Sunday, November 22, 2009

Coming full circle

A few pages into Barbara Monroe's Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing and Technology in the Classroom, I felt like my readings for English 467 had come full circle. We're back to defining race, but Monroe uses the term in a new way: "Race, as I use the word in this book, refers to people of color, specifically African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians, all of whom as groups have been historically excluded from the matrix of power and wealth in this country" (21). While this isn't a definition I personally would ever use, it does point to two important understandings in defining race. First, race is not static. It is always changing and is always different depending on one's perspective. Second, we can gain power over this often divisive word by using our agency to define it in the ways that benefit us. Monroe uses it to point out those who "have been excluded." We could also use it as a term that denotes commonality rather than difference, as in celebrations of ethnic (racial?) heritage. I think that this may mean my original definition of race still works for me, although I've now had the chance to explore and complicate it in various ways. Race is a construction of particular rhetorics, used for a particular end in a particular social realm. And regardless of the origin of the word, it doesn't have to be used with treacherous intentions.

I am reminded--as was Monroe on page 30--of Paulo Freire's goal of critical consciousness and liberatory pedagogy. In his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire advocates helping the oppressed (whoever they may be) by teaching them to help themselves. They must be able to see the structures they have to work within and then cultivate a desire to do so. Anything less is pantomime. I particularly like thinking of race, rhetoric, and technology as addressed by Freire through bell hooks. In Teaching to Transgress, hooks points out the openness of Freire's work and life (and examines and ultimately comes to terms with his sexist language). It seems to me that this treatment of the oppressed speaks directly to the issues of access we've been discussing all semester. hooks admonishes us (teachers, in a broad sense) to work as cultural healers, utilizing and modeling tactics for disrupting hegemonic power in ways that are sustainable and productive.

One example of such a tactic comes in Monroe's second chapter, "Putting One's Business on Front Street." In this chapter, Monroe discusses a globally networked learning environment (GNLE) in which 27 Detroit High School sophomores and 27 University of Michigan upperclassmen interacted within a mostly electronic mentor/mentee relationship. Her attention to local and cultural contexts was exciting, and it was fascinating to read actual excerpts of the students' correspondence.

The cultural differences were interesting and a bit frightening. For example, Monroe concluded that the DHS students who "performed" their mentors' introductory emails by using "falsetto voices and with much body English" and "making fun of a person by overdramatizng his speech and gestures" were working within an environment that was "celebratory," "good-natured fun" (44-45). While I realize that I might be rankled by these students' treatment of their mentors because my culture is closer to that of the mentors than the mentees, Monroe could have done a much better job of explaining the culture clash at this juncture. As someone interested in navigating the complexities of culture and race in particular audiences, she should have been attuned to the audience of her book.

I think the study itself could also be critiqued because it is somewhat dated. The correspondences were conducted in the 1996-1997 academic year, and the book was not published until 2004. Dynamics at DHS with access and technological understanding have certainly changed in that time, and it would have been interesting to see some acknowledgment of that. (But, this is a common critique of technology-based books and a problem that is not easy to overcome.)

The parts of this study I was most interested in were the female-female partnerships that were so successful, and code-switching done be mentees, and the "Implications for teaching." I find that analogies pertaining to sex-based oppression often help me understand "the race problem" better than I would otherwise be able to. As such, it came as no surprise to me that the female-female partnerships were generally successful. The discomfort surrounding the sharing of romantic details was an interesting cultural difference to ponder, though. Monroe's discussion of the students' code-switching likewise provides food for thought on the complex discourse communities these students navigate, despite the fact that standardized tests often label such students as "failing." So far as implications for teaching go, I was particularly interested in Monroe's note that English teacheers should be aware of "race-based cultural differences when designing their curricula" (64). Monroe gives the example of using rap music as a pedagogical tool. While some might think this would be appropriate for a school system with a high African-American demographic, DHS found that it posed problems for the religious African American communities that many of their students came from (65). Care must be taken in making such moves.

