Teaching Queer Language/Queer Language Teaching

I have been teaching Italian for nearly ten years now and have never come out to my students. For some reason the words “I’m queer” never seem to come up when we are conjugating verbs or figuring out how to use direct object pronouns with the present perfect of transitive verbs. After class last week a student in my Italian 300 advanced contemporary culture class came up to me and said that he had never been in a class where the students were encouraged to play with the messiness of ideas and language, that especially in his language classes, instructors are quick to fill in the blanks with unknown vocabulary words or spell out “correct” ways of reading and interpreting. I realized that while my sexual and gender identities never necessarily make it to the blackboard, I am attempting to queer the space of the classroom and the approach to self-expression in language learning in a way that acknowledges the power of the form in order to push past it.

On the one hand the “straight” is a strict adherence to semantic and lexical structures and carries, especially among academics, a certain level of moral rectitude.

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The queer, on the other hand, is the messiness of the relationship between the idea and its expression, favors the investigation of possibility within word choice, neologism, structure and gender. Linguistic queerness in thus the spectrum of possible forms of expression that are produced by and through queer as a theoretical concept and not a sexual or gender identity.

While comprehension is always a goal, queer language is most interested in the speaker’s negotiation with the unstable self. From a Lacanian perspective we might say that the child had entered the social linguistic realm of the father (in his primary language) but has pushed passed this realm in search of another secondary language/father. (Does the primary language then become the mother in the triangle of self-formation? Is the symbolic world of the phallus a transsexual woman once the child seeks another phallic signifier? Or is it perhaps that the child has two daddies?) The instability of the self within this new space mirrors the instability of the prelinguistic child. There is no unity of self, there is no participation in the social order; there are ideas, their relationship to structures, and a space for play and experimentation.

This idea of play, of messy self-investigation through uncertain language must of course present itself very differently in an elementary language class where students are just learning the fundamental structures of language. The first step in any good coming out story is recognition, and language queers should be no different. Recognizing how political the gendered nature of the Italian language is (The feminine noun “casalinga” means housewife while the masculine noun “casalingo” means household product and not househusband) creates an awareness of language as a political tool and cultural construct. The errors that students make in elementary classes (“mangio tutti” = I eat everyone ≠ “mangio tutto” = I eat everything) should be discussed and “corrected” in a way that emphasizes the difference between the intention of the speaker and the meaning as perceived by the listener. What I am arguing here is that queer potential exists both in understanding the political constraints of the gendered nature of words and language use, and in refusing to participate in the rigidity of lexical correctness as long as the linguistic work that is done centers around the learner’s use and meaning.

In advanced language and culture classes (conducted entirely in the “target” language) the material is often taken from primary historical sources. At this point the basic and intermediate grammatical structures are taken for granted and most students focus on learning how to communicate their analysis of the texts being discussed. Refusing to be a walking dictionary I often encourage my students to talk through the difficult ideas using the words they have at their disposal. The discomfort is always tangible, but now, halfway through the semester, everyone allows everyone else the time and space to shape ideas and talk through linguistic possibility as they discuss their relationship with the texts.

babI have always been fascinated by the doge meme, reading a post about doge grammar I realized its connection to this queer approach to language. The creator of the doge must have a solid grasp on primary language structures and intentionally mess them up. This “messing up” is actually the creation of a new language, a language based on the relationship between the linguistic and the visual structures within the meme. The social and cultural ideas are expressed through this dynamic relationship that relies primarily on the new language created by the word/image interplay. While I do not encourage my students to match unquantifiable nouns with adjectives of quantity that specify plurality, there is something valuable in the way that the incorrect grammar structures of this meme create new meaning in a new context, something reminiscent of the work being done to understand the self’s relationship to its own self expression when both are constantly and necessarily “works in progress.”

These ideas are very much works in progress. I must confess that I am concerned about the possibility that these ideas support a queer/straight binary that is not my intention in any way. Hopefully this will be the beginning of a conversation (understood as broadly as possible) about language, pedagogy and queerness.

What I learned in my international archival research

This break, I spent time in Moscow, conducting dissertation research. This archival trip has been useful, not only for my dissertation research, but in a way I never expected: helping my pedagogy seemingly unrelated to my research topic.

