Software of the Oppressed: Reprogramming the Invisible Discipline

Draft introduction to the dissertation:

The Cyborg University as Reproductive Organ of the Cyborg World

In December of 2015, I was part of a team at The CUNY Graduate Center that launched a beta version of Social Paper, a student-directed tool for networking writing. While the tool is not perfect, it is intended to mark a step forward for a student reclamation of the tools of knowledge production, in line with some of the values of the Free Software FoundationPlatform CooperativismUnlike Us, and scholarly networks such as the MLA CommonsForce 11, and HASTAC.  

The process of developing this tool spurred a dissertation on the historical development of the university’s reproductive role of our everyday software environment, as seen from the unlikely site of the humanities. The glitchiness of both text and tool are proudly demonstrated here as a political act whose joy will be further described below. 

Readers are free to read and comment where they like: here (instructions), on Google Docs (with footnotes), or through the Hypothes.is annotation overlay (thanks to Jared McCoy). 

In search of a fourth committee member, the General Public.

1. The Perils of Seamless Integration

Software is in a state of crisis, which is to say, so is our freedom. A growing number of advocates, scholars, and commentators have pointed to the numerous and complicated ways that the so-called web of liberation has in fact been forged into what one of its most famous critics has deemed an “architecture of oppression.” Scholarly discussions centered on these issues, often emerging from fields such as new media studies, Internet studies, communication, political theory or legal studies, have made important contributions towards advancing our understanding of the multiple political, cultural, psychological, and social stakes of this rapidly emerging and all-subsuming environment. Yet among this rich array of critical discussion there exists a startling blind spot. That is, there is simply very little attention to the way that the institution that supports these conversations—that is, the university—has been a key contributor to the situation at hand from the very beginning. For if there is any single lesson that the university has universally and effectively instilled for nearly the past fifty years, across its disciplines and to nearly all of its faculty and students, it is the practical belief that software is a neutral utility, or a mere labor-saving device for the transmission and production of knowledge, and that in turn, the everyday user need not and cannot have an understanding and a say in the ways in which it mediates their individual and collective lives. In one sense, the lack of critical attention to this dynamic is testament to its utter and comprehensive success. If politics and economics have provided the motivating forces behind this architecture of oppression, it is the university that trained and still trains hundreds of thousands of members of the general public to passively accept it as an inevitable and inscrutable given.

This training I call the invisible discipline, or rather the largely impalpable shaping of the user’s expectations, imagination, and behavior in regard to their engagement with software in their broad ongoing use of it, especially (in the case of our study) within an educational or scholarly context. My concept of the invisible discipline draws strongly from the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s 1968 text Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which famously argues that how we learn is often far more consequential than what we learn in that the conventions instrumentalized and adopted for carrying out the learning process shape our cognitive, social, and political habits going forward. In particular, Freire outlines how pedagogical approaches that emphasize the transmission of “expert” or “authoritative” knowledge from the teacher to the “empty” student, a style he calls the “banking model,” are oppressive in that they inhibit the development of capacities in the student to critically understand and transform their world according to their own needs, experiences, and interests. This banking model of education is carried out through a host of tools, practices, cultural conventions, popular beliefs, and organizational structures, which I will describe as the mechanisms of the banking model. From the perspective of proponents of this model of education, these mechanisms appear as neutral means of transmitting knowledge as effectively and efficiently into the student population given the available resources, whether they pertain directly to the activities of teaching and learning, or to the broader institutional activities necessary for facilitating this teaching and learning. In their apparent neutrality, these mechanisms can be said to be largely invisible, in that they elude critical attention and transformation.

Following Freire’s work, however, a generation of scholars and educators called attention to the dominance of the banking model within the U.S. system of higher education, and showed how even in its most trivial-seeming or incidental features—such as syllabi, textbooks, tests, seating arrangements, course content, academic culture, communication styles, institutional governance, the built environment, and so forth—all work in unique and sometimes surprising ways to inhibit critical thought and participatory initiative in students (Shor 1980, Giroux 1988, hooks 1994). These scholars insisted on evaluating the mechanisms of education not simply according to how they performed in carrying out the university’s internal goals of producing and transmitting knowledge, but rather how they functioned in the university’s broader but arguably more fundamental role of social reproduction. From the view of critical pedagogy, education should produce a liberated people capable of making their own knowledge, rather than an oppressed people, filled with authoritative knowledge but incapable of making their own.

In what follows, I will argue that this critical mode of investigating the university’s social effects has become ever more pressing as the mechanisms of the banking model of education have reached a new level of complexity, durability, control, influence, and invisibility as part of the long, ongoing computational transformation of the university.  This critical mode of investigation however applies not only to the ways in which computation is implemented within teaching and learning (as is the focus in critical pedagogy), but also within the university’s broader activities of knowledge production and transmission such as pertaining to research, writing, publication, archiving, and communications, as well as teaching and learning.

1.1 From the Cyborg World to the Cyborg University

The computational transformation of the university might be best understood within the framework of the “cyborg world,” a term which Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter offer to describe the present existential situation “in which computer technology infiltrates all interactions with the physical world” (149). Submerged in this cyborg world, and, as I will demonstrate through the course of this analysis, complicatedly involved in its production on multiple fronts, today’s university might just as well be called a “cyborg university,” as nearly all of its activities, such as managing courses, degree programs, students, employees, library collections, research data, and so forth, are mediated to some degree, if not thoroughly, by computer technology. We might then also call attention to its cyborg students, cyborg, faculty, cyborg research, and cyborg homework, not to cast these elements in the dramatic light of science fiction, but to consider them as subjects and objects produced and mediated by the university’s cyborg structure. This transformation did not happen all at once, nor can it be said to be unified in vision, aims, techniques, or ever complete. Instead, this transformation has been occurring in piecemeal fashion, as external and internal pressures and opportunities incite different domains of the university to adopt new technologies, such as, for example, the library’s adoption and development of computer applications in the 1960s to deal with the new demands of the rapidly expanding university (Rayward 11), or the adoption and normalization of word processing software in the 1980s (Hawisher et al). These developments may be the result of formal institutional initiatives, such as in the former case, or influenced through the consumer behavior of its faculty and students, such as in the latter.  While it is common that a period of institutional and cultural irritation accompanies each site-specific cyborg transfusion, they can be judged successful to the degree that they fade back seamlessly and invisibly into the everyday and normal body of the university, though to be sure they leave scars and waste in their wake.

From the perspective of critical pedagogy, we can make several interesting observations about the character and consequences of the university’s cyborg transformation. First, we can say that computation has in effect added an extra layer of invisibility to the already-largely invisible banking mechanisms of the university, given that computational technology in and of itself has long been perceived as neutral and natural (Chun). Thus, much like the mechanisms of Bruno Latour’s “black box,” computation merged invisibly with the already-existent and invisible banking mechanisms of the university, obscured from consciousness to the degree that they efficiently enabled the university’s activities (304). In the university, software and the culture of software use, —for all activities pertaining to humanistic research, teaching, learning, and administrating (and often beyond the humanities as well, though the humanities will the focus of this dissertation)—has become just this sort of invisible convention, internalized and normalized as one uses software primarily as a labor saving device for complex communicative activities that pertain not only to academics —such as the ability to rapidly access, manipulate, archive, and transmit texts, but also to sustaining the complex social organizations of a degree-granting institution through email, websites, management systems, and so forth. 

Second, we can say that computation has added an extra layer of hierarchical control to the banking mechanisms of education, in that—as David Golumbia has persuasively demonstrated—the very communicability of computational technology is carried out through mechanisms of control. Computation in the cyborg university is predominantly (and durably, as I will explain later) organized around the institutional ability to manipulate both members (faculty, students, and staff) and information (books, data, publications, homework, test scores) as objects in carrying out its internal aims, rather than, as a means for carrying out social change through its intellectual activities, or, as in Seymour Papert’s vision, tools available for student modification and understanding. Third, just as mechanisms of education embody an ideological viewpoint about what is good, possible, and true, computational technology is also always designed to according to some ideological viewpoint, wittingly or no. Fourth, in terms of social reproduction, just as banking mechanisms work to produce the passive subject who is incapable of critically understanding or transforming the world beyond the classroom, the computational banking mechanisms work to create the passive user incapable of critically understanding or transforming the cyborg world.  In effect, the banking model ideology and the computational ideology blend seamlessly to produce the passive user class necessary for enabling and supporting the dominant class of the cyborg world.

2. Rethinking the Teaching of Writing, Its Technology, Its Practice

As I will later describe in more depth, the oppression of the passive user class represents a global political crisis of such gravity that an examination of the university is of value purely for its contribution to this crisis.  However, I have not introduced the university in this analysis simply due to its role in the crisis of the cyborg world, but rather on account of a crisis regarding its own internal aims and interests of institutionalizing and protecting society’s activities pertaining to knowledge production and transmission. I will argue that the crisis of the cyborg world is in fact deeply related to the university’s own internal crisis in the humanities that has been brought about by an academic ideology that stretches at least as far back at the late 19th century. This academic ideology subscribes to what I call the revelatory ideal, which views the use of writing to reveal truth as the chief good of academic activity whether as a student or a professional scholar.  Under the revelatory ideal, writing is evaluated on account of the truth that it reveals rather than the effects it has in the world, both at an individual and collective level, and without adequate attention to its marginalized realities, which I will describe in more depth in Chapter 1. The revelatory ideal sustains a tradition of producing ideal texts (at both a scholarly and student level), or rather texts whose abstract perfection substitutes for their lack of genuine audience and genuine purpose. As a result of this blind spot, the content of humanistic academic production, whose producers are either too self-assured of its value or too caught up in jumping the hoops of academic advancement to attend to the labor of its reception, has either lost or failed to gain adequate esteem, attention, engagement, and support from both internal and external publics.  In turn, this focus on the objects of academic production has led to a lack of critical attention to the ways adopted digital tools mediate academic activity and have broader social effects.

