Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Why I need feminism

The anti-feminism statements online are painful and disturbing, and since I can't really figure out if those girls are being set up by male friends, if they are paid to do it, or if they are for real (what's with all those references to Poland, for instance?), I can at least consider my own connection to feminism. So, today's blog-post is a long and rambling description of my own relationship to feminism, and how what I considered personal experiences grew into political awareness.

I never defined myself as a feminist. That was because I never joined the organisations, organised the 8th of March rallies, or spoke up for women's rights in public arenas. I did not, however, believe that my life would be better if there were no feminists. I was too painfully aware of the battles that gave me the rights I had. And when my students started arguing against feminism when it was on the curriculum, I chose to address, but not worry about their arguments, and rather teach them to question, to observe and to think. An observant, thinking woman with a varied experience will see what it's all about, was my logic. And while I can't speak of them all, enough of them did come back to tell me that they had realised I was right, that I now feel my choices were justified.

And that's when I realised that my lack of a feminist card didn't matter.

I suspect the girls on the "women against feminism" blog (if you want to find them, also take a peek at "cats against feminism". It makes as much sense.) would have claimed my life is not that of a feminist. I am married and have two children and a grandchild, I frequently cook for my husband and all the kids, I need men to help me with the heaviest stuff, I even prefer to let my husband do things like changing tires and fixing leaks. I worry about my hair, and, in my old age, I have started wearing a bra. It's just more comfortable. I don't attack men just because of their gender, I don't insist on having jobs I am not qualified for just because I am female, and I don't call for female supremacy. I guess according to the internet definition, I am not a feminist.

However:
My husband cooks for me as often as I cook for him. We clean the house together, and whoever is the last to leave for work, or the first to return, does the dishes and gets the little tasks done. I am a bit better at remembering important maintenance details, I remember bills and savings and numbers, I update calendars and initiate changes. I have a better sense of space and distance, and I am more intuitively sensitive. He is better at researching, spends more time on getting the details right, remembers birthdays, is more polite and worried about what people will say, and is also physically stronger and able to go on after I have fallen asleep. When the children were small, he'd let me sleep in, after I had been up to breastfeed during the  night. He will do more dishes, but I will make sure we get all the laundry done, not just what's on top of the basket. He will take the car to the workshop, but I will notice the changes that makes it necessary. We complement each other in ways which have nothing to do with our genders, and everything to do with personal abilities. What does that have to do with feminism? Feminism permits it.

My background is a story of parents who wanted something different for their daughters. My father taught us that we could do what ever we wanted, from driving vans, steering boats and operating power tools to knitting and cooking. My mother taught us how important it was to have these skills, by exposing the ugly underbelly of expectations and limitations to us, how women were not the masters of their own bodies, their own education, their own employment, mainly through the example of her own struggles. Our father gave his daughters confidence to act, our mother gave us a strong sense of the importance of independence and the need for society to change in order to permit that independence.

With this background independence and equality wasn't an option, it was an imperative. Oh, I know the fears of every woman, and quite a bit about the harm we can expect. "#yeseverywoman" could have had my tweets right along the others. But I knew the trap of "traditional roles", of retreat into the safety of "normality" for what it is. This is why I today take such immense delight in the options I have. Living with hard-won options, in a society where I have at least a chance at employment at my level of skill, where my daughter can marry the woman she loves and my son can work in a pre-school during the summer term, and where nobody thinks it's odd when my husband cuddles our granddaughter - a society where there are nappy-changing tables in both male and female toilets - is something I am deeply grateful for.

Still, I don't initiate contact with strange men. I prefer to ride my bike, rather than walk home through empty streets. I speak to and try to support, advice and function as a reference for female scholars, nurturing their strength when I can. I grieve when I meet women who have been abused, and I know enough of fear to share their pain. I let myself be engaged in supporting the research on female health, as the research tends towards a heavy gender bias where the man is the model for the healthy human being , disregarding the very differences which are supposed to be "celebrated". I know we have come a long way, but until men can stay home with their kids if they want to, until women and men are paid the same for the same job, until girls can play video games without being shamed, and boys can wear pink and be a princess if that's what they want, I don't make the error of saying I don't need feminism. Every year makes me more of a feminist.

And it makes me want to cry to watch those girls claim they don't need feminism. They need feminists to fight for medication suited for women, they need feminists to fight for their rights when they hit their heads in the glass ceiling, they need feminists to support the shelters, they need feminists to fight for the rights of their husbands as well as their own. Feminists have, elsewhere, negotiated paid leave for new fathers, and that hated quota system? It doesn't bring the incapable into power, it ensures that the capable and educated have a chance.

I am still embarrassed by the extreme fanatics though. However, those are embarrassing no matter what you believe in. It's why I back off, quickly, when somebody talk about r-e-l-i-g-i-o-n. Or the advantages of Apple computers.

So why do I need feminism? I need feminism because I want a world where men and women have equal opportunities, without gender-based pressure or harassment. And it doesn't happen for neither women nor men without awareness and struggles.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Confessions of a research object

It wasn't an experiment. I don't know where I picked up the bug that started it all, but I had been unusually active that autumn, working out, studying hard, living in an old, cold building and eating cheaply and badly. I was a skinny, poor student in a cold rainy city, and while I considered it a good life, my body didn't have the resources needed to fight the bug when it reached me.

We were planning to go away for a few days, but we had to give up that thought, because I was throwing up and had a fever. When my boyfriend - now husband - came back from the university, I was weak, had fever fantasies and spots. I couldn't remember to have had measles, so we assumed that was it, and we settled down to wait for it to pass. At some point during the night, I got a headache that felt like it was about to kill me. I managed to make my boyfriend go call a doctor. This was before cell-phones, and even before it was common for a poor student to have a phone at home, so he walked to the nearest phone-booth and called a doctor.

The doctor was there almost before him, came in, looked at me, and immediately started banging on the neighbour's door to borrow their phone. Yes, doctors didn't have cellphones either. Three minutes later I was on a stretcher in an ambulance, on the way to the hospital. Eight minutes later they were hooking me up to just about everything. Fifteen minutes later I was in a coma.

I don't know what happened for the next two days. I am told I fought the doctors and nurses and had to be restrained, or I'd pull the needles out of my body. I am told they paraded entire classes of medical students past me to see and take note of my symptoms, threatening the students that if they ever ignored such, they could just hand in their licenses right then and there. They tapped as much blood from me as they safely could, for diagnosis and study. When I finally woke up I was in a strange room, black and blue and hurting from the amount of needles and the harsh medication that had hit my veins, and there was a nurse stationed by my side in case something happened. I was alive, but nobody really knew how alive I was yet.

I was not well. Mainly, I didn't notice what I was saying. I would think one thing and say another. To this day I have a slight case of aphasia, of not having the right word, of feeling language slip away from me. Or maybe I don't, perhaps I am just more aware of it now, after that experience. I can fake it well enough, it just means I have to double-check if I want to lecture. I overprepare, just to make sure all the words are there, and I know what they mean. They may be gone in a moment's notice, to return at odd times.

But I healed up, slowly. I was young, 22 years old, fit and strong after all. I did lose some hearing, but not enough to be a problem in everyday life. I did however get half a year worth of study wiped, which hit me hard during next term's exam. I hadn't known that it was lost, and so I hadn't known to go back and repeat it. For the first month after I was not allowed to focus. I couldn't read, watch television, listen to the radio. I went home to my parents, walked the dog, rested, learned to eat again, had involved and silly conversations with my boyfriend.

Most of all though, I was cherishing being alive. After I was out of isolation and moved to another room in the hospital, a doctor came in, sat down in the chair next to me and grinned. "You are born again," he told me. "You should be dead. But you live. This is a whole new life for you." That man was dr Alfred Halstensen, at the time working on his Ph D on meningococcal disease. For the next couple of years he kept tapping as much blood as he safely could when ever he summoned me to the hospital.

I was one of the few that autumn of 1983 who survived meningitis at Haukeland Hospital, and I was an adult who could describe carefully what had happened, and who had been strong enough to insist on medical attention before it was too late. I got a spot on his graph for his Ph. D. all to myself, as the 100% survivor of being admitted in the middle of the night, and his plan for all that blood was to use it in the effort to create a vaccine. Today there is a vaccine against some types of meningitis. It isn't one of the mandatory vaccines, but it is used to protect people in cases when epidemics are about to break out. With a disease that had, at the time, more than a 50% mortality rate, and which also tends to create mini-epidemics in otherwise healthy communities, you want that protection if there is a case at a pre-school or a military camp near you.

