Saturday, January 08, 2011

MLA 2011: New Tools, Hard Times

Greetings from La La Land, kids. Yes, it's warmer here than where you are and prettier, too. Moose took a swim yesterday in the lovely pool at the Millennium Biltmore, while Goose stumbled into the shooting of an episode of CSI. It's not all fun and fabulousness here in sunny SoCal, of course. Moose had her big session Thursday evening, "New Tools, Hard Times: Social Networking and the Academic Crisis," which was part of the convention's special focus on "The Academy in Hard Times." The session featured MLA exec direc Rosemary Feal and an impressive roster of speakers with a range of experiences with social media and higher ed, including Marc Bousquet, Brian Croxall, Chris Newfield, and Moose, speaking, for some strange reason, under her real name. Session moderator Meredith McGill posted a link-rich introduction to the panel and the speakers here. Newfield has posted a summary of the session and of his presentation on another related session here. The session even had its own Twitter hashtag, which you can check out even if you are not among the Twitterati. Just go here.

Thanks to everybody who attended and participated in the session. It was great to be a part of this vital series of conversations the MLA has launched on the grim state of affairs in higher education. We are big believers in the idea that you have to acknowledge the problem before you can begin to remedy it, and these sessions have given us hope that a bunch of smart, committed people have begun to acknowledge the problem. Yep -- Glasses are half full again in Roxie's World!

Anyway, as a special treat, we've decided to post the text of Moose's remarks at the session. Enjoy, darlings, and feel free to pass 'em along -- Just tell folks where you got 'em. Take it away, Moose!

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These are brief remarks but I’ve given them a rather grand-sounding title that I hope you will understand is totally tongue in cheek. “Excellence Without Money” is a phrase I came up with a couple of years ago on my blog to describe the impossible bind of universities forced to pretend that even the most drastic budget cuts have no impact whatsoever on the quality of the educational product. The phrase got taken up by some fellow bloggers, including Historiann, who kindly came up with an attractive official-looking seal to help promote the cause. Someone else even translated it into Latin for me -- Excellentia sine pecunia. Anyway, most of my writing on higher education focuses on the hypocrisy and the political paralysis arising from the commitment to the delusion of Excellence Without Money.

My focus here is on what social media tools enable us to do that we can’t do otherwise, on how they can build support and community across professional and geographic boundaries, and how we can use them to cultivate new publics for our work and actually to do our work in different, more creative ways. I’m particularly interested in how humor, particularly parody and satire, can be used to communicate both internally – e.g., to academic audiences – and externally – e.g., to non-academic or general audiences.

First, though, since assessment is all the rage on campuses these days, let me toss out some questions aimed at gauging the effectiveness to date of these tools, particularly as a means of ameliorating higher education’s current hard times. So:

• Have academic users of social media turned back the tide of corporate neoliberalism on campus? Uh, no.

• Have we built a groundswell of renewed support for higher education or the humanities off campus? Well, since the voters of Maryland just overwhelmingly re-elected a governor who imposed four years of tuition freezes and three years of employee furloughs on the state’s university system, despite my blog’s relentless mocking of him as a fauxgressive Democrat I habitually referred to as Gov. Martin “You, Sir, Are No Jack Kennedy” O’Malley, regrettably, I have to give us a failing grade on this question as well.

• Does that mean that academic users of social media are deluded “slacktivists” or, worse, that we are confirming what Feisal G. Mohamed described in Dissent the other day as “the casual undergraduate presupposition. . . that digital fora for blather are now fundamental to meditations on our role in the universe[?]” Rather than “training thoughtful citizens,” are we instead, as Mohamed asserts, “training the next generation to become an ignorant herd easily led through a cultural landscape shaped by the corporate interests dropping shiny techno-apples in its path[?]” Lord, I hope not, though I can’t guarantee it.

• Will academic uses of social media ultimately prove to be as ineffective as all the other means of communicating our mission and value have been over the years? I think it’s too soon to tell. Blogs have been around for barely a decade. Facebook and YouTube aren’t yet 6 years old, and Twitter isn’t yet 5. The MLA, founded in 1883, is 128 years old. The old organization and its members are learning to use the new tools, but that use is in a very early stage. I think there are grounds for optimism on this question, as I will explain below, but any assessment at this point would be premature.

I don’t consider myself a digital evangelist, as Malcolm Gladwell, in a well-known New Yorker article, scornfully describes those whom he believes have oversold the world-transforming potential of online activism. Gladwell is not, in my judgment, entirely fair in his judgments, especially of Clay Shirky, but I agree that it’s important to avoid high-tech boosterism and to be realistic about what can be accomplished with a blog post, a tweet, a video, or a lolcats cartoon.

(Image Credit: mlaconvention)

At their best, social media are tools of outreach and education. Using them is not the same thing as organizing a movement in support of the humanities or higher education, but that doesn’t mean using them is unimportant. (For more on the distinction between outreach and organizing a social movement, see Mark Engler.) Used strategically, in concert with more traditional means of person-to-person organizing and in furtherance of, say, a specific plan for a saner, more egalitarian funding structure for higher education, these tools might be highly effective in eventually helping to make the times a little less hard.

