Degrees of Social Justice

In the wake of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors sacking and rehiring the President, in part allegedly because they perceived her to be reluctant to embrace online education in the way they wanted, there has been a good deal of discussion of MOOCs and online courses more generally. I felt then, as I feel now, that there are potentially serious problems with wholly-online degrees; that at the moment, campus education, especially at a prestigious institution, carries more weight. And indeed, one of my fears is that MOOCs end up being used as ways to keep campuses free of students with particular kinds of support needs. Instead of breaking down barriers to social mobility, MOOCs and online education could reinforce them. I drafted this post some time ago and then sat on it, so it’s not exactly a timely contribution to the debate. But the recent accusations that Oxford University demands postgraduate students demonstrate a degree of financial security that many people lack has prompted me to revisit this post as the points about social justice remain relevant.

I followed the UVa goings on closely, partly because I’d not long come back from a wonderful week spent in Charlottesville attending a conference and doing a small spot of guest teaching. Something one of the BoV members said really chilled me. He implied that online education could be a way to appease those calling for local students to have better access to UVa. My sense was that he wanted the campus to remain unchanged, while he offered the traditionally excluded communities (presumably including the black kids my colleague Bonnie Gordon has been working so hard to encourage to think of UVa as their university) an online education so they don’t need to be seen on campus. Well, that’s my take on his remark. Maybe he meant something else.

Before I began my fellowship, I was involved in setting up a doctoral programme in Digital Arts and Humanities at my home institution, University College Cork in Ireland. I am interested in digital scholarship, although I wouldn’t say yet that I do it. I do use a lot of digitised resources. I am a member of an online academic peer mentoring group, so I do see there are opportunities for online networking. I’m an avid user of social media (Facebook and Twitter) and I’ve found it really a great way of advancing some of my own research and developing my thinking. (This post started life as a comment on a Facebook page.) And I’ve watched lectures from iTunesU on occasion, too. But personal interest and professional development as something that enhances on campus development, research and networking, seems quite different from taking an entirely online degree programme, and that’s something I have not yet done. In case it’s not clear from what follows, I am not anti-online education per se. I’m well aware that it is possible to have an excellent online learning experience and a terrible on-campus learning experience. Both forms of education need to be excellent, and ideally they should complement each other (blended learning is all the rage in some quarters).

My prime concern is the perceived status at the moment of different forms of education and how that relates to social justice and privilege. I probably am being somewhat polemical.

Higher education in Ireland (where I’ve had most of my professional experience) seems very different from that in the US. My students have  ranged from school leavers to mature students, and includes those who entered our daytime degree programs via our adult education evening access program. Throughout my professional life (and in fact my student life), the majority of my students have been middle class and had a considerable degree of privilege. It could be a reflection of the kinds of topics I chose to teach (primarilly feminism, women, gender; my courses also commonly deal with issues of class, status, race), but many students in my physical seminar and lecture rooms in Ireland were juggling multiple responsibilities–usually a combination of two or more of work, young children, families with alcoholism, poverty, poor mental health, poor physical health including chronic and life-threatening conditions, family violence, and sick parents who need help to run the famiily farm. Some students needed a bit of understanding and some help to take advantage of the same opportunities as anyone else, as best they could, including the opportunity to connect with other students, potential employers, and academics. I’ve heard academics the world over complain about flaky students. In my experience, it’s not usually flakiness, it’s something like parenting while dealing with poor mental health, financial problems, and several generations of alcoholism in the family in a culture that believes these are individual responsibilities entirely divorced from systemic failures of society to provide and care adequately for all its members. I have watched students with these kinds of life difficulties graduate and go on to work or to postgraduate education. It can be done, given the right educational, social and financial support. At least until Ireland’s first emergency budget a few years back there were some supports in place (although not nearly enough) to help underprivileged and non-traditional students get a decent education and have an opportunity to access further/higher education. Sadly, state funding has now been axed at all educational levels (primary school through grad school) for programs that helped students with Traveler heritage, school students with English as a second language, students with disabilities; and because benefits (including child benefit) are being cut, students with children are having a tougher time, too. When I return, I wonder whether I will be teaching a student body as diverse as the one I left. (And the one I left could have been more diverse yet: not only was it very middle class, it was also very white.)

