Midterm Project Ideas #1 and #2
From Berlin to Beijing, heterosexual men question the values and meanings of masculinity and intimacy by joining communities that teach dating skills. With the rise of Web 2.0, what was previously an online subculture has emerged to become a globalized industry in dating training that teaches communication styles, norms of gendered embodiment, and modes of self-help that bear an ambivalent relation to what critics term ‘hegemonic masculinity’. Representing an unaccredited and increasingly commodified field of self-fashioning, this project proposes to build a website—tentatively called Swinging in the Iron Cage—which seeks to explore the social practices and norms men seek to embody and how do they do so. What alternative possibilities may exist for masculine self-fashioning and ethical conduct in heterosexual intimacies? To answer this question, I aim to build a digital, interactive, and multi-sensory museum using the content management system Scalar.
This website will allow users different access points to exploring, creating mobile connections among, and discovering emergent relations among ethnographic data (text, video, or photography) that will be annotated, tagged, and deposited onto the website. More broadly, the site is designed to make accessible a critical dialogue on the social production of inhibitions, dependencies, and inequalities in the lives of men who are trained in interpersonal practices of seduction and masculine self-fashioning. This project has three goals. First, as a public-facing portal, the website establishes relations in real-time between my ethnographic fieldwork and theoretical insights on changing cultural values of masculinity in the U.S. and globally. Second, by allowing users to create divergent pathways through the archived materials, interact with and comment on pages, as well as to connect and dialogue with other users, it creates an online safe space for community building around progressive and inclusive gender identities. Third, by fostering a dialogue that bridges academic and public spheres, the website is intended to offer new modes of access, participation, and critique on the production of knowledge in the social sciences.
Set of Personas and Use-Case Scenarios:
Arthur Activist. Arthur Activist runs an awareness and counseling center for men who seek to challenge male supremacist practices. Working with his team, he develops tools and social spaces for masculine-identified people to examine the relations between masculinity, group members’ life experiences, and patriarchy as part of a broader movement for collective liberation. Arthur enjoys browsing Swinging in the Iron Cage in order to provide him with food for thought and case studies of some of the challenges that men who come to his community are facing. He also sometimes uses the website to find film segments, data visualizations, or other sensory objects to share with his consciousness-raising groups to prompt group discussions and to think about alternative, more liberating modes of intimacy.
Unay Undergrad. Unay is an undergraduate student at a large state school. Originally from Turkey, Unay has had trouble adapting to American customs of dating. Feeling lonely, Unay has turned to reading books about seduction techniques written by pickup artists, but he doesn’t feel comfortable with these behaviors that he feels are manipulative towards himself and towards women. Feeling troubled by this, Unay finds Swinging in the Iron Cage and enjoys its critical approach to exploring cultural norms of dating and masculinity, as well as the community of men who comment on its pages and share their own experiences. He feels more comfortable in his own skin and relating to women by understanding the possibilities and drawbacks of social behaviors around dating and intimacy that he never learned in Turkey.
Teresa Teacher. Teresa has been assigned to teach an Anthropology of Gender course in her department. Wanting to present materials to the students that they find relatable to their own lives, she uses video segments from Swinging in the Iron Cage in class to prompt discussion about inequalities and gendered power dynamics that play out through forms of embodiment and communicative micro-aggressions. She finds that the multi-sensory properties of film are a good resources that engages students, and also allows them to draw connections to some realities of power that they experience around issues of gender and dating in their own lives.
Rebecca Reader. Rebecca has read a lot in online blogs and articles about dating skills, and is skeptical of the politics that justify the blend of self-help, chauvinism, and New Age philosophy that these dating groups teach. Still, she finds a lot of the discussions that circulate in popular media to be too banal and abstract to really teach her something new. She wants to find out more about the behaviors themselves, and to hear about the stories of the men who seek out such training in a way that humanizes them. She has browsed Swinging in the Iron Cage on a few occasions, and has suggested to her boyfriend that he should check it out sometime because he might find it interesting. (He says he’d love to, but secretly harbors no such intention.)
Roger Researcher. Roger is researching practices of gay male performance in nightlife in Jakarta, Indonesia. He wants to find out how heteronormative models of masculinity may be recycled or contested in queer spaces, and he uses some of the resources on Swinging in the Iron Cage as models of heteronormative communication styles to compare with norms of flirting and masculine embodiment in the clubs and bars where he conducts ethnographic fieldwork in Jakarta.
How I Will Make the Full-Fledged Version:
There is no pre-set conclusion or ending point around which the website would be deemed complete. Rather, I conceive the website as an evolving, open-ended, interactive museum and archive that invites users to create a shared community. This community will evolve around the specific pathways (storylines) that Scalar makes possible through its interface.
First, I will do some story-boarding. I will create a deck of index cards, on which I will list different individual elements (more specifically, practices of labor or self-help) of dating skills training that I have observed in dating skills-training communities that I have observed over the course of my anthropological fieldwork research. On the back of the cards, I will write short lists of different practices that comprise these elements: including training routines (exercises that men perform with each other, or with women), specific beliefs, or modes of cognitive attention that men are encouraged to hold during these exercises.
