Tagged online education

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Screenshot of protestors with signs. An excerpt from a course reading is to the right of the image.
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“The Future Started Yesterday and We’re Already Late”: The Case for Antiracist Online Teaching

Abstract

Using Black critical theoretical perspectives and pedagogical examples from our experiences teaching in online learning environments, this article articulates a case for antiracist online education. In the midst of the deadliest convergence of three devastating global “pandemics”— the COVID-19 pandemic, the continued murdering of Black bodies, and abnormal environmental disasters precipitated by global warming—educational technology could be a vehicle of liberation yet it remains an apparatus of control, further exacerbating inequality, especially for Black students. The absence of specific references to antiracist pedagogical orientations in the extant literature and theory of online education is emblematic of the normativeness of anti-Black racism and white normativity in online education. An antiracist pedagogy for online education begins with creating spaces that bring attention to race, class, gender, and ability. The authors conclude with a call to action for a shift to antiracist online teaching for all learners.

If you hear this message, wherever you stand
I’m calling every woman, calling every man
We’re the generation
We can’t afford to wait
The future started yesterday and we’re already late
—John Legend, “If You’re Out There”

Due to technology’s rapid innovations and reimagining in the social sphere, each time education makes a strong push forward, it seems we’re already late. Even in the midst of the deadliest convergence of three devastating global “pandemics”—the COVID-19 pandemic, the continued murdering and “fungibility” (la paperson 2017, 15) of Black bodies, and abnormal environmental disasters precipitated by global warming—educational technology could be a vehicle of liberation yet it remains an apparatus of control, further exacerbating inequality, especially for Black students. It is the goal of this paper to shake educators out of the slumber of white heterosexist monotonous and disembodied teaching and offer a vision for antiracist online teaching. As two critical Black scholars (one cis-het woman, one cis-het man) with doctorates in Critical Education Policy Studies and Educational Technology, we are convinced that online teaching is either antiracist and liberating or racist and dehumanizing; there is no in-between (hooks 1994; Love 2019; Kendi 2019). This paper will articulate a case for antiracist online education using both Black critical theoretical perspectives and pedagogical examples from our experiences teaching in online learning environments. We conclude with a call to action for a shift to antiracist online teaching for all learners.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced most teaching and learning to online platforms. At many institutions, this shift has been met with anxiety, frustration, and in some cases stubborn refusal to conform to the virtual realities, limitations, and possibilities that online teaching provides. Many K–12 school districts continue to struggle to equip their teachers to make the shift to online teaching, leaving teachers to fend for themselves (Lambert and Rosales 2020). The shift to a virtual space has also left ill-prepared teachers, parents, and students fatigued (Holladay 2020). Higher education spaces are not exempt from these issues. Some believe the sudden shift to online teaching and learning is having both negative affective and cognitive effects on students as they work to negotiate the newness of it all (Burke 2020). But the fact still remains that the shift online has not removed the racist norms that were normative in face-to-face classrooms.

Cathy Davidson wrote a blog post entitled “The Single Most Essential Requirement in Designing a Fall Online Course.” In her post, she made an impassioned plea for educators to radically change their approach to (online) teaching during fall 2020, in light of all of the things students will be carrying into their classes because of the social situation. She argued that effective fall 2020 teaching required that summer preparation foreground the reality that “our students are learning from a place of dislocation, anxiety, uncertainty, awareness of social injustice, anger, and trauma” (Davidson 2020). Moreover, she added that informed solutions to creating a more humane and student-centered learning environment during the pandemic would mean “being sensitive to the devastating historical moment in which we are now living and offering students a way forward beyond it.” While the year 2020 will certainly go down as a unique point in the annals of history, many Black students would have entered the fall classrooms from a space of “dislocation, anxiety, uncertainty … anger, and trauma” as well as perpetual “awareness of social injustice” even if the COVID-19 pandemic had not occurred. The pandemic merely heightened what has always been there. Black people in the US continue to live in what Saidiya Hartman called “the afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment” (2007, 6). Any way forward that does not account explicitly for the normativeness of anti-Black thinking in education will merely ensure a racist and anti-Black future in education.

Inspired by the words of Cathy Davidson, while at the same time, captivated by the ancestral rhythm of resistance and freedom inherent in blackness (Cone 2018; Moten 2013; Dillard 2006; Morrison 1993), we argue for a deeper response to the current historical moment. In this article, we address Black non-being and exclusion that is the norm for education in general, but online education more specifically, in the US. This conversation is critical for online education because it is an irrefutable mode of all education moving forward and a space ripe with possibility for antiracist innovations that could unbound the limitations of physical classrooms.

What is Critical Black Theory and Why Is It Important for Online Schooling in the US?

For the sake of this article, critical Black theory will be used to zero in on the signification of blackness in historical and contemporary considerations of online schooling in the US. While other critical theories, like critical race theory (CRT), provide in-depth and intersectional analysis on race and racism, critical Black theory, or “BlackCrit” focuses on a “theorization of blackness” (Dumas and ross 2016, 416). BlackCrit is a “metatheory,” used to explicate the hidden whitened discursive context that undergirds and drives most theories, even theories that consider themselves to be “critical” (Wilderson III 2020, 14). Put simply, the goal of BlackCrit is to shine light on the anti-Black soul of the United States: to lay bare the levers that drive the racist, sexist, classist engine of capitalism. BlackCrit provides an avenue to see past the elusive and often confusing racially ambiguous language such as “people of color,” “diverse group” or person, “minority,” or “underrepresented group” when one is speaking explicitly about Black people (Wilderson III 2020, 41). It compels us to name things for what they are instead of using racially ambiguous or colorblind language, metaphors, or figures of speech that mask, under-emphasize, or erase Black pain and suffering. As Fred Moten (2016) eloquently put it, “We can’t go around this. We gotta go through this” BlackCrit argues that the keys to being liberated out of this racial caste system is acknowledging that it still exists; that the episteme and libidinal nature of the plantation continues unhindered and fundamentally shapes society.

At the same time, BlackCrit also speaks to the ways that blackness signifies a being and deep embodied knowing. Fred Moten (2013) argued that there lives a rich and emancipating hope out of the hopeless condition in understanding blackness. Moten believes that in the signification of blackness outside of the discourse of humaneness, and therefore the realm of being, theorizing blackness exceeds understanding and therefore cannot be reduced to a single thing. Its rich, unmappable essence carries with it the “absolute overturning, the absolute turning of this motherfucker out” (2013, 742). Therefore, BlackCrit forces a consideration of what is possible out of the binary and either/or constraints inputted by a white western colonial imaginary and instead invites an orientation that positions being and knowing as circular (Spillers 2003). Online learning remains an uncharted and underutilized discursive space for addressing anti-blackness and engaging in antiracist praxis (Asenbaum 2019; Bonilla and Rosa 2015; Bondy, Hambacher, Murphy, Wolkenhauer, and Krell 2015; Guthrie and McCracken 2010). In fact, decolonizing and antiracist visions are already embedded within the colonized racist machines of online learning (la paperson 2017; Collins and Bilge 2016).

