Tag Archives: CUNY

Shannon Mattern’s Critical and Generative Structures

In “Scaffolding, Hard and Soft – Infrastructures as Critical and Generative Structures” (2016) Shannon Mattern, Associate Professor of Media Studies at the New School, delivers a hopeful and inspiring message and provides a clear introduction to the importance of thinking about infrastructure in our work.

Shannon notes that new infrastructures – both hard and soft – are built on old ones. In the case of hard infrastructures, optic fibers are strung where cables and wires are traditionally laid, in sewage ducts and water and gas pipes, and alongside roads and railways. Many of these infrastructures are concentrated in cities or, in the case of satellites, directed towards large urban centers in more industrially and technologically developed parts of the world. Intellectual or soft infrastructures similarly follow old paths in their conceptual design. Despite their path dependency and heavy engineering new infrastructures bear the imprint of human agency, of the people who form part of these infrastructures as links, builders, and deliverers. Human agents are particularly evident when “in particular disenfranchised pockets of the world, when [the] scaffolding [that underlies more economically secure communities] is simply absent.” By turning our attention to the often precarious infrastructures in economically poorer parts of the world we see how splintered our  “seemingly universal infrastructures” are.

The politics of hard and soft infrastructures are cleverly addressed in artist Hito Steyerl’s 2013 video How Not to Be Seen: A F***ing Didactic Educational .MOV File which Shannon Mattern recommends. In this radical work Steyerl declares that resolution determines visibility hence shows the world as a picture. Because pixel calibration determines visibility, she argues, to become invisible one has to become smaller or equal to one pixel, or be any number of things including someone living in a gated community, being in an airport or museum, being a female over 50, undocumented, poor, or “a disappeared person as an enemy of the state. Eliminated, liquidated and then disseminated.” Invisibility becomes a visible network in Steyerl’s film as disappeared people retreat strangely into 3D animations, then hold the vectors together and mesh the picture, then reemerge into a world of pictures as shadows of themselves. The video’s central recurrent image is a cracked and rutted resolution target in the California desert which Steyerl’s voice over says was decommissioned in 2000. “happy pixels hop off into low resolution, gif loop!” Multilayered and cryptic, Steyerl’s .MOV file is worth watching more than once.

Hito Steyerl, How Not to be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, (2013).

While artists must critique, it’s still not enough to represent, that is, to reveal and critically analyze, infrastructures, writes Mattern. Creative practitioners should design more just infrastructures, she adds. To do so and in doing so they should “approach infrastructure as a generative structure – a framework for generating systems and environments and objects, and cultivating individuals and communities, that embody the values we want to define our society.”

One of the examples of generative structures that Mattern provides is the use of existing infrastructure to bring about change in the labor conditions of workers in the fast fashion industry in countries like Bangladesh. This calls attention to materiality and affect in the communities involved in the production of clothes we see in store windows on, for example, 34th Street between 5th and 6th. Another example of infrastructure as a generative structure provided by Mattern are mesh networks (see for example The Red Hook Wifi Project [2013]), which are particularly exciting to think about when one thinks of what can happen when infrastructure is not controlled by the community in moments of danger. Two such moments come to mind: Egypt during the Arab Spring, when Vodafone cut off internet and cellphone networks at the height of massive uprisings in Cairo in 2011, causing protesters to lose vital communication with each other about where Egyptian military were firing bullets and consequently being shot down by these. Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria is another example where mesh networks would have facilitated rescue and recovery.

In less extreme situations landscape urbanism advocates for looking beyond architecture at infrastructures in all their complexity to seek more equitable models. Other fields can follow landscape urbanism’s lead, and an important thing we can do as graduate students is look at the infrastructure that shapes and girds our fields “or what we might call the ‘cultural techniques’ for making knowledge and generating work within a field” (Mattern).

Mattern’s closing message is inspiring and directive:

Recognizing what’s missing in your field’s current infrastructural ecology might inspire you to contribute to the design of a discursive space or a landscape of practice that embodies a political economy more in line with those liberal values that our theories espouse. You, as critical-creative practitioners, have the opportunity to transform criticality into generativity – to imagine and then construct the hard and soft scaffoldings for tomorrow’s fields of practice.

Learning how to code, critically reading artifacts and imagining new ways of doing things are essential to making meaningful contributions in our field. Thinking of infrastructure on all its scales, from corporeal to global, will point to where generative structures most urgently need to be built.








Shannon Mattern on Scaffolding + Infrastructures

I really enjoyed Shannon Mattern’s essay. While reading it I realized that I know her from The New School’s Media Studies Dept. where I completed my first MA. Her bio is worth a read. She also was the MC for my commencement from the Media Studies program there — a truly lovely ceremony, complete with cap & gown & diploma handshake and my aunt who graduated from Hunter College in the 1940’s in attendance.

