academic reorganization · feminism · feminist digital humanities · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Open Access Is a Feminist Issue

Today’s post is from Dr. Hannah McGregor

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In “#transform(ing)DH Writing and Research: An Autoethnography of Digital Humanities and Feminist Ethics,” Moya Bailey invites feminist scholars to ask how we enact our feminist ethics throughout our research processes. At the end of the article, she outlines questions we can ask ourselves as we are embarking on new research projects. Included in those questions are “What tools and or methods encourage multidirectional collaboration?” and “What mechanism of accountability can you create?”. Accountable feminist research, research that centres responsibility to the communities our research engages with or speaks to, is attentive to how its tools and methods open out or close down the possibilities for collaboration beyond the university. As a feminist scholar, I have become increasingly convinced that one of the most accountable things we can do in our work is prioritize open access. 

 

A quick explanation: open access (OA) is a set of publishing principles and practices that are specific to scholarly communication. The goal of OA is to break down institutional barriers to accessing research, either through publishing in OA journals or depositing pre-prints of articles in institutional repositories. There are obvious challenges to OA — particularly financial ones, as we’ll have to envision new business models to ensure that scholarly publishing is both open and sustainable. With major institutions like the University of California beginning to end their relationships with publishers like Elsevier, however, a steady movement toward widespread OA seems inevitable. And, while challenging, this change is a good thing. 

 

When I started working in the Publishing program at Simon Fraser University in 2016, I joined a community of scholars who are not just invested in open access as an ideal, but who are actively building the infrastructure to make OA possible. SFU is home to the Public Knowledge Project, and the PKP’s Associate Director of Research, Juan Pablo Alperin, is my departmental colleague. The Publishing program has voluntarily signed onto SFU’s Open Access Policy and incorporated it into our tenure and promotion criteria. In the context of an institutional setting where OA is treated as a shared value, I have had the space to experiment with open, accessible, and publicly-engaged scholarship, particularly through my work on podcasting as scholarly communication in collaboration with Wilfrid Laurier University. 

 

All this to say, I’ve been embedded in a community invested in the ethos of open access for long enough, now, that it was a genuine shock to me when, in Spring 2019, I attended multiple conferences where colleagues in Humanities disciplines spoke of open access as neoliberalism, the scientization of research, and a devaluation of our intellectual labour. As one friend texted me in the midst of one such conferences: since when is open access neoliberal but paywalling research so that people have to pay for it isn’t? 

 

I would never be so naive as to claim that OA lacks barriers and challenges. In the Canadian context, the most significant one is the top-down way that the Tri-Council has attempted to implement it: not through incentive-based funding or collaboration with stakeholders, but through sudden and absolute ultimatums that threaten to strip journals–and now, university presses–of their funding if they don’t comply with new regulations. These unilateral funding changes may also be linked to OA’s association with the STEM fields, which have often driven the conversation. In fact, people working in the field of scholarly communication have a tendency to use “science” and “research” as synonyms (I keep trying to make them stop doing this, but it isn’t sticking yet). Many Humanities scholars, journal editors, and publishers feel like we have been left out of the conversation about how we want our research to circulate, and are being left to play catch-up in a publishing and funding environment that is already stacked against us. 

 

But here’s the thing: Responding to the OA movement by clinging to closed-off and paywalled forms of scholarly communication is inimical to the public mission of the university–and the public mission of the university is a feminist issue. As Bailey reminds us, a feminist research ethics means making our research accessible and accountable. Feminist scholars shouldn’t be responding to open access by dragging our feet and reluctantly complying to new requirements. We should be leading the conversation about what it means to do open, accessible, accountable research. 

 

It is also true that many of the barriers to embracing open access are also feminist issues. The scholarly publishing world is dominated by women (as is the trade publishing world); journal editing tends to be undervalued and high labour work that is at once vital to academia and also, like most forms of service, barely counted in tenure and promotion processes. The precaritization of the university has massively inflated expectations around early-career publishing, which in turn has inflated the number of journals in many disciplines. The systematic defunding of public universities has cut the entire business model of university presses off at the knees. We also haven’t solved the problem of business models for sustainable OA publishing; in the sciences, the most viable model is adding article-processing fees into grants, but grants in the humanities and social sciences are generally too small for such additions. We cannot talk about open access without talking about all of these structural problems. 

