, so that our broader networks – who, in both cases, were the subject/s of our research – had a window into the event itself. Mine was livestreamed, right up to the end of public questions. Laura’s was livetweeted by invited guests, right through the committee questions.

Laura, being a visualization wizard, has created a chart around the different decision points involved in opening up dissertation and defence processes to public audiences, and I’m looking forward to participating in the exploration of these – and the possibilities and risks involved – via Google Docs, on Friday. If you’re at #OpenEd16 and you’re in any way part of anyone’s dissertation process, come and join this conversation and help us gather ideas and possibilities!

But. I didn’t actually propose the panel *just* so we could all have a clearer and more granular picture of where we can potentially open up dissertations and defences.

I wanted to open up the question of what – and who – the dissertation is FOR.

OPENING THE CONVERSATION
Laura’s most excellent flowchart captures many of the decision points in the dissertation process where openness is concerned, but it misses what I think of as perhaps the core one – audience.

Not in the specific sense of the audience who sit in the room or even in front of a screen to witness a colleague outline the work they’ve brought to fruition – but in the sense of the eyes and ears and understandings and policies that thesis work eventually touches and shapes.

The capacity to choose real-life audiences – and to be supported in preparing to *address* real-life audiences – matters. In my day job, I work in adult ed. Done well, adult ed and professional learning are all about meaningful choices and application and authentic audiences for student work.

But when it comes to preparing scholars for the so-called pinnacle of higher education, the doctoral degree, the emphasis FAR too often is on having Ph.D students spend years of their lives preparing a very long, highly-format-focused piece of writing primarily for the audience of their defence committee – THREE TO FIVE PEOPLE, usually – and whoever wants to check the damn tome out of the library in ensuing decades.

Yes, scholars often adapt their dissertations for academic books or papers, but these separate publications usually involve another few YEARS of rewrites and edits from Reviewer #2 before they ever see the light of day.

We need to talk about this, academia.

Here’s my opening salvo for Friday’s presentation in Richmond (complete with sticky note diagrams, sailing metaphors, and upside-down boats):

Long story short, the status quo does not help us make a case for the value of higher ed and expert knowledge. Already we lock away too much of our research in expensive, inaccessible, and increasingly unnecessary journals because we’re attached to our own prestige economies. We miss the opportunity to get that research – knowledge that takes years and, often, public funds to develop – TO THE PUBLIC via policy and media and open channels.

But with the dissertation situation, there’s something particularly ugly about our continuing attachment to familiar forms.

Outside continental Europe, most senior scholars’ concept of the dissertation defence or viva is a tradition of intimate questioning behind closed doors, a rite of initiation, almost.

But…initiation into what?

We are no longer training for the professoriate. Any pretense that that is what the Ph.D dissertation and defence processes are for in their entirety should be met with a Come-to-Jesus about both casualization AND contemporary scholarly practices. We lived in a credential-inflated world, and there are few long-term stable jobs left in higher ed for those who complete even its highest degrees. Even when their tuition and cheap grad student/post-doc labour keeps the system afloat. Full stop.

In my own dissertation work on open and networked scholarship, I found one of the biggest benefits *repeatedly* cited by participants was that cultivating open, public audiences for their work and ideas allowed them to “contribute to the conversation” in their field and in higher ed generally, EVEN WHEN THEY DID NOT HAVE STATUS POSITIONS IN THE ACADEMIC HIERARCHY.

This is where we get back to blasphemy. Haraway (1991) frames blasphemy as a form of faithfulness, an ironic and partial nod to profaned origins that nonetheless preserves the priority of those origins.

What are we being faithful to, when we engage in research, in Ph.D programs, in scholarship? A broken system, or the creation and circulation of knowledge?

How we do dissertations goes a long way to answering that question.

Graduate students embarking on a dissertation should be able to make informed, supported, meaningful choices about who the audience(s) for their dissertations should be.

One of the prime responsibilities of supervision should be helping students select, understand, and reach – to some scaffolded extent – those audiences.

And, OPEN SHOULD BE THE DEFAULT, RATHER THAN CLOSED. That doesn’t mean always, that doesn’t mean without supports. It does mean all of us IN the academy, no matter how precariously, need to learn to navigate various aspects of what it means to be part of the public conversation in our fields, so we can help students find meaningful ways to join in and contribute.

