This is a rough transcript of my talk at Domains17.
It was humbling to hear Martha Burtis describe her nervousness about her Domains 2017 keynote. Reassuring to know I’m in good company there in feeling nervous about this presentation. It’s was especially difficult to decide where and how to begin this talk. And then I remembered how we got started with Domains, with a visit from Jim Groom and his public talk on campus, which opened this way:
So what could possibly go wrong here this morning?
While there are a lot of familiar faces here, I’m relatively new to this Domains community. There are a few things to know about me that may help in understanding how Domains is situated within our work at Muhlenberg College, a small residential liberal arts college in Allentown, Pennsylvania. (If you want to know a little more about Allentown and the region, you can take a look at one of the projects a recent group of students completed on the history of slate in the Lehigh Valley, my first collaborative Domains project).
At Muhlenberg, I am a professor of media and communication, as well as the associate dean for digital learning and director of a consortial minor in documentary storymaking. My teaching, scholarship, and leadership has long been preoccupied with struggles for media justice. For two decades, my scholarship has been directly tied to youth media, and for the last decade that has been grounded in a rich and transformative collaboration with Jenna Azar, along with our extraordinary colleague Anthony Dalton. Together we co-direct the HYPE youth media program in Allentown (Tony is reimagining the HYPE website this summer so please check back later to see the awesome youth produced documentaries HYPE teens have dropped recently).
When I started teaching, as is the case for many new junior faculty, I was responsible for teaching the introductory course in the major, “Media and Society.” The focus in this course was to introduce students to a critical analysis of the political economy of media and communication. The goal was to help students develop an understanding of the context and impact of corporate media concentration within democratic society.
I imagined that I was providing students with a critical lens for viewing mainstream media, hoping to make their quite familiar media landscape newly strange to them. So that they might see it with fresh eyes, with critical distance, and through the frameworks of critical media theory they were encountering in the course. I recall vividly, towards the end of my second year, chatting with students before the start of class. When I asked what they did over the weekend, one student commented that he’d been to the movies and added: “Dr. Taub, you ruined movies for me.” Other students voiced agreement. When I asked how I managed to ruin movies for them the student said, “ever since you taught us about product placements, all I can see are products, I’m on the lookout for products, and it completely takes the fun out of watching a movie.” He even added that his friends didn’t want to go to the movies with him anymore because he was so distracting pointing out all of the product placements to them throughout.
I might have thought to myself: good! I’m doing my job then. They’re watching film critically. Of course, I wanted to help students develop a critical understanding of how media ownership shapes and constrains meaning making in our social world. But I didn’t want to ruin their media for them. I didn’t want to deny them the pleasures of engaging in media practices, even as consumers of commercial media.
As we talked about this, students shared that they were leaving my classes feeling empowered with critical theory but also feeling helpless, some even used the term depressed, by their inability to do anything that might counter the hegemony of corporate mass media and popular culture.
Maybe students were developing critical awareness but I hadn’t made it possible for them to extend that understanding into critical action. Simply put, I had cut off their right to be happy. While there was satisfaction in grappling with difficult theory, there was no joy in their learning. In their extended dialogue on learning and social justice, Paulo Freire tells Myles Horton, “Seriousness fights against happiness.” (Horton & Freire, We Make the Road by Walking, 1990, p. 171).
This was in stark contrast to what I was seeing in another core class I had the privilege to teach, Documentary Research. While the first course in the major focuses on critical media analysis, in this second course, the focus is on helping students develop as responsible, ethical media makers. In this course, originally developed by my colleague Sue Curry Jansen, students encounter the history of documentary expression and connect that to their own documentary practice in community settings. Students create 2-3 minute digital stories that they research, edit, produce, and share with their peers and community members. They are empowered with tools, support, and space to construct meaningful narratives in collaboration. Paraphrasing Freire here, inside the difficulty of learning documentary methods, digital tools and editing software, self-knowledge and happiness begins to be generated! In Documentary Research, while students struggle with the ethics and methods of documentary storytelling, they reach the end of the course happy with their results and proud of their individual and collective efforts as novice digital storytellers. And students recognize that this pleasure and satisfaction and meaning comes from rigorous, difficult work. In fact, when alumni come back to campus and are asked about the course experiences that have stayed with them over the years since graduating, they always talk about this course.
