“I fell in love with the gears.” Falling in Love with HASTAC: Reflections on HASTAC V

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apologies for the various edits of the web links, and some of the prose in this post that prompted a few versions, i hope there were not too many emails. i am also confused how to place media videos within the blog post. any advice would be greatly appreciated. this is my first time posting with the new website, and still working out the new system. many thanks.


Dont Fight the Power, Be the Power 

"Difference is not our deficit; it's our operating system” —Fiona Barnett, HASTAC Scholars Director aka our illustrious ‘Nerd Herder’ 

“The waste lives for those moments beyond teaching when you give away the unexpected beautiful phrase—unexpected, no one has asked, beautiful, it will never come back.” — Fred Moten and Stephano Harney, “The University and The Undercommons: 7 Theses” 

Every summer in San Francisco, the  Queer Women of Color Film Festival  provides an entirely free film festival that celebrates media works created by queer women and trans people of color. Prior to the very handsome butch security guards opening the heavy glass doors of the Brava Theatre, letting lines of beautiful queer attendees (you don’t get awarded Best Voluptuous Visibility by the Bay Area Guardian</a>  for nothing!) + supportive family members, igniting  the buzz and hum of excitement that fills the warm carpeted lobby—before all this, the festival committee are reminded to do just one thing: say hello.  Greet every person you meet/see, smile. This, I remember QWOCMAP managing director Kebo Drew sharing, is a political act.  I’ve worked with the organization on various roles, and currently, I am their newest member on the Board of Directors, a position I humbly hold for such a vital queer feminist organization that has transformed so many lives, including my own.  Many of the film festival attendees are from low-income and immigrant backgrounds, it may be their first time at a film festival.  We want them to feel welcome. We want them to feel at home. We want them to come back.  Yet, I can’t help but think the excitement, an atmosphere that we jokingly describe of a super bowl for the QWOC community—is because of praxis, generosity, and recognition. It’s quite simple. It’s saying hello.

So I begin this provisional blog post on my HASTAC V with QWOCMAP practices because it resonates with what I find so inspiring and hopeful about HASTAC, as a collective, a network, a model for an academic make-over.  Truly, like I have learned from my involvement with QWOCMAP, HASTAC fosters not the utopian ideals, the  “romance of community”   what queer studies scholar Miranda Joseph critiques, but the active participatory building of community—oftentimes easy in theory but difficult in practice. But HASTAC V serves as a model.

I appreciate the message about the medium that HASTAC co-founder Cathy N. Davidson described in her blog post on the academic makeover the hopes of HASTAC V:

“This year's HASTAC Conference promises to be both like and nothing like traditional academic conferences.  And that's exactly as it should be:  We all know that you cannot change the message without changing the medium. We all know that changing the medium inevitably changes the message.”

Attention to form, structure, and not only wistful content, HASTAC V and our host the University of Michigan definitely delivered and exemplified what is possible not only about a conference, but the future of learning institutions as a whole. Unlike traditional academic conferences (lets generalize for a moment: anxiety laden job applicants, stuffy provosts, and the pervasive sport of academic one-uping) HASTAC V was filled with incredible bouts of inspiration that Cathy’s post aptly foreshadowed (I’ll just cite a few here): the generative discussion with HASTAC scholars + such as Alexis Lothian, Amanda Phillips, and Micha Cardenas with steering committee members such as Cathy Davidson, and Tim Murray among others, Cathy’s inspirational opening talk which I got to watch like any great new media conference, on the big fabulous digital screen in the overfill room with my collaborators Isela Gonzalez and Allyse Gray from the Forensic AIDS Project, lighting talks by scholars such as HASTAC Scholars Director Fiona Barnett, HASTAC scholar now professor John Jones, panels by new media scholar–activists such as Lisa Nakamura and Konrad Ng on Asian American Studies, Tara McPherson on the future of digital publishing, Carole Stabile’s feminist publishing of Fembot, and the list of HASTAC fabulousness goes on and on…

HASTAC V was incredible, insightful, and inspiring. All of which ignites imagination and further action toward our futures. Toward a university structure that is not located in our previous century, but in our present. We’re not just changing the message as Cathy wrote in her blog post above, “you cannot change the message without changing the medium.” So if you gather a room full of digital humanists, technologists, and educators who believe in collaboration, our future is a future I trust to not only be okay, but spectacular (I draw from Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg’s collective written The Future of Learning Institutions in the Digital Age, and what Kundiman co-director poet Joseph Legaspi’s states on the future of Asian American poetry here). 

