Subverting Digital Hierarchies: Historical Quest for Safe Spaces ~ Session A10


Review by Christopher Sean Harris

Read about Session a10 on the C&W conference site.
Visit the scribd site for additional session information.


Kristine Blair, Bowling Green State University, Chair
Mariana Growhowski, Bowling Green State University
Estee Beck, Bowling Green State University 

This session, “Subverting Digital Hierarchies: Historical Quest for Safe Spaces,” began as a chapter proposal that is currently under review. In the session, panelists employed cyberfeminist theory to critique limitations caused by Foucoudian relationships of agency and power within Learning Management Systems (LMS). The panelists then discussed ways faculty might navigate and productively work within the constraints of those systems as well as other learning systems such as MOOCS.

As an educator in a large, urban university, I was primarily interested in attending this session because my students often have limited access to online technology. The presentations, thus, were quite meaningful, as both the presenters and audience members extended discussions of software interfaces to discussions of commodities and of access.

In her introduction to the session, Kristine Blair asked those in attendance to consider the rhetorics of convenience, the nature of anytime learning, and the myth that the computer can foster a neutral online learning environment. However, Blair claimed, faculty must critique those systems being promoted as effortless and easy to use. Those critiques might come in the form of examinations of the power relations inherent in the interface just as pedagogical spaces become homogenized and whitewashed. To push that critique and to help elucidate the cyberfeminist approach of the session’s speakers, Blair posed the following questions:

  • Who is invisible, who has the power, and who can gain power?
  • What is visible and what is transparent?
  • Where might readers and writers find the pleasures of writing/reading/performing?
  • What (and how do) institutional frameworks foster and stymie the pleasures of reading/writing/performing?

Then, after defining the scope of the critique portion of the session, Blair moved to identify the key features of the proposal portion of the session. Since the rhetorics of convenience exist in an era of 24/7, anytime, set-it-and-forget-it learning, who actually benefits in terms of student identity and faculty labor? As the struggle between technology and identity grows,

  • How can educators move students from consumers to producers?
  • How can educators “dismantle the master’s hours?” to create more opportunities for both students and faculty (Arola, 2010)?

In this introduction, Blair asked questions that effectively set the tenor for Beck’s critique and Grohowski’s proposal. Amid the questions, however, the primary concern of just who actually benefits in terms of student identity and faculty labor was the most striking, as that concern invites an extended analysis from Marxist and cultural approaches.  When universities offer online learning that students don’t have the means to access, then just who is the university serving, for example?

Estee Beck moves to answer the framing questions above by discussing her dichotomous role as a graduate student and as a teacher. To take that turn from student to teacher and to see how many tools and resources in a Learning Management System (LMS) are open to teachers and not to students was an enlightening experience for Beck.

Beck claims that bodies are marked and limited through surveillance and interface practices partly because LMSes were engineered in artificial environments. According to an Educause (2010) study, 95% of respondents use C/LMS. CMS are created, in an office environment and not in an educational environment, by white, male programmers and reflect a white, male practice, as evidenced by the hierarchy of icons in CMSes such as Blackboard (Abbate, 2012; Wacjman, 2006).

While Beck acknowledges that, Wright (2002), on the other hand, works to dispel or remove the myth of the white male as a dominant figure in computer programming, the stakeholders are not necessarily the powerbrokers. Thus, in a sense, the work of education exists within a white collar and blue collar dichotomy.

What makes Beck’s argument most compelling is the way it revivicates and modernizes issues that Sharon Crowley (1998) discusses in Composition in the University.  Who has the institutional power and who are the producers and consumer of texts? Who needs to be indoctrinated with taste and who can appreciate the aesthetic of the interface? In the Digital Age, then, just who is replacing the Board of Overseers and is deciding upon the content of courses, how that content will be delivered, and how mastery of that content will be measured?

If the answer lies in MOOCS and products like those pushed by Coursera, then educators must address the disjoint between the subject matter, the teacher, and the students. Who really is engaging with course content when interaction is managed rather than fostered, Beck asks?

The managerial power in the C/LMS fosters not an educational space but an oppressive workplace. Hegemonic hierarchies created by information systems and C/LMS’s might create a way for teachers to subvert authority “at the expense of student learning” (Beck).

As faculty of the California State University, I find these assertions about online and spatial dominance both striking and relevant. The machine of CSU Online monitors students, from keystroke to mouse hover, and then sends progress reports or engagement instructions to faculty–not faculty, but counselors–who then interact with students.

Mariana Grohowski considers ways that educators can effectively take back educational space and proposes a plan of action.  She offers three solutions for cyberfeminist practices.

  • Course content must be accessible to a wide range of learning styles and must follow principles of universal design.
  • Push both students and teachers beyond the constructions of spaces.
  • “Re-design/re-imagine/re-create interfaces to foster diversity and inclusion” (Selfe and Selfe, 1994).

By considering the three principles of universal design (multiple methods of representation, multiple means of student action and expression, and multiple modes of student engagement), Grohowski argues that educators can empower both students and themselves, as students can learn more by engaging with course material in multiple ways and therefore stretch the limits of the interface.

Finally, by drawing upon Selfe and Selfe’s (1994) “Politics of the Interface,” faculty can empower students to extend beyond the gendered and normative boundaries of the interface when educators promote an awareness of the values of interfaces, re-design/re-imagine/re-create interfaces for a larger diversity of inclusion, and revise interfaces as texts by identifying desirable features and working to include them.

Thus, students can most effectively be empowered when educators consciously work to avoid the programs that have little to do with their desires, hopes, fears, technological capabilities, and professional lives, as well as learning preferences.

By discussing interface concerns and ways to address students as learners and not as consumers, Grohowski pushes audience members not only to consider the politics inherent in standardization, but the politics inherent in deploying a breadth of technologies in the computer-mediated classroom. Just as mass-produced, mass-enrolled courses foster sterility and inhibit individual expression, technocentric courses limit access by asking students to engage in foreign activities.

The panel engendered a lively discussion about several issues, including whether educators must be willing to pay to host their own educational software on their own servers to avoid the constraints of institutionalized software. After all, just as students can become disenfranchised, teachers can. Alternately, faculty can provide students access to alternate spaces in institutionalized CMSes. Additional discussion threads included critiques of Quality Matters, as well as ways to use Quality Matters to subvert institutionalized learning. Overall, audience members expressed an interest in simultaneously engaging their students and freeing them from the constraints of institutionalized learning software. Apparent in the discussion, however, were themes of labor and contingency, as educators often are hesitant to engage their students outside of institutionally provided venues for fear of being disciplined.

Christopher S. Harris is the writing program coordinator and assistant professor of English at CSU Los Angeles. He earned his PhD in Rhetoric and Writing from Bowling Green State University. His most recent article, in Computers and Composition Online, is “First Steps with ePortfolios on a Technology-Hesitant Campus.”


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