Online Classrooms Are Not Race-Neutral: How Online Education Eludes Race

The use of technology as a mode of learning has been a part of the US educational infrastructure since the beginning of the nineteenth century (Reiser 2001)—a beginning during which it was criminal for Black people to be formally educated. In the US historically, schoolhouses were created by power-holding whites to sanction and reify anti-Black racism, sexism, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant values, and later prepare a docile workforce to maintain economic disparities (Rury 2009). While American society has come a long way from nineteenth-century schools, traditional public schools have fundamentally maintained nineteenth-century learning practices and structures committed to anti-blackness.

In a historical overview of the structure of schooling between 1890–1900, Larry Cuban reminded educators “the apparent uniformity in instruction irrespective of time and place appears connected to the apparent invulnerability of classrooms to change” (1995, 1). Cuban identified minuscule change in the structures of schooling over time and observed that innovation in schools tended to be reserved for a subcategory of students such as the gifted, but not implemented with the main  population (1995). Cuban’s analysis neglects to detail the ways schools’ documented invulnerability to change maintains anti-blackness in structures, curricula, and personnel. These realities are transposed into online learning environments and digital learning tools that are assumed to be race-neutral. For example, Borje Holmberg formed a theory of distance teaching that advocates for personalized distance education but avoids the ways race informs individual learners, tech tools, or online environments (1995). The major players in online education still hold tightly to racist Enlightenment ideals of rugged individualism and the belief in the disembodied articulation of the self (Asenbaum 2019). In other words, white supremacy and its chief actor, whiteness, still maintain a hegemonic hold on online learning.  More explicitly, race-neutral language transposes whiteness to educational technology as normative, reifying that white people are the standard for humanity, thus relegating blackness to sub-human. Online education operates with race-neutral rhetoric that obscures how race informs everything.

Despite the prevalence of anti-blackness in online education, collaborative technology platforms like Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook have provided disruptive spaces of resistance due to their ability to transcend traditional forms of networking and collaboration. This is largely due to these technologies’ user-centered platforms, which allow users to design social communities and develop and disseminate their own innovations. Facebook and other Web 2.0 collaborative platforms have become impactful spaces to negotiate and transform the traditional “boundaries of the classroom,” where the teacher directs and designs all learning and students merely respond to often irrelevant, dated content within the confines of the physical classroom space (Dennen 2018, 239). Disruptive social media platforms on the other hand allow learners to design thinking, select relevant topics of interest, and engage in expedient dialogue and response to real world issues. For example, with the widely-publicized killings of unarmed Black people at the hands of law enforcement and security personnel—Daunte Wright, Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonne Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Yvette Smith, Rekia Boyd, and Botham Jean, and Michelle Cusseaux, just to name a few—people form across the globe organized through online activism to resist racial injustice. Online activism is indicative of the power of digital tools to fight racism, yet online education broadly has yet to seriously move toward antiracist pedagogies.

Valcarlos, Wolgemuth, Haraf, and Fisk (2018) queried all peer-reviewed articles from the past 11 years to ascertain the presence of anti-oppressive pedagogies in scholarship related to online education. Of three thousand articles, they found ten that dealt specifically with anti-oppressive pedagogies in online education. Out of those ten articles, four common themes emerged: legitimizing students’ epistemologies (personal narratives, emotions, and culture), requiring reflection and discussion, establishing expectations of critical awareness, and democratizing educator and student roles (351). With the exception of these articles, the online learning community has been almost mute on critical social justice concerns (Valcarlos, Wolgemuth, Haraf, and Fisk 2020). Even fewer articles explicitly name the role of antiracist pedagogy in online education.

Bridging the Gap: The Potential of an Antiracist Future in Online Education

The absence of specific mention to antiracist pedagogies in the extant literature and theory of online education is emblematic of the normativeness of anti-Black racism and white normativity in online education. A corrective is essential to equip students with the requisite forms of racial literacy to constantly reflect upon their world in a responsible manner (Tarrant and Thiele 2014). Racism is a system of historical oppression that is built on an hegemony of power and domination that privileges certain groups as inferior to the dominant group (Harrell 2000). In the hegemony of racism, certain ideas shape the construction of the constituent parts of society (business, education, law,  and medicine) and give rise to accepted behaviors and belief systems (Gramsci 1989). To be neutral on racism is to be complicit in racist ideas; there is no in-between (hooks 1994; Kendi 2019). In what follows we will provide a framework for thinking through an antiracist pedagogy for online education.

We take up Zachary Casey’s (2016) framing of pedagogy to help shape our understanding of an antiracist pedagogy. In his book, A Pedagogy of Anticapitalist Antiracism: Whiteness, Neoliberalism, and Resistance in Education, Casey defined pedagogy as an action to “foster (political, partial, humanizing) learning, in ways that acknowledge the political nature of human interactions and the varying context(s) in which we live” (18). Shaped by the liberatory visions of Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and others, Casey argues that every choice is political: that each action, each choice we make requires making particular judgements and conceptualizations about reality and knowledge that emanate  from our ethical framework. An antiracist pedagogy acknowledges the political and partial nature of teaching; there is no such thing as neutrality. When we separate our being from our doing, our knowing from our doing, we are adhering to a racist, colonialist imagination. How we teach is a byproduct of how we were taught to view the world.

David Gillborn posited that “Anti-racism has not failed—in most cases; it simply has not been tried yet” (2006, 17). He observed that antiracist work in education arose as a response to the performative liberal practices used to serve Black children and their families but were deeply conservative in nature, contained no awareness of the systemic nature of oppression, and were actually rooted in deficit perspectives of Black people. Antiracism work is about dismantling racism, but it is much more than that. Racism takes many forms and so antiracist actions must be flexible and constantly adapt to the complex nature of reality. To be antiracist means to constantly be about the work of dismantling the racist ingrained nature of teaching.

Nevertheless, without a clear framework for antiracism, the use of antiracism becomes empty rhetoric, what Sara Ahmed (2004) calls non-performative. Often, antiracist statements themselves become the only actions that an institution takes. Or they become the very barrier to developing an antiracist ethos in an institution or classroom and provide no actionable way to diagnose racist versus antiracist praxis. When this happens, explicitly naming racist practices, and examining complicity in racist ideas become non-existent because the institution and the people in it have branded themselves as antiracist. To continue calling the institution racist after the institution has made a commitment to being antiracist becomes undesirable. Likewise, racism then becomes the boogey woman. No one wants to utter its name. But taking up antiracism is a process not a destination. You can act in antiracist ways one day and the next day act in racist ways or uphold racist ideas (Kendi 2019).

Antiracist education accepts the presence of bias and stereotypes but requires employing diligent and consistent investigation into the source of racism and how racist ideas manifest structurally, culturally, politically, and interpersonally (Troyna 1987; Collins 2017). An antiracist pedagogy for online education begins with creating spaces that bring attention to race, class, gender, and ability. An antiracist online environment begins first with an articulation of online learning as an embodied digital discursive space. In other words, enacting an antiracist pedagogy in online learning begins in the body. It requires students and teachers alike to bring their full selves (this is a collective self, not an individual self) into the online learning environment (Dillard 2006).

Specific Antiracist Pedagogies for Online Education

In this section, we describe classroom practices, activities, and experiences we employ in our online classrooms as examples of antiracist pedagogy for online education.

