We at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, got an email on November 25, 2015, inviting us to town hall meetings in early December about a campus-wide Design Center that has been in the works for a couple of years. The Design Center website also solicits input, but does not indicate to whom this input should be directed. So I am taking a blanket blog approach….
Acknowledging that the last few years at this institution have been particularly fraught with unethical, intolerant and/or incompetent behavior, which has, among other results, decimated Indigenous Studies, caused morale among students, staff and faculty to plummet, and filled many positions on an interim basis, not to mention diverted attention from efforts like the Design Center planning, I would still like to stress that the timeline for input about the Center is ridiculously tight. How are adjustments to be made using that input, when the architects are to get the brief early in 2016 (as I understand it)? That said, I thank those who have clearly put substantial time into developing the proposal. Given the short amount of time, I have just sketched a few ideas, informed by science and technology studies as well as my presence on campus for 30 years.
I suggest a focus on a “Design Differently” Center.
First, consider and learn from past campus efforts, some of which are still ongoing. (A range of past experiential learning and interdisciplinary research efforts include: Urban Exchange, Civitas Community Design Center, East St. Louis Action Research Project, Center on Democracy in a Multi-Racial Society, Unit One/Allen Hall and other Living-Learning Centers, iCHASS, Illinois Informatics Institute…) Large sums of money were sometimes spent, often with little agreement on what success might look like. While “success” should be regularly considered and, possibly, redefined, the experimental nature of these research and pedagogical efforts must accommodate “failure,” and an institutional acceptance of some messy vitality.
Next, I am bothered by the staffing model proposed, with “technicians” placed in a hierarchy that, once again, is topped by a tenured faculty member. In “designing differently,” I suggest that the Design Center’s key challenges will be social, not technical: instead of staffing the Center “as usual,” I would encourage a redesign where students direct the programming and have a substantial say in budget allocations, technologists are integral to planning and implementation of programming, and where communication among users, non-users, and possible users is a key priority. That doesn’t necessarily mean that a faculty member couldn’t direct the Center, but the staffing should be as carefully designed as the physical plant. As a “hub,” the Center will be a socio-technical construction. The technical aspects, I believe, will be far easier to handle. If the social infrastructure consistently and continually challenges gender and racialized norms, contends with issues of ability and economics, and critiques the intended and unintended impacts of items that are “designed,” that will be an innovative design center!
Anne Balsamo in her 2011 book, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work, stressed “how innovation could be even more innovative in its scope of vision for the future if it were to take culture as the precondition and horizon of creative effort” (p. 3.) She then proceeded to list lessons about technoculture innovation, which I quote here, though I have cut out her useful commentary to keep this short:
- Innovations are historically constituted.
- Innovations are not objects, but rather assemblages of practices, materialities and affordances.
- Innovation is an articulatory and performative process, in that efforts of many people must be integrated.
- Innovation manifests the dual logic of technological reproduction; it both replicates previous and makes new possibilities.
- Designing is an important process of cultural reproduction. Creativity is a cultural construct.
- Designing is as much about social negotiation as it is about creativity.
- Designing is a process where the matter of the world becomes meaningful.
- Technological innovation is inherently multidisciplinary.
- Technological innovation offers the possibility of doing things differently.
- Failure is productive.
Technology is material
Technology involves embodiment
Technology solicits affect
Technology requires labor
Technology is situated in particular contexts
Technology expresses political values
Technology depends on tacit knowledge practices
I hope the Design Center intentionally focuses on students, particularly underserved and marginalized students, who are already working to design better, more just social structures and who foster critical examinations of what is innovative and who is being served by innovations.
 Impact constituencies are those who lose due to the design and maintenance of new technological systems. See John Staudenmaier, “The Politics of Successful Technologies,” In In Context: History and the History of Technology: Essays in Honor of Melvin Kranzberg. Research in Technology Studies, v. 1, Stephen Cutcliffe and Robert Post, eds. (Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 1989), 150-171.
 Anne Balsamo, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination as Work (Duke University Press, 2011), 8-13, 25.
Heath Schultz wrote last year about the sadness he felt living in these times. (See the full and excellent dialogue with Sarah Kanouse: Sarah Kanouse & Heath Schultz (2013) “Notes on Affective Practice: An Exchange,” Parallax 19:2, 7-20.) Heath reflected:
[S]adness is not a neurosis stemming from my ‘personal’ life. Instead I’d like to insist, as others have before, on recognizing it as a political condition, a by-product of our lives under capitalism. The personal is political, as it has always been. Our time, bodies and minds are inscribed with capitalist competitiveness (we hustle to live, if some more than others), rhythms (cybertime, or hyper-speed) and productivity (more & more & more). We know that the American, and increasingly global, way of life is a farce, a tale told to keep us moving. These are the rhythms of our everyday, the geography of our psyches and the landscape that produces our political depression in the form of sadness, fear, boredom, ambivalence, loneliness, depression, impotence and anxiety.
