Digital Identities & Digital Citizenship: Houston, We Have a Problem

A couple of weeks back, I gave the closing keynote in Keene State College’s Open Education spring speaker series.

It was a rumination on Open as a set of practices and a site of identity, particularly for those of us in higher ed. I wanted to consider what it means to engage in digital scholarship – and digital leadership – from an identity perspective rather than a role perspective…especially for those of us for whom the standard higher ed roles and labels of student/staff/faculty may be only partial or precarious, aspirational rather than fully institutionalized.

Now, one of these days I will become one of those people who actually writes out their talks. Until that day, Dear Reader, all I have for you is Slideshare and my tendency to post talks as jumping-off points rather than transcriptions.

Digital identities & citizenship: Leading in the Open from Bonnie Stewart
***

This particular slide deck is a REAL jumping off point, though. Because I was in the middle of my talk – mouth open, mid-sentence – when an awkward realization kinda opened up in front of me.

The connection I was trying to make between digital identity and digital citizenship in the open? Has a big gaping contradiction in it.

Nothing like a lightbulb moment in the middle of a narrative in front of a room full of people.

The point of my talk was that we need to go beyond thinking about identity in the open – digital identity – and start thinking in terms of digital citizenship.

Identities never generate in a vacuum; we are mockingbirds, mimics, ornery creatures whose Becoming is always relational, even if often in reaction to what we don’t want to be. Our digital identities are no different…and unfettered individualism, as a lens, tends to do a TERRIBLE job of acknowledging the ways collaboration and cooperation make the spaces in which we Become actually liveable.

So the presentation for Keene was about going beyond ideas of individual digital identity to ideas of digital citizenship and the shared commons…while acknowledging citizenship as a flawed framework that brings up issues of borders and empire and power. It was about the fact that we can’t really talk about digital identity without talking about citizenship, because when we’re all out in the open Becoming identities together, we’re shaping the space we all inhabit.

But. If I was right on this point – and I still think I was but hey, you can take that up in the comments – it was the other side of the argument that blindsided me.

I hadn’t fully – until that moment in front of the keynote audience – thought through how digital identity, as a practice, operates counter to the collaboration and cooperation that need to be part of digital citizenship.

This is our contemporary contradiction: identity as a construct in contemporary social media spaces makes for pretty rotten social spaces.

We know this. You know this. Much as many of us appreciate and enjoy aspects of the ambient sociality and community that social network platforms deliver us – shout out to everybody who hit “like” on the photos of the Hogwarts letter we made for my son’s eleventh birthday today, because those likes are, frankly, validating whereas if I parade the letter up and down my actual street I’m just weird – we all know there are fundamental drawbacks.

We’re algorithmically manipulated. We’re surveilled. We’re encouraged to speak rather than listen. We’re stuck engaging in visibility strategies, whether we admit it or not, in order simply to be acknowledged and seen within a social or professional space.

Our digital identities do not – and at the level of technological affordances and inherent structure, cannot – create a commons that is actually a healthy pro-social space.

And yet. And yet. Here we all are.
***

What I realized in developing the talk for Keene was that I used to write a lot about identity, and digital identities…and I stopped.

In the early days of this blog, digital identity was the crux of the phenomenon I was trying to work out and develop a research approach to: the why and the how of making ourselves visible and public in open, online spaces. In those early days, blog comments were still alive and well and many, many people contributed – generously, chorally – to my understanding of identity in the overlapping networked publics that blogging and academic Twitter comprised, back then. I’d been blogging in narrative communities for years, and had watched how monetization and scale of visibility shaped and shifted not only people’s presentation of self, but their experience of it, in the digital context.

I wrote about six key selves of digital identity. I wrote posts with David Bowie songs as titles. I played with messy ideas like brand and cyborgs and never did write as much about theory as I’d intended when I started out and gave the blog a name. But it was mostly identity that I focused on in those first few years.

And then I more or less walked away.