In using these tools to carry out the narrow goals of textual production and transmission, the cyborg university widely propagates a passive regard for digital technology across its students, and unwittingly plays a key role in enabling the oppression of the cyborg world. However, this passive mentality however can be resisted and overturned by reclaiming critical control of the technologies used to carry out scholarly production. One important example of this can be seen in Alex Gil’s advocacy for “minimal computing” in scholarly production as a means to replace proprietary digital technologies in scholarly production that pose a variety of problems to goals of preservation and transmission.  In later chapters we will look at still other models for resistance.

2.1 The Middleware Mediating the University’s Intellectual Activity and Effects

The computational layer of the cyborg university might be aptly thought of as middleware, a concept that Johanna Drucker and Patrik Svensson wonderfully introduce in their recent critical analysis of digital tools used for research, publication, and presentation within the digital humanities, but also often more broadly across fields and disciplines. They argue that scholars, often relying on types of middleware for “their ease or familiarity,” do not pay enough critical attention to the way that they also “imprint their format features on our thinking and predispose us to organize our thoughts and arguments in conformance with their structuring principles—often from the very beginning of a project’s conception.”  As a corrective, Drucker and Svensson argue that middleware needs to be critically examined for how it works in “structuring what can and cannot be expressed, presented, or argued in the enunciative system…of our projects.”  At stake in this engagement is whether it will be the scholar or the middleware that “thinks” and “argues,” and delivers its experience on the audience.

Drucker and Svensson’s analysis lucidly articulates one of the most elusive features of our software experience, that is, that it does indeed have great influence on our subjective processes of thinking and communicating, but that once we’ve adopted a software convention it can be incredibly difficult to detect its influence and to imagine it another way.  They show how an individual scholar’s choices of tools, whether provided freely online (e.g. WordPress), paid for as part of a software package (e.g.Powerpoint), or provided by a university, either internally (e.g. the visualization screens at the HUMlab at Umeå University) or externally, as a public resource (e.g. Scalar, Omeka), all enforce a certain logic on the scholar’s argument and the experience of that argument which in itself deserves a critical analysis.  While it can be difficult to fully appreciate the ways in which writing and publishing technologies mediate the possibility of the production and reception of thought, there are a number of scholarly discussions that have helped shed further light on this phenomenon. For example, in his delightful recovery of the history of word processing in literary production, Matthew Kirschenbaum points to plenty of examples of how writing tools can be shaped according to different styles of thinking, and likewise, as Nietzsche also famously noted a long time ago, have their own effect on the process and products of thought. Take for example the group of writing programs used by essayist and journalist John McPhee, which were customized by his friend Howard J. Strauss to “emulate the structures of [McPhee’s] thought”. Observing McPhee’s drafting style, Strauss wrote the program Structur to “explode” individual notes into discrete files, and another, “Alpha,” to consolidate those notes back into a single file for McPhee to easily arrange as desired. Kirschenbaum notes that McPhee’s attention to the structure of his thinking parallels his interest in the interrelationships between built infrastructure and the natural world. He writes that the tools are “writing instruments created in a single author’s image: to know the software is to know something of the mind of the writer, however obliquely” (“Forward”).

I’d like to build on Drucker and Svensson’s analysis to think about the middleware of the cyborg university itself, or the very diverse range of computational tools that mediate the cyborg university’s activities both internally and externally.  Following their astute observation that middleware influences the subjective experience of producing or receiving intellectual arguments, I’d like to argue that it also significantly mediates the social life of the intellectual argument, or the ways in which it can be distributed across, instrumentalized by, and preserved for diverse publics within and beyond the university. Furthermore, I’d like to call attention to the fact that the dominance of certain forms of middleware in scholarly production is not merely due to a lack of criticality on the part of scholars who use them, but rooted in the social reality that there are very few resources, social and institutional mechanisms, and cultural incentives for long-term academic involvement in the very complex and resource intensive process of building the software of middleware. As evidenced by Kirschenbaum’s example of custom-designed software, only a very few individuals have access to the social and technical capital necessary for creating middleware that departs from mainstream norms.

Thus, to follow Drucker and Svensson’s critical imperative to develop “better tools for sketching, thinking and composing for the humanities,” we will require not only increased critical attention, but a reconfiguration of the social organization of the resources and incentives that drive the production and dominance of middleware. To their assertion that the middleware of the scholar’s argument has a certain logic that structures what can and cannot be said, I will add that the middleware of the cyborg university structures its speech as a whole, both internally and externally, ranging from scholarly communication within a discipline, to administrative/bureaucratic internal memoranda, to the ways that its diverse assortment of intellectual activity is spoken out into the world. I will also further argue that the logic of the cyborg university—from word processors to learning management systems—is predominantly shaped for individual and hierarchical evaluation of faculty and student progress, rather than the participatory production of knowledge for the public in the service of progressive goals for bringing about social justice.

To be sure, the middleware of the university is not homogenous, as I already alluded, it is a Frankensteinian patchwork of computational tools, interfaces, and databases, each put in place to serve some particular institutional need with conflicting, overlapping, competing, and complementing qualities in respect to other computational tools making up this ecology. The middleware of the university of course extends well beyond tools that pertain directly to the speech of scholars, educators, and students, as it consists also of ways of managing the institution’s diverse operations, ranging from the management of library collections to the payroll of its employees. Nonetheless, the entirety of this middleware must be considered in any evaluation or intervention upon the middleware of academic speech, not only in that by sustaining the institution, it provides the conditions for that academic speech, but also in that it reflects the overarching logic that has produced the middleware specific to academic speech, such as described by Drucker and Svensson’s analysis. And part of that logic, as I keep repeating, is that users, in our case, students and faculty, need not participate in developing or governing these tools, which in turn, means that not only is our middleware largely immune to our modification, but that we lack the social structures, the resources, and the cultural mindset that would make this sort of transformative engagement with middleware part of academic practice.   

2.2 The new value dimension of reading and writing

The university is already a prominent figure in most histories of computation, yet it typically appears in these histories only in respect to its contributions via computer science or engineering departments, whose faculty and, importantly, students played key roles in its development.  My analysis will attempt to provide a necessary complement to this important though more familiar part of the history, of computational development, by recovering mostly neglected parts of this history from the vantage of the humanities.   The humanities has more commonly been seen as, or perhaps more often implicitly assumed to be, primarily a beneficiary of digital technology rather than as a creative, contributing force to its development.  While there is much truth in the assumption that humanistic activity within higher education has not directly participated in technological development of large scale significance, one cannot discount the fact that its ongoing incorporation and implementation of technologies has in effect helped condition the consumer group that made its development possible. More specifically, I will argue, first, that the passive adoption of labor-saving computational tools for reading and writing within the humanistic sphere helped establish (or at the very least failed to intervene upon) the oppression of the cyborg world.  Secondly, I will argue that the more recent arrival of ubiquitous data surveillance and the platformization of the web, two topics I will describe in further depth below, has further complicated the situation in that practices of reading and writing not only invisibly discipline the user behavior to passively accept the technological given, but also directly profit off and gain intelligence through the reading and writing of users, and so further disadvantage the user both economically and politically. Through these practices reading and writing can be said to have acquired a new value dimension, one that is alienated from the reader or writer herself, and further contributes to the wealth and power of the cyborg oppressors.

Thus, the dominant form of middleware not only constrains the possible public diffusion of university’s intellectual activity, but also helps sustain the oppression of the cyborg world, by reproducing broadly among students, and thus the public at large, a passive and dominated mentality towards computational tools, as well as generating value for the cyborg oppressor’s through the use of their tools.  Whereas the history of the university’s contributions to the development of computing technology is well acknowledged, there is virtually no discussion about its contribution to the culture of use surrounding that technology, even though it is arguably just as significant. For one, higher education represents significant consumer and business markets that contribute to the immediate wealth and flourishing of technology companies. For another, higher education also represents a site to train tomorrow’s consumer market, in that students will potentially develop consumer tastes they will carry with them as they enter the workforce, and potentially sites of professional influence where their consumer tastes may help expand the consumer market. It is also important to note that they represent coherent, organizable, social bodies, that at the right moment, can provide the necessary seed community to grow a broader digital network, such as exhibited with Usenet and Facebook, as I will show shortly. What happens in the university, therefore, anticipates the broader culture of software use, arguably not only in the U.S. but in some respects globally, given the fact that U.S. digital companies dominate the global market in a phenomenon that media scholar Dal Yong Jin refers to as “platform imperialism.”  My own focus, however, will be almost exclusively on conditions in the States itself.  A significant and untold part of the tale in our own country is one of how the university directly contributed to shaping a U.S. public that came to passively adopt digital technologies within their everyday lives and why we continue to complacently surrender our freedom and privacy in exchange for its use.

