Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Contrapower harassment in academia

This afternoon I was talking with a colleague about a problem in academic work that rarely gets discussed: the personal harassment of professors and teaching assistants by students. Now, I think it's a difficult topic to broach for two related reasons: "personal harassment" is difficult to define, and what definitions we do have of harassment are often predicated on the assumption that 'superiors' cannot be harassed by subordinates or 'inferiors.' In other words, despite disagreement on what actions or events actually constitute harassment, in academia it is almost always considered an abuse of power. This means that if an instructor claims he has been personally harassed by a student people respond with vague suspicion and questions like "Doesn't a student have to have power to do that?" - or with vague mockery and questions like "How can a professor lack the power to stop it?"

But isn't power more complex than that?

When I got home I looked up Carleton's Discrimination and Harassment Policies and found that, like most workplaces in Canada, they only address human rights violations.

"The Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits harassment related to race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, marital status, family status, disability, pardoned conviction, or sexual orientation. Disrespectful behaviour, commonly known as 'personal' harassment is not covered by human rights legislation. While it also involves unwelcome behaviour that demeans or embarrasses an employee, the behaviour is not based on one of the prohibited grounds named above."

Most research describes personal harassment as workplace bullying, and "disrespectful behaviour" may just be a polite Canadian way to describe the assholes we all work with. But did you know that workplace bullying is three times more prevalent than sexual harassment, and that less than 15% of workplace bullies are punished? More insidious still may be the psychological or emotional effect over time. As Robert Sutton explains, one of the main problems with workplace (and I'd say all) bullies is that "their uncivilized interactions have a far bigger impact on our moods than positive interactions — five times the punch, according to recent research ... It takes numerous encounters with positive people to offset the energy and happiness sapped by a single episode with one asshole." In other words, it's hard to do good work in a hostile environment.

Returning to the university context, workplace harassment is possible between colleagues, and between faculty or staff and students. Student harassment of professors, or any harassment by subordinates, has been referred to by researchers as contrapower harassment. Apparently it happens most often to women, even more often to women of colour, and it is not only males who do the harassing. Matters of age and class only compound these issues, not least because they increase the number of socially and professionally subordinate positions that can be used to encourage or justify harassment. While sexual harassment garners the most attention, most contrapower harassment occurs in more subtle ways--it can include everything from being consistently dismissed or ignored to verbal abuse and overt threats. At the institutional level, anonymous teaching evaluations regularly provide students the opportunity to make accusations that have real (i.e. professional) impact but that never need to be supported, and cannot be verified. Private meetings also offer students the opportunity to say and do things that can easily be denied.

My own experiences of contrapower harassment at Carleton have ranged from (rare) sexual advances by male students to (quite common) encounters with hostile students, both female and male. In fact, I have never returned marked assignments without at least one student becoming so agitated that I have had to end the conversation. I've had students here crumple up their paper and throw it at me, yell at me, call me a bitch, accuse me of setting them up to fail, and threaten to report me to the chair or dean. But most simply demanded, not requested, better marks--as if good grades are a right and not something that is earned--and then became aggressive when I did not accommodate them.

Are these students assholes, mean or just lacking maturity? Are these behaviours part of Carleton students' habitus--and if so, what is it about the structure of education here that encourages these attitudes? If it isn't just a problem here, but also at other universities, then is it a problem with higher education or is it better connected to broader societal shifts?

Update 30.01.08: Since posting this, I've received over a dozen email about this problem from faculty across North America - including stories that make my experiences pale. Ed Bilodeau's thoughtful blog response takes a closer look at why the problem persists, including an unwillingness or inability to discuss the issues publicly. I can certainly appreciate this, but I also try to remember that silence begets approval.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

"Making new forms of life..."

Tonight kicks off The Defiant Imagination Lecture Series, organised by Concordia University Design and Computation Arts in Montréal, and lucky locals will get the chance to hear and see more about Theo Jansen's super-cool strandbeests.