 

But if we could collectively agree to the fundamental premise that open access is a feminist issue, then our conversations about labour and value and prestige would, by necessity, shift. As Kathleen Fizpatrick so succinctly puts it in Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University, embracing open access as a values-based approach to scholarly communication “does not just serve the goal of undoing [scholarship’s] commercialization or removing it from a market-driven, competition-based economy, but rather is a first step in facilitating public engagement with the knowledge that universities produce” (148). Can feminist scholars agree that part of the mission of publicly-funded universities should be facilitating public engagement with our work? Can we agree that pay-walling and institutionalizing research created on stolen Indigenous land perpetuates settler-colonial understandings of knowledge-as-commodity? Can we agree that the scarcity-driven models of publishing in the most “elite” and “competitive” journals or of valuing the monograph over journal articles (or journal articles over podcast episodes!) is based in a fundamentally patriarchal hierarchy of what knowledge “counts”? 

 

There are challenges ahead of us as we face the transformation of scholarly communication, but there are also exciting opportunities to break down the institutional barriers of the university, to tell the stories of our work in different ways, to rethink where and how and why we publish. As we face those challenges within our disciplinary and institutional communities, we’ll start finding good solutions when we commit to the values at the heart of making knowledge open and free.

McGregor headshot_Christopher M Turbulence

Hannah McGregor is an Assistant Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University and the host of Secret Feminist Agenda, a podcast about the mundane and radical ways we enact our feminism in our daily lives. She lives in Vancouver on the territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

 

#FergusonSyllabus · academic reorganization · change · feminist digital humanities

#inclusivesyllabus

Opening Questions

What would it take to start a movement in which every new course proposal aimed for inclusivity and diversity?

What would it take to have sustained conversations about diversity and inclusivity in course development and delivery?

What would it look like if every required course syllabus was regularly reexamined with an eye for inclusivity and diversity?

What would be possible if suggestions like these weren’t met with raised hackles or self-defensive positioning?

What would first-year courses look like if each syllabus was designed to deliver introductory content and inclusive and diverse methodologies?

What would department meetings look like if diversity was an agreed-upon requirement and practice for teaching and learning?

What would you change about the syllabi you’re teaching this semester, were you to do a gender audit or an accounting for diversity of authors?

Do these seem like impossible questions to answer? Do they seem all too familiar?

The Context

Last week as I was grading procrastinating, I stumbled upon something very exciting happening on Aimée’s Facebook wall. An amazing discussion was unfolding about the need for, well, more public discussions about how we teachers replicate our own knowledge, and in so doing, unwittingly replicate our own biases. Without reproducing the discussion in full here, the gist was this: despite it being *shrug, mic drop* 2015, syllabi are, for the most part, remarkably lacking in inclusivity and diversity. Why?

Once we are in a position to be hireable to stand at the front of a classroom and teach, presumably we have developed a degree of expertise. Expertise may be in the content of your research, or in your learned ability to structure compelling lecture-techniques to deliver content. You may be an expert at walking into the room and guiding discussion with no notes. But none of us are wholly expert in all things. That belies the definition of what an expert is. And so we are, as teachers, both able to stand tall in our own areas of expertise and, I should hope, recognize where we each, all of us, have room for improvement. For consultation. For collaboration and learning. Right?

Uh. Maybe not, eh?

Maybe collaborative discussion is happening around learning outcomes and syllabus development in your department, and then again, maybe not so much. Maybe not at all? Certainly, not enough.

As I watched the conversation unfold it became clear that while there may be a deep desire for meaningful and sustained conversations and practices around creating inclusive and diverse syllabi, most of the people involved in the conversation were not seeing that in their own departments. But rather than fall into frustrated silences the people Aimée had a suggestion: why not start a discussion and collaborative brainstorming/resource-sharing movement on Twitter?

This reminds me of another version of Marcia Chatelaine‘s #FergusonSyllabus, which used Twitter first as a call to action in the classroom, and then as a collaborative brainstorming session about how to facilitate meaningful discussions about racism in America in a variety of learning contexts.

