On the 2nd Anniversary of my Lectureship

One of the highlights of my 2013: some of my team & the larger Çatalhöyük Research Project staff on site in Turkey
One of the highlights of my 2013: some of my team & the larger Çatalhöyük Research Project staff on site in Turkey (photo by me)

It’s the second anniversary of my academic post and I’m headed in momentarily for my annual assessment with my scholarly mentor. I continue to find the performance review process very meaningful both professionally and personally (albeit time consuming from a paperwork standpoint). This is not only because it allows me to lay out exactly what I’ve done over the course of a year and, in so doing, attempt to appreciate what is really a significant amount of work accomplished and actions achieved. But it also permits me an opportunity to reflect on all of those lightbulb moments and learning experiences that have changed me and my practice since January of last year, yet that often pass by so fast that I don’t fully recognize their impact on who I am as a human being.

2013 has been good for me, and I say this with much humility as I struggled deeply in my first year to find my way: to adapt to a new job, to new responsibilities with degrees of accountability so high they were truly frightful to me, and to a new city where I knew essentially only two people – friends from research projects – and spent a lot of time alone. More than this, I was very confused in that inaugural year on a personal level.  Andy Shuttleworth did a wonderfully candid and very resonant blog post earlier in 2013 which all new academics should read. It speaks to the kind of inner turmoil that many of us go through as we get more and more bound into our PhD and post-PhD lives – a binding that can lead you into a form of corrosive and relentless self-interrogation and absorption that is damaging both intellectually and emotionally. Escaping that vortex came, in part, for me via getting to work and enjoy time with others – students, colleagues, friends, the public, and especially my partner and family – and learning to see problems as potentially transformative moments (which isn’t easy and is an ongoing effort for me). Because of all the people that I interact with now, unanticipated differences of opinion or unexpected difficulties in implementing plans are the norm. I try to appreciate them now less as failures on my part and more as spaces for me to come out thinking in new ways – although, as per below, I will not compromise myself if these problems contradict the evidence base and my moral code.

The highlights of my year are many, and a lot of them are already documented on this blog so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much. But I do want to acknowledge some of those people who have made an especial difference in my career over the past 12 months.

My students continue to be the greatest revelation for me as a new academic. I remember when I was finishing my Master’s degree back in Canada and I was teaching an anthropology tutorial to a group which was clearly not engaged with the subject matter. A member of staff told me not to get discouraged, but to rather invest my energy in the couple of students who did clearly care about the topic. Whilst this advice was well-meaning, I’m glad I never took it to heart. Because what I’ve found is that if I experiment with approaches, if I offer opportunities for students to explore the edges of their creative capabilities, if I push outside normative modes of teaching and assessment and aim to cultivate safe places for students to make and test out ideas and learn the dimensions of constructive critique, I’m actually investing energy in everyone. And those students who one might never have imagined would participate or care about the subject matter, in fact, begin to work through the most thought-provoking and potential-filled concepts. Yes, things go wrong and we make mistakes and the path doesn’t lead where we anticipated. But taking this path – I think – is critical, because in my experience (and in spite of frustrations) it leads us on the journey with the most ‘a-ha’ moments. Our reflexive exhibitionary work at Çatalhöyük is full of these twists, and I’m especially lucky to have been able to take some of our York students out this year to continue the journey during what was my best season yet (read a bit about our work in the most recent Çatal newsletter: pp. 7-8).

These collaborations with my students in the classroom and in the field are just one of a spectrum of productive working relationships that I have with a range of interdisciplinary specialists. Honestly, I couldn’t realise the vast majority of my plans without the ideas and assistance of many people, most significantly Tom Smith (Collaborative Software Specialist), who has been central to essentially all of the digital projects I’ve done at York to date. Tom is one of the most important individuals I’ve been able to work with in 2013, and my experiences have been further enhanced by meeting Simon Davis (E-Learning Advisor) and Ned Potter (Academic Librarian). These colleagues have variously advised me, taught my students, promoted my projects and challenged my ideas. They make my job not just interesting but fun and inspiring. And they are among a community of supportive people, some of whom I only know in digital form, who often provide critical feedback and much-appreciated positive reinforcement through channels like Google Plus, WordPress, Blogger, Facebook and Twitter. On top of this, I’ve also had multiple wonderful surprise introductions to individuals in different fields of practice, like digital identity specialist Abhay Adhikari, who have helped me to conceive of my own work in new ways.

