Wednesday, March 19, 2008

be the learning you wish to see

Well, I can't argue much with someone who is pushing for learning to be more imaginative, interactive, embodied, situated, contextualized, and-- let's just admit it-- FUN.

I was reminded of James Paul Gee more than a few times (even when they weren't referring to him affectionately as "Jim"), as the writers pointed to the layers of meaning and relevance that students can gain by taking on the characters themselves. Actually, this was more like Jimmy G (that was for you Shawn) on crack. Going far beyond conceptual differences between traditional "learning about" and "learning to be," Thomas and Brown offer highly detailed differences among MUDs, RPGs, and MMOGs for example, proving that they are true gamers (or at least more advanced gamers than Gee).

I appreciate that they were up-front about the following admission: that they aren't so much interested in exploring how games "teach," but rather in "asking how MMOGs invoke the imagination and what the implications of such vivid, imaginative thinking may be" (155). Somehow, this in-the-mind approach allows my own mind to let go of the pesky "OK, but how the hell would I teach WOW in English 101" question and instead consider the possibilities it allows for imagination expansion in my students and myself.

Another gem that stood out to me is the connection such games provide regarding lessons in rhetorical awareness. As Thomas and Brown state, the quests involved in MMOGS demand "a high level of situational awareness" (157). They go on to say that "The more aware one is of one’s environment, the more likely she is to find the tools needed to complete the quest" (157). Audience, purpose, logos... they're all there. Sounds like a little Rhetoric 101 to me.

The place where I'm still stuck is in figuring out exactly how to incorporate writing into the mix of all this good stuff. I mean, if we're teaching a writing-intensive course, how could WOW work into the curriculum? I can agree that it exposes students to blended meanings and rich opportunities for imagination expansion, but doesn't pen ultimately have to hit paper at some point? How much time do we allow students to be Amelior the troll versus Amy the student, or is it a constant convergence of role-playing? Lastly, how do we engage students who don't identify as gamers, and are altogether resistant to such play?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Amelior the Troll

Well, it took me a good three tries to download the game, but once I did, I jumped right in as an uneducated troll in a deadly war. Seriously, I read NOTHING about my special powers or character traits before hitting "play" because, well, by the time I got the blasted thing downloaded I was practically ready to declare war for real.

So, with no knowledge of my options and a vast land of creatures and caverns ahead of me, I decided to make like Forrest Gump and just run, run, run. Maybe I was living vicariously through Amelior since Amy can't seem to get her bum to the gym lately, but for whatever reason I was really enjoying my jog through the land of trials (I think that's what it's called). Then I found Gorek in the Den, who gave me the quest of killing 10 boars. "Eeeewww," I thought. "I'm no killer."

Next thing I knew, I was stabbing a boar to its death. "I'm stopping after one," I thought. Twenty minutes later and nine more boars down, I called it quits for that round.

How could it be that I, a sensitive sissy with the world's weakest stomach, am capable of slaughtering 10 poor ol' boars? I'm a vegetarian, for God's sake!

But was that really me or my Evil Amelior Avatar? (Cue spoooooky music). After all, Amelior looks like death itself, which was one of my criticisms. Since she's Rogue, I wanted her to have the appearance of lightness and quirkiness, but then (in true Rogue fashion) lash out with some sick warrior skillz when her opponents least expected it. Instead, she was a bloodshot-eyed mummy with an alarmingly gruff, masculine voice. The only redeeming quality, as far as her apprearance goes, was her Cyndi Lauper style high pony. Hell yes.

My biggest challenge was that I couldn't get her to talk. This proved to be quite awkward whenever she'd encounter Gorek and others who said things like, "What are your wishes?" or even worse, "WHY ARE YOU TOUCHING ME!" So, yeah, I could use some help in the vocalizing area.

In sum, I guess I'm a little more intrigued than I thought I'd be, but I'm also incredibly resistant to this additional/other world. Even after an hour of playtime I felt like I hadn't contributed a thing to myself (my brain) or the world (the real world), and I wonder if one gets over that guilt/dread or if some people never experience it in the first place...?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Selfes Strike Again

It’s easy to be extreme.