Showing up and the power of the aesthetic: Jazz, freedom dreaming, and liberatory teaching

In each of my (David’s) courses, I start with an artifact exercise that can be done synchronously on the first day of class or asynchronously using a video platform such as Flipgrid or YouTube to facilitate sharing, and a discussion board prompt to debrief the activity (Figure 1). The artifact exercise is also coupled with several modes of engagement: pre-course survey, at least two readings that provide context for a discussion on identity, a related video, and a few thoughts that foreground group values for the course. Providing this level of scaffolding for the artifact exercise is essential to create an environment that encourages authenticity and transparency and ensures students have adequate context for the ensuing dialogue. This exercise serves multiple purposes. First, it is an icebreaker, an opportunity for students to ease into the new semester and get to know each other. Secondly, the goal of the exercise is to foreground very early in the course that teaching and learning are not neutral acts. That to show up in embodied ways means to give attention to the weight that your raced, gendered, and classed selves takes up in the classroom. This exercise invites all parties involved to see each other in embodied ways (Hill 2017).

Finally, the activity is an opportunity for students to share something from their life-world that is important to them and reveals an aspect of their culture they believe is important for our sacred learning experience. For example, after everyone has shared, I invite the class to identify connections or themes across the shared stories. After the connection phase, I emphasize the uniqueness and interconnected nature of our stories. I also point to how the stories reveal values passed down to us and therefore the “presence” of our ancestors;many students actually share pieces of jewelry and pieces of cloth that were given to them by their now deceased grandparents and great grandparents. I inform students that the fact these values still shape how we will interact and engage content in the course is what makes the learning environment sacred and also a space of potential conflict.

Screenshot of computer screen with words detailing course announcements.
Figure 1. Screenshot taken from the Canvas learning management system of one of David’s pre-course announcements to students about the artifact exercise and supported activities.

The types of artifacts that students bring are often connected to certain values their parents, grandparents, and others have passed down to them. These values and worldviews shape how the students engage each other and make sense of course material—this point is also consistently made by students as they share during the artifact exercise. For example, in one of my classes I had a student share an artifact from a grandparent that emphasized the idea of collectivity. In that same class, another student shared an artifact that a great aunt gave them which  reinforced the value of individualism—the exact words were, “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and getting your work done.” Both students offered conflicting values that were central to their unique worldviews and approaches to learning. The artifact exercise makes it explicit that the online classroom experience is an intergenerational contested space full of imaginations, images, cultures, and values that shape the ontological, epistemic, and ethical visions of the learning space for the teacher and students (Sheppard 2017). The intergenerational contested reality of the classroom necessitates that cultural wars are constantly being waged, most of them occurring undetected behind the scenes.

Antiracist pedagogies are anticipatory in nature. To be antiracist is to anticipate and welcome conflict as a companion in the learning process. As conflict occurs, antiracist pedagogues must be intentional in explicitly naming what is happening. In the example above with the two students, I used their examples to invite students into a connections and synthesis phase of the artifact activity where we engaged in dialogue about issues of identity, power, and perspective taking—we reference the articles they would have read before class to support this movement—in order to understand and draw connections between the values expressed by students and the ways of knowing and being that are privileged in education (e.g. rugged individualism vs. collectivism).

I also begin each class session with approximately five minutes of an invocation. The invocation experience—which is actually done first at the very beginning of class—and the artifact exercise flow together to concretize the sacredness of our collective learning task and the fact that learning is an intergenerational experience. One of the amazing Black women in my research who identified as womanist first introduced a “pedagogy of invocation” to me (Humphrey Jr. 2020, 93). Often this first five minutes will consist of a song, something soulful and rhythmic like Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” or Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.” Invocation simply means to invoke someone or something for assistance or authority. In the Black prophetic tradition, this act is used to acknowledge that what we are about to embark upon is bigger than ourselves. That we are not alone in this moment. That this moment is fixed in dialectical union with the present and future. That we bring our full selves (a collective self) into this space including our mind, our body, our memories, dreams, and the sacred witness of our ancestors (their lessons passed down to us, both good and bad, whether we want to admit to it or not and whether we realize or remember these messages or not). During the invocation, I instruct students to do the following: “Please take this moment and listen to the words, rhythm, and melody of the song. Meditate on what you are hearing; be sensitive to what your mind and body are saying to you as you listen. After the song concludes, we will begin our collective task.” After the second or third class, I invite students to share their favorite songs and lead the invocation. I always bridge the mindfulness moment with the course content of the day. While most effective in the synchronous online class, this activity can be adapted for asynchronous learning environments by posting the invocation as a required first task in a module using YouTube or any other video platform that allows you to pre-record video and a discussion post-feature.

Collaboratively innovating content with students

By pairing collaborative digital tools with contemporary, relevant racial justice content through an embodied pedagogy, online education can become antiracist. An effective antiracist approach in online learning is to connect all content to the racialized reality every student and teacher is traversing. In my classroom, I (Camea) do this by inviting students to make real-world connections between course content and racial justice. This is central to my antiracist teaching strategies and not a cursory exercise or attempt at culturally relevant gimmicks (Love 2019).  This is exemplified in my online spring 2021 doctoral qualitative research methods course titled, “Critical Ethnographic Methods for Social Justice Research,” in which student researchers used critical ethnography research tools to design research studies that contributed to changing conditions toward greater freedom and equity; to amplify minoritized participant experiences; and to humanize the research act. This course was created in response to COVID-19 and the anti-Black violence and other social unrest occurring in the US, and was delivered synchronously with weekly meetings on zoom. In this course, students were invited to make sense of their own racial identities by exploring researcher positionality, rapport with research participants in the field, and accessing and exiting the field.

For example, a white woman student researcher in a midterm presentation made connections between the 2020 presidential executive order banning critical race theory in federally funded trainings and the critical ethnographic research to demonstrate that the latter  was an effective example of social justice research. Figure 2 is a screenshot from the student’s Zoom presentation that details her analysis. In doing this presentation, the student researcher reflected on her own whiteness and how it informed the choice of book she selected for her midterm and how it impacted her positionality as a researcher. By inviting student researchers to make connections between the course content, themselves, and the real world in class, I created space for authentic engagement with race and racism, and allowed students to innovate paths towards antiracism. This is the work.

Screenshot of protestors with signs. An excerpt from a course reading is to the right of the image.
Figure 2. Screenshot of student presentation on race and real world connections to course content.

The pedagogical elements of the assignment design and the creation of a classroom community that could hold this type of learning were grounded in student choice, criticality, and a learning community where students were safe to introspectively reflect on how race impacts all we do and learn.

Creating an antiracist online-class Zoom ethos

Additionally, when attempting to employ antiracist pedagogy in an online context it’s imperative that the ethos of the digital space exude the brilliance and intellectual rigor of Black and other minoritized peoples and cultures. The class ethos is apparent by the way students are made  to feel. My online courses center an ethos of Black creativity by playing an upbeat song from various Black music traditions such as hip hop, pop, neo-soul, or gospel as students log onto Zoom. During this time the music plays in the background and students welcome one another verbally or in the chat. This is a tone-setting exercise that grounds the space in Black aesthetics to communicate that Blackness is celebrated here. The songs are not discussed; they just exist like the wall decor in a physical classroom. Similarly, when I use slides (which is rare because my pedagogy is dialogic and interactive in nature) I intentionally use slides that have artwork of Black and Brown faces and use cultural icons in the designs. Again, this is an aesthetic choice that communicates that celebrating Black culture is a part of how we do everything; nothing is race-neutral. This practice invites students to feel safe to share their own cultural artifacts when they present.