Now, a vaccine resister could use parts of my story to say that it's healthy for the body to battle disease. For years after that very close brush with death, I didn't even get a sore throath. My immune system was working overtime to keep me healthy, something dr Halstensen had said would happen. That vaccine resister can sadly not tell that to another Torill. At about the same time as I battled meningitis and kind of won, in another hospital another woman my age, with the same name, lost. The mortality rate was 50%. For once I was on the right side of those percentages.

This event changed my life in a myriad different ways, some to the better, some to the worse. I suspect quite a few health issues can be traced back to the enormous doses of antibiotics they used to save my life. They claimed to have "whitewashed" my body, killed all bacteria they could, to make sure they got the ones that were killing me. That is not only a good thing, no matter what a miracle modern antibiotics are. The alternative is much worse though. On the up side, I lost the fear of death. I am on my second life. How many people get a second chance? I walk through life with that as a backdrop: Every moment I have here is a miracle - a miracle of modern science. When things get dark and dreary, I consider the alternative, and enjoy the fact that I am actually here, feeling angry, frustrated or depressed. When things are bright they are twice as bright, just because I am here to experience it.

The people who resist vaccines can never have been on that side of life - over the line to death, and then dragged back by expertice and drugs. They can never have felt the extreme pain, the pain that made me wish I was dead, if the headache would just end, the pain that made me kick and fight and finally black out into a two-day coma. I don't ever want another person to feel that, to experience that. I would have given dr Halstensen and the research crew at the hospital all the blood he asked for, without much thought of personal safety, to make certain that no child would ever need to feel the pain I felt that night. Luckily he was a responsible professional, an ethical researcher, and I was protected, informed and educated through the process.

I am writing this story because of the anti-vaccination movement. They are using emotional arguments against rational arguments, using fear and pictures of babies to reach hearts, while the rational arguments of scientists aim for the heads. But where do the vaccines come from? From people like me, the blood of survivors of bitter battles, living despite the odds to become a lover, a mother, a wife, a grandmother, a scholar, a researcher. I am both heart and head, and both parts of me appreciate being alive, thanks to the doctors that work to develop vaccines to save the world from the pain I went through, the pain that made it possible for me to be of some, tiny little bit of help.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Dark Play in a book!

Finally two years after the Nordic Digra conference where the idea was conceived, our book project has come to the point where we have a publisher and a date for finalising it. I am talking about the project which up to this point was "Dark Play: Problematic Content in Playful Environments", and now is The Dark Side of Game Play: Controversial Issues in Playful Environments, Editors Torill Elvira Mortensen, Jonas Linderoth and Ashley M. L. Brown, and to be published at Routledge, most likely in 2015.

After a painful wait and a few adjustments, we are putting the physical signatures on actual paper next week, and from then on it's just a lot of work.

My first job as an editor for a book, although not my first realised book idea, it feels incredibly nice to have been able to bring it this far, and I am looking forwards to continue working with Jonas and Ashley until it's all in the box. Fun, fun, and then some fun!

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

A small lesson in the growth of bureaucracy

I have just ended my course for this term, and my darling students had as usual a wealth of questions. Several of those were to the formalia of the course: How to submit, how to write references, how many words and pages etc etc.

This is a fairly well developed course, but it's developed for paper submissions, which means there are certain things we take fairly easy on, and I thought the students would be happy about that. But no, this year the Q&A turned into a lesson in how bureaucracy grows.

First, we had a fairly soft limit: 8-11 pages, which increased at a fairly relaxed rate with the number of students. There's a formula for text type, size, margins etc, so the pages would get fairly standardised. Then the students needed a word count. OK, we gave them from 3400 - 4200 words. Still a generous range. Then they needed to know the precise word count if they were more than one. We set some more counts, still at a range. Then they needed to know exactly what to do with images. We tried again to explain that they needed to keep images at a very "need to use" basis, so please don't give us 20 pages filled with pictures. Then they needed to know exactly how many percent they could exceed the word-count range. What happens if they have 10 pages, but 4273 words? What if they have 3789 words, but 12 pages? What happens if...? They really, really wanted us to be absolute, to give them a strict and non-negotionable limit, something we would be forced to enforce. Flexibility, common sense and a generous interpretation were not words they wanted us to work by.

Year by year, as the technology allows for increased precision, this becomes more and more prevalent. In my days, we would count 10 lines, then the words in these 10 lines, find the approximate number of words on a line, add that up to a page, then add that up to the whole paper. Then we knew how much 4200 words was - approximately. And nobody would count every word.

Today they and we can count every keystroke, and with more options for precision there is also a much larger perceived potential for error. This means the insecurity increases, and answers that address a range or an approximation is no longer good enough. There is a point where the potential of the machine makes us forget about common sense, about the brilliant turn of phrase, the seductive writing of a good argument.

What I really want to tell my students is this: Write well, seduce us, lead us through the labyrinth of your argument, and we can forgive you the length of the text or the shape of the print. Make us laugh with joy as we explore the intricacies of your understandings and your thoughts, and remind us why teaching is such a beautiful thing. And please, don't make us formalize your work down to the last keystroke. We want you to have a range within which to work, some room, some flexibility. Each question we have to answer hems us in, more and more. Please - take a risk on the word-count, because we are reading, not counting.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Writing in bits and pieces

I am currently trying out the writing software Scrivener, to see if it is a better system for a type of writing which might fit how I think. It has a lot of very seductive aspects, such as several good ways to visualise chapters, a lot of ways to introduce meta-data which can also be used to outline or summarize the work, different tags and connections. But after years of handling text as massive monumental pieces, like a scroll growing mainly in one direction, it is very hard to wrap my head around another writing paradigm.

This is of course why I am doing it.

I have always felt that  my thinking happens in leaps and bounds, that my thinking is like a puzzle where nothing fits at first. I have a piece here and a piece there, but not really the whole picture. Then I start seeing how it needs to be organised, and I keep moving it around - a piece of sky there, a bit of fence here, until I have it more or less filled into a whole picture. Using Scrivener I realised that while this may be the metaphor for my thought process, it is not the metaphor of my writing process.

When I write, I visualise not a puzzle, but a river. Everything flows into the force of the direction I am moving in. Little thoughts and ideas flow into the writing and get caught up and carried along, until it's grown wide and heavy, powerful and overwhelming. Sometimes it falls into the ocean in a dramatic waterfall, splendid and catching rainbows, sometimes it works its way painfully through a muddy delta, but on it struggles until its conclusion.

Those are two very different processes, and while it may be due to the force of habit, it feels like Word is the river, while Scrivener is the puzzle.

At the same time, writing is a puzzle even when it feels like a river. I pause and put in references, I search for books, I write in qoutes. I use systems to organise the reference process - if I managed to figure out how to do that more efficiently in Scrivener, I might be over a big hurdle. All of this makes me feel old, tired and lazy when I can't get the different technology to work for me. Still, my understanding of well designed technology is that it makes me feel smarter, not more stupid. The technology I adore eases my everyday life, it doesn't make it harder. It fits in smoothly, without abrasions, because if I have to fiddle around every time I use it, I can do the processes quicker and easier by hand. On a piece of paper. With some scissors and glue.

So, no conclusion, just frustration. I still have a lot of other systems to mess around with - the perfect one may be out there.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Waiting for the barbarians

I am writing on European culture, and it's still early in the process. Hence I am googling random phrases, looking for the words, the articles and the books that can push me further. And there it is, suddenly, a poem that grips me, makes me think and also laugh, at this Europe in which I live, this odd, ancient, and also new and raw place. I found it in the beginning of a book that is available as a PDF: David Morley and Kevin Robbins (1995): Spaces of identity; Global Media, Electronic Landscapes and Cultural Boundaries, London: Routledge.

It is a poem by the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy: Waiting for the babarians. A snippet from the poem:
Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

I think we are, all over Europe, still expecting the barbarians. However, we have forgotten who they are.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Non-hedonic what?

After having written a few articles on hedonism and pleasure in relation to games, I was interested when I found, in the latest issue of Journal of Communication, two articles discussing hedonism in relation to communication. While saying you are a hedonist today means saying you are focused only on indulging yourself, hedonism in the original meaning was not about indulgence, but about taking pleasure in your life. This pleasure could be had from many different sources, and one of the frequently discussed topics in antiquity, was if this pleasure was in itself a virtue to be strived for, or if it involved and possibly even was dependent on virtue. Plato, Socrates, Epicurus and Aristippus, among others, did not promote senseless indulgence, what they discussed was a life free of fear, and low on pain, and rather more filled with good things. If they came out on the less fear and pain, more peace and joy side, they argued this had been a good life. The rest was a matter of how to get there.

