«everyone in their online classes now», sami @sahirous, reddit meme
It is not by accident that my partner did her first session of e-teaching a bit drunk. I will do the same tomorrow when my first session comes up. We both teach US-American students who were on their first semester in Europe, and now sit in quarantine back in the United States. For her first session using BigBlueButton, she was nervous, camera conscious, unsure of how to present her PowerPoint documents, YouTube videos, and herself within the new digital format. Broadcasting herself, as it were, through channels provided by Google, by Microsoft, by Apple, and so many other platforms of late-stage capitalism. She and I are reluctant, anxious, unsure of ourselves. We have caught a case of digital anxiety, others have come up with terms like «panic-gogy».
Drinking while e-teaching helps with digital anxiety. What doesn't help is that the both of us are freelance teachers: we will be assessed by our employer for how we handle this digital semester. Doing that, we work with our own computers, with the software we have or can afford, from our own homes, without anything resembling an office-space. I'll just go ahead and say it, most of you know anyhow: there is no «home office» despite what everybody claims. There is just the home, your or our home, two rooms and a kitchen, for sleeping, for cats, for eating, for cleaning up, for children, making the beds, for watching TV, for relaxing, wait no, no relaxing, not anymore. All the time we have is organized around working, around teaching at 8 pm for young Americans visiting Berlin, and stuck in Seattle. For them and for us, there is no office in the home, and instead the home becomes a 24/7 factory. We are lucky to have this factory space.
In the morning after the first session, she had a sore throat because teaching digitally through a computer strains the voice. We have no voice training like actors do, at least most of us do not. Her explanation was that her voice had to make up not only for the physical absence, but moreover for the sadness of her American students, damned to spend their first semester abroad literally at home. This is hard work: the voice compensates for the affective demands of the digital classroom. As stage actors know, the voice doesn't work well without a long preparation, textual, mental, and physical preparation and rehearsal. Digital teaching is physical work, to a much greater extent than presence teaching is. It feels like factory work, and alcohol seems to be the go-to destressor for factory workers.
Money for Nothing
We are all drunk on the digital now. Drunk on platforms, drunk on apps, drunk on multi-user-solutions, drunk on the great, shiny presentation your colleague made, drunk on peer-to-peer channels, drunk on communication, drunk on zeros and ones. There will be a hangover, or there already is.
The Berlin municipal government voted to distribute €10 million immediately to Berlin universities in order to revamp the digital environments for teaching. It will probably be used for buying software licences, cameras, bandwidth, server space, IT-services, and all of that helpful stuff. It is the hour of the IT-department, delegating the money, explaining to everyone how things are done and what is possible, and all the things that go without saying for an IT-person but not for the professor, the Mittelbau, the precarious adjunct, the student. It’s the hour of the nerd: the gaming forum r/gaming already has found that gamers are at an «evolutionary advantage» in the present situation. They know how screencasting and streaming work, how Discord is set up, the ins-and-outs of Counterstrike Teamspeak, they have the computer setup and proper headphones to do it. I cannot say they are wrong – this appears at the moment to be an evolutionary step.
The ten million could've been used for new teaching personnel, renovations, Lohnerhöhungen for studentische Mitarbeiter (many of them IT-specialists), more office spaces, new books; let alone new research activities and projects, physical and mental health services for students and faculty, and so forth. My former department relied for most of its IT-services on a single studentische Mitarbeiterstelle (Hi, Alon) to solve all their problems – I wonder what he is doing these days, or how he is doing it. My partner and I work with 4-6 year old computers I hustled from my university, bought on some project money that we both continue to use half-legally (thanks, Alon).
I only wish for the 5000 Euro the Berlin government has promised to freelancers. Hopefully it will come, hopefully many are «entitled» to receive it. Meanwhile, I am horrified that ten million in «higher education money» will probably for the most part go to supranational corporations giving a damn about climate change, participatory politics, democracy, or higher education. Here is a helpful google-doc of all the en-vogue-collaboration services, which is also blatant advertising.
Gaming journalist Nathan Grayson recently related his experience playing the new videogame Half Life: Alyx VR for an extended review period of seven days. The first-person game – about a totalitarian dystopia ruled by a megacorporation/government yadayada – can only be played with a Virtual Reality headset. Grayson explains the after-effect of playing the game for one week, while under social distancing obligations: continuous hallucinations, a permanent warping of vision that made him bump into shelves at the supermarket, daydreams, nightmares, and several other indicators that his brain had adapted to the virtual environment for good and was unable to let go. His digital hangover lasted for three days. Read his impressions here: «Playing Nothing But Half-Life: Alyx In VR Made Me Hallucinate».
