operating on the principle of good enough

I Desire to Be More Sensitive

Yesterday, I made it through about almost ¼ of the software carpentry workshop focused on librarians. I left because after a few off-colour jokes, I was triggered by a joke about ‘how we all have abusive relationships with software’. This was the third cringe-inducing thing that was said (actually maybe 4th? idk.).

I left even though I’m about 90% sure that there are more than a few people who think I was/am ‘too sensitive’ regarding jokes like the above. I wish there was a way for me to convey how much I don’t care. There is a reason why I decided to title this post “I desire to be more sensitive”. I also really wish there was a way to convey the years of struggle I’ve had with getting to the point where I don’t minimize my own experiences with abuse. After all that work, I’m sure as shit not back tracking now. I also wish there was a way to convey how much time and effort it has taken me to get to the point where I could actually walk out of that room so that I could go home and do some self-care. By the endof last night, I was feeling pretty okay again.1

But I did want to talk a little bit about some of the stuff that happened and why it was bad.

1) Unpaid labour and ‘volunteering’

So the first remark that I called out was:

And then followed up by a comment ‘we’d love to exploit you!’ (re: volunteer)… >.> source

There was this strange moment when Greg pointed out that everyone except him who was leading/facillitating/helping at the workshop was a volunteer. Talking about how great it was that Software Carpentry [SWC] was a volunteer-led initiative. And while I do understand the point he was trying to make…

This boast + the fact that most volunteers were men = a small revalation about the lack of gender diversity. And why this lack of diversity is likely to be static for quite some time. Add on a joke about how SWC would like to ‘exploit you’ to an audience of mostly women….

First, we could talk about the ethics of unpaid labour. We could also talk about how women tend to already engage in a lot of unpaid labour (in the form of housekeeping, childcare, care giving, etc.). We could talk about how facillitating one of these workshops necessarily means taking two days off of work. Two days where you most likely will not be getting paid. This also becomes a class issue (which is still gendered because women, on the whole, are poorer than men).

Unfortunately, all of this ties into why I also made the decision not to return after needing to leave. Yes, the motivation for each decision (the decision to leave and the decision to stay away) were not the same. I’m not there today because of this:

@satifice Thanks for the call-out – chat at the lunch break about how we could do better? source

After a rocky start to the morning, I can tell you the absolute last thing I had any desire to do during my one hour lunch break was to engage in the emotional and intellectual labour of teaching SWC how to do things better. What I wanted to do during lunch was meet some awesome people in meat space for the first time (see @ahitchens, @marvellings, @collingsruth). Instead… I felt like I was ‘volunteered’ into doing work over lunch. In a word… being tapped for ‘exploitation’ simply because I spoke up (almost like a punishment…).

2) Ableism

So this was said:

“Everyone must get up and move around during breaks…” — This is an accessibility problem. source

I get that he was coming off this explanation why cognitively getting up and moving around during breaks can improve your concentration…

The thing that makes me shake my head about this, is that just a slight change of language and we’d be okay and inclusive.

“Try to move around a little during breaks, if you can”

Or something similar. And, periodically, we were told to stand (I can’t remember why, because I was focusing on something else). Again. “Stand if you want and/or can”. Shifting towards inclusivity in your language doesn’t take that much work and doesn’t require learning a new vocabulary.

This was also said:

“Normal, sane people” >.> source

I believe the context was something about coding and whatever. I can’t remember. It doesn’t really make a difference. I’m only halfway through this post and already feeling exhausted with the effort to not simply give a harpy screech of frustration. Neuro-diversity is a thing. Please don’t say things like this.2

3) Abuse culture

Abuse culture says things like this:

“As with any abusive relationship…” There is almost no limit to my disdain for ‘jokes’ that trivialize abuse. source

Context for this: talking about how some computer stuff starts counting from 0 instead of 1. And how pretty much every technical explanation for this is post-event rationalization (because it is apparently something to do with IBM executives who liked yachts or whatever). But instead of using a nice, handy term from cognitive science like…. ‘post-event rationalization’ … a joke is made about gaslighting. And then expanded into a more general joke about how we have abusive relationships with software.

Abuse culture makes people think that jokes like this 1) are appropriate and 2) funny. It is actually 2) that got me out the door. Because it isn’t just about the person who made the joke… but the handful or two of people who laughed at the joke. So this fault isn’t just with one unfortunate thing said by one person… but about a cultural attitude that staunchly refuses to take abuse seriously (and actively works to trivialize it).3

And, again, I hope to become more sensitive to things like this, not less.

  1. And since this is a ~professional~ blog, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief that I won’t actually be getting super personal about my experiences.

  2. Sidenote… this is also a gendered thing. Why? Because women, on the whole, tend to get diagnosed with things like bipolar or borderline personality disorder far, far more frequently than men. Also a racialized reality since Black men tend to get diagnosed with schizophrenia at higher rates than anyone else. All of the above are ways of being neuro-diverse that are frequently constructed as ‘crazy’ in negative, harmful ways that significantly contributes to their marginalization.

  3. People labelled ‘crazy’ are especially vulnerable to gaslighting because they are constantly told not to trust their perceptions, intuitions, and feelings about the world (and themselves in relation to the world). I point this out to highlight how interconnected all of this stuff is.

Hiring Non-mlis Grads to Increase Diversity

It has been too long, so I can’t remember who made the comment that inspired this post, but it does tie in nicely to my previously posted ‘fix’ for librarianship. It struck me, as a read some comment again about the MLIS that one way to increase the overall diversity of the professionals within the field is to hire outside of the degree.