I remain deeply concerned that campus administrators and politicians see online teaching as a way to remove certain students from campus, get rid of a ‘problem’ student who requires a lot of support, and save money by axing the supports needed to help them succeed on campus. In order for non-traditional students to succeed on campus, there needs to be important changes in traditional education. Most times, these kinds of changes improve things for everyone. So, I’m not arguing for the status quo. I am arguing that there needs to be proper social, financial, political support for equality of access to education, and various support structures in place so that students from non-traditional backgrounds can complete successfully: in other words, meaningful social justice on campus.

Right now, it seems like online degrees are shunned by the traditional cohort of single, childless, able-bodied white men and women in their late teens and early 20s from well-to-do backgrounds, with neurotypical approaches to thinking and writing, and allegedly perfect mental health. (I could detour here to discuss the problems with normative masculinity and femininity, but I won’t.) So, the impression is that online ed is second best, because we don’t push the allegedly desirable students toward it. Students from non-traditional backgrounds, though, especially students with caring responsibilities and a job, are often encouraged to consider part-time online education as a solution to the very real problems they have, like finding time to get to a lecture hall. They might be able to find the time if there were adequate structures in place to help, like affordable, good quality child care on campus, a visiting carer to look after the elderly live-in parent, financial support, or day-release from work. I worry that at the moment there is a risk that such students end up in a kind of ghetto. The worst case scenario I can see? If/when online ed (such as MOOCs and so on) start making money, poor and disenfranchised students could effectively be subsidizing the campus educations of the privileged. Of course it doesn’t have to happen like that, and I don’t know an educator who would want to see that happen, but educators often aren’t the people making the policy decisions that ultimately entrench these kinds of social divisions. The prospect of online education becoming an excuse to exclude students from diverse backgrounds, with diverse sets of challenges from campus is very real. I don’t want campus to be a place for the privileged few even more than it already is. And idealist that I am, I can’t help thinking that perhaps Mitt Romney wouldn’t be so clueless about the 47 percent if throughout his life he’d been educated with people from diverse backgrounds and with diverse life experiences. And perhaps there would be more students from non-traditional backgrounds and more diverse students entering politics and so on if they had been able to meet, study and socialise with people with those kinds of connections. (Of course, I’m thinking of Bourdieu here.) Perhaps I’m naive and idealistic, maybe even a socialist feminist, but I certainly do not want to teach in such segregated environments. I’ll believe that online education has achieved equal status to campus ed when the likes of the Clintons, Romneys, Bushes, Kennedys, Heinzs, Haugheys, Aherns, Windsors, Blairs, Camerons etc encourage their privileged offspring to take online degrees instead of applying to top ranked universities. In the meantime, I will strive to make my campus university genuinely inclusive, and a place where people from all backgrounds and with all sorts of challenges can get an education and access the same kinds of opportunities side by side.

Licking, Race and Gender

whipped 11.1.09 [305]

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing George Lewis (Columbia University) speak at the NYU Department of Music. George is the author of an an award-winning book on the AACM and an inspiring composer and creative musician, and I always find myself thinking differently about things after hearing him. His presentation was titled “I’m Glad You Asked That Question”: In Search of Benjamin Patterson. He did find Benjamin Patterson, and on the way Lewis told stories about the way we tell stories—not just about who is in and who is out, but the different ways people are included in histories. Patterson, he said, is mentioned in many stories told by Fluxus artists but the official histories rarely address his work in a substantive manner…. He is hiding in plain sight. I’m afraid I instantly knew what he meant because at the start of the talk I thought I didn’t know anything by Ben Patterson, until Lewis mentioned his inclusion in the recent MoMA exhibition. In fact, I’d seen quite a few pictures, like these of the Variations for Double Bass (1964).

One of the pieces Lewis mentioned was ‘Licking Piece’, also from 1964. The instructions read, in part:

cover shapely female with whipped cream


Have a think about what you might expect to see given those instructions, and then have a look at this photo documentation and full instructions. Think before you peek.

Done that?

A number of thoughts spring to my mind, to do with gender, race, and interpreting scores. The instructions do not say that the ‘shapely female’ (what species?!) needs to be naked, but the woman in the documented performance is (or appears to be). Admittedly, the idea of licking cream off someone’s clothes is somehow yuckier than the sensual experience of licking cream off skin. Nor do the instructions say anything about who should be doing the licking. The picture appears to show men doing the cream spraying; presumably they did the licking too. For that matter, the instructions do not specifically say to lick the cream off the woman: it just says ‘lick’. Perhaps one could just lick one’s lips or have an ice-cream at that point. So, there’s a whole bunch of questions about how that score could be interpreted.