The thing is, HASTAC V not only subverted the traditional academic conference by the content of the talks and the structure of the conference, but also, at a very local, micro level. It’s kinda difficult to place, difficult to define and explain. Yet, it’s something I already knew would be possible. I had come to HASTAC V with my community collaborators Isela Gonzalez and Allyse Gray of the Forensic AIDS Project. We were presenting on From the Center, our collective participatory where incarcerated women in the SF jail created their own HIV/AIDS digital stories as a form of constructionist learning.  In previous academic conferences, as non-academics, Isela and Allyse had shared experiences of marginalization, even in so-called radical feminist spaces. So questions remain, how might we compete with an academic structure that rewards the tenured professor holding her new anthology on the prison industrial complex in front of her, versus the organic intellectual, a woman in the conference audience who was just released from prison, with expertise to share? I guess another part of this question, is why must there be competition, and not collaboration?  And how can we not only dismantle, but build new structures, new paradigms, new possibilities as Cathy points out, we need not only new messages, but new “mediums.”

In a traditional academic structure, the traditional academic conference, there are often not conversations, but lectures. Power is not shared, but secured. And unfortunately, something seemingly small as organic curiosity--not only intellectually or politically, but personally--is unimaginable.  

It’s quite simple. 

We Want Them to Come Back 

I want to share I trusted our experience at HASTAC V, because in all my experiences as a HASTAC scholar over the years, it’s facilitated an experience of falling in love with learning, with the digital humanities, new media, feminist queer praxis, participatory learning + all her possibilities. Our project From the Center centralizes the belief that statistics have a story, and need to be humanized, and that all people deserve access not only to computers, but access to creating with digital tools as experts, storytellers, and advocates of their own lives and communities. That technology and the “digital divide” is a feminist issue. HASTAC has served as a vital model and support for our project, which implemented for the first time, feminist based digital storytelling + HIV/AIDS education in a Bay Area setting of incarceration.  I’m humbled and moved by the kind words of support on the project, by scholars I admire very much, vital interlocutors and friends such as Alexis Lothian and Micha Cardenas, both of whom I met via HASTAC. From the Center’s presentation to the HASTAC community was particularly meaningful as our project emerged from HASTAC’s teaching, and principles as well. Mentors at HASTAC such as Fiona Barnett, Cathy Davidson, and Nancy Holliman have—from the inception of our project—served as vital support of the possibility of participatory learning in the jail setting. I truly cannot thank them enough. 

I shared with my collaborators Isela and Allyse that I was sure the HASTAC conference would be different from other academic conferences. I even emailed the link from Cathy’s Blog post on the Academic Makeover. But its one thing to see or read about HASTAC, one needs to experience HASTAC, or more aptly participate in HASTAC. The thing is, unlike any other academic conference even those that attach the words “critical” to the corresponding discipline, as if the word "critical" alone really changes anything. Im interested in how structurally that conference can change, how can power and expertise be shared? At HASTAC V, people not only said hello to those who are non-academics, but fostered meaningful connections that cuts across race, gender, and institutional positions. 

And to begin this story, it was on our last day in Michigan when my mentor and collaborator Isela shared, I look forward to next year’s  HASTAC conference in Canada, and coming back.

What’s Love Got To Do With It

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This "saying hello" factor, so uncommon at academic conferences, is just one example of what is different about HASTAC and the HASTAC conference. Because authentic genuine connections are being made through the spaces. And I truly believe people who believe in the possibility of collaboration, move through the world differently. But I want to return to the issue of censorship as Amanda Phillips wrote in her blog post about the discussion that occurred over Thanksgiving Break.  The issue concerned the initial censorship/removal of Micha Cardenas’ blog post featuring a flier of performance artist Elle Mehrmand—and Ill quote Amanda here, “We descended on the blog in righteous flurry, gearing up for what we (or I, anyway) expected to be an epic war of words with administrators who had maybe grown too big and accountable to public opinion to bother with scholars and artists on the fringes anymore/What we got instead was a respectful and thrilling dialogue that you can still read.” Reading Amanda’s post is heartening and I recommend you check out the entire post,  “here”  

