27 May 2009

Jane Fonda on privilege

"Why was it that I had not paid more attention and taken action sooner? It wasn't that I was lazy or lacked curiosity. I think it had to do with giving up comfort--and I don't mean material comfort. I mean the comfort that ignorance provides. Once you connect with the painful truth of something, you then own that pain and must take responsibility for it through action. Of course, there are people who see and then choose to turn away, but then one becomes an accomplice." (My Life So Far, p. 197)

21 May 2009

Trans/librarian, Part I

I was reading an article for the collection evaluation I'm doing as part of my internship this summer, and it gave me a lot of food for thought and helped me flesh out the points below, which have been nagging at me for some time. It's mostly just notes to myself to use in the future, but I thought you might find it interesting to read.

This is the article that I reference: Moss, Eleanor. (2008). An inductive evaluation of a public library GLBT collection. Collection Building, 24(4): 149-156.

At one point, the author is talking about ex-gay/anti-gay literature, she makes the point that based on the perspective of users their collection is targeted at ("community relevance"),
"As one of the leaders of Exodus Ministries, and a poster child of the Ex-Gay Movement, Paulk’s book is considered anti-gay, even psychologically and spiritually damaging, by most of the GLBT community. Using a definition of community relevance, one could even make the argument that Love Won Out is not a GLBT book."
Still, she kept the book in her sample, because a) it has the subject headings, and b) it's still in high demand at the library she studied, so it's relevant, if distasteful. I think that this "relevant, if distasteful" concept is going to be key for the work I do with the trans stuff in my internship, and I should expand on it in whatever write-up comes out of this research, since as a research institution, anything is valid fodder for study, especially (humanities) analysis. Ah, I see-- so the question arises of how to "keep" psych/social scientists/medical practitioners from using "bad"/non-trans-affirming materials to inform their new research/practice. It's an information literacy issue--being able to make an informed decision about what info is "good" for a particular purpose, and it's complicated by the fact that the balancing voices that would add depth to the pool are trans people's voices themselves, especially in the psych/ss/medical fields.

So non-trans researchers/practitioners in these fields look for information, find non-trans-affirming/trans-controlling stuff, and this becomes their basis for interacting with/caring for/working with trans people, and since they've read voices of authority that included zero-to-very-few trans authors, it reifies the notion that "non-trans must be better sources of information about trans people than trans people are themselves." Which is why I can't bring myself to be a "neutral" librarian about this issue, because this particular cycle of knowledge production, consumption, and use causes harm (to be clear: harm is certainly not the only produced effect, but it is significant). Still, the answer can't be through censorship, but rather through information literacy education (i.e., giving users context). But how to do that when researchers/practitioners in the psych/ss/medical fields are already imbued with superiority and entitlement? At the root: how to make them respect and value trans people?

No answers yet. What do you think?

13 May 2009

Why it bothers me when you say "lame".

"that's dumb."
"that's so stupid."
"that's gay."
"that's retarded."
"i'm such a spaz."
"that's ghetto."

This post is not about semantics, censorship, or "political correctness". It's about understanding the power of your words, and being intentional about them.

Even though I've gotten used to it, I still flinch every time someone uses "gay" as a pejorative, using those three letters as a sociolinguistic bridge to connect a complex social & sexual identity & experience with a much simpler concept: "bad".

By re-purposing "gay" like that, people reassign the meaning of the word, co-opting a signifier someone else's identity. By misusing it so often and without regard to context, they dilute its significance. It becomes a cheaper word, less valuable and less meaningful.

To me, it may be a mere annoyance at times, a frustration at others, or the last straw on a really bad day. What I'm saying is: when people use a term that has special significance in my life in a negative way, it does me harm, even if only a little.

And I like to operate in a harm-reduction paradigm. If we can make the world a little less bad, a little more good & safe & loving, then why shouldn't we?

Convenience: that's the answer I get most often when I call people out on saying "lame". It's convenient to say "lame" to express non-functionality, interpreted broadly. So "lame" becomes a blanket expression for all minor discontent.

My problem with that is: a) "lame" is a word that has special significance to people with disabilities*, b) your repurposing it therefore does harm, and c) being imprecise in your language compromises your own integrity**.

And of all the daily choices we make without thinking, from how much water to use in the shower to where to get our food to where to go to school to what job to take to what religion to follow, this is one of the most manageable, actionable. It is only a small task to choose to be intentional with our language and respect the power that our words have to hurt or help other people and ourselves.

So, I am asking you to take this small action: when you find yourself about to slip and re-purpose a word that is not yours, reconsider. What is the real message you want to express? It's probably as simple as "I don't like that." And if it's more complex, take the time to allow yourself the freedom to express complexity! It makes life richer for everyone.

