Lifestream, Liked on YouTube: Tressie (McMillan) Cottom on Democratizing Ideologies and Inequality Regimes in Digital Domains

via YouTube

I discovered this talk, “Democratizing Ideologies and Inequality Regimes in Digital Domains,” through another ‘down the rabbit hole’ or rhizomatic journey across the Interwebs:

  • Twitter notified me that I might be interested in a tweet by Amy Collier about a new blog post (I was – more on that later)

  • After a diversion to Collier’s post 1 of the same title (very ‘old skool’ of me, but after the first paragraph I knew I wanted to know what had gone before, to contextualise what I was reading) I read post 2, and followed a link to
  • a blog post by Audrey Watters, Student Data, Algorithms, Ideology, and Identity-less-ness which reflects on Tressie McMillan Cottom’s talk, and provided a link to it,  and the slides used.
  • You might have noticed, though, that the Lifestream feed comes from YouTube, not the Berkman Klein Centre: I chased it down there to ‘feed’ my lifestream, to ensure ‘varied’ media content (the last step felt contrived – living the life fantastic through the lens of an assignment;).

Enough about where it came from (thank you though, Twitter, for your surveillance on this occasion). Let’s talk content.

In her blog posts, Amy Collier provides a really solid introduction to what embodiment is, and why it matters both on and offline. She writes,

Embodiment does not just mean having a body. Embodiment involves the loads of meaning attached to our bodies and the ways in which our bodies are at the center of our experiences and therefore our existence. Its the social, political, and cultural attachments, so to speak, of the body and how those are experienced by a bodied human. Some of this involves our identity and how we perform it; some of it is what identity and performances people attach to our bodies. Embodiment is also about how we know things, believe things, and feel things through the “lens” of our bodies.

Collier goes on to talk about how

there is a misconception that, when we “go digital,” the body becomes irrelevant,

and provides examples of how embodiment online can be both explicit (through kinaesthetic gaming, haptic feedback, tangible user interfaces and virtual reality) and implicit (wherever the body is mediated or represented or reconfigured online). Then, in post 2, Collier takes up why embodiment matters online. Poignantly, she cites bell hooks (1994):

The person who is most powerful has the privilege of denying their body.

Collier’s point is, in suggesting that our bodies are erased when we go online, or in accepting mind-body dualism, we ignore the social and political experiences of embodiment online. Further, in failing to acknowledge that only white male bodies are given the privilege of neutrality, we perpetuate existing power structures and political and social inequities.

Tressie McMillan Cottom adds a further dimension to this discussion by bringing in sociomaterial factors. She says that, within a techno-determinist framing, inequality is seen to be magically erased through access to information/technology and that this perception is perpetuated in part because we build tools that do not see or measure inequality. As McMillan Cottom comments, clearly this is not the same as inequality not existing. Further, the data collected is used to reproduce inequalities, in that it is used to create new tools, or,  ‘tool to the norm’. McMillan Cottom refers to this norm, for whom supposedly ‘disruptive’ HE innovations such as the MOOC are designed, as the ‘autodidact’:

the self-motivated, able learner that is simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, culture, history, markets and inequality regimes (McMillan Cottom, 2013)

According to McMillan Cottom, when education is designed for this ‘ideal’ learner, mechanisms which allow learners to connect are often left out. Anonymity is held to be democratising and privileged, but this can stop people from ‘finding their people’, from forming supportive groups, and from measuring their success against others.

An important point that McMillan Cottom raises with regard to the supportive communities that she has researched is the importance of trust. I’ve previously looked at trust dynamics (Wenger, 2010) from the perspective of knowledge, where knowledge is perceived to be located, and the role of trust or belief in being able to learn from others in the establishment of community. McMillan Cottom, however, broadens my understanding of trust within community dynamics. In the groups she studied, students share non-academic advice, and in this case need to trust where the information is coming from. i.e. They need a sense of shared (non-academic) experience to validate the advice they receive. This can not be achieved without identity signalling.

There’s a lot to take away from all three authors in this Tweet inspired journey – Amy Collier, Tressie McMillan Cottom and Audrey Watters – on factors affecting community cultures, and the experience of them. All three write/speak with greater depth and richness (and on wider themes) than I can do justice to here. I’ll end with a quote from Watters:

Bodies matter when we learn; communities and affinity and situatedness matter; digital learning, even though some of it is “virtual,” does not – or should not – change that.