Yup. I said it. I think that the MLIS should maybe be a ‘preferred’ but not ‘required’ qualification to be a librarian. I know this is pratically heresy in a field saturated with hires competing for fewer and fewer entry level positions, but I honestly think that there may be a few benefits to this approach.

The largest, by far, is to simply sidestep the problem that library schools are having with recruiting a diverse student body (and I imagine that retention is likewise a big issue). Part of the reason that the lack of diversity in librarianship remains a problem is that marginalized students, for the most part, aren’t really going to library schools. There are many reasons for this, but I’m largely convinced that — without significant changes in higher ed beyond just library schools — librarianship will never be that attractive of an option to many marginalized students.

The economic cost of having to do an additional master’s degree combined with the relatively low wages and, importantly, the not-so-promising job prospects pretty much ensure that the MLIS is one of the least attractive graduate/professional degrees imaginable. There is very little about the hard realities of the situation to motivate marginalized students. It is foolish. The overall cost/benefit for a library tech diploma is much, much better for the marginalized student. Or, you know, something with better job prospects that pays better.

But… if we stop requiring an MLIS, we could possible recruit marginalized students who would be interested, if not for this significant barrier.

(Note: part of accepting this proposal means leaving behind the notion that the MLIS contributes anything meaningful to person’s ability to do librarian things. Given that the pervasive feeling, overall, is that library schools are largely failing to provide relevant education to the actual profession, this isn’t a tough sell. However, while I know that my particular library education was largely pointless, I don’t think that this is true of all schools. Importantly, I definitely think that the general dismay over library schools does a lot of damage to those schools trying really, really hard to provide a relavant, useful education for their students.)

Anyway, the point is, is that without searching outside of the non-diverse MLIS candidate pool, libraries will continue to maintain the status quo of employing a largely homogenous workforce.1

  1. Omg. And the super cynical part of my brain is suddenly wondering if maybe this is actually part of the unspoken, structural point of the MLIS requirment for jobs… I mean, employers are able to dodge responsibility for the fact that they are largely only hiring cis, white women (and cis white men for diversity) by simply saying, “well, these are the applicants with MLISs and since we can only hire people with an MLIS, what are we supposed to do?”. An example of how seemingly innocuous decisions serve to reinforce structural oppression and marginalization.

Fb Research, Ethics, and Informed Consent

Okay. I do have to say that I’m in a little bit “I told you so” about the recent news on FB allowing researchers to manipulate your news feed. It is almost as if I was talking about something similar not too long ago…:

But it comes out in subtle ways when academics and/or journalists engage with the work of marginalized people on the web. Since obviously, everything on the web is public by default. Combined with the idea that many people have that any marginalized person talking about our lives automatically equals a public, political, social justice-esque expression. And that these can be consummed for research articles, dissertations, newspaper articles, whatever without necessarily gaining consent or, in quite a few cases, even crediting the creator and, the worst, outright stealing ideas and words.

Now, the situation I’m discussing here is actually farther reaching than the ethical stance taken by Slate. The FB situation actually involves people’s ‘private’ news feeds and (possibly) private posts.

The Slate article takes a slightly different approach than my previous post, which was more focused privacy. Notions of privacy are key in the outrage over FB’s experiment, mainly because users of FB definitely feel like they have a reasonable expectation of privacy (see the many controversies over FB and privacy). It is important to note that no matter what privacy options you choose on FB, nothing will protect from surveillance from FB itself. And don’t think that FB is the only large tech company doing this. Google+ would be doing this if they could figure out how to get people to actually use it after coercing us into getting accounts.1

Anyway, I’m mainly motivated by the Slate article because it is the first one I’ve read in a while that brings up the issue of informed consent regarding online research involving human subjects. Slate attempts to make their argument based on some law in the US concerning research and the general intent of research ethics and informed consent. Their argument hinges on the potential impact/harm of research requring informed consent.

Except that this view is too narrow by far. First, the notion that we should allow laws to guide our ethical decisions is ridiculous. This is not a chicken/egg scenario: our ethics (or lack thereof) is part of what motivates laws. And most laws do an imperfect or inadequate job of capturing ethics. Second, the definition of ‘harm’ here is too individual and direct. The line, for them, where informed consent becomes necessary is when the research directly makes you ‘sad’ (or whatever tangible harm).

I mentioned on Twitter yesterday that these sorts of discussions have been happening in marginalized communities for quite some time. The current understanding of ‘informed consent’ within research ethics generally precludes any notion of systemic damage or exploitation. Yes, there are some provisions for dealing with marginalized communities, but a lot of academics truly view the current ‘grey’ area of online research as a way to take ethical shortcuts for ~studying~ with marginalized communities.

I’m not too surprised that Slate wouldn’t tackle this aspect of informed consent, given that (perhaps) the only group of people with worst digital research ethics are journalists (although, from certain perspectives the two groups are indistinguishable). Slate takes issue with the Terms of Service providing adequate consent to be a research subject for FB, scholars, etc, but doesn’t follow this to the natural conclusion…

When I post something on this blog, does this count as adequate ‘informed consent’ for my words/ideas/experiences to be used in any and all forms of research by academics and/or journalists? The frequent response from most IRBs and ethics boards is “yes”.

Now, the feeling I get from a lot of the discussions I’ve been in about this, is this: if academics/journalists want to use my posts as a way to engage my ideas then this is maybe okay. But if academics/journalists are using my posts to study me as a member of some population, then probably not okay. One is about my work and the other is about studying me as a human being.

Then again, this is just my feelings about the distinction. I have several friends/acquiantances who’ve been so burned by journalists and academics that they don’t want any of them to interact with any of their work. In part because they aren’t the actual target audience but mainly because of the unethical behaviour of so many of them when interacting with marginalized people online.