Furthermore, I co-create an antiracist class-zoom ethos with students by setting norms that are particularly valuable for antiracist praxis such as: “own our subjectivity,” “challenging each other with respect,” and “ question your own lens/perspectives without fear.” These norms are essential to disrupt the notion that race is a taboo or scary topic in the classroom. Likewise, I lead the class agenda from an Africanist (King 2019) perspective of time grounded in abundance. I remind students there is always enough time. In my fluidity I use a structure that always includes space for intuition and possibility. I require all cameras be on during discussion therefore I can gauge if students are confused, excited, or tired, and I always have the time to respond to those human aspects of their learning in the moment.

My class-zoom ethos is strengthened because students are positioned as co-facilitators.The syllabus includes student voice and choice in each assignment and each student is required to co-facilitate a discussion. Students are encouraged to fuse their own identities and interests with interactive technological tools. For example, one bi-lingual Latinx student used www.getepic.com to share the children’s e-book “Salsa” by Jorge Argueta, which depicted visual art and a “cooking poem” about a Mexican-American family creating salsa as a metaphor for engaging Mexican-American research participants. The student screen-shared the e-book pages and read the book to the class in Spanish unapologetically to model the purpose and need for research participants being their authentic selves. Beyond the content of his presentation, the fact that this doctoral student felt safe and welcomed enough to share his home culture and language is evidence of an embodied pedagogy from which all learners can grow.

Drawing of 2 children sitting around a table.
Figure 3. Screenshot of Epic digital resource.

Conclusion

To thrive in the afterlife of COVID-19, abnormal environmental disasters, and the continued murdering of Black bodies, all education—especially online education—must become antiracist. Neither online education nor digital tools are exempt from the deeply anti-Black racism that are the bones of US education systems. Educators in online contexts collaborating with students are well-positioned to create digital learning spaces that intentionally (above all else) work to eradicate the insidiousness of racial violence perpetuated through the myth of race-neutral learning theories and pedagogical practices.

This is great teaching for all students. We use BlackCrit to guide this discussion, we invite our readers to understand that the imaginative resistance and freedom in blackness is a guiding light for all educators and learners in all contexts. In the spirit of Dubois, we believe that addressing the issues that perpetuate racism and anti-blackness are the key to liberating all humanity. The pedagogical principles shared in this paper are meant to reconcile the disembodied nature of online education as it exists.

Writing as two scholars who frequently facilitate antiracist spaces occupied by white colleagues, we anticipate the oppressive question,  “Can white people use these pedagogical tools?” We invite these well-intended inquirers to ask themselves  what about their socialization and relationship to teaching and learning prompts them to center whiteness? Moreover, we point out this question is never asked about white scholars or scholarship that originates from Eurocentric locations. What if the answer to this question was grounded in decentering whiteness? Instead of needing to center anything and employing hierarchical language, we challenge (online) educators to think interstitially (Spillers 2003). This invites a vision of learning that is not governed by power but is motivated by humanizing the community through an embodied teaching approach.

We can’t afford to wait. The future started yesterday and we’re already late.

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About the Authors

David L. Humphrey, Jr. is a jazz and justice-loving scholar-practitioner, who is guided by a radical love ethic. He currently serves as the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for the School of Education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In his current role, David is a strategic partner and thought leader for the work of diversity, inclusion, justice, and equity (dije) in the SoE. David’s research sits at the nexus of curriculum theory, BlackCrit (fugitive) and liberatory traditions, and student learning and development.

Camea Davis is the assistant director of the Center for Equity and Justice in Teacher Education and a research assistant professor at the College of Education & Human Development, in the Department of Middle and Secondary Education. Her research focuses on racial justice in teacher education, critical collaborative ethnography, and critical poetic inquiry. Davis has published in Qualitative Inquiry; Equity & Excellence in Education; The Journal of Middle School Education; Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal; Ubiquity: The Journal of Literature, Literacy, and the Arts; The Journal of Hip Hop Studies; and The Journal of School and Society.

Notes from Queer(ing) New York: Refusing Binaries in Online Pedagogy

Jen Jack Gieseking
Bowdoin College

 

Abstract

In this paper I reflect on the construction and instruction of the outcomes of the Queer(ing) New York course (QNY). The case study of QNY demonstrates the pedagogical work of refusing norms and hierarchies that pedagogical models, particularly online courses, are assumed to maintain. QNY created an open course that queered the binaries of the public/graduate seminar and local/virtual. I draw from queer, feminist, and critical geographic approaches at the moment of the massive, open, online course (MOOC) fervor in order to queer models of online and open education. I also reflect on the impact of the course through in-class notes and data visualizations produced from social media and course analytics. I suggest that queering open education is a pedagogical method that affords scholars ways to examine and refute binaries and, in turn, promote the democratization of knowledge.

 

Introduction

In this paper I take up how the Queer(ing) New York (QNY) course queered false binaries that had yet to be taken up by the premises of online education, namely the divisions and overlaps between public/graduate seminar and local/virtual teaching. I draw from queer and critical geographic theories at the moment of “the year of the MOOC” (Pappano 2012). I reflect on data visualizations based on analyzing social media (Twitter) and course website analytics (Google Analytics) produced in the form of social network analysis, geographical statistics, and maps. These data were recorded during the class and in the six months following. For many of those class members that took part, including myself, the course meant a great deal personally and to the practice of democratizing education. This democratization forefronted the experiences and spaces of underrepresented lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer (LGBTQ) populations whose histories are not taught in most schools before the college level. I suggest that queering open education is a pedagogical method that affords instructors and scholars ways to examine the false binaries that prevent the democratization of knowledge, both for LGBTQ communities and beyond.

The aim of the QNY course was to read the city through a queer lens by examining LGBTQ urban spaces at different scales, including neighborhoods, places such as bars or centers, streets, and the city itself. In over 40 countries on six continents, throughout May 2013 and, for some students, continuing for several months, over 280 students shared in conversations about the practice of queering New York City and how queerness was deployed and has shaped cities, neighborhoods, and places around the world. By making room for students to reply to scholarly articles with wide-ranging ideas of what LGBTQ spaces and places were and were not, deep differences emerged in their perspectives. Bringing together these often isolated narratives afforded ways to collectively produce more multiple, unstable, and, as such, queer understandings of LGBTQ life.

As a scholar of geographies of gender and sexuality, it had long been a dream of mine to teach a “Seminar in the City” (SITC) series course with the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS). The free, open, graduate-style seminars are offered by scholars, activists, and artists over the course of four meetings every semester in New York City. I was eager to take QNY to broader publics, both LGBTQ and beyond, but questions remained: how does one structure the traditionally small and exclusive graduate seminar course in a way that would allow for bringing queer theory and activism to the public? How could I build on a course model that meets only four times without any assignments or assessments? How could my own research and teaching help democratize education about queer New York while spanning digital dualisms of the local and virtual? Furthermore, we live in a time of mainstream obsessions with massive open online courses (MOOCs) as the future of higher education. How could I harness the positive work developing from MOOC-mania to bring this particular SITC model of education into an online environment?

These notes from QNY demonstrate the need for pedagogical work in refusing norms and hierarchies that pedagogical models, especially highly popularized MOOCs, aim to maintain. As education scholar Bonnie Stewart (2013c) argues in her article “Moving Beyond a Binary View of MOOCs”:

Dialogue around change in higher education increasingly centres on the illusion of a simple divide: the business model of disruption vs. the status quo of college, idealized. … We need new narratives that stretch beyond the binary of privatization vs. the public status quo.