One of the discussions involved eudaimonia. Since this involved Aristotle and the stoics, both parties high on the virtue scale, we popularly tend to read this as the opposite of hedonism. This is also how Hofer, Allemand and Martin defines it:
From a process-based point of view, Oliver and Bartsch (2010) introduce the concept of appreciation, which is defined as "the perception of deeper meaning, the feeling of being moved, and the motivation to elaborate on thoughts and feelings inspired by the experience" (Oliver & Bartsch, 2010, p 76). This nonhedonic gratification is conceptualized... (Hofer, Martin & Allemand, 2014, p 62)
Hofer and friends here makes the leap from something being different from hedonism to something being not hedonism, and defines it by the absence of something, in this case, by defining hedonism as pleasure, as the absence of pleasure. This is not the Aristotelian nor the stoic definition of eudaimonia. Let us go to what we, for simplicity's sake, can assume is an authority, and check Encyclopædia Britannica: "eudaemonism, also spelled eudaimonism, or eudemonism,  in ethics, a self-realization theory that makes happiness or personal well-being the chief good for man." Encyclopædia Britannica's descriptions of both epicurean hedonism and utilitarian hedonism, they are obviously not such strong opponents that they exclude each other. Rather, eudaimonia is a way of experiencing pleasures that are closer to utilitarian hedonism than to epicurean hedonism, but which is still a pleasure-based ideal of the good life.

This also makes reasonable sense if we look at the definition of eudaimonic vs hedonic entertainment as used by Iliver and Raney, cited by Hofer et. al. Here eudaimonic entertainment is driven by a desire for insight and meaning, while hedonic entertainment is more purely for the pleasure. We are back to what appears to be related to the virtue-discussion of the old Greeks, where in this case insight and meaning is deemed more virtuous and hence nore in the line with the teachings of the stoics.

The error that got me started on all of this is the idea that eudaemonism and hedonism exclude each other to the point that the one becomes not hedonic. That is a leap too far. Just consider the viewing habits of those who watch so-called eudaimonic entertainment, that is entertainment that makes you think, where you learn something and understand something about yourself. There is personal growth and there is a sense of meaningfullness. Doesn't this bring pleasure? Even if the movie is sad, don't the viewers enjoy them? Personally, while I thoroughly enjoy silly movies, comedy and easy television series I can fall asleep to, I also love being challenged and forced to think and question. Actually, I will claim that when I take time to consider a very difficult concept, read a book that I need to read and reread to understand, and then perhaps even get so far as writing a scholarly article about it, I am extremely happy! I experience a very high level of pleasure, and feel like I have indulged indeed.

To me, that is a hedonistic experience. I am quite willing to claim it is also a eudaimonic experience. I am not, however, ready to say it's non-hedonic. For it to be non-hedonic, it would have to be pure pain. I occasionally do those things too, it's normally called "chores". But even those have an aspect of utilitarian hedonism, as me finishing my chores tend to lead to other good things, like the happiness of others (more hedons for the world!) and future happiness of myself. And so it goes, as a professor expressed it at a vaguely recollected lecture on philosophy more than 30 years ago: "If you ask why we do something for long enough, the final response is - because I want to be happy." And there it is.

By the way, the other article mentioning hedonism in that journal issue, the one about how narratives persuade, the suspension of disbelief and didactic vs hedonistic processing? That one made me very happy, and I will most likely be citing it in a hopefully soon to be seen article. Don't hold your breath though - academic publishing is very close to creating more dolors than hedons all around.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Facebook, grandparent generation edition

I am one of the early Facebook users, and over the years I have used it in a lot of different ways. First, to stalk the students who invited me and discuss with other scholars how to use it as teachers, later - and for a very long time - to follow those other scholars and catch their news and their links, a mix of playful and serious, like a lunch table at a huge, international university.

Over the last year this has changed though. Facebook has seen a shift, and my personal past is suddenly also there. It started very nicely and casually: people I had missed showed up, we connected on Facebook, and it was just great. Then this group started to play games - innocent games, but surprisingly emotional. One of them was called "you know you are from XXX if..." - and then they started posting things only people from our part of the world, at a specific time, would know. It was surprising how painful that game turned out to be. Pictures of people and places once so important to me opened something I never though was so sensitive. I started to remember how deeply unhappy the girl who walked those streets was. Oh, I remember laughter and friends and fun - that was how I got into that circle of conversations in the first place. But underneath that was fear, loneliness and grief, loss and impotent anger. The Norwegian group Dum-Dum boys says it better than me:
GÅR MED EN HÅND
I HVER SIN LOMME
GATENE HER HAR VÆRT LENGRE
EN AV SVINGENE ER DEN SISTE

NABOLAGET HER ER FULLT AV SKRØMT
HAR ALDRI FLYTTA JEG HAR RØMT
NABOLAGET HER ER FULLT AV SKRØMT
HAR ALDRI FLYTTA JEG HAR RØMT
JEG VAR EN ANNEN DEN GANG DA
SLANG HEKK OG HAGELANGS
To translate: Walking with a hand/ in each pocket/ the streets here have been longer/ one of the turns is the last one. // This neighbourhood is full of ghosts/ have never moved I escaped/ this neighbourhood is full of ghosts/ have never moved I escaped/ I was another way back then/ slinking along the hedges and gardens.

And now I find myself carefully wetting each invitation. Do I want more of that? How do I deal with  those who think of me as a person they can easily approach, a friend lost to them, while to me they are part of a landscape of ghosts? Also, it's not that simple, I do long for some of those connections, to keep in touch with a past which is both slipping away and coming closer. And some of those people; I know that my presence on their feeds, that very tentative connection, is extremely important to them. While I may never be able to be what they would like me to be - a loving friend, a warm presence in their lives - I can give them this, a little sliver of closeness through digital media. Is it that much to ask?

I am starting to see how the popularity of Facebook may be its end. There is a point too close to the bone for me. The more people who connect with their ghosts, the more people reach that point. If I am suddenly absent from Facebook, that is what happened. I was eaten by the ghosts - or escaped, again.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

PhD course at ITU: Citizenship in the Digital Republic 2014 - call

Citizenship in the Digital Republic 2014:
Mundane counter publics in the digital age

March 12-14, 2014, at the IT University of Copenhagen

Lecturers: Prof. Klaus Bruhn Jensen, Copenhagen University; Prof. Peter Dahlgren, Lund University, Prof. Maria Bakardjieva, University of Calgary, Associate Prof. Bjarki Valtysson, Copenhagen University; Associate Prof. Lisbeth Klastrup, IT University of Copenhagen; Assistant Prof. Jun Liu, Copenhagen University; Christina Neumayer, Postdoctoral Fellow, IT University of Copenhagen.

Organiser(s): Christina Neumayer, Maria Bakardjieva

Date(s) of the course: March 12-14, 2014

Course description:
This course is the second edition of the ‘Citizenship in the Digital Republic’ course with a focus on ‘Mundane counter-publics in the digital age’. Citizenship, broadly defined, includes any form of democratic participation in social systems – political, technological and expert. The digital republic, for its part, is understood as a political community where the governance of the people is performed by creative utilization of communication networks. How is such governance realized and how can it advance participatory democracy? What opportunities for involvement do citizens have in a densely mediated polis? Can technological development itself be democratically steered? The goal of the course is to critically explore the new forms of democratic participation that the pervasive presence of digital media in contemporary societies affords and requires. The course aims at attracting and giving a forum to students whose interests focus on participatory forms of design, political and civic engagement, counter-publics and social movements, technological politics, regulation and education. The themes comprising the course take up the concept of citizenship and counter-publics in four distinct contexts:

first theme: counter publics in the digital age
second theme: civic activism, participation, and digital media
third theme: mundane citizenship, digital media, and everyday life
fourth theme: co-creation and participation in policy development and technology design

Counter publics in the digital age
The focus of the first theme is on counter publics in a society characterized by the thorough penetration of digital information and communication technologies (ICTs). Counter publics refer to the individuals or groups marginalized or excluded from the mainstream public sphere who contest, negotiate, and struggle against the hegemonic discourse, form spaces of political opposition, or establish alternative forms of community and identity. With the growing presence of digital technologies in all areas of social life, the internet, mobile phones, and social media are transforming the way people express themselves, interact with each other, engage or form communities, and perceive the world. How are digital communication technologies generating and facilitating opportunities that allow for the establishment of alternative political and cultural identities and communities that define themselves in opposition to established norms? What are the characteristics of the counter-publics in the digital age and how do they differ from those of the past?