Subtract the nuances, those pesky gray areas that pervade our lives, and you’ll be safe to vent from your black or white pedestal of choice. As Jerry mentioned in Tuesday’s class, just because the horror stories of online predatory acts and Internet-based identity fraud have the potential to turn us into frightened old fogies, that doesn’t mean we should yield. We don’t want our students to think of us as the paranoid freak police, do we? I don’t. They already have plenty of reasons to think we're/I'm freakish.

Similarly, we can’t let the realities of social inequity in online spaces paralyze us from engaging in the important pedagogical work that new media provide. For example, while the racial profiling that happens on our nation’s border crossings surely shows its face in online spaces, such ugly misuses of power should not cause us to shut down our monitors and call it a hopeless battle against technology. Instead, as suggested by the smarty-pants Selfes, we need to strike a “necessary balance” of viewing technology both as a site where oppression exists as well as a place to pave rich possibilities, or “new discursive territory” (66).

And while my praise for the Selfes may be a tired tune by now, I’ve gotta commend them yet again for their ability to state the unfortunate realities without getting buried by them. As I continue to wrestle with how to approach technology in the classroom, their ultimate warning rings very true for me, and it is this: that our use of computers has the potential to “achieve both great good and great evil” (68). It's another push to be a critical user, not a passive one.

As they point out, marginalization happens through many “subtly potent gestures” (69), which refers back to the pervasive gray I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. It’s in those passing, nuanced, under-the-table occurrences when mistreatment most often happens. Just as Standard English has become the invisible default in computer interfaces, so too does hegemony creep up on us in sometimes not-so-obvious ways. Does that make it any less dangerous? Nope. In fact, the sly ways of profiling and other disempowering acts could be more dangerous if they appear with a low-fi consistency rather than an overt infrequency. If social hierarchies are build into the software design and infrastructure itself, we might be blinded to it all the more.

And while I found myself writing "isn't that a stretch?" in the Selfes' margins every once in a while (e.g. pointing to the white hand tool that moves boxes in computer programs as oppressive--come on, really?), I generally agree that guiding students to "recognize computer interfaces as non-innocent physical borders" (77) should be added to the agenda--pronto. On that note, I'd better go make some additions to tomorrow's 402 plan.

Roadkill Line-Up vs. Tucked-Away Technorati

I used to wait in long lines just to check my email. Volunteering for a year after college didn't really make buying a personal computer possible, so I'd wait... and wait... and wait... sometimes for an hour before I could participate in the world of e-communication that had seemed to overshadow all other forms. Scanning the faces of my fellow line-waiters, I'd often find that I was the only white person in sight.

Now, I roll out of bed, put the tea kettle on the burner, and fire up the ol' (and by ol' I mean a 2005 model--pretty ancient, huh?) iBook G4. In no time, I'm emailing with mom, checking on flights to a warmer destination, or blogging like I'm doing here today. I'm part of the technorati now. My dependence on the public library is no longer part of my life, and I'm thankful for the convenience that a personal laptop brings with it. But I'm also aware that I'm no longer exposed to the harsh everyday reminder that Internet access is clearly divided along lines of race and class. And for that, I'm not grateful. After all, why should I allow the digital divide be invisible to me when I know it exists? To some degree, I saw it right before my eyes, so why am I not taking steps to combat it now?

Is cyberspace the "democratic and progressive medium" (xii) that everyone claimed it to be in its mid-90s heyday? Nakamura replies with a booming "No way." And after being a dependent library email user for a short time, I'd have to agree. This stuff is far from being equal, yet postmodernist influences would have us believe that it is. The "roadkill" are alive and well (or not so well, I suppose), residing in low-income neighborhoods in every major U.S. city. In the middle of the city, yes, but isolated from cyberspace. Makes me think about Nakamura's later quote:

"While everyone in cyberspace is disoriented, people of color in cyberspace come to the medium already in this state, already marginalized, fragmented, and imbricated within systems of signification that frame them in multiple and often contradictory ways" (xvi).

