Bodies in Classrooms: Feminist Dialogues on Technology, Part I

Next year, over a hundred feminist scholars are slated to teach a new kind of online course—the first “MDCLE” or “massively distributed collaborative learning experiment”—tentatively titled “Feminist Dialogues on Technology.”  Drawing on the model of the “MOOC,” or the massively open online course, like the artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction courses at Stanford that have enrolled tens of thousands of students, this venture is also aimed at a very large audience, although taught and thought through a feminist architecture and pedagogy.  With some start-up funding from the Mellon Foundation, Pitzer professor Alexandra Juhasz and University of Southern California professor Anne Balsamo have begun brainstorming with feminist faculty from around the globe to rethink Internet learning while salvaging feminist studies of technology and constructing possibilities for community and pedagogy.

In an interview, Juhasz explained how a project that is now “moving very quickly” began.  “Anne and I were meeting informally as colleagues and discussing our work, and we were regretting two related problems,” she explained.

“First of all, feminist studies and many other political approaches to technology, such as critical race studies or queer studies, suffered from a lack of networking.  People were often siloed in distant disciplines and didn’t know each other’s work or even each other.

“Second, when we thought about feminism, we were worried about the loss of the history of this entire body of thinking.  People have been doing this kind of critical work in an overtly feminist fashion for thirty years, including a lot of scholarship about supposed technological progress, and yet there doesn’t seem to be a shared legacy of thinking that is being preserved.

“The two problems made us think that we would really like to teach a class that would allow us to use technology to at once present a history of that work and create a network to access the class and talk to each other.”

Juhasz says her own pedagogy has been shaped by thinking about YouTube as a challenging space for online collaborations and learning, Reflections on some of this work with students in this relatively new online space were eventually published by MIT Press in the form of an open-access online book, Learning from YouTube.  Having thought about “what it meant to engage in a corporate-owned entertainment platform for five years,” Juhasz wanted to imagine different kinds of online spaces, which might be truer to feminist theorizing and process.  As she explained, “we wanted to make our own environment based on principles that matter to us so as to promote the best academic and progressive ideas and methods. Juhasz noted that “we already have a model of how people work well with each other: the classroom.  We already know how to motivate people to engage there.”  Although traditional classrooms may be under attack by those who want to remake the university as a more affordable and open place for learning, Juhasz points out that traditional classrooms do provide a “structure around which community can form, and where ideas can build, and records are kept.”  She insists that it is important not to lose “institutional support” when jettisoning conventional hierarchy.  To adapt the classroom model to a less patriarchal design, Juhasz and Balsamo realized that “we could use technology to move from an isolated but dynamic space (the classroom) to a networked environment, making the embodied experience of the class and a distributed experience of the class simultaneously possible.”

Soon people started joining the planning group and began to discuss that the MOOC model being piloted at Stanford did not really represent “a feminist understanding of the distribution of knowledge,” because it was “radically centered on one authority” with “one master and many slaves.”  Instead, using the Scalar platform developed by USC, the MDCLE’s distributed character would be constructed through a variety of available activities around ten recorded dialogues with prominent thinkers; each iteration of the class would provide its own site for interaction and function as “its own hub or node” so that “the values of a located and situational authority or experience” could coexist in “a place with a truly networked model that shares power and is more collaborative and distributed.” 

Juhasz envisions that the FemTechNet International network of scholars will create a pedagogical database, as each teacher can both “produce a class with materials appropriate for her own students while also making use of the network’s materials that are free and available.”  Thus by producing this database of “Boundary Objects that Learn” (readings, videos, links, exercises) participants will also be generating a database “that helps record this history of feminist products and feminist practice.”  The FemTechNet group aspires “to create a number of boundary objects that learn” to facilitate “intercultural communication in different cultural environments, which include readings, studios, and multimedia.”

Of course, Juhasz acknowledges that such a class won’t be easy to launch.  She foresees “many cultural challenges, since our goal is to get a class in every continent in the world.”  There is “incredible diversity in how people teach, how people learn, and there is the English problem.”  (In the Stanford course on Human-Computer Interaction, enterprising students soon created translations of Professor Scott Klemmer’s lectures.)

The second challenge to bringing the course online in the 2013-2014 academic year is technological.  She notes that the technology required must be “robust and strong enough” to provide the infrastructure for so many classes and yet be “low-tech and accessible” in the version of the interface that users see so that the broadest swath of an interested community, globally, can interact.  If we are going to be “talking with each other” in a lively fluent way online, the “huge technological and infrastructural support” of American research universities cannot be taken for granted, and the system has to work for “institutions in the Global South without the same kinds of resources.”  As Juhasz cautions, “we need to be realistic about cultural and infrastructural economics.”

Rather than conceptualizing this project as a book, as she did with Learning From YouTube, Juhasz grants that a totally different knowledge platform will be necessary to be as inclusive and supportive of creativity as possible.

For now Juhasz, Balsamo, and dozens of collaborators are starting with a mailing list and materials on the Fembot collective website.  They are also exploring using Scalar, a multimedia authoring tool that is being developed with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

Coping with the technical and cultural challenges will require a “big effort on a DIY level,” according to Juhasz.  She also admits that the “feminist collaborative model” presents challenges of its own, since “there can be all kinds of social problems between individuals and across cultures and fields and disciplines, as well.”  Juhasz observes that no model for pedagogy is perfect in handling “authority, agency, how work is distributed, and the management of conflict misunderstanding.

“The feminist principle that organizes one of these classes is radically open and radically permissive. Anyone who believes in it participates; anyone can debate, take part in the conversations, and join in the complex negotiations of what those terms mean.”

Many who take “technology” to mean only computers and “feminist” as only concerning women might misunderstand the aims of the course.  Although the history of women’s inclusion in (or exclusion from) computing is important for some of the scholars who will be teaching the course, the potential coverage of material in the syllabus is much broader and more devoted to radical change.  As Juhasz points out, “’feminism’ itself is one of our key words, because it is not simply about persons who are gendered female; it is about being able to politicalize” daily life and critique “the experiences of gendered sex and race and class.”  Rather than debate about who can be included, Juhasz asserts that men and transgendered people are welcome, as long as they manifest a “politicized commitment to personal social justice.”  In thinking about “human beings in relationship to technology,” Juhasz describes the philosophy of the group as “permissive and open to anyone who would like to think it through together.”  “We plan to include technologies that are ancient as well,” Juhasz added.  “The pen, the video camera, the telephone, the loom, the telegraph: all of these are potential objects of study.”

As to who the students might be, Juhasz says that they are starting with college aged learners enrolled in higher educational institutions.  The FemTechNet groups hopes to create a class that is accessible from the community college level to the graduate level, although obviously it would have to have many iterations and modules.  “Right now we are committed to higher education, which already seems so vast.  There is so much interest and need for knowledge about feminism and technology.  Mention it anywhere, and people become excited by this opportunity to share work, for now in relationship in higher education.”

Juhasz hopes that the project will appeal to “a range of learners within the spectrum of higher education” and with the large network of instructors already on board she plans to “ask the network to evaluate the BOLs to see what kind of learners the object is appropriate for.”  She anticipates that this will be “open to a lot of the people invested in STEM projects opening up opportunities for women and girls at every level.”  Although she sees “the need to approach girls at a very young age, that will probably have to wait for a later iteration of the class.  But it is good to start asking those questions in our community now.”

Banner image credit: driftwood