Shannon’s work is very complex, as the theoretical nature of this essay demonstrates. She’s very interesting to converse with as I’ve had the occasion to do.

Regarding the essay, I particularly like her closing academic pep talk about us as practitioners in our fields “transform[ing] criticality into generativity”. Her commencement address was similarly inspiring in tone.

I have many additional observations on this reading which I will add via editing this post.

Continuing on, Mattern advocates for DHers and our colleagues as “critical-creative practitioners” (a moniker I like) to go beyond the representation of infrastructure to the design of infrastructure [our]selves” so that we’re approaching infrastructure as a generative structure [which is] a framework for generating systems/environments/objects and cultivating individuals/communities that embody values we want to define in our society. (7)

This is a tall order organizationally speaking, but approachable on the individual level of our classrooms, projects, and as members of group projects.

I like how SM acknowledges the “entangled soft and hard infrastructures that often propel ‘making’ in our fields”, and lead to institutional forces that seek branded theories, methods and churn out grad students, like us, eager to discover the ‘new big thing’ via conferences, etc. and the “infrastructure” travel these require with its inherent sustainability sub-issues of fuel, jet fuel, diesel, electricity, and the environmental impact of these.

I also like how SM takes a bold step in acknowledging that liberal conceptions of labor, knowledge, and taste that many theoretical and aesthetic movements “actually embody” often fail to match up to their professed politics. The legendary waste in the fashion and film industries, while many of its leading design professionals and celebrity consumers profess to be “green” and/or shame others in different industries is an outrageous form of hypocrisy.

Therefore, I think keeping “infrastructional ecology” in mind is indeed a great motivating force for us DHers as “critical-creative practitioners” to contribute practices that embody a political economy aligned with the liberal values of our chosen field’s theories. Maybe this is the “NEXT new big thing….?”

Archives: Queens College Civil Rights Archive

I’m sorry to make two posts in a row!  But we were asked to share archives that caught our interest, and in a week in which we’re discussing both archives and CUNY history, I’d be remiss not to share this.

The Queens College Civil Rights Archive

It’s a work in progress, and to be honest, I haven’t fully explored the whole thing! But a lot of excellent work has gone into it over the years. Queens College students were very active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and this archive documents that.  There is a special focus on the work of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights activists who were murdered in 1964.  All three of them were from Queens, and Goodman was a QC student. The tower of our library building is named for them.

In any case, institutional connections aside, this archive is very much worth checking out.

Digital Technologies in the Public University: More Money-Making or Access for All?

Reading the introduction to Promises and Perils of Digital History by Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig last week, I was intrigued by their mention of neo-Luddite Marxist critic David Noble, which led me off on a tangent which ties in with the pieces on pedagogy we’re reading this week.

Because universities have traditionally hierarchized individual authorities as sources of knowledge and because DH aims to break this hierarchy down, I was interested to see that Cohen and Rosenzweig introduce Noble by aligning him with another neo-Luddite, conservative American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, who, writing in 1996, didn’t like digital technologies because their equalizing power make “no authority […] privileged over any other” [Himmelfarb qtd in Cohen and Rosenzeig 1]. Although the equalizing power that Himmelfarb is afraid of is something DH embraces, Noble doesn’t engage with this but instead warns us against technology’s power to serve as a tool to mass-market higher education. In “Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education” (1998) Nobles warns that

…the trend towards automation of higher education as implemented in North American universities [in 1998] is a battle between students and professors on one side, and university administrations and companies with “educational products” to sell on the other. It is not a progressive trend towards a new era at all, but a regressive trend, towards the rather old era of mass production, standardization and purely commercial interests. [Nobles para 1]

Noble takes issue not with technology itself but with what capitalists use it for. In the 1980s and ‘90s, he writes, universities were the focus of “a change in social perception which has resulted in the systematic conversion of intellectual activity into intellectual capital and, hence, intellectual property” [Noble para 8]. Research, he argues, was being commodified, and knowledge turned into “proprietary products” that can be bought and sold. As these changes took place, universities were implicated “as never before in the economic machinery” [Noble para 9]. Universities began to allocate funds for science and engineering research – because research had become a commodity – at the expense of education. Then instruction too was commercialized and shaped in a corporate model where costs were minimized by replacing human teachers with computer-based instruction. I think back to the wave of MOOCs that attempted to capitalize on the growing global demand for university degrees and certification around 2012 and what a poor substitute these were for seminars. These were Mills indeed. Then came learning management systems, writes Noble, and educational maintenance organizations contracted through outside organizations. Noble expresses concern that faculty lost the rights to their work as they uploaded syllabi and course content to university websites only to see their scholarship outsourced (I trust that Noble’s concern about ownership of intellectual property is concern that scholarship not be freely shared and not concern that faculty lose power over capital they ‘rightfully’ own). It was also unclear, writes Noble, who owned student educational records once students had uploaded their work to digital sites [para 30]. This is an important question and I hope that FERPA protects student privacy in digital media better now than it did in 1998. Having said that, I think of the query we recently began to write to Voyant about what it does with the corpora we upload, and the question appears to be just as pertinent now. Noble saw students as “no better than guinea pigs” in a massive money-making experiment gone totally wrong [para 30].