(requisite image of St. Basil's for any post about Moscow)

(requisite image of St. Basil’s for any post about Moscow)

As a foreigner in Russian archives and libraries, I expected some bureaucratic red tape, therefore I planned ahead. However, no matter how much you try, bureaucracy will always find a way. Even with very helpful librarians and archival specialists, I faced multiple forms, access requests, and unexpected hurdles. This post is an attempt to record my experience.

I won’t go into the forms needed just to enter Russia, as there are many websites dedicated to helping with that. But I will just say that you must begin preparations months—six months would be ideal—in advance. Once you arrive, make sure that you have all of your documentation: Passport, Visa, Migration card, Visa registration, Letter of introduction from your home institution, Russian phone number, Russian address where you are staying. Got all of those? Good, you are ready to head out to your research site.

Beloved Dostoevsky guarding the entrance to the main Lenin Library in Moscow.

Beloved Dostoevsky guarding the entrance to the main Lenin Library in Moscow.

In a nice bit of Gogolesquery, in order to enter most libraries and archives you will need your propusk [pass]. In order to get this propusk, you have to register with the library past the guard’s station where you need to show this propusk. For some libraries, the process is simple as telling them that you are a new reader and going to register. Other places require calling the librarian on duty to come and escort you to the office where you apply for the propusk. The good news is that the librarians in charge of issuing these propuski are generally very helpful and quick. So it shouldn’t take more than an hour or so to get your privledges.

Despite a national set of “Rules for the Reader,” (a multipaged set of bureaucratic rights and privledges that you either are asked to read or given a copy of at each location), every library or archive has its own system for carrying out those rights, registering its readers, requesting materials, and requesting copies. Since you will be asked to read over these rules so quickly, best to familiarize yourself with them well ahead of time.

Hand over your letter of introduction, printed on official letterhead and specifically stating the subject and dates of your research topic. Turn in your passport, visa, migration card, and visa registration. Fill in the registration form, which could be as simple as a notecard or as long as a couple pages and require an attached photo. And hope you filled everything in correctly. You will then, if all goes well, receive your official propusk with a blue official stamp.

Good to go!
(image by Damian Yerrick cc-by-sa)

Next comes the request for materials. While collections are starting to be indexed on computers, the main way to find documents is still an extensive collection of handwritten and typed (but not digital) indexes (putivoditeli). These are similar to finding aids you will find in US archives, but the yellowing pages and corrections entered in pencil cultivate a sense of history I have rarely felt when working with the more familiar MS Word docs and slick websites or even the physical card catalogues. Each collection (fond) has its own putivoditel or shelf of putivoditeli that indexes the sub-collections (opisi), files (dela), date of deposit (data), and number of pages (listi) in the delo. Some archives vary slightly in what these elements are called, but these are the elements you will need to request a file. Depending on the archive, you may also need the (very lengthy) description of the delo. (In my research, many of the descriptions would not fit in the space provided on the requisition form. We will see if my attempts to abbreviate worked.) Be prepared to fill out the forms multiple times. The smallest mistake can cause you to have to fill out the whole form again. But the archivists are very helpful in checking for you and will let you know if anything is out of order on your request. Turn in your requisition form, and then wait. Anywhere from one to three days. According to law, they aren’t supposed to make you wait longer than three days, but I have heard stories of requests that took longer because the files had been sent into storage outside of the city.

Remember how I mentioned the date of deposit? This seemingly unimportant piece of archival trivia is indispensable for researchers hoping to access “personal files” (lichniye dela). Personal files and files containing potential state secrets have been sealed for a period of 75 years from the date of deposit. This is something that is not well publicized on the websites of the collections, but which the archivist at RGALI was very helpful in pointing out. Supposedly, you can request access earlier than this date with the permission of the subject or the subject’s family.

When you finally receive the files, personal photography (a real time- and money-saver in my previous archival research) is usually prohibited. So be prepared to take your copious and extremely detailed notes or cough up for the $1-$3 per page copying service.

No cameras

After this experience, I definitely have a greater understanding of what my students must feel going through a completely new bureaucratic system like our libraries here in the US. I knew that I needed to provide support to my students when requiring research for class projects, otherwise I would just get a lot of Google-search-based papers. But I thought providing links to the helpful guides already provided by our libraries would be sufficient. However, my experience attempting to navigate an unfamiliar library system showed me how beguiling (and contradictory) mere documentation can be when encountering a new library for the first time. My contextual knowledge of how to navigate US libraries and archives was of limited use. My ability to “speak library” stopped at the border, and I had to learn a new way of maneuvering through these collections.