On the flights home from New Hampshire, I reflected on this; on the fact that even in my dissertation, I took up identity and digital identity but balked around focusing enough on it to theorize it, to fully unpack it. Because I knew it was the wrong lens for the socio-technical scholarly sphere I was trying to explore…but I didn’t know why.

Until I finally unravelled what bothered me about it, in the middle of a talk at Keene.

Digital identity isn’t just the wrong lens for figuring out digital scholarship, or encouraging participatory engagement in learning. It’s actually the wrong lens for building towards any vision of digital citizenship that makes for a liveable, decent digital social sphere to inhabit.

You probably already knew that. But I feel like something finally fell into place…years later than it ought to have, maybe, but nonetheless.

Now the question is how do we really get past identity and build for citizenship, in environments that limit, organize, and shape our sociality in ways we often even cannot see?

Tower of Song

For my birthday back in January, Dave bought me a Leonard Cohen biography.

I opened it and laughed and laughed.

He bought it because Cohen is still alive. David Bowie – who for more than thirty years was my imaginary boyfriend and the person I wanted to be when I grew up – is dead. And I woke up the morning of January 10th and realized:

a) me & Bowie are never gonna have that conversation about identity. dammit.
b) life is short .

But I turned 44 on a paid-for plane trip back from London, so not all was ashes. I gave talks at the LSE and the Tower of London and I made a side pilgrimage to the street where the Ziggy Stardust album cover was shot the week I was born, and I woke up in my own bed the morning after I got back and there was Leonard Cohen waiting for me in the only form he or Bowie will ever be waiting for me, and I opened up the bio and the first lines I saw were Cohen’s poem that begins:

Marita, please find me.
I am almost thirty.

And then I laughed some more and it was only faintly hysterical.
***

But my point was about identity.

Given the timing of the London trip, I turned talks about academic Twitter and orality and literacy into a Bowie tribute of a sort.

Bowie songs made up the titles of half my digital identity posts back when I started this blog. I firmly believe thirty years of watching him navigate time and selves prepped me well to live in a world of hypervisibility and monetized identity and blatant performativity.

Or, you know, social media.

But I’d never fully mapped it out.  So before I got into Twitter’s collapsed publics and what Meyer (2015) calls the “smoosh” of orality & literacy, I laid out – with images and lyrics and some core points, the idea that networked identity is very much a Bowie approach to identity.

Fluidity, fragmentation, the vision and chutzpah to stand just on the edge of rising trends and embody them for audiences…notable qualities of successful networked identities.

But for scholars in particular, the core of the Bowie approach is a distinction between role and identity.

It used to be that the personal/professional axis generally divided lives into separate domains, at least where the possessors of said lives took on paid roles outside the domestic realm. In most fields – and certainly in academia – such paid roles tended to be stations within articulated, often hierarchical systems. Or organizations. Or institutions. A person – often a dude – showed up for his or her job and fulfilled clearly-delineated responsibilities that were parallel to those of other people working in similar roles, until such point at which a higher up determine he or she was worthy of another role.

Whatever kind of special snowflake this person secretly imagined him or herself to be had to be enacted off the job, at home, in the personal domain.

Under sway of this broad societal norm, only those rare animals who became celebrities of some sort or another made their individual identities – their distinctions rather than their interchangeability – the core of their professional lives.

(Enter Bowie. But Bowie was not just any celebrity).

Gossip rags vouch for the fact that a great many people catapulted to fame not only discover that the collapse of personal/professional identity results in a parallel and alarming collapse of privacy, with the public working self taking over 24/7…but for many, that public working self quickly becomes a stale trap of typecasting, minimizing their creativity in exchange for a single hypervisible public image that they tended to be pilloried from departing from. Alas, poor Fat Elvis.

Bowie may not have been the only celebrity to manage to change successfully with the times AND maintain – some of the 70s aside – a modicum of personal privacy regardless of public scrutiny and visibility…but he did a smashing, savvy job of it, for the most part. As he did a smashing job of messing openly with constraints of gender and sexuality.

