FemTechNet: Feminist Hactivism

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This article was originally featured in the Fall 2015 issue of Genderscapes, IRWG's annual newsletter.

From the early days of the institute, faculty-initiated programming was part of IRWG’s mission to stimulate and disseminate important research on women and gender. Interdisciplinary Faculty Programs examine scholarly subjects in novel ways, often incorporating combinations of lectures, symposia, small-group discussions, classroom activities, travel, and creative arts to complement more traditional research methods. Programs can be created by faculty members throughout the U-M system, including Dearborn and Flint.

Two programs in 2014-15, the Feminist Political Economy Initiative and FemTechNet, transcended physical boundaries, connecting feminist scholars from around the world who work on issues as diverse as socio-economic policy and digital studies. 

color photo of Lisa NakamuraIn the face of rising hostility towards women online, FemTechNet provides a collaborative feminist space for creating and disseminating knowledge about technology and gender. Professor Lisa Nakamura (Gwendolyn Calvert Baker Collegiate Professor of American Culture, Co-Coordinator of the Digital Studies Program) along with Sharon Irish (Project Coordinator, Graduate School of Library and Information Science/Center for Digital Inclusion, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) and Elizabeth Losh, (Director of the Culture Art and Technology Program, University of California, San Diego) are facilitators of this online project, as well as of the IRWG Faculty Program of the same name. Nakamura notes that “a gender bias in organizations becomes a gender bias in the Internet” which explains why women now make up 50% of Internet users but account for 20% or less of programmers.

At first, the developers of FemTechNet wanted to provide open access courses on feminist issues related to technology and digital scholarship as a way to address the absence of feminist technology and digital studies courses on college campuses as well as for the general public. In 2015 FemTechNet’s Distributed Open Collaborative Courses (DOCCs) were held at thirteen universities and colleges, as well as three in community locations in Oakland, CA, Seattle, WA, and New York City. The FemTechNet courses use a common syllabus that is adapted by each instructor to meet the needs of their students. “You can take it on your own, without being in college, without getting credit,” Nakamura relates, or through regular Losh university courses for credit. Nakamura taught a course with Associate Professor Irina Aristarkhova, School of Art and Design, University of Michigan titled “Dialogues in Feminism, Technology and Culture,” offered by the Screen Arts and Cultures Department, the American Cultures Department, the School of Art and Design, and Women’s Studies Department. The FemTechNet Faculty Study group invited well-known digital humanities scholar Adeline Koh (Associate Professor and Director of Digital Humanities Center, Stockton University) to provide a workshop on editing Wikipedia. The workshop focused on teaching faculty, students, and the general public about the rules governing entries on Wikipedia. The goal was to create or enlarge entries on women artists around the world. 

The project has evolved since its founding in 2012 by Anne Balsamo (The New School) and Alexandra Juhasz (Pitzer College) to become a think tank for the emerging field of feminist digital scholarship. FemTechNet is very much a collective project making use of the insights of feminist pedagogy. Their manifesto, which is available in three languages, declares that the tools of feminist pedagogy such as critical literacies about power and representation online are open source technologies that belong to everyone. This feminist praxis, they argue, has the power to transform learning and higher education. “FemTechNet is committed to making the accessible, open, accountable, transformative and transforming educational institutions of our dreams. We are feminist academic hacktivism. FemTechNet is an international movement of feminist thinkers, researchers, writers, teachers, artists, professors, librarians, mentors, organizers and activists sharing resources and engaging in activities that demonstrate connected feminist thinking about technology and innovation.” 

Recognition in the form of becoming an IRWG Faculty Program gave FemTechNet a space to meet, funding for workshops and conferences, and grant application assistance. In January of 2015 the faculty program hosted a conference in Digital Feminist Pedagogy. Nakamura credits IRWG for its forward thinking in taking a “risk” on funding this new form of scholarship and knowledge creation during a year that was “such a bad year for feminism and the Internet.” Affiliation with IRWG brought much-needed staff support for FemTechNet in the form of Heidi Bennett to publicize their events, Tammy Culler to provide technology support, and Lezlie Stephens to handle logistics. As a large group that works collectively, FemTechNet received help with identifying federal funding opportunities and submitting grants. Assistance with grants will allow FemTechNet, according to Nakamura, to become “a really big, really comprehensive resource for the public as well as for academics about sexism on the Internet and harassment and women in computing...Our model is kind of like a professional association where it moves around—the difference is that we charge no fees.” 

FemTechNet has issued a call for proposals for panel presentations and workshop facilitators at FTN DOCC’s Feminist Pedagogy, Technology, Transdisciplinarity conference, April 8-10, 2016 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. 

scholars talk at the 2013 FemTechNet conference at U-M

 

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