3. Participatory Oppression: The Political Stakes of the Cyborg World

I have talked a great deal about the university’s corroborating and — given its language of empowerment and advancement, strikingly self-defeating — role in making possible the current state of oppression present in  the cyborg world, but I have not yet described the specific political stakes of that oppression. For some, my emphasis on oppression might come as a surprise, since many of the salient issues currently discussed in the critical scholarly literature pertaining to the web and digital technologies largely point in the direction of seeing these new technologies as providing more and more liberatory and democratic affordances. As is well known, waves of technological innovation that have enhanced the connectivity of the cyborg world (in both reach and responsivity) have been championed by scholars and advocates as democratizing in that they enable more individuals than ever before to create, share, and discover information and cultural goods with a global public. Through its complex emerging modes of networking users and organizing labor, the cyborg world has leveraged individual interest, expression, and intellectual activity for the production of political movements, vibrant interest groups, highly-complex technical projects, public knowledge resources, as as well created new cultural forms and practices such as exemplified by blogs, social media platforms, wikis, memes, and so forth. Scholars have described this emerging culture as participatory. In contrast to cultures arising out of industrial conditions in which only an elite few have access to the means of producing and transmitting knowledge and cultural goods, scholars have described the networked cyborg culture as participatory in that all members of society, in principle, have the chance to participate in the production of culture.  What I want to begin to explore now is the extent to which this optimism is misplaced.

3.1 Critical Perspectives on Participation in the Cyborg World

While there is much to be excited about regarding the expanding participatory modalities of the cyborg world, their present configuration also presents significant concerns. As an increasing number of critics have recognized and sought to bring to the attention of the wider public, the capabilities of the emerging software to all but silently track, predict, and influence political, social, and consumer behavior—while at the same time putting up almost insurmountable roadblocks to the ‘telecommunication’ of this ‘information’ back to the very users that are producing it—points up the sharp limits to the sort of participatory culture.  What is more, the cloistered existence and private-corporate possession of such information itself represents a threat to a democratic society of unprecedented significance and have already enabled deeply disconcerting practices on the part of both corporations and governments. In particular, scholars and advocates have drawn attention to the ways they enable corporate and state actors to surveil users (Mackinnon 2012, van Dijck 2014, 2013, Lyon 2014, Cohen 2016), enact censorship (Fuchs and Sandoval), exploit the labor of digital workers (Scholz 2016, Irani 2010, 2015, Fuchs 2014), manipulate or control user behavior (Cheney-Lippold 2011, Lessig 2006, Galloway 2006), infringe upon software freedom (Stallman), algorithmically control circulation of information (Gillespie 2014) shutdown services to control political unrest (MacKinnon 2012), inadequately suppress abusive activity (Burges et al 2015), and so forth. Many of these issues are not a reflection of the essential character of participatory culture or networked technology in and of itself, but are in fact are rooted in the capitalistic nature of the platforms used to carry them out, and their complex alliances or relationships with government entities (van Dijck 2014). What may appear as the progressive drive to better connect and rationalize all spheres of human activity is in fact economically driven by corporate interest in colonizing and extracting value from ever deeper frontiers of everyday life (Fuchs 2013, 2015).

The general, almost ‘common’ sense that these networked technologies have profoundly contributed to the increasing democratization of information and communication channels in so many spheres of life—such as politics, education, and cultural production—has made it supremely difficult to simultaneously take seriously their oppressive characteristics. However, even when these characteristics are recognized, there is little that users can do to directly change these features of the networked technologies, given that many dominant forms of software are what free software advocate Richard Stallman calls “nonfree,”  in that it is specifically designed to prohibit users from viewing or modifying the code, which, among numerous effects, inhibits the development of social structures that would allow for collaborative modification. In the attempt to protect and promote its interests, software companies implement this prohibitive design feature in their software, which then insulates the code, and thus also the company’s mechanisms, from public understanding, political debate, and direct intervention. This fact reveals a critical limitation in what has otherwise been seen thus far to contribute to a more participatory culture — that is, whatever new participation computing technology has enabled, it must be understood as essentially a participation largely circumscribed to the realm of the joint production of communicative objects rather than joint construction and governance of communicative systems themselves.

I will argue that this restriction or prohibition has not only enabled the political issues described above to continue to advance unchecked, but has also continually worked to reinforce the invisible discipline I referred to in my prior section in the production of the passive user, who is unable to both critically understand and transform the oppressive conditions of the cyborg world. The invisible discipline is thus oppressive in that it teaches the user a slavish dependency towards software and its makers. The fact that a majority of dominant forms of software are specifically designed to not enable the user or a user community to study or modify the code, has arguably contributed to the suppression of broad computational literacy in the public. Public acquiescence to this denial has doubtlessly been supported by the widespread misunderstanding that coding is the privileged occupation of geniuses, hackers, and geeks, and is thus far beyond the capabilities of the everyday user. This is not to say that everyone might be an expert programmer or individually understand and modify the software programs they use, but rather that the extreme dichotomy between coder and non coder has been socially and technically reinforced. That is, the helplessness of the everyday user, and the great gulf between themselves and the makers of their software, reinforces a passive relationship towards software in that they don’t actively imagine the possibility of participating in its development to better suit their needs and values.

The invisible discipline however is also oppressive in the way that it divorces in users’ understanding the ways in which their everyday communicative activity supports and enables the ‘architecture of oppression,’ which in turn shapes their everyday communication and communities. So long as our attention remains fixed on the surface-level freedom in relation to the production of ‘explicit’ objects of communication and intellectual activity that are conveyed through such software (e.g. tweets, emails, posts, ‘open-access’ articles and books, etc), we remain incognizant or only dimly concerned about the manifold ways in which our use of software shapes not just these communicated contents themselves (via, e.g., the functionality written into the ‘closed-access’ code of content management systems themselves), our interactions with the powers responsible for constructing, administering, and monitoring the uses of these programs, and more generally, our communities, communication, behavior, and thought, and, finally, in fact, continues to contribute to the dominance of nonfree software at a global scale.  Regrettably, however, when these aspects of software are acknowledged, they are often viewed as unfortunate but comparatively trivial costs of a more connected and convenient world—or at least we can assume as much by the lack of a popular rejection of nonfree software. Yet as software continues to collect and influence ever more granular aspects of the behavior of the global population, its political stakes rise to unspeakable heights.

4. The Stubborn Blindspot of the Cyborg Scholar

4.1 The Logic of Naturalization of the Cyborg University’s Prosthetics

Given the rapid growth and diversification of critical scholarship devoted to exploring the web and networked technologies, along with the ever rising pleas ushered forth by advocates of software freedom and digital activism at large, it is somewhat startling to see the lack of serious attention to the sizeable and influential role the university in particular plays in this reproductive cycle, not least  with respect to the humanities, and other non-computational fields that contribute significantly to the culture of software use.  And yet, for a variety of reasons that I will describe here, it is also completely logical. For one, in terms of scholarship, the invisible discipline is not really just something out there for objective critical analysis, but rather is the very mode in which the university and humanities have lived and moved and had their very being: the production and transmission of learning, scholarship, and other academic-critical analyses has been plunged into this emerging technological ecosystem since at least the 1980s with the arrival of word processing, though arguably longer given the adoption of computer technology by university libraries in the 1960s and 70s.  What is more,as I will argue at length later in this dissertation (and more directly introduce in a moment), this specific form of discipline via technology itself marks a continuation of a more deeply rooted academic ideology that existed long before the arrival of computing technologies — namely, an ideology which sees pedagogy, writing, and research as subservient most directly to what I will call the ‘revelatory ideal’.

The invisible discipline therefore is thoroughly infused within our processes and imagination of all aspects of scholarly activity, and there are a variety of formidable cultural and technical barriers that make recognizing (and especially transforming) its ubiquitous presence almost impossible. For example, as Drucker and Svensson’s concept of “middleware” tries to repair, it is hard for many of us to imagine how not only the influence, but the content of scholarly discourse itself, might look radically different if generated through a different software environment and culture.

This is not to say however that the cyborg transfusions and transplants of the university entered invisibly or without politics or irritation. One of the aims of this dissertation is to begin to historically articulate the different waves of computation inflecting the university’s humanistic activities pertaining to research, teaching, and learning—that is, instructional technology, computers and composition, digital humanities/humanities computing, and digital learning—and to describe their different ideological, economic, and organizational structures, which I will argue, have not been adequately considered as a whole. As I will show, each of the waves I describe involved an enormous amount of energy, resources, and professional passion, and each came with its own set of internal and external controversies and challenges. For example, in the late 1970s and through the decade of the 1980s, early practitioners in the little known field of computers and composition took enormous pains in gaining access, resources, and validation for computer-engaged work during a period when computers were rarely available outside computer science and engineering departments and even activities such as word processing required significant technical skill. What is more, as their efforts became more complicatedly entangled or confused with corporate educational software initiatives, scholars concerned with preserving the tradition or dignity of humanistic education launched fierce critiques on the appearance of technology in the classroom, foreshadowing today’s current debates by more than three decades.

In an ironic twist, the lack of sufficient support for these critical and creative investigations of computational technology in humanistic spaces enabled its ready absorption into the banal, non-participatory, and seemingly neutral infrastructure of the university. Today’s ubiquity of the computer and nonfree software in humanistic education and scholarly research attests to the fact that its victory in these spaces has been thorough and complete. As Edward Ayers, then a dean and history professor at the University of Virginia, observed in 2004, “Very real technological accomplishments have tended to become invisible because they have been so successful” (50).  Even today’s harshest critics of digital technology in humanistic education rely on a multitude of software systems (such as word processing, online communication, database research, and so forth) in order to produce and circulate their critiques.

What is supremely interesting about this situation is that over time certain aspects of computing technology become so naturalized, and so invisibly absorbed into our everyday technological engagement, that the idea of exploiting computers in higher education and scholarship continues to sound novel. This dynamic has led to the curious situation where the use of words like “computing,” “digital,” and “networks” in regards to humanistic research and education rhetorically work to signify something radically innovative and sometimes vaguely threatening even though all three of these things have had a significant presence in humanistic spaces since the 1980s, or in some cases, long before.