Only a very few graduates of our program go on to pursue lives as documentarians. But that’s not the point. In the process of learning documentary expression, students are learning ethics, accountability, connecting to community. They are learning to narrate their own experience in the world through digital storytelling.
I felt joyful teaching that course, that is where my teaching felt the most engaged, the most connected, the most meaningful.
So I began to consider ways to integrate multimodal composition into my other courses. My desire was to intentionally weave together through my courses experiences that develop students’ practice in critical media analysis, and their practice as ethical media makers. What if I created at the center of all of my courses opportunities for students to narrate their own experiences as learners? What would it look like to choose pedagogies that engage media and digital tools for this purpose?
I had the opportunity to begin exploring that through a new general education curricular initiative a few years ago and developed a new course: New Media Literacies. (Some of the work of that course exists here on our course blog). The course explores how young people, in specific cultural and social contexts, negotiate and construct meaning through their use of and engagement with digital tools.
At the heart of the course is students’ participatory fieldwork with the HYPE youth media program, where Allentown high school students research, shoot, edit, and produce documentary media about social justice issues in their community. Muhlenberg students collaborate with the teens, in a kind of collegial pedagogy (see Soep and Chavez 2010). Jenna and I know from teaching an advanced Youth Media course that these collaborations can generate transformative experiences for students who are interested in joining their studies in media and communication with struggles for media justice. For many, it changes what they study, what paths they pursue after they graduate.
To illustrate, I want to share a story about a student in New Media Literacies, Erik, who just graduated last month. Erik enrolled in the course as a first year student, who introduced himself to his peers on the first day of class as a football player, a first generation college student, Latino, and made it clear that he recognized that responsibility and brought it into the space of the class. He was especially excited about the opportunities for multimodal composition in the course—he had an active presence on Tumblr and Instagram and often came to class excited to share his latest post. Between classes he often sent us provocative posts he read the he was relating to course topics.
One morning, he came into class and asked to share a piece he wrote over the weekend. He sat at the front of the room and read a powerful spoke word poem, a reflection he described as prompted by one of the course readings and conversations at HYPE. Erik’s spoken word piece overwhelmed us all. We spent the entire class discussing his piece, which illustrated in so many ways the theories of critical new media literacies that we were reading about. It went beyond those readings to exemplify and embody new media literacy as practice.
From the intimate space of our course, Erik then stepped out into the more public space of the annual multicultural block party and performed his piece there, mic in hand. His peers recorded it on their phones and shared it to social media. It was posted to the multicultural center’s facebook page and the likes alone registered just a glimpse of the impact his voice was having. But the video was rough, the sound was poor. So we encouraged him to film it again. Here’s what he did, with Tony Dalton’s support.
This was a powerful lesson in what it looks like to create space in class and at the center and corners of campus for students to narrate their experience in the world. Space and opportunities for their voices to be heard by others. To know, to experience, that his voice matters. This was a stepping off point for Erik—a moment at which he enlarged the space of his engagement on campus, going on to become the co-president of Comunidad Latina.
Why does this matter? Here’s where I want to extend the conversation on VOICE already happening in the Domains community. To do so, I want to invoke the work of Nick Couldry, a British media scholar, who argues in his book Why Voice Matters that we are experiencing a contemporary crisis of voice—across political, economic, social domains. At root, he argues, is a pervasive doctrine of neoliberalism that denies voice matters.
Increasingly, the systems of higher ed in which we work are being reorganized and realigned around the values and interests and logics of neoliberalism. This poses challenges for those of us who see our work as tied to expanding possibilities for student voice and agency.
Couldry is not, of course, the only critic documenting the incursions of neoliberalism into education and other swaths of human social activity. But his critique stands out to me for its focus on voice. I won’t do justice to Couldry’s complex argument here, which engages sociology, economics, philosophy, and other theoretical fields. But basically the heart of his argument is this: neoliberalism denies voice matters. Neoliberalism creates systems in which people are treated as if they lack the capacity for voice, for rendering an account of their experience.
For Couldry, voice is not simply “expressing one’s opinion or perspective.” Couldry is working with the idea of voice as a VALUE. This includes the act of valuing, choosing to value, frameworks for organizing human activity and resources that put the value of voice into practice. This means choosing against frameworks that devalue, deny, or undermine voice.