In other words, Stewart argues that top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions of neoliberal capitalism present themselves as simple, but require confrontation through intense unpacking and critique. QNY, I decided, would unpack and critique the assumptions implicit in MOOCs.

As the course was shaped by its moment in time and my own methodological, theoretical, and pedagogical frameworks, its aim became abundantly clear: to explore difference through the lens of the city. The course description read as follows:

While LGBTQ studies has begun to extend itself to look at rural and other non-urban environments, much of the urban still remains to be accounted for, particularly difference within the city. To truly account for our difference, we must queer the city in the way it normalizes groups and spaces, and New York City is an exciting urban environment to begin within. In Queer(ing) New York, we will read work that challenges and queers the normalized histories and spaces of LGBTQ life. How can we queer the neighborhood, bar, streets, and bodies within it to tell stories of difference? Participation in the seminar is free and open to the public. No prior experience in theoretical readings or site analysis is needed; an open, imaginative, and inquisitive mind is mandatory. All readings will be provided.

With a plethora of discussion questions, readings, and interactive technology at the ready, as well as a robust syllabus, we—by which I mean the students, CLAGS staff, and I—began the largest SITC.

During the month of May 2013 over four class meetings, Queer(ing) New York came to life. The course played out as follows: it was live-streamed and recorded on video, live-tweeted, and live-chatted; furthermore, it provided discussion spaces to carry on conversations after class. I took my own notes during class. Readings were distributed to enrolled students via a private link to a shared folder. As the course progressed, I embedded each video on the website and continued to draft posts I made in advance of each class, to post in-class discussions, and also to write the follow-up posts, which included the live-chat feed from the videos and a few student comments.[1]

 

Designing the Course

When I was designing and teaching Queer(ing) New York, the CLAGS “Seminar in the City” course model stood out in many ways as distinct from the prevalent MOOC model. Since 1999, the CLAGS SITC courses have provided free and open programming to the public about LGBTQ issues, concerns, and communities, and holds an institutional home and affiliation with The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The seminar is a part of a broader organization, the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies.[2] In this section, I explore how I drew upon the queer, feminist, and critical geographic thinking to democratize online education through the method of queering some of the false binaries prevalent in the year of the MOOC. I also build from past Seminar in the City courses and my own research, as well as my experiences having led a participatory, open online course (POOC).

 

A Queer Response to the “Year of the MOOC”

The context and historical moment of the course were key. At the same time I was developing and leading my course, fervor over the MOOC model began to peak. In late 2012, The New York Times ran a series of articles entitled “The Year of the MOOC ” which ran, loosely, from the fall of 2012 through 2013. By early 2013, economist Thomas Friedman declared that MOOCs had revolutionary capacities to transform universities and, most importantly, to make universities less costly by eliminating some of the labor of teaching. Friedman (2013) went on to suggest that what was necessary for an education “revolution” was affordable and easy:

For relatively little money, the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic.

The merits for the masses are clear but the quality of the education remains in question. At the same time, administrators and policy makers determine most of the “proof” of the success of this form of education by rates of completion. The focus on educating for all is an important goal, but obsessions over the low rates of completion do nothing to support actual learning (Stewart 2013b). Furthermore, Meisenhelder (2013) has demonstrated that much of the MOOC fervor, which often touted MOOC courses that adhered to Friedman’s versioning, was instead “hype” because they failed to deliver innovative or interactive pedagogy, and still tended to privileged audiences.

At that time I was employed as Visiting Assistant Research Professor with and project manager to JustPublics@365 at the CUNY Graduate Center, a project to create new forms of knowledge using digital media in order to connect academics, journalists, and activists across traditional silos of knowledge production and social action, and foster transformation on issues of social justice. The project took a critical and radical stance to MOOCs. In brief, we sought to shift the one-to-many model from “massive” to “participatory” by launching our own graduate seminar which was a participatory, open, online course (POOC) (see Daniels et al. 2014). We hoped the POOC course would support the production of participatory action research projects that involved work between students and community partners to create social change, as well as securing certificates of completion for those who completed the required coursework. It is my reading that the positionality and pedagogical frameworks of different institutions and educators is overlooked in the MOOC phenomenon, and I will address this in my analysis.

The SITC model required rethinking online education yet again. The courses aim to reach a broad public audience across education levels; research, activist, or art projects are possible but not expected. There are rarely assignments, and no grades or credit are given. Rather than a full semester course, the classes are offered in four class meetings at the CUNY Graduate Center in Midtown Manhattan. Readings are dispersed for free in advance. Just as queer education theorist William Haver writes that “queer theory is queer precisely in its incompletion” (1998, 352), there is no formal SITC model but rather an accumulated pedagogical model. Queer incompletion, like other critical pedagogies, leaves room for development and growth that cannot be planned or affixed in advance.

 

Theoretical Framework

The course grew from my own research on lesbians’ and queer women’s shifting experiences of social and spatial justice in contemporary New York City. I saw Queer(ing) New York as an opportunity to bring the ideas of those I read and experiences of those I performed research with to a broader public. To do this, I had to take a step back and be informed by queer, feminist, and critical geographic theoretical perspectives in designing QNY. It is this work that helped me rethink the “massive” and “participatory” angles of the MOOC and POOC that were feeding my own version and moment of the SITC course. These theories were essential in illuminating the false binaries perpetuated by MOOC proponents and traditional pedagogies.

Queer theory affords ways of understanding practices, processes, and ways of being that refuse the normative. The work of queering allows for difference, questions the powers behind the purported “normal,” and situates pleasure and politics side-by-side. Similarly, there is a feminist perspective that suggests we need not to move “beyond” difference when “difference itself can often provide the focal point for action” (M. W. Wright 2006, 101). Still, queer theory, feminist theory, and queer and feminist identities are not interchangeable, and sometimes even dis-related. As critical geographer of sexualities Kath Browne writes, queer is not simply an “identity category, but…a fluid set of possibilities and contestations” which remains in the tension of never being “grasped, owned or appropriated” (2006, 888). Feminist and queer appropriations of space and education then share a refusal of norms that fix inequalities to spaces and places, students and teachers, curriculum and pedagogy precisely because they recognize the place of always being in process. Similar to but unlike other critical pedagogies, feminist and queer perspectives on education relate to and develop from issues of gender and sexuality. Both theories also develop from and speak to issues of gender and sexuality, identical to the focus of QNY. I was equally keen not to divorce desire from politics. I sought to make room for discussion around gender, and sexuality in as much as sexual acts in our conversations. It is in seeing and sharing the multiple layers of our complicated lives that we reveal the imbricated nature not only around gender and sexuality, but also race, class, ability, and other identities, as well as various geographies and moments in time.

Critical geography is another layer to my own research and teaching; it aims to develop theories, methodologies, and research that combat social exploitation and oppression while building upon major and minor economic, political, and social theories. Critical geography develops from the theoretical framework that space is produced through social practices (Lefebvre 1992). As such space is not a fixed container, but constantly (re)produced in how it is perceived, conceived, and lived (cf. Harvey 2009). My queer-feminist framework uses the standpoint of experience to unpack not only normative values but limiting and unjust spatial models as well. The QNY course departed from the notions that identities are inscribed in space, and space is a constructed and contested medium of identity formation played out within individual, social, and structural power relations that must not only be addressed through discourse but also through action (cf. McDowell 1992; Bell et al. 1994; Ruddick 1996; Cahill 2006).