More importantly, however, as I have just anticipated a moment ago, I will argue that this seamless passage into invisibility of computers is itself rooted in a deeper convention of academic culture that is prior to digital technology. That is, software became invisible in humanistic spaces where it successfully merged with an academic ideology that posited individual evaluation of the student as the chief aim of education, and the authoritative revelation of individually-produced truth (regardless of its audience or impact) as the chief aim of scholarship.  This deeper convention that directly contributes to the success of the integration of computing practices into the humanities is what I call the commitment to the ‘revelatory ideal’ concerning academic writing, research, and communication.

In themselves, this sort of academic ideal may seem altogether reasonable, but, as I will show below, once they are absolutized, they also present profound limits on conceiving of and directing the ways in which academic activity both directly and indirectly shapes the world. For our story, embrace of this academic ideology led to the widespread humanistic adoption of computing technology as a labor saving device for the traditional academic practices of individually producing, circulating, evaluating, and researching texts. However much this technology opened up possibility for academic practices, it also dramatically reinscribed an idealistic individualistic understanding of the production of knowledge in the academy as primarily a matter of revealing and archiving facts.

Today, these reinscribing digital processes of humanistic activity are so normalized that it is enormously difficult to imagine them any other way. Their entrenchment is due to the interrelated facts that the software used to carry out these practices did not enable user modification, lacked technical and social arrangements to allow for community oversight and modification, and that such sort of an engagement was seen beyond the interest and capability of those using the computer for humanistic purposes—in short, that the academy (especially the humanities) did not relate to the production and development of software as itself a ‘higher’ form of knowledge-production (often likening it to the use of other utilities, to keeping the lights on, so real research can go forward). In this perfect marriage between an academic ideology and software use, an invisible discipline was forged within educational practices themselves.

The seamless pairing obscured from view the complex ways even the most banal seeming software mediates and influences individual and collective intellectual and communicative activities. Internally speaking, we might say this invisible discipline simply helped preserve higher education’s traditional assumptions and practices about knowledge production.  More broadly speaking, however, this integration of digital and software discipline into educational practice provided the mass training grounds for the acculturation of the passive software user.  While certainly not all software users have received college education—especially today given the increased availability of computers—it is apparent that the computer industry has long recognized students, in both secondary and higher education, as critical consumer groups in the computer market.

4.2 Student Writing, or the Waste Product of the Labor of Learning

One especially striking manifestation of the university’s reproductive role in cyborg oppression can be found in the teaching and instrumentalization of student writing, a site that, perhaps even more so than software studies itself, has long been beneath the interest of “serious” scholars and the technical elite alike. In fact, as I will show in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, there is an especially vocal and longstanding disdain or lack of respect for student writing, as well as a stigmatization of the field that specifically teaches it, which have emerged in part from the field’s perennial and pernicious labor issues.  For the past century, composition instruction has often relied on the labor of those whom have been repeatedly described as the ”hapless bottom feeders” of the university, caught in the contradictory web of teaching writing in the hope of obtaining the more respected, and better compensated, though extraordinarily rare research position that will in fact only be gained through publication that their teaching commitments makes extremely difficult to achieve (Connors Writing 172). What is more, as is also well noted by scholars in the field, the labor of writing instruction is largely feminized,  and is perceived as of interest only to its service workers, rather than to serious scholars.  Additionally, as addressed and beautifully reframed by Elizabeth Losh’s War on Learning, even the conversations which do occur within institutions pertaining to student use of technology are often focused on the threatening appearance of new forms of digital technology, rather than the politics of the ways in which student activity has long been immersed and mediated by in digital practices.

Ironically, however, while being continuously disregarded by cyborg scholars, there are many signs that student writing, as part of a broader ecology of “student data,” is becoming recognized as significant asset by digital technology companies and economists, with one report arguing that it could generate between $900 billion and $1.2 trillion dollars year (Manyika et al). Though there are still technical and legal barriers towards creating this economic possibility, educational companies such as the plagiarism detection company Turnitin and learning management systems like Blackboard use student data to generate insights about student behavior, further develop new and existing products, and increase their intellectual capital. Additionally, the student use of platforms that rely on user data for their main source of revenue, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, are also arguably illustrations of ways that student writing is being increasingly recognized as having raw value, though in a way that is alien to the students’ interest.

4.3 Aversive Cultures: Science and the Humanities, IT and Academics, Geeks and Technophobes

A number of cultural faultlines within the cyborg university also have worked systematically to inhibit critical reflection on the reproductive role of the cyborg university’s technological practices. These fault lines might all be seen as stemming from the broader “two culture” problem described by C.P. Snow in 1959, which refers to the mutual lack of understanding and interest between the sciences and the humanities that is arguably as relevant and institutionally reinforced today as it was when Snow first observed it. I won’t speculate here on the origins of this divide, but it is worth noting the various ways the adversity between these two cultures have been described, both within academics and in popular culture. Historians of the field composition, for example, describe how compositionists encountered hostile resistance when they tried to use university computing equipment in the 1980s by those who thought writing was too insignificant an activity to waste precious computing time on.  Laurel A. Sutton has also drawn attention to the ways in which online communities during the same time period exhibited hostile communicative practices meant to silence differing perspectives, often along gender lines. Today, in popular computing communities, we might find similar types of exclusionary or elitist characteristics, such as manifest in bullying and sexual harassment, gender and racial bias, and general hostility, which needless to say doesn’t do anything to welcome social or pragmatic interactions with less-technically skilled communities, such as those that constitute the humanities. One might even detect the faintest whiff of hubris in discourses pertaining to one of computation’s more recent darlings—big data science—as if the ability to visualize massive data sets equips its practitioners with an intellectual omnipotence that transcends entirely the perceived primitivity of humanistic consideration.

On the other hand, another scholar of composition studies, Michael Knievel, has drawn attention to the long tradition of distaste for science and technology on the part of humanists, and the fact that the humanities often defines itself as a “counter-movement to the rise of science and technology,” especially as a means of professional self preservation (94) — perhaps hoping to find funding life-rafts by making their work more legible to science award granting institutions, in the face of worries about increasing scarcity of resources allotted to more ‘traditional’ humanities research. Without pointing fingers at who or what is to blame for this divide, we might safely say that at the very least the disinterest is mutual, and additionally, extends beyond simply the formal disciplines themselves, but into broader cultural affiliations, such as between academics, and campus organizational units that deal with information technology.  As Ayers notes, there are “deeply entrenched habits of thoughts and behavior” that work to keep these cultures distant:

The problem is that the academic culture and the IT culture simply do not mix together well. […]On the other hand, as someone who has served on IT committees dominated by IT staff, I know how IT people speak about academics. I’ve seen the eyerolling and heard the chuckling at some of the more clueless of my academic colleagues who can’t figure out how to empty the trashbin on their desktop computer. Still, my friends in information technology have their own struggles. You know the stereotypes. You’ve heard the whispers: “geek.” As for me, I represent the worst of all worlds: I’m both a lifelong academic and a longtime IT geek. But perhaps this does give me the credentials to delve into the nomenclature of both the academic culture and the IT culture. (51-52)

Ayers’ argues that academic and IT culture have “so much to offer each other,” if they would only “look past the tweed and elbow patches on the one hand and the pocket protectors on the other” (52). Arguably, however, two cultures problem isn’t simply bound up in cultural preference that needs to be socially overcome but is in fact entangled in various issues regarding the economic and political conditions of the emergence and preservation of each professional class. For example, resistance to IT on the part of academics can be bound up with the economic and institutional threats that technology often represents, and I would imagine, alternately, resistance to academics on the part of IT could be in part due to the seemingly “free” life of the academic who often does not have to spend 9 to 5 in an office, does not report directly to a manager, travels widely, and is promoted on the basis of producing “critical” and “independent” work rather than serving others.

Regardless of the underlying reason, and even considering important advances made within the fields of digital humanities and digital learning, collaboration between these adverse cultures is still relatively rare. Thus, given the already-marginalized status of student writing within the humanities, collaboration across these cultures for the purpose of student writing in particular is nearly non-existent. The few collaborations established between computer science labs and departments and arts and humanities departments have been predominantly related to the work of academic research (largely in service of text mining and analysis, data visualization, etc), rather than the intangible labor of teaching writing.  The technology and digital activities relevant to writing instruction are seen as more appropriately in the purview of  the domestic duty of IT, educational technology, or other campus service entities. As a result, technological innovation in the field of writing instruction often relies wholly on commercial tools designed outside the university altogether, tools which are at base for economic rather than educational interests.  What is more, whether access to these services is ultimately provided by the university (such as learning management systems), or available ‘freely’ online (such as Google, Twitter or Genius), most of these commercial tools subject the student to predatory dataveillance practices, and even more importantly, prohibit student participation in the development and governance of the tools. Thus, Ira Shor’s observation that “schooling is a device through which a corporate society reproduces its class-based order” (2) can be extended to the ways that schooling also reproduces those who design our software worlds, and those who have been conditioned to obey it.  