How does neoliberalism deny the value of voice? According to Couldry, 1) by imposing a view of life that values market functioning above all, as the overwhelming priority; and 2) by gutting the place of the social in politics and economics. (just think about health care, education, climate science, we could go on…) The result is a CRISIS OF VOICE under neoliberalism. According to economists, Couldry reminds us, voice is an “externality of market functioning.”
Note: Couldry published Why Voice Matters in 2010. Since then, we have seen emerge several critical examples of people’s capacities for social cooperation based on voice, including Black Lives Matter, the 2017 Women’s March, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Couldry would have us see these not only as forms of political representation—but from a broader account of how human beings are in the world.
One response to this crisis, Couldry suggests, is to actively favor frameworks that value voice as a process. And what I want to consider in the remainder of this talk is the idea that Domain of One’s Own is a framework for organizing the human activity of teaching and learning that intentionally values voice as a process.
There are so many ways of organizing teaching and learning that undermine, deny, of variously diminish voice–and while I am thinking primarily of student voice, we might also give an account of the ways that faculty voices are undermined, and the ways that staff voices are undermined. In the framework provided by Couldry, we might consider Learning Management Systems, Learning Analytics, Machine Learning, etc. as ways of organizing the human activities of education that deny voice matters. They share in common a market rationality that denies the value of voice (beyond consumer voice).
Domain of One’s Own provides the resources and materials from which a student can build an account of herself, a digital, multimodal narrative of her experience in the world. That is a form of valuing voice.
I imagine Domain of One’s Own as a nest—a tiny space in a vast wide open sky nurturing intellectual, creative, political possibilities, nurturing communities of critical learners, makers, producers. A place where students’ fledgling interests, ideas, projects are nurtured, cared for. A pocket of possibilities and a structure to shelter new ideas that don’t easily find a home elsewhere online.
In introducing Domains at Muhlenberg, I’ve closely collaborated with Tim Clarke, who administers our Domains project, has created outstanding documentation, and co-facilitated a faculty learning community on Domains with me. Tim used to have a Twitter profile with a quote from They Might Be Giants: “make a little birdhouse in your soul.” So I’m liking nest metaphor, and it fits with our DoOO instance at Muhlenberg, which we’ve titled: bergbuilds.domains. And it fits, too, with the ways that all of us on the Digital Learning Team are hoping to help students, faculty, and staff build their own domains as space for nurturing their creative and intellectual projects.
So many spaces within higher ed increasingly push the value of self-promotion, of marketing one’s skills, and a focus on individualistic gain (grades, jobs, credentials). Can Domain of One’s Own be part of an effort to renew a culture that values connection and collective action? Inquiry tied not only to one’s self gain but to some notion of the social good?
At Muhlenberg, we’ve only been working with Domains for a semester, so my comments here gesture towards the hopeful. But even in that short time, I see evidence that a domain can be a nest for developing students’ learning as students and as activists who embody a commitment to critical digital and civic engagement. As learners who are developing digital presence beyond market narratives.
This is Jazzy’s domain. An art studio major and a Digital Learning Assistant, Jazzy graduated in 2017. In her last two months of college, she worked with Jenna and Tim to migrate her work off bergbuilds.domains and onto her own domain, TheFriendlyNipple.com. The site documents her senior art project and other work as an emerging artist.
Jazzy’s project is such a powerful example of Domain of One’s Own as practicing the value of voice. Here, she’s claiming her own agency, as an emerging working artist, while also using her Domain as a space for other women to reclaim their bodies, a space for female voice. On the one hand, she’s cultivating a powerful individual presence, making her domain the hub for an already intentional social media presence. At the same time, she’s connecting her own personal digital empowerment to a call for collective action and participation. It’s a platform for marketing her work (she sells her work on RedBubble) but it’s not just to market and promote. She offers a narrative of herself beyond and unbounded by market logics. It’s not just self-branding.
This movement between documenting one’s learning, highlighting one’s growth as a student, showcasing talents and gesturing towards something larger than individual achievements, can be a tricky tension. If Domain of One’s Own is to hold onto any kind of radical possibility for students, it cannot be reduced to self-branding. As we introduce students to Domains, it’s necessary to engage in dialogue that frames the value of creating their own domain in a wider lens. As Martha suggested this morning in her keynote, we need to push “beyond the pragmatic and practical goals of the project,” “to grapple with the Web in deep and discerning ways.” Reclaiming control over their digital identity, their data, their work—that’s important work for students, even vital. But we can also explore with students the need to create the web beyond self-promotion, in ways that hold each other up. The way Jazzy is using her tiny space on the web to hold up other feminists. How do we hang on to the possibility of Domains as a strategy that interrupts the neoliberal attack on voice, on education, on the social? So that it grows as a space for counter narratives like the one Jazzy is offering?