So, before people of color even gain access to the Internet, before they are even subjected to the unrealistically categorized "menu-driven racial identity" aspects of cyberspace, they are marginalized and "cybertyped." And while breaking into online spaces is the first step toward having an influence over the infrastructure and discursive conventions that favor the privileged, Nakamura's warning that our online "fluid selves" are just as likely to be oppressed by the "cultural hegemonies, rules of conduct, and regulating cultural norms" that exist outside of cyberspace is important to keep in mind as our students engage in online learning/interaction. We need to remember that many of the same prejudices, pressures, and racist attitudes from the face-to-face world get transferred to these "theaters of identity" (I really like that term b/c it seems to suggest some of the performative realities that Katie and Shawn have discussed). And as an instructor, I take that as yet another call to engage students in the conversation of what kinds of power relations exist in online spaces. As a follow-up, I can suggest forming alliances, or "strategic affinities" (8) in order to become more active, critical participants in cyberspace.

But then I'm reminded that I'm talking to college students here--many of whom have personal computers of their own, and many of whom can't keep track of the countless techno-gadgets that dominate their lives and their backpacks.

If only some of our excess could be redistributed to the people in that library line...

Friday, February 15, 2008

IM: fiesta de chaos!

Well, our in-class IM-ing proved to be as de-centered as a conversation can get, I think. I was in the group led by Jim. It took us a while to get everyone logged on, etc., but once we did, I'd say we had a few "productive" discussion threads, as short as they may have been.

I found myself listening to Kristin's voice above others in that group, mainly because I was looking for a guide/someone to take control. As it turns out, Kristin was trying her hardest NOT to be in control. Still, I initially felt this responsibility to "accomplish something" in the look-we-are-being-academic sense of the phrase. Then, after the de-centering really took effect and all the jokes and emoticons were flying from every direction, I decided to stop forcing the issue and start joining the fun. And what fun it was... especially after we all joined forces and had a fiesta de chaos. Let loose, laugh, and know that as grad students, we'll surely find a way to analyze this in the language "academese" on Tuesday. It's in our blood to do so. :)

In classrooms of my own, I think I'd use IM-ing, but rather than let my students go wild, I'd hand them a few prompts that they would need to address as part of the activity. Then, as long as they cover those questions (even if it's minimal coverage), they can have as many emoticon wars and unrelated madness as they like.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Sexual Chocolate

Non-academically speaking, Jeff Sirc is a total trip. I mean, before today, I could say that I had never read an academic essay that ended with the words “sexual chocolate”! And as unruly and outright abrasive as his views can be (see: full-fledged attack on D. Bartholomae), I appreciated the complete break from convention and politeness that Sirc displayed (I just tried to think of a word more casual than ‘display,’ since it seems hypocritical to throw down such an “academese” term directly after praising someone for the unconventional. But I failed. I’m a sucker.)

Comparing the field of composition studies to modern art, Sirc praised French artist Duchamp for pushing the expectations, challenging the bounds, and entertaining the alternative/rebellious side of modernism in art. Similarly, he’d like to see modern compositionists turn from their old ways of “defin[ing] [their] ends in terms of narrowly-conceived means (or better, conceiv[ing] of [their] means according to limited ends), despite the modern world’s take-over” (180). His main criticism, then, is that “experts” in our niche field (a field which, he seemed to think, is not too relevant, or of high importance, in the broader world of writing) have constructed a far too limited litmus test of what constitutes “good” versus “bad” writing. Instead, he thinks instructors should view writing in a way that allows student compositions to simply be celebrated as art for art’s sake--turning from assessment of subjective beauty to that of inclusive art.

Through his harsh criticism of David Bartholomae, Sirc asserts that compositionists need to rid themselves of arbitrary judgment-calls and social analyses that are based on individual taste and “literary hmm” and instead consider the dynamic compositional changes happening in the Interzone that can lead to a distracted wow.