[Navigating library catalogues doesn’t have to be scary]

Rather than merely pointing my students to online resources that outline what services our libraries provide, scheduling a class period to meet with the subject area librarian no longer seemed like pedantic overkill. For students who are not used to navigating the idiosyncrasies of multiple databases, physical and digital collections, as well as the technology resources available in our libraries, just learning where to start can be confusing. And this is without the hurdles due to class, linguistic, and past educational background biases faced by many of our students.

On Haunting and Inhabiting

The Docks, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1921), NYPL Digital Collections

The Docks, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1921), NYPL Digital Collections

The past is present on the internet. Specters of the past, particularly those that are marginalized or ignored in traditional historical narratives, dwell in digitized open-access archives. Websites like The Public Archive: Black History in Dark Times, Digitizing “Chinese Englishmen,” and People of Color in European Art History curate texts that challenge conventional knowledge and reveal other contexts for understanding the world. By attending to difference and nuance, these archives bring obscured histories to the fore. Dissatisfied with the uneven production of knowledge and histories about certain regions and communities, individuals from within, and outside of, academia foster digital spaces for critical inquiry.

The accelerated speed of internet communication seems to encourage a tendency to reduce or compress information into smaller parts. Sound bites, gifs, images, and excerpts effectively draw attention and mobilize political sentiment. There is a risk, of course. This speed can reproduce damaging assumptions, for internet users might rely on old habits of thought in order to make sense of fragmentary information. But archival projects like the ones listed above enact a critical exercise that shatters any simplistic, one-dimensional representation of a community, region, or historical period. For example, The Public Archive was born out of a frustration with the mainstream media’s depiction of Haiti after the the earthquake in January 2010. Professor Peter James Hudson  explains the digital humanities initiative: “As professional historians with laymen’s interests in Haiti, we thought that we needed to make some small, however limited, intervention in the coverage of Haiti, and we agreed that the best way to do it was by mobilising the research skills we had as historians in an attempt to provide some context for understanding Haiti’s history, and how that history was constructed and represented in the media.”

In culling freely accessed texts, The Public Archive composes a fuller, more intricate, picture of Haiti. The Public Archive does history in a way that is legible for a wider audience without compromising the assertion that rigorous study is still necessary. Its entries oscillate between past and present, text and image, still photographs and videos. The website also offers extensive dossiers, interviews with scholars, and recommended reading lists. In this curatorial move, the archive allows visitors to briefly inhabit the grammar of places, historical periods, and connections that we may have not been conscious of before. Take, for instance, a published post entitled “The National City Bank of New York & Haiti” that sheds light on U.S. military occupation and corporate involvement in Haiti during the early twentieth century. Plural perspectives, multiple genres, and temporalities come together in one post: a Bloomberg blog entry from 2012, a Haitian newspaper printed in 1927 that announces the arrival of National City Bank’s president, an academic article published earlier this year, a pamphlet printed in 1920 that critiques U.S. presence in Haiti, the National City Bank’s rationale in 1920 for its ventures into Haiti.

Marketplace, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1919), NYPL Digital Collections

The critical attitude that is “discontent with reified objects” and “impatien[t] with guilds, special interests, imperialized fiefdoms, and orthodox habits of mind” can flourish in public, digital spaces. This critical attitude, exemplified by The Public Archive and other similar projects, invigorate the sense of a knowledge commons. It seems to me that while the internet may disorganize traditional approaches to acquiring information (i.e., the physical space of a classroom, a codex textbook), knowledge is being reorganized in emergent, sometimes unrecognizable, shapes on the internet. The process of disorganizing and reorganizing knowledge and its politics, I suspect, is activated by collective desires to dilate the space and time allotted to learning.


Note:  This  blog is, in part, inspired by the “Why the Research Block?” Faculty Roundtable discussion that I helped Senior BLSCI Fellow Meechal Hoffman organize earlier this month. Also, see this recent NYT Op-Ed piece by Laurent Dubois for a discussion on Haiti and economic history.

Oral Communication in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Make eye contact. Project your voice. Articulate clearly. Plan smooth transitions. Don’t read from notes.