And a portion of the harm, here (thus invoking the need for informed consent), is systemic not individual. It feeds into a system whereby the work/lives of some people are considered inherently ‘public’ and, by extension, inherently exploitable. It is dehumanizing for people who, a lot of of time, are stripped of their individuality and coercively forced into being ‘representatives’ of their community as a whole. And this kind of systemic, communal damage (via the perpetuation of stereotypes, biases, and prejudice) doesn’t appear to be an important factor when considering whether or not informed consent is necessary.

It also feeds into a history of the bodies of marginalized people being coercively and forcefully pushed into being research subjects in the ~real~ world. But it really just seems like academics are too busy cutting corners to truly consider these ethical questions (or, heck, to even listen to some of the populate they study).

I look forward to the next study from FB/Twitter/G+/whatever that will do the same thing because science.

  1. Although, as I look at the Slate article, the featured comment embedded in the article is basically telling people that if they want privacy they should stay offline, which is pretty much what I’m talking about in my other post.

What Matters for Archival Image Description?

I think I tweeted a comment about this image yesterday, namely asking about the peculiarity of the image description omitting race. Here is the full image description:

Image of closeup of woman with short curly hair and man with a beard.

And my question yesterday was about the fact that race isn’t mentioned at all in this description.

Of course, the pressing question here is “should race be included in this image description?”. The annoyed part of me thinks that if the fact that one of the individuals is a woman and the other a man is relevant, then so is race. It matters that she appears to be an East Asian woman and that he might be a South Asian man. It matters.

I look at this image, captured in 1970, and I have so many questions. I’m so curious about these two Asian people getting their pictures taken for a hair styling thing. I’m curious because they don’t appear to be of the same ethnicity. I don’t understand what is happening in the image. Why is he looking at the camera but she isn’t? What if they are a couple (which would be too cute for words)? I’m also deeply impressed by her makeup, since doing eyeliner that on point for monolided eyes isn’t easy. Did she do her own? Did the salon?

I’ve seen a lot of these images from this particular fonds and with this subject matter (search me for why the Toronto Telegram was so interested in hairstyling). Most of them are of white people. This is one of the few I can remember from this same that has Asians.

I also recall a different set of images from the Toronto Telegram that were mistakenly labelled as being in ‘Africa’ because the people in the images were Black. Except… they were Indigenous people in New Guinea. I can’t remember what the image description said about them…

I see a lot of the descriptions in the Toronto Telegram fonds will mention the perceived gender of the people… but rarely their race.

How are things like this decided? I know I’m picking on my own institution, but it isn’t just my institution. I’m suddenly remembering a whole host of general archival stuff that operates on a similar principle: gender is important/noteworthy but race isn’t.

And I know that some will turn around and say “well, you can’t assume what race a person is” except that this also applies to gender. If all we have to look at are nameless people in a photograph with zero additional historical context, we also absolutely cannot assume we know what their gender is based on their presentation within a single image. Or even a series.

If we are going to aim for the most neutral descriptions possible, the image description above should be changed to:

Image of closeup person with short curly hair and person with beard.

Yeah, I know that the ‘beard’ part might cause a few people to assume things, but that is their problem.

And remember: this metadata is hugely important for access in the digital environment. Of all the metadata captured for this image, this is the most ‘creative’. The image description literally depends on the describer and then constructs how this image is found and perceived after it is ingested.

I don’t really have any answers, just a lot of questions. Because something here seems fishy to me. And I can see several different ways that the inclusion of race could benefit researchers and others wanting to interact with these collections. And since doing so would be as (un)problematic as including perceived gender, I’m not really sure why this informatio isn’t being captured.

Scholarly Communication,, and Institutional Repositories

I mentioned on twitter that my bf burst into the bedroom yesterday to rant about scholarly communication at me (and then I joined up). He was mainly focused on the role that a particular legal blog played in the recent supreme court kurfluffle with the prime minister. Basically, that attempting to publish the material in any ‘formal’ scholarly channel would have created a delay that would have made what happened impossible. Essentially highlighting the fact that scholarly blogging, in a few ways, is kind of like academic journalism1.

He agreed, of course, but then he made a point also about, a site that he uses (and that apparently a lot of legal scholars and students have begun to use as a means of distributing their work — published or not). If memory serves, this might be the only social network type of thing that my bf has ever beat me too. And I know that he’s added some of his own papers. And I wonder: has he added any of the same papers to UBC’s institutional repository (where is currently a grad student)? Not even one.

Moreover, I’ve begun to notice that papers on have begun showing up more and more in google searches, far more frequently than I see any hits from any institutional repository.

It makes me wonder…

In a time where some institutions are mandating that all scholarly work produced on their campus be made available in the institutional repository, thereby forcing the issue on faculty, why is succeeding but IRs, on the whole, very much not succeeding? What are the implications for scholarly communication in general?

I remember one of the first things my bf was excited about after getting his account was stats. He enjoys looking at where in the world people are viewing/downloading his papers (and other metrics). Because he isn’t yet faculty, his interest in this statistics has nothing to do with tenure (and I’m pretty sure that a tenure committee wouldn’t consider the metrics from meaningful). The interest in the stats is all about the excitement and joy you feel when you are sharing something you enjoy and are passionate about. Likewise, I used to enjoy periodically checking the stats on my MA thesis hosted in UBC’s IR… until the feature disappeared on3 day a few years ago and I haven’t been back to check since.

But this is just a feature. As noted, features can be taken away or implemented far more easily than cultural changes.

I also don’t think that it is necessarily the ‘social’ aspect of that is appealing to scholars. I mean, it certainly plays a role in making the system somewhat more attractive, but I also think this is simply a feature, but not the motivating one.