The last highlight of 2013 that I’ll mention now has been the funding, data collection and preliminary reporting of our Gender and Digital Culture project. I am so deeply fortunate to have the privilege of collaborating here with Dr Lucy Shipley and (soon-to-be Dr) Jim Osborne – honestly, they are extraordinary people and I completely lucked out in getting them to work with me. We are all indebted to Dr Graeme Earl whose initial belief in the project provided us with a small amount of seed funding. In just 9 months time, that little seed has led to the launch of our project blog and Twitter account; to the full implementation and analysis of the data from our survey; to presentations at the Australian Archaeological Association’s annual conference, the University of Rochester’s Decoding the Digital conference, and the Integrity Project’s How to be a Public Intellectual conference, and an informal presentation to the University of York Feminist Society; to features in the Times Higher Education and the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog; to web-based and print publications in press or already released for Anthropology Now (forthcoming) and Forum magazine, plus a well-read blog post for Savage Minds. On top of this, we ran our online, multi-institutional seminar in November at York and Southampton; and we have an op-ed piece, two journal publications and another (maybe two more) talks already scheduled for 2014.

It is a testament to just how much can be accomplished when you have a collaborator (or two) and a few resources to help you out.

This is where some of my frustrations begin to surface, because I couldn’t have done any of that project on my own, without Southampton’s seed funding and without Lucy and Jim. I would never have wanted to do it alone, but this wouldn’t ever even have been a possibility: I just don’t have the time owing to the fact that it is consumed with endless other tasks that constantly interrupt your thinking, pulling you out of meaningful reflective moments and making it seemingly impossible for you to string together something coherent on your own. The greatest disappointment of 2013 is surely the 10 funding applications that were submitted for various projects and academic schemes on which I was either a PI or CI, but which were successful in only 3 instances. I am positive that part of the problem here lies in my lack of time to invest in the full intellectual development and refinement of these applications.

This is the demoralising catch-22 of the academic sphere (or one of them at least): I’m finding it hard to set in motion full research projects because I don’t have the time, but I can only find the time if I win sufficient money to buy me out of my other duties and fund research collaborators. But…I need time/support to articulate those funding bids in the first instance. That bit of money that Southampton offered to us led to two subsequent and successful applications to other funders, which speaks again to what might be achieved with the tiniest amount of investment up front. It is profoundly frustrating to recognise that, firstly, such miniscule investment is so elusive, and yet that, secondly, I must somehow secure it to ensure my own career progression.

I’m clearly not the only person struggling with this problem, but it leads me to another concern that surfaced in 2013: namely the now incalculable requests that I’ve received for myself or my students to offer their creative labour for free for causes that aren’t linked to any explicit learning objectives or to demonstrable and equal benefits for them. My partner is an artist, so this predicament is sadly not new to me, but it hasn’t been until recently that, via my field of expertise, I’ve also gained the status of creative producer and teacher of creative producers. In my despair about what seems to be exploitation couched as ‘good experience’, I’ve begun to do some research on the subject (which has been studied by many – amongst the better known as regards unpaid digital work is possibly Tiziana Terranova’s (2002) Free Labor – but also see the critiques being outputted now by archaeologists themselves, like Sam Hardy’s unfree archaeology blog and Emily Johnson’s #freearchaeology hashtag on Twitter). I’m distraught by the idea that in the seemingly ubiquitous search for funds and time, some (many?) heritage practitioners and practitioners-in-training appear to be taken advantage of as unpaid labourers who produce outputs that others then use for profit without providing any genuine reciprocity or compensation for such labour. Whilst I believe in the value of volunteering, I don’t want to reproduce this process, and I’m committed in 2014 to ensuring, where I can, that students volunteer their time to tasks with fair, equitable and well-defined goals which are truly pedagogically and intellectually meaningful. Ultimately, I see this as an opportunity, because long-term equal collaboration that intertwines creative producers with other professionals is a highly constructive pursuit on multiple levels for all parties involved. Indeed, this is the very subject that the last 10 years of my own research has centred upon.