For most of us connected in one way or another to teaching in higher education, these simple maxims are some of the unquestioned tenets of good public speaking. Personally, I have instructed my students to bear them closely in mind for the short presentations I typically have them do in my classes; bullet points with slight variations on the above permeate the documents we here at the Schwartz Institute distribute to students to prepare them for successful oral presentations and debates in their communication intensive classes. As someone who’s field of study (ethnomusicology) is largely premised on granting equal value to the musical systems of every culture (i.e. cultural relativism), and who believes that the disproportionate focus on the western classical tradition in our universities’ music departments is seriously problematic, I was surprised to find myself only recently reflecting on the implications of assuming the primacy of one particular style of oral communication.

Since the amazing diversity of human musical expression became evident to me only a few readings into the ethnomusicological canon, I have often found descriptions of heterogeneity in other communicative domains to be more striking. Take, for instance, the following depiction of public speaking style in the rural indigenous community of Conima, on the highland plateau of southern Peru, from Thomas Turino’s Moving Away from Silence:

A Conimeño [person from Conima] would not be comfortable on an elevated platform facing and conducting an orchestra, a classroom, or a meeting… speaking style is soft and indirect. People generally avoid eye contact during conversation, and when talking in groups, a speaker will look at the ground so as to address no one in particular and everyone at the same time.

The contrasts here to several of the postulates listed at the outset of this post are obvious. We further learn, though, that Conimeños would find foreign the very idea of a debate, which is the format that some fellows at the Institute are assigned to support.

The next example, drawn from an article by Steven Feld (“Aesthetics as Iconicity of Style”) on the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, speaks to an aesthetics of public speech that is ostensibly fostered by the dense soundscape of their surrounding rain forest:

The Western normative concepts of individual speaker turns, floor rights, and turn-taking etiquette, notions rationalized in both speech act philosophy and conversational analysis, are absent from, and analytically irrelevant to Kaluli conversation and narration. What might be heard as regular “interruption” is not that at all, but rather the collaborative and co-creative achievement of dulugu sala, ‘lift-up-over speaking.’ […] Multiple voices hold the floor simultaneously and parties address multiple others and agendas simultaneously, without any voice continually dominating or organizing the stream of discussion.

These are merely two examples that happen to be discussed in studies that otherwise focus on music, and there are certainly thousands more in the literatures of anthropology and linguistics.

What, then, might the consequences be of our emphasis on one, culturally specific, style of public speaking in our classrooms? Are we promoting cultural homogenization? How might we reconcile an appreciation for the diversity of oral communication styles with an acknowledgement that mainstream North American academic culture has converged on a set of criteria for what makes good public speaking? I assume experts in communication have given this some thought. Peter Elbow addresses the culturally inflected character of speech and writing in his book Vernacular Eloquence, and I was interested to hear concerns about what messages we are sending ESL students when we point them to resources for accent “reduction” at a recent meeting. And yet, our materials on oral communication seem to rehash the same assumption that there is a universal mode of effective public speaking. One document we use purports to deliver “the essential elements and some tips on preparing and organizing a successful oral presentation in English or any other language.” Although it does later advise readers to keep the first language and professional field of their audience in mind when planning a presentation, the guidance provided is ultimately in line with the basic ideas mentioned above.

I don’t have any concrete answers to these questions, but let me offer a couple of half-formed and probably unoriginal thoughts:

Firstly, oral communication styles, like musical systems and language itself, are thoroughly interwoven with the cultures from which they emerge, and it is significant when societies or individuals are compelled to change their forms of communication. Turino illustrates this point vividly when he describes how Conimeños who migrated to Peru’s capital began adopting the Hispanicised speech style of the city’s European descendants, and how this development put a strain on communication, and relations more generally, between the migrants and elders back in the home district. Secondly, tied as they are to a cultural habitus, forms of public speech may be linked to forms of politics. As it happens, the non-confrontational, indirect style of communication in Conima corresponds to a generally egalitarian society in which decisions are reached by consensus, “public political and religious offices rotate equally among adult male community members, and equality of opportunity is given precedence over individual competence.” The Kaluli, too, were characterized as an egalitarian group. I would have little basis for attempting to correlate the monologic mode of formal speech and its attendant aesthetics to the hierarchical and unequal organization of capitalism, but I can’t help thinking that for all their eye contact, well-projected voices, clear diction, and savvy off-the-cuff handling of prepared speaking points, our politicians give us little in the way of truth, integrity, or effective governance.