* regardless of whether a person's specific experience has anything to do with mobility, because it's a signifier. see metonymy.

** um, this is a rather involved point may seem like a stretch but is deeply related, while perhaps more tangential to the specific point I'm making here. See "The Four Agreements", for example.

19 April 2009

Trouble on the i-land.

"Connecting People, Information, and Technology in More Useful Ways"- motto of the University of Michigan School of Information

You know, there's a lot of tension right now at SI (and in the information field at large) between the library/archives sides of the field and the Human Computer Interaction/Social Computing sides (i.e., those going from people to technology, and those going from technology to people). More precisely, the tension is a product of differing philosophies in heretofore discrete fields of study.

It's a pretty exciting time to be in the field-- we're really at the cutting edge of the nascent discipline, defining what Information Science is, isn't, and could be. So it's natural that tensions run high: trailblazing is a high-stakes game precisely because not everybody makes it. At least, that's the paradigm Americans have to view it in. And I think that this drive for competition can make people feel defensive and insecure about their positions in both SI (micro) and the field (macro). Which is totally counterproductive! We're supposed to be learning from each other, not unzipping to measure every thirty seconds. And I am addressing both sides of the field right now.

However, I cannot overemphasize that we are not on an equal playing field. By overwhelming majorities, the P->T people are coming from women-dominated fields like librarianship and teaching. By overwhelming majorities, the T->P people are coming are coming from men-dominated fields like computer science and economics. This means that the balance of power is not equal, because of the social histories of these fields. The academy is by no means exempt from social systems privilege and oppression that permeate every aspect of life in these United States.

1. First and foremost, there's a vast difference in the amount of money coming into the fields. To be entirely reductionist and permit a false dichotomy for the sake of a good punchline, it's that computer scientists can get Uncle Sam to buy them supercomputers; librarians can get Uncle Pat and Aunt Barbara to chip in at the library bake sale.

Okay, but why is there a money differential? This is actually two answers-- why the dude-side has a lot of money, and why the lady-side has little money. It's a total fallacy to set it up as though each side has ever been vying for the same pot of money (except at the very highest levels of socio-economic decision making).

A. So, first, the fellas have such a ridiculous amount of money because of World War II and the Cold War. You know the story: "gotta get that Enigma code cracked (mo' money)! Gotta defend liberty and Anglo Saxon global hegemon(e)y (mo' money)! Oh no-- Sputnik (mo' money)??! Gotta beat those dirty Ruskis (mo' money)! Gotta intervene in Asian and Latin American countries to defend capitalism and American global hegemon(e)y (mo' money)! blah blah blah". You know the rest.

Does this mean that all science researchers, engineers, and computer scientists, are individually responsible for the perpetuation of an organized system of global neoimperialist neoliberal war and destruction? NO.

Does this invalidate the decades of hard work by dedicated people in these fields? NO.

And have these fields benefited from such a system? YES.

And second, the lady fields have so much less money because service work is socially devalued as flim-flam feminine fluff. That is, it's the same old circular logic that service work is women's work and women's work can't possibly have social utility outside the domestic sphere because, well, women do it and they belong at home! So in a culture and nation steered by (hegemonically straight, white, rich, able-bodied, capitalist, American) men, the productivity of non-material work remains under-recognized and underestimated, and its efforts remain under-funded.

[To be sure, there have always been leading men in the lady-fields as well (i.e., Melvil Dewey, Francis Bellamy) but this raises another issue that I really don't have time to go into here.]

2. Jump down a few granular steps of analysis, to the interpersonal level. (Hegemonic) male privilege means that dudes get to talk more, talk louder, talk over other people, and their voices are validated by default (intelligent until proven otherwise). On the flip side, ladies are expected to go along ("be agreeable"), talk more quietly (lest she be accused of bitchery), yield the floor (lest she be pushy), and make every argument twice as convincing (unintelligent until proven otherwise). This is Oppression Theory 101, people. And this is going on in classrooms, faculty meetings, budget decisions, tenure/hiring decisions, et cetera, every day.

So this is why the gendered difference matters in the context of the criticial conversations about the field.

As for their content, and this is what really burns up my biscuits, it's the pervasive perspective that I get from a lot of T->P folks: that they're magically discovering the driving engine that can change the world, and

  • a. it's because they've finally realized that delivering a service as opposed to strictly a product means you have to understand a particular set of needs among your target user group, and that
  • b. your user group is defined by a specific set of demographics, which influence their particular needs, uses, and behaviors, and
  • c. matching your service to a user group's needs will make a win/win situation and you will still make money, as long as the user group has some to give.