Why do I say that? Because during the 2009-10 academic year, when we saw a significant resurgence of campus activism in response to budget cuts and increases in tuition and fees, what Shirky describes in Here Comes Everybody as “the power of organizing without organization” was much in evidence and helped to mobilize faculty, students, and staff across the country. YouTube proved to be an essential tool for documenting actions and events, from building occupations to teach-ins. Twitter helped enable mass, real-time communication about actions as they were unfolding, while Facebook facilitated the formation of networks and alliances across campuses. Blogs – such as Chris’s Remaking the University and Angus Johnston’s Student Activism -- helped to document and analyze a story that even educational media, including The Chronicle of Higher Education, were underplaying. Further, archiving and searchability gave these events and materials, so often ephemeral, an enduring afterlife. Wendy Brown’s speech at the teach-in at Berkeley in September 2009 has been viewed more than 13,500 times on YouTube. The ready access and the permanence of such materials greatly enhance their political value.

I want to shift gears and focus specifically on blogs, particularly on those like Historiann, Tenured Radical, and to a degree my own, Roxie’s World, that are academic and feminist or queer and that focus consistently on workplace issues. My reading and writing in the blogosphere over the past five years have persuaded me that such blogs are quite useful tools for mitigating some of the damaging effects of our hard times. They are very effective at facilitating lateral communication among academic knowledge workers. They are good at building intellectual and/or professional communities, at creating spaces for conversations about work conditions, at collectively sharing or formulating strategies for surviving or transforming those conditions, at exposing administrative failures and hypocrisies, at breaking silences, at talking back, at encouraging critique, resistance, and subversion of top-down policies that don't work and encroach on academic freedom. The institutional diversity of commenters on academic blogs sparks remarkable exchanges on a daily basis from colleagues who are geographically remote from one another and operating in radically different work environments. Click into Historiann on any given day, and you’ll see a lively mix of faculty, grad students, and adjuncts from R-1 schools, small liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and mid-size regional universities talking about the conditions of their work lives.

Finally, I’d like to say a word or two about humor. In my piece in the Journal of Women’s History roundtable on feminist blogging, I talk about the multiple, complex purposes served by humor in the academic feminist blogosphere. I discuss humor as a survival tool, a way of negotiating the challenges and sometimes the dullness of academic life. Those who use it demonstrate their resilience, even their perverse optimism. Humor may serve as a powerful means of disarming one’s opponents or bringing the high and mighty down a notch or two. It can be a way of acknowledging and reckoning with differences, of reclaiming and revaluing terms that have been used to demean women, queers, and other less privileged groups.

I don’t talk in that piece about the great potential humor has as a way to communicate and de-mystify the world of higher education to non-academic audiences, but I think that’s a point worth considering as we grapple with the perennial problem of how to advocate more effectively for the humanities and higher education. You might have stumbled across some of those Xtranormal text-to-film cartoons that were making the rounds on blogs and Facebook a couple of months ago. So many were produced by higher ed professionals that I predicted there would soon be a new category of awards added to the Oscars, “Animated Short Films by Disgruntled Academics.” I offered two modest contributions to the genre, “I Want to be Promoted,” in which an indignant associate professor sits down with an uptight department chair to discuss her chances for promotion to full (in part on the basis of her blog), and “Excellence Without Money: The Movie,” in which the director of a small program meets with her dean to discuss budget matters. I created a YouTube channel for the cartoons, and they’ve now been viewed more than 3300 times – Yeah, I know, not much compared to the 32.5 million views Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” video has gotten over the past two months, but still. I have no clear sense of who has seen them or what the reaction has been, but I was struck when I showed them to members of my own family (mostly Republicans, all middle-class, Midwestern, business types) not only that they were amused but that they also seemed to take in the serious issues I was trying to address about funding for higher education and issues of work and evaluation in the academy. I’ve been trying to explain such matters to my family for decades, but the cartoons seemed to convey the point in a clear, succinct, and, I hope, memorable way.

Humor is a good teacher. We all know this. We use it in our classrooms all the time. Why not use it more as a way of explaining what we do and why it matters to audiences beyond the classroom? For that kind of communications work, we have been talking in the modes of crisis or denial for thirty years. I say we might consider giving the comic mode a try for a while. What have we got to lose?


  1. Humor is demystifying, perspective enhancing, populist, and fun. You do it splendidly, with grace and with soul. Yet, I cannot help but think of the strange blessings and oddments of Stewart's Rally on the Mall, and my students' wild enthusiasm for it, as "normal." I loved parts myself, and laughed a lot, and yet was worried too. None of that speaks to your way of doing humor, or say, another fav or mine, Donna Haraway's, but it does suggest that like the double-edge of social media, humor has its double-edge between perspective creation and trivialization, just as social media has the double-edge of crowdsourcing and disappearing quickly. Than again, maybe education, higher ed esp, has a double-edge of expertise and narrowness, or sharing knowledge and oversharing/undersharing. All that is to say, you are right! and I have worried about academic capitalism, global academic restructuring and other issues of feminist knowledge production for years, talking about it for a long time, and yet somehow it is all new and nothing I've tried to say is in the current cant either. I am so glad you are working on it, and humorously and social media wise and feministly. We all need it.

  2. That was some serious fucken speechifyin'!

  3. Agreed! Thanks for the links, Roxie, and for including me in your discussion here and at MLA. The connections we've made to other bloggers are probably the thing that's been most valuable to me personally.

    I'm getting ready to go ski in the Colorado mountains and so can't reply more substantively, but I just wanted to saw two paws up to you, Moose and Goose, and I'm glad you're all enjoying EllAayy! (I'm envious!)


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