Reading Kids and Dogs

For the first time, I am simply going to post a link to another person’s content: Madeline Gabriel’s post, “Should You Share That Cute Dog and Baby Photo?” on her blog “Dogs and Babies.” But of course, since I am an academic, this “simple” redirect will be followed by a few points of analysis.

“peaceful and companionable”

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Interviews (not the academic kind)

This is a piece about using technology to document and preserve as well as connect anew. It is also about advocating for audio documentation as a break from the insistent and incessant visual realm. Rest your screen eyes (after you read this) and just listen. I hereby issue a challenge to you:  this Thanksgiving, be the weird/annoying relative/friend who is always up to something and can’t just relax in front of the parade, dog show, or Detroit Lions. Tell them you just have to do this one thing…

Select one relative or friend, perhaps a parent or the oldest person at dinner, and ask to interview him or her. If you have a smart phone, then you have a piece of recording technology John and Ruby Terrill Lomax could scarcely have imagined when they lugged around heavy equipment like this in the 1930s:

Library of Congress, American Folklife Center

Even without an external directional microphone, the voice recording feature on smart phones is an incredible tool. The oral history project StoryCorps has declared the day after Thanksgiving “National Day of Listening.” I see this as a very intentional effort to combat the competitive shopping delirium of “black Friday.” StoryCorps provides an excellent list of questions that suit a variety of themes such as Working, Religion, Family Heritage, and War.

Even if you think you’ve heard  every one of a person’s stories one hundred times, themes can open new territory. When I interviewed my father in the StoryCorps booth in 2007, I focused on his childhood memories of World War II. He had told me many times about peeling the foil from the paper of Wrigley’s gum wrappers and getting cash for the foil. But it was not until the recorded interview that he described the profound trauma of seeing news reels with concentration camp footage during Saturday movie matinees. I have a CD of the interview, and it remains startling when my father bursts into tears on the recording.

Starter questions such as “what is your earliest memory?” or “what are you proudest of?” put people in the zone of recollection. These questions can break surfaces that, through habit and routine, have congealed over something potentially rich and evocative; like a dull skin coating a luscious mousse. If you take up this challenge to conduct a Thanksgiving interview, and do wind up breaking through the stubborn skin to discover something profound, please report back to the blog and share your experience.

When we conduct interviews, we are not only communicating across various entities (curricula, generations, turkeys); we are creating primary documents for the potential researchers of tomorrow. A Speaker’s Guidebook (O’Hair et al.) discusses the use of different types of evidence for making a strong, clear argument. The types of evidence include: extended, brief, and hypothetical examples; lay and expert testimony; narrative or anecdote; facts; and statistics. The oral history interview potentially provides the listener / would-be researcher with most of these types of evidence. In this Lomax recording of

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the Lomaxes intended to document a short lullaby, but inadvertently documented the use / employment of a black woman transplanted from Virginia to Texas who nursed well over a dozen white children across two generations. This snippet of musical ethnography suddenly becomes relevant to the research of labor historians, women’s studies scholars, African Americanists, and southern culture historians, to name a few.

Not only can interviewing foster emotional connections and provide future researchers with material, it can be a powerful and effective pedagogical tool. When I taught Introduction to Acting at Baruch, the final assignment of the semester was for each student to interview a family member and to create a monologue drawn from that interview. The project was inspired by the performer Anna Deavere Smith. Smith’s bio describes an approach to performance that “combines the journalistic technique of interviewing her subjects with the art of interpreting their words through performance.”

Whatever one thinks of Smith’s final performances, her methodology provided a strong model for my class. Students conducted the interviews, edited them for clarity and narrative focus, and formulated blocking choices based on the emotional beats. Without exception, the work was much more affecting, detailed, and fully realized than anything that had come out of students selecting monologues from edited collections.


I’m not astonished by the hatred of fatness currently present in our culture, or by the extent to which it has intensified over the past few decades. Cultures go through phases and cycles, and there are always scapegoats and victims of shame and blame. What shocks me is how fully this hatred has been adopted into public discourse.