The MOOC, POOC, and SITC models incited my interest in a broader pedagogy beyond the local, and along with these theories, crystalized the direction of Queer(ing) New York. The course sought to make space to recognize difference as a process of making space for self and others, a process that is never finished or all-encompassing but always on-going and partial. What remained was putting these ideas into action and unpacking the false binaries I faced.

 

Theory and Seminar in the City Pedagogy Meet in MOOC-ish Action

Digging into contradictions—often visible in the untidy false binaries that repeatedly arise in our lives—can afford a way forward previously unimaginable. In my own pedagogy, the “massive” aspirations of trending online courses clashed with the aims of the SITC. The SITC model held the aims of public pedagogy in tension with a graduate seminar format, but with a limited reach. While an organization with international reputation, CLAGS’s events are almost solely within NYC and attended by NYC individuals. I wanted to expand the work of CLAGS and the SITC model beyond the local, even while focusing on local NYC history and issues. The virtual element of online pedagogy offered other possibilities. While scholars have refuted notions of digital dualism—that online and in-person experiences are not distinct but imbricated and co-constitutive—the pedagogical dimensions of learning in both spaces at once have been underexplored. When thinking about such publics through the lens of online pedagogy, I was led back to Michelle Moravec’s (2014) longing for “either a synchronous online course or a physical space for collaboration.” QNY would provide both as well as discussion forms to support other time zones, interest levels, and patterns of everyday life.

It is only through both quantitative and qualitative reflections that insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the QNY model can be reached; they afford lenses into the large and very minute effects of the class. I now take up how QNY unfolded by blending my design of the course, my notes from classes, and data visualizations made about the social media and online metrics from the course. I focus on the two binaries that stood out to me as producing inequalities if not tended to carefully: public education/graduate seminar, and local/virtual.

 

Public Education in a Graduate Seminar Format

The students were my co-experts on the materiality of LGBTQ spaces and places, as most of them live in such spaces and places everyday. How could I choose readings that allowed them to speak from their diverse experiences and amplify their expertise? Who could read so many pages per week and attend all classes with a full-time job or maybe two, or on top of a full graduate program, for example? Should I provide any sort of certificate of completion to support the needs of those working against traditional models of education while still working against linking learning with assessment in the SITC model? I address the public / graduate seminar binary not only through the readings and my notes from the class, but also through the networks developed from this course as evidence of publics formed from and beyond the classroom.

While the SITC model targets education for broader audiences in a graduate seminar format, theoretically fueled conversations at the graduate level can exclude the uninitiated. The liberal model of public space advocated by Jürgen Habermas (1991) in the public sphere, when fully democratized, guarantees equal access for all. In a related example, Michelle Fine and Jessica Ruglis look at how the public sphere is taken hostage by those with money and power as public education becomes privatized and dispossesses young people of color of their agency and freedom. They write, “The public sphere is being fundamentally realigned, but not significantly hollowed—which is what makes this too seem natural” (2009, 21). The actuality of the public sphere then often results in the exclusion of those different from the group that holds power.

Instead, I embrace geographer Kurt Iveson’s (2007) work which argues for a multi-public model of public space that does not establish a singular notion of public, but accommodates a variety of subcultures and groups in spaces that embrace difference. I made room for variation in levels and types of readings and provided a structure for conversation that spoke to both theoretical and applied outcomes. As such the class aimed to draw upon open and online education to recognize difference through a practice of queering and holding binaries in tension.

The multi-public model of the course revealed itself in various ways. In my notes in our class on LGBTQ neighborhoods, I recorded how students carefully played with notions of “attachment” and “belonging” that did not work the same for all LGBTQ people. Cross-generational perspectives were incredibly eye-opening, allowing students to trace stories of gentrification, inequality, and homophobia that had only shifted location rather than abated. One gay man recounted how the now-fashionable Meatpacking District contained multiple leather bars in the 1960s and 1970s; the making invisible of what would seem like tantalizing history now to mainstream media surprised younger people, and students remarked that this reminded us of the pasts we needed to uncover. Later on, a student brought up how she could no longer have friends in other parts of the city because, since she lived so far from the city center, her networks had become regionalized. This fragmentation of queer life by gentrification and dispossession resonated with findings from my own work (Gieseking 2013a; 2013b), and inspired other students to think about how community is denied LGBTQ people through structural inequalities.

The precariously unsteady and usually underpaid nature of public education also played a role in the course. After and before taxes, respectively, I was paid $84.91 / $100 for teaching QNY. Given CLAGS’s limited budget, I was not aware until I received the check that I would be paid at all. What this course has not paid in dollars it has paid in understanding of self and other, connection, community, and hope. Furthermore, this course has connected my work to a broad queer public that I could not have reached otherwise, both academic and beyond. For this I am grateful, yet I remain mindful that economic remuneration is necessary for any of these projects to support equality.

The students in the class were white, and we spent a great deal of time—often at my urging or the urging of a few students—paying attention to the privilege of whiteness and being middle class. Perhaps our most difficult issue that clarified racial, gender, sexual, and class breakdowns was the use of “we.” Who was this purportedly LGBTQ shared “we”? One student identified as straight on the first class so that we were not even all LGBT and/or Q. Frustrated at even my own use of the word, I remarked in the first class, “Let’s queer the ‘we.’” When we faltered and used the term, conservations developed that we assumed a sense of home with one another. It also came up repeatedly that the isolation from other LGBTQ people and spaces we may have experienced in our lived inspired a desire for an almost mythical community we could not seem to find; I also saw this pattern in my own research on lesbian-queer spaces in contemporary New York City (Gieseking 2013b). We were pulled between the virtual imaginary and the local realities that left us in tension.

Much of this conversation was possible because of the readings for the course. The social science graduate seminar format I based QNY upon involves the close reading of selected texts. Critical feminist geographer Cindi Katz calls for making use not only of the “big boys” or “major theory,” but also to accept theory-making from the ground up as “minor theory” (1996, 166). I read Katz’s call as applicable to teaching with broader publics. As is the case in LGBTQ studies, theory is often prioritized. I chose instead to not include “big” queer theorists such as Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, or Jasbir Puar in order to forefront experience as equal to theory. Selecting anti-disciplinary readings when possible refuted the invisibility of LGBTQ concerns by showing how imbricated LGBTQ life was with all methods of study. These readings carefully worked across diverse identities (race, class, gender, and sexuality); a range of experiences (homelessness, cruising, AIDS activisms, and gentrification); and varied periods of time (1890s­-present), and spaces and places such the City of New York itself, a specific bar, and neighborhoods ranging from the gentrified and chic West Village in Manhattan to the predominantly working class neighborhood of color Jackson Heights.

Graduate seminars are often devoted to discussing around 80 to 120 pages of journal articles and academic book chapters per weekly two hour meeting. I cut the number of readings to around 40-60 pages per week split between two to four readings, as the two hours of class still required enough material to support thoughtful conversation. Further, rather than present only the selected works, I wanted students to be able to find readings that interested them. They also repeatedly sent emails and raised points I felt could be best dealt with through access to further materials. I thus selected a total of over 333 further recommended readings which I listed in a Zotero list and on the site. Students were ecstatic each class to see more and more readings appear, eager to access work and ideas about LGBTQ people and spaces that many had only dreamed existed.