George, Yancey, Wysocki

Speaking of dynamic compositional changes, these three seem to make powerful teammates in the battle for visual validity in composition studies. Much like Sirc, they are calling scholars to the task of expanding views and practices around visual literacy, so as not to view its manifestations as simple punctuations of written text, but rather as integral parts of the compositions themselves (Yancey 299). An important thing to note, too, is that both Wysocki and Yancey actually demonstrate a more complex use of the visual in their own compositions, which, Wysocki says, is meant to urge readers to “begin considering what kinds of constraints are placed on academic (and other argument by the ‘appropriate’ page layout we have inherited” (182).

From George’s perspective, most people have already accepted the idea that visual influences are an important and pervasive part of our society. Her argument, then, focuses on our tendency to be stuck in a “vague call for attention to ‘visual literacy’ in the writing class” (15) without articulating how complicated it is and how its application might work in a present-day classroom. In other words, “reading” the images in See Jane Run doesn’t hold a candle to the complex relationships involved in participating in multimodal design today. In her historical overview, George points to evidence that visual literacy instruction hasn’t reached far beyond using “low culture” images to support the “high culture” words on a page (31). I’m hearing echoes of Sirc in her notion that English teachers need to move beyond their Luddite ways of favoring the hallowed word-based composition over the “image-rich” realities that surround our students outside of our classroom walls. However, her own visual presentation and verbal discourse screams traditional "academese."

Wysocki focuses on the rhetorical decisions behind multimodal design, and while I appreciate her emphasis on social analysis, I think it's one that Sirc would find too imposing and/or uptight (see: his bashing of Bartholomae's social approach to his student's St. Croix travel narrative). As Wysocki states, “To be responsible teachers, then, we need to help our students (as well as ourselves) learn how different choices in visual arrangement in all texts (on screen and off) encourage different kinds of meaning making and encourage us to take up (overtly or not) various values” (186). In Wysocki's eyes, it's more than art for art's is about the self-reflexive in relation to the cultural.

And Yancey seems to agree, as she believes that multimodal literacies are “textured in relationship to each other” and “are social in a way that school literacy all too often only pretends to be” (302).

So, in contrast to Sirc's promotion of the freedom of individual expression without baggage of cultural meaning-making, these three scholars value the awareness of the socio-cultural situatedness of the composer. Where they would agree with him, though, is in the way he criticizes student assessments that are based on privileged taste and subjective preference. They also seem to agree that in this “convergence of digital and physical space” (Yancey quoting Frank Lantz, 302), students--and the world at large--will only benefit from going beyond being "passive recipients of technology" (Wysocki 192) and engaging in an active relationship with “...the intertexual, overlapping curricular spaces—between school and the public, including print and screen” (Yancey 320-321).

These readings all get me closer to an understanding of what teaching with technology could mean for me-- that instead of merely teaching students to "fill up those templates and fill in those electronic boxes" (Yancey 320), I can ask them to engage in, and reflect on, their everyday "rendezvous" (Sirc 184) with the multimodal texts that are already in their lives. I can stress the relationships, not the skills; the rhetorical choices, not the blind rule-following. But I can't promise that I can be cool enough to conclude my own academic compositions with phrases like “sexual chocolate.”

See, I even needed to add this meaningless closing line just to prove my point. :)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Coming Together As Many

Aside from the occasional interesting historical fact (I had no idea that Thoreau's Walden escape was funded by his entrepreneurial pencil-making stint), Bacon's piece struggled to keep my attention/intrigue. From my perspective, he failed to add anything new to the conversation regarding new technologies in the classroom, and instead seemed to repeat what others have said plenty of times before; namely, that technologies become invisible and automatic, and we therefore have a choice to fight or adapt. I don't expect, nor do I usually want, concrete answers in a scholarly piece, but I do hope to be left with a question or two that I find engaging and that even re-appears long after the article finds its home back on my shelf. Instead, Bacon's historical anecdotes provided me with nothing more than mild entertainment and a few yawny-yawn-yawns.