Civic activism, participation, and digital media
The second theme will look at the uptake and appropriation of digital media technologies for the purposes of civic action and political participation. It will review the advances made by social movements and civic activists in rallying support and making an impact on political life and the political establishment through the creative use of digital media. The new civic cultures emerging from these processes and their relation to digital technologies and uses will be examined. This theme includes notions of media practices, media-based agency, web journalism and civic cosmopolitanism, which are according to Dahlgren essential elements of civic cultures in the digital age.

Mundane citizenship, digital media, and everyday life
The third theme will be centred on the notion of ‘mundane citizenship’ and ‘mundane counter-publics’. So far a relatively large amount of research is devoted exclusively to use of new media in particular moments of alternative or antagonistic mobilization, failing to associate these specific uses with a larger living context—the mundane, everyday experiences of new media users. In particular, current approaches largely neglect the power dynamics in the mundane use of new media technologies. Consequently, the heavy emphasis on the role of new media in specific eruptions of contentious politics overlooks the cumulative changes in civic agency associated with the mundane use of new media. Accounts narrowly focused on specific events fail to capture, reflect, and assess the political potential embedded in the new practices of civic engagement furnished by new media (e.g., "subactivism") that are submerged in everyday life.

Co-creation and participation in policy development and technology design
The fourth theme takes the notion of citizenship to the terrain of cultural and educational institutions, and cultural practices. It discusses the liberating and repressive forces at play in the way users co-produce culture online both within and outside formal cultural spheres. Co-creation and participation became buzzwords in policy development, technology design and use of digital media, in particular the so-called ‘social web’. Despite the creative potential and the possibility for engagement, a critical perspective on these developments also needs to take unintended consequences such as privacy issues, surveillance and limitations for the development of counter-publics and cultural practices into account.

By looking beyond “eye-grabbing” events (e.g., revolutionary moments), this course probes into the political implication of mundane use of new media in people’s everyday life. Addressing mundane use of new media in people’s everyday experience will help us to understand the cumulative effects of new media and their gradual evolution, but also shed light on the deeper impact of digital communication technologies on social and political changes both today and in the years to come.

How to sign up:
Sign up by sending an e-mail to Christina Neumayer (chne[at]itu.dk).
All students must submit with their application to the course a short abstract of their work as it relates to the course (not more than 500 words). Applications should be submitted by January 27, 2014. Enrolment is limited to 20 participants.

Please find more information about ECTS, etc. here: https://learnit2.itu.dk/course/view.php?id=1974436
and at the PhD school website.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Growing older

I am collecting links, quotes and references for a presentation in Leusden next week. Together with my scientific assistant I am off to the conference Games of Late Modernity, where we - or he mainly - will present a co-written presentation on play with identity. Now the games and play part - including the part about Huizinga - I am fairly confident about, but modernity isn't exactly what I have been spending the last 30 years on... I thought.

But here I am, letting myself sink into Giddens and Bauman, only to discover how familiar this is. No, I am still not an expert, and if I try to claim that the real modernity geeks will shoot me down like a sitting duck. But the more I read the more I realise how much of this development of paradigms I have lived. The seperation of space and time, disembedding and reflexivity - I have seen it happen, and the everyday reading, watching, writing, in general, living with eyes and ears open has led me to an understanding which is almost more like lived time - the argument becomes embedded in my lived experience, not disembedded and learned as mediated experience.

Or is it?

It is refreshing to sit and ponder the ambivalence of experience, and feel the contradictions like an ache in my bones, like the wrinkles of my skin. I feel both ancient (I have to be, in order to feel I have lived modernity), and surprisingly young (I feel transported back to the early eighties, as I try to figure out where I lost All that is solid melts into air. And the only reason I remember that phrase is because it is so poetic.)

Yes, I know, I write as if I am 80 years old. But the truth is that I feel like I am at a perfect age: old enough that I have decades of experience as a thinking, analysing being to draw on when I need to contextualise new knowledge, young enough to have energy, strength and an immediacy of presence needed to learn new things. At this point in life, growing older is still a good thing. At least as long as you have a really good hairdresser, and don't worry too much about having to wear glasses.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Happiness is an idle game

A while ago, I got a request from a journalist. I want to thank him, because he pointed me to something new and interesting, even if I didn't have a good answer to him. What he did was to point me to what so far is called the "Idle game" movement, represented mainly by Cookie Clicker, A Dark Room and Candy Box.

So much for that day - it turned out jet-lag and what I rather want to call "slow reveal" games are a perfect combination. I spent the day clicking back and forth between A Dark Room which soon became a firelit room, Cookie Clicker and Candy Box, revelling in a play experience I didn't know I had missed.

My favourite was A Dark Room, which is probably the reason why I prefer "slow reveal" to "idle". A Dark Room doesn't really let you idle. I have to open that pane regularly to click to gather wood and meat, check if my villagers are sick, build stuff and later go on quests. It has a certain "idle" quality in that once I have clicked a few boxes, I have to wait until resources fill up again, and if I die while questing, I have to wait until I can quest again. But it is not idle in the manner of Cookie Clicker and Candy Box. Right now I am waiting for 379,562,151,938,677 cookies, so I can buy another antimatter converter and make more cookies. I am aiming for 100 antimatter condensers (for now), and the main work I have to do is to wait. To give you an example, while writing the paragraph above, I built a house, three traps and a workshop in A Dark Room, I ate 647 candies in Candy Box (in one click), and waited through another few billions of cookies in Cookie Clicker.

So what are these games? My first immediate thought was Ian Bogost's infamous Cow Clicker. Cow Clicker was designed as a casual game parody, and was quite good at it. So good actually, that people refused to give it up. When Bogost took the cows out of the game, people clicked on the empty box, and wrote about the emptiness of a life without the mooing sound of the virtual cows in the non-game. (Btw - there I hit 379 562 billion and something, and could buy another antimatter condenser.) Like Cow Clicker all the games are highly playful and ironic, and they play with genres as well as with their own progress: layers of meta on top of actual, functional game engines.

Unlike Cow Clicker, they play with much more than one genre. All games are to a certain degree resource allocation games. Cookie clicker is definitely one, where the main goal of the game is to gain resources. It is also about gamification, as what you do is wait for the resources to build up, gain achievements and register progress. There is no risk - even the wrinklers, the monsters that eat at the cookie world, don't really delay the progress that much. I can miss clicking on the occasional golden cookie, but - well - perhaps it's me, but that doesn't feel all that risky.

Candy Box has more action. The candy box part at the beginning feels like Cookie Clicker in that it just allows a very few acts, but in this case, you don't have to click. All you need to do is wait, and while you wait you gain candies. Then you eat some or throw some away or save some, and you wait some more. After a lot of waiting (we see where the "idle" comes from), it's possible to play, and slowly, as you gain more and more resources (candy and lollipops), you can start exploring. This is where the game changes to a more regular old-fashioned adventure, with action! Candies can be used to by gear and upgrades, and by and by you can start outfitting your little avatar and go on adventures all the way to hell. This game even lets you learn how to craft, and crafting is a vital part of making it through the levels.

A Dark Room is my favourite though, with it's almost poetic minimalist beginning, and the explorations into a world that is slowly revealed to the player. This too includes a lot of waiting, but now there is a risk to waiting. My first settlers were deeply troubled by raids, and their traps were constantly ruined, forcing me to rebuild over and over again, for instance. The exploration part of the game was a little slow-reveal game within, as the map was totally unexplored until I started to walk into it - and so I died and died and died again. The game had four phases, one which was just waking up and waiting, one was allocating the initial resources, one was exploring the landscape, and then there is the space flight.

Slow reveal games are perhaps the essence of adventure games, at least Candy Box and A Dark Room. At the same time they are extremely casual, as we don't have to go out and actually do that much of the resource allocation work. No killing of chickens to gather enough feathers for the arrows, no emptying the secret hiding places of every inhabitant in the village for coins. All you need to do is wait, let it run, chck once in a while, when you need to pause anyway, to see how the game progresses. If you're smart, you make a little routine out of it - stretch, check game, back to work. Unlike smoking, it's a casual habit that lets you get out of a rut, take two minutes to reset, without giving you and your environments lung cancer.