Lecture: Theo Jansen - Strandbeest
Wednesday, Jan. 23, 6:00 p.m.
D.B. Clarke Theatre, 1455 De Maisonneuve Blvd., W., Montréal

Admission is free.

Artist and kinetic sculptor, Theo Jansen has been called a modern-day Da Vinci. Trained in Science at the University of Delft in the Netherlands, Jansen creates large-scale kinetic sculptures that are a fusion of art and engineering. Jansen’s interest in technology and the process of biological evolution have led to his development of his own creatures.

His animals (“Strandbeests”, or” beach animals”, as he calls them) are enormous skeletal, complex mobile structures made out of plastic pvc tubes that use computer programs to calculate their movements. Powered by the wind, these creatures, which have evolved through several generations, walk, flap, roll, and discern obstacles. Eventually, Jansen hopes to ‘release’ his animals in herds where they can live out their own lives.

Strandbeest website

Theo Jansen's TED 2007 Lecture: The art of creating creatures

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Light touches

For Timo:
"Text messages also carry a tactile quality. Like the photograph, the text message is a kind of pointing, saying 'I am here' or 'look at this'. Texting is also an accumulation of light touches – presses on a keypad rather than the click of a camera shutter. Even more, text messages often arrive with a tactile sensation, a vibration that acts like a tap on the shoulder.

Text messages carry their tactile experience with them. They are the product of touching, announce themselves with touches, are revealed by touches and erased with a further touch. We no longer carry photographs in lockets, trapped in jewellery worn next to the skin, but remember those close to us through their words, transmitted in 160 characters or less from their hand to ours."

-- Matt Locke, Light touches – text messaging, intimacy & photography

'Texting: Grand Street' photo by moriza


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Layers, or the complex simplicities of the mundane

otherthings @ flickr

"This is an extreme closeup scan (2400 dpi) of a paint chip retrieved from the ruins of Belmont Art Park by Amy McKenzie earlier this year. The fragment is about 1cm thick, and appears to consist of about 150-200 layers of paint."

Gorgeous. In Technoscience and Everyday Life, Michael writes about the "complex simplicities of the mundane" and I can't help but see some connections here.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Ursula Franklin, technoscience and everyday life

This term we're reading Technoscience and Everyday Life, a great little book by Mike Michael. In our first lecture and discussion on Friday, we'll be taking a look at the connections between theories of everyday life and social studies of science and technology.

"As I see it, technology has built the house in which we all live. The house is continually being extended and remodelled. More and more of human life takes place within its walls, so that today there is hardly any activity that does not occur within this house. All are affected by the design of the house, by the division of its space, by the location of its doors and walls. Compared to people in earlier times, we rarely have a chance to live outside this house."

- Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology, 1989 CBC Massey Lecture Series

Our objective is to begin to identify what constitutes a critical perspective on technoscience and everyday life, and I'm looking forward to introducing students to Ursula Franklin -- scientist, scholar, feminist, pacifist, environmentalist, activist, and one of my heroes.

Believe it or not, it was only in 1984 (at the University of Toronto) that she became the first female in Canada to receive the rank of Professor. Interviewed last year, at age 85, Franklin was asked if people are right to call her a radical, and she responded:

"I hope so. I think a radical means one can look and think without being prejudiced by existing structures, and remove what is unnecessary or atrophied. It’s like getting all the silt out of a spring, so that the water is clear. That’s not a bad thing to do."

Related posts: An Extraordinary Mind (26.01.03)

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Friday, January 11, 2008

CBC Radio starts to talk ubicomp

Before Christmas I spent an hour or two talking with a producer for CBC RadioOne show Spark all about locative media, but wasn't able to be recorded because I had a nasty cold and sounded horrible. I haven't heard back from anyone there since, but I made sure I downloaded the latest podcast because they've started covering ubicomp.