What the issue demonstrated so clearly was, what could have been potentially a permanent rupture, solidifying “the romance” novel of a virtual community, actually demonstrated the opportunity for not only listening but a dialogue, and a conversation. And that is exactly what happened. The conference wasn’t only with senior scholars but open to all participants, like the HASTAC scholars who participated as well. You can read more about the HASTAC Steering Committee and the issues of censorship through the insightful and astute blog posts and responses  “and here by Alexis Lothian, Amanda Philips, Micha Cardenas, Cathy Davidson and others.

The possibility for dialogue across differences, a recognition and sharing of power, seems inherently resistance to the logics and modus operandi of the academy. It’s the kind of thing that facilitates a “falling in love,” as Amanda wrote on their experience of being in Ann Arbor, the experience of HASTAC V.  

I quote Amanda here:

“And, honesty, though I’ve been part of the Scholars program for several years now and have always been grateful to and enthusiastic about the collaborative community facilitated by the people and structure of HASTAC, it was in Ann Arbor that I really fell in love with the organization and its participants.”

“I fell in love with the gears.” 

In The Gears of My Childhood!  the forward to Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Seymour talks about his experience as a young child playing with gears, and “falling in love with gears.  This falling in love with gears facilitated a learning that extended into Seymour’s adolescence and adult life. “Gears serving as models,” Seymour writes, “carried many otherwise abstract ideas into my head.” In the essay Seymour discusses not only the cognitive modes of learning, but the importance of affective contours:

“A modern-day Montessori might propose, if convinced by my story, to create a gear set for children. Thus every child might have the experience I had. But to hope for this would be to miss the essence of the story. I fell in love with the gears. This is something that cannot be reduced to purely “cognitive” terms. Something very personal happened, and one cannot assume that it would be repeated for other children in exactly the same form.”

Yet the personal, the hello, the access to the possibility of falling in love, is what HASTAC not only fosters, but provides structure in facilitating.  This is the love not of romance, but that kind that is real, and difficult, possible for conflicts but the kind that help us grow. Ultimately can be utilized not for separation or oppression, but a conversation.  As Fiona Barnett has written, and I include her quote above as an epigraph, for HASTAC:

“Difference is not our deficit; it's our operating system”

Fiona’s description of HASTAC embracing ‘difference’ is one not only in theory but of practice. What Fiona Barnett provides so aptly facilitates a culture of not only acceptance of difference, but embracement and shifts in structure, of difference as “our operating system.” Cathy Davidson has provided a fantastic elaboration on this notion here!   

It’s not a romantic bout, a slight amorous flirtation, or a disappointing tyrst but love not only with the collective called HASTAC but Differnence. Different. A programmer-poet. A humanist who designs. Activists who blogs, and blogs fervently. Possibilities are endless, because human beings and machines are complicated, complex, and fascinating.  Like the late Steve Jobs’ famous campaign Think Different. We are different, and we’re not only okay with difference, it is as, Fiona writes, HASTAC's “operating system.”

Don’t Fight the Power, Be The Power


Free Speech activist Mario Savio famously said on the Sproul Steps in 1960’s Berkeley:

“There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

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(Here is a reenactment of Mario Savio’s famous speech by my presentation group in new media artist and professor Ken Goldberg's course! Inspired by new media artist Mark Tribe’s Port Huron Project! Mario Savio played by Performance Studies graduate student Omar Ricks)

This is one model of the university, the academy and of learning. But I’m reminded that HASTAC is transforming the machine, the binary of the machine-human, into the organism-machine, our cyborgian dreams. Instead of fighting with the gears, we’re transforming the gears, instead of fighting the power, let’s  be the power, as one student in my Queer Theories/Activist Practices wrote on her protest board above. Let’s fall in love with gears.

On Race, and the Future of Design

I want to end this blog post (which ended up more fragmented than I had hoped. But I feel fragments are just okay) with a return to the discussion Alexis Lothian and Micha Cardenas astutely pointed out, on the issue of race & equity at HASTAC V.  And some insights drawn from a conversation I had with former HASTAC scholar and now professor Bridget Daxter on engaged + digital scholarship.  

