FemTechNet Hopes to Revolutionize SA’s Higher Education Possibilities 

click to enlarge Geeks who think: FemTechNet San Antonio’s Laura Varela (left) and Penelope Boyer at Geekdom - DONTE GRIFFIN
  • Donte Griffin
  • Geeks who think: FemTechNet San Antonio’s Laura Varela (left) and Penelope Boyer at Geekdom

The makings of a revolution in higher education just might be forming here in San Antonio, but not at UTSA, or Trinity, or Incarnate Word, or any of the other colleges in the area. In order to witness this grand experiment, you’ll have to head over to tech-friendly co-work space Geekdom on Tuesday evenings.

There, instead of professors and students, there’s facilitators and participants, instead of one-directional lectures, you have discussions, and instead of tests and quizzes you create projects and artifacts. If it all sounds too squishy and feel-good, make no mistake, this is serious learning, tackling the amazingly heady topic of feminism and technology and created by bona fide, longtime professors in their fields. It’s rigorous, complex and in San Antonio, you don’t need to be a college student (past or present) or even own a computer to access it.

That’s the new international network FemTechNet in a nutshell, one of those ideas that seems to have suddenly arrived fully formed, like Athena springing out of Zeus’ head. Obviously a lot more work went into it than that, but the actual creation timeline for the Network took a little more than a year-and-a-half according to co-creators Anne Balsamo and Alexandra Juhasz, Dean of the New School’s Media Studies program and professor of media studies at Pitzer College, respectively.

At its core, FTN (as its creators call it) is “an activated network of scholars, artists and students who work on, with, and at the borders of technology, science and feminism in a variety of fields including STS, Media and Visual Studies, Art, Women’s, Queer and Ethnic Studies.” FTN grew out of a coffee klatch between Balsamo and Juhasz, both of whom have written extensively on women and feminist pedagogy in technology. The pair shared concerns that women’s contributions to technology, from academia to art, weren’t being recognized, or even documented, and female representation in the field suffered for it.

While the FTN web site illustrates this concern with a story The New York Times ran in June 2012 that stated “Men invented the internet,” there’s even more recent cause for alarm. In late August, the Silicon Valley gossip site Valleywag reported on the innocuous term “culture fit” and its use by tech startups to deny jobs to those who don’t “fit” the (male) tech nerd stereotype. It sparked an avalanche of reader comments, mainly from women, describing experiences of abject, gender-based discrimination in not just start-ups, but computer science university programs and major technology firms, so much so that Valleywag ran a follow-up post on August 29 titled “This Is Why There Aren’t Enough Women in Tech.” Just last week, TechCrunch Disrupt, one of the technology industry’s best-regarded conferences, came under fire for highlighting two lewd apps, one memorably titled “Titstare.” Also last week, Business Insider’s Chief Technology Officer was forced out after his racist and sexist tweets were made public, one defending the offensive TechCrunch Disrupt presentations.

So the theory behind FemTechNet’s content is that it will enhance women’s sorely needed participation in digital technology, but as Juhasz said to me by phone recently “For me, one of the things that defines feminism is that theory and practice go together.” It’s the practice, how the Network plans to activate itself, that is perhaps the most startling (or ‘disruptive’ if you’re into buzzwords) part of FTN. To make the Network accessible to as many as possible, Juhasz and Balsamo knew early on they wanted a free, online community where interested parties could find one another and chat about topics related to education, technology, art and feminism. But they also knew that the classroom structure already provided an excellent way to build community and sought a way to combine the two. To many, this idea may sound a lot like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), but Juhasz and Balsamo bristled at the for-profit, hierarchical structure of these free-to-low cost online courses currently taking higher education by storm.

FTN proposed a new model they call a Distributed Open Collaborative Course (DOCC). The DOCC structure eschews centralization for several “nodal” classes that are based around proposed themes and augmented by video discussions available on FTN’s website. Many of these nodals take the form of for-credit courses at universities ranging from top-tier institutions like Brown and Yale to massive state schools like Ohio State and Pennsylvania State to smaller colleges like Bowling Green State and Colby-Sawyer. Yet there’s plenty of opportunity for non-traditional students via the FTN website’s free, self-directed learner component. And then there’s San Antonio.