And they are not trying to make you spend a lot of money on them. Unlike games like Candy Crush (which I have been playing for a few months now, hardcore mode, which for me means not buying any help), you can just play. The game isn't trying to trick you into anything. It is incredibly liberating after all those casual games on Facebook, where the genius of a small horde of graphic designers is dedicated to making you lust for those micro-transactions.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Work or Play?

Yesterday I caught fractions of an ignite talk here at IR 14.0 in Denver. I say fractions, because ignite talks in English are too quick for me. No matter how much I read, write, speak and listen in English, it is still a second language. Now, give it to me in Norwegian, and I'll be fine, I might even try the genre myself, but...

Anyway, that was a digression. Back to the topic. The talk was given by Jaime Banks (University of Toronto), and was called "Pixel-assassination: Protecting work and play in internet research". So, what did I catch of the stream of words with pictures? She was concerned with how, studying games, her fun became work, and she mixed the two. Mainly, she felt her fun was suffering because she was studying it, and it became work. So she claimed we need to think about how to protect our fun. Then, this morning, colleague Jonas Linderoth's Facebook stream contained a picture of 7 different digital games, with the comment "work or play? That's the question."

Game scholars are not the first with this problem. It has been an issue for literature studies for instance, for ever. Who ruined the humanities, writer Lee Siegel asks in the Wall Street Journal:

But once in the college classroom, this precious, alternate life inside me got thrown back into that dimension of my existence that vexed or bored me. Homer, Chekhov and Yeats were reduced to right and wrong answers, clear-cut themes, a welter of clever and more clever interpretations. Books that transformed the facts were taught like science and social science and themselves reduced to mere facts. Novels, poems and plays that had been fonts of empathy, and incitements to curiosity, were now occasions of drudgery and toil.
And still, there are literature professors who love their jobs, and still love literature. Probably even the very professors who did not manage to make the study of it come alive for Lee Siegel. Loving the study doesn't automatically mean you're a great teacher. But it is obviously a problem that by studying your passion can kill your passion.

I don't know how to fix that though, and I don't think my method will work.

After almost 20 years of studying games, I have to admit this problem stumps me, mainly because I love my job as much as I love playing games. Possibly more. Several of my game adventures are just work, and the most fun part of them is the work part. Now that isn't as horrible as it sounds, because that moment when I start seeing how things connect, how a game unravels or a social platform function, how a text is put together and theory unfolds and connects the dots - it feels better than almost anything. I have ignored family, food, health, kittens and sunsets for that sense of being in the flow, in the rush of analysing and understanding. Sadly it's a rush I have to work very, very hard to reach. I have play, to read, to interview, to observe, to discuss and then read a bit more to reach it, to touch that point within when it feels like my brain is using all available capacity on this one thing.

So - ehh - no, I don't find it a problem that my fun suffers for my work. As a matter of fact, my challenge is to find a past-time that is as fun as my work, something which is sufficiently challenging that I don't get depressed from not working. Television puts me to sleep. I have no musical talent. Crafts like knitting works if I can do other things at the same time, so knitting, watching television, chatting with family and analysing the plot of what ever we are watching in a jam of textual analysis (yeah, we do that in our family, media critique is social literacy when we have a cozy evening watching television. And don't ever watch the news with us. You'll hear more about politics, local and global, than you might want to know.). I guess I am the wife and mother of hopeless nerds.

(Now that I read the previous passage again, it looks like I am bragging about our brains. I do want to point out though, that the analysis and the discussions aren't always particularly good. They are often banal and common-place, and loaded with assumptions only a certain methodological rigour and easy access to Google can save us from.)

This way I can take the work-mode into everything. It may make me a horribly boring person for non-digital-media-researchers. But it makes me feel alive. I can sit on top of a mountain, exhausted by the climb, admiring the view, and there I can think about the connectedness of modern man. And no, it doesn't keep me from experiencing the moment, it doesn't disconnect me from the present. Quite the opposite, it connects me to all that I am, body and mind, social and professional. Studying what I love, and loving the study, I feel alive.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Life as a female academic

I just found this list, directed at male academics who want to promote equality in the workplace: Don't be that dude. It's a blogpost on Tenure, she wrote, written by Acclimatrix.

I agree that there's a lot men can do in order to make environments more welcoming for women. I spent 19 years in a male-dominated workplace, and came away from it with very few friends and not a lot of self-respect. I loved a lot of the guys there, but the general environment needed some serious tweaking to make men and women just humans together, rather than humans and women. And I think that is what lists like the one in "Don't be that dude" are supposed to achieve.

I would however feel a lot less human in a culture that followed that list slavishly. Also, the list is extremely culture-biased in what it asks for and what it doesn't ask for. Let's read it from my point of view, a female associate professor in a male-dominated field in Scandinavia:

1: Titles - we don't use them much. It's useful when we need the ethos in particular contexts, but otherwise it's not a done thing. Equality is more important than hierarchy in everyday situations. This also means that mrs, miss, ma'm and all those other little titles are absent too. I like that a lot better than suddenly being "professor Mortensen" or "Dr. Mortensen". I am simply Torill Mortensen, or Torill, and that is enough.

2: If nobody commented on my appearance when I put in an effort, I'd be really unhappy about it! And yes, we comment on it when the guys dress up too, and I get compliments from other women, and give them to women and men. It's recognition for an effort, and I think it's perfectly appropriate.

3, 4 and 5 are important in this culture too. I do appreciate how difficult 4 can be though, when cracking jokes and not watching every word, so in certain settings it's not such a bad thing. It's all about timing though, as manners and humour so often is.

6, 7, 8, 9 - this is where being Scandinavian kicks in. I will happily let men open doors for me, partly because a lot of doors are bloody heavy (getting into and out of the IT department is a struggle, every time!), and partly because I just like a little bit of role-playing with my everyday life. I will also gladly let fit young men carry crates, or macho men who rebuild cars in their spare time have a go at that tire. But the men I hang out with are good at thinking of gifts for occasions, they take their own notes, and they run off to fetch their kids, so they have to run from meetings. I think the last of that particular brand of everyday inequality in Scandinavian Academia is there because there are still more single mothers than single fathers. This means that no matter how hard the guys work at equality, there will always be more women in Academia who are tied to the routines of families than men.

10, see 3 and 5.

11 - benevolent sexism. This explains why the author feels that 2 is a problem. I am still not quite there though. I find that the problem with benevolent sexism isn't that we talk about women like that (great cook AND great scientist), but that we don't talk about men like that. Women are rewarded for having a good life/work balance, men are not. We don't see it as a quality for men to be considerate of their families while also maintaining healthy careers. Yes, women have to work twice as hard as men for the same recognition, partly because we are expected to have this life/work balance, or else! But men who have it may be complimented on doing dishes (what a good guy you are...), but it's not very acceptable when they consistently leave meetings early, avoid overtime or scale back to 80% workweeks because they need to spend more time with the family. It may harm female careers, but I suspect it hurts men more. So rather than less benevolent sexism, I am in favour of more benevolence all around. Give credit where credit is due, and I know several guys who should have "great cook and great dad" in their obituaries.

I am editing point 11 to put in the "top five regrets" from Bronnie Ware's book on the regrets of the dying. It's cold comfort to know that in the end, what people regret not doing are the things women are supposed to do, but it may teach us to read obituaries differently. At the point in life when they become relevant, the good obituary will talk of a person who did not worry about what people expected of them, worked less, spent more time with their friends, expressed their feelings and allowed themselves to be happy.

12 - mansplaining. In Norway we just call those "hersketeknikker" and cite the scholar Berit Ås, who studied the master supression techniques of Ingjald Nissen and popularised them. Read up on it. It's brilliant, and you don't need to use that silly and imprecise word again. 13 and 14 falls under this.

15 to 18 are mainly calls to action, and not a problem. It's also important. Now that gender equality is less about survival and more about quality of life, it may be a good idea to consider that there's more to life than a career. Perhaps that "more" isn't the same "more" for you as for your female colleague, but working towards a system that gives everybody more liberty in how they live their lives is not a bad thing.

19, see 12.

20 - a cookie? But of course you'll have a cookie at the end of this! You may even know how to bake it yourself! How does the saying go - "give a man a cookie, and he has something with his coffee, teach a man to bake, and he will redesign the kitchen to do it more, better and faster." So in the end, you can have all the cookies you like, and you can offer cookies to others. And that's what this is all about. More cookies to go around, for all of us.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Pull the plug

Recently, there's a rash of books giving advice on how to achieve the good life. The authors regularly appear on radio, talking about their books. I am still not reading them, but since I have spent a lot of this summer driving around in Scandinavia, I can't avoid hearing all about it.

