Toward a TechnoFeminist Ethic of Care ~ Session B10

by Sweetland DRC on August 2, 2013

in 2013 C&W Reviews,C&W Reviews,Collaborative,Conference Reviews

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Review by Erin Frost

Read more about session B10 on the C&W conference site.

Panelists

Megan Adams, Bowling Green State University
Jen Almjeld, New Mexico State University
Kristine Blair, Bowling Green State University
Christine Denecker, University of Findlay
Meghan McGuire, New Mexico State University
Christine Tulley, University of Findlay

This roundtable theorized how mentoring relationships can help marginalized groups—especially women—to interrupt systems of power and redefine technological hierarchies. More specifically, panelists shared their own stories of mentorship experiences. Megan Adams (whose paper was read by Mariana Grohowski) specifically highlighted the value of stories; she argued that scholarship in our field reveals the power of stories, and that feminists also have taught us about the importance of stories—not as master narratives, but so we might begin to theorize our locations and understand how gender and power are embedded in technology. To this end, Adams contributed a story of how she found herself in this field to help illuminate the ways mentoring practices can affect scholars. She was working as a broadcast news reporter when she observed that women reporters were typically expected to eventually move into an anchor position, behind a desk. She did not want to move to a desk job. Around this time, she took a course with co-panelist Christine Tulley, then one with Christine Denecker, and she began to see new possibilities; it was her relationships with these two women that lead her to pursue a PhD.

The relationships Adams described with Tulley and Denecker were representative of the panel. In fact, Kristine Blair opened the panel by telling the audience that the panelists have longstanding reciprocal relationships with each other. For example, Jen Almjeld and Meghan McGuire each discussed their relationship from their own perspectives. Shortly after the two met, Almjeld—whose paper, fittingly, was read by McGuire—was in a position to help McGuire—a doctoral candidate at the time—be assigned a course on cultural identity and representation, and she did so. McGuire worked with Almjeld in teaching this course, wherein McGuire focused the class on Twitter while Almjeld focused it on online dating profiles. They were able to share and exchange ideas, assignments, and approaches to the class. Since this time, McGuire and Almjeld have continued to develop their relationship as reciprocal mentors. They share what works and does not work in their classrooms, noting that what works for one will not always work for the other. The sharing of ideas goes both ways, and exchanges often have taken place in an office when the door was open. McGuire stressed that important conversations often happen far from the classroom and even the campus.

Almjeld pointed to the ways in which unofficial mentoring relationships can be useful precisely because they are not institutionalized, structured, and inflexible. In particular, organic mentoring practices can intervene in institutional practices that perpetuate racism and sexism. McGuire, who positioned her paper in conversation with Almjeld’s, argued that reciprocal relationships are especially important in computers and writing scholarship. Collaboration is vital precisely because we know that teachers do not and cannot know everything, particularly in fast-moving technology fields. Collaboration and reciprocal mentoring relationships are therefore the most sustainable kind of relationships we can sponsor—a fact evidenced by the existence of this panel.

Kristine Blair discussed the panel itself as an example of technofeminist mentoring. She said that in some ways it seemed strange to use the space to share stories, but the importance of narrative as a technofeminist method should not go unsaid. Stories are so much a part of our field because they chronicle our techno-literacy acquisition. Stories also help the field to pay attention to intersectional interests and to the ways in which particular positions—being a graduate student, for example—both enable and constrain access. Blair also stressed that feminist mentoring is reciprocal and co-equal, not hierarchical; she pointed to a number of scholars (including Patricia Sullivan, Cindy Selfe, Gail Hawisher, Mary Hocks, Pam Takayoshi, and her co-panelists) who have participated in reciprocal mentoring relationships with her over the years.

Blair also talked about particular projects intended to respond to data showing that women don’t seek careers in STEM areas. Blair argued that we need to negotiate our identities in ways that acknowledge the personal and political goals for our research as benefiting not just essentialized groups but as ways of understanding what enables and constrains literate activity so as to intervene in patterns like the dearth of women in STEM. She said we need to allow spaces like this panel at conferences so that such stories are heard.

Christine Denecker and Christine Tulley both provided some concrete ways of thinking about and practicing mentoring. Denecker began her presentation by talking about her history of moving from being a high school English teacher to a professor to an administrator. Based on her experiences, she advocated extending mentoring relationships to four specific groups:

  • Many non-traditional students do not approach graduate school full-time, and this means they sometimes miss out on a traditional cohort experience.
  • Faculty moving into administrative roles are a crucial group because they have the potential to mentor the other three groups that Denecker advocates increased attention to. Denecker said that most programs are geared toward helping professors move up faculty ranks, not into administration.
  • Denecker acknowledged that adjunct instructors can often become disillusioned by the systems they work within. She has seen the need to mentor adjuncts to ensure that they feel a part of the department.
  • Denecker asserts that mentoring our colleagues working as high school English teachers is vital. It should be our responsibility to share our expectations of writing in digital environments, and we should be listening to the stories told by high school English teachers to learn what constraints they are working under.

In service of these groups, Denecker urged listeners to model explicit technofeminist mentoring and also to consider the ways that storytelling, self-disclosure, and collaboration can empower others. Finally, she urged technofeminists to reach out, to mentor and be mentored, to move about in different spaces in order to find new kinds of mentoring. Tulley asserted that these new spaces are readily available because most Computers & Writing scholars belong to several other fields as well, creating great diversity in available mentoring opportunities. To this end, she provided detailed explanations of some of those opportunities:

  • At the Digital Media and Composition Institute (DMAC) at The Ohio State University, participants—usually about 20 per year—meet in a cohort, and mentoring is maintained within that cohort indefinitely. For more, visit http://dmp.osu.edu/dmac/.
  • The Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) is a grassroots organization with lots of cross-field spaces. Learn more at http://hastac.org.
  • The Humanities and Technology (THAT) Camps organize around something participants want to do. Participants, who bring varying skills to their groups, then mentor each other. See upcoming camps at http://thatcamp.org.
  • Many Eyes is a web-based mentoring-style project that provides participants with feedback on what to do with large sets of data. Users work with uploaded data and re-post it in new formats. Visit the project at http://www-958.ibm.com.
  • The College Composition and Communication’s (CCC) Mentor Matching program pairs newcomers with senior members. Tulley (who represents the Newcomer’s Committee), working together with Louise Phelps (who represents the Senior/Retired Special Interest Group), put together this program and have seen positive results.
  • Tulley also participates in the Rhetoric Society of America (RSA) Associate Professors Group, a group designed to figure out reasons why associate professors do not advance to full professor ranking.

Tulley said that she thinks of Computers & Writing as young, but it is decades old and we need to think more about formalized mentoring structures.

In sum, all panelists emphasized—and demonstrated—the importance of mentoring work. Blair, in particular, advocated a return to explicit technofeminist mentoring in Computers and Writing. She said that each of these panelists engage in technofeminist mentoring because it interrogates cultural assumptions about technology in the academy and larger culture—places where people often presume that computers and writing would be a male-dominated enterprise. This assumption ignores that Computers & Writing is a feminist field and always has been.

Erin Frost is an assistant professor at East Carolina University.

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