As we grow into our second year, building on the strong foundation and support that Adam Croom, Martha Burtis, Jim Groom Lauren Brumfeld and others have generously offered, I want to think of Domains not only as a student’s individual project to reclaim control, agency, and voice, but also as a project that might remind us of what Michelle Fine calls our “desperate need for rich interdependence” (“Critical Civic Research,” Civic Provocations, Brining Theory to Practice, 2012, p. 35) This is what draws me to Domain of One’s Own–a rich interdependence among folks at participating sites.
At Middlebury, the Domains project is called MiddCreate and the landing page pictures three people in a garden—two women are holding watering cans and a man is kneeling and has his hands in the soil near what looks to be some Swiss chard. Text over the image says: It’s your digital garden. What will you grow? What I love about this framing is that it lends itself not only to a recognition of the cultivating, nurturing, and growing that happens when students have a domain of their own. But also, as any serious gardener knows, it’s what’s beneath the soil that really matters: a deep entangled intricate network of roots sustaining it all.
A nest is a kind of pocket. I think that Domains can be a small pocket of resistance (this is a reference to another voice we lost recently, the late John Berger, and his book, The Shape of a Pocket). It can be a resource for addressing the crisis of voice and thinking beyond the neoliberal framework that produces that crisis. A framework and a set of practices that intentionally value voice. I’m trying to think about Domain of One’s Own as a framework for cultivating student voice as a process—the ability for students to construct an account of themselves, a narrative of their experience in the world. A way of organizing teaching and learning that puts the value of voice into practice, so that students–even when confronted with what seem like almost insurmountable injustices–never give in to programmed helplessness.
During the same year that we launched our Domains project, the drumbeat of market competition as the dominant principle in higher education grew louder and louder. Liberal arts institutions have been especially preoccupied with this, hard pressed to justify the value of the soaringly high cost of a private, residential campus experience. Domain of One’s Own can be useful as both a tool and a counter-narrative to the neoliberal reorganization of teaching and learning. Or it can play right into that agenda. Domain of One’s Own can offer a resource for valuing voice as process, for—as Judith Butler says—giving an account of oneself. (“I cannot give an account of myself without accounting for the social conditions under which I emerge.”) For holding onto the belief that other alternatives are possible.
We have a long battle to repair the damage of neoliberalism’s assault on higher ed. The growing precarity for contingent faculty labor, increasing focus on revenue generation, academic capitalism, rising tuition and costs…I’m not suggesting that Domain of One’s Own repairs any of this. Of course it doesn’t. But I do think it is possible to situate Domain of One’s Own in ways that might do some repair work around, in particular, technology and voice. It can at least be a resource to help challenge this dominant view of the neoliberal university. Where are there spaces to continue to imagine that other worlds are possible?
Where are the radical possibilities within higher ed? How can we connect Domains to those initiatives? To civic engagement? Global studies? LGBTQ initiatives? Teacher Ed? Departments with social justice missions? Initiatives like Intergroup Dialogue? Where are the spaces/partners working to advance social solidarities? And how can we propose Domains as an ally, an amplifier, to these efforts?
Because voice does matter, not just for one’s own individual benefit, but for the collective. To emphasize something that Martha Burtis explored in her keynote this morning, I want to ask us to think about how we can keep Domain of One’s Own bold and outrageous. How do we protect it from dissolving into the landscape of higher education individualism? As times grow more desperately unequal, we have to sustain community at the heart of Domain of One’s Own, as well as other forms of digital pedagogy and praxis. It can easily be eclipsed by the individualism that characterizes so much of the ethos driving tech implementation in higher ed. Of course we need to know and demonstrate that liberal arts skills are marketable for our graduates. But I think Jazzy and Erik show us that there is more to the story.
I want to end with a thought from Vivian Gussin Paley. As a kindergarten teacher and an ethnographer of her own sites of learning, Paley offers some of the most deeply humane and incisive critique of educational technology I have encountered.
If you believe, as I do, that a brown crayon is also an educational technology.