My suspicion is that it has more to do with the profile more than anything else. In some ways, is functioning more as a linkedin for academics. I think the ability to create a profile/web presence with a fairly minimum of effort where people can read/download your papers right away, is why scholars are using this vs an institutional repository.

The problem with IRs is apparent in their name “institutional repository”. It makes it pretty clear that the individual scholar is subordinate to the institution and that their role is to bring glory and fame to their respective institution. And this might have been an okay stance… many years ago before it the adjuntification of higher ed and when tenure positions were more plentiful. When it was likely that a scholar would stay in the same institution for a long time (and thus be invested in the institution itself).

But this isn’t the reality today. The fact that nomadic scholars are well and truly a thing (perhaps even the ‘normal’ thing) means that these scholars have zero incentive to bolster the reputation of an institution that will likely never tenure them and that they may only be at for a fairly short period of time. Time during which they’ll continue to look for a tenure track position. I’m also pretty sure that even tenured faculty are far more mobile than they used to be.

What this all means is that the rewards for tying your scholarly work to your name, not the institution’s, are far greater. It means that your body of work is centralized in one place and builds your brand as a scholar.

Combine this with the fact that is far easier to use than any of the common IR softwares… and we begin to see why a for-profit company appears to be succeeding where IRs are not.

(Er… okay. Because I’m clearly the most professional evah! I’m going to have to come clean. I started reading about the history of arXiv and now I can’t remember what point I was trying to make with this post. Sorry.)

  1. This is a point I made since, in a lot of ways, it really does work like this.

The Heroes of Academia: A Short Analysis of Academic Exceptionalism

In a recent twitter discussion about academic freedom, free speech, and trigger warnings in academia (re: the ongoing uproar over Oberlin’s policy decision — that it has already gone back on). I remarked that from both the student’s perspective (and that of general society, I’d imagine), the faculty is indistinguishable from the administration. Dana, of course, disagrees with me.

Fortunately, I have facts and reality on my side. Because if we are about to pretend that Deans, Heads of Departments, etc. aren’t actually faculty… I’d be curious to hear what their reactions to this news is. If we are also going to pretend like faculty (beyond what I’ve mentioned) don’t fulfill many other administrative duties, well, okay. If we are also going to pretend that faculty, as a collective bargaining unit, are not the most powerful and influential group on campus… Then I’m not actually sure we are talking about universities and colleges.

Like, especially coming at this as a librarian1. Absolutely everything on campus centres the needs and wants of faculty. Yes, the students matter, but faculty come first. If we have money to buy only one book, we’ll buy the one a faculty members wants and likely not even ask a student. Even the librarian faculty at MPOW is basically oriented towards serving the needs of the ~research~ faculty over and above any of their own needs.

In this age of rockstar academics, although certain aspects of this have been present for a while, we’ve built up this mythology around the rebellious academic who challenges the status quo, speaks truth to power, and pursues knowledge even (maybe especially) when it is unpopular or controversial. This myth is grounded in the notion of academic freedom and tenure. Academics need tenure to protech their academic freedom to pursue knowledge without limits.

Except… this has never been true of academics. At least not in modern times. Yes, there are many stories of scientists and the like being persecuted by the church for controversial (but true) theories of the world. Instead, today we get rock stars like Richard Dawkins who is an unapologetic misogynist and uses atheism to disguise his racism/Islamaphobia/xenophobia. He is sometimes framed as controversial, when all he does is reinforce the status quo and not actually challenge power structures at all.

And when we take things like Orientalism into account, we can also understand how the academic by its very role of producing knowledge and determining authority actually is a driving force behind global oppression. That the ‘knowledge’ produced within the academy (especially by social science and the humanities) is far from a ‘neutral’ goal existing within a vacuum and unrelated to the social, economic, and historical contexts that frame it.

When we talk about something like disability accommodations for students within higher ed, we cannot afford to make a spurious distinction between faculty and admin, not when faculty represent a common point of failure for disabled students often by outright refusing to accommodate their needs2.

Faculty often like to think of themselves as not being the ‘system’. They like to point their finger at the administration and blame the many problems within higher ed on ‘them’. It is an interesting deferral of blame given that the entire university system and administration exists primarily to serve the needs of academics. Given the reality that many academics themselves play important administrative roles within the university. And when a situation comes up like this, it is pretty easy to see that many faculty are far more interested in protecting their privilege (academic freedom) than they are interested in the rights of their students.

More to the point, the notion that academics somehow manage to exist outside of the capitialist system that ensures that there is no ethical production of knowledge (or anything else) only serves, again, to defer their larger responsibility towards society as a whole. That (by magic maybe) the ‘knowledge’ produced within the academy somehow doesn’t have real, material impacts on the way that society functions. That the university doesn’t exist as an incubator of ideas for how the privileged can consolidate power and excercise it in increasingly subtle ways…

And before anyone mentions the existence of things like ‘women’s studies’ or ‘Asian studies’ as examples for how the academy also serves as a site of resistance to dominant ideologies and to power… It is also pretty clear to see that where these things exist, they are usually amongst the poorest depertments on campus. They can also be viewed in a Foucaultian fashion as also being manufactured by power as sites where dissidents can be monitored and co-opted (as their own livelihoods become dependent on power and they become increasingly more invested in the system).

The fact that there is something fishy going on in the academy is often revealed in the dogmatic approach that many of its adherents have to certain sacrosanct principles of the current system. Question whether or not tenure is actually living up to its principles, and you’ll get shouted down by repititive arguments. Question whether or not academic freedom is a privilege worth fighting for, and you’ll get people literally asserting that using a logical fallacy (slippery slope) is a solid defense.

