I’ve written this post, variations and fragments, bit and pieces, stops and starts, in my head over the past week. And when I open up the text box, it all melts away. The words refuse to be made concrete. The thoughts resist being articulated. My whole self shuts down at the thought of making sense of anything that happened this year. But my mind keeps trying, keeping me awake, keeping my heart racing, keeping me from focusing on anything else.
I sent Christmas cards this year for the first time ever. I used to give them out to friends at the holidays, irreverent jokey ones, that were just a simple (and cheap) way to mark the occasion. Being an academic was never particularly conducive to actually mailing cards: moving, poor organization, end-of-semester rushes…And besides, there was social media. Who needed a letter recapping the year? Look at my Twitter/facebook timelines.
But this year, this year I needed to reach out, I needed to write out addresses, sign my old, long-abandoned signature (Love, Lee) which I used to use to close out all of my emails (to friends), all my notes, all my letters. I needed to tell people in my own, imperfect way, that I was thinking of them, that I was missing them, that…
That I needed them, still, in my life.
Again, my words failed me in writing the cards. They are largely impersonal, largely general, largely not enough. I know that the simple act of sending a card isn’t enough, but I thought that maybe the gesture would help. This summer, I wrote (and mailed!) a long, heartfelt letter to an old friend I had lost touch with and missed desperately. It was, as most things I do, admittedly too much. And it was met with silence. I couldn’t risk that kind of vulnerability again, not at this point in the holidays, this point in the semester. And if I cannot be too much, then I am not enough. So I settled for not enough.
All I could come up with for most of the cards (which were perfect for me to send) was to tell people I missed them or was thinking of them and for 2017…to be better.
Maybe I should have instead wished for 2017 to be simpler, because this year has not been simple. 2016 has been a betrayal, in a lot of ways. Promises were not met or kept, lies, so many lies were told, what I thought I knew, what I thought I believed, if not evaporated, then became so intangible as to no longer had enough substance to provide any sort of anchoring.
Simple does not mean better; things can be simply awful or simply horrible or simply evil, but the simplicity is easier to handle, because it’s not untangling a mess of obscuring vines. But it is not a betrayal. It is what has been advertised. It is clear. It is simple.
Does it make it easier?
I do sincerely hope that 2017 is better. And for many of my friends, people I love, who had horrible things happen to them this year, I hope it is better, because easier may be out of reach. Collectively, we had many betrayals this year, losing those heroes and touchstones we looked to, making those personal tragedies seem amplified. And it is a mark of getting older, that friends’ parents’ health take turns for the worse, but when their child passes from the world, or gets so sick that you are rendered helpless… Others have lost a great deal over the year, if not everything. I have watched, largely helplessly, people I love suffer and at once endure this year.
My own personal tragedies were minor but also deeply private and personal; if anything, my year was marked by major public positive milestones (a book! a full year at the new job! professional recognition! started coaching swimming again!). But in those moments of personal, private, unseen betrayals and hurts, there were more friends than I ever imagined who reached out to me to tell me they loved me, and that they were there for me. I made more friends this year than I have in a long time. It is not a small victory, it is not a meaningless victory, to meet kindness.
I don’t know how else to write this post than to say goodbye to posts that remained unfinished this year. They represent the various states of unfinished that I experience this year. Maybe someone else can finish my thoughts for me. Maybe I just need to let go.
The first one was going to be titled “The Uncoolest Person in Indie Ed-Tech.” It is strange to start the year getting a shout-out in Audrey Watter’s invaluable Top Ed-Tech Trends posts (read this year’s posts right now; I won’t be offended). It’s imperfect, and there was going to be a forced comparison of myself to Jared from Silicon Valley, and I was still struggling with weaving in the series of articles dealing with how maintainers matter more than innovators.
Here it is:
In September, UMW announced Groom’s replacement: Jesse Stommel who left the University of Wisconsin Madison to become the new executive director of DTLT. (Stommel’s thoughts on “Leaving Wisconsin.”) Also joining DTLT: Lee Skallerup Bessette. With these hires, it appears that DTLT will remain a site of important, student-centered (feminist!) ed-tech innovation. – Audrey Watters, Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015: Indie Ed-Tech
Last fall, I went to the dlrn conference which took place at Stanford (see my initial reflections here). Most people knew that I was going to be starting in less than a month at DTLT, original home of Domain of One’s Own. I knew that this was a “big deal” – I applied and accepted the job because of the work that was being done at UMW through DTLT. But once I got to the conference, it began to dawn on me just how big a deal it was.