Every day there have been horrible and tragic events unfolding around the globe, but this semester seemed especially to foster despair: Even before the term began, the University of Illinois Chancellor, Phyllis Wise, reneged on the hiring of Professor Steven Salaita. (See my three previous posts.) On August 9, 18-year-old Mike Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missouri; there were 43 students murdered in September in the Mexican state of Guerrero. On November 24 a grand jury refused to indict (former) Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Mike Brown; on December 3, a Staten Island, NY, grand jury refused to indict any of the police officers involved in the July 2014 death of Eric Garner. So much injustice, so many people and places I have not even mentioned. But once a week I gathered with nine graduate students at the University of Illinois in a Distributed Open Collaborative Course (DOCC), “Collaborations in Feminism and Technology,” and for three hours we discussed feminist technoculture and benefited from FemTechNet resources. This was a respite for me, building some solidarity in a place of alienation.
Here are some highlights:
- We hosted the artist Bonnie Fortune (Denmark via Chicago) early in the term. She shared her research about feminist hacker spaces.
- We edited Wikipedia, after learning from the late Adrianne Wadewitz about the ins and outs of that huge endeavor. One student wrote and illustrated entries for women who are often categorized as “outsider” artists: Mollie Jenson, Annie Hooper, and Kea Tawana. He took advantage of materials at Intuit Center.
- Three of the students participated in HASTAC, writing introductory blog posts and, together with another student, submitting a proposal for the HASTAC conference in May.
- Another student created a LibGuide for teen librarians to learn about resources available related to teens with disabilities. She also compiled a bibliography on books related to suffragettes, artists and pilots (Oh My!), together with a display in the Center for Children’s Books. Did you know about the Amelia Bloomer Project? I didn’t, but now I do, thanks to this DOCC seminar!
- One participant took to the road and attended a number of workshops on youth and technology, in Champaign and in Chicago, and wrote three lesson plans to be used in the local FabLab or MakerSpace.
- A doctoral student attended the Digital Labor conference at The New School in New York City and reported back about the “long table” discussion about FemTechNet that took place there.
- A couple of students made videos that communicated their research, whether on early video technology and masculinity or on video games for youth. The youth focus materialized in a Minecraft workshop at the local public library.
- Another continued her research on the Coursera MOOC class on sustainable development taught by Jeffrey Sachs, analyzing the course material in relation to global gender equality.
- International online education and women’s varied engagements with it were the topics of another student project.
- A couple of us attended via Skype a panel discussion on Open Education: Condition Critical, held at Coventry University.
- A seasoned Wikipedian joined the Wikipedia Page Curation task force, reviewing over 250 pages in a month.
- We all learned about Li Shuang (b. 1957), included in a doctoral student presentation about contemporary Chinese female artists in the global context.
- We also learned about a local artist’s involvement with experimental music in New York and Illinois through an oral interview conducted by one student.
- Cricket Keating, a professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Ohio State, met online with our class and discussed her articles on coalition building as well as her activity with La Escuela Popular Norteña. I met with Cricket’s class via Skype to discuss Place.
- We started a glossary of terms that helped us work through some of the readings and FemTechNet videos.
- We joined two Open Online Office Hours (OOOHs) with other FemTechNet-ers to discuss Archives and Bodies with, at various times, TL Cowan, Karl Surkan, Veronica Paredes, Rachel Kuo, and others.
- At the suggestion of Melissa Meade and Cricket Keating, we used Today’s Meet a couple of times, learning a rhythm of interacting with others at a distance when sync-watching a Video Dialogue on Race.
- The Situated Knowledges Map came up in our discussions several times and at least one student contributed to it.
- One student joined FemTechNet’s Student Committee; another joined the Communication Committee–thank you!
- In between all these activities, we had wide-ranging conversations in which I learned and learned and learned: about locker baby syndrome, “speaking pain,” Tumblr, challenges of gender-neutral language in Spanish, Patchwork Girl, Wu Tsang, the meanings of “motorcycle” in Taiwan, Anne Elizabeth Moore, multiple apps and on and on!
Of course, we talked about Steve Salaita, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and others, because in some form they were in our classroom too.
In September 2013, I was privileged to be part of a conversation with four former members of the Women, Information Technology, and Scholarship (WITS) group, which was active at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign through most of the 1990s. Here is the video recording of our conversation.
And here is the transcript to download.
For about a year I have been following FemTechNet and now I have joined a group committed to teaching a course on feminism and technology this next fall, distributed over about 20 campuses. When Chip Bruce was in town recently, he reminded me of the Women, Information Technology and Scholarship (WITS) colloquium that met at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). WITS helps connect those of us in FemTechNet with an earlier effort.