4.4 Missed Opportunities

Though any genuinely alternative type of user participation in the development and governance of the university’s cyborg middleware may seem like an unrealistic aspiration, given the current realities of software development, I’d like to point out here that there do indeed currently exist successful alternative models of software development that actively involve users in their production. However, these communities have historically been constituted mainly by those with technical expertise and already situated within computer science or programming communities, thus limiting the reach of these communities to one side of fault lines I described earlier.  During the eighties, at the same time that technology and publishing companies were establishing contracts with universities for the use or development of nonfree software, programmer and activist Richard Stallman was leading a free software movement that demanded that software offer its users four freedoms consisting of the “freedom to run a program for any purpose, freedom to study the mechanics of the program and modify it, freedom to redistribute copies, and freedom to improve and change modified versions for public use.” These freedoms applied not only to software programs, but the operating system used to run those programs, thus requiring a massive, decade-long cooperative and voluntary effort on the part of programmers in building a operating system from scratch—all practices which contrast in significant ways both to the production and development of software within proprietary contexts but also, and perhaps more importantly, to the passive relation to software by traditional consumers of such products

As important as these efforts were however, educated awareness of them — let alone participation in and appreciation of them and their possibilities — seemed mostly limited to the techie community.  From what I can tell, there was (and unfortunately continues to be) very little understanding on the part of humanistic computers advocates of what the free software movement might contribute to their own progressive agenda.  To be fair, there was (and continues to be)likewise, relatively little attention in the writings of Stallman and others in the free software community to the increasingly influential use of computers and closed proprietary software in humanistic spheres, and its effects on large scale popular practice. To highlight one particularly striking example of these ships passing in the night: while the import of a free operating system might have been understandably lost on writing instructors who were already fighting the uphill battle of just gaining access to computers, it notable that one of Stallman’s other well-known contributions to free software was a writing program, the GNU EMACs, which allows users to modify the tool according to their needs and has an active community of users and developers to this day. Despite the fact that EMACS was already then available as an existing tool that would have technically allowed for the continuation of experimental word processing design that faded away once proprietary word processors thoroughly colonized the humanistic space, EMACS has up until today remained largely the tool of the technically literate.There are of course many good (or at least understandable) reasons for this lack of mutual awareness and interest, but nonetheless, it importantly demonstrates that history could have been otherwise. Had the humanistic sphere been introduced to, and adopted, EMACS, rather than Microsoft Word for example, and trained its diverse student body not only use it to write, but also to contribute to its technical development, we would likely not have only made EMACS a more universally-accessible, popularly-used, and pluralistically-developed writing tool, but would have arguably marked our user consciousness in such a way that would make us more receptive to, even expectant of, the virtues of the production and consumption of free software more generally.

Thus, there are a variety of significant cultural and institutional reasons as to why the university’s role in the reproduction of passive users has been barely addressed. Nonetheless, these are barriers that must be overcome if we are serious, in either our critiques or our interventions, in the emancipation of the current status quo of the cyborg world. Though the challenges that they present are complicated and daunting, they also mark a site of great opportunity. Just as technology companies have now long recognized students as critical to their corporate growth, we, like Paulo Freire, Ira Shor, and bell hooks , and other advocates of critical pedagogy, must grow to more fully recognize students as the necessary source of a cyborg liberation.

5. Freeing Users, Freeing Minds: Reimagining Software, Education, and their Integration

5.1 Metaparticipation as an Alternative Participatory Model

I have now briefly introduced the interrelated crisis of the cyborg world and the cyborg university, which this dissertation will seek to describe in further detail. However, the intention of this dissertation is not merely to critique the situation at hand, but to suggest productive ways forward. Rather than arguing for a rejection of the cyborg university for a mythical pre-computational “goddess” university, I will argue that the cyborg university itself — precisely because it is a vital reproductive organ of the cyborg world — must strive to stimulate a critical cyborg consciousness in its students, faculty, and all other campus employees and members, as a first step both to resisting cyborg oppression within the university, and cultivating the mentality, community, resources, and coordination necessary for resisting and transforming the oppression of the cyborg world beyond the university. This resistance and transformation, however, need not only be done for the abstract purpose of the liberation beyond its walls, but rather as a means of transforming technology to more sensitively and productively attend to its internal goals.Though there are potentially many ways the cyborg university might set about this task, I will suggest that it cultivate a culture of what I call metaparticipation, or a participation that consists of users not only participating in the production of knowledge and information goods, but also involved in some way in the production and modification of the technical, organizational, cultural, and political, structures that enable that participation.

My concept of metaparticipation draws strongly from Christopher Kelty’s concept of “recursive publics,” which he describes as publics that are “vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public.” Kelty likewise points to the Free Software Movement as an example of a recursive public in that it not only works  cooperatively to produce software, but also cooperatively develops the conditions of that cooperation, such as the technical means to enable that co-production, the social protocols for interacting as a group, and the licensing frameworks to ensure that their goods remained in the public domain for continuous recursive availability. However, I use the concept metaparticipation to describe any sort of step towards participation in the conditions of participation, whether in full-fledged, collective form as demonstrated by Kelty’s recursive public, or in more modest manifestations where even a single user attempts to participate, in whatever way to whatever degree, in the shaping of the legal, technical, and social structures that shape their participation. Whereas Kelty’s concept of recursive publics represents perhaps ideal forms of metaparticipation in that they consist of cooperative, complexly coordinated, sustained, and culturally validated forms of metaparticipation, the concept of metaparticipation allows us to describe efforts made outside of recursive publics in institutional spaces that don’t anticipate metaparticipation (or even participation in some cases) from its members. I will argue that one of the most important ways we can intervene in the oppression of the cyborg world is to facilitate a metaparticipatory space at the site of writing (especially that of students’), the reproductive heart of the cyborg university. However, the strength of metaparticipation will rely on its ability to create networks across disciplines, domains, and institutional boundaries of the cyborg university, as well as across and with different publics.

5.2 The Cyborg University as Invisible Network Mother

Just as the university prior to the cyborg world gave rise to an abundance of social, professional, and academic networks of both formal and informal varieties, the cyborg university continues to produce, sustain, and/or contribute to cross-institutional, multidisciplinary, and public-intersecting networks such as exhibited by professional academic organizations,   partnerships with the private sector or cultural organizations, and the informal social networks generated by its students, staff, and faculty’s social activity. However, unlike the networks of old, today’s university networks are able to capitalize on network technology to expand the reach of their networks, as well as the complexity, responsivity, and speed of their communication and collaboration. In this sense, the cyborg university is often seen as a beneficiary of networked technology and the popular network cultures enabled by them (though sometimes a reluctant one), a communities whose members must be schooled by academic pioneers (early adopters), workshops, and white papers about the benefits of new modes and cultures of networked communication spontaneously generated out in the wild world web.  

As I argue below, this perception is deeply misleading: the networks of the cyborg world are not simply the offspring of drop out genius hackers, renegade free thinking entrepreneurs, and other extra-university denizens, but were in fact to a large degree engendered by the cyborg university itself, and specifically mothered by it.  By this I mean that, the labor of the university in relation to software, networks, platforms, etc provides the underlying support system for their development, even if in ways that are largely invisible, unacknowledged, and readily dismissed, and consists not in the explicit goals of education, but in the care and socialization of students that makes that explicit goal possible and of use. I say this for a number of reasons. First, there is the most obvious fact that the architects of prominent network companies and importantly their laborers, received training, resources, and professional contacts that all surely contributed to their ability to develop the cyborg world’s networks along technical and economic lines. Second, the university has been a major contributor and key site not only to the development of computing, but also to the development of networked infrastructure such as manifest not only in the establishment of ARPANET, one of the earliest forerunners of the Internet, but also in important new applications of networked technologies, such as the development of shared library cataloguing pioneered in the 60s and 70s, and the digitization of the Interlibrary Loan system, which should be recognized not only as tremendous advances for library science, but in the cultural development of networked coordination and cooperation pertaining to the transmission and production of information.

The final point I’d like to make about the cyborg university mothering networks, however, trumps both of these former points as I think it has gone largely unrecognized, that is the consistent role of students in particular in both the development of these networks, and even more importantly, in populating them. To consider the role of students in developing networks, we might first turn to ARPANET. While ARPANET was a highly-complex collaboration between the U.S. Department of Defense, private enterprise, and university organizations, it is worth noting that it was a student programmer, Charley Kline, who happened to send the very first message on ARPANET, (“Lo,” as the system crashed right as he typed the third letter of “Login”), at 10:30 pm on October 29th, 1969 when he was 21 years old. Ten years later, it would be students who first conceived of Usenet, the “poor man’s ARPANET,” which is often credited as the earliest Internet community, and in which many of the web’s cultural features were first established, for better and for worse. It also served as the public forum in which many important software projects and developments were announced, such as the launch  of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee, the Linux project by Linus Torvalds, and the Mosaic browser by Marc Andreessen.  And it would be a student again, the sophomore Mark Zuckerberg that launched what would become the number one social networking site in the world with 1.86 billion monthly active users (as of December 2016) from his Harvard dormitory in 2004.

But what I’m most interested in drawing our attention to is not the role of the individual students in the development of these networks, but the role of students in seeding the population of the networks, and even more specifically, the fact that the relationship between this population of users and the much smaller populations of developers was a relationship within the student body. I think it is important to note that Usenet was developed by students who wanted a way to communicate with other students at distant universities, thinking that ten to twelve people at most would use their system, and likely people that they knew. These developers viewed themselves as the primary users, and thus developed a system in which the interest of the developer and the user were one and the same.  To be sure, by the first year, 50 Usenet sites had sprung up not just across college campuses but also at Bell Labs sites, a number expanded to 500 by 1983, and nearly doubled again a year later. Still, compared to commercial networks that developed later on, we might say this growth developed largely along the lines of social desire and mutual consent, rather than through strategic techniques to capture and sustain user activity, and had strong affiliations with university student culture. While Usenet hosts quickly expanded beyond the boundaries of colleges and universities, students remained an important part of Usenet’s growth and a highly-visible part of its character, with a new cohort causing chaos every September as they were introduced to Usenet for the the first time and engaged with its forums without having yet learned the proper “netiquette.” This time period of student disruption was so well known by the Usenet community, that when American Online granted its users access to Usenet in 1993, thus ushering in a continuous influx of new users and social chaos, the Usenet community proclaimed it had entered into the age of the “Eternal September.”