"Storytime on the Reservation" was also intriguing, and this is the chapter where Monroe returns to her original--problematic, in my opinion--premise that "electronic media--mainly, movies and e-mail--can bridge the gaping maw between home and school literacies" of students. I'm old-fashioned, I know, but I resist the idea of basing a child's education on anything other than good reading. Electronic media can be supplements, and a medium like the Kindle is synonymous to books. But substituting movies and e-mail for books seems to be a very bad idea to me, and one that Monroe doesn't support well enough for me to change my mind. She does mention that this is cultural, and this is part of my resistance. In a primarily oral culture, movies might be a better medium for instilling critical literacy. I concede that this could work ... but the movies would have to be carefully chosen given the nature of Hollywood today, and while e-mails and texting are fine means for getting students to write, I still think they must be able to code switch to SAE to reach their fullest potential. In short, I don't think it's responsible to encourage teachers to switch to using movies and email as their main pedagogical tools without providing a good deal more explanation and support on how to make these tools work for instilling critical consciousness in students.

In this end, though, I think my critique stems from my having goals that are different from teachers at the schools that are discussed. The local needs and goals are far more important--though many politicians don't realize it--than ensuring all students speak and write SAE flawlessly. In answering Cindy Selfe's call to come up with more methods for critical engagement, I think Monroe does a fine job. It's my own cultural situatedness that prevents me from accepting her suggestions. (Although I'm not saying my caution is an incorrect response, just qualifying it.) I wonder at her audience for this book, and I hope she'll write the new book that is suggested by her closing statement that we need to "teach all children, not just children of color, to become interethnically literate" (125).

Works Cited

Freire, Paulo.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Tran. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1968. Print.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress:
Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Monroe, Barbara. Crossing the Digital Divide: Race, Writing, and Technology in the Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press, 2004. Print.

Selfe, Cindy. Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century: The Importance of Paying Attention. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1999. Print.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

How the Irish Became White

I've been reading Krista Ratcliffe's Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness for another class (English 483: Studies in Rhetoric and Style) and stumbled upon her interesting discussion of race. She defines it as: "a fictional category possessed of all-too-realistic consequences" (13). This seems to jive with previous discussions of race on this blog and in this class.

She also brings up the book How the Irish Became White, which is of great interest to me based on heritage and my general interest in race and culture. I haven't read the book, but here is an interesting review. The book apparently discusses how the Irish, an oppressed "race" in America, became "white" by juxtaposing themselves against Northern freed blacks. By joining "whites" in subjugating "blacks," they assimilated and became thought of as white.

This is also an interesting topic in terms of Certeauian thinking ... what tactics and strategies do we use to re-produce ourselves in order to construct particular social identities and meet particular social goals?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Presidents, Star Wars, and Harry Potter: Convergence

It's been a while since I've given serious thought to the convergence of media, but Henry Jenkins strikes me as someone with a pretty good understanding of it. Jenkins points out right away that "people today talk about divergence rather than convergence, but (Ithiel de Sola) Pool understood that they were two sides of the same phenomenon" (10). Jenkins also largely talks about convergence in a way different than the understanding I was first taught. He is interested in how media bring people together in a "participatory culture" and he quickly puts to rest the "Black Box Fallacy" that we will someday have a centralized technology through which run all the media we need. However, he doesn't devote much space to the dangers of corporate media convergence. For example, when the newspaper I worked at was purchased by a different company, the scope of things I could write about changed. Because media ownership is concentrated in a few companies, the issues and people who get shown in the media are an increasingly elite group. Jenkins does address this crisis in his discussion of the 2004 CNN presidential primary debate: "[W]e can see which submitted questions got left out, which issues did not get addressed, and which groups did not get represented" (278). While this is true, people whose access is limited to television cannot see those things. They are victims of media convergence.

But Jenkins also encourages readers to think of media in a new way (although I wish he'd have done more with this). He defines media as: 1) "a technology that enables communication" and 2) a "set of associated 'protocols' or social and cultural practices that have grown up around that technology" (13-14). This second definition runs parallel to Bray's definition of technology as including social/cultural rituals that affect how people live. This general idea of making transparent the ways in which technologies shape our lives is an important point.

