So. What if we just say no?
In today’s post, I want to talk to you a little more directly about what resistance looks like in the context of our digital detox. Indeed, I want to talk to you about what radical resistance looks like in the context of our digital detox. The common factor in all of the egregious practices we’ve discussed at length this month is data. What happens when we choose to withhold our own, or when we choose to make better choices with the data over which we have a fiduciary responsibility?
I know, I know. I promised you that this detox was not going to be about abstinence. And it’s not — not really. But you may find that the most powerful tool you have at your disposal is the right to refuse your engagement with services that trouble you, and that goes double for those of us who make decisions about where to place other people’s data and who we should trust in those transactions.
About two months ago, I gave up my Facebook account for good. It was a long time coming, but also a really fraught decision: there are lots of people I know I won’t hear from anymore after cutting that cord. But Facebook is objectively an extremely gross company (and I’m a hypocrite, because I still use Instagram). I’ve also made the choice to never use my son’s name or post his picture in open on-line spaces — too many years as a public-facing feminist on the internet has placed me on a bunch of target lists and taught me about just how gross other human beings can be to one another. But my life and work afford me a lot of privilege around choice in the systems I use. And it got me thinking about “unplugging,” and who can afford to do it, and to what extent.
What Makes it Radical?
In simple terms, I’m imagining that resistance is when we say no, and radical resistance is when we say no while asking a lot of noisy, troublesome questions on the way down. Resistance is refusing to use a service or opting for a different way of doing things; radical resistance is telling students or colleagues why, and encouraging them to consider doing the same. And, importantly, radical resistance considers the ethics of the labour involved, and makes certain that one’s own choice to engage in resistance isn’t just downloading labour to someone else.
Early in my academic career, I knew a professor who didn’t do email. Just, like, a policy statement. No email. Not for me. Now, believe me, I get it — I am staring at an inbox with 150 messages and have been writing “inbox zero” on my to-do list for two weeks, each time with an increasingly panicked series of exclamation marks — but what was wildly instructive to me about this was watching how the situation was handled. He didn’t miraculously not get email. One of the department administrative assistants was tasked with printing out his emails and putting them in his mailbox; he would scrawl long-hand responses, and she would type them and send them back to the original sender. When department cuts required downsizing the administrative support staff, this became the job of a (surprisingly, always female) graduate student research assistant.
So that’s resistance, sure. But it’s not radical. If he had a major critique of the practice of using email, I don’t think anyone ever heard it. And he didn’t really worry about whose labour was picking up the slack, or the optics of it, or the way limited department resources disproportionately supported his chosen workflow.
But resistance can be radical in its ethics and outlook, when it’s not focused just on what we are choosing for ourselves, but when it considers the systems as a whole and enables other people to resist, too.
Within education, the place where I see resistance most commonly is in instructors choosing to move outside of the Learning Management System (LMS), particularly at institutions that use a for-profit LMS and in the wake of news like a private equity bid of $2B for Canvas that raised questions about the value of the student data it holds and potential plans to monetize it. In this context, resistance can look like anything from choosing to opt out of digital tools entirely to building a rogue WordPress site outside of institutional systems. Radical resistance would pair that choice to not engage with the LMS with information for students about why, questions for administrators about data practices, and perhaps sharing the tools built outside the system with other colleagues (indeed, radical resistance goes hand-in-hand with radical openness, which is the topic of the next post).
Of course, all of those radical options involve risk and labour — the risk to speak about institutionally-mandated systems, the labour involved in doing something new — that some members of our educational community are more able to undertake than others.
Who Gets to Resist?
Access to resistance, radical or otherwise, isn’t equal.
I can quit Facebook. I will miss hearing from some friends and family, but I can make that decision for myself. It’s annoying, sometimes, to try to find out when a local business is open without it, but that’s pretty minor. My workplace can’t compel me to use it, my livelihood doesn’t depend on it, and my closest friends and family understand my choice and communicate with me in different ways. But even from my position of wild privilege, I can’t really ever disconnect; I have a toddler in daycare and parents far away, and those responsibilities look different today than they did fifteen years ago: my connection to my smartphone is an expectation, not a choice.