For all its stated values concerning critical inquiry and discussion, academia is strangely resistent to criticism and very resistent to substantive, systematic change. And faculty are very much the embodiment of this.

  1. Yes, librarians at my institution are tenured — at least if they aren’t contingent, precarious non-union labour like me.

  2. No joke. I think every single disabled person I’ve ever spoken to about their experiences in higher ed has had to struggle with faculty who simply feel that accommodating their needs is too much work and thus a waste of their ‘precious’ time. The reality is, is that a refusal to even consider trigger warnings in academia is the de facto stance towards disabled students. Academia is a very hostile learning environment for anyone with a disability.

Reframing the Trigger Warnings Debate

In two recent articles I’ve read about trigger warnings in academia, the concern has largely been about academic freedom, with James Turk being a mega drama queen and a group of faculty justifying why the won’t use them with false assumptions and poor reasoning.

While I do understand that the current discussion was precipitated by Oberlin saying that triggering, but non-essential, content should be removed. I can see why people have a problem with this but they rarely stop at this. It is a general, dig-in-our-heels “no one can tell me what to do, you’re the boss of me” reaction1.

There are really two distinct things happening here: one is a real-world event where faculty were actually asked to remove content and one is a more general debate about the use of trigger warnings in academia. But these aren’t the same discussions and the conflation of the two by pretty much critic I’ve seen significantly weakens their argument. In the case of the professors’ piece, their sections on the trigger warnings themselves and the relation to disability are pretty much either factually incorrect or depressingly uncaring and unwilling to accommodate.

Triggers are not restricted to PTSD. Their point about PTSD triggers being unpredictable (and thus unable to be forwarned) is a good one. And it would matter more if triggers were something that only impacted people with PTSD. This is neither true of the academic literature on triggers nor of the current discouse about triggers. Triggers for people with anxiety, phobias, depression, etc. can, in actual fact, be predicable. This is why there are (informal) standards about what sort of things are commonly warned for.

Moreover, triggers do not only impact people with psychological/mood disabilities. Outside of higher ed, trigger warnings are commonly used on the internet to also warn people about things like moving or flashing gifs (for people with photosensitve disabilities like epilepsy). Saying outright “we will not put trigger warnings on anything” includes situations like this.

Perhaps the most laughable (but also heartbreaking) point the professors make is when they note that PTSD is a disability and should be handled in a systematic way by the campus’ disability services. This might hold more weight if these services were better funded and better supported. And this includes faculty. I can’t even count the number of stories I’ve heard from disabled students who do all the right things (get their ‘certification’2, accommodation plans, etc) only to have the faculty member outright refuse to accommodate. And acting like the marginalized person here has any real recourse against the institution is counter to reality.

One of the things I find most interest about the article is the ways that the faculty so clearly distinguish themselves from the university as institution. This might be my ‘unpopular opinion’ moment, but I really want to be clear here: if you are a faculty member, you are the system. Particularly when it comes to something like disability accommodations.

The reason why I’m highlighting the accommodation/disability aspect of this is because it is the important and salient point being lost in the panic about academic freedom. Academic freedom isn’t a human right. However, accommodations for disability are a human right. What you say, when you say academic freedom matters more than disability accommodations, is that your privilege3 matters more than someone else’s human rights.

In so doing, you really are the embodiment of institutional oppression. Because this is the message that society at large tells disabled people.

And in the hand-waving over trigger warnings, people really seem to mistake their actual purpose. Warning people about certain content that might trigger an adverse response it part of it… but it isn’t the only function. One thing they serve to do is allow people to engage in certain discussions and materials in an informed and consensual way. It is a way to add context to something that may not otherwise have it (eg, a journal article in a reading list will usually just have the citation and titles aren’t always descriptive).

Yes, in some cases trigger warnings serve as a necessary shelter for people who need them, but they also empower some of those same people to engage in the classroom in a healthy fashion. It isn’t about avoidance.

If a person sees that a particular day/reading will have something that might potentially trigger them, they can make an informed decision concerning their current state and whether or not they can engage without significantly damaging their health. And/or they are able to prepare in advance any extra support or self-care they might need to recover from the experience (ie, booking an appointment with a campus councellor, asking a friend to meet them afterwards, etc.).

Part of the problem with this, is that most people (again) are only thinking of themselves. With adequate warnings students might also be able to make arrangements for classes they have after the potentially triggering one. Without any systematic approach to this, how easily do you think a student could get a professor from a different class excuse their absence if they, say, had a panic attack and needed to take medication rendering them unable to attend the rest of their classes that day? What if they have a test on the same day as the class and that they may not be able to do both a potentially triggering class and a test on the same day?

While trigger warnings do serve an important function of protecting disabled students, traumatized students, etc. from additional harm, they also empower those same students to make good, informed decisions about their education. It creates an environment where their agency is considered real and respected. It gives them an active role in their educational experiences.

But I guess the real solution is maintaining a hostile and unsafe learning environment for disabled students because ~academic freedom~.

  1. Although, for the article written by the professors, points 7,8, and 9 are good and really worth considering. But only if the conversation remains in the realm of actually removing material from courses, as with the Oberlin decision.

  2. To be honest, the fact that they even mention certification lets me know that they are woefully out of touch with critical disability discourse. Particularly since they are presenting this as coming from marginalized people themselves (ie, the professors are marginalized in some way). Getting ‘certified’ for a disability (particularly psychological ones) can be very, very difficult. Particularly for people of colour. Are we really trying to pretend, here, like the medical industry is outside of the same structurally oppressive context as the university?