In the chapter entitled "Quentin Tarantino's Star Wars," I found the discussion of interactivity and participation to be illuminating. Interactivity is a referent to technologies being designed to elicit and take into consideration user feedback, while participation is more open-ended. Loosely speaking, interactivity could be aligned with strategies (using Michel de Certeau's understanding of the word) and participation could be seen as a venue for tactics.

(Although as Jenkins astutely notes, that isn't always what happens. "Too often, there is a tendency to read all grassroots media as somehow 'resistant' to dominant institutions rather than acknowledging that citizens sometimes deploy bottom-up means to keep others down" (293). Having served as moderator for the comments section of a newspaper website in a small town, I have more experience with the nastiness of consumer participation than I ever cared to experience.)

I also enjoyed--and I'll admit, I giggled a little at these terms--Jenkins' deployment of the words prohibitionist and collaborationist in reference to how corporations and other dominant entities respond to fan participation. Prohibitionist, in particular, hails an era of socially accepted rebellion that makes one think these dominant entities may be fighting a losing battle in their quest to close down fan participation. Jenkins' use of Star Wars and Harry Potter to show the interactions of fans and trademark/copyright holders was exciting, largely because those two alternate universes are so popular that they really have become a part of popular culture and as such were fertile sites for this conflict. Popular culture is another term that Jenkins defined very helpfully as "what happens as mass culture gets pulled back into folk culture" (140). This is also the point at which passions arise; when a particular story becomes so important that folk culture lays a claim to it, things really get interesting.

And, in fact, I can prove it. This appropriation of storylines and worlds by folk culture results in a sense of ownership by those who consume and/or re-produce these products in such a way that an avid Star Wars fan (ahem) would be a little insulted by a scholar who claimed to have done significant research on SW subculture without learning that the plural of "Jedi" is not "Jedis."

In "Why Heather Can Write," Jenkins does an excellent job of showing how new media can function as a space for children (and adults) to learn in new ways and to teach each other. The stories he tells about Heather Lawver are nothing short of amazing, and they make me wonder about the pedagogical possibilities of fan participation and media interactivity. I'm with Jenkins in thinking the "potential seems enormous" in having "a growing percentage of young writers ... publishing and getting feedback on their work" (187). This is why it is so important for composition scholars to look at the ways that young people are writing and interacting with the world around them and to react to those interactions. This is a field in great need of more work. Even Jenkins makes the mistake of citing studies that show that young people get their news from satirical late-night shows without problematizing the situation. The people who do these studies act surprised that "Daily Show viewers have higher campaign knowledge than national news viewers and newspaper readers" (236). In my opinion, this isn't because The Daily Show is the best news source ever. It's because most people who watch The Daily Show also consume the news from a variety of sources and are aware of the biases of those sources. Because Daily Show viewers are predominantly young, surveyors assume they don't consume traditional news outlets as well. But they do. They may not carry around print copies of the Wall Street Journal, but they're informed consumers and re-producers of popular media.

I'd like to end with a reflective note on Jenkins' use of sub-narratives in some of his chapters. In the Star Wars chapter, for example, he ran other stories in the (enlarged) margins. These stories concerned related, but not explicitly connected, topics such as camcorder history, anime, and The Sims. Although the design of the pages made these sub-stories a bit difficult to read, I really enjoyed the hypertextual element they provided and the network they began to weave for readers who are looking for new and exciting avenues of thought.

Work Cited
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York U P, 2006. Print.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Decentering medical authority (and other topics) in Lisa Nakamura's "Digitizing Race"

I was so excited to find Lisa Nakamura's chapter entitled "Avatars and the Visual Culture of Reproduction on the Web." Nakamura examines how pregnant women portray themselves (or ask others to portray them) on sites where cartoonish "dollies," or avatars, are used to represent community members. She notes that the "increasingly visual culture of user-posted photographs and other self-produced digital images is part of a rhetorical mode of cultural production online that also works to decenter medical authority" (133). While I have emphasized in my own work that there is a place for medical authority, I have also written that women must be able to make their own informed decisions in terms of reproduction. The fora Nakamura is discussing are places that help to allow that to happen. "The Internet provides a space in which women use pregnancy Web sites' modes of visuality and digital graphic production to become subjects, rather than objects, of interactivity" (133). They are the producers of their own visibility.