Continuing the SITC model to delink learning with assessment, I did not require any assignments. The MOOC model amplified the link between learning and assessment (Stewart 2013b). However, I decided to allow those who wanted such a certificate to reach out to me regarding a final paper topic and ask their own university for credit in exchange. While I did not want to push assessment, I also wanted to leave room for those students who could use credit toward a degree although no students chose to do so.

 

Social Media and Space

In this section I turn away from the structure of the course and the classroom and focus instead on the social media from the course in order to understand how the course developed as a network of learners. Investigating the role of networks in online education, efforts toward highlighting and supporting isolated individuals have proved successful (Reffay and Chanier 2003), and I hoped creating publicly accessible networks could do the same. The Twitter hashtag #CLAGSqNY allowed for those able and unable to tune in as the class took place/aired to keep the conversation going, and I used Twitter to continue conversations in other courses (N. Wright 2010).[3] I rendered a social network analysis to understand how this space propagated connections rather than exclusion.

giesking1Figure 1. Social Network Analysis of #CLAGSqNY Hashtags on Twitter in May 2013.

 

In Figure 1, each dot or node is a person or group tweeting. Each line or edge indicates they mentioned or were mentioned by someone else connected to them. A total of 502 tweets were collected using the TAGS Explorer v5 macro (see Hawksey 2013). I then used a Python script to distill handles and mentions in a .csv file of 84 nodes and 151 edges before importing into Gephi, an open source data visualization software for social network analysis (see Cristiano 2013). I activated the functionality to show who were the hubs of conversation that most folks talked through, i.e. betweenness centrality which indicates how often a node appears on shortest paths between a network which indicates level of influence. Those tweeting had three degrees of separation. The colors of the different groups are based on modularity which reveals sub-groups who tended to speak to one another.

The patterns in these tweets point to three major hubs of communication that formed on Twitter, namely @CLAGSNY (Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, in-person in NYC), @jgieseking (me, in NYC), @meganbigelow (Megan Bigelow, in-person in NYC), as well as other nodes in NYC and abroad. We also see four nodes off to their supposed lonesome to the left, yet each of these individuals took part in the in-person course. The few larger nodes tell us that communication on Twitter often took place between a few people. The large number of individuals with only one line to and from another indicate that these individuals only spoke to one person or made an announcement mentioning another person. Those individuals with more than one line show multiple networks developing between, at least, this group of students. While Stewart (2013a) suggests that a massive network is one of the key offerings and outcomes of online pedagogy, QNY shows how marginalized groups forge connections in smaller numbers as well, often without the benefit of funds to support such ventures as is the case of my pay for teaching QNY. I suggest that the communication via Twitter, as well as other formats, and the connection built through discussions of course readings, evidence a production of a public course in a graduate seminar format that helps democratize education.

 

The Local and the Virtual

Geographic scale (e.g., body, home, local, national, global) is socially produced in the power dynamics, social and political relations, and economic structures by the everyday ways we operate (Smith 1992; Marston 2000). More recently, critical geographer Geraldine Pratt and literary theorist Victoria Rosner (2012) have reimagined scale through a feminist lens to show how scales are permeated with one another. The authors trouble the seeming masculine/feminist binary of global/local by calling for examination of “the global and the intimate” to reveal the ways geographic scales infuse one another in the people’s experience and action (Pratt and Rosner 2013, 1). In their framework, intimate relations are simultaneously global and local, just as the global is experienced in and through the intimate and all the scales in between.

Balancing the global and intimate informed my thinking about how to bring an SITC course to the larger public through the Internet. Namely, how could I bring the local and the virtual in conversation with one another to extend Queer(ing) New York to people beyond New York City? A course on New Yorkers by New Yorkers repeated the exclusion and navel-gazing tendency of large gay cities, and my aim with this course was to amplify difference for greater understanding. Furthermore, while my course focused on New York City and enrolled undergraduate and graduate students from NYC schools, I also wanted to reach many people who may not be in school. Given CLAGS’s limited budget to advertise and the very specific focus of many of the courses, enrollment, defined as a student expressing an interest to take part in the class and attending at least one class meeting, typically ranged from about 5 to 10 students. How could this model be expanded using only my budget of zero dollars and the volunteer labor of the CLAGS staff?

Digital video, social media, and web sites afforded me the chance to bring this course to life in, about, and (technically) out of place. Public enrollment via EventBrite allowed students to register per class for in-person or online enrollment. I had hoped for 25 students in the classroom, as previous Seminar in the City courses had drawn 5 to 10 students. I found myself opening up more and more seats until I eventually locked down the number at 55 in-person enrollees, fretting about whether we even would have enough floor space. Over another 225 people had enrolled from places across the world to tune in online. The CUNY Graduate Center provided free and open livestream capabilities. I designed a website on my own server that included the syllabus, a feed of the #CLAGSqNY hashtag, a link to a course Facebook page, links to readings, the course blog—which invited anyone to comment or join as a blogger—and information about the instructor and sponsors for the course. I also announced the course in LGBTQ academic and activist networks via online listservs.

At the same time, I framed the weekly classes across various scales of the City of New York—neighborhood, bars, streets, and the city itself—to show how the processes and practices of injustice and resistance work across levels. Across scales, these local and virtual spaces afforded students a shared geographical imagination to repeatedly link issues in New York City to the other places they resided in or had visited. About halfway through our first class, students went around the room and pushed each other to rethink the experience of the popular West Village neighborhood through the vantage of different identities (e.g. being black and trans, a little person, overeducated, age 64). Geographies also mattered, as a couple that just moved from Wyoming spoke about their excitement arriving in NYC. Around the room we continued to go for a good fifteen minutes. Finally I stated (per Marie Hicks in her @histoftech account): “The thing we all have in common is difference.” By focusing on what Haver referred to earlier as queer incompletion, the students could allow for difference and specificity to flourish side-by-side. As I repeatedly pointed out to students, even the course title Queer(ing) New York expressed making room for queer practices and identities in the room and online. The title and course structure left room to both be and do queer within a place and about a place.

The commitment to bridging the local and virtual involved a lot of labor that the class took note of and even cheered on. As I did for the heavy labor involved in the POOC, I had collaborators in this labor to make this local and virtual classroom possible. On their own time, CLAGS staff members designed and hung course flyers and pushed out announcements of their course to their mailing lists. I also announced the course on various mailing lists. At least one staff member agreed to be in class at all times in order to live tweet and handle questions from online participants while making sure the live-stream continued to run. The staff also booked the live-streaming and handled room reservations. Without the hard work of CLAGS staffers, the course would have been impossible. I also reached out to a number of CUNY Graduate Center organizations and programs to sponsor the course in order to spread the word further.[4] As I mentioned early on, my own positionality within the university as a Visiting Assistant Research Professor and my long-term relationships within the institution were essential. Very few graduate students are permitted to teach SITC courses, and without my deep knowledge of the technological offerings within the university, the online component would have been impossible. Further, the kind of multi-interest sponsorship grew from my own networks. Turning this power and knowledge into a participatory endeavor and embracing the work collaboratively gave me more energy and increased the recognition of the course throughout campus and beyond.