“San Antonio really is such an aberration,” said Penelope Boyer, one of two women responsible for bringing FTN to SA. Over lunch earlier this month, Boyer and co-facilitator Laura Varela explained how their program manages to fall even further outside the DOCC’s loose construct. After first learning about FemTechNet during an International Society for the Electronic Arts conference in 2012, Boyer started talking about bringing a nodal to SA with professors at Trinity, Texas A&M—San Antonio and Palo Alto College. “Nothing was particularly right,” said Boyer, in regards to a local hosting institution. Partnering with local filmmaker Varela, with whom she had previously collaborated and whose past projects include the documentary As Long as I Remember: American Veteranos and the video art installation Enlight-Tents (which projected images of Native Americans onto the Alamo), Boyer decided to host the DOCC locally as a “Taller,” or workshop, utilizing Varela’s already-established connections at Geekdom.

If it proceeds as planned, Boyer and Varela envision it as a free “media club,” sort of like a low-pressure book club. “We’ve got all the flexibility in the world,” said Boyer. “People can come and go, there’s no requirements or reports.”

Each Tuesday at Geekdom, starting September 24, any and all are welcome to gather with Boyer and Varela, watch a video of well-known feminist thinkers and academics discussing the topic of the week, and then stay for a loosely structured dialogue, aided by local advisors, about the video. The video topic schedule appears here, and includes “Sexualities,” “Difference,” “Archive” and so on. While there’s plenty of extracurricular resources available on FTN’s website, Boyer and Varela say it’s not necessary to have a computer or internet access at all to stay engaged in the digital technology dialogue.

However, because the course was directly inspired by the perceived lack of women in technology, each participant is encouraged to engage in creative, digitally-based projects before the course ends in December. One of the projects involves “Wiki-storming,” in which participants directly address the lack of women and feminist theory in technology by creating or augmenting Wikipedia pages to reflect the participation and influence of various women in relevant fields. Other projects may include short video production, feminist mapping and substantive blog commenting. Many nodals will offer object-making as the final project, which, with its emphasis on DIY and/or craft methods and intention that the end product is then given as a gift to someone else, seems a little Portlandia at first blush. However, the process purports to help students think outside of capitalistic norms, create community and connect their learning to a tangible object, or “artifact” as the FTNers are fond of saying. In keeping with the FTN ethos, nodals like Boyer and Varela’s Taller may employ all, none or some of these project ideas. The San Antonio facilitators hope their participants end the course leaving behind “a beautiful digital object” that will be of use to future FTNers’ study.

Coincidentally, Varela, who has taught as an adjunct at UTSA, had recently been approached by the University to teach a MOOC about film. She turned down the opportunity, citing her preference to teach face-to-face with students. “[MOOCs] can’t be intimate in that way,” said Varela, noting that her classes we based primarily on two-way dialogues about the films. “[The students] needed these discussions to happen,” she said “and the projects that come out of that.”

Varela is far from the only educator skeptical of the MOOC, despite the millions of students and growing list of big league universities signing on to the relatively new end-run around pricey college courses. In a 2011 article published in the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Rita Kop noted that the MOOC structure of online video lectures followed by quizzes and tests (oftentimes multiple choice) did not include much in the way of community building, resource sharing or even an alternative to professor office hours for students struggling with material. Similar assessments have been made in The New York Times, C-Net and the Associated Press. In a November 2, 2012 article titled “The Year of the MOOC”, Times education reporter Laura Pappano wrote “How do you make the massive feel intimate? That’s what everyone is trying to figure out.”

FemTechNet offers a possible solution, one that might not have anything to do with feminism, but at the same time has everything to do with it. Juhasz explained the DOCC concept in relation to the MOOC, “Instead of a top down model, where one teacher from an elite institution tries to maximize the number of students, we’re more interested in democratic model,” she said, adding that “Each [nodal] is different and neither has any more authority than the next.” Boyer and Varela emphatically insist that in their DOCC, “instructors are as much participants as the participants are facilitators.” Juhasz noted that “a feminist understanding of the work of teaching is that it’s collaborative, a democratic process. A lot of good teaching happens in that process and that practice.” She added, “It takes a long time.”