More recently, the cyborg university’s students played an equally important role in populating the network of Facebook — though the origin story here is arguably not about mutual desire and consent between developer and user, but rather one of force carried out by code for the developer’s own interest. Before Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg designed Facemash, which illegally scraped names and photos of students off Harvard databases without their permission to create a site where users could collaboratively rank the sexual attractiveness of the students. Facemash was quickly shut down by the university, but provided the blueprint for many of Facebook’s features, and its extreme popularity encouraged Zuckerberg to immediately get to work. What’s important to note is that Zuckerberg imagined Facebook’s users as a way of connecting college students, first at Harvard, the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and arguably the most elite, and then its expansion first to other Ivy League schools, then Boston area schools, and finally, in 2006, to anyone over the age of 13 with a “valid email address.”

While both Usenet and Facebook quickly came to serve populations beyond the university, it is worth noting that both originated in students’ visions of using network technologies to connect students, and that students arguably played an important role in the growth of both networks even after they were opened up to the broader community. However, while narratives of networked technologies often dismiss the role of the university in their creation and criticize it for its incompetence, it is worth noting that these prodigal networks have in fact returned back to partner with the learning institutions they so hastily dismissed through the establishment of university partnerships and educational institutions, or products and services (such as Google classroom, and the free roll out of Gmail for many universities).  In other words, as they have come to recognize the university as sites of intellectual and social capital readily organized for networked use.

5.3 Cyborg Alienation

Thus, we can say, that in a variety of important and distinct ways, the university has played a critical role in engendering these two historically important networks of the cyborg world, and continues to represent an important partner (or prey) in the growth of networked technologies.  However, what should be clear by now about these two networks is that they represent different degrees of shared interest between developers and users, those interests being much more unified in the origins of Usenet compared to the origins and practices of Facebook. While I do not want to idealize Usenet, which had its own set of social issues especially pertaining to gender, I am comparing it with Facebook to draw attention to the latter’s much higher degree of what I call cyborg alienation, or the separation between the interests of software developers and software users. While the complete elimination of cyborg alienation is theoretically impossible, especially as defining “interest” is always debatable along political, economic, and psychological lines, I hope the concept of cyborg alienation will allows us to analyze networks and software not just according to their technical features and political effects, but to the ways in which users are invited or forbidden from participating in and reflecting upon their development.

Cyborg alienation is not simply produced through technology but is rather a reinscription and amplification of social divisions and hierarchical structures existing prior within the cyborg university, such as through the social divisions I’ve already referred to occurring along disciplinary and professional lines, but also along race, gender, and class lines as well. That is not to say that technology does not also enhance whatever alienation already exists for the participants in the cyborg university, by further manipulating user behavior and perception, infringing upon user privacy, or denying users the ability to understand and transform software; the important point is that this further alienation  is still nonetheless rooted in the pre-existing social dimensions.  In light of this, I will suggest in what follows that one of the most important ways in which cyborg alienation can be addressed is not through further tool building or innovative tool use (though it will certainly involve that), but through the creation of new social organizations and social actions that will work to create new alliances and shared goals, new forms of mutual understanding and respect, and new types of dialogue across these sharply fractured arenas of the university.

The sort of labor required to create and foster such social organizations and actions, however, cuts precisely against the grain of the imperative guiding much of the cyborg world and cyborg university’s proudest and most instrumental forms of innovation — at least as viewed from the point of view of capitalism and the administrated society: these are the tools and ideas that meet the general imperative to expertly and deftly automate, analyze, manipulate, and control information and populations.  The work needed for more social-communal formation and maintenance of public spheres of creative individuals, by contrast, will  fall back into a form of feminized labor that is comparatively unvalued both culturally and professionally. And yet, it will be precisely this non-automatable labor of building dialogue, shared understanding, and mutual goals, across the sharply divided cultures of the cyborg world—through humility, experimentation, and a near inhuman persistence, in spaces where social, professional, and practical gratification is not guaranteed—on which the reprogramming of the cyborg world depends.  Or at least I will argue below.

5.4 The Right to Cyborg Reflection

As a means to break down cyborg alienation, students must have a right to acquire the capacity for cyborg reflection — that is, the ability to reflect for themselves on the ways in which software mediates all aspects of their individual and collective lives, whether pertaining directly to their university activities—such as research, writing, learning, being evaluated and managed, and so forth—or to their external social, domestic, political, and economic activities. Part of the development of this capacity for cyborg reflection will require becoming aware of emerging historical, sociological, and philosophical research on the general emergence and effects of different technological aspects of the cyborg world; equally important, however, will be the ability for reflection on the opaque mechanisms underlying the tools as well as reflection through the tools themselves.

Currently, these last two modes of reflection are largely prohibited in the student and general user population, and enjoyed as the sole right of the digital companies who track user activity and information flow for the purpose of expanding their intellectual capital. Turnitin, for example, a company that provides plagiarism detection services for 15,000 institutions worldwide, currently holds 30 million student papers in its database, which it uses to further develop its current services (such as automated feedback), and one can imagine given the tech industry, could be easily “pivoted” as a a raw asset for an entirely different product, service, or market.

While many might not see the value of the data of 30 million student papers, especially given the low esteem held for student writing, I will argue that they represent an enormous asset for generating insights about the student population that students, not companies, should be in charge of. As I will describe in more depth in Chapter 5, today’s data analysis techniques are capable of generating surprisingly sophisticated and personal insights that may seem vastly unrelated to the original data, especially when one considers the rich array of metadata (such as timestamps and geographic location) that accompany that data.  At the same time, however, these insights are not objective, even though they are largely presented as such, as they are always generated by an entity with a certain ideological perspective and a certain interest at stake. For example, in the case of Turnitin, student data is always captured, analyzed, and instrumentalized according to the company’s ideological understanding of the purpose, aims, and methods of learning to write, as well as their business interest in further cultivating institutional dependence on their services.

While it may not be immediately clear how this ideological positioning bears any relation to the sorts of insight capable of being generated by this data, I will argue here that this sort of privatization of data reflection represents one of the most cynical and self-defeating approaches to education today, and also systematically suppresses one of the most important new forms of literacy in the general population. That is, I’d like to argue that granting student access to analyzing and instrumentalizing the multitude of data generated by their cyborg activity, we would see data interrogated and instrumentalized in very different ways than it is by private companies, as students would use it to investigate themselves and their broader student and public communities as thinkers, citizens, and community members, rather than as consumers and manipulable users. At one and the same time, this sort of accessibility of data reflection would help stimulate in students, and hopefully in turn the broader public, a greater appreciation for the ways in which their data is currently being instrumentalized (often invisibly) by digital companies.

 

While I cannot predict how students might use this data if given the resources, support, and incentive for analyzing it, I’d like to point here to a few examples and ideas that I hope will stir our imagination about the value and possibility of its use. First, I’d like to simply turn to the possibility of cyborg reflection on the act of an individual piece of student writing — taking the present essay as a case study. To the left is a placed an image of a visualization of this document that was generated through Voyant, a free, browser based text visualization tool, which shows how the top five words of the document (excluding stopwords) fluctuate in frequency across the course of the text. On their own, these words (“cyborg,” “software,” “university,” “social,” “writing,” in order of most frequent to least ) perhaps don’t tell us very much new that we wouldn’t have already discerned from reading the text itself, and, what’s more, as Drucker and Svensson might point out, the visualization itself is only one possible way of visualizing the text, and occludes as much as it might reveal. However, what this image doesn’t show, is that this visualization significantly differs from the past draft, whose most frequent words were instead “software,” writing,” “digital,” “education,” and “social,” indicating that my new focus on “cyborg,” was somehow also associated with a reordering of the importance of “writing,” which is now less frequent than “social,” and a new most-frequent word, “university.” (You can visualize this document through Voyant here: http://tiny.cc/cyborgIntro.)

While this particular visualization set is of somewhat limited interest in and of itself, I hope it at least provides concrete material for imagining more interesting analytical projects, and so suggests that being able to visualize our intellectual production, not only across drafts, but across the eras and domains of our intellectual development, might offer some interesting modes of self-reflection, and also perhaps allow us to build more cohesively on our intellectual production in the past that is often lost in the great shuffle of the cyborg world. That’s not to say, of course, that these visualizations offer us anything like purely objective insights on our activity, but that they are nevertheless a potential tool for what Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell, the developers of Voyant, call the agile interpretive cycle, where the investigator switches between different technical and intellectual modes of reflection in a dialectical process (278).

This same sort of cyborg reflection, however, can be applied not just to the finished products of one’s work, but to the process itself as a way of thinking through our habits of research, writing, and thinking. Back in December of 2015, I wanted a way to examine my process of writing a long-overdue term paper, and turned to Mozilla’s publicly-available instance of Etherpad, a collaborative writing platform that allows users to “play back” the full process of the text’s creation. In my experience, Etherpad is mainly used as a quick and dirty digital notepad for collaboratively taking notes or sharing resources during professional meetings, and is not so much intended for creating polished, highly-formatted documents expected in academia. However, it also allows users to assign different highlighting colors to different users, so as to easily attribute authorship to different parts of the text. I used this feature to assign every different period of writing a different color, so that by the end of the production of the text, I could also easily visualize what portions of the text were written during which period. Again, what I found in my one case was not earth shattering; there were both large sections that consisted of a single color indicating I had composed it from start to finish in a single sitting with very little revision afterwards, and other sections that contained multiple colors, revealing that I had revised a paragraph or sentence in multiple different settings. Nonetheless, this visualization brought to the foreground the very complicated temporality of the text’s production which is completely invisible in a text’s final form.  I gained a better appreciation for how the final paper, was in essence a stitching and weaving together of text to make its narration and logical argument appear to unfold linearly, when in fact the chronological production of the text had to be radically rearranged to effect this appearance (see image above and the draft on Etherpad here: http://tiny.cc/etherdraft). I became very curious about visualizing the temporalities of production of the work of my colleagues, and thinking more about how different temporal processes, conscious or not, have relationship to other features in final product. 