WITS began in 1991, twenty-two years ago! The impetus for the group was provided by Australian author and educator Dale Spender, who gave a talk on the UIUC campus in 1991: “Feminism Does Not Compute: The Computer Age—Implications for Feminism.” WITS was an invitation-only group, proposed by Dale Spender, Cheris Kramerae, then professor of Speech Communication at UIUC, and Jeanie Taylor, then Associate Director of the UIUC Center for Advanced Study (CAS). CAS supported the group for five years, until 1996. The aim was to explore gender equity and information technology among various disciplines, represented by about 35 people identified across campus. By the second year, 1992, WITS had an advisory group, its own electronic mailing list, and T-shirts! That summer, Jeanie and Cheris presented the WITS idea to a Gender, Technology and Ethics conference in Sweden. During the spring of 1993, there was a WITS reading group about “Women in Architectural Space” and the following year, several WITS women joined with women in Chicago to prepare for the UN Conference on Women in Beijing in September of 1995. After 1996, the group met for another two years at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS). The spirit of collaboration and innovation still thrives at GSLIS, if I do say so myself (since I work there)!
What I had not known before my conversation with Chip was that WITS published an edited book in 1993 reflecting on their discussions about “the politics of information technologies processes.”  They asked how “gender, race and class hierarchies are made part of the circuitry in new information technologies.” “We know,” they wrote, “that many campus discussions about new information technologies are actually discussions about the reconstitution of race, sex and class hierarchies in the new systems.” (3) The WITS group of faculty and academic professionals initially met at least once a month, sponsored speakers, and organized workshops. In the book, in addition to lists of colloquium presentations, electronic resources, and publications, there were articles about access, training, pedagogy, and publishing. I learned about the Electronic Salon at Lewis and Clark College, held in April 1992, an early example of a “cyberspace of our own.” Another effort was that by Judy Smith, project director for Women’s Opportunity Resource Development (WORD) in Missoula, Montana, in 1992; she introduced many “reluctant users” to IT. WITS members noted that “very little of the research on women and minorities is included in existing and developing electronic databases of the humanities and social and behavioral sciences…. If women aren’t involved in the classification systems of the new electronic publishing, women will be excluded not only in the texts but also in the meta-texts.” (23) Jo Kibbee, who went to England in 1992 to research the Joint Academic Network (JANET) there, noted the importance of WITS in studying this early electronic network, providing “an enthusiastic and supportive environment in which intellectual (and technological) curiosity can prosper.” (75) JANET was “one of the first networks to target libraries,” according to Jo.
In 1996, Betsy Kruger and Jo Kibbee co-authored “The Women, Information, Technology, and Scholarship (WITS) Colloquium at UIUC: Feminist Model for Education and Activism on Campus,” in Feminist Collections, 17:2, pp. 38-39. In addition to explaining the programs and structure of the group, the article mentioned a brochure that WITS developed and distributed in 1995, “Gender Equity in Global Communication Networks: A Global Alert.” The WITS group launched a website as well in 1995, called the WITS Policy Quilt, and other groups were invited to share their policy recommendations online.
This post on WITS was a great excuse to connect or re-connect with friends about WITS: thanks to Jo Kibbee, Bea Nettles, and Jeanie Taylor. Jo lent me her transparencies (remember overhead projectors?) from a talk she gave about WITS. Apparently there was initial difficulty bridging between women in science and engineering and those in the humanities and social sciences; WITS members worked to develop programming that would meet the needs of a range of disciplines.
Other WITS participants—there were about 35, but membership rose to 50 in the mid-nineties–are still in Urbana-Champaign: Kathryn Anthony, Jenny Barrett, Colleen Bushell, C. L. Cole, Ramona Curry, Leigh Estabrook, Nan Goggin, Frances (Jacobson) Harris, Gail Hawisher, Christine Jenkins, Vicki Jones, Betsy Kruger, Melanie Loots, Radha Nandkumar, Kathy Perkins, Celeste Quinn, Shang-Fen Ren, Dianne Rothenberg, Linda Smith, Beth Stafford-Vaughan, Angharad Valdivia, Liesel Wildhagen, Marianne Winslett, and Joyce Wright. Sadly, WITS members Kate Cloud and Leigh Star died in 2010; Jean Peterson died in 1998. (These names were taken from the WITS directory of 1994-95, supplied to me by Jo Kibbee.) These women represented fields from anthropology, architecture, and atmospheric sciences to radio and theatre, from cinema studies, graphic design, and library science to photography, physics, psychology and writing studies.
Jeanie noted that “one of the great things about WITS is that it continued to have impact beyond those years–WITS folks serving on university technology committees and books published….” Given that I am co-teaching the FemTechNet course with Sharra Vostral and C.L. Cole (Cole was part of WITS), the impact of WITS endures still.
 H. Jeanie Taylor, Cheris Kramarae, and Maureen Ebben, eds. Women, Information Technology + Scholarship: Women, Information Technology, and Scholarship Colloquium (Urbana, IL: Center for Advanced Study, 1993).