Offering more relevant references to current debates in our field, Hesse caused my computer to hit sleep mode far less than Bacon did (as I took notes on it). Since I assign a mixed genre literacy narrative (like Faigley's microethnography) to my 101 students and see it as an enlightening way to get at the root of student anxiety around constructions of the self, I found Hesse's multiple definitions of "essayistic literacy" and his questioning of the genre's value to be helpful. At times, however, I was confused about exactly what point he was making or where he was headed (i.e. his consideration of whether a home page is an extended argument or only a channeling of info? Does it really matter?) He also seemed to cite other scholars more than relying on his own contributions. If nothing else, though, he increased my understanding of the pedagogies within a social constructionist framework (accommodationist and resistance) and set the stage for Wysocki's compelling piece.

I love when segues appear without trying...

In "Blinded by the Letter," Wysocki and Eilola have a heightened sense of energy and innovation, both in the questions they ask and the design/format they use. It's like they're practicing what they're preaching, in a sense... like they are "not just moving through information," but "moving through it and making and changing conscious constructions of it as [they] go” (366). To me, their approach is as close to "patch-writing," or "patch-composing," perhaps, as one can get. Quoting others in chunks, messing with design and font conventions, and creating somewhat of a jump-around content path, these two are displaying the complex and exciting relationship we can have with our new and ever-changing idea of techno literacy.

Visually speaking, they act on their notion that an articulation relationship operates under a "cloud of sometimes contradictory nexus points among different positions" (367), and further assert that "literacy can be seen as not a skill but a process of situating and resituating representations in social spaces" (367). I'm drawn to this idea because of its implications to rehash and revise the old, linguistically exclusive ways of viewing discourse, literacy, and learning as monolithic practices. I'm also caught in that place of being motivated by theory and confused by how to specifically act on it in my own pedagogy.

Their references to Stuart Hall also made me want to read more of his work, since I've only had minimal exposure to it. I'm particularly hopeful about his view of articulation theory as a way of forcing us to set aside the belief that a 'unity' exists within discourses--that instead a new way of viewing multiple literacies as multiple articulations can "enable[s] us to think how an ideology empowers people, enabling them to begin to make some sense or intelligibility of their historical situation, without reducing those forms of intelligibility to their socio-economic or class location or social position” (367). If possible, it seems that this approach could both validate individual student experiences with (and interpretations of) literacy and acknowledge social forces at play without forcing such acknowledgment upon them. In the end, I believe students deserve to arrive at those social connections/social locations on their own, and the complex dimension that computer technology adds to our relationships to literacy might allow that very thing to happen.

Lastly, I'll add this: Can Richard Miller ditch Rutgers and teach here? I want a "Center for New Humanities!"

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Anxiety and Hope

Man, how I wish I'd read these pieces a week or two ago, when I was tying up the last pieces of my M.A. portfolio on the literacy myth and the need to recognize and honor multiliteracies in the classrooom. Ah well, just as we are works in progress, so are the "products" we design. Maybe I can make some revisions, knowing what I know now, especially from the New London Group and Richard Ohmann.

The important thing about these readings, to me anyway, was that they were not only critical of our historically narrow and exclusive ways of viewing literacy (a.k.a. the dark side), but they also gave HOPE and VISION to teachers of English studies. That's right, I said 'hope' and 'vision.'

While it's become much too easy to point out the anxiety that technology generates in an unequal society, these scholars don't stop there. Ohmann, for one, declares his belief in the "liberatory possibilities" that can emerge from the issues of inequality/lack of agency that technological literacy creates. So, while he recognizes that “monopoly capital” will continue to dominate “classrooms, textbooks, student essays, and texts of all sorts” (32), he also concludes with the opportunity (inevitability?) for resistance and rebellion in such an environment, and asks that we take part in it in our daily work lives. I love the boldness, and I love the specific call to take action. No empty bitching here, folks. These are the steps Ohmann says we can, and should, take:

1. Fight mindless computer literacy programs.
2. Critically analyze the politics of
3. Engage our students in discussions of literacy as a process of liberation, with the caveat that literacy in itself is not “intrinsically liberating.