These days, we receive «inspiring» and also pushy emails written by university presidents and deans, announcing the «creative semester» and its «challenge» in unmasked neoliberal speech. There are also copious critical voices that complicate such blatant repackaging of crisis into an «opportunity» – an opportunity to become truly postmodern internet-cosmopolitans, effortlessly distilling academic knowledge production into the streamlined environments of Trello, Hangouts, Zoom, Screenflow, and Lord knows which company and service will get the economic upper hand in the coming weeks or months. There are many quarrels with this, as the various open letters by professors, faculty, and academic unionists of the GEW for example – arguing cogently both for and against a socalled «Nicht-Semester» – astutely observe and collect. Some links here:
Personally, I am reluctant to do any teaching right now. I will postpone a Lehrauftrag I had received from Hamburg University, which was supposed to be a Blockseminar (how to do that online? Marathon-stream? How does Twitch work?) presenting my ongoing work on digital fascism, affect theory, and the gender politics of the Alt-Right. In my research I watch a lot of well-made discussion streams by neofascists in their «home offices» from all over the world, by the way. Martin Sellner of IBÖ currently hosts a weekly live chat from his «Infokrieg Basement».
I am reluctant to teach, because the work it takes to engage with far-right memes, fascist chatrooms on the internet, cloaked and overt racisms on a social media or party politics level – that work is largely affective, and demands collective feeling and collective improvisation. There are few secure knowledges involved in teaching «Neofascism on the internet», there is no «Online Fascism 101» textbook, there are no standardized power-point-presentations that give students the sense of security, protection, and critical positioning needed to collectively counter what this «reflexive fascism» (as I have come to call it after Ulrich Beck) does in current Western societies.
When I taught a similar course (in presence) a year ago, everybody would always be mindful and read the room's affects, the reluctancies, the questions, the intimidations produced by racist memes, and we were able for the most part to collectively react to what is objectively damaging, hurtful material and dilemmatic, uneasy questions. We agreed on «decompression sessions» after engaging with Martin Sellner, with the Christchurch shooter, and so many other things, just to have something else to talk about, to make jokes, to collectively recover in order to again think critically. Teaching such material – and maybe teaching in general – is also care work, done collectively.
Abstracting from this special case, I think that much of the work we do in Media Studies, Gender Studies, Queer Studies, Cultural Studies, Critical Race Studies, Postcolonial Studies, faces the very same problems (the upcoming «queer didactics»-panel at the GfM will be more savvy on this topic than I am). But I am thinking about the following: If the current digitization of academic teaching that is forced on us changes the academic landscape and our practices for the future, I feel that the knowledges and methods our disciplines use have a very slim chance of survival. The epistemologies privileged by digital spaces and the various platforms that now (and maybe for the foreseeable future) become existential tools for teaching are not well suited to our epistemologies: What is the PowerPoint document, YouTube-Video, or interactive PDF that best simulates the experience of reading and discussing Gender Trouble for the first time? How do I do «mood work» (Carolyn Padwell) when teaching 20 people in a virtual classroom on BigBlueButton? How do you and I discuss the overt or residual racism and politics of Birth of Nation (1915) or The Green Book (2017), and my own position as a white person behind a MacBook using Zoom (unable to broadcast my system audio, and I do not know whether I should send the video-feed showing myself because of bandwidth issues)? I am at a loss how to do these things, working from home, and how to affectively take care of students at the same time. Maybe I am not «creative» enough, maybe not digitally intoxicated enough.
Our epistemologies and methods do not lend themselves well to the relentlessly positivist understanding of knowledge that a PPT-document embodies, and to the profoundly dizzying spatial and temporal fusion of work and non-work that we now experience in our «home offices». Lauren Berlant's analysis of feminist politics cannot be broken down into slides, bullet points, and online-quizzes; I cannot detachedly teach her rendition of depression and «feeling bad» as critical epistemologies from my increasingly messy kitchen, nor can the students «study» this in their quarantined homes. Such things now factor into the teaching situation, and digital offerings of feminist theory or media analysis effectively become performative research (best-case scenario). I realize that the physical university, the classroom, the office, were really safe spaces in which thinking, feeling, and discussion were possible and sheltered.
What Silicon Valley startups and billion-dollar corporations have come up with when they «imagined knowledge» might work for economists (Does it? Someone should ask them!), but not for Queer Theory or Media Studies. I do not see «unlearning gender» in Microsoft platforms, no proper YouTube-ready summation of Ana Texeira Pinto's head-dive into the symbolism of digital fascism (recommended). I might as well send people into 4chan by themselves: here is an exploration mission for you, I hope you do come back with a good take-home-test on the use of the swastika in /pol/.