Selves were things Bowie picked up and put down, serially, while managing to create an overarching identity as someone so utterly distinct that people repeatedly referred to him as “otherworldly.”

Bowie’s job wasn’t really to be a rock star, like all the other rock stars in the constellation. Bowie’s job was to be Bowie.

Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 2.15.37 PM

***
So what does this have to do with academic Twitter?

Our academic institutions are still built on roles. Tenured roles – or permanent academic roles, for those outside North America – are an endangered species, but the hierarchical, institutional model still conceptualizes labour along roles’ interchangeable, impersonal terms.

My research into academic Twitter the last couple of years was pretty emphatic that Twitter enables actively-participant (or resident) scholars to operate beyond what Boyer (1990) would have called the “hierarchy of functions” of scholarship. Twitter doesn’t just situate users within the realm of networked scholarship…in can enhance their sense of community and engagement in their work in general.

And it can open up paths to the development, performance, and circulation of scholarly identities…even without roles. People who may not have institutional roles or academic jobs or status in the hierarchy can become known for their work and their ideas, via Twitter and broader networks of participation.

This changes things. Junior scholars and grad students and contingent academics can create forms of visibility and legitimacy within the blurred space between media and institutional scholarship that do not match their institutional status, or lack thereof.

But it changes more than who gets to join in some aspects of the academic conversation. It changes how.

When, on your campus, you need someone who does things that seem “digital,” you can look for somebody who has that word (or some other word in permanent danger of becoming imminently outdated…I’m looking at you, elearning) in their title…or you can look for the person who for inexplicable reasons seems to do that stuff. Sometimes it’s the same person, but sometimes it’s better if it’s not.

Because humans are funny. If we approach someone on the basis of their title or role, we tend to approach them within the boundaries of the institutional hierarchy. I suspect many folks in higher ed still secretly associate all things digital with the 1996-era title “webmaster”…which meant you had a seat at neither the faculty nor the admin table.

But if somebody is approached based on an interest in that person’s differentiated, visible, searchable expertise and identity…the conversation changes. The hierarchy is a little bit undermined. The conversation tends to depart far more quickly from what’s happened before to what *might* actually be possible. New things are more likely to emerge.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s just a networked approach to identity and interaction.

***

There’s a catch, though.

Carving out space as a career individual within a society primarily marked by institutionalized roles is one thing. Bowie had uncanny timing and instincts in this regard.

Carving out space as a career individual within a society – and particularly within a sector – primarily marked by the collapse of institutionalized roles is another thing entirely.

We can all be as Bowie as we can muster in the connective tissue of our networks. But those do not – at least for scholars, nor for musicians either, at least in the way they used to – an industry make.

A ton of us live here, straddling this strange gap between academic roles that don’t – and may never – exist for us, and academic-ish identities that we use to contribute in the ways we can, whether to institutions or just to the broader conversation.

Paying our rent every day in the Tower of Song, as it were.

Maybe Leonard Cohen, who found himself swindled out of everything in his seventies and hustled his way back on stage, touring til nearly eighty in his sharp gangster suit, is who I oughtta plan to be when I grow up.

Somebody call me when we figure out alternatives?

The Old School – Sexism, Social Media, Campus Culture, and Identities

Mostly, when I write and talk about social media, the riskiest thing I’m doing is destabilizing a few people’s dearly-held concepts about the ways in which scholarly influence operates and circulates within academia.

This past weekend, though, I had the privilege of doing something that felt much more dangerous – I talked about the culture of sexism and sexualized violence on campuses and in society at large. In a keynote, on a campus where last year’s student orientation chant about non-consensual sex hit Youtube and made national and international news. The audience, mostly from Maritime Canada higher ed institutions, were lovely. Designing the talk was terrifying.