And pardon me, but FLIM-FLAM FEMININE FLUFFY THINKERS HAVE BEEN DOING THIS PROFESSIONALLY FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS. In the fields you were ignoring! So you didn't just make all this stuff up all by your lonesome self! You're not being post-modern, you're just getting some lady-balance in your dude-brain!

Now, I am quite sure that the folks on the other side who resent the library side of the field see it quite differently (and I'm also sure that many people in the LIS side will disagree strongly with me).

One impression I get is that resentment stems from an adolescent rebellion—the developing T->P side trying to make its own place out of reach of Librarianship's maternal apron strings. But this is speculation based on only one conversation with one person (and I know Freud is so out of style). So, clearly, I need more information. I want to know why there's so much library denigration at the individual level!

So, at long last, we have come to the point of this bit of writing: I am calling for comprehensive open dialogue amongst everybody underneath the Information umbrella! And intentional opportunities for information/perspective sharing! And an open, judgment- and risk-free forum in which to collectively define the scope and future of the field we all care s much about! Theoretically, this is what is happening in JASIST, First Monday, etc. But that's not enough! That doesn't make the conversation widely shareable, especially outside of universities!

So how can we continue to blaze a trail without anybody getting tossed off wagon train?

Some preliminary recommendations:

  1. Macro: A standing conference that rotates locations at different schools/other sites, and which has major emphases in theoretical, pedagogical, and practical applications.

  2. Mid: In i-Schools (and L-Schools!), a structured convocation and integration of people on all sides of the field. This is what they try to do in 501, but we don't have a solid theoretical orientation in our fields yet; we need a follow-up. This could be another required class, for example (but, y'know, another good one).

  3. Mid: In i-Schools, L-Schools, and non-academic information workplaces: privilege-awareness/oppression theory as a focus and underpinning of methodology (academic or otherwise)

  4. Micro: In i-Schools, sit next to someone you don't have classes with at lunch! Strike up a conversation with all those other weirdos—that's actually about what we're learning and practicing, not just personal/non-professional topics of conversation.

That would be a start!

What do you think? Tell me—I want to know.

[disclaimer: I'm focusing particularly on gender right now, but there are clearly equally important avenues along axes of class, ability, and race that need to be addressed.]

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30 March 2009

A peek into my long-term plans

I tend to forget to keep people outside of school in the loop on my career plans, or, what I'm actually going to do with my life. I just came across this bit that I wrote in an application essay to be a teaching assistant for next fall, and I think it's a nice bite-size encapsulation of why I'm here and what I'm doing. I thought I'd share it with you.

Intentions, information, and action: these three elements are all necessary in any effort toward social justice and sustainable change. In my experiences as a community organizer, educator, and activist, I have found this to be true time and again. Too often, well intentioned people take action on an issue of injustice, but lack the necessary type or degree of information to ensure success. In some cases, the gap between success and failure is a matter of misunderstanding the social or historical context around the issue; in others, a lack of access to the best available data. In either case, the gap between success and failure is also a gap between mapping one's intentions to "make things better" onto appropriate action to enact change. To bridge these gaps, we need better information.

It is with this understanding that I am pursuing a degree in Library and Information Services, as well as a Certificate in LGBTQ Studies. Librarianship lines every path toward social justice: encouraging critical thinking and information literacy, supporting individuals' and communities' desires and needs to absorb information about their lives, fostering a positive environment for learning, promoting creativity and problem solving skills, and on and on.

It goes on from there to talk about connections to teaching and why I'd be a good GSI (graduate student instructor), but that bit up there is the real kernel of my opus magnum. You'll get to hear more about the practical side of it soon, when I write up the proposal for my thesis research. Stay tuned!

26 March 2009

Loving Ann Arbor, in spite of itself?

I got a really insightful and spot-on question from a prospective SI student, and I thought I'd share the question and my response.

"I went to undergrad at a liberal arts college... where the demographics of the school and town are similar. I am concerned about being a minority student in super rich super white Ann Arbor.

Is race/class a ham-stringing issue in Ann Arbor?"
And here's what I wrote back:

That is a fantastic question. The short answer is this: rumors of Ann Arbor's "political correctness"* have been highly exaggerated.

And I mean this from two perspectives:

1. There are a ton of cool/radical people of color, anti-racist white people, and anti-classist people of all types in town; and
2. Racism/classism are definitely present, but they're not as hidden as one might imagine they are--IMO, just like everywhere else.

There are people who misuse and abuse the concept of "diversity", and there are also a vast number of people who engage and celebrate diversity. AA gets a lot of criticism from people on the right for being too progressive (DP benefits, affirmative action stuff) and from people on the left for being too white-liberal. Here are some thoughts on that:

While AA isn't a large city, it's a highly decentralized one. So it can be hard for people new to the town/school to find a niche, /especially/ if they're coming in as anything besides a freshman. There are FANTASTIC student affairs/student development programs to help freshmen/undergrads adjust to being grown & sexy and learn about social justice and oppression and privilege and intersectionality and all that good stuff. But of course, not everyone gets tracked in that way, so there's a fair amount of resistance that a body might encounter in class or something like that. Still, there is a strong social justice awareness and infrastructure within the division of student affairs, and among the student services staff in most schools and programs (especially at SI).