This suggestion also makes me think of the shadow syllabus.

So let’s get to it, shall we?

#inclusivesyllabus

This is the hashtag Aimée has devised, and we’re getting started today!

If you are interested in thinking through and working to build inclusive and diverse syllabi for your courses next term, search #inclusivesyllabus

If you are an expert in building inclusive and diverse syllabi in your field, share your process #inclusivesyllabus

If you think that your field/period/genre/methodology doesn’t allow for inclusivity and diversity, try thinking that through #inclusivesyllabus

See you there!

#WhosFirst · collaboration · feminist digital humanities

#WhosFirst, or; why data matters

Can you describe the Facebook friend request icon? Try to call it to mind without immediately reaching for your phone. Can you do it? 

I couldn’t. So, earlier this week when the new “feminist revision” of the Facebook icon was making the rounds on social media I had to look to see what the heck was being referenced before I could even join the conversation about what these new feminist revisions were all about.
Here’s what the original icon looked like:
Does anything strike you about this image? 
Facebook employee Caitlin Winner noticed that there was a subtle gendered bias in this ubiquitous image: the female icon is smaller and in the shadow of the male icon. “She couldn’t lean in,” wrote Winner in her play-by-play account of how she updated the image. Rather than leave the gender bias in place Winner worked to carefully shift the icon to more equitably represent heteronormative gender representation:

 Good news, right? The Ms. Magazine blog certainly thought so; last Friday they covered the icon shift in a short piece entitled “We Heart: Facebook’s New Feminist Icon.” But is this new icon really feminist? I’m not so sure.

Whatever set of definitions you adhere to I’d wager that the common denominator in discerning whether a given action is feminist entails a combination of intent and consistent commitment. One cannot be a feminist some of the time, for example. Systemic inequity is pernicious and requires vigilant and sustained attention, right? So in the case of this Facebook icon, is it a feminist change if only women and women-identified Facebook users see the new updated image? I kinda don’t think so.

Feminist digital humanist Jaqueline Wernimont and her colleague @JenProf started wondering if in fact the new woman-in-front icon was visible for everyone. Guess what? It turns out it isn’t. The two put together a short and sweet survey called #WhosFirst that asks how people identify themselves to Facebook–ie. how do they gender identify when signing up– and asks what their friend-request icon looked like.

You can find the full survey — and participate! — on Jaqueline Wernimont’s blog here

The results are telling. As of July 12th a full 33% of respondents see the old man-in-front icon.

So what does this mean? Technically speaking, the new “feminist Facebook icon” in fact appears to be both device dependant and gender dependent. In other words, the shift is not universal, nor is it universally visible. It matters if you are on your personal computer or device versus a public computer at, say, the library or a school. It also matters what kind of information you’ve given to Facebook. Take a look at what I see on my Facebook page; this is a screen shot from my personal computer taken today:

Here’s the thing: systemic inequities are sustained in part through pernicious repetition, which normalizes them. Inequity is difficult to remedy because it requires consistent and tireless vigilance. It requires being the feminist killjoy at the table who says ‘sure, that’s great, but…’ when a job is only partly accomplished. A survey such as #WhosFirst picks up where the image shift left off. By gathering data from participants the survey starts to add critical information that allows us to think more carefully about how gender inequity, not to mention heteronormativity, is represented and how it is reinforced. Further, building a survey, gathering data, and translating that data into a comprehensible, publicly ingestible narrative is hard work. It is feminist labour. Indeed, it is feminist labour that in this case is giving more critical depth to an action that has been uncritically lauded as feminist.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? We can’t just hit ‘like’ and move on. That’s not how social justice works, not in embodied life; not on the internet. Instead, we need to remain vigilant. We need to ask the follow-up questions. We need to collaborate and help each other do the small and big jobs of unearthing and presenting the text and the context. And we need to keep issues of inequity at the forefront of our research as well as our social media chatter and our daily lived experiences. That’s the work of feminism. That’s living a feminist life.

You can participate in the survey here and engage in conversations on Twitter using the hashtag #WhosFirst.