Not because I was talking particularly outside my field: I wasn’t. I talked about it all through the lens of social media, as both a symptom of and contributor to the problem. I talked about #yesallwomen and about the UCSB shooting and Men’s Rights Activism sites and about how social media amplifies all aspects of who we are and what we think and believe, and reflects society’s power relations as much as it also actively tries to shape them. I talked about how the stories we tell ourselves about technologies are often deterministic, even scapegoating, focusing blame on gadgets rather than on ourselves. It was a culture talk, a structure talk, and a history talk, in addition to being a social media talk. I was proud of it.

And it went well, though I can’t entirely credit my carefully-crafted navigation of the semiotic landscape of gender and power. It worked in part because I didn’t actually have to introduce the topics of conversation or carry them into the arena for discussion: I followed on the heels of the very sincere and very illustrious Wayne MacKay, whose bio features his Order of Canada and the fact that he chairs committees and councils on cyberbullying and sexualized violence on campuses and is a lawyer and professor and former President of my undergraduate institution.

(My bio, on the other hand, pretty much mentions that I have a Twitter account. To thine own self be true.)

It wasn’t punching above my weight that felt dangerous. It was the in-between space of the topic: the fact that what is sayable about the reality of gendered identities and sexual politics these days is fraught and limited. The fact that – and this is at the core of everything I tried to say – they have ALWAYS been fraught and limited. The fact that as a 42 year old grown woman with a big-ass vocabulary, using the word “patriarchy” in a public conversation – online or in person – still makes me nervous. Because I don’t much enjoy being diminished and abused, full stop, and while correlation may not be causation, I tend not to stick my hand back on the stovetop after a burn.

When high-status white males lend their voices to framing these conversations, it’s easier. Their very presence does the discursive work of legitimating the topic, making it a Very Important Thing and not an attack from the margins. In the case of Saturday’s conversation, it also helped that we were addressing college and university student services professionals who live and walk the talk of diverse, inclusive campuses far more adeptly and viscerally and vigilantly than many in higher ed. But Wayne and the gentleman who opened the day also introduced terms like misogyny and rape culture to the conversation, leaving me free to deepen that conversation rather than spend my hour trying to justify having it in the first place. Their acknowledgement of sexism and sexual violence as problems within campus cultures was key.

But the very identity positions that enable white Boomer males who sit at tables of power to speak of sexism and sexual violence without being seen as accusing also allow them to reify frameworks that neutralize and distance these phenomena, whether they mean to or not. Talk of hookup culture and social media and values serves to make this a “kids these days” conversation, not a conversation about the imbalance of power and identities in our culture. It makes the problem new. It makes us – the grownups – less complicit.

Let me be very precise. This is not new…it is old school, in the most literal sense. We are simply forced – by virtue of an immersive and intrusive news culture and the rise of risk management and institutional optics – to talk about it.

I talked about this in terms of stories. Stories are the ways in which we understand who we are, and our stories of culture and technologies right now are failing to give us any tools we need to develop productive identities for the world we’re in.

I told a story about obscene phone calls. When I was nine or ten, my mother and I had a caller who harassed us for months before the threat of being traced finally got rid of him. Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 9.32.07 PMEarly on, before my mother banned me from answering, I heard the deep, heavy breathing on the other end of the line. I suspect he said more to my mother, because I remember the sharp staccato of her voice, fearful and indignant. I knew from my friends that if we’d only had a man in the house he could’ve gotten on the line and scared the caller into going away. I decided that when I got old enough to get my own phone line I’d put it in my initials, not my name…because I was female. I also began cultivating the deepest, most rumbling voice I could. I wanted to be heard.

Of course, by the time I got old enough to have a phone line of my own, call display had largely wrecked the obscene phone call market and its capacity to assert power and create fear without actually facing personal consequences. The heavy breathers had to go underground and wait for the Internet, for underbelly pockets where they could congregate, no longer isolated, and reflect and amplify each others’ fledgling desires to exert power without consequence, to create fear in vulnerable others. The desires are not new. The technologies of our time regulate and constrain the identities we get to try on for size.