While I was not at Jim Leach’s talk, I too agree with Micha and Alexis’ critiques on what can be problematic in thinking about the “civilizing project” of the “digital humanities.”  I look forward to watching the entirety of Leah’s speech. However, I feel Micha brings up point relevant not only to Leach’s talk but the state of digital humanities and new media as a whole. As Micha writes in her blog, in her blog and Ill quote her here:

“Later in the day I felt very differently about the keynote speech by Jim Leach of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which I was deeply troubled by. A primary claim of Leach's talk was that the digital humanities must take up a "civilizing project". I missed some of the talk, but I found this claim to be unacceptable. The talk revealed to me what deep splits exist in our field, to see a keynote speech that was so egregious to my own values. Certainly, if there is a need of a civilizing mission, there are people who are uncivilized in Leach's view. I was troubled by his reference to "our" conflict with "the Arab World", which seemed to act as the Other in need of civilizing. This formulation made a troubling conflation between "us" and the United States, a claim which I already have trouble accepting. 

Leach went on to propose a new digital class which would take up this civilizing mission, based on choice and access. This was, to me, a troubling conflation that smoothed over the fact that many don't have a choice to join the digital class because they lack access and often access is determined by social structures of inequality including gender, race, ability, sexuality, immigration status. Here is where I find myself firmly in the post-humanities with Donna Haraway and Judith Halberstam and many other theorists working to address the limitations of the liberal humanist subject and the way that it forecloses discussion of its own limitations, of who gets to be a rational subject and who is deemed irrational and uncivilized, often on the basis of the social structures I listed above.”

As Micha points out, recognizing structural issues and the digital divide which illuminate many people do not have “choice to join the digital class because they lack access.” As Micha and Alexis’ provide, it is also important to have more voices and perspectives from those not only who are of color, but that politically can foster and add to the pressing issues of the digital humanities, and bridge these digital divides, divides which corresponds to systematic issues of the rising rates of incarceration as Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg cite in The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age. 

As Cathy Davidson responded to Micha’s post:

“I so agree that we must do a far better job (and I think it has to begin very early) at not only writing about race but making sure that people of color are not the recipients of tools and technologies that they do not participate in thinking through, developing.  You go to a developer meet-up and it is mostly white and mostly male.  This is a major issue that all of us need to be committed to changing, on every level from tools and training to theory and archives.”

Like Cathy, I agree that it’s not only access but that people are color are also developers of technology and tools. I thank Cathy for bringing up this vital point, because I also agree the issue is not only access or simply more people of color, but having more people of color to work on technology on many levels such as design, and development. 

Cathy’s comments on developers, reminded me of the design work that Micha and Ricardo Dominguez  and other new media artists created at the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab (Bits, Atoms, Neurons, and Genes.) at UCSD: the Transborder Immigrant Tool.  The Transborder Immigrant Tool reimagines design but taking on the pressing issue of migration, safety, and human rights.

How can we use technology not to further surveil and build the border industrial complex but to help aid migrants to safety?

The Transborder Immigrant Tool is one example of design and development for good.

Below Ricardo answered questions on the Transborder Immigrant Tool in an  interview with Vice Magazine 

What is the device, exactly?

RD: We looked at the Motorola i455 cell phone, which is under $30, available even cheaper on eBay, and includes a free GPS applet. We were able to crack it and create a simple compasslike navigation system. We were also able to add other information, like where to find water left by the Border Angels, where to find Quaker help centers that will wrap your feet, how far you are from the highway--things to make the application really benefit individuals who are crossing the border.

The Transborder Immigrant Tool has poetry too. Poetry for survival:

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In my experience, it is true that political projects like the transborder immigrant tool wiihin DH or New Media Studies, may be unjustifiably considered too political.  Indeed critiques of the b.a.n.g. lab’s political work was under attack by U.C. and elsewhere. You may remember the possible de-tenuring of Ricardo because of his political activism, in which many of the HASTAC community signed virtual petitions to support Dominguez. http://articles.latimes.com/2010/may/07/local/la-me-ucsd-professor-20100...

Instead of technology for profit, we’re thinking of design, of dh scholarship, of new media art that can address the pressing social issues of our time.  The transborder immigrant tool, urges us to reimagine the possibilities of technology. I hope for computers to not only sense to world, but to change our world. 