Most informative was DTLT’s outgoing director Jim Groom and OU’s Adam Croom’s presentation on The Indie Ed-Tech Movement (full transcript of Adam’s part here). They compared the different indie punk movements to various Indie Ed-Tech movements and centers. It was a great talk. I love a good analogy and counter-narrative, and this one also provided a great framework for me going into this admittedly unfamiliar environment. It was raucous and provocative.
My talk, on the other hand, Embodied Staff: Affect, Gender, Status, and Work, was a quieter reflection, filled with images and analogies of knots and threads, frayed, dropped, bound, and untangled. Who does the care work? Who has a voice in these larger conversations? Who is allowed to be called an innovator? It was quiet, filled with more questions than answers.
The more I thought about it while I was at the conference, the more terrified I became. I wasn’t Black Flag, I was NKOTB who improved to Ben Folds. I was pop music and nerd rock. I was about to be invited to sit at the cool kids table, and I felt hopelessly ill-suited. I was the annoying younger sibling, trailing along, asking awkward questions, making awkward suggestions, and making myself just useful enough to be tolerated and then (grudgingly) accepted.
What, I thought on the plane ride home, was I getting myself into? And how, I worried, was I going to make it work?
I can’t help but notice, looking at the two presentations now, the gendered nature of our two talks, with my references to sewing and care, and Jim and Adam, comparing DTLT to Black Flag, when I put them together side-by-side. Their presentation was everything I had always wanted to be; my presentation was a reflection of who I am, the person I had long tried not to be. The person at the front of the movement, at center stage, was the one we always remembered, the one who brought about change.
Who were the people in the indie punk movement who helped get the guys on stage, from show to show, feeding them, making sure they maybe, from time to time, went to see a doctor. Maybe no one. But I doubt it. They were important, too. But history rarely has time for those who care enough to help someone else shine.
The next post was in response to swirling conversations around the role of the university and education and the liberal arts. I wanted to incorporate an image that has stuck with me over the years, Bethany Nowviskie’s Resistance in the Materials. To be titled, “Resistance in the Curriculum,” I wanted to write about how my colleagues and I resist certain twin pressures we face in our Digital Studies program to be both “practical job training” and traditional liberal arts. The resistance, then, is built into our curriculum, in how we teach the course.
I’m torn now, with how I wanted to end this post. After the election, I said a variation of the following to the students: We have done you a disservice. We sold you these courses on job readiness, or transferable skills, or maybe just that you would get to play with cool tools. Instead, we should be telling you what these courses can really do – see through the bullshit, resist the bullshit, strike back. The resistance, then, still is in the curriculum. Here it is:
In June, I co-taught a workshop on Digital Pedagogy at HILT, and I was grateful that we had a small group of participants who were all from teaching-centered institutions, and also in various stages of developing a program or track in Digital Humanities/Digital Studies. It fostered an environment that was devoted to co-learning and co-development on many different tracks and aspects of digital pedagogy.
One of the first activities we did was to define what digital pedagogy meant to us. You can see all of the definitions (along with the whole week-long course) on our course Google Doc, but the most provocative definition of the concept was:
Using technology as a catalyst to transform our teaching towards being process oriented, to think critically about tech, and doesn’t emphasize teaching ‘transferable skills.’
This, to me, is one of the core tensions in the intersection of digital pedagogy with digital humanities/digital studies – these are courses and programs that are largely built upon and promoted with the idea of helping students attain these “transferable skills” around technology and technological proficiency. Particularly in the battle over the relevance/irrelevance of a Liberal Arts degree, these kinds of programs (the one that I am a part of included) are framed as a response, criticized as a capitulation at best, a violation of the values of the Liberal Arts at worst.
But this is an oversimplification, of course, as most of these debates are, particularly as they play out in the media, providing a seemingly endless supply of click-bait, breathlessly prophetic, anxiety-inducing pieces that proclaim your child’s future will be forever in doubt if they do or do not choose the right major/school/approach/etc. Faculty are also susceptible, fearful that their livelihood, their raison d’être, their identity, will be devalued, defunded, erased, even more than it already has been.