This experience led me to want to carry out the production of this dissertation with a writing tool that might allow me to analyze and visualize the data and metadata of the process from start to finish. Given that I had never written a dissertation before, I expected it to be a process full of mistakes, learning —and hopefully growth!—as an academic writer. Though I didn’t know exactly how I would reflect on this data later on—especially as I was overwhelmed enough with the task of producing the dissertation—I thought it would be interesting to explore the data and metadata as a means of reflecting on different aspects of the process after the dissertation’s completion. For example, I was curious to see whether and how my style might change throughout the course of the project, depending on variables such as how far along in the project I was, the time of day, my geographical locations, or the topic on which I was writing. I was also curious to know if there was a way of analyzing the writing that I ultimately discarded, or revised significantly, in terms of their topics, style, and conditions of production. My analytic imagination was obviously influenced by the blend of tools and functionalities I’ve been exposed to (such as Voyant and Etherpad), but there of course was no readily available tool to support this sort of process. My colleague and friend Evan Misshula very generously spent several weekend Skype meetings helping me set up an Etherpad instance of my own, but it proved too complicated and not accommodating enough for the process of academic writing. I also tried Github, but it did not seem to track revisions in a manner that was fine-grained enough for my purposes, and by this point, it seemed clear that I needed to focus on the writing itself, rather than fiddling with my tools. For the sake of convenience, I chose Google Docs.

These minor experiments, however, limited as they were by time, interest, and resources, are just two possible ways one might enact cyborg reflection on student activity. I am confident that students, especially those whose identities are not well represented in the tech industry, would find much more interesting and critical ways of interrogating their data, both as a means of self reflection, as well as a way of coming to critically understand and reflect on the techniques of data analysis themselves. Before moving on, I’d like to briefly point to a few other examples that involve critical approaches to data collection that I think also might help point to further possibilities. Gregory Donovan’s wonderful project “My Digital Footprint” gave students administrative perspective and control (so to speak) of the platform they were using to conduct their communication. Students were not only able to see how much personal data is regularly and easily collected during their digital activities, but were also invited to make ethical decisions as a group about the tool’s mechanisms that would typically be left to administrators. This practice of enabling students to participate in the governance of a tool is directly the opposite from the standard use of learning management systems that deny students of an understanding of the full range of data collected on them, and the ability to modify these practices. We might see another example in the work of Gabi Schaffzin, a graduate student in the Visual Arts department at UC San Diego, who reclaims the proprietary data generated by a Fitbit to show the ideological limits of its ability to express a subject’s state of health, while also looking to new possibilities of using data to expresse marginalized health states. We might also look to the Domain of One’s Own initiative at the University of Mary Washington that offers all campus members websites to host the entirety of their intellectual production (such as term papers, writing assignments, syllabus, and so forth)  as a means to unify their intellectual activity across courses and terms, which they can also easily export once they leave the university.

Finally, I’d like to note that whereas my experiments represent a form of cyborg self-reflection, it is likely that much more interesting reflection would come about through cyborg social-reflection, where one could analyze their personal data in the context of a broader population, such as that of the class, department, or institution that they’re in, or alternately, simply analyze the activity of these broader populations without immediate concern for their individual practice. Social reflection, however, not only entails developing a social perspective on the topics one is analyzing, but would also in fact require forms of social collaboration among individuals with diverse skillsets and backgrounds. Not only do I think this might help students develop a broader “class consciousness” so to speak about the interests, struggles, and activities of their fellow students, but it would also immediately require students to begin considering the ethical, social, and technical issues involved in that sort of analysis.

What I wish to draw attention to here is the fact that this sort of data analysis on students is already happening, but without any kind of involvement from students in terms of oversight, governance, or even in terms of being able to benefit from the types of data generated. To be sure, making cyborg social reflection available to students on their own terms and for their own purposes would involve multiple challenges, but it is precisely this sort of engagement that is necessary for stimulating a critical and participatory cyborg consciousness in students. Through university support, students would have to create governance for determining how students might decide to volunteer their data and metadata (and the extent of that data) and technical capabilities for doing so. Not only might students use this data to better understand and connect with its community on an intellectual basis, but they might also be able to investigate and address social issues as they appear in a university setting, as well as better understand the ideological limits of data science as suggested in Gabi Schaffzin’s work. They might also reflect on the diverse social and historical conditions that led to university resources being deployed to pay for Turnitin’s plagiarism detection service, which reinforces competition, rather than a digital student commons, which might enable students to cultivate cooperation.

6. Brief Overview of the Dissertation

This dissertation will thus be an exploration of the origins, persistence, and stakes of the invisible discipline within the cyborg university as a means to both understand and transform it  I will begin by tracing this invisible discipline to a longstanding academic ideology in the practice of teaching and instrumentalizing academic writing in the course of the 20th century, which I will then argue considerably shapes and limits the four waves of technological innovation and adoption within the humanistic sphere over the past fifty years. I will then tie the practices of technological use within the cyborg university to the broader political issues of the cyborg world, and show how Freire’s practice of dialogue, offers a promising way towards a cyborg liberation through the gradual process of bringing the social, technical, political, and cultural problems of the cyborg world to consciousness through the naming of them. 

For students and citizens of the cyborg world, I have conceptualized this Freirian renaming as reprogramming, though I don’t simply mean it in its computational sense. Instead, I mean it is a way of transforming the cyborg world, piece by piece, through activities that involve or influence the technical, social, cultural, and political codes of the cyborg world, whether implemented through code, speech, social practice, or some combination thereof. While some may find my use of a computational term to describe a social intervention guilty of the technological solutionism that this dissertation opposes, I in fact am reclaiming the sense of “programming” prior to its first application to computing in 1945. The first sense that I have in mind is programming as “a plan or scheme of any intended proceedings” (OED), which calls attention to the fact that speech acts in the cyborg world have both linguistic and computational significance and effects. The second older sense of programming is “to write in public” (OED), which I refer to so as to call attention to the importance of writing itself in public, to the public, as a form of contributing to the programming or shaping of that public. I will conclude with my concept of a dialogical machine as a speech act that attends to both its linguistic and computational significance in the naming and transformation of the cyborg world. Here, I will turn to Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg’s concept of “learning institutions as mobilizing networks,” exhibited by the vibrant and influential cross-institutional network HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) they co-founded, as providing the foundational values, principles, and social organization from which dialogical machines can most effectively launch, and which dialogical machines can help further cultivate. 

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In essence, this dissertation is my own attempt at a dialogical machine, however clunky it may be. Regardless of the way the reader comes to these words, it should be noted that they bear a very special relationship towards writing and publishing software. That is, this scholarly project was in fact born from a software project that aimed to create a tool for the building of a non-proprietary, metaparticipatory digital commons for student writing. In a certain sense, it attempts to answer Drucker and Svensson’s call for the active participation in the middleware that structures one’s argument, though not in the aesthetic experience of the writing, but in the broader labor of working towards a social reorganization in both the way that writing tools are made and for whom and what academic writing is instrumentalized.

The idea for this tool first occurred to me in the Fall of 2012 while taking a course called Interactive Technology and Pedagogy with Urban Education professor Steve Brier. Not only did the course include readings on topics pertaining to scholarly communication, digital pedagogy, and the politics of software, but it also required students to share their reading reflections on a course blog hosted on The CUNY Academic Commons, a digital commons for The CUNY Graduate Center powered by free software and developed “in house” so to speak by a team led by English professor Matthew K.Gold. My complex reaction to this requirement led me to think seriously about the many psychological, social, and political issues at play in the production and instrumentalization of student writing, and how they are further complicated when that activity enters the digital realm. While I was deeply excited by the potential of these public and collaborative forms of learning in theory, I found that the actual experience of their use disregarded many of the complex sensitivities at play in one’s intellectual process and online identity, and arguably, though for many good reasons, did not take full advantage of the possibility of software for these forms. For example, why wasn’t networking, discovering, setting permissions, and commenting upon student writing as easy as parallel activities on social media platforms? And in turn, why couldn’t we experiment with these mechanisms to think through, as Drucker and Svensson urge us to, the ways they structure our intellectual activity?

These observations might have remained vague discontents, but as I gained an appreciation for the fact that the software that hosted our writing, The CUNY Academic Commons, was developed and maintained not in far-off buildings or hidden entities of campus that I would never come across, but by academics who shared my interests in humanities research, I realized that there was a possibility—at least in principle—to create or modify software to meet some of these concerns. During the course, I was also introduced to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s wonderful monograph Planned Obsolescence, a critical analysis of scholarly publishing whose drafts she posted for public review by using CommentPress, a WordPress theme designed for peer review of long-form scholarly texts. I was particularly struck how this technological engagement was in some respects a critical response to the conditions of academic labor and publishing, which in turn, stimulated a more critical and sensitive attunement to the historical origins of academic ideals we now take for granted, and their deep relationship with modes of knowledge production and transmission. It led me to think about how the “term paper,” something I needed to produce for the end of that course, might bear some relation to issues Fitzpatrick discussed in her book.