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 10.13.55 PM

Mount Allison women’s rugby, 1993

So do our cultural artefacts, and our frames of reference. I  told a story about the chant that scandalized Canadian higher ed last fall. I said that while I shared Wayne’s dismay at the fact that it was part of orientation in 2013, I didn’t share his shock: I knew the words. Twenty years ago, at the university where Wayne was later President, I learned that chant at a rugby game.

The student leaders interviewed last fall about the chant said they’d never really listened to the lyrics. I had. I’d heard and understood, just as I understood the rest of the songs that made up the raucous rugby identity: I just didn’t know what the hell to do with any of it, because I did not know if I could object and still belong. The rugby club was the first mixed-gender space I’d found where I did not feel diminished by the fact that I did not interact like a *lady.* Rugby didn’t take itself too seriously, and I thought I had to not take myself too seriously, either. So I sang along and I drank along and I tried to straddle the cognitive dissonance of it all, and mostly I failed and felt prudish and then tried harder. I did not even know it was supposed to be different. I did not know how to get outside it. It was called a tradition and it appeared to be the water we swam in and so I joined in and perpetuated it because I wanted that sense of belonging and I had no role models for a different discourse. And that is not new, either…but in the smallest ways it is shifting. Because peer-to-peer media don’t just de-isolate the heavy breathers, but those on the other end of the line. They allow outpourings like #yesallwomen as much as they allow forums for MRAs and PUAs. They allow those of us who work on campuses to connect and engage and try to set different frames of reference for campus identities, different examples, different discourses for belonging. They will not magically solve anything. But used well, they can be the kind of signal that enables people – male, female, whomever – to begin to be able to think about objecting, and changing traditions, without having to give up hope of belonging.

Or so I said Saturday. In the end, that talk didn’t feel nearly so risky in the delivery as I’d feared and I was heartened and for a minute I even thought, “maybe it’s not so hard to have this conversation after all.”

Then George Will popped up in The Washington Post yesterday. And I laughed at my naivete and realized this conversation has barely begun.
***

You’ve probably seen the article by now, deriding “the supposed campus epidemic of rape: aka “sexual assault.” Note the scare quotes. That’s the tone of the whole piece: “micro-aggressions” and “survivors” get the same contempt. The article conflates the recent trigger warning kerfuffle with an overall moral panic about how progressivism has made everyone on campuses “hypersensitive, even delusional, about victimizations.” Will asserts that victimhood is a coveted status on American campuses, one that now confers privileges.

I won’t bother to explain that it is not a privilege but a human right to assert that one is not just a sexual object, even when one is treated that way. I won’t bother to explain that when one DOES assert this right one is often treated to the very questionable privilege of being publicly excoriated and shamed by people like Will himself.

(I will bother to explain – to all of us, even the most active in peer-to-peer communications – that when the surge of people talking about structural grievances like racism and sexism and rape threats and able-ism and the right to speak from identity positions we do not happen to fully understand, share, or agree with begins to sound like victimhood as privilege, we might want to hold that judgement. Because yes, identity and power politics are messy and conflated right now. Yes, it can make some of us with actual structural privileges in the matrix of societal domination feel unfamiliarly – even unfairly – silenced in arenas we are unaccustomed to, and yes, some people will navigate these new discursive regimes in ways that are sensationalist or distasteful or whatever. This is the price of a performative public sphere. Nobody gets to be neutral).

But the privileges of victimhood are not the conversation Will is actually in. He’s in the conversation about who has the right to do what to who; the conversation about what we uphold as unwritten codes of whose bodies and actions and decisions count. This is smack in the middle of Todd Akin “legitimate rape” territory. This is about the privilege to exert power without consequence, to maintain stability in the categories of who counts as a vulnerable Other. This is an old conversation, but one we didn’t have to have publicly for a long ol’ time because respectability politics is powerful, silencing stuff and belonging has long been the price of speaking back.

So I’d like to thank George Will for prompting me to take my keynote from Saturday public. Again, let me be very precise. This issue is not new, and the only privilege here is the privilege that Will is daring us to wrest from him, in Charlton Heston “from my cold, dead hands” style. He may dismiss the #survivorprivilege hashtag that arose in response to him. But he cannot silence it. And as someone who has worked on higher ed campuses for the past fifteen years, I see that as a positive beginning.

god bless us, every one

“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.”

Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D.
December, 1843.
(from the Preface to A Christmas Carol, original edition)

It’s all Dickens in our house, these days. I have a seven year old playing the part of Tiny Tim in the city’s production of A Christmas Carol: he’s rehearsing twenty or so hours a week and learning to sing notes no voice related to my own should ever decently attempt. Dave and I ferry him to and fro and discuss Victorian concepts of charity and debate the merits of his various fake English accents. We’ve also introduced his younger sister to the story via The Muppets so she doesn’t bolt in terror from our front-row-centre seats at the matinee when we take her to see him.

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

The movie-watching unfolded something like this:
five year old: Scrooge is bad!
me: Scrooge has made the mistake of thinking money is the only important thing in life.
five year old: Why does Scrooge want everybody to work on Christmas?
me: He can’t imagine anything else useful besides working, honey.
five year old: Scrooge leaves the little bunny in the cold!
me: Yes. At first he does, because he believes nobody else deserves anything of his.
five year old: Scrooge needs to learn to share!
me: Well, yes. And he does, right? He doesn’t want to live a life where nobody remembers or cares about him. So he opens his heart.

In the midst of this heartwarming tale of greed and redemption, a chill of doubt and fear struck me, and a cynical sub-narrative ran through my responses. Am I setting my children up for cruel disappointment by letting them believe in…Scrooge?
me (muttering): Power doesn’t seem to be as lonely these days as it was for the Victorians.
five year old: What?
me: Nothing.
five year old: Scrooge is sad because people say bad things about him when he’s not there.
me: Maybe the 1% should read what Twitter has to say about THEM.
five year old: What?
me: Nothing. Sorry. I was just thinking we still have some Scrooges in the world.
five year old: Why does Scrooge leave the poor bunny in the cold and throw things at him, Mommy?
me: Scrooge likes to believe that the people who don’t have what he has don’t deserve it. This is a mistake lots of people make, sweetheart. You should read the comments in The Chronicle of Higher Education sometime.
***

By mid-Victorian standards, the unredeemed Scrooge may have been a terrible, isolated cad. By the measure of the moment, his hearty embrace of a second chance at humanity seems to make him a less likely figure than Santa Claus.

Can I really raise my kids to expect that all it takes is a couple of ghosts to rid a heart of avarice and derision? Scrooge’s early outlook on the world was written as a scathing indictment of unchecked industrial-era capitalism, but he says little worse than can be found in any clot of online comments any given week…and not in the underbelly of Reddit, but in ye olde academic blogosphere.

Are there no prisons? the usual suspects snipe to the precariat who have not achieved tenure.
Are there no workhouses? they sneer at all who dared specialize in disciplines that aren’t, effectively, economic engines of their own.

When the ghosts of Christmas past arrive to point out that many struggling scholars chose their disciplines some time ago, as part of very different economic and cultural narratives? It doesn’t seem to register. Even when a Tiny Tim is held up, the first in his or her family to ever GO to college? Deaf ears. As one of these Tiny Tims who chose the field of education out of the best of intentions 20 years ago at 21, the year before the teaching market collapsed here and all the teachers stopped retiring, let me tell you: in a lot of families, just going to SCHOOL is a big, foreign, intimidating thing. When no one in your life can explain the difference between sociology and neuroscience and everyone you know just works at whatever job they can get, the concept of choosing a field based on return on investment isn’t even on the radar. Yet kids are just supposed to KNOW. Perhaps if the commenters spent their surplus hours consulting in local high schools rather than soapboxing on the internet, they could help save future generations of bright deserving youth. But let me tell you, even neuroscience ain’t a ticket to Easy Street these days, Mr. Scrooge, sir.

