What HASTAC Has Taught Me About Love in the Academy

The following is a transcript of the talk I gave at #HASTAC2013 this year. I was on a panel with other HASTAC Scholars – Fiona Barnett, Viola Lasmana, Ernesto Priego, Alexis Lothian, and Jesse Stommel – that was celebrating the 5-year anniversary of the Scholars program and exploring the question of creating communities online. I took a rather personal approach, offering a few anecdotes about the things I have learned and people I have met through HASTAC. You might recognize some of the text from other blog posts I’ve written about my encounters with HASTAC in the past.

Anecdote 1: The heart node

In a classroom, a white woman in a purple men's dress shirt and short hair reads from a laptop. Above her is projected, side-by-side, identical images of cartoon rendition of another white woman in a long-sleeved black shirt, with short black hair, her arms lifted up triumphantly.

Fiona Barnett taught me that networks, far from being the low-maintenance open-access, loosey goosey modular things that we like believe they are, take a whole lot of work. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the HASTAC Scholars program owes everything to her. There isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t received That Email encouraging us to take a more active role in the organization, or who hadn’t received a useful tip for our research and blogging because of her vigilance and familiarity with our work. When I first met Fiona, I was shocked to see that she wasn’t much older than me. From her emails, I expected a sage figure that was well established in academia, not a fellow grad student who was simply wise beyond her years.

For someone who herds over 200 nerds in a year, Fiona’s ability to add a personal touch to mentorship is nothing short of inspiring. As I walked up to her for the first time in Durham I saw a fellow dyke, and worried briefly if we would have to do an awkward butch posturing thing when put in the same room together. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. She greeted me like an old buddy, probably even gave me a hug. I didn’t realize that I was meeting someone who would become a friend, colleague, confidant, and boss all rolled into one. Fiona doesn’t only perform the tedious manual labor of sifting through spam comments and editing Cathy’s blog posts, but she does a tremendous amount of affective labor to make sure every scholar has at least one personal contact within this large and sprawling institution. She is a networker herself, maintaining much more than the digital threads of HASTAC that bind its bloggers together; at conferences, she is a tireless and generous connector of people. If we visualized a network diagram of this program, Fiona would be its giant, shining heart node.

Anecdote 2: The Rabblerousers

Micha Cárdenas taught me how to bite the hand that fed me. By 2011, I felt at home in the HASTAC community. It was a safe space for Scholars, one that didn’t just tolerate but actively encouraged dynamic queer, feminist, race-, class-, and disability-conscious work. There was a conversation on Community Standards that took place over Thanksgiving weekend centering around the HASTAC administration’s decision to remove the controversial flyer of performance artist Elle Mehrmand from Micha’s blog. For many of us involved in the conversation, this action was an unconscionable violation of a scholarly space that had always been particularly useful for showcasing risky scholarship and experimental work. Micha called on Alexis Lothian and I to help, and we descended on the blog in righteous fury, gearing up for what we (or I, anyway) expected to be an epic war of words with administrators who had maybe grown too big and accountable to public opinion to bother with scholars and artists on the fringes anymore. What we got instead was a respectful and thrilling dialogue that you can still read.

Our troublemaking even earned us a trip to HASTAC V in Michigan. What I came to understand through the misunderstanding over Micha’s flyer is that when HASTAC members repeat Fiona’s mantra that difference is our operating system, they actually mean it. In a moment in which female/queer/of color/graduate students/artists/rabblerousers might have been dismissed with a lecture about funding and parent organizations, members of the HASTAC Steering Committee thanked us for taking a stand, apologized for causing us grief, and pledged to figure out a way to rewrite the Terms of Service in a way that looks out for even those of us on the fringe. I don’t know if I would have jumped into the fray without Micha’s call for help and Alexis at my side. I don’t know what I would have done if Cathy Davidson had given me a public lashing instead of thanking me and inviting me to help the committee determine better policies. I learned the value of sticking to my values and strength in numbers.

Anecdote 3: Queer and Feminist New Media Spaces

In a classroom, a white woman with short dark hair and a purple dress shirt reads at the podium. Above her, duplicated side-by-side, is an image of the speaker posing with her arm around a Korean-American woman with long, black hair. They are both smiling.

Margaret Rhee was the first person to teach me about queer feminist antiracist love in the academy. Fiona, in her insistent way, had matched us together with the vague instructions that we were both interested in queer theory and should organize a forum around it. At the time, I identified mostly as a scholar of “just” new media, and Margaret was mostly “just” a queer and critical race theorist. Margaret and I set up a phone date to talk over some ideas about what we wanted to do for the forum. I did not expect the person on the other line.