Or are they? Nakamura shows how women retain "racial" markers in building their avatars, but at the same time idealize the pregnant body and create "a uniformly and conventionally 'pretty' avatar" (145). While at first I was disappointed that these women were still in some sense controlled by hegemonic forces, I think this phenomenon is not necessarily a bad thing. What would it mean for a woman to conceptualize herself as ugly and to portray that in her dollie? What these women are really doing is finding a common ground and using it as a stable foundation on which to establish difference. (An ugly dollie might work as a deliberate critique of the system, but it might hamper the owner's engagement with others on the board.) In the same sort of move, avatar owners also mix colloquial rhetorics with medical rhetorics (153). By mixing these worlds--taking medical rhetoric as a base on which to build other rhetorics and discourses--and creating their own spaces, they are, in fact, using a form of bricolage to re-appropriate their own bodies from the medical establishment. These women are "producing a counterdiscourse that challenges the binarism of hypervisible/invisible pregnant bodies" (158). They are producing bodies that we can, perhaps, conceptualize as "mixed." (An interesting concept given Nakamura's chapter on, which I'll get to a little later.)

Cyberfeminism, Nakamura says, has been called a "'restart button' for gendered ideologies" because it tries to reclaim machines and "machine-enabled vision for women" (160). An example of where this could work, I think, is on page 159, where Nakamura tells readers how "the umbilical cord is painstakingly deleted from most photographic image of fetuses, thereby emphasizing its existence separately from the woman's body" (159). Women empowered through the visual dollies they create can challenge such conventions. Women "use the board as often as not to challenge received medical opinions be describing their experiences as conflicting with medical wisdom" (169). By using the power of community and narrative, women overrule medical opinions that don't fit their worldviews.

I thought these arguments were brilliant. However, parts of this book made me raise my eyebrows. Nakamura has a tendency to make bold statements and sweeping generalizations without providing immediate support. For example: "Women are relatively late adopters of the Internet" (136). While Nakamura does offer statistics on sex and Internet usage at a point much later in the book, she provides no support for this statement at the time that she makes it. She also posits on page 139 that design is "gendered as masculine" by "mainstream consumer culture." This book was published just last year, and I would argue that design--as evidenced by many television shows, the populations of design schools, and marketing tactics used by stores that sell "design"--is typically gendered feminine by the "public." In fact, "mainstream consumer culture" often questions the sexuality of men who engage in design with enthusiasm. Nakamura's point in this discussion is to set up taste and design as opposites (although she later conflates style with design on page 154) and thus to claim the "tacky" avatars as feminine backlash against the popular push for "clean" design (139-43). Based on the fact that I do not see style and design in a relationship as opposites, I do not buy the backlash argument. I do fully believe her argument that women use these spaces to re-appropriate their bodies, I'm just not convinced that adhering to "tackiness" has anything to do with it. (And who gets to judge what's tacky, kitschy, or clean anyway? What are the characteristics of these states?)

Another example of a statement that stood out as an unsupported generalization occurred in the chapter on Alllooksame?: " is a weird, weird, site" (78). Although I take Nakamura's point and appreciate her candor, I also felt a little judged as someone who liked the site. I realize the site is supposed to engender some discomfort, but--perhaps because of our very open exploration of race, rhetoric, and technology in class--I didn't feel put off or uncomfortable looking at it or taking the quiz. "Alllooksame is not a statement. It's a question" (79). And questions have to be allowed if we're going to deal with the race issue. There is no other way.