To repeat, because this might be a takeaway of sorts: the becoming-digital of the humanities enforces a standardized and by-and-large positivist view on academic knowledges as «teachable items», dispensed by the university to be consumed and reproduced by students. This is why many of us currently spend great amounts of (mostly unpaid) time making PPTs, summarys, and study questions. We are translating – shoehorning – critical knowledges and epistemologies into positivist nomenclatures. That is what the current platforms and applications demand of us; I feel they allow little else. Or, I mean, does this ad sound exciting to you as a queer/media/gender/postcolonial/cultural studies person? «What I love about Airtable is I can track all of our 30 to 60 projects we’re working on at any given time in one place—and within each project, I can monitor every step in the process.» Rachael Profiloski, Director of Development, Lucky 8 Productions (from my facebook advertisements, 26.3.2020
Digitally in Love
I once had a distance relationship, where we made our intimacy and shared experiences by sending us YouTube-music video links. We sent us links via email with very few to no words. The affective, sexual, and intimate audiovisual library/archive we built was and is unique. It was built on absence, and shared cultural memory turned into emotional memory and affective presence. The relationship would have been impossible to do without the digital; it is a digital love.I mention this to say that there are opportunities for building communality online, and to learn something about yourself, one another, and possibly even an «object» in the process. The environments and IT-solutions we are currently using and in which we are competing against each other for bandwidth and the best classroom – or the barely functional classroom – are not part of these opportunities. If the currently mandated and heavily funded existential transplantation of academic teaching onto digital platforms is sustained into the future – with large parts of academic work moving from physical presence to digital absence by the exploitative virtue of «innovation through crisis» – I feel that the love that goes into teaching will die, because those modes of collective knowledge and affect production that are important to me and others cannot be «implemented» in Apple's, Google's, or Microsoft's corporate solutions. And experts are already creating new jobs, like «Lehrkuratoren, Online-Coaches oder sogenannte Instructional Designer […], die Lehrformate entwickeln», as Dr. Volker Meyer-Guckel writes on Zeit-Campus.
Teaching cannot be simulated in environments built around projects, corporations, positivism, monitoring, and – crucially – loneliness and absence. Worse, we might experience the same epistemological hallucinations resulting from sustained virtual exposure that Nathan Grayson had playing Half-Life VR for a week: our «humanities-brains» might come to think like a PPT-Presentation, a YouTube-Video, a screencast, a chatroom. And because there is always the next session preparation, the next BigBlueButton-chat, the next Zoom-Meeting around the corner, there will be little to no time for readjustment, or reflection. Maybe this will be an extended condition, as the many experts explaining the cultural and social sea change prompted by Coronavirus in so many interviews and op-eds at the moment. As my genius partner astutely observes, these experts are mostly young white men, and she is sick of hearing them talk.
If this text comes across as too personal, it is because I am digitally drunk. We all will be alcoholics, when «cognitive capitalism» becomes cybercapitalist cognition.
As an scholar thinking about media, I see very few genres of collective communication on the current internet. Top of my head, I see only three, each with its disadvantages, rules, and possibilities. Here is my list and assessment, I am grateful for suggestions, additions, and alternative views:
- Lectures, very male and monologue-like format. See e.g. the very uninteresting and hard-to-follow YouTube-Lecture series pioneered by Stanford University. These are standard and boring, and most online classrooms probably will follow this format somewhat intuitively (mine do). I prefer these for my teaching (quicktime, YouTube, recorded power point presentations, podcasts), because the students are able to background them, keep their own time and schedule, and I am able to self-direct my presence. I used to watch lectures while doing laundry or something else, because they demand that you do something else at the same time. Teachers shine here if they are actors, like YouTube-Influencers are. See e.g. the level of insight or critical reflection offered by a YouTube-Stanford lecture, or by Harald Lesch, one of the most visible science-YouTubers in Germany. Its hardly any insight at all, it is people explaining stuff to you.
- Voice / Video Chats: chats are in my experience chaos for the most part, and are meant to be. The less chaos, the more lecture-like and monologue-like it becomes. The more chaos, the more students and teachers might learn to read the «flow» of a chat, i.e. when to speak, when to interject, when to listen, when to zone out. While collectively engaging for the most part, this genre also is in my view rather unsuited to transmitting «knowledge items». It is more collective performance, with everybody weirdly acting as audience and performer, than communication. I presented an Alt-Right chatforum during a conference talk once, and people in the audience asked me to turn it off because it made them dizzy or seasick. Mediasick.
- Written Forms: blogs, journals, forums, and comments. Probably the best for most of us, being writers and word-people, and not actors.
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