And when the ghosts of Christmas future intone that the tenture track is dwindling and in fact that higher ed would currently run aground in 20 minutes if all who teach within its hallowed halls were offered job security and a living wage? More selective hearing. The deserving will make it, runs the Victorian logic of parsimonious “charity” that only extends its warmth to those it recognizes as kith and kin, fellow winners in an increasingly stacked and unsustainable game.

(This is all to say nothing of the larger excesses and abuses of global post-industrial capital, of course, before anyone jumps in with that particular rhetorical parry. Western society’s most educated are hardly a sympathetic lot compared with those who mine the raw materials for our smart phones or who labour in condemned buildings to make the clothes we wear. Or those without the privilege of education in our own cities and towns. Fully agreed, full stop. That does not mean the increasingly disparate field of our own industry and agency is undeserving of regard.)

Secure or precarious, we are all tied like Scrooge to our desks these days, trying to fit more and more work and possibility into the same old 24 hours. If you have a reasonable job in academia after studying for half a lifetime? Please expect to work increasingly long hours on the treadmill for the privilege of believing you have not been left behind. If you don’t? Better bust your hump and distinguish yourself ever further, ever higher. And if the ghost of Christmas present dares show his jolly face and suggest you leave your toil for leisure?

The academy – and the rest of post-industrial capitalism – suggests you simply make leisure of your toil. We work on ourselves and our careers and our merged personal/professional identities, here in these convenient online spaces, around the clock.

We none of us have time for redemption, these days.
***
This all hits close to home because it is what I research. And I research it in the stuffed gaps between kids’ rehearsals and laundry and writing and presentations and sleep, like a proper 21st century Scrooge scholar. And then occasionally I have it reflected back to me from a perspective that turns it all on its head and I feel as if I am standing in a Victorian street in my nightshirt and bedcap, peering in at a scene and pleading, “No, spirit! No!”

A week ago last night I sent out notifications – invitations, thank yous, regretful ‘no’s to the generous people who came forward to volunteer for my upcoming dissertation research. I had a particular bounty of women from Australia, mostly white, mostly mid-career, and so one of the people I said yes to was almost a no until I plotted out my demographics differently and realized I had a gap that she might be able to speak to. I’d heard her voice for the first time ever just the week before, live from Australia in a fabulous late-night riff after my #wweopen13 live session ended. Kate.

She said yes, she’d be in my research. And then she dropped a little bombshell, gently, as you do when you are new to standing in the space where your audience’s jaw goes slack. She said “I’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Just last week. The day after we talked.”

Well then.

Yesterday morning, I woke up to a post she’d published as what can really only be termed a wake-up call. She said, “You don’t have my consent to use my remaining time in this way. What do we do about the way in which overwork is the price that is now demanded for participating at all?” And then, “Hope is the alibi for inaction: what we need is the courage to put work itself at risk.”

Well then.

And I don’t know. Nor do you, likely. But a Christmas Carol played a major part in creating the public, political will to temper the excesses of industrial capital. I’d like to imagine Kate’s words could be the scathing indictment of post-industrial academia that we all need in order to reframe the pretend volunteerism that underpins so much of what keeps institutions going these days, without any real promise of reward or belonging in the mix. Perhaps we need this kind of story in order to be able to see the grotesqueries of our own culture, the spectres of our fear and our cultivated insecurity. Perhaps if we can see and own them, there is at least a chance of mitigating them.

But do not misunderstand. As Kate makes clear in the post, her diagnosis impels her and frees her to speak, but it does not make her different from any of the rest of us: “…it doesn’t make me differently mortal than anyone else.  We are neither vampires nor zombies, whatever the craze for playing with these ideas: we are humans, and we are all here together for a very short time, historically speaking. And so that being the case, the question facing us all is this: what do we do about work?”

That’s the thing. Kate is not Tiny Tim: we all are. And we are our own Scrooges, too, trapped in habits that will not magically change overnight, no matter the ghosts that visit. But the spectre of our own humanity and mortality needs to be one we all begin to pay attention to, and speak for. With courage, not just hope.