Similarly, the New London Group gives refreshingly direct and hopeful advice, so to speak. After grounding their argument in the notion that literacy pedagogy has been "a carefully restricted project—restricted to fomalized, monolingual, monocultural, and rule-governed forms of language” (9), they go on to state specific goals within that context. They make the “negotiating of multiplicity of discourses” (9) that's required of us sound invigorating, not hopeless. And while questions of how to ensure full participation are still puzzling in my own mind, I applaud scholars who are trying to get at more concrete ways we can enact such change--locally and globally.

And I think that's the point--to include students in the questions we're asking one other, the points of tension we wrestle with here. After all, we're talking about them. The negotiation process needs their input. We cannot simply sit in our grad classes and have heady conversations about increasing access for all students and then proceed to teach from our same old transmission framework.

As the New London Group puts it, we need to “tread a careful path that provides students with the opportunity to develop skills for access to new forms of work through learning the new language of work. But at the same time, our role as teachers is not simply to be technocrats. It is not our job to produce docile, compliant workers. Students also need to devlop the capacity to speak up, to negotiate, and to be able to engage critically with the conditions of their working lives” (13).

I know I'm heavy on the quoting here, but the idea of engaging the multiple and diverse "lifeworlds" (such a cool term that seems to articulate a thought I've tried to get at in my head for some time now) that converge in our classrooms is exciting, to say the least. And so, I'm thankful I have some positive theory to hold onto as I figure out how, exactly, to develop a literacy pedagogy that seeks to be more inclusive and rebellious at the same time--one that sees differences as exciting to engage, not something to hide. I feel like hanging this quote over my desk: “To be relevant, learning processes need to recruit, rather than attempt to ignore and erase, the different subjectivities, interests, intentions, commitments, and purposes that students bring to learning (18).

Let's choose hope.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Power to the e-people

The highlight for me this week was surely Marilyn Cooper's "Postmodern Possibilities in Electronic Conversations." In addition to it offering some relevant insights to my profession as a college instructor who uses email with frequency with my students (I hadn't really thought about email's function/what it allows that classroom interaction can't), it also drew on deeper themes of power and the postmodern identity that seemed impressive to me. The simple pedagogical advice was strong enough on its own, but the links to Foucault and power really rounded it out and turned it into a smart, sound argument.

Like I said, I had never really analyzed the role email plays between my students and me, but while reading Cooper I found myself nodding and underlying the parts that discussed how email opens up avenues (discourse-wise and otherwise) that the constraints and formalities of the classroom do not welcome, no matter how "liberatory" we try to make it. I loved the idea that students feel less monitored or judged in that e-space... that even if they know a teacher will be looking at their words with scrutiny, they also know "the gaze" won't be looking so much at grammar or punctuation, but rather critical thinking and absorbtion of class material. In short, electronic conversations, according to Cooper, liberate students, and knowing how shy/anxiety-ridden/intimidated students get in the classroom, makes me want to use email even more in order to offer students a place where those concerns aren't as intense or present, and the "universal rules" of SAE aren't governing their every move.

As Cooper puts it, "Most simply put, the transition involves a shift from the notion of knowledge as the apprehension of universal truth and its transparent representation in language by rational and unified individuals to the notion of knowledge as the construction in language of partial and temporary truths by multiple and internally contradictory individuals (143). If this is true, then are the possibilities of our static, "pure" (Bizzell) discourse changing in the classroom (i.e. making ways for alternative discourses) likely? I certainly hope so. Maybe someday soon our "rules" will give way to, and more accurately reflect, the multiple literacies that our diverse students bring with them to class.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Call to be Activists

From Grabill's call to "expand the scope of our work outside composition classrooms" (298) to Selfe's push to “understand and make sense of, to pay attention to, how technology is now inextricably linked to literacy and literacy education in this country" (96), I'm revved up by the potential of teachers being social activists, or, to be buzzwordy, "agents of change."