So, as I say in the video, let’s start this conversation. How do we open up the dissertation?

The Spectacle…or Welcome to the Handbasket?

I ended up thinking about Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967) whenever I opened up Twitter this past week.

I mostly blame the clown-car/lynch mob that was Trump’s Republican National Convention (America, you have my bewildered sympathies). The ghastly God-I-wish-this-were-surreal-but-nope-it’s-reality sense of overwhelm that the convention engendered in me, even from the comfort of my securely-Canadian couch, was ugly. Add in the recurring black death and hashtag resistance that populates my Twitter feed all too often, the increasing regularity of mass-scale terrorism and retaliation, even the banning of professional troll @Nero from Twitter for unleashing all sorts of racist, misogynist hell against Ghostbusters’ Leslie Jones…it all adds up, for me, to a societal social contract that my existing conceptual tools are inadequately equipped to deal with.

Because what the hell is all this hot mess if not Spectacle with a capital S? (plus some other words that start with S and end with “storm”)…

So. Debord’s been niggling at the back of my mind. He defines the spectacle as “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (p. 5).

(Caveat: I am a very casual reader of Debord. I didn’t work with Debord’s spectacle in my dissertation on academic Twitter, except insofar as so many of my conversations during that period were with participant and mentor @KateMfD, whose visual identity on the internet during that time was the cover photo FOR Society of the Spectacle (see below). I spent that intensive and relational research period interacting with Kate while primarily visualizing her as that cover image, which…Debord would probably have something to say about.  I’ll leave that one for some other keener to unpack.)

Cover of Debord's Society of the Spectacle, people with 3D glasses on

@KateMfD, as I will forever see her in my mind

Anyhoo, while I was musing about spectacle thanks to the mangled mob pageantry of the RNC and its blue-collar billionaire, a Debord reference landed smack on my screen much closer to home.

Because last week for us here was also the extraordinary #DigPed PEI, which brought people from all over PEI education and from the US, UK, and other Canadian provinces together for three days of intensive engagement with ideas and tools – Twitter among them. And in one of the (so far very positive and thought-provoking) anonymous feedback forms I solicited afterwards, a participant brought up Debord and spectacle, as related to that individual’s residual hesitancy about social media.

And so I thought, clearly this is a combo endorsement from the universe to go back & read me some Debord.

(After all, beyond politics and societal participation, how many of my household’s personal and professional relationships find communicative and affective expression in Facebook/Twitter/Instagram? What about the casual but relationship-augmenting encounters that Pokemon Go has created for my kids and, erm, me this past week?)
***

So I did. Spoiler? I don’t, ontologically, buy the ways Debord separates society and the subject, and the implied essentialism of a reality outside the spectacle…which is why there was no Debord in my thesis. Still, there’s something to his idea of the spectacle I think we all ought to be digging into and trying to grapple with, especially those of us who see ourselves as educators. Or, um, people who don’t want the world to burn. Or both.

It’s this. What I took out of seventy cobbled-together minutes of my life spent re-aquainting myself with Debord is:

the spectacle of contemporary society is about power. Full stop.

(Okay there’s more about identity & commodity & reification but Ima hafta dig into that another day. Or you can. Ping me if you do!)

Debord, on power:
“At the root of the spectacle lies that oldest of all social divisions of labor, the specialization of power. The specialized role played by the spectacle is that of spokesman for all other activities, a sort of diplomatic representative of hierarchical society at its own court, and the source of the only discourse which that society allows itself to hear. Thus the most modern aspect of the spectacle is also at bottom its most archaic” (Debord, p. 8).

In other words, the bread and circuses we are being fed are pretty much naked, craven power subsuming all other forms of societal organization.

So Trump’s bizarre content-free campaign video, above? Just power as spectacle, image circulation subsuming any other form of discourse.

Those English people who voted for Brexit but now don’t want to leave? Who voted as they did as a way of signalling “burn it all down”? A sheer exercise in power, both from the political engineers and from many of the individual voters.

And everything Milo Yiannopoulos ever wrote on Twitter? Same. As Laurie Penny says in what is pretty much a mic drop to this particular cultural moment“It’s all an act. A choreographed performance by a career sociopath who will claim any cause to further his legend.” 

