Blog Post

some follow-up thoughts on queering DML


rainbow strip

I attended the recent Digital Media and Learning Conference, "Designing Learning Futures," in Long Beach, California. During the conference, something sort of cool happened: It became evident that this year's conference schedule included exactly zero references to queer studies, queer theory, or queer youth. Yes, there were panels in which participants talked about their work with queer youth, but the panel titles and descriptions lacked any indicators that, yes, this would be a queered conversation.

But that's not the sort of cool thing! That's the frustrating thing. The sort of cool thing was that I decided to try to organize an (un)panel to talk about how we might make queer studies work more visible in future DML conferences and in other venues. And...people showed up! They showed up with good ideas! And afterward, they wrote neat things about queering DML! (Check out Fiona Barnett's post on Queering DML here and her update, including instructions for joining the QueerDML listserv, here. See Alexis Lothian's summary of the conference at Queer Geek Theory.)

What was most awesome about the unpanel was that it was a largely positive, largely future-directed and goal-focused event. People came, not in anger or frustration, but with a desire to think about strategies for making queer studies-based work more visible at conferences like DML. It took about 5 minutes for everyone to agree that any omission by the conference organizers was not intentional, malicious, or antiqueer--it was probably an accidental oversight, at worst. Anyone who's spent any time with folks in the field of Digital Media and Learning can figure out right away that this is a field that embraces queer studies and work on queer-focused issues.

So then today I saw danah boyd's post, "the politics of queering anything," in which she writes of the DML conference, without explicitly identifying it:

I was one of the program committee members and coordinated three invited sessions. In the wind, I heard that a few folks were disappointed that there were no LGBT-specific panels. The assumption was that queer issues were forgotten. This couldnt be further from the truth. Not only did all of the panels that I coordinated have queer-identified panelists on them but they all integrated queer theory into their arguments, whether explicitly or implicitly. I purposely left these issues unmarked in my description of the panels because my goal was to make sure that these issues were integrated seamlessly into a conversation without making identity politics the organizing theme of any of the panels.

First: I'm glad to have confirmed what attendees at the unpanel assumed: That there was no malicious effort to silence queer theorists or queer theories at DML 2011. I attended one of danah's panels, an invited session called "living a networked public life." One of the panelists in this session, Mary Gray, also attended the queering DML unpanel and spoke of her surprise at the absence of "queer" in the conference program and suggested we consider strategies for making this work more visible beyond the field of DML and into more "traditional" (read: normative) fields and conference venues.

Second: I want to address what boyd explains is an intentional effort to "unmark" queer theory or queer studies. She further explains her belief that

if you want to get a message across, its important to recognize peoples anxieties and discomforts at face value and try to present information to them in a way thats palatable and embraceable. Let them understand through a set of language that they can recognize instead of alienating them with language that terrifies them.

This form of selling out is bound to piss off anyone who believes that failing to mark queerness is a sign of weakness, a form of re-closeting, a way of undermining queer experiences, etc. I can totally hear and respect that. But Im a pragmatist. And Im more than willing to sell out if it means that I can get more people to understand why the core tenets of queer theory can help them understand structural inequality and systematic marginalization. Im willing to let that go unmarked if doing so helps.

I understand the 'pragmatism' argument--I really do. It's an argument that characterizes just about every social movement; we've seen it in, for example, every wave of the feminist movement, the American movement for black (and Native American, and immigrant) civil rights, and the gay civil rights movement.

It's also an argument that doesn't hold much truck with me. We must remember that 'pragmatists' depend for their livelihood on 'radicals'--by definition, pragmatist stances are less extreme than alternate stances, and pragmatism gets to position itself somewhere in between the most and least radical stances. The term 'pragmatic' is also politically problematic, since it's typically used oppositionally, to mark other stances as too radical (and, therefore, unpalatable or unfeasible).

Further, I do worry, as danah suggests, that leaving the queer unmarked has the effect of silencing queer studies work. Certainly Mary Gray has no problem having the word "queer" associated with her work (her most recent book is called OUT IN THE COUNTRY: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America). I imagine other queer-focused panelists feel perfectly happy marking their work with queer keywords. It's not clear whether Gray or other panelists specifically requested to include those keywords in their panel descriptions, but if they were not given the option to decide for themselves how to mark their work, the effect is to enforce silence where it is not necessarily desired.

The other problem is one of invisible intent. In the end, for audience members and panelists, theres really no effective way to tell whether identity politics are being addressed in a pragmatic way, or whether theyre not being addressed in any way at all. I find that to be a problem, and I sure do hope to continue this conversation as the group of queer (and queer-focused) academics and allies that formed around and after the unpanel continue to consider strategies for making these issues more public, more publicly discussed, and more publicly accessible.

I simply can't believe that DML attendees would be opposed to identity politics and queer studies issues addressed explicitly. If theres any arena where this scholarship would, should, and could be embraced, its there. And if we have to worry about whether DML folks will be hostile to queer theorists and the issues of queer youth, then we have a bigger problem than any form of pragmatism can address.


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