This week's readings seem to form a strong team of concepts that interrelate and drive the points home that 1) The system of literacy education (including its connections to technology education) is an exclusive one (in terms of race and class); and 2) The issue of access--while it may be riddled with complexities that are hard to pinpoint or tackle--is a problem that deserves our immediate attention as it continues to increase the power differentials and social violence between the haves and have-nots.

I started with Grabill and Selfe. While Grabill focuses on community contexts ["Most discussions of literacy have taken place almost exclusively within school domains to the exclusion of a much wider range of written activity in workplace and community contexts" (298)], Selfe focuses on the local and national efforts to not only make access to writing technologies a more equal venture, but also to get people (especially teachers, since that's her primary audience) to "pay critical attention to the issues generated by technology use” (108).

These two scholars established a strong historical and field-specific foundation for launching into Banks and Walton, with the Banks piece being particularly powerful/influential for me. For starters, many of Banks' notions of censorship and surveillance sounded eerily familiar to Foucault's descriptions of the Panopticon. The need for Black youths and adults alike to have "underground spaces" where they can express themselves freely without being victims of judgment under the culturally dominant microscope seemed like both a liberating and tragic reality--simultaneously. What I mean is, while it initially sounds promising/exciting that a spaces like Blackplanet exist for people to find community and strength around their discursive traditions, the underlying fact that racism and hegemony have created a need for "subversive" or "underground" arenas for people of color is still disturbing. Banks even refers to "the gaze" that Foucalt discusses in "The Eye of Power," when he says, "because these spaces exist outside of the official gaze of schools, workplaces, and governments, those who become part of them truly do have the right to their own language" (71). But, I'm inclined to ask, are they ever really free of the gaze? The fact that the Blackplanet Web site is not Black-owned is troubling, to say the least. At least the forum exists, yes, but who controls it's content and fate?

Thus, we're reminded to get off our comfortable bums and use our power for transformation. We need to promote not only underground spaces that oppressed populations can control, but also mainstream, highly-visible ones of which they can take true ownership. If we sit back and ignore Selfe's advice to pay attention, we'll continue to “enact[s] social violence” and “ensure[s] continuing illiteracy under the aegis of education” (96). We first need to engage students and administrators in the discussion of unequal access if we ever want to have faith in Giddens’ notion that "…all social actors, no matter how lowly, have some degree of penetration of the social forms which oppress them" (72).

Technological mastery for all is complicated, yes, but Selfe and Banks (especially) break it down in a way that gives people in our profession some achievable steps to make local changes that will, we can hope, make waves on a broader scale.

I sound optimistic, but the beast of hegemony is making my stomach sick as I wonder if the broader-scale changes are ultimately possible.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Agency, Structure, and Power--oh my.

Whew! Sure wish I had known more of the names Giddens was dropping, but I did my best to extract what I could from his ideas on agency, power, and structure, and while it's sure to lack a sleek literary flow, here's what I came up with:

--"To study the structure of society is like studying the anatomy of the organism, to study its functions is like studying the physiology of the organism" (60). But how can we truly assign structure to something as fluid as social relationships? Can they even be predictable enough to be discussed in terms of "structure"? I suppose to some degree we are always observing "patterns" on a micro level (between people) and "functions" on a macro level (how those patterns operate at systems), but what if these patterns are read/perceived differently by different observers? Surely such subjectivity about human behavior exists, right? I suppose, though, that everyday pleasantries ("Hi, how was your weekend?") are social patterns on which we can rely... a kind of structure, I guess.

--Back up a second: At first I liked the way he discredited the idea that society is a force with which no one can reckon, and instead claimed that humans have agency, control, and power to reason within it (50). I can get behind this for those who already hold power, but what about the poor? This idea on agency, it seems, could easily slide into a "bootstraps" mentality, and that wouldn't be cool. Wouldn't structural racism disprove his original idea?