This reflection led to the conception of a global metaparticipatory commons for student writing that would speak to the everyday needs and sensitivities of student writing as well as work towards drawing out its imaginative potentialities. I began to wonder how a commons might be designed to further support vibrant and innovative forms of collaboration as well as private intellectual processes. For example, how might a commons account for the different degrees of publicity and privacy needed at different levels in one’s intellectual process; how might it allow one to share, discover and comment upon writing across disciplinary and institutional boundaries; and how might it broaden the audience and import of student writing at large?  In terms of analytics, how might a commons allow for students to think critically about the data generated in their intellectual and communicative practices and encourage them to collectively determine new methods and ethical governance for studying and instrumentalizing that data? In terms of software functionality, how might this commons encourage students to critically interrogate the way even the most banal aspects of software mediate intellectual and social processes (from the activity feed to the spell checker) and also enable them to imaginatively recreate these features as a means of bringing about a more critical, creative, and cooperative student public? How might we create new types of automation and break down other conventional forms of automation to work against pernicious social issues within the cyborg university?  In terms of usability, how could the text editor, commenting features, and notification system better suit the needs of scholarly writing?  And in terms of intellectual activity and archiving, was there any possibility that software tools and practices could be designed to enhance the fragile space of thinking rather than further fragment its processes and products across media and time? Most importantly of all, how might this commons be set up to encourage an ever greater diversity of users, whatever their skillset, to participate in the ongoing development and governance of this commons?

These sorts of questions might not have found fertile soil had I not happened to be at The CUNY Graduate Center right at the time when the longstanding efforts on the part of multiple faculty and staff were beginning to coalesce into a vibrant digital humanities community, which in many respects, emphasized the importance of student leadership in charting its course and setting its values. To be sure, the digital humanities, as it manifested there and as an overarching field of academic practice, neither solves nor provides refuge from the “increasingly monstrous institutional terrain” of higher education and academics, nor can it be said to represent a unified body of methodological and ideological approaches that might simply on their own lead to meaningful transformative work. What it has the potential to do, and what I believe it helped do for me, is to provide an environment that can help stimulate a dialogical approach to understanding the ways tools, infrastructure, social practices, resources, labor, and ideologies are all complicatedly intertwined in the production of academic activity in ways that concretely shape its broader social effects and social possibility, for better and for worse. Working to identify the imprint of one of these aspects in the features of another, enables us to defamiliarize our assumed understanding of that thing, and evaluate it for its real, not ideal, effects in the world. As one observer put it: “Digital humanists tend as part of their scholarly practice to foreground self-reflexively the material underpinnings of scholarship that many conventional humanists take for granted. . . . If anything, DH is guilty of making all too visible the dirty gears that drive the scholarly machine, along with the mechanic’s maintenance bill.” 

Though a critical transformation of the cyborg university must examine and transform more than just tools, digital technology is critical component of this process as it codifies, normalizes, conceals, and controls so many aspects of our thinking and communicating, and how those processes create communities of inclusion and exclusion, within and across institutional and public boundaries, To my mind, this engagement with tools therefore need not necessarily be technocratic thinking, but in fact can represent one of the most robust responses and resistances possible to the colonizing technocratic forces that have all but thoroughly infused our everyday lives, both within and well beyond the academy. However, even when there is in interest in this sort of engagement, it is still extraordinarily difficult to marshall resources, expertise, incentive, time, and engagement from the variety of institutional and extra-institutional partners necessary for cultivating a shared language, consciousness, and set of goals, across these diverse partners necessary for enacting transformation. At every turn there are significant cultural, institutional, and economic barriers obstructing this sort of critical coming together. The digital humanities does not remove these barriers, but it does provide perhaps a more legible excuse for confronting them if one is up for the monstrous struggle.

It was in this spirit that I began conversations around the themes of the scholarly machine of student writing with Jennifer Stoops, a graduate student in Urban Education, which culminated in a decision to pursue the idea of tinkering with that machine in whatever way we could as our final required project for the ITP program. It was there that the idea for Social Paper was born. Neither of us were even remotely equipped to begin building something like it ourselves, so we began brainstorming a variety of possible approaches and reaching out to potential allies. I brought the idea up to Matthew Gold, who directed the Digital Fellows program I was a part of, but also whose teaching and institutional initiatives had long been invested in cultivating collaborative student writing environments, such as in his directing role for The CUNY Academic Commons, its free and open source software surrogate Commons in a Box, as well as in an earlier, multi-institutional student writing project called “Looking for Whitman.” Matt, while perhaps reserved about the technical feasibility of our original plans, was immensely supportive of the general idea and helped us to think through the many technical, institutional, and social complexities that such a project would entail. Jennifer and I were incredibly excited about the potential of the project, and jumped at the chance to apply for a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Start Up Grant, which gave us the opportunity to work closely with Boone Gorges, the lead developer of The CUNY Academic Commons, on further refining a realistic prototype. Though we knew our chances were incredibly slim, the conversations and collaborative thinking that resulted from just the creation of the proposal was worth it alone. We were thrilled and deeply humbled, however, when we received news that the NEH would generously help us make Social Paper a reality. With Matt, Boone, the rest of the enormously talented Commons team, and the support of too many individuals at the Graduate Center to name here, we set out on the year-and-a-half-long endeavor of building Social Paper, launching its beta version in December 2015.

The process of developing Social Paper further honed my critical understanding of the many challenges and opportunities surrounding software’s broader significance for both the internal activities of education and scholarship, as well as their broader social contributions. For one, I became increasingly critical of the general passive attitude towards digital technologies throughout all areas of the university, and the ways in which this attitude was reinforced by pretty much every single form of digital technology, whether overtly academic or not, entering the humanistic sphere. On the other hand, however, I came to appreciate how dominant business models of software production make it exceedingly difficult to develop competitive metaparticipatory, non-commercial alternatives for scholars and students, given that there are very few resources and social structures organized for that purpose, and not nearly enough exemplary models of multi-institutional software collaborations that specifically engage humanistic research that might actually enable such a possibility.  For example, the funds we had for Social Paper significantly constrained our ability to carry out its original vision of being not only a publishing platform, but a writing environment as well, complete with the all-but obligatory mechanisms for scholarly production such as file export capabilities and footnotes, and numerous other subtle, but crucial features. While I very much appreciate Free Software advocate Richard Stallman’s insistence on valuing software justice over software convenience, I think it is worth noting that a lack of suitable options for a diversity of users perhaps remains one of the biggest barriers to the mass adoption of free software today. Thus, as I am as eager to share some of my ideas about free software’s importance for students as I am to enact its possibility, I have decided it is best to publish this draft not only on Social Paper, but on Google Docs as well, where the footnotes might be visible and some users might be more likely to interact with it, even though this may fragment any potential reader discussion across two sites, as well as represent a betrayal of Free Software’s ethics to some.

All in all, this dissertation is an attempt to respond the social, historical, and technical questions that arose while thinking through the potential significance of student-developed writing tools. In essence, I have attempted to begin to name some of the important and unconscious ways software mediates our individual and collective forms of knowledge production, and why our practices of software use within higher education have broad political significance. Making the process of this naming visible, however, by posting the dissertation—in all of its messiness, and with all of its oversights, errors, and shortfallings—to Social Paper is also an important part of this project, even if it is the one I feel least comfortable about. Uncertainty has marked my engagement with academic writing from the very beginning, and thus revealing these drafts—rush-written in the spare scraps of time in the first year of a complicated full-time job, (a condition that seems to be somewhat familiar in the field of DH, if not academics at large) —is for me, a genuine act of professional and social vulnerability. However, in the course of reading through the history of academic writing in the 20th century, I have come to recognize this anxiety as not merely representative of my personal capabilities and quirks, but part of a much broader social phenomenon. That is, for at least the past century and a half, writing has been used to judge the character, intelligence, and class of the writer for the purpose of gatekeeping higher education and protecting social hierarchies within academics and beyond. In turn, I have come to suspect that this broadly diffused anxiety, manifest most in those whose background or life experiences make them feel alien to the academy, effectively silences voices that are most urgently needed in its internal and public discourses.
Thus, posting my imperfection in public is offered as a small protest against the many psychological, social, and technical barriers that inhibit the creation and cultivation of cooperative and caring student publics. It is representative of the thought that has been possible in the particular configuration of time, resources, mentorship, and tools, not all of which are in abundant supply. If it receives comments, I hope then too that it will make visible the importance of community for writing, though it is likely they will only represent a microscopic portion of the many people who have already lent their energies and expertise to the production of these drafts and their ideas. I fully anticipate, too, that any public attention received, whether kindly intentioned or otherwise, may come with unexpected challenges, exposures, or unpleasantries. From the still-sheltered perspective in which I write, I hope it is not too shortsighted to say that I will consider these potential discomforts as a valuable part of better understanding the ways in which our writing practices are socially and psychologically charged, and how these aspects must be better accounted for as we design the possible. I should also note that I make this dissertation public not as an assertion that all writing should be public or that privacy and intimacy aren’t the cherished rights of thought. Nor do I mean to suggest that the hard labor of making a text act precisely as one wants, often through the skilled and progressive use of conventions, is not a fundamental value of democratic, intellectual, and creative discourse. Nonetheless, it has seemed to me that our notions of writing, and the anxieties and ideals that they entail, have blinded us from the surprising range of their oppressive effects, as well as stifled the full possibility of public and academic speech. While any sort of comment gifted by the collegial reader here will be most humbly and gratefully received, the perfection for which this dissertation strives is not in the text itself, but in the world we’re making together.

 

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