This week Nora Young looks at MizPee and MIT's Wikicity project, and next week showcases Philip's Amigo smart home project and the future of RFID. I was impressed that she stayed focussed on the social, spatial and material implications. Nora was also clearly enthusiastic about the See-Mi project, but I really hope she takes up the question of locative media if only because it might provide a more critical, cautious and less commercial tone.

In the show notes, Russell McOrmond suggests that what Nora considers matters of privacy and publicity are better understood as a matter of control: "If as individuals we could control these technologies or be disclosed enough information to make our own informed choices, then they are empowering." I certainly agree that the implications for power relations in everyday life are where it's at in this discussion, but I don't divorce that from the public/private problem.

Listening on, I suddenly found myself grinning ear-to-ear when I heard Jean Burgess explaining (over Skype?) that the sound delay was due to the oceans between Canada and Australia. (Trust me, it's funnier when she says it.) But seriously, go listen to her talk smart on viral video, online conversation and user participation.

Also: On the Spark Wiki you can add story ideas for the show or post questions for Nora to ask Howard Rheingold when she interviews him Jan 23rd. And while I'm on the topic of how much I love CBC RadioOne, if you don't subscribe to the Search Engine podcast on "politics and culture through the lens of the Net" you're missing out.

Update 21.01.08: Alex Pang talks RFID (Jan 16)

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

"Bacterial Terrariums and other delights"

If I lived in LA I would so be going to Denise King's lecture and workshop at Machine Project tomorrow night:

Denise King visits us from San Francisco’s exploratorium to discuss the aesthetic cultivation of bacteria. She will be presenting an introduction to identifying bacteria in the field, focusing on environments that are accessible from the Los Angeles area. Along the way she will discuss Winogradsky columns - simple containers that are filled with mud, pond water and plant material that allow the culturing of microbial communities in the laboratory, or in your own living room.

Sample columns filled with lovely multihued stuff with be available for show and tell purposes, and willing participants will be able to make their own bacterial terrarium on site. We suggest wearing casual clothes or disposable hazmat suit if you plan on participating, as it may get slightly messy. For those who plan on just observing, standard formal wear should be fine.

Denise King bacterial aesthetics

When I'm at the uni on Friday I'm going to collect some river mud and start my own Winogradsky Column. (Aspergillius Finigus, anyone?)

via networked performance


Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Blogging as affective politics

Melissa Gregg's discussions of intellectual labour and the politics of academic speech have made a valuable contribution to my dissertation's discussion of blogging. In particular, her 2006 book Cultural Studies' Affective Voices "draws attention to the significance of individual writers' voices in maintaining commitment to scholarly life" and she brings this perspective to bear on PhD and junior faculty blogs in her articles Feeling Ordinary: Blogging as Conversational Scholarship and Banal bohemia: Blogging from the ivory tower hot-desk (Draft).

Her basic argument about early career blogging is quite elegant:

"The participatory nature of writing, response and counter-argument on blogs allows for ongoing debate, critical refinement and thinking-in-process. In this sense, what is rarely acknowledged about blogging is how much it contributes to and mirrors traditional scholarly practice rather than threatening it. One of the main reasons graduate students have taken them up with such fervour is that blogs offer solidarity out of isolation, especially on long projects. They create the conditions for collegiality, brainstorming and frank, fast feedback while also generating and maintaining interest, enthusiasm and motivation. Even the best supervision in the most convivial university department cannot offer this kind of support on a regular basis. The persistence with which established academics condemn blogging as a distraction preventing graduate students from timely completion and participation in their desired career does a disservice to the many instances whereby blogs are utilized as a sophisticated research tool. It also wilfully ignores the wider economic and political circumstances making the potential for a tenured academic career increasingly unlikely for a new generation of graduates.


Blogs are a modest political tool in that they can help overturn the hierarchies of speech traditionally securing academic privilege … Blogs allow us to write in conjunction with non-academic ‘peers’ and ‘colleagues’ who not only value and improve our ideas but practice their own rigorous forms of assessment, critique and review. Blogs are counter-heroic in that they expose the life of the academic as banal. They help lay bare the fallacy of the ivory tower scholar secluded from the concerns of the ‘real world’" (Gregg 2006:153-158).