She was effusively enthusiastic, and I had a hard time taking her seriously at first. Being told that my knowledge was soooo valuable and revolutionary was uncomfortable to me, and I distrusted her absolute faith that the forum was going to be a watershed moment in HASTAC history. This is not to denigrate Margaret but to emphasize the value of what she taught me. After some time working with her on what was to become the Queer and Feminist New Media Spaces forum, I realized that her praise wasn’t forced, nor was her enthusiasm, and that she really did think I was a brilliant and amazing and revolutionary scholar-to-be. I didn’t really have to believe it myself to feel its effects on my work and the Forum, which is still the most-commented HASTAC forum to date. But over time, her commitment to social justice and activism and openness to scholarly love really sunk deeply into me.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Black Feminist evangelist and founder of the Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind, which is “an educational project spreading the good news that Black Feminism lives,” maintains that love is central to the project of anti-oppression. “Black feminism,” she writes, “is practice of putting love first and knowing that a profound love, a deep love, an actualized love, an accountable love is the only thing that will breakthrough what the Combahee River Collective call the ‘interlocking’ forms of oppression.” Margaret’s approach to her colleagues with an open and effusive love is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a HASTAC Scholar: networks need love to run. I would like to read a selection from the blog post she wrote in the wake of HASTAC V: “Yet the personal, the hello, the access to the possibility of falling in love, is what HASTAC not only fosters, but provides structure in facilitating. This is the love not of romance, but that kind that is real, and difficult, possible for conflicts but the kind that help us grow. Ultimately can be utilized not for separation or oppression, but a conversation.”

She goes on to cite Fiona’s now-famous proclamation that difference is HASTAC’s operating engine, and while that is certainly true, I would like to add that love might be the electrical current making it run – the love that Margaret showed me before she even knew who I was, the love that sent me to Micha’s defense against Cathy Davidson herself, the love that propelled Fiona to devote countless hours lifting the Scholars program up to where it is now, the love that sends us to conferences and into the classroom and onto the Web churning out free content for an organization that rewards us with connections to each other. I could not be the scholar that I am today without the people from around the world that HASTAC has put me in touch with.

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So in the spirit of that love, I would like to end this reflection on scholarly community with a memorial to a colleague in our own HASTAC network. Last weekend, when I attended the Feminist Infrastructures and Technocultures conference at UCSD, I experienced something new. After introductions and a framing of our conference activities in terms of temporalities and networks, the day started out on quite a heavy note, with a session dedicated to honoring the legacies of Leigh Star, Beatriz da Costa, and Anne Friedberg, all of whom have passed away in the past five years. I have long been interested in the politics of citation, and these tributes and literature primers were the perfect way to call attention to the work of foundational women in the field.

However, it was the affective intensity of these presentations that I found to be so important. There, in the context of a professional gathering, I saw scholars cry at the podium. It didn’t ruin the panel. In fact, people in the audience cried with them, and some went up to lend their support. It was in that moment that I felt I was in a truly academic feminist space – one that is defined equally by intellectual rigor, historical context, future directions, and community supportiveness. Far more than just being a feel-good experience, for me it was an intervention – on the intense competition of academia, on the isolation of solitary scholarship, on the narrative of the intellectual making tough work/life balance choices, on the prohibition of women in power showing emotions. I’m sure this has happened at other events, but it was my first time encountering it. I will remember those moments as I navigate my own career.

The only context I know of for a memorial sanctioned within academia is that of a well-known scholar with a bibliography that we can come together to celebrate and discuss. If she had had more time, I have no doubt that Grace Hagood Downs would have been just such a scholar. As it is, she was still a graduate student when she died suddenly last weekend, and there are no memorial structures within the academy to recognize partial legacies, careers in progress, collaborative contributions, time and money saved with student labor, individual instructional time that influenced countless lives. Grace had a brilliant mind for game design and theory alike, and she offered sassy, incisive feminist critique with an unforgettable South Carolina twang. She taught me that “bless your heart” was the best Southern code for a veiled insult, and she also had the key to the perfect inflection of “oh for fuck’s sake” after a particularly exasperating moment of feminist rage. After a career in the video games industry, Grace reentered graduate school in composition and rhetoric at the University of South Carolina, where she contributed to academic game design projects such as Desperate Fishwives, an NEH-sponsored game designed to teach early modern English history and social dynamics, and Ghosts of South Carolina College, an augmented reality application which, in her words, was “designed to bring U/SC’s largely unknown history of slavery literally into view. Our goal is to honor the enslaved people who built and maintained the university, recuperating their historical erasure by giving voice to the human story of those in bondage.” She was a decorated scholar and teacher at her campus and had just married her longtime partner a little over a month ago.

I first met Grace through the Humanities Gaming Institute, an NEH Summer Institute at the University of South Carolina that brought together humanists, game designers, and programmers to think about game design for humanities instruction. It would prove to be one of my more robust academic networks, and in fact several former participants are in attendance here at HASTAC this year. Later that summer, Grace and I participated in HASTAC’s Peer-to-Peer Pedagogy workshop at Duke University, and the next year served together as HASTAC Scholars, working with other Scholars in the program to put together a forum called “Press Start to Continue: Toward a New Video Game Studies.” Her contributions to that particular conversation will be available for you to read online as long as this network stands.

My academic networks – HASTAC foremost among them – have given me colleagues, friends, chosen family. Their enthusiasm, support, love, and care for my work and my person has given me strength in the daily struggles of anti-oppressive scholarship in the academy. I was happy to count Grace among my many “frolleagues.” While we were convening yesterday, Grace’s family and friends said goodbye in her hometown of Easley, South Carolina. On Tuesday, there will be a memorial at a chapel at USC. Many of you may not have had the pleasure of meeting her or watching her present a paper, but she was a part of the whole just like any one of us. Her contributions have been drops in the bucket that make HASTAC – and really, academia – a vibrant and thriving place. As I close these remarks, I would like to ask us to take a few moments to reflect before we move on, to remember all of the contributions to the storm of progress.

Given on Saturday, April 27, 2013, as part of the “Building an Academic Community for the Digital Age” panel at HASTAC 2013 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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