To be honest, my first reaction to the picture was to groan inwardly. What is so new about the objectification of a woman’s body? I mean, this is a bunch of men covering a naked woman with white goo: just the usual gendered power dynamic. Like Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), it prompts thought about power relationships between the performers involved, between audience and performers (at least it does for me). Does it make a difference that Ono gave the first performance of Cut Piece sitting still while audience members took turns cutting pieces of cloth from of her clothes with scissors, whereas Patterson is not the one being creamed and licked? Is that a significant issue? While Ono did suggest that Cut Piece could be performed by a man interacting with the audience, Patterson doesn’t appear to have specified that possible variation which could alter the power dynamics. It would make for an interesting thought experiment though. In any case, this piece doesn’t seem as challenging a commentary on women’s bodies as, say, Shigeko Kubota’s Vagina Painting (1965).

Where this performance of ‘Licking Piece’ was socially radical was in its racial diversity, in the intersection of race and gender politics. The performance surely challenged racial mores, given that many states still had anti-miscegenation laws in place in 1964. New York, where the performance took place, seems never to have had anti-miscegenation laws, but that doesn’t mean that intimate interracial interactions were unremarkable (even in 2008, only 3.9% of all marriages in the US involved partners considered different races), and performers and audiences would hardly have been ignorant of the racial politics in the country as a whole.

Anti-miscegenation laws protected the idea of whiteness. Most states focused on marriage to those classified as white and didn’t proscribe marriage between people from the various groups classified as not-white. That the concern was with whiteness is also evident from considering the history of rape and lynching: the race of the alleged perpetrator and alleged victim mattered (and still does). Many black women slaves, like Harriet Jacobs, were raped by their white owners, with few, if any, repercussions for the white rapist, whereas long after slavery ended African American men were violently murdered, lynched, for alleged wrongs to white women. The tragic case of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered for offending a white woman shop proprietor in Mississippi, came to national attention in 1955, nine years before this performance. Even when the Civil Rights Act passed in 1957 there were still state laws governing interracial relationships. The 1963 March on Washington included a black father holding a banner for the Interracial Marriage Club of Washington, photographed with his two daughters (institutional access to the Black Studies Center ProQuest archive may be required to view), and stories on challenges to anti-miscegenation laws appeared regularly in newspapers. On Dec. 9, 1964, the Daily Defender ran an article describing miscegenation laws as ‘the touchiest issue in all the legal literature of civil rights.’ Florida’s law against interracial cohabitation had recently been struck down following the prosecution of a Honduran man and a white woman for ‘habitually . . . (occupying) in the nighttime the same room’; the finding ruled that their ‘Constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law had been abridged’. The same article mentions the case of Mildred Loving, a woman with African and Native American ancestors, and her white husband, Richard Perry Loving, who had begun their challenge to Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws in 1963. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision overturned the last of the US’s anti-miscegenation laws. So, it doesn’t seem to adequate to consider only the gender politics of this piece. A naked white woman consenting to be covered in whipped cream and licked by a racially-diverse group of men and that being able to happen without prosecution or backlash was certainly radical, and perhaps more radical in that particular combination of people than with reversed genders.

If performed today, I think ‘Licking Piece’ could still raise all sorts of questions about boundaries (personal and social/cultural), about the transformation of all the performers and their reflection on the decisions they make during the performance, and about power dynamics between performers and between performers and audience. Given that the first performance happened when the fight for equality for interracial couples was in the news, perhaps it’s time to reimagine this piece now that the fight for equality for same-sex couples is in the news. In 40 years perhaps someone will look at a picture of three men covering a naked man with cream and preparing to lick it off, and groan inwardly about the oh-so-boring politics of that image.

Update: For a fascinating analysis of a more recent gendered & raced interaction that points out that the ‘Little Helpless White Lady’ and ‘Big Ole Scary Black Man’ scripts are still with us, see Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ discussion (also posted on 27 Jan) of Governor Jan Brewer pointing her finger in the face of President Barack Obama: ‘A Teachable Racial Moment: On Fingers Pointed in Black Faces’.

Photo credit: whipped 11.1.09 [305] by timlewisnm, on Flickr.