They all talk about how the key to the good life is to unplug. Turn off the smart-phone, stop logging on to Facebook, keep from immersing yourself in technology, leave the lap-top at home and let the Ipad battery run low. Listening to them, the worst thing you can do is to use modern technology.

This is all very up-to-date, and in a way, it feels right. Going offline to most of us means putting away the day-to-day demands of the regular routine. Avoiding routine is a way to discover new things about ourselves, it helps us gain new experiences, and even think some new thoughts. It looks like there is a strong causal relationship between unplugging and new experiences.

I claim this is a very superficial connection, and that what connection there is relies on routine, not on technology. This kind of self-help books are much older than technology. It's all about paying attention to the moment, rather than acting from habit. There are whole religions built around this:
  • Zen is more of an attitude than a belief.
  • Zen is the peace that comes from being one with an entity other than yourself.
  • Zen means being aware of your oneness with the world and everything in it.
  • Zen means living in the present and experiencing reality fully.
  • Zen means being free of the distractions and illusory conflicts
We have always known that in order to relax and be at peace, we need to let go of the day-to-day concerns that keep nagging us, all the little things we don't master, all the demands we can't meet and desires we can't satisfy. That didn't enter into human lives with Facebook. This means that unplugging won't make us instantly happy, either. I do however believe that in order to achieve some kind of happiness, we need to cherish moments of no intrusion from routine demands, and yes, sometimes that is easier if you don't check Facebook.

Personally, I find a lot of those free moments of no other intrusion when I am very engaged with technology, and I achieve a sense of being free of distractions and illusory conflict that way. But I don't think anybody will buy a book that says: "Stop worrying about how to achieve inner balance, and start enjoying the moments when you do." First, it's a very short book. Next, it doesn't give people an easy, physical way to feel they are doing it right. Third, your Facebook status won't show that you haven't posted in a week. You will just have to blog about it if you want people to know how happily unconcerned you are.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

D or F?

Some time ago, I assessed a master's thesis at a Norwegian university (I do so regularly, at different universities). It was a half-assed piece of work, and I gave it a low mark, as I should. This didn't happen without discussion or resistance; the other assessor disagreed initially. We went through the thesis very thoroughly, and also read the descriptions of the use of the different grades in the Norwegian system. At the end we agreed that the grade was the only possible one, from the content and the descriptions. The internal assessor had hoped for a better grade for the student, but that's why we use external assessors in this system: in order to have qualified, unbiased readings.

In this process, the other assessor said something that stuck with me. "But when they apply abroad, they look at this grade, and our students don't have a chance, because in the US, the grades are used differently." The implication was that this paper would have gotten a much better grade in the US. Now, I can't grade according to a hypothetical standard in another country, so the argument didn't change anything. But it triggered a curiosity about the performance of American students vs Norwegian, because one of my impressions is that in the US, there is a much higher general failure rate. In Norway, if you start an education, you may not always excel, but you have a very high chance of finishing. My impression was that in the higher education in the US, the drop-out rate is much higher.

Today I read about the failure rate in MOOC - Massive Online Open Courses - in California, or more precisely, San José. Now, comparing regular teaching with MOOCs is unfair. Any teacher with a tad of experience knows the difference between seeing the students face to face and writing them. However, a sentence in the article caught my attention:
Gov. Jerry Brown had lauded the goals of the program to allow students to graduate faster and reduce their debt loads at a time when only 16 percent of California State students graduate in four years.
 16%

Almost all Norwegian students are state students. The education is free. How many graduate in four years? From SSB, the state-owned statistics bureau (which, by the way, has been noted as being more critical of the educational system than the private agency paid to assess it.):
Av de om lag 30 600 studentene som startet på bachelorutdanning for første gang i 2006, fullførte 45 prosent innen tre år. Etter ytterligere to år hadde 62 prosent fullført. Sammenlignet med studentene som startet i 2005, har andelen som fullførte innen fem år økt med 4 prosentpoeng. I løpet av denne femårsperioden var det 23 prosent som avbrøt studiet. 9 prosent av disse avbrøt etter første året. Bachelorutdanningen i økonomiske og administrative fag hadde høyest andel av studenter som avbrøt i løpet av fem år, hele 33 prosent.

45% have finished in three years. In five years, 62% have finished. 23% have quit, and didn't finish over five years. We don't know if they resumed/will resume their education later. Now, discussing which universities and colleges we should compare our universities with is a bit useless. Norway doesn't have the private Ivy-league schools, but we have a pretty solid state-run educational system. We can't really compare either way, but we do tend to compare our system with the Ivy-league schools, as these are the goal for many of our students who go abroad. But who are the Ivy-league students? They are the children of the educated and well-off, and what does statistics tell us about academic success and social background?

If we look at the figure in the article from SSB, it's pretty clear. Children of parents with higher education finish more higher education. Children of parents with no education finish less. (Considering that none of my parents finished high-school, I am an anomaly according to this statistic: a person from my background should not have a doctorate. Yes, I thank the Norwegian welfare state and the miracle of our educational system regularly.) We compare a system which encompasses students from all backgrounds, with a system which exclusively caters to those with the best chances. We expect our students to compete with the very top of the heap of an extremely competitive system, where failure and dropping out is more common than completing an education.

There's no real conclusion to this. I am not saying which of these two systems is the better (although, see above, I know where my loyalty lies.) What I am saying is: They can't really be compared. The Norwegian educational system needs some serious tweaking, I agree. But I don't feel bad about giving a low grade to a student who doesn't perform well. They are still miles ahead of the large numbers of US students who do not get a grade at all. If we are to compare our students with the American ones, we need to compare both ends. And when it comes to making sure the population is educated, we perform very well indeed.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Grandmother in the age of the internet

I have been a grandmother for more than 6 months. The girl in question is very much the child of a modern family: the daughter of my daughter's wife, legally my daughter's daughter, emotionally, socially and in every possible way a child of this family. She smiles like my daughter, looks like my daughter-in-law, and explores the world like her unique self.

Sadly, she's in Bergen and I am in Copenhagen. That's however nothing new. My kids were born and lived in Bergen, while their grandparents lived in Ålesund and Oslo, a similar distance and a much longer travel time. I fly to Bergen for 400,- nkk and in 90 minutes. We used to pay what felt like a lot more while we had a lot less, to spend a night either on a train or on the coastal steamer, to get from Bergen in the days when we travelled with kids.

The real difference is in the day to day communication. My daughter keeps skyping us when she wants company - and we keep insisting that she skypes us. Or use google hang-out, or what ever other technology we have available. Sometimes it's my husband from one place, my daughter with her family, and me. And occasionally the uncle, our son, looking in from a fourth location. And then we chat, wave at each other, admire recent tricks and I sing, very badly, to the admiring audience who is my daughter's daughter. Internet, be happy you don't have to be part of those hang-outs.

The closest thing in the eighties was long and expensive phone-calls. The cost was a constant drain on a student economy, and the grandparents weren't all that interested in paying their end of it, so it would happen perhaps once a month. Then there would be the occasional letter. These were mainly in order to send pictures back and forth, and those were really expensive: film, process and copied, so there would be enough pictures for both set of grandparents, and then a hand-written letter in there. Yes, so much more exclusive and so much more labour-intensive, if you want to feel that communication matters. But also so rare, and so formal.

Now, I can watch that darling baby, as she listens to out-of-tune scales sung to her, and she tries to respond. It's almost enough to make me go pick up a little flute, to see her face when I play to her. It's a little marvel, and I get to enjoy it instantly. But it doesn't end there. My daughter and daughter-in-law got themselves a pretty good digital camera, and they use it frequently for little movies and a lot of pictures, posted to their pass-word protected weblog. I check my email only slightly more often. I get to see her grow, sometimes day to day, always once or twice a week, and I can comment, and then I get comments on the comments. All my colleagues know this, because it offers another benefit: I am ruthlessing making them admire the day-to-day development of this miracle of normal extraordinarity which is a grand-child.

I am still not sure if she actually responds to the person on the screen as a human being, or just odd sounds and images, but when I visit, she isn't afraid. It may be because I sound so much like my daughter, or she may actually get it - I am something familiar and non-threatening. It certainly makes me feel very close to them, to my children, their friends and loved ones, and now this little miracle of a girl. Not to mention the cat. It isn't the internet without a cat.