The problem, of course, is what Penny points out: there’s no room in this kind of game for truly believing in much of anything. That’s why the disconnects are so vast and nobody seems to care. The “attention hustlers,” as she calls them, “channel their own narcissism to give voice to the wordless, formless rage of the people neoliberalism left behind.”

Spectacle. Power. The fomenting of archaic hatreds, not because one necessarily believes them…but because they’re there. Because they allow social relationships to be mediated so effectively by images and symbols.

Oh goody. So THAT’s why most of my Twitter feed is so damn bewildered and depressed these days. For those of us who still believe in just about anything beyond the spectacle of power for its own sake, the way the Overton window on this kind of politics and personal practice has shifted is kinda staggering.

Now, given that Debord was writing in 1967 and Ann Coulter’s “career” – to name but one of Penny’s “attention hustlers” – pre-dates social media by at least a decade, Twitter itself nor social media more generally obviously can’t be the source of the spectacle. I don’t actually even believe it’s a more pure or powerful instantiation of the spectacle than television, especially in cable news territory.

But I don’t have cable news on when I work. I don’t spend my professional days with TV constantly in the background.

Whereas Twitter – for me, Twitter even more than Facebook – has been, for the past six or seven years, a constant presence. It’s a stream I dip in and out of as I work, even when it is not the site of my work…and it has been a rich source of connections and conversations and resources FOR that work as well as a space through which my work and voice have been amplified.

But it is also part of the spectacle-ization of broadcast media, part of the crush of the attention economy within which we all swim these days whether we sign up for Pinterest or Twitter or Instagram or no. Because our narratives are all filtered through the spectacle and its steroids of scandal and somewhere after years of 24-hour news cycles and Twitter fights and identity commodification, we all just seem to be rolling down hill in the same unfortunate handbasket, labelled “power.”

Or that’s how it felt this week.

I’m not quite done with Debord, I don’t think. Gonna try again – next week – to figure out what it means to be an educator in the midst of this sea of media and spectacle in which we all swim, and think about the ways in which social media in particular are handmaidens of spectacle…and yet maybe also means of subverting the spectacle that mass media and politics serve up? Maybe.

We’ll see. That’s next week. For the remainder of this week, I’ll just be over in the corner here rocking gently and staring at the wall trying to figure out how to get through another 5+ months of 2016. Join me! I have jellybeans.

Excellence &…the Wild Rumpus

This week I got to descend upon Ohio – and OSU’s annual Innovate conference – to give a keynote about networks and higher education.

Here are the slides I used to try to tell the story I was trying to tell:

Funny story about that story.

Innovate’s theme for this year was “excellence,” with a focus on, as their site put it, “sharing innovations that let educators re-imagine their instruction without sacrificing pedagogical quality and rigor.”

Now, I’m not in the habit of making claims about excellence. Or innovation, or even rigor, unless I’m in the throes of a formal academic paper in which case I can dig into ontologies and epistemologies and validity structures and make a case OSU’s own Patti Lather would be proud of. A language of excellence and innovation and rigor tends to emphasize performance rather than learning, and while that’s important for funders and decision-makers it doesn’t necessarily map tidily against ideas of connection and vulnerability. My work is still deeply steeped in the logics of the social web, if aware of that perspective’s limitations…and the forces that aim to eclipse it.

But they clearly knew all that. The ad for the talk read:
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I laughed out loud when I read that first sentence. And I decided to approach “excellence” with some of the same wry touch they’d brought to the keynote blurb.

I enrolled my kids’ copy of Where the Wild Things Are to help illustrate the story. I talked about networked practice and its implications for higher ed as The Wild Rumpus.

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Where the Wild Things Are won Maurice Sendak the 1964 Caldecott Medal for Most Distinguished Picture Book. *That,* quite frankly, is about as safe a marker of excellence as you’re gonna find in the fraught world of higher ed these days, and not just because it’s a kids’ book: rather, that’s how the prestige economy of recognizable, institutionalized legitimacy works.