I’m not going to rehearse the critique of anti-fat discourse in any depth here. Suffice it to say that statistical correlations between fatness and illness have nothing to say about the causes of such illness or how about how to avoid it. It is impossible to isolate the health effects of fatness in a context of rampant dieting, since dieting itself seems to be very unhealthy. Even if fatness were shown to be a predictor of certain kinds of illness, losing weight wouldn’t necessarily be a solution. And even if it were, a predisposition to illness is the last thing in the world that ought to provoke anger or scorn.

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One cannot not communicate

It seems that so much is going on in the world of communication that it makes my head spin just to think of where to focus, which is perhaps one of the great challenges of communication today. Communication seems to be so much about the technology of communication that we often forget what the basics are and how to measure them. To communicate today seems to be centered around getting information from one point to another, and making sure that it happens effectively, but the deeper issue is to understand what happens when we communicate and what the meaning is. Another question to think about is whether communication is an intentional activity, or whether it is just part of who are regardless of the medium or intention.

Paul Watzlawick was a great researcher on the topic of communication, somewhat forgotten in the digital age but incredibly relevant. Born in Austria in 1939 he studied with Jung, continued his studies in El Salvador before ending up in Palo Alto in 1960 where he worked with Don Jackson and followed the now famous Gregory Bateson. He worked mostly in the field of family therapy, but was interested in a much larger understanding of context in communication, seeing the dynamic as a system involving both parties and framing communication as something we do no matter what. To Watzlawick there was no non-communication, just as there couldn’t be a non-behavior, which meant that everything had to be studied as communication.

Another one of his ideas is that communication involves not only the message delivered, verbal or non-verbal, but the message received as a response, which might seem obvious but isn’t when you think of it. Much of our misunderstandings are in the ways we decipher the response to our ways of communication, which is understandably difficult since it comes from another person who might interpret things quite differently. In the age of rapid electronic messaging, the gap between what is communicated and what is received can be drastic, especially when we cannot measure what is received.

Watzlawick coined another distinction between what he called digital and analog communication, which is not the digital and analog we know. By digital he meant words, whereas analog depicts the non-verbal. Communication had to involve both, i.e. words and the way in which they were being delivered through behavior. The behavior involved the relationship and the context in which words have meaning, meaning also that words alone are not fully communicative without the understanding of their context and without understanding the relationship and behavior of both parties communicating.

This all made me think that we have substantially reduced communication in the age of electronic media in the sense that we have abstracted it to messages delivered without there being a true dialogue involving fully present and communicating individuals, integrating both the digital and the analog. Of course there is no going to back to old school, but perhaps we should think of what or who lies behind the screens that mediate.

Re-imagining Africa in the Digital Age

How is Africa imagined in the 21stcentury?  What notions does Africa conjure in the minds of a casual observer? As a continent constantly mired in crisis, the site of humanitarian disasters, prone to conflict or home to starving millions? These notions along with many others are the prism through which western observers view Africa.  For many people around the world, Africa evokes images of war, destitution, extreme poverty.

Source: bryna-ethiopianhunger.blogspot.com

The noted Nigerian novelist and prolific writer, Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi, has an excellent quip about the dangers of misconceptions across cultures.  As she states,” the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story…. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity…. “ (Also see Binyavana Wainaina’s pieces here and here.

The rise of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and You tube has invariably connected millions of people across the globe.  In an unprecedented digital age, we no longer live in geographic isolation. Armed with our smartphones and ipads we are walking receptacles of instant information and connectivity.  In a culture where sound bites are king, how does one make sense of current events in African politics when the sum of all phenomenon is viewed through a prism of perpetual conflict, dysfunctional institutions, repressive government and the myths of a “single story.”

More specifically how does one effectively navigate a new information culture that is often replete with attention grabbing details that can obscure the larger context?  To what extent do news stories in general  invite us to delve deeper or inspire further inquiry on our part? Such pursuits are  simply too time consuming and costly. The irony is that globalization has flattened our world, widened and deepened worldwide interconnectedness.  Yet we know so little of Africa, that faraway, exotic place. Somehow in our rapidly evolving technological environment  rising awareness through the power of social media has not managed to produce careful dissemination of knowledge or events in far flung corners of the world. Take the Kony 2012 hullabaloo for example.