Compare this to the allure of the MOOC, in which one or two superstar professors lecture virtually to tens of thousands of students. While MOOCs have created a fever pitch of hype due to their free and easy accessibility, some claim that it’s actually moved pedagogy backward, once again equating education with giant, impersonal lecture courses and rigid performance metrics, and drop-out rates are almost as astronomical as enrollment numbers. Perhaps not coincidentally, to this day MOOCs are dominated by male professors teaching STEM-related courses. “It’s a lazy and an oppressive way to imagine how education actually works,” said Juhasz, bluntly. “A lot of teaching is knowing your own students,” she added, which is almost impossible for MOOC instructors with thousands of students tuning in from all corners of the globe.

Yet these structures can offer incredible value to a motivated learner without physical or economic access to higher learning institutions. One needn’t be enrolled in or have taken prerequisite courses for the vast number of MOOCs available online. FemTechNet has seized on this accessibility component, augmenting it with the personalized and collaborative emphasis of feminist pedagogy, providing an exhilarating way to reach underserved, intellectually curious learners. No current nodal demonstrates this better than Boyer and Varela’s free FemTechNet Taller.

For one, while 2011 census numbers show that nearly 80 percent of San Antonio residents have graduated high school, only 32 percent had either two-year or four-year degrees. The number of San Antonians holding a bachelor’s degree was less than 25 percent in 2011. Also, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, Latino/as, which account for more than 60 percent of SA’s population, use the internet less than whites in any age group. This large Saytown population is smart and driven enough to stay in school, but unwilling or unable to pursue a traditional college degree plan, possibly even unable to access a computer and internet connection for a MOOC, but there’s no reason to assume that this demographic doesn’t want to continue learning for learning’s sake.

Where to get such continuing education locally? Alamo Colleges and Our Lady of the Lake offer a bevy of variously priced courses and workshops geared toward professional skill development. Northside and North East ISDs also offer some skill and hobby-based education classes for fees ranging from $20 to more than $200. UTSA houses an extended studies program that allows non-students to register and attend undergraduate courses on a “space available” condition, but each course could cost as much as $400, excluding transportation and books, a expensive proposition if not working toward degree credit.

Even current college students may want to avail themselves of the local FemTechNet Taller, because if they’re interested in women’s studies, they have few options locally. UTSA just unveiled their women’s studies program for undergraduates in Fall 2012, offering an admittedly drool-worthy slate of feminist theory courses (Feminism and Globalization—yes, please!). Trinity offers only a minor with some fairly unspecific classes, other than the four core courses. Alamo Colleges provides a certificate in women’s studies, in which the only class specifically mentioning females in the title is “Women’s Literature.”

Locally, the FemTechNet Taller is something of an oasis, then, and the early interest seems to back it up. Boyer and Varela do not as of yet know how many plan to attend their Taller, but their local Facebook page has 168 “likes” and counting. Among the formal courses, FTN classes have attracted more than 300 participants so far.

I asked Juhasz what she hopes participants take away from the experience at the end of the course. In an answer I should have seen coming, she responded, “There’s no one takeaway, there’s 100 possible takeaways.” She kindly went on to specify anyway, “But on that list for me, it’s thinking on a meta-level about online education because that’s a huge issue.” Juhasz continued “I want [participants] to understand a sophisticated conversation among feminist thinkers and artists and I want them to feel that they are now in this conversation … and understand themselves as makers of culture. Not just receiving the knowledge, [but to] leave feeling empowered as people who make this conversation.”

While the content itself is indeed needed, and will hopefully achieve Juhasz’ and FTN’s goals of sparking advanced discussion, documentation and participation of and by women in technology, in a way the practice, the DOCC, is already a major success. The DOCC has applications well beyond feminist theory courses, in fact, it’s hard to think of a topic that the DOCC’s participatory structure wouldn’t be suited to, and it could be the answer to the question The New York Times posed last November about being massive and intimate at once. It was also the brainchild of two women, and is infused with feminist theory, two things that can’t be ignored should the DOCC take off as a viable alternative education model. Sounds like one hell of a “beautiful digital object” to me.




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