The joke is that the academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low, but for parents worried about their children’s future (me) and academics worries about their futures (me, again), the stakes are real and powerful and terrifying. Resistance, for me, then, is resistance to the narrative of fear, to being reactionary, to having my pedagogy dictated by these negative impulses, to taking that fear out on my students.
I learn very little anymore unless it holds some sort of practical purpose. I’ve tried. I seek out opportunities, usually, that will force me to learn something new, which, as an adult, involves my job. Because it’s not just that it’s practical, it’s that it also has to be necessary. In other words, I don’t do much learning “for fun” or “for the sake of learning” anymore.
One of the few places where what I needed to learn intersected with a joy of learning was learning new things because of my teaching. New classes brought up new challenges, new pedagogies and technologies saw me learn new skills. It felt necessary, to me, to start doing peer-driven learning and taking a more process-oriented approach. No one forced me to do it, no one except myself.
Well, and my students.
All of this is to say that learning for learning’s sake, for the fun of it, for the joy and intrinsic value of it, is hard. The narrative I briefly allude to above is powerful. It has pervaded our culture (some would argue it is the basis for our culture). When my students are confronted with my pedagogies of resistance, they themselves resist and even rebel. This isn’t how we learn, they protest. This isn’t what we signed up for. This isn’t useful. And I’m not alone.
It didn’t come as a surprise, but it was no less disappointing, to read the latest report from the AAC&U showing that transparency and a problem-centered learning approach works to help at-risk and/or non-traditional students in post-secondary institutions persist and succeed. This, in and of itself, is a good thing. I’m all for transparency! And problem-centered learning is a good thing! However, when they defined transparency, I was a little taken aback:
As a faculty developer, this should be applauded as a best-practice starting point for every faculty member. As a critical digital pedagogue, this represents instead of a starting point, a closing off to possibilities, serendipity, creativity, and agency. These guidelines are in particular targeted towards those students most at-risk, and I have to ask, is this the best we can do? Is this, once again, taking away opportunities from them in the name of helping them? I have done all of these things while teaching writing at my former institution, a rural comprehensive university that served the poorest area in the United States, Appalachia.
It was doing exactly what is described in that box to the students who they say will benefit the most from me doing it that lead to my resistance.
Some would argue that it is from a place of incredible privilege to write something called (Higher) Education as a Bulwark of Uselessness. It is a provocation, to be sure, and I think a useful and necessary one, and I am grateful to Luca Morini for writing it. Read it alongside the annotations as well as Maha Bali’s thoughts. Think about your discomfort with what he is arguing here. This is another form of resistance, another tension, another way of thinking about what it is that we do as educators in higher education.
And so now we get to the point in the year where, well, the election happened.
I don’t do well with anger. I never have. I learned from a very young age that anger was a destructive force. Rather, it was rage, but it came from anger, and when it was unleashed, the damage that is left in its wake…
Those were lessons learned implicitly. Explicitly, good girls didn’t get angry. Actually, good girls didn’t do anything except be as placidly agreeable as possible, ideally happily agreeable, but placidly was good, too. The times that I did allow myself to get angry, or rather, I could no longer forgive/forget/explain away whatever litany of injuries…
There are a lot of ellipses. There are a lot of spaces and places and gaps and unfinished spots, especially around anger. This is a year where I dealt with anger poorly. This is a year that I have felt angrier than I have in a long, long time. There are too many spaces where I have remained silent for good reasons and for not-so-good reasons. An unfinished post, that was supposed to say so much, but in the end, said nothing much at all. I am still “Sitting with Anger” poorly:
I smell like cigarette smoke. I catch the smell at unexpected moments throughout the day, a reminder of the night before. Wine and bourbon and homemade cheese and bread weren’t enough, so we went outside and smoked a pack of cigarettes, and I sucked down each one, faster than the last, numb, so numb. We weren’t watching any of the coverage, opting instead for beautifully-shit documentaries of chefs and their stories. I was staying off social media, as well, but my husband, who is a political scientist, was getting texts from his friends and colleagues. We knew what was happening, even if we were trying to avoid it.