In terms of the quiz itself, I recieved a score of six on the facial recognition test, which is lower than the average of seven. Further, I hereby admit that the six I got correct were guesses. What does this mean? It either says something about my own ignorance, or it supports Nakamura's contention that "race" is not visible. I have to admit, I'd be very interested to see if one of the "not mixed" subjects of the site could identify the races of the faces. And that rhetoric of purity is highly interesting; I especially liked the deconstruction of this rhetoric undertaken on page 82. "What does Korean mean? Is it people from south western [sic] Korea who descended from Chinese in those same areas whose names are not Kim and Lee but Chang and Moon???"

Having run out of space to discuss the other chapters of this book, I will instead pose questions based on passages I especially engaged with.

  • What do we make of the shift from the Internet as a utopian space to a profit-driven place? (p. 3)
  • What is (or should be) the relationship of visual culture studies to Internet studies? (p. 28)
  • Is communication consumerism? (p. 46)
  • What of Barthes' "revolutionary idea" to apply formal analysis to popular culture? Is this really the idea of a single scholar? (p. 68)
  • What are the pros and cons of racial profiling? (p. 78, and all of the Alllooksame chapter)
  • How should race be represented in movies? Is it responsible to create the two-dimensional "old white prick" character, as described in Nakamura's discussion of The Matrix Reloaded? What about the token black guy, like Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) In Return of the Jedi (incorrectly cited by Nakamura with the definite article)? Can a person really get out of being white by claiming to be multiracial and disavowing whiteness? (p. 102 and all of "The Social Optics of Race")
  • How can authorities design surveys that are more representative and accurate? (p. 172)
  • The ethics of porn. I'm not even going to make this a question. (p. 184)
  • How "wrong" was Whitney NcNally in producing the piece "Asian or Gay"? Couldn't this be seen as a social critique of movies like the recent hit The Hangover? (p. 185-94
  • What does it mean to "refuse to cover"? (p. 208)

Work Cited
Nakamura, Lisa. Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 2008. Print.

Interesting further reading:
Sakai, Karen. "'Gay or Asian' spread causes minority uproar." Asia Pacific Arts
Online Magazine. 9 Apr. 2004. Web. 10 Nov. 2009. .

Sunday, November 1, 2009

On (Dis)Ability

Of the readings we did for this week (cited below), the one I found most helpful was Jason Palmeri's article on technical communication pedagogy. In addition to offering a new perspective on disability studies, Palmeri provided constructive ways to help others learn about this field as well. After providing several examples and a discussion of how "cripples" are framed as "burdens on society" and thus marginalized, Palmeri moves to promoting the idea that technical communicators must see disability accessibility "as a source of transformative insight into design practice for all" (57). This sounds like a noble and achievable goal to me, but I have more trouble imaging how it can work practically when he moves in that direction. Palmeri suggests that "we must begin to trouble the binary between normal and assistive technologies" by viewing all technologies as assistive. This makes sense, but when he goes on to say that students should conduct research with a screen reader, I wonder 1) might this activity reinforce that binary? and 2) where the heck do I get a screen reader? Both ponderings, obviously, point to larger questions about understanding and access that I don't have answers to.

Questions of access were at the forefront of several of the materials we viewed this week. Sandhu, Saarnio, and Wiman discuss access at several points, although I was disappointed that they didn't problematize the idea that laws can provide access until later in the piece. As an undergraduate, I distinctly remember the news staff of the campus paper doing investigative piece after investigative piece in attempts to get the administration to see that the campus was in violation of several accessibility laws. In the end, some administrators agreed but said there simply weren't funds to right the issues we raised. Sandhu, Saarnio, and Wiman also raise interesting questions about the intersection of poverty and disability. The correlation between the two conditions makes the whole situation much more complicated.

These three authors also make a claim when positing that there is a horizontal divide and a vertical divide within the digital divide. They say that Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are inaccessible to some because of issues we've discussed before (socioeconomic concerns), and this is a horizontal divide. The vertical divide is "the difference between people who are able to use the existing technologies and people with disabilities with little or only partial access to these resources' (8). I think what we're dealing with is actually more than a divide. In searching for a better metaphor, it's almost as though we're all navigating the surface of a pane of safety glass that has splintered. In terms of technology, there are chasms everywhere.