And then on the grad level, people come from all over the world with all different perspectives-- it's one of the risks of having such highly ranked programs. Pretty much every grad program we have is a top-10 (or top 25 at worst). In a lot of ways, the "leaders and best" moniker really rings true. And, of course (again), this means that we get a bunch of different perspectives, including libertarians and straight-up conservatives and super-right-wing people. We have a super highly ranked business school, which means more conservative people concentrated there, but we also have a very well regarded programs in American Culture (which includes various ethnic studies), Women's Studies, Social Work (#1 consistently for as long as I can remember), and things like that, so we get a lot of freaking awesome/radical/activist/socially aware change-making type folks.

Overall, I think Ann Arbor is an awesome place to live. And I'm saying this as an anarchist trans POC from a rural background. I did my undergrad here, and loved it enough to come back for grad school after living in LA.

I'll be honest: we need more people of color in SI-- and in librarianship in general, and positions of public leadership, and everywhere else. So while I think there are definitely challenges to living in AA as a person of color with a class consciousness, I don't think they're *unique* to this town, and it's a lot better in that regard than most places I've lived. Ann Arbor is not really as rich or as white as it may seem on paper. And, in my opinion, the only way to shape it more towards a thorough social justice orientation is to bring more people in to build educational capacity and raise the level of critical consciousness & discourse.

So, wow, that was a lot! You can tell it's something I think about a lot. :)

Let me know what you think--I'd love to continue this conversation. Also, I think I'd like to post this letter on my blog, because a lot of people share your concerns--is that cool?


*I'm using PC in the co-opted sense, not the original meaning.
I was really glad to get the question, because it made me think critically and reflectively about what frustrates me about being here, but what keeps bringing me back as well.

13 March 2009

Lost in Translation, part 1

When Shri Rama asked Valmiki as to where should he reside as he had abandoned Ayodhya, Valmiki specified about 14 types of residences which were fit for him to reside and these 14 residences covered all the ways and paths of devotion.

Valmiki said:-

1) you should reside along with Sita and Lakshman where people are not tired of listening to your biographical narrative. [source]

I think it's safe to say that literal translations are pretty useless in the realm of spirituality/religion/mysticism/anything that's not literal in the first place.

I was actually just saying this to Andrew the other night, when I was trying to find the full Holi story online so I could tell it to him without missing important details and then having to jump around in the narrative to patch things together.

I've noticed that English tellings of Hindu stories tend to tell either only the literal (see: 1), and therefore miss the spiritual, or only the spiritual, but in a really colonial reductionist/positivist way, and therefore miss the point of its being a story. The former mistakes the model for the phenomenon, as Priya would say (though in this case I might suggest that, more precisely, it's mistaking the vehicle for the tenor). The latter disabuses the notion that the tenor and vehicle have anything to do with each other--it's inconceivable that a cup might be the best way to hold water for drinking, because the focus is on drinking the water.

I'm a big fan of the way Hinduism has been recorded. A word is a symbol that represents the meaning of an abstract concept in order to communicate it outside the self; similarly, a story encapsulates and communicates a more complex concept or idea, or set of them in relation to each other.

And if they hadn't specifically intended to communicate Hinduism that way--subliming conceptions of divinity, life, everything, and universal connectedness into the plot and characters in a story--those old yogis would have just written out some commandments and essays and been done with it.

28 January 2009

Dude, You Guys, Hey.

Information literacy is super important. From the BBC:

A top doctor has admitted her part in hoodwinking a leading medical journal after inventing a medical condition called "cello scrotum".

Elaine Murphy - now Baroness Murphy - dreamt up the painful complaint in the 1970s, sending a report to the British Medical Journal.

She came clean when the hoax resurfaced in the 2008 Christmas edition [when another researcher cited the condition in their own paper].

A BMJ spokesman said the inclusion and subsequent debunking of "cello scrotum" had "added to the gaiety of life".
Full article here.

15 January 2009

grumpy morning weather post


i hope the bus isn't running late.

*sigh* on the plus side, maybe i can avoid top surgery altogether this way. my chest bubbles could just freeze all the way off!

grump. if you listen carefully, that's exact noise the snow makes under my shoes when the weather is like this-- just before squeak and too dry for crunch. the snow says, "grumpgrumpgrumpgrump".

i bet you could make a Bose-Einstein condensate in my mailbox right now.