In 1998 it seemed to Noble that the technological revolution in higher education was all about corporations (including universities that had become de facto corporations) exploiting the capital that universities had come to contain. And “behind this effort are the ubiquitous technozealots who simply view computers as the panacea for everything, because they like to play with them” [Noble para 15]. Ha. A big problem with Noble’s neo-Luddite position is that he marks a division between people who use computers and those who don’t, as if these were two species apart. It’s important to keep in mind that Noble was writing in 1998. I wonder whether his position towards Digital Humanities would have changed by today (Noble died in 2010) in view of the turn towards free open source digital resources and in view of DH’s growing impact on scholarship, publishing, peer review, tenure and promotion, noted by Matthew Kirshenbaum in “What is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in English Departments?” (2012) and taken up by Stephen Brier in “Where’s the Pedagogy? The Role of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Humanities” (2012).

To get a sense of how present pedagogy was in digital humanities work in 2012, Brier looked for the key words pedagogy, teaching, learning and classroom in a summary of NEH grants for DH start-up projects from 2007 to 2010, and found hardly any instances of these key terms. This does not mean that no NEH start-up grants were destined to pedagogical DH projects, writes Brier, but does suggest that “these approaches are not yet primary in terms of digital humanists’ own conceptions of their work.” To start a conversation about the implications of digital technologies in higher education, Brier focuses on the City University of New York, the largest public university system in the United States and one which has grown tremendously over the past five decades in large part, writes Brier, thanks to its readiness to undertake radical experiments in pedagogy and open access.

One of these projects, the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) project, came into being to continue the mission that CUNY’s Open Admissions policy, dismantled by the CUNY Board of Trustees in 1999, aimed to accomplish, namely, to ensure that all high school graduates be able to enroll in college and get a college degree. WAC aims to do this by having writing fellows teach writing skills to students who need these. WAC brought digital technologies into the classroom in a natural way, writes Brier, because most writing fellows were interested in developing these.

Brier then points us towards The American Social History Project/Center for Media Learning/New Media Lab, which he co-founded in 1981 and which is deeply committed to using digital media for teaching history in high schools and at the undergraduate level. He goes on to discuss the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Doctoral Cerfificate Program at the GC, the Instructional Technology Fellows Program at the Macaulay Honors College, Matt Gold’s “Looking for Whitman” project, the CUNY Academic Commons and the GC Digital Humanities Initiative. Now we also have the MA in Digital Humanities and many other initiatives that have come into being since 2012. Given the wealth of initiatives for educational reform developed with digital technologies within CUNY, I like to think that Noble would reverse his Marxist critique of digital technologies in the university were he alive today to witness the equalizing power for educational change digital technologies clearly provide.

Expanding the Definition of Humanities Scholarship (Panel Summary)

Today I attended the first day of “Community Colleges and the Future of the Humanities,” which you probably remember that Raven recommended near the beginning of class.  It’s been a great conference so far, but my favorite panel today was “Expanding the Definition of Humanities Scholarship,” moderated by Elizabeth Alsop from the CUNY School of Professional Studies.

The panelists were:

  • Leah Anderst, Queensborough Community College
  • Ria Banerjee, Guttman Community College
  • Kevin Ferguson, Queens College
  • Lisa Rhody, The Graduate Center

Alsop opened the panel by explaining its genesis. She’d found that public scholarship felt like a natural outgrowth of her work, but as she came close to the end of the tenure clock, people started asking her how she would frame this work to make it “count.” So, she put together a panel to talk about some of these questions.

Leah Anderst spoke first, about how finding a full-time position had felt like a small miracle to her, but several members of the older generation of PhDs with whom she was acquainted seemed worried about it, because she was in a pedagogically-focused position.  She spoke about the versatility of faculty members who think and write about pedagogy, and how this work ended up influencing her research. She developed an accelerated program and studied and wrote about it, and although it was not closely connected to the research concerns that she’d come in with, she learned a lot about working with information, especially qualitative information, that she was later able to use in her film studies research.