  3. I’m speaking very literally here: academic freedom is a privilege. Like, not even in the theoretical sense. It is a privilege that academics have and no one else.

RTFM: The Double Standards of Internet Discourse Variation no.1

So someone tweeted a mention to this older post I have On the (double) standards of internet discourse where I largely discuss the how certain commonly expected believes/attitudes about how to engage in discourse within the tech community is punished in when the exact same things are expected within social justice discourse (ie, doing a good faith effort to answer your question by googling/searching the forum/etc before posting).

As I read through the post1, I had another notion solidified by a series of tweets from Ashe Dryden reminding people that educating themselves about oppression is their own responsibility. My reading of the other post set a little bug in my brain concerning another post about being eternally at the starting line.

In any case… While these ideas have largely been articulated before, the point of this post is to point out yet another double standard concerning tech discourse vs. anti-oppression.

Given that I’ve been self-learning how to do certain things on my own (yesterday I wrestled with a ruby script that failed but also with a bash script to do the same thing). During my research and googling to see if a certain thing was possible using bash, I came accross the inevitable stackexchange thread where someone was asking a question very similar to mine and the response was essentially: “Read the fucking man page”2. This was the only response before the thread was closed for being redundant.


The question before is this: why is it when marginalized people are discussing our experiences of oppression (usually amongst each other), if a person who isn’t marginalized in the same way asks a very basic, intro, 101 level question, and they get a response that is “Read the fucking manual (RTFM)”, the respnose is usually a hyperbolic “zomg! y u just kick my puppy?”?

I’ll give you three guesses.

As I pointed out in the starting line post (which was directed towards librarians), literally all the resources are and have been available. Of varying levels, in different media, found in many different places, and literally accessible to anyone who bothers to look.

Of course, where this analogy falls apart is the fact that anti-oppression doesn’t have a single manual. It isn’t as ‘rationally’ comprehensible as a computer program…

But this is also exactly why it is more critically important to RTFM when it comes to oppression. Because the stakes are higher and the cost is higher, especially for the marginalized people who actually involve themselves in educational endeavours. Very rarely does anyone make a decent living from this sort of work (and our chances of making a living only increase the more kinds of oppression you experience)3.

And yet…

We have this double standard. Techbros are allowed to be as abrasive and rude whenever someone asks a question easily answered in the manual and it is pretty much okay. Everyone understands this as simply a discursive rule for how to engage. But. Get one woman saying that she doesn’t feel like pulling out a bibliography of references to books, articles, statistics, data sets, etc. and suddenly its all, “you’d get more support if you were more patient and willing to educate.”

And life goes on… Certian people can engage in certain kinds of behaviour and it’ll either be so normalized no one will notice or entire academic fields will be created to explain it4. If anyone else engages in the exact same human behaviour? Tone policing, entire articles posted about why ‘those’ people are responsible for ‘their’ own oppression (ie victim blaming), and so on and so forth.

  1. I really only usually read my own posts if someone references it in a way I find interesting. I don’t even read them for editing… :P

  2. Bash is a linux/unix shell. Man page = manual.

  3. Speaking of… I’m totally on gittip and I definitely don’t get paid for any of my writing…

  4. Okay, I’m exageratting a wee bit with this one. But. Really. How many different articles have I read in the past year (since I maybe started paying attention to anti-oppression in tech circles) analyzing and talking about ‘geek’ behaviour and the cultural norms and explaining why it is that they need to behave this way (or talking as if this behaviour is unique to geek/tech communities when, in reality, everyone feels and acts this way. I mean, few people actually like answering the same basic question over and over and over again posed by hostile people?).

The Burden of Privacy

I feel like I’ve read a lot of article about privacy and the internet in the past week. Most recently, “Everything is Broken” by Quinn Norton. I should mention that this post isn’t actually about that article, since it largley discusses of software and how it is all crappy and insecure. I also read something about libraries and using Firefox (with ghostery/disconnect, https everywhere, etc).

And this is sort of following Facebook’s recent change of heart concerning privacy settings. Namely, instead of your FB posts being public by default, they’ll be private to your friends. Privacy will be the new default. Of course, this is only a certain kind of privacy given that nothing you do will be private from Facebook.

The thing is, though, is that pretty much everyone approaches the web as if it is public by default. And that all web spaces are public by default. Importantly, it should be noted that this is a belief that is nurtured and maintained by large tech companies, web advocates, and the like. Largely based around the discourse of the ‘open’ web.

That this attitude and perspective has a structural impact on the web is pretty obvious from large companies like FB. This notion that, if you’re on the up and up, nothing you do should need to be ‘private.’ Or Twitter, where unless you mark your account as ‘private’ everything you write is ‘open’ to everyone.

What is aggravating about most (all) articles on privacy and security is that they all squarely place the responsibility of these things on individuals. Ever single, individual is supposed to (probably by magic) be able to protect their data/selves from large multi-million dollar government agencies, tech companies, etc. If we take what Quinn Norton writes in the article to heart, this is simply impossible because there is no such thing as ‘secure’ software.

One of the most interesting things to come out of the whole Snowden/NSA thing is the deafening silence of all the non-protests happening against the NSA. Yes, a bunch of tech companies were named and shamed for cooperating with them1. Yes, a bunch of other tech companies wagged their fingers at the NSA. And, of course, a bunch of the article/posts/tweets/etc that came out of this in the tech community had a common thread of “here is what you can do to protect your privacy against state surveillence” instead of “wow, maybe we should really get the government to stop spying on its citizens.”