He, mercifully, didn’t tell me the results when he woke up early to catch his train. “Go back to sleep,” he said. I did, and I hit snooze so many times, because I was hungover from booze and cigarettes, because I didn’t want to know, really know, what had happened. I realized that I had to get my daughter to chorus and we were going to be late, so I rushed out of bed to wake her, and also why I didn’t take a long, long, long shower.
I burst into her room, trying to wake her, to reminder her we had someplace we needed to be. And she looked at me and asked, who won? Trump won, I told her, and I watched her face fall, and then screw up into a look of both disbelief and utter disgust. What if he does all the things he said he would do? she asked. What if he takes you away? What if he takes my friends away?
The best thing, I told her, was to be kind. Kind to her friends, friends who probably have parents who voted for Trump. Be vigilant and speak up against those who are unkind to others.
I smell the cigarette smoke on me. It lingers on me like the look on my daughters face. People come through the office in various states of shock, disbelieve, and sadness. We go through the motions of work, because we can’t imagine anything else. Or, like me, the thought of being home alone was just too much to bear.
I stay silent on social media. I am afraid that anything I say will ring hollow. My daughter is afraid, but others are more afraid, and have been living with this fear for a lot longer. I am not an American citizen, but I don’t have to carry my papers with me everywhere, because everyone assumes I am American. I have to remind people repeatedly, that I can’t vote.
I stay silent because I have friends and former students, from my former life, living and teaching in one of those places that went heavily for Trump. I am not surprised by the election results because I lived where I lived for as long as I did, and have listened and heard from too much of my social media circles, who are gaslighted, harassed, and hated.
I am angry at myself for being swayed by the media’s narrative crowning Clinton before the votes were cast. I am angry that my daughter, and too many others, feel afraid. I am angry that I am too afraid to say anything on social media. I am angry
There’s a line that keeps going through my head as I thought about writing this post. It’s from Casablanca:
I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
Every time I sit down to write, to address this year in any sort of meaningful way, these words, or some variation of these words, keep ringing in my ears. I’ve seen the movie many times, and I know the context of these lines, that then Rick goes off and (presumably) takes up arms of some kind against the Nazis. It’s not lost on me. But words…words have always been my arms, my weapons, my chosen means of resistance.
But I’ve been stuck.
The best I was able to do was a few weeks ago, writing about hope, or at least finding hope. I have to keep repeating this, by Elizabeth Mackinlay:
I have learned to leave my words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs in the stuck places in between, hoping that in their marvellous incompleteness, they do the kind of work intended.
The kind of work intended. I am not even sure anymore what kind of work I intend with my words, however incomplete or stuck they are. Two people, very dear to me, two people who know my words well, independently, told me that what I did best was write what was hard. I don’t know how I did that, and I’m not sure I know now how to do it again.
Tonight is the longest night of the year. Daylight will creep back into our days, slowly, imperceptibly, especially as the temperatures dip and either the clouds move in, or the sun provides no real warmth. But there will be more of it, starting today. I tweet just about the same thing every year on this day, reminding everyone of the days once again, starting tomorrow, overtaking the night.
This year, friends found love, had babies, published books, won awards, created beautiful art, found new and wonderful careers, graduated, love and wrote fiercely, and showed incredible loyalty to one another. If 2016 was a betrayal, it is not because of the people in my life. I only hope I can come through for them, one day, when needed.
The last piece of unfinished, unpublished writing is from my journal.
…while I have let people down (and I have let so many down), I have been there for others when no one else was or could be. Being too much can be a superpower. Feeling too much can be a superpower. Some wanted me to harden, to calcify. Better to be too hard than too soft. Safer. But somehow, it didn’t happen, despite the best efforts of others. I didn’t develop the armor it was thought I needed. Instead, I got softer.
There is strength in that softness. There is suppleness and smoothness, and a potential to keep reshaping. There is room for folding and unfolding. Unravelling and mending. I choose soft as my superpower.
Dear 2016, you did not harden me. You did not tear me apart, not irrevocably, and you did not make it so that so many pieces were lost that I became something I wasn’t. I will mend. I will hold space. I will not despair. Dear 2016, you taught me who and what matters to me. I was made for these times:
Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.
Dear 2017, watch out, I’m coming for you.