There are tools I disagree with philosophically but can’t actually quit. I work as an Educational Technologist at a university that uses an LMS — it happens to be an open source one, and I have far fewer ethical qualms with supporting it than I might if it had deep integration with a for-profit textbook manufacturer, for example, but I still don’t think it’s a particularly good pedagogical tool — but I don’t get to quit it. But I can resist it in this context, too, because of my position: I can write things like this Digital Detox, I can encourage my colleagues to look at different options, and I can rail about the issues I do care about, and I’m protected in doing all of this because I’m a tenure-track faculty member with academic freedom. I can defend my positions, and I’m not libelling anyone, so I have a right (a responsibility!) to critique these tools, even those that my institution supports the use of.
The casualization of academic labour reduces the number of people within the institution who have the security necessary for most forms of resistance. If you’re a term-to-term sessional with no other form of income or support, making yourself into an institutional pain-in-the-butt, no matter how much you believe in the kinds of issues we’ve been talking about this month, is probably not a longterm recipe for success in most contexts. And not all institutions defend and support academic freedom equally for all ranks of faculty, and indeed within some institutional contexts it doesn’t exist at all. People in staff positions, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and community college faculty may all have different access to protections, depending on institutional practice.
But that is exactly what makes radical resistance the responsibility of those of us who do have structural and institutional support. I’m looking at you, tenured faculty. Particularly in a social moment when the systems that protect faculty critique are under attack, anyone with security has a responsibility to speak openly for those who are unable. This doesn’t mean everyone can fight every fight — burnout and overwork are real — but as I look at our neoliberal institutions and their drive towards efficiency, and the introduction of tools that have very real negative consequences for student data, privacy, access, and by extension of all of this, their learning, I increasingly cannot see the point of tenure that isn’t leveraged in service of equity. (And I’m not letting tenure-track faculty like me off the hook; I understand the institutional pressures to keep our heads down until we’re through the process, but I also know there’s very little data to suggest that faculty become more radical after tenure.) Resistance isn’t futile. I don’t believe it possibly can be.
But even if it was — what’s the other option?
So if you think Turnitin is bad, resist institutional demands to use it, and forego it in your own classes. If your students ask why another instructor uses TopHat and you don’t, talk to them about its data use practices. If a colleague asks for your academia.edu account, explain why you don’t have one. Challenge the adoption of new technologies at your institution and ask hard questions about how student data is stored, who has access to it, and how student data serves the company’s valuation. Once you know, if you have the security and support of your role within your institution, you can’t un-know — there is therefore a responsibility to act accordingly.
Looking Outside the Academy
The variance in who can choose resistance is not just an issue for the academy — it’s true of all technological tools we use. This is, of course, why the traditional conception of the digital detox as an experiment is abstinence is so flawed: it treats technology as a luxury instead of an integral component of work and life for so many people. Unplugging is not easy. Indeed, recent thinking on abstaining from technology suggests that those who are most in need of the mental space “unplugging” can bring are least able to achieve it. And the choice to unplug at all belies a society that is still digitally divided between tech-haves and tech-havenots. Does the status of unplugging further underscore social inequities?
This is why resistance isn’t enough, and why we need to invest social capital in asking difficult questions about how technology works, and insist on better practices whenever we can. Where we are responsible for the data of others — our students, or our families — and where we are in a position to help shape societal norms, radical resistance is essential. As we’ve seen today, radical resistance isn’t really about unplugging. Sometimes, and perhaps more usefully, radical resistance comes in the form of asking good questions and withholding our decisions until we get good answers. And how we frame those questions — and what we do when we find the answers — is part of the next piece of this conversation. Next time: radical openness, and why you might want to try doing all of this without a net.
In the meantime, some questions:
- Where you have attempted to resist a technology, what has that looked like for you? Do you consider your resistance radical?
- What resistances do you have the power to engage in in your life and work? What would radical resistance look like in that context?
- Where do you feel powerless to resist, radically or otherwise?