Or even deeper than that: not understanding that this NSA business is literally nothing new. The fundamental premise for the outrage over this is the idea that the state has begun to fulfill George Orwell’s prophecy of the all seeing eye. The strange thing about all of this is, is that the reason why Orwell’s novel has such a great impact, is because it is a cautionary tale. Orwell took certain trends and elements of the society that existed during his day (and today) and took them to their extreme (but logical) conclusion.

The state begins collecting data on us from the day we are born (see birth certificates) and this goes on until the day we die. Importantly, the state always gathers as much data as they can get away with vs. the data actually needed for its operations2. That the state isn’t necessarily concerned about the overall well being of the population is also revealed in the contentious and troubled history of who, exactly, is a ‘citizen.’3 This very assertion of authority by a settler state necessarily means that all people within its borders must be accounted for and monitored. This is the real threat of undocumented people in a place like the US, they subvert and challenge one of the critical powers of the state and, in a very basic way, cannot be ‘observed’ and ‘known’ by the state. And if they cannot be ‘known’ then they cannot be controlled.

And before anyone gets on my case, I’m not a libertarian arguing for a minimal state that leaves people almost entirely alone. It really depends on the state. Settler states like Canada and the US have always been grounded in violence and oppression. So while it is possible for a benevolant state to exist, it will never be Canada or the US.

In fact, what I’m angling at here, is the libertarian/zero regulation approach that most ‘open’ web advocates, tech companies, privacy/security experts seem to want. And how this defaults into and understanding that the default for everyone is public and extra steps must be taken if you want privacy. And that this is entirely up to the individual, which, in a roundabout way, is also victim blaming: “Oh, your FB feed was hacked, LOL, pick a better password!” “Oh, your credit card got spoofed? LOL, use cash loser”. The responsibility for bad behaviour like malicious hacking, NSA surveillence, etc is on the shoulders of the people doing it. This is why I wish there were more articles focusing on malicious hackers TO STOP DOING IT. More articles focusing on how to dismantle settler states whose very existence is grounded in violence and oppression.

Instead, we see article after article about how to use PGP or encrypt this or that. Get told we need to pay money for a password manager (like lastpass or whatever). We see very privileged white, hetcis men worrying about the NSA or Google or whatever reading their emails and chat logs (despite being the least likely targets of negative state surveillance). I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen a single tech person who whined about the NSA or internet neutrality say a single solitary word about, say, stop and frisk in NYC and how this constant surveillance of Black and/or Latin@ people by the police is, you know, a bad thing. Or how banks (for corporate surveillance) frequently target Black families for subprime mortgages and other predatory loans.

Don’t get me wrong, though, academics aren’t any better about this sort of thing. Part of the cause of the above is the default assumption that everything is ‘public’ by default. If you are a Black man walking around NYC and you get stopped and frisked? Well, you should have been at home or maybe try not existing. These are obvious, visible, and high-profile ways that this ‘public by default’ attitude manifests.

But it comes out in subtle ways when academics and/or journalists engage with the work of marginalized people on the web. Since obviously, everything on the web is public by default. Combined with the idea that many people have that any marginalized person talking about our lives automatically equals a public, political, social justice-esque expression. And that these can be consummed for research articles, dissertations, newspaper articles, whatever without necessarily gaining consent or, in quite a few cases, even crediting the creator and, the worst, outright stealing ideas and words.

The web is strange like this. Because of the nebulous place that blogs/social media still have with regards to publishing and the like, they are considered as both inferior and informal, thus do not require the same consideration that a traditionally published article/book/etc. And so this ‘public by default’ replicates the situation in the ‘real’ world whereby exiting as a marginalized person in a ‘public’ space necessarily means becoming an object for exploitation, surveillance, and oppression. You become an object that lacks any coherent or substantive agency and, thus, your consent to be a research subject for someone’s dissertation simply isn’t necessary.

Because if you wanted privacy (and a sense of personal security), you should have stayed at home. You shouldn’t have logged in and blogged that post. Or tweeted that hashtag. Even more so, if you wanted to log in and still have privacy/security, well, why didn’t you jump through the 5 billion hoops necessary to encrypt all the things?

And then we get to the double bind, if you did avail yourself of one of the kinds of ways to gain privacy/security (a common one with marginalized people because it is easy and doesn’t require a lot of technical knowhow) by using a social network like Tumblr or Twitter where you could pick a pseudonym, how can you expect anyone to credit/cite you in their paper? I mean, ‘satifice’ isn’t a real person/name/entity and so cannot have any agency or, heck, copyrights.

You can never win.


Because it isn’t about what we do (or don’t do) as individuals to protect our privacy/security. If you are attacked or your privacy violated, the fault entirely lies with the person/state/organization who did it. I want to see more analyses on the ethics of online behaviour. Especially from academics who exploit the fact that slow moving regulatory bodies haven’t really adabpted to this new environment (or purposefully choose to exploit this gap themselves4) have uncritically accepted this notion of ‘public by default’ and simply do not care about the harm they may be perpetuating.

Instead, I know I can look forward to yet another article about how ‘kids’ don’t really understand privacy/security. But no articles about how this ‘adult’ notion of privacy is itself a shitty and oppressive way to conceptualize privacy.

  1. Although why anyone would be surprised by this is beyond me.

  2. Seriously, recording the ‘sex’ of an infant is a useless data point nowadays and completely unnecessary, in addition to being a mechanism of violence.

  3. In the US the Indigenous peoples were only ‘official’ citizens after about 1924 (Indigenous citizenship in both Canada and the US is really complicated). But even this ‘citizenship’ didn’t necessarily include the right to vote.