Of course, a lot of other things have changed too, from our parents' time to us. We are generally healthier and more fit. We have more education, and expect to be able to keep learning new things all the time. Education never ends these days, and communication technology changes so quickly, a constant stream of something new is the stable normality. Not all of the changes are necessarily to the better. It's important to learn to protect ourselves from the anxiety born of potentially constant connection. But when I log on to the little darling's blog and see a new picture of her crawling, chasing the tail of their cat, information technology is nothing but wonderful. I am a grandmother in the age of the Internet, and I love it.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

More on pink and princesses

If you have read my blog a bit, you know how I feel about hyperfeminisation, particularly when it happens to little girls. The big Lego-debate can stand in for every time I have said: Feminine is OK, but give the poor girls more than one option!

So, imagine my interest when Merida, from Brave, has become a Disney Princess. She is already part of the Disney brand, as Brave is a coproduction between Disney and Pixar. Merida is the ultimate tomboy, the girl who resists with everything she has when her mother tries to make her a copy of herself. In the fight for power between the two women, their real love for each other is revealed, and turned into mutual respect. The story is grand, funny, beautiful and contains some of the best descriptions of feminine strength that I have seen targeted at children - both female dignity, motherly love, and strong-willed passion and dedication. Loving Merida and her mother doesn't mean loving men, it means loving the strength of women. And so taking her into a Disney universe where femininity so far means such things as sleeping until the Prince wakes you up, finding love together with the right shoe or giving up your voice for love was a bold and interesting move.

However not everybody likes the make-over she had to go through in order to fit in. Not that Merida ever wanted to fit in. That was what the whole film was about, Disney! Don't take away her bow and arrow!!!

The scariest readings are the comment fields, though. It looks like asking that one princess out of eleven remains a normal teen-ager and not a hypersexualised wet dream is a frontal attack on femininity and masculinity, simultaneously. That aggression just underlines the desperate need for more Meridas, girls willing to fight for the right to not conform to restrictive norms. You go, Merida. As for me, I aim to become a skinwalker, to show off how my inner bear wakes up when somebody threaten the freedom and safety of my kids.

Teacher evaluations - can we learn from them?

A quick Facebook comment from a fellow professor made a very good point in a permanently ongoing discussion among teachers: can we learn from student evaluations? His point was that he could very easily create a course that would make the students happy and ensure good evaluations, but he didn't feel it would be an ethical act. Why? Because he would not act according to his standards of good teaching, but according to the format for the evaluations used at his University.

One of the discussants in that thread pointed out that high scores in evaluations depend on managing expectations. If my friend had made a standard course, according to the expectations of the students, the score would quite likely have been very high. A standard course makes students feel safe, it helps them deal with the insecurity of being in a learning process. For good reasons students abhor insecurity. They know they will be graded according to their performance, so they need to minimize the risk for bad grades. And so they have learned strategies for this, by learning how to score well on certain standard tests, how to learn well in certain environments, and how to study by using certain tools. When they are asked to use new tools, they react very negatively, and try to control the situation by managing our expectations. And their main tool for managing our expectations is the evaluation: if we are bad teachers, them failing will be our fault, not theirs.

I find that students who are stressed and afraid give much worse evaluations than students who feel reasonably secure. Also, students who have a wide range of experiences, and know that they can learn in very different environments, give much better evaluations when they have to relate to something new, than students who have only experienced a narrow range of teaching/learning styles. Whether or not the students are used to doing well, if they can expect to do well, or if they eventually do well doesn't matter, it's their experience of stress at the moment which influences the evaluation they give the teacher.

One term I taught the same course in three different classes. That gave me three different evaluations to read. One class was extremely negative in their evaluation, and several of the comments were pure character assassination of me and the other teachers (there were three of us). One class was critical, but not personal, and while they didn't all love the course, they didn't set out to trash the professors either. One class loved the course, loved the topics, and loved the teachers. All three classes had received the exact same lectures by the exact same teachers. The difference between them was in the dynamic in the room, how the students related to each other.

In the negative class, when we discussed something there would be two responses: The loud, main one was a demand to change things, mainly the teaching, in a way that they liked better. My experience from several years of trying out what would work didn't matter, their experience with what made them feel comfortable was more important. In the same class, several people who never spoke in class would later come up to us and say: "I love the way this is done. You are all great teachers. Don't change things just because of this. It works for us." The group obviously had an internal dynamic that was killing the openly spoken diversity. Some strong voices made the others feel afraid of speaking up, and when I did not submit to their pressure, it made them increasingly aggressive. Now I made a few errors with them - rather than saying "no" to the changes they wanted, I should have let them know that if I did what they wanted, I'd have to stop doing something else, which I knew they also wanted. I didn't have the resources to do both. Instead I just said "no, not going to happen." That was bad management of their demands, from my hand. After that, they didn't see the changes they wanted that we did make: they were all convinced I would never listen. Interestingly, the same group decided among themselves that a letter did not contain what to them was vital information, and afterwards they were not able to read that information when they read the letter. I had several students make the claim that they had not been told A, and then, when we read the letter together, I could show them where the letter said A. This kind of selective perception is interesting, and quite daunting when such a large group suffers from it. It does say something of the power of self-deception inherent in group dynamics, and the power of the negative thinking I was unable to break up.

In the fairly neutral class, the students were outspoken, vigorous and active, they took charge of the tasks they were given and approached them with a positive attitude, and worked hard at making things work. They tested out new things, asked questions, participated in discussions. When they came up after class, it was to talk about examples, ask questions, be to-the-point. They didn't think we were god's gift to teaching, but it didn't matter, they managed, they responded and they helped each other figure things out. The main characterestic of that class was that they were not afraid. They were not afraid of laughing, being laughed at, being sanctioned by each other. Their group dynamic was positive and generous, and they also addressed each other while in class, and not just us.

In the extremely positive class, they were all very quiet, but it was a contemplative silence. This group took it all in. Their questions were reasonable. They read not just the readings, but also the emails and the material describing the course. They smiled when they talked to us, and they approached us with questions about what they felt was unclear, rather than with demands to change things the way they wanted it.

So, how can I get a better evaluation, based on this experience? Obviously, the main errors were made with the negative class. I should have managed their demands better, given them a feeling of influence rather than saying "no". But both cases of "no" were based on my previous experience. The first was due to several years of positive feedback to how I presented the readings. If I was to do it the way this class wanted it, I'd have to give up the way I was doing it, a way I knew worked from several previous evaluations and conversations. The second was due to experience with student results. When I had previously done things the way these students wanted it, certain errors were a lot more prevalent than they ended up being. Sticking to my experience helped the class as a whole to maintain their focus on the correct task at the time, rather than mixing up the tasks, as bad timing had caused earlier.

I was in a situation where I knew that not giving in would make the students annoyed, but giving in would cause their results to deteriorate. At that point I chose to get a lower score on their evaluation of me, in order to ensure that they performed better in the long run.

And this is the reason why my friend on Facebook doesn't want to design the "perfect score" course. While the students are experts on what makes them feel they control their individual learning process, we, the teachers, know a thing or two about how to manage courses. Sadly, some, like me, also have a temper, and will in a stressed situation answer directly and honestly, rather than pause and consider how to make students feel good about what I am about to tell them. And this is actually a bad thing for a teacher, because students are genuinely nervous, with good reason. They are in a tense situation, and I need to address that fear as much as I address my own truth. I need to make them feel that I am on their side, and my choices are made to help them, not to make their lives more difficult.

Sadly, that doesn't always work. But all I can do is to try again. Redesigning the course to get a good score on the evaluation of me is not going to happen. Everything I do is intended to make sure the students get a good grade, and that, in my experience, they do. If it means they have to be angry with me to do it, well, so be it.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Pink blogs, money and professionalism

Several of my students have decided to write about fashion blogs and what we in Norway call "pink blogs". In relation to that I want to link to an interesting article that indicates a bit about the economic realities of blogging. It's originally published in the Norwegian newspaper VG, but behind a payment barrier.

Some interesting parts of it:
She was so young when she started, she didn't think about what getting money for her blog meant. That is probably very common in this field.

This indicates a very unprofessional approach to writing, ethics and the knowledge she spreads.

Both of the above topics indicate that the firms who use these bloggers also have no ethical and very few professional considerations on how they spend their publicity budgets.

Last: her parents didn't notice she was making 5000 - 30 000 n kr each month.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Effort is the real real

By way of a Facebook contact, Jesper Tække, I found this article on what the author calls the IRL fetish. Jenny Davis, one of the editors at Cyborgology, describes the sense of importance that comes with old-fashioned birthday greetings, and she gives this a name: the IRL fetish.