I’ll end by saying that 2013 was made better for me by the many of you who, like Andy Shuttleworth, put your experiences out there for all the rest of us to learn from. Howard Williams’ reflections on the sub-Z-list celebrity status that comes with academic life was similarly meaningful to me. Please don’t hesitate to share other links and ideas!

I head into my review today feeling hopeful for 2014: committed to continuing to make a small difference in the world and, most importantly, standing up for my students, my research collaborators and motivators, my friends, family and my ethics.

Fingers crossed it all goes okay. Thank you so very much for your continuing support.

How does your institution keep you safe?

The Online Professional, 8 November 2013
The Online Professional, 8 November 2013

I’ve spent much of this year working with an incredible team at Southampton (including Lucy Shipley, Jim Osborne and Graeme Earl, with support from various IT specialists) as well as at York (with my colleague, Tom Smith) implementing the Gender & Digital Culture project. A lot of this effort will come to fruition on Friday when we host our first public event, The Online Professional. The event is running simultaneously at Southampton and York, as well as on the web through my YouTube and Google Plus accounts. Please join us if you can; the specifics of the locations and time are available here.

At this event I will talk in more detail about some of my own experiences (see my post on Savage Minds for some background); Jim, Lucy and I will report on the results of our preliminary survey of 400 professionals; and we will work with our audiences to discuss and begin to develop practical strategies for individuals and organisations to manage the challenges presented by the digital public workplace.

I’ve been asking friends and colleagues to share with me their institutional policies around online safety, so that we can start to build a resource base for reference and establish a baseline for good practice. I’d be very keen for you to have a peek around your employer’s media, communications, gender and diversity, and related policy documents (if you have access to them) and to email me, tweet or comment on this blog about what, if anything, you find pertaining to security in the context of web-based forms of engagement. So far our searches have turned up very little constructive guidance; and in some cases, that guidance is utterly shocking in terms of its total indifference to employee welfare. In at least one instance, the institution is clear that it has no responsibility for the actions of individuals outside that organisation who are victimising its own employees through social media. Although I do believe that others, for example the police, have necessary roles to play in patrolling and penalising abusive behaviour, surely any employer who applies these media in everyday business has at least an ethical obligation to attempt to protect its staff from related harm.

In preparing for Friday’s event, I’ve had a not insignificant number of people ask me whether it’s actually hopeless to bother attending to these issues. The perception seems to be that we’re helpless to respond to online abuse—it’s seemingly too detached, too ephemeral, too easy to perpetrate and too hard to pin down; hence a feeling of pointlessness around developing or trying to enforce any kind of safety-oriented policy. In one recent meeting that I had, a colleague repeatedly stated “I can’t see what can be done here.” Compounding this predicament is a phenomenon that I’ve recently begun to encounter wherein some of the very people who I might otherwise have assumed would be supportive and active in pooling efforts to respond to such problems (especially because they were also targets of abuse) are, instead, derogatory and dismissive—arguing that my concerns aren’t as important as theirs; that my experiences aren’t as bad as those of others.

Perhaps not, but rather than invest our time in ranking the validity of our various claims, I’m hopeful that we could focus on a few things that I do believe will have some positive impact on everyone involved:

  1. The establishment of a supportive and visible community of professionals who are aware of and committed to exposing the nature and scope of problematic online interactions.
  2. The concerted development of real best practice guidelines to manage web-based abuse and to safeguard professionals as they conduct their work online.
  3. Taking a leadership role in attempting to implement these policies, such that they become models for others to follow—spearheading change, rather than being the inevitable outcome of endless cases of employees’ persecution and degradation. In other words, instead of waiting for more high-profile, disturbing cases of online abuse to drive redesign of wellbeing policies, perhaps we could lead that redesign now.

This is what I hope might be discussed and instigated at our workshop on Friday. Please consider attending, listening in, emailing, tweeting or otherwise forwarding us examples of good and bad institutional practice. Your contributions will make a difference—to me amongst many other individuals.

Gender and Digital Culture

With the support of the University of Southampton’s Digital Humanities team and the University of York’s Centre for Digital Heritage, I’m working to coordinate a series of events that attend to the relationship between digital culture and gender. I’m looking for a paid assistant (from the University of Southampton, which is graciously funding the post) to contribute to the initial set-up and preparatory research for these events, and I’ve pasted details below for anyone in the humanities at Soton with an interest in matters of the digital.