"For those entering the academy today, the natural order of succession and class reproduction that once applied to their vocation is changing at a macro level. Diminished opportunities for tenure and the casualisation of the academic workforce pose fundamental problems for the model of patronage and initiation that typified the profession earlier.


That those in tenured positions did little to resist casualisation or the increasingly gruelling requirements for tenure are simmering tensions on many junior faculty blogs. However accurate, this is a genuinely felt generational grievance that spreads beyond the blogosphere. It is directed towards senior scholars who are perceived to have had a less brutal experience of professional advancement and failed to protect this possibility for others.


Through blogging, early career academics are making this unpalatable condition public. They reveal a fast receding loyalty to the promise that the university life was supposed to offer but does not deliver. Having grown up unable to ignore the realities of economic rationalism on their employment fortunes, these bloggers’ experiences of becoming professional differ from their predecessors ... This newly marginalised middle-class professoriat blogs to gain support for work and life choices that they feel have been constrained by wider social pressures; they write to retain a degree of credibility from a sympathetic audience.


By virtue of their positions, junior faculty and PhD bloggers are structurally prevented from influencing many of the decisions immediately affecting their work lives. In this situation, their readership communities offer a form of solace and support as they struggle up the career ladder, while the blogs themselves provide resources for others considering a similar move" (Gregg 2007:29-31).

And for more on academic or research blogging, don't miss Jill Walker's Blogging from inside the ivory tower.

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Friday, January 4, 2008

Technological force and social counter-force

'For every technology we embrace, we should require of ourselves an answer to the question, "What counter-force does this thing require from me in order to prevent it from diminishing both me and the social contexts in which I live?"'

The Trouble with Ubiquitous Technology Pushers (Part 2) by Steve Talbott, January 27, 2000

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Thursday, January 3, 2008

PLSJ reader survey

One of the methodological arguments I've made in my dissertation* is that over the past five years this blog has provided me unparalleled means by which to engage people in other places, including outside academia.

I found it relatively easy to describe what I think the blog has offered me, and assess what that might mean for social and cultural research, but I'm not comfortable describing or assessing what the blog has been--or done--for others.

I can't speak for anyone else and standard metrics provided by sites like Technorati or del.icio.us act more like citation indices (not always the best way to measure impact) than the kind of anecdotal conversation that is so often central to blogging practice itself.

Analysing the hundreds of comments that have been posted here is one possibility, but I think there's a simpler and more practical option that I hope that you'll be able to help me out with, please.



Thanks so much for your continued reading, and your participation in this short survey is very much appreciated.

- Anne

* My dissertation will be made available online after it is defended in 2008.


Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Realising year end

When I was a kid I liked to imagine living in a world filled with the best rituals from all the cultures of human history. Every day I learned of another group of people doing something interesting, and my world--my worldview--was renewed and refreshed. I can't say that happens as often any more, but I do think that one of life's great pleasures is realising new things, and realising things anew. Given the incredibly narrow and focussed range of my recent activities, the things I realised this year were profound for me but probably don't resonate much with others. Still, here are five I want to take with me across the threshold tonight:

First, the dissertation is a test of scholarship, not writing. A thesis isn't a book, it's an argument. Make it, get rid of the rest, and be done with it.

Second, just because I can write something doesn't mean that I should. There is a kind of critique that makes me an arsehole instead of a scholar, and a tone that makes me pretentious instead of interesting.

Third, teaching is the facilitation of learning, not the imparting of wisdom. The only bad days teaching are the days I forget this. (Some people remember how you make them feel more than they remember what you say. Me included.)

Fourth, in a profession that places so much value on my mind, it's crucial to balance that with better care for my body and spirit. This is a never-ending struggle.

Fifth, none of these realisations need interfere with my dreams of herding alpaca and sheep, and becoming a warmly and softly clothed cheese maker.

Happy New Year!

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