In the remainder of this section, I share the Google Analytics data on the QNY course site to reflect on who showed up online. Educational scholars Simon Shum and Ruth Crick (2012) made use of identical datasets to study what they refer to as learning analytics, or evidence of who and how people engage with online learning environments. While such data are never wholly accurate and do not fully depict who took the course or watched the videos, the large enough sample provides some insights as to who viewed the site and how geographies were connected through the course. It is invigorating and poignant to see who was taking part, where, and for how long because it is these elements that spoke the most to the participatory nature of the course web site.

As of October 28th, 2013, exactly six months after launching the QNY course website, it had 1,308 unique visitors, and a total of 2,331. This means that 43.9% of those interested in the site came back more than once. Studies have shown that users stay on a webpage for about 10-20 seconds (Nielsen 2011), yet QNY course site users spent about 3:56 per visit, indicating that they perused the site and its materials with uncommon attention.

 

clagsqny-figure-2-1024x645 Figure 2. Number of Sessions per Country on the QNY website (Google Analytics).

 

There is a striking reveal provided by the local/virtual binary in the purported location of IP addresses that pinged my server. The countries with the supposed top ten IP addresses (United States, Canada, Germany, UK, Brazil, Sweden, Austrailia, Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey) indicate that the course tended to reach those in more pro-LGBTQ regions, but also crossed boundaries into less welcoming nation-states. Regardless of their exact locations, focusing on a seemingly local place while connecting across the Internet also brought other people to the city and gave them access to it as well (see Figure 2 for a map of the number of sessions per location). More revealing is the data regarding language usage. While just under 93% of all visitors came from browsers set to the English language, other top languages included Portuguese, German, French, Swedish, and Spanish. This language data suggests that the course crossed linguistic boundaries as well as physical ones.

 

Figure3_GiesekingFigure 3. Percentages of Unique QNY Site Users by State and District of Columbia (Google Analytics). Note that some states did not appear in the Analytics.

 

Again, while IP addresses can be less than revealing, within the United States a total of 42 states are represented, and the breakdowns were equally interesting (see Figure 3). Given the course’s focus on New York City, it is unsurprising that nearly two-thirds (60.3%) of the users came from IP addresses supposedly in New York State. Given which states ban same-sex marriage as of October 31st, 2013, which I take as an indicator of state attitudes toward gays at the policy and social level, I found that 15.8% of all new visitors were from these states. If we go a step further and remove the State of New York, there is no statistically significant difference between those who viewed from states with (23.9%) or against (15.8%) same-sex marriage laws. From global maps and usage statistics to intimate in-class experiences, QNY asserts itself as a multi-scalar intervention to bring together the seemingly disparate local and virtual.

 

Discussion & Conclusion: Of Tall Ships and Queering Online Education

In completing this record of QNY, I also record its incompletion. The course is, in many ways, still on-going and remains partial. Not only is the course site still live, but the students continued to organize offline after the final class. In the fall of 2013, two of my students created a course reunion in the form of a queer sailing trip on a tall ship around Manhattan. We told stories of LGBTQ people on waterfronts as the sun sank. Other students put together two parties in their own homes, inviting all of the class members to both. While the Google Group they asked me to create has seen no activity, a number of students mention they are just happy to have it around and know the connection to the ideas and people that made this class possible exists. Many SITC courses include a field trip, whether it be a moment of activism, an academic walking tour, or a performance. In June of 2013, over a dozen students and I gathered to walk from the Christopher Street Piers, through the West Village, into the artist housing at Westbeth, and then on to a long brunch and conversation. The queer, feminist, and critical geographic approach we took in the classroom came to life on our walk as a mishmash of academic ideas, historic anecdotes, and personal memories, and social media and posts to the website about the class’s jaunts kept us connected to our online peers.

As I wrote this paper six months after the QNY seminar’s conclusion, I received an email from one of the students, “N.” I never met N. in person. He emailed once during the seminar to say how much he was enjoying it and again, after the course, out of the blue. He wanted to let me know his Master’s thesis on social design would now draw upon queer theory and LGBTQ studies to examine the role of LGBTQ people in the increasing gentrification of an East Coast city as a result of taking my course. More emails like N.’s have since showed up in my inbox, and they are one example of how queering open education starts ripples of change that help democratize education and refuse the privatization of the public sphere. We do that work by queering the false binaries that prevent from working across difference in many ways.

My effort to teach readings from across disciplines with diverse methods, populations, and arguments afforded entry points to ideas that related to individual lives and pushed those ideas across scales and levels of power. This thinking across scales is evidenced in both the global and intimate stories revealed by data visualizations and in-class notes. Further, Queer(ing) New York in the classroom made way for queering New York in person. By queering binaries of public course/graduate seminar and local/virtual, my pedagogy and scholarship have expanded and been questioned.[5] The CLAGS SITC model spoke to concerns I had about refusing hierarchical norms in education, particularly those reasserted in mainstream MOOCs. At the same time, the SITC framework encouraged drawing upon best practices from different types of teach, including those in the POOC, which allowed for maintaining a queer attachment to uncertainty.

Much of our work together also led to imagining and enacting other worlds, such as queer sailing adventures and walking tours. As educational theorist Maxine Greene writes, “To imagine is to think of things being otherwise” (2009, 30). A telling example of our using our difference—and shared difference and outsiderness at that—to imagine other worlds came when discussing Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign in class. Some found the idea hopeful, but most found the message empty because the suffering and bullying of LGBTQ youth is not responded to but tidied over, i.e. it will get better . . . someday. A response I shared and students retweeted and mentioned often embraced the philosophy of the course: “It gets different, not better.” My students, CLAGS colleagues, and I sought to imagine other ways of connecting and transforming through pedagogy for and about queer people, place, and experience.

 

Acknowledgments

I am thankful to my reviewers, and to the editors of this issue who brought this important topic into conversation. I am forever grateful to the staff of CLAGS, Kalle Westerling, Benjamin Gillespee, and Jasmina Sinanovic, and to the CLAGS Director, Jim Wilson. Without you, QNY would have never happened. Working together allowed this course to grow and reach so many, and I remain thankful for your brilliance, support, and kindness. I am also and most thankful to my students. Without you, there is nothing to queer and nothing worth queering.

 

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[1] No counts are available of the number of views of the course videos via the livestreaming software.

[2] Per the CLAGS.org website, CLAGS is “a platform for intellectual leadership in addressing issues that affect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals and other sexual and gender minorities.”

[3] A full archive of the #CLAGSqNY hashtag is available here.

[4] The course was co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Women and Society, The Center for Place, Culture, & Politics, and the Environmental Psychology Program.

[5] Earlier on in my academic career, I began to create the Gender, Sexuality, and Space Bibliography which I share publicly now via Zotero; many students commented what an exciting resource this was for them and I have continued to expand it as a result.

 

 

About the Author

Jen Jack Gieseking is a cultural geographer and environmental psychologist engaged in research on co-productions of space and identity in digital and material environments, with a focus on sexual and gender identities. S/he pays special attention to how such productions support or inhibit social, spatial, and economic justice. Jack is working on her first book, Queer New York: Constellating Lesbians’ and Queer Women’s Geographies of New York City, 1983-2008. Jack is Postdoctoral Fellow in New Media & Data Visualization in the Digital and Computational Studies Initiative at Bowdoin College. S/he is co-editor of  The People, Place, and Space Reader, with William Mangold, Cindi Katz, Setha Low, and Susan Saegert. Jack can be found via her website jgieseking.org or Twitter at @jgieseking.

 

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