People have heard of the book, and the Caldecott medal, so the recognizability of the title and the award would serve as proxies for quality, I figured. If you’re going to introduce all kinds of new practices to a group of academics, best to start from a safe place. A signal that resonates. Kinda like when someone says, “I went to Princeton” or “I published in Nature.” Those titles are signals. I have (shhh…don’t tell) never read Nature and I’ve never been to New Jersey, but I have been acculturated enough to academia that I understand that both the journal and the college signal a level of widely-recognized prestige that I’m supposed to be impressed by.

Because that’s how prestige operates: that “supposed to” interpellates people and recruits them based on aspirational identity…the desire to be the sort of person who *gets* that kind of thing. So in academia, outside of our own very specific disciplines, we trade entirely on these broad, external signals. That’s how academia manages to function as a broad in-group in spite of the fact that most of our knowledge bases are so extraordinarily specialized there’s no way for a chemist to actually tell if a sociologist does good work or not, or vice versa. The signals are stand-ins for the actual knowledge we possess.

Entertainingly though, in the process of establishing broadly understood signals – where people went to school, who they’ve studied with, where they sit in the academic hiring hierarchy, where they’ve published, who’s funded them – those signals themselves get reified and the prestige accorded them comes to seem entirely natural.

Yes, Nature has the highest impact factor of all journals…but how many academics can actually explain impact factor, pressed to the point? Princeton is Ivy League, which means something even to us heathens up in Canada, who totally fail to recognize many of the prestige signals of US academia.

(Imagine the dismay and betrayal I felt when, after half a lifetime of hearing the words “Ivy League” bandied about as Americanized synonyms for “Oxford” and “Cambridge,” I discovered the Ivy League IS AN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE. Huh????


I digress.)

Long story short, I figured Where the Wild Things worked as a proxy for excellence in the tiny context of my talk because while both the title and the medal are recognizable, nobody’s gunning for either. Neither the book nor the wild rumpus – even as metaphor – has been declared the next Great Tsunami or Disruption, so nobody’s career or reputation ride on making sure that everybody is clear how mightily it sucks. Plus the book is sweet and nostalgic and most people don’t really remember what it’s about, they just remember how it makes them feel. Which is also how signals operate.

And *that* is how I tripped my own self up on and almost had to ditch the whole thing half-baked in the middle of the journey to making a case for the networked Rumpus as its own form of excellence.

Because I was thinking of The Wild Rumpus as a metaphor for some of the spaces outside the boundaries of conventional prestige signals, just a fun way of talking about an alternative prestige economy, when I realized I should probably re-read the damn book. RESEARCH.

I’d forgotten, of course. Max – the little blighter at the centre of the story who runs away to the fantasy world of the wild things in his fantasies – ends up wanting to go back where people love him best of all and his food is still hot. The rumpus is joy and freedom and the wild things bow down to his taming, but in the end he sails home to his bedroom, back to normal, back to the glorious comfort of the known.

The Wild Rumpus is just a distraction, for Max. Whoopsie.

But in the middle of knowledge abundance and precarity and disinvestment in public education, a world where over 70% of North American higher education instructional staff were reported to be contingent even back in 2007, I think it’s safe to say that most of us won’t be sailing home to our solid tenured realities when we’re done with the fun of our contemporary Rumpus.

So I made this slide, and turned the story sideways…a bedtime story to wake up conference attendees first thing in the morning. Not a happy ending, but the unpacking of the Rumpus outlines ways to navigate the seas of abundance and change, at least.

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***
Post-script: I wish I could say my ideas will change the direction of the ship and bring us home to where supper is still hot.

I tell myself it is wiser to grow up and learn to forage with Wild Things.

I don’t know. The Rumpus has treated me extraordinarily well, but contingency is a flawed and exhausting place to live. The potential networked practice brings to higher ed – the particular versions of excellence it makes possible, the ones outlined in the slides above – are still by far best enacted by faculty and staff with the security to take risks, and iterate. But that’s often not how it works out. Higher ed is an increasingly stratified professional environment, and networked practice may increasingly be seen as a signal of LACK of prestige, as power circles coalesce around the privilege they conflate as excellence.

Maybe THEY are the Wild Things and we can tame them with Max’s magic trick of staring into their eyes and telling them, “Be Still!”

No? Dammit. Now I will not sleep tonight.