Digital Labor, Race & Gender in the Academy

agendaThis fall, I taught a writing class where I introduced students to color as design and rhetoric, the CSS of their ePortfolio platform, and a rich text module (where they would write reflection on what they had done in the class and explain their visual design decisions). The agenda for that day of class was posted the night before, like every day of my teaching this year.  The “lesson plan” was hosted at my own ePortfolio so students could experience the text and weblinks on that platform.  There was also a 4-page handout, my personal worksheet and guide to CSS, all of which was followed by an exit slip as students left the lab.  Just a regular day of class really: tasks you need to complete, things you need to get done… with students who work hard to meet your expectations.  The pinch in the system on that day, however, came from an assigned observer of my class who claimed that no writing happened in the class and that I seemed unprepared for the day.  Yeah… you heard that right…UN-PRE-PARED.  So some 50 emails later and another 10 pages of 5th-grade-level explication of basic digital literacy practices in 21st century writing classrooms, I came to a crossroads where I DEEPLY understand the WORK of my digital labor… and the necessity that a black female professor always be able to PUBLICLY SHOW what she has done and what she can do. After all, it is difficult to make the case for unpreparedness if you have even casually perused the items that I list in just this blog post (unless, of course, you have NO clue how to work a web browser or google search).  It offers a digital visibility when an ideological imposition of invisibility tries to strike its ugly, white blows.  It won’t save or protect you, but it WILL throw a whole other kind of monkey-wrench in the mix, pun intended.

For each class that I taught this year, I created a class agenda that guided what we would do.  The agenda is meant as a guide rather than a script to keep me moving towards the goals and promises I have made on my course syllabus which is usually 12-15 pages long.  Each agenda for each day of my class is posted to the course website.

In addition to this website/blog, I have:

  1. a professional ePortfolio that archives all of my teaching, research, and service since I secured tenure two years ago now
  2. a wordpress site for my English 101 course (Public Writing, Rhetoric, and the 21st Century)
  3. a wordpress site for a class that I taught last year and hope to build as ongoing archive of black women’s rhetoric
  4. a weebly site for my English 201 course, Digital Rhetorics (with a companion weebly demo site as a skeleton for the websites that students create)
  5. two demo sites on digication as a skeleton for the ePortfolios that students create
  6. a website on digication for a series of workshops that I did for sophomores and transfer students designing digital resumes (with a companion weebly demo site as a skeleton for the websites that students create)
  7. a website on digication that explains the CSS of the platform
  8. a forthcoming website on digication for an honors seminar in writing and rhetoric that I will teach next year
  9. a website (not fully public yet) on digication for an online journal of first year students’ digital projects and essays (launched in fall 2013)
  10. a forthcoming online, undergraduate journal
  11. the beginning stages of a scribd account, youtube channel, and soundcloud account in order to upload media to my websites in different ways (I plan to create some apps and screencasts this summer also)

wordpresslogoOn top of that, I am working on my own book, a series of articles, and research presentations. I don’t even count the meetings I have to attend anymore; I lose track of that.  I began to contextualize all of these personal technology projects that pepper my academic life after reading Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory edited by Trebor Scholz.  The collection of authors in this text make compelling arguments that connect new media, social networking, and political economy.

DigicationLogoThe aggregate of authors in the book leave very little room to deny the fact that we, the users of social media, are also the products.  In exchange for the use of free, innovative services, we are produced and manufactured as audiences and then sold to advertisers as a commodity.  Andrew Ross is compelling in his argument that digital technology did not invent free labor in a capitalistic system, but it has certainly enabled nonstandard work and exploitation. The creativity, autonomy, and self-organization that characterize our “cognitive mode of production” challenges Taylorism’s standardization and deskilled labor (Ross reminds us though that factories still exist), but not in liberatory ways.  Mark Andrejevic’s focus on commercial surveillance as integral to communicative infrastructure bears direct relationship to his arguments about our free labor in a digital economy where we are all for sale.  Though I don’t enable ads and, therefore, consumerist tracking/surveillance on this site, Jodi Dean certainly reminds me that my maintenance of all these websites, for my teaching and for my scholarship, is a kind of free labor, or what Michel Bauwens discusses in relation to the importance of “networked peer production.”  Any academic can tell you that blogging doesn’t count for/as our scholarship, but no one under 40 years old is really “marketable” in the academy today without a serious digital footprint.  It didn’t take much to convince me of the arguments in this book because my fatigue alone lets me know I been giving up some REAL SERIOUS LABOR, none of which is really counted in the typical measurements for promotion and the like for my profession. It is, in essence, only free labor that benefits that profession.

BUT… yes, there is always a BUT: a black woman working hard ain’t nuthin really exceptional; it’s just another day.  I am not saying this to justify exploitation, but to offer a different context of race and gender in a digital economy.  The only thing new a digital economy has offered me in terms of all this free labor is a VISIBILITY of that free labor (though not a visibility that uproots marginalization). It is from a sense of urgency that I intend to stay visible…hella visible.  I would go so far as to say that as a black woman in the academy, I really don’t have a choice.


Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory gave me a new way of contextualizing the raced and gendered form of my digital labor in the academy. I won’t be romancing or celebrating this context anytime soon or heralding it as social transformation, voice, or liberation. The internet will not automatically make me an active producer or a creative subject, no more so than a washboard made black women future Maytag distributors.  The most radical possibilities afforded here are opportunities for new counter-publics, for using these digital platforms in much the same way as black communities have used the camera, for instance: to turn the gaze on and chronicle police brutality/white violence AND/OR to take back control of OUR OWN image.  We have always invented and sustained alternative public rhetorics of our bodies and histories using whatever technologies available to talk back… and black!  Today is no different.