  4. Look, I’m not being hyperbolic or wearing a tinfoil hat here. I know academics who have been told by their ethics boards that they don’t, in actual fact, need informed consent when using digital research subjects. Heck, I know one academic who, because they are themselves a marginalized person, wanted to get this consent but was explicitely told not to bother because it would slow everything down. But of course, no one is listening to the marginalized people who’ve explicitely stated that this violates their consent and that they do not wish to be the subjects of anyone’s research without their explicit permission.

On the Problem on Empathy

Yesterday @jvinopal had a series of tweets that sort of have been sitting in my brain since she posted them. Here they are:

But to see the world through someone else’s eyes, even for a short while, can really influence how you think about & interact original tweet

with it and with people going forward. I’m aware of things I never would have noticed before. How can we bring that awareness into (+) original tweet

our lives on an ongoing basis? We can’t all live all the experiences of everyone else, but we need to become aware of the world others (+) original tweet

as potentially fundamentally different from our own. How do we cultivate and sustain that awareness? (–) original tweet

I’m not going to really address the topic directly, mainly because I think that the individual differences of people’s socialization, cognitive abilities, and state of mind mean that everyone will likely have to develope personal strategies for nourishing and sustaining their empathy.

The problem of empathy (also disgust) is critical for understanding how people make moral judgements and the ways that these perceptions and judgements feed into systemic oppression.

For many people, race does matter, even if they don’t know it. They feel more empathy when they see white skin pierced than black. This is known as the racial empathy gap. To study it, researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca showed participants (all of whom were white) video clips of a needle or an eraser touching someone’s skin. They measured participants’ reactions through skin conductance tests—basically whether their hands got sweaty—which reflect activity in the pain matrix of the brain. If we see someone in pain, it triggers the same network in our brains that’s activated when we are hurt. But people do not respond to the pain of others equally. In this experiment, when viewers saw white people receiving a painful stimulus, they responded more dramatically than they did for black people.

The racial empathy gap helps explain disparities in everything from pain management to the criminal justice system. But the problem isn’t just that people disregard the pain of black people. It’s somehow even worse. The problem is that the pain isn’t even felt.source

This is a different kind of empathy gap than Jennifer was talking about1. And there are certainly many other kinds of empathy gaps. Some of types can be directly experienced (as having a temporary mobility disability can demonstrate) but some are impossible (only Asians can ever know what it is like to be Asian).

One possible way to address these gaps in empathy that Jennifer suggested was based on this article about literary fiction which asserts that literary fiction (as oppossed to genre fiction) improves a person’s capacity for empathy. All well and good…2

Except that we instantly get tangled into discussions about what counts a ‘literary’ fiction, the English literary canon, and so on. Being a product of a Canadian education, I’ve read many books in the canon (my brief stint as an English major likewise had me reading many more). And the lack of diversity in this canon is well known. And this lack of diversity applies even in the upper echelons of higher ed:

From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid. In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male.source

Having recent started listening to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, it boggles my mind that a novel that exquisitely written isn’t included in the Canon. It is also the first book I’ve picked up in a long time that actually spoke to me on a personal level that I could identify with. Instead I had to read garbage like The Great Gatsby with characters so strange and alien to me, it might as well have been science fiction (don’t even get me started on The Catcher in the Rye).

If memory serves, last year (year before?), long before I had actually met and started interacting with @nnschiller I think I criticized his notion of reading diverse lit for a year on tumblr because of the ways that this project only really makes sense in a world that assumes that whiteness (cisness, abledness, etc.) is the default. It is very strange and foreign to my brain that an avid reader might not have noticed that (by chance, I’m sure) that they’ve mostly been reading white men for their entire lives. When people talk about their love of libraries as a youth, I remember the long hours I spent patiently combing through the stacks for any/all queer literature that I could find, because it was basically impossible to find otherwise.

(Okay, I think I’ve seriously wandered off topic here…)

Anyway, the point I was actually going to make, related to a series of tweets I posted a few days ago, is that one of the best places to start learning about (and developing empathy) the lives of marginalized people is social media of various kinds. There are so many barriers to mainstream media for marginalized peole that relying solely on these traditional media will mean missing out on a great deal of important thinkers/writers.

And one of the big benefits of this is that because of the immediacy and personal nature of this sort of thing, you will often get real life stories. Stories that you can use to develope and sustain your empathy.

Even more importantly, since simply reading a twitter stream or a blog to learn about ‘them’ is kind of creepy, you can actually interact with real, live marginalized people. You can work to build solidarity and community by learning how to engage us on our terms (rather than yours). This work on empathy can be for something greater than self-edification.3

  1. Both are relevant and related to each other, however, if you read the paragraph following this cited one, you’ll see that a different experiment showed that medical professionals (and others) “assume black people feel less pain than white people,” which has obvious implications for Black people who exist at the intersection of disability and race.

  2. Ugh, super annoyed though at the random dig at autistic people in the last paragraph. As a recent incident in Toronto showed, this expectation that empathy only has to go one way (from autistic people to allistic people) creates a situation where a city councillor can say that a residential treatment house for autistic youth has “ruined the community”[7]. Many residents of the area were also complaining about the mere existence of autistic youth in their neighbourhood. Can you see the double standard here? Autistic people are expected to develop empathy for everyone else, but very little expectation is placed on allistics to develope empathy for autistics.

  3. Yes, I could have made a list of people who I’ve personally learned a lot from and who I admire a great deal. However, not all of these people are for a general audience and would welcome me linking their blogs/twitters/tumblrs/etc. And do note: I’ve been careful to not label marginalized people talking about our lives as ‘social justice.’ Some do engage in this sort of thing, but others simply have personal media accounts and we live in a world were existing as a person of colour is an inherently political act. But this is sort of the point I’m making: trying this approach fundamentally means understanding that marginalized people are human and individuals, rather than standing as proxy for our entire group.