Pamela Walker explore one such fissure in her essay "Artists with Disabilities: A Cultural Explosion." She makes a good point early on in saying that society expected people who were differently abled to accept their circumstances and make do, and that people internalized that feeling. This struck a chord with me because, although I do not identify with any community of physical disablement, I have internalized the same worldview in terms of socioeconomic struggles. Perhaps this is also why I react negatively to the lyrics near the end of Walker's essay "We're not longer grateful for the handouts you have thrown us ... " While I like the metaphorical "moving out and moving up," the sense of ungratefulness rubs me the wrong way. I don't have a lot of things and I don't think the system we live in is fair, but I'm grateful for what I do have. For that reason or perhaps for a reason I still need to find and explore, these lyrics do not evoke empathy in me.

Walker's text was rich with other connections between disability studies and the scholarship I've known. Her note on censorship was, I thought, very important. Unfortunately, I fear censorship in some form is happening to disabled artists, because I didn't find much when I tried to search for the artists she mentions. And she's certainly right that this has been going on for centuries. Her mention of Hephaestus struck a note of familiarity with me as well. As an undergraduate, I wrote a paper arguing that Hephaestus was the most overlooked of the Greek gods, and he certainly is the most unusual in his complexity. I love the connection Walker makes that Hephaestus, the one god described as lame, is the most well known patron of the arts among the Greek gods.

This brings us to the idea of cyborgs. I found Cromby and Standen's discussion of the definition of cyborg highly informative (although I'm obviously prone to liking definitions). They suggest three interpretations: 1) a metaphor used for rhetorical leverage 2) use of media and 3) physical augmentation of the body. The latter two, the authors say, are useful to people with disabilities. They then discuss issues of cyborgism, including access, surveillance, control, and dependency. Their points about the problematic nature of using technology in this way are well taken. I was especially interested in their discussion of surveillance and the idea of a house that could monitor whether its occupants needed intervention. The authors conclude that such a situation could be helpful or invasive and may ultimately increase the chasms discussed above that allow only the wealthy to have truly palatable options. The site contributed some valuable insights to this dicussion as well, and I especially liked Jeff's ideas on the rhetorical choice behind the word disability:

"Disability focuses on a loss. Cyborg focuses on adaptive technology. It focuses on what we can do, not what we can't do. And I think that's a fundamental paradigm shift that must
occur if the disabled population has any hope of transitioning out of the shadows,
out of the institutions, and living a life of mobilization as opposed to one of stagnation."

I do take issue with one point in Cromby and Standen's article: the notion that women are more shaped by standards of appearance in our society than men. I wold argue that this is dependent on individual people. Although there may be a general perception that women are more affected by this, that may only mean that men are in greater danger of acting upon it.

Although I mentioned earlier that I do not self-identify as a disabled individual, I have certainly made use of cyborg technologies--braces, dermatological interventions, laser eye surgery--and I have encountered a surprising amount of (not always unwelcome) surveillance in each case. This also makes me think of the video I just watched of "quadraphlegic gamer/artist Robert Florio playing" a video game using mouth controls (found on this site). Although this surveillance was apparently allowed by Florio, it still was a result of his disability. Access, surveillance, control, and dependency are categories that become exponentially more complicated in terms of theorizing (dis)ability.

Works Cited

Cromby, John and Penny Standen. "Cyborgs and Stigma: Technology, Disability, Subjectivity." Cyberpsychology. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

"Game Accessibility: Gaming with a Physical Disability." The Game Accessibility Project.

"On Disability, Adaptive Technology and Cyborg Societies."

Palmeri, Jason. "Disability Studies, Cultural analysis, and the Critical Practice of Technical Communication Pedagogy." Technical Communication Quarterly 15.1 (2006): 49-65. Print.

Sandhu, Jim S., Ilkka Saarnio, and Ronald Wiman. "Information and Communication Technologies and Disability in Developing Countries." October 2001. Print.

Walker, Pamela. "Artists with Disabilities: A Cultural Explosion." National Arts and Disability Center. University of California. 1998. Web.

Image from