Ria Banerjee discussed all the conflicting advice she’d received as a graduate student — to publish a lot or not at all, to devote herself to teaching or to treat it as something that happens alongside the “real” work of writing and getting published. She has had a lot of opportunities to speak and write publicly, for audiences she never expected to reach. She’s written some op-eds and blogs, and she’s spoken in events presented by Humanities New York.  This work doesn’t “count” as scholarship, but it does count as service.  Because service isn’t considered as important as scholarship in tenure reviews, this work doesn’t have the same weight that speaking at scholarly conferences and publishing in peer-reviewed journals does, but Guttman does make room for some work like this. They allow a certain number of “substantive” blog posts; there are ongoing conversations about exactly what that means.

Kevin Ferguson works in the English department, but his real focus is film studies. He recently was granted tenure, and made sure to do all the traditional things alongside his more innovative work. He really wanted to help students apply digital humanities principles to film and moving image texts, and to move beyond the mode of film studies scholarship that consists of a written text with some black-and-white still photos. He pointed to his work on MediaCommons. MediaCommons is in collaboration with the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies (formerly Cinema Journal), which is the journal of the Society of Cinema and Media Studies and thus a top film studies journal. This collaborative effort, called [in]Transition, is interesting to him because it takes seriously the idea of writing using the materials of study — in this case, moving images. [in]Transition refers to this as “video essays,” but he prefers “videographic criticism” because it emphasizes the idea that these works can stand on their own, without a written explanation.   The peer review process is also interesting: the reviews are published alongside the videos, which makes for a kind of transparency very unusual in scholarly publications (and perhaps interesting to members of this class?).

Lisa Rhody framed her perspective around storytelling, which is a very powerful tool for connecting with people and changing minds, but can also be used for erasure, colonialism, and exclusionary canon formation. She calls this “the hubris of the humanities.” Her work is on ekphrasis, the literary representation of visual art. There is a certain scholarly narrative about gender and ekphrasis that she wanted to push back on, so she used discourse mapping software to  study it beyond those narratives.  There were a few more technical details than the ones that made it into my notes, but she showed that some of the poets that were usually held up as examples were actually isolated from the poets’ social networks, and that other kinds of languages were used to talk about ekphrasis than the ones on which the current narrative was built. (I want to read a lot more about her work; this is very very interesting to me.) In any case, she did this work as part of her dissertation. It was three times the work of other dissertations, and she also had to work very hard to convince her dissertation advisor that this was a worthwhile project. After all that, it didn’t lead to a full-time, tenure-track position for her, either. But she is working to bring this kind of work to the mainstream, and believes that it’s important. Ultimately, she wants to use messy humanities data to challenge algorithmically designed reading systems.

Rhody also argued that you have to advocate for your own work and take calculated risks. This can be scary, especially since institutions tend to make conservative choices in times of austerity.

There was a question from the argument about talking with peers about this work: Kevin Ferguson made the point that being able to show that the journal was peer-reviewed and prize-winning makes a huge difference, even if people don’t quite understand the work itself.  Being able to show that this work is part of a larger, national conversation with its own vocabulary was also important.

Anderst pointed out that it’s always hard to assess other people’s works because there are so many disciplinary silos, but faculty at her institution are encouraged to publish open access and have a more public voice.

There are several aspects of this discussion I thought people would find interesting, so, enjoy! I’m really looking forward to Day 2 of this conference tomorrow.

I Attended a TLC Workshop — Notes + Visuals

I attended an informally styled, very informative workshop on Wed. Sept. 26 on “Expanding Your Pedagogical Toolkit”. The facilitator was GREAT, Asilia Franklin-Phipps, and I can’t wait to get to know her even more. The TLC Staff workshop team was GREAT also.

We were seated in groups of 4-5 at round tables in the Skylight room on the 9th floor with a  totally open view straight up to yesterday’s blue sky and moving white clouds above us (beautiful setting) and I think this contributed to the open process we were engaged in.

We did a hands-on project together which consisted of us reading pedagogical class ideas/suggestions “expand our teaching toolkit” aloud to hopefully inspire us. It was primarliy a matching game, though, to match the ideas with categories such as “Introduce a Topic”, “Explore a Concept, Theory or Topic”, “Engagement”, “Check for Understanding” and even “Attendance”.  We then connected/cross-referenced the categorized ideas with string.

As the saying goes, “a picture says a thousand words” so here are two photos:

1) above: photo of the table where I sat

2) above: photo of the table to my right

Wow — guess who the “linear thinkers” were…?! I think these photos not only describe the workshop but also the processes of learning how to teach, teaching and learning. Dare I use the word from our Sept. 25 class readings, “mangle” (but here with a small m) to describe the bottom photo and these collaborative processes…?

We received a wonderful worksheet handout pdf today via email from Asilia of the pedagogical ideas we read aloud and categorized, which I’m happy to share here. It’s a great document and could come in handy in case anyone hits a dry spell in their classes during the semester.