--"The concept of structuration involves that of the duality of structure, which relates to the fundamentally recursive character of social life, and expresses the mutual dependence of structure and agency" (69). Yes, this is sounding like the social theory I'm familiar with... the mutual dependence of action (or agency, as he calls it) and structure... that one can't exist without the other. He says that structure can shape 'personality' (micro) and 'society' (macro), all social (inter)action is recursive. Structure, then, is "both enabling and constraining" (69). Is that because we individual agency, and like he says, each action is "a production of something new," but at the same time we are always operating under/within the constraints of a dominant culture/society? This notion of being "stuck" within a larger system seems to contradict his later idea that structure is "not to be conceptualized as a barrier to action," but as an agent of its production. To me, it sounds like he's saying that on the one hand we are peons within an encompassing structure, yet on the other, that our personal power can impact this bigger force. Individual will/motivation can conquer?

I have more questions than answers this week (obviously).

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

When "the gaze" gets you fired

Over the holidays, my sister mentioned that her friend's husband, Leam, had just been "let go" from his job as a mid-level executive at a well-known bank. The reason? Someone (a.k.a. "the gaze") discovered that he had been logging on to an oh-so-evil Web site called "" on an almost daily basis. Despite the facts that 1) each visit lasted fewer than five minutes, and 2) he had been a loyal and valued employee for four years, his violation of the company's "no personal browsing" policy was enough to get him immediately and permanently removed. On his not-so-merry way out the door, he thought, still in shock, "Who knew that checking on a simple football score could get you ousted."

But it did. And I was instantly reminded of this modern-day surveillance scenario when I was reading our assigned Foucault pieces this week. While the word 'internet' never appeared in either piece, its connections to the modes of discipline and surveillance Foucault discussed were all too apparent.

In Bentham's architectural Panopticon, a single guard could monitor numbers of prisoners while the guard remained unseen. The same went for my sister's friend Leam. While he was making his routine contributions to American capitalism and taking sanity breaks to check in on his favorite sports teams, the eye of power--whether it was a computer-based detection program or a real human being--caught him in a disloyal act.

"Our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance," said Foucalt in his Panopticism. "…the circuits of communication are the supports of an accumulation and a centralization of knowledge… We are neither in the amphitheatre nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are part of its mechanism" (217).

With new technologies introducing themselves every day, it's hard to avoid being affected by machines, or mechanisms, of power. While it'd be easy for me to say, "Yeah, well, I'm never gonna work for a company that enforces rigid policies like Leam's did," the truth is that I don't need to have an official association with a company to be subject to a larger surveillance mechanism. After all, I own a laptop. If I send an email from my gmail account about an upcoming ski trip to Whistler, it's certainly no mistake that an instant later, a banner ad for cheap flights to Vancouver pops up. Marketing specialists would call that brilliant. I call it freaky. I call it surveillance.

And from The Eye of Power: There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze (155). Leam's removal was far from dramatic that day. To the contrary, he said it was surrounded by an eerie silence that followed him until he reached the urban sounds of the outdoors.

So, I'm guessing that one connection these readings might have to our 597 seminar is the notion that technology is power, and power can either be used wisely and sensitively or to violate and abuse. Its implications for racial profiling and targeting in our nation are especially frightening. And the idea that we often can't identify the tyrant, or monarch, enforcing our laws (due to the complexity and decentralization of power that technology has caused) is equally frightening. Centers of power have multiplied, and as Foucault mentioned in Panopticism, 'Discipline’ may be identified neither with an institution nor with an apparatus; it is a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets; it is a ‘physics’ or an ‘anatomy’ of power, a technology (215).

My question: How do we find the balance of loving the conveniences and creativity that technology offers us while still being cautious of these surveillance scenarios? More important, how do we communicate both sides to our students? (The story I mentioned above made my sister absolutely paranoid of using her work computer, which is NOT where I want to land.)