I will then plot the cards into different pathways that follow the narrative arcs of stories (generally autobiographical) that men who participate in these communities have told me over the course of my ethnographic fieldwork. These pathways will intersect and overlap, and that is one of the benefits of Scalar—that it allows users to create their own pathways, and discover emergent relations between materials in the digital museum.
I will then make a catalogue of the different digital data that I have assembled over the course of my fieldwork research. Besides textual data, these materials comprise video clips (from news, documentaries, or film), photography, maps, and data visualizations that I have generated over the course of my research.
I will then begin to upload these data forms and organize them into different pathways that follow the narrative arcs I developed during the story-boarding exercise. After uploading the data onto individual pages that comprise the pathways, I will then proceed to annotate the pages with critical commentary: including discussions of the behavior practices and their effects; narratives and quotes from participants in these programs that I collected during fieldwork; and cultural and historical data on gender, self-help, as well as the religious, therapeutic, and cybernetic underpinnings of the sorts of ideologies these dating skills-training communities espouse. The website will conform to IRB protocols of subject protection via ensuring informant confidentiality and anonymity in all aspects.
Scalar is easy to use, and follows a WordPress-like format for creating content. I am familiar with WordPress, so in that regard I wouldn’t have to master any new skills to create this project. However, I do need to improve my skills with python in order to generate some of the natural language processing that can provide me with useful data visualizations to enrich the content of the project. I have been learning Python, albeit slowly, and this would require me to commit more time to seriously mastering NLTK and matplotlib or other visualization packages. Considering all of this, as well as the fact that I’m still generating the critical text that will annotate these pages, this full site would take around 6 months to build.
How I will make the Stripped-Down Version:
The stripped-down version would basically be a simple working model of the process I described above. It involves developing a few basic narrative pathways (for instance, two), and uploading the diverse data forms into Scalar in ways that model the pathways. I can provide simple, working annotations that provide context, dissection, and commentary for each page. I would push back the process of learning Python until later. I could get the stripped-down version up and running in two months.
Let me preface this by saying, it’s a real moon-shot and there are many significant challenges here. This idea is to develop a digital social skills training curriculum for international students. This resource would take the form of a course with separate modules on aspects of socializing and navigating social norms, networking, and effective communication. The course materials would be critically annotated with academic resources, which would discuss more in-depth aspects of cultural history (including ideologies of gender), ideas of communication (including therapeutic models of communicative rationality), and models of self and self-understanding in the United States. These critical comments are not intended to provide conclusive viewpoints, but rather to offer informed pathways into debates that cross disciplinary boundaries and point the way to potentially novel solutions to problems that affect the individual in society.
Although I am very interested in this project, I am very hesitant to do this project for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I am worried about reproducing and reifying forms of power that are embedded in the sorts of communicative rationality, self-reflexivity, and projected/desired outcomes that these practices may involve. Second, scope creep seems endemic in such an undertaking, since approaches to teaching effective communication are vast, contested, theoretically promiscuous, and ambiguously documented. Third, I have doubts about the ability of a digital medium to effectively and ethically communication and social skills, because the use cases and practical applications of the information are infinitely varied (and, as such, contradictory) according to the number of users the site has. Fourth, I think this would take a long time to build.
Set of Personas and Use-Case Scenarios:
Ivan International Student. Ivan is from Slovenia, and he recently started a Masters program in Digital Humanities in NYC. Although he loves his coursework and has met interesting faculty members and fellow students since his arrival, he’s been attending a number of conferences around technology and education in the US and has struggled with networking and meeting people socially and professionally. Igor finds the website and has enjoyed learning about aspects of effective socializing—including meeting people, making introductions, storytelling, developing social circles, and active listening skills—that make him feel less nervous in social settings.
Polly Professor. Polly volunteers for her department to help run a bi-weekly seminar that prepares her doctoral students for the job market. In addition to allowing students to practice job talks and cover letters, she has found the website a useful resource for teaching her students good interviewing and public speaking skills when they make their campus visits.
How I Will Make the Full-Fledged Version:
First, I will make an outline of the various topics that can be included in the course, such as: meeting people, making introductions, storytelling, developing social circles, and active listening skills. Then, I will produce a document discussing various ways to practice these social activities. The emphasis would be on describing and explaining these methods as effective suggestions and templates, rather than as normative moral solutions to what are in fact complex social and political problems. To that end, each module of the online course will be richly annotated with secondary sources, from psychological research to cultural and historical accounts of social norms and their transformation over time.
Second, I will buy web-hosting space to house my digital website.
Third, I will build an interactive website by uploading content as separate pages that can be navigated across and in-between. The pages will each comprise an image that holds the primary content—like a Powerpoint slide-show—under which will appear a list of annotations that critically comment on the material that is being described: expanding on its scope, placing it in cultural and historical context, or discussing particular embodied (sensory) or ethical effects that are relevant to the matter at hand.
I believe that making this project would take a long time to build. One of a number of challenges with this project that I mentioned in the second paragraph. I think this project could only really exist as an interdisciplinary, on-going collaboration between a number of people from different disciplinary backgrounds, or as a sort of digital think-tank.
How I will make the Stripped-Down Version:
I’m not really sure!