This resonates with Sherry Turkle's book Alone Together, which I have written about earlier. As I expressed in that post, the communication efforts before and after the internet have changed so much of the framework, that to be nostalgic for the analogue past, romantic as it may feel, blurs the hindsight.

Jenny Davis is however on to something, even if I think she errs when she appreciates one thing over the other, as if a handwritten card is more "real" than a birthday greeting on Facebook. Where she is right is that the specially made greeting is more significant of the connection between her and her loved ones than the quick Facebook greeting from that guy in the dorm 15 years ago. Of course it it, and, seriously, would you want it any other way?

Back before Facebook, if you knew about somebody's birthday you'd congratulate them. The effort you'd put into that gratulation depended on the closeness of the relationship. It also depended heavily on reciprocity, and carried with it expectations. If I knew about a colleague's birthday, or heard somebody else congratulate him/her, I'd congratulate them. They would do the same to me, for my birthday. I would however not make a big effort for their birthday, unless it was somebody I was already closely connected to. I would avoid that in order to not be pushy. Being too nice and generous is a way to force your way into an intimacy the other person might not desire. Giving attention, gifts, cards, whatever, carries with it a demand in return: See me, return this, make us even, make us friends.

It's still like this. It hasn't really changed. The people who might have said "happy birthday" in the corridor now say "happy birthday" on Facebook (ok, some of the Facebook Happy Birthdays are from people I'd invite to my party if they were here). The people who might leave a regular, store-bought card now text you or email you. And the people who would craft their own card lovingly do the same now, and you most likely do something similar in return. And then there's the ones that call you on your birthday, and the ones that come over with cake, and the ones who have carefully chosen presents, lovingly wrapped. Those are the same people as they were 30 years ago.

That is because no matter how the technology has changed, the investments we are willing to make in communication are pretty much the same. To a person I know vaguely, I am willing to say "happy birthday" once, effortlessly. It's a nice thing to do, it doesn't cost me anything, and if they want to they can hit "like" - which is an effort equal to a quick "thanks" or a smile and a nod in passing. The person I know a bit more will receive a more elaborate greeting. This may mean a longer email, a call, a card - perhaps I'll chase down a place where I can create a silly electronic card if I know about one, or perhaps I will send them a gift in a game.

Because it isn't necessarily the materiality of the present which is important. I get presents in World of Warcraft and SWTOR - and I love it. A stack of virtual crafting materials, a piece of armour, or just a sprig of flowers - yes, it's electronic, but it reflects real effort. I know how much time goes into finding some of these things, and they are willing to sacrifice that for me!

This is what birthday greetings, christmas presents and all that have always reflected: The effort we are willing to put into the attention we give each other. An expensive gift feels overwhelming, not because of the quantitative value, but because we appreciate the effort that goes into gathering the resources used to purchase the gift. It gets its significance from the initial effort money symbolises. This is why a very expensive gift and a cheap, but thoughtfully hand-made gift can carry the same emotional value.

It all depends on whether the recipient is able to value it, though. I brought a pair of hand-knitted mittens to an American woman. She was offended at the weirdness of the gift: what the hell was she to do with something that useless, a pair of unfashionable ugly mittens, and she couldn't even take them back to the store and get something useful. It wasn't until her partner pointed out that I had knitted them myself, and talked about how intricately made they were, that she managed to thank me for them. We need to understand the effort to appreciate it.

I suspect that the current confusion about what is appropriate, not to mention the snobbery of the hand-made object (which is nothing new), is a confusion about effort and the appropriate level of effort to invest in for instance a birthday greeting. As Jenny Davis doesn't ask for expensive presents, but rather thoughtful ones, I suspect that what she fetishises is effort and attention, not the physical presences of something.

And effort is real, no matter what medium it's presented in. It's why money is so extremely important: it represents effort. In a way, I guess what Turkle and Davis are getting at is: Effort is the real real.

It's just hard to recognize. But personally, I'd rather have a Facebook greeting than nothing at all, which, for 90% of the people who sends one, would be the attention we would be able to give each other across continents and time-zones.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Blank books and new years

All who have been around me for a while know about my passion for blank books. I keep buying them, more than I can fill. When a beautiful one snags my gaze, I grab it and bring it with me. Accompanying this passion is one for pens, but I don't buy those as frequently. I do have a couple I love and guard though, like the engraved fountain pen which was a present from my colleagues for my Ph D. I love that one. I am keeping it in a drawer, though, safe like the blank books, which are on the book shelf. What is up with that?

The thing is - what I love about both pens and books is their potential. Most of my writing happens under pressure, with deadlines, and in a hurry. I sit hunched over the computer for a week or two, and a new article or chapter is borne. Then I send it off and move on. There's no cherishing the process in advance, no anticipation of the beauty of the words I am about to shape, no glorious joy of the ideas I tackle and play with. All of those things are lost in some nostalgic memory of writing from when I learned to write. When I learned an elegant longhand, and trained myself to write it, fluidly and easily. When I wrote my first poems, and hid them in the first journal I kept for more than a few weeks, and filled it slowly with words I'd go back and play with, poke at, tug around. The first academic papers, when I dropped the fluid script of writing lessons during childhood, and reinvented myself with something clear, easy, readable and modern looking, a black line marching determined over the white page. It was all by hand, back then, and I think it's me missing that process that makes me buy all these books.

Because when I do start another journal (I do use them, quite a bit, really) there is always this thrill, this moment of breathless anticipation. It can contain anything: The next great novel, or the theory of human-text interaction to make everything make sense - potentially, that's in that blank book, in that beautiful pen, just waiting to flow out of me.

And yes, that is all about the new year, too, because right now, the year is really mostly potential, and can take us anywhere.

And it's about the Hobbit, because of what Bilbo says to Frodo: "He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. 'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,' he used to say. 'You step onto the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'".

 Happy new year, happy new book, happy new road to you all.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

13th day of Christmas

Also known as Epiphany, Three Kings Day, and the night before as the Twelfth Night, the 13th day of Christmas marks the end of the celebrations. Or, as my mother said: "13 dags Knut feier jula ut." I have no idea who Knut is or why he would sweep Yule out, but it's a good date for cleaning up.

And so I have been packing, sweeping, carrying and stashing ornaments all afternoon. This year the tree was tiny (by our standards), but I had to do all the packing up and carrying out alone, something I have never, ever done before.



This year, due to the size of the tree and the amount of ornaments I have collected in the 26 years we have been a family, we had our first dogma-tree. A dogma-tree is a tree with a topic, and the topic this years was birds. As some may see, there's a little bit more than birds there. We filled in with some stuff we pretented to be frost and icicles, and pine-cones. The real discussion was as to whether a butterfly can be said to be a bird, and does it belong on a pine-tree in December? The yes-side won, through a democratic process. A good thing we were an uneven number present during the decorating.

The first thing to get packed up was the second thing I put up: The advent wreath. This year's wreath had been lighting up the stairwell with it's overwhelming lights: shining, white roses. My sense of style is kicking my shin hard every time I am close to admitting that I actually love the string of lights in rose-shape, because they were a lot bigger and more prominent than I expected. But I will find a way to use them next year as well, if nothing else to honour my father, who more than anything loved colourful, abundant lights for Christmas. He'd have adored the roses, and might have wanted to keep them up all through the winter.
My favourite thing is the advent star. When you drive along the dark roads of Norway in the winter, often the only thing that lights the side of the road are the lights in the houses. Late, when all have gone to bed, there's not much, a few outdoor lights, a window where somebody are working late, the flicker of a television. But during advent, there are stars and seven-armed electrical "candlesticks" in every house, often several - one in the kitchen, one in the living room, one to the side... We use a very old real candlestick, from my husband's family, for the 7 candles and never in the window, but we always have an advent star. I have always loved the muted light of the star, and I sneak into the living room to turn it back on if my family have been sensible and energy-conservative and turned it off before going to bed. The soft light at night is the colour of expectations and secrets, and comes with the scent of cookies and the sound of sewing machines, of conversations I am not supposed to hear, and the memory of waking up really early to see how the rooms are transformed, night by night, into a nest of Christmas cheer.
But now it's over, it's all boxed up, the tree is in the yard, the star in the cabinet, the birds and the glitter packed down. Tomorrow I'll bring the last few cookies in to work, and then I'll make soup stock from the bone of the dried sheep leg (fenalår) I had for Christmas. It's over, until next year.