Das Kapital: It doesn’t cost anything to join HASTAC.

“In other words: what if people choose to pursue scholarly work not because they think it's a good living, but because they are seeking a way to pursue an intellectual project they believe matters––and not just to themselves? I know I've linked to it many times, but Fred Moten and Stefano Harney's The University and the Undercommons never stops being relevant. Critical content, radical content, is an excess in the university that we hope will slip the bounds of its commodified form.” -- Alexis Lothian 

Above, Alexis Lothian astutely returned to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney's The University and the Undercommons and as she notes, it does bear returning to,  often. As Alexis  points out we are trying to acknowledge the excess of academic capital, and what I feel HASTAC fosters, the return to teaching, to learning. 

I want to point to what Fred and Stephano write on the importance of teaching within the academy, oftentimes lost within the building of the academic industrial complex:

“But it is teaching that brings us in. Before there are grants, research, conferences, books, and journals there is the experience of being taught and of teaching. Before the research post with no teaching, before the graduate students to mark the exams, before the string of sabbaticals, before the permanent reduction in teaching load, the appointment to run the Center, the consignment of pedagogy to a discipline called education, before the course designed to be a new book, teaching happened.”

The focus of HASTAC on participatory learning, fosters hope of the transformation in our digital age.

As Tara McPherson pointed out in her inspiring talk on Vectors and The Future of Digital Publishing panel at HASTAC V, it remains difficult for senior scholars to evaluate digital scholarly forms, and to acknowledge the contributions of collaborative digital scholarship. McPherson’s talk at HASTAC V and her recent co-authored article in the MLA issue of Profession, is inspiring particularly as Vectors served as such a vital model for From the Center, and so many projects in the DH, and the importance of senior scholars like Tara, Cathy, and others speaking out about the importance of transformation of what is considered valuable in the academy, 

So I’ll end here with a conversation Bridget Daxter and I had at HASTAC V. Bridget is inspiring for her commitment to engaged scholarship. It was a pleasure to present with her, and her colleagues Jon Winet, and Peter Likarish of the University of Iowa UNESCO City of Lit- erature Mobile Application Development Team (COL). As a graduate student, she shared it was a struggle for her engaged scholarship work to be recognized by the academy.  But I am thrilled that Bridget is one of the many HASTAC scholars now professors.  As we discussed engaged and collaborative models of scholarship, Bridget pointed out that people doing engaged scholarship are doing it not because of academic capital.

And I cannot agree with Bridget even more.

While not recognized as legitmate, at this moment those working on digital collaborative scholarship do it because of genuine engagement and commitement. While HASTAC is a community with values so different from much of the traditional academy, there are few spaces like HASTAC.

Personally, I've been advised to stop much of my collaborative and participatory work with From the Center because I may not be considered a serious scholar.

And yet, I cannot help but believe that community, collaborative, and participatory models may be the most meaningful way to utilize the resources and training as an academic. I am troubled, like so many at HASTAC, that participatory learning is not more common and rewarded within the academy.

But this predicament, as Bridget points out, also reminds me of a particular line in Fred and Stephano's essay:

 “The waste lives for those moments beyond teaching when you give away the unexpected beautiful phrase—unexpected, no one has asked, beautiful, it will never come back.”

Should digital humanities, participatory learning, and collaborative engaged work get institutionalized and rewarded through academic capital, can we maintain an engagement, and this is my crude articulations, questions and reflections, but an engagement that is "genuine" "unexpected," "beyond teaching?" 

I don’t believe in utopian disembodied dreams. And HASTAC is not perfect. Nothing is perfect. And perhaps this is why it works. Because HASTAC acknowledges fragmentation. And embraces difference. It's not our deficit, as Fiona offers. 

Although the Internet's initial utopian promise has its limitations, as Lisa Nakamura writes in Digitizing Race (and i love this so much)  "...we have a situation that is much more complicated, yet far from disheartening."

HASTAC helps with this vision. Karen Petruska  has an awesome blog  about Cathy's inspiring keynote”  ” ]]  "Now You See It: The Future of Learning in a Digital Age"  And I couldn't not agree with Cathy more, especially after HASTAC V:

"If this group can’t do it, no one can." 




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