Some thoughts on Digital Pedagogy Institute 2016

Some thoughts about digped institute 2016.


“soft” power




“not us”

I was fortunate enough to attend the Digital Pedagogy Lab 2016 Summer Institute last week. One of the biggest themes, and certainly one of the things I took out of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s keynote is the theme of “what do you do when you are at an institution that was not designed for you?” A corollary, and obviously far less important question, but important (to me): “what do you do when an institution is designed for you, but you are the only one there who looks like you?” In other words, how does one operate in a welcoming space when your visible difference is so different from the other folks there?

This is one of the struggles that I had last week. In the Audrey Watters’ Action track, we often discussed what it meant to have a body and to inhabit that body in a space. Certainly, this was not the first time I’ve been the only black male in a room: I went to grad school in central Indiana; I play hockey and snowboard; I teach at a predominantly white institution. But, that’s sort of the point: none of those things were designed with me in mind. One could very much make the case, if one were so inclined, that those arenas are designed to some degree to keep out those like me. Except, that’s not the case with the Institute. Amplifying lesser-heard voices is a key feature. I can’t pretend to know the circumstances that made it so I was the only (visibly) black male there (and I realize the problems with using categories in this manner) but I’m confident it’s not because of a design feature.

That said, I spent the week very conscious of how to be “me” in a way that was consistent with how I think of myself, yet make space for people who are not me, and not use the body I have to make impositions on others in that space. For instance, when I find myself in a space not made for me in terms of my blackness, rarely do I wonder if I am talking too much, or if people care if what I have to say, or if I am focusing too much on what matters to me. In the spaces I usually inhabit, having those concerns means never being heard or never having my interests addressed.

This dovetails into another discussion we had in our track: how does one exercise the power one has? I’m in a position (right now, at least) where I feel relatively free to say the things I want to say about the direction our institution should take in terms of some things that really matter to me: use of certain educational technologies; use of student data; how classes should be taught. I don’t have any illusions about how often I am listened to, but I know at least that the chance that I will be targeted for saying those things is somewhat small. But do others who want to make change navigate activism when they are in different circumstances? Can an instructional technologist tell a tenured faculty member that Turnitin is an unjust technology and they shouldn’t use it? Can a writing center tutor tell a faculty member that they are actively hurting students by giving them the terrible writing prompt they have been using for years? What does that look like? What is the value of a nudge and a whisper over a shout? How does one make do with incremental change when that’s all your position allows? The Virtual Connecting session on Thursday did even more to magnify how important it is to think about, and talk to, those who “are not us” if there’s any hope of moving forward as activists, teachers, and humans.

Another takeaway: I already knew, but this week served as a keen reminder: there are many, many folks who haven’t been forced to confront issues of surveillance capitalism and its merger with the carceral state—and what that means for students. As part of a population that has been surveilled for our entire history in this country (Simone Browne and Virginia Eubanks are two to check out if you need some history/context on this), I have never thought that those looking for me were looking out for me or my interests. Where do privacy, obscurity, safety, and a sense of security intersect, and how does that look for different people? Further, to what degree do we as instructors, administrators, technologists, and digital citizens have a responsibility to each other and students to consider these issues as we use technologies and compel others to use them?

As usual, I have more questions than answers, but my week at the Digital Pedagogy Institute helped me frame those questions better as I move into a new semester.