The meteoric attention and rapid attention that the thirty minute video managed to garner was unprecedented.  From blog entries, to Facebook, twitter, and classroom discussion, the sheer fire and debate  it ignited speaks to an enormous transformation of knowledge production and dissemination.  It also highlighted to some extent a surprising shift in consciousness.  This is because far from simply jumping on the bandwagon of the normal pity party that Africa’s conundrums frequently inspire, the you tube video inspired considerable critiques.  It seemed that far less people bought into what many deemed a brilliant advertising or marketing strategy and instead questioned the motives, the messianic overtones and seeming paternalism . Admittedly, Invisible Children’s plea  for assistance in hunting down Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony for his horrific use of child soldiers to carry out a reign of terror is certainly noble for it spurred United Nations action and renewed  US attention. But many in the academic, policymaking and blogging communities questioned the short shrift to complicated circumstances in Uganda, misinformation in the video and the nature of Invisible’s Children’s agenda.  In short, many viewed co-founder Jason Russell’s pleas as symbiotic of a continuing polemic of paternalistic western engagement.

I vividly remember the response of my students to the video which I showed in my Africa in World Affairs class.  Much to my surprise the bulk of my students were not convinced and pointed to misleading facts in varying shape and form.  Others expressed disdain for the seeming “patronizing’ tone, one-sided view and absent voices of Ugandans themselves.  What of the voices of Ugandans they wondered?  Some of my students bristled at the call for charity and how the images presented seemed to reify the “White Man’s Burden.”

How do we re-imagine Africa in the digital age or illuminate the wider historical, post-colonial realities of the continent without resorting to reductionism? Better yet, how do we move beyond stark and troubling stereotypes of Africa as the “dark continent’ waiting for the light of the west, waiting to be saved?  How far have we moved beyond prevailing images of the starving child, jutted bones, and swollen bellies?  Just like those late night infomercials, but perhaps more gripping, the power of YouTube ‘s ability to convey and transform the way we perceive and react to social phenomenon is undeniable.  The most interesting or newsworthy bits are not stories that seriously consider the political historical contexts. Instead broadcast journalism is most concerned with shock worthy sensationalism that is ephemeral at best.  In the 21st century, this is simply unacceptable.  Despite the continent’s quagmires, there is hope and promise.

African initiated efforts to bolster economic growth, technological innovation, increase indigenous capital and investment is evident as are a growing number of emerging economies, reverses in brain drain among a plethora of other developments.  As the Economist notes, “in the past decade, six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies are African.  In eight of the past ten years, Africa has grown faster than East Asia, including Japan. Even allowing for the knock-on effect of the northern hemisphere’s slowdown, the IMF expects Africa to grow by 6% this year and nearly 6% in 2012, about the same as Asia.

Re-imagining the continent requires rebranding-using the very (powerful) instruments of technology and communication to showcase a diverse peoples whose futures will not hinge on the goodwill of the west or its aid.  Indeed, the efforts of Ghanaian software pioneer, Herman Chinery-Hesse, and architect of a technological revolution is noteworthy. The third annual symposium Africa 2.0 is also testament to a new narrative of empowerment, amid efforts to transform the continent’s image.   According to Jessica Ellis of CNN, not only is Chinery-Hesse considered the “Bill Gates of Africa” he is a founder of one of Ghana’s biggest software companies and has been “has been spawning innovations for two decades, helping to break down tech barriers between the continent and the rest of the world.”


However, ordinary Africans must also do their part. By harnessing the power of social media, taking ineffectual and corrupt governments to task and ultimately ushering the much awaited “African Spring” these actions can remake, reshape and reconfigure Africa’s image and upstage prevailing stereotypes of what Africa is and is not. North Africans in Egypt used social media forums to harness support and boost activism against a repressive regime.  The western world, African continent and states elsewhere can smartly, sensitively and effectively use social media in constructive ways that channel the capacity for cross cultural understanding while avoiding the dangers of a “single story”.

Knowledge Politics #2: What Universities Do

This is my second post in a series on the politics of knowledge. My goal with these posts is to consider a basic question of critical university studies: How do universities differ from other kinds of social organization such as government agencies, corporations, and cause-oriented nonprofits? What is the importance of higher education? What kind of constituency does it present? What does it mean to build a social institution around the transmission and discovery of knowledge? What is “knowledge” in this context and what are its politics? [Read more…]