I’ve been wanting to blog on these issues for over a year now, but the subject for me has been a sensitive one, and I was never quite sure how to approach it. The potential negative ramifications for speaking out seemed disproportionate to any possible benefit, and so I’ve sat silent wondering how best to manage my concerns. I enlisted help from a couple of my closest friends and colleagues, asking them to look for articles or related discussions about instances akin to mine, and simultaneously I started to do my own research.

Unfortunately, but meaningfully for me, over the past few months, several very high profile incidents have presented themselves that resonate with my experiences. Indeed, just today, the Times has published an article (not open access, disappointingly) on a comparable theme, headlined: “British universities in grip of ‘lad culture’ of misogyny, according to NUS”. Others, like Anita SarkeesianMary Beard, Sarah Parmenter, Leigh Alexander, and see here, have all actively—and inspiringly— responded to what is disturbing but clearly indisputable gender-related harassment via digital/web-based media.

As for me, since 2011 I’ve experienced a series of separate episodes of being subjected to email or other social media-driven judgments on my appearance and sexuality. These were not simple, innocent remarks by friends and family, but often long, detailed descriptions and fantasy-like reflections about me sent in private messages direct to my personal email/Facebook accounts from colleagues around the world. The first incident was so absurd and unexpected that I just told a couple of my girlfriends at Southampton about it and had a bit of an uncomfortable laugh. The second incident was even more awkward and I began to feel incredibly self-conscious and embarrassed about how I was projecting myself to others. The third incident led me to silence – I no longer wanted to discuss it with anyone because it had become such a point of humiliation. All three of these incidents happened in 2011, and they were only the start of a trend that has continued since then.

But I’m exhausted now of burying the subject, and I wonder who it’s profiting to not attend to something that is demeaning and inappropriate both personally and professionally.

When I mentioned to others that I wanted to begin to think about how digital culture is implicated in these exchanges, I was met by a variety of reactions. Some rightly pointed out that digital media have far more connection to – and relevance for – gender than merely their application in derogatory ways. In other words, the conversation is a wide one, and I should think about how these tools can be (and are) wielded meaningfully, strategically, productively in other contexts.

At once, others implied that it was nonsensical for me to air my frustrations in public because it would lead people to question how they might appropriately address me in the future. On this point, I have to assert myself by saying that one could not possibly mistake innocent flattery (that is expressed publicly and is witnessable to all) with the types of private, explicit, long-winded, repeated and persistent messages that I’ve received through email. This is not debatable.

To that end, the University of York and the University of Southampton are coming together to talk through some of the many intersections, contentions, problematic and productive dimensions of gender and digital culture. Further description is below, including reference to other very visible cases of gendered abuse on the web of late. My experience is more in line with that of Leigh Alexander, but it impacts upon my life and my career, and as such, it is important to me.

Thanks as always for your support and constructive advice – I am so grateful. I am always keen for links, research articles, videos, and contacts on these issues, so please don’t hesitate to send them to me.

Gender & the Digital Events

Issues of gender and their relationship to digital technologies have had some presence in the news media lately, with Mary Beard and Sarah Parmenter being two amongst many individuals from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds who have actively responded to gendered and digitally fuelled character attacks. Such episodes are among a series of matters arising from applications of – and interactions with – digital tools that impact upon the professional and intellectual lives of scholars, and which consequently have implications for research, teaching and related practice.

In light of the University of Southampton’s and University of York’s growing digital humanities and digital heritage streams, Sara Perry (York) and Graeme Earl (Southampton) seek to organise a cross-institutional, live-streamed seminar (or series of seminars) in the spring time that bring(s) together specialists working in both the humanities and sciences for a critical conversation about their engagements with digital tools. We are looking for a postgraduate student to assist in coordinating the event(s) and to prepare a draft discussion document to help structure the debate. Work must be completed by 31 March 2013. The event will run after the Easter vacation.

Our interests are in exploring the (gendered) relationships between people and digital technologies: how, in tandem, they variously facilitate, exacerbate, rethink or replicate diverse behaviours. More specifically, we are interested in how these relationships operate in different disciplines in terms of professional and personal development, and how we equip individuals to use such technologies productively. The digital humanities have an important cross-disciplinary role to play not only in understanding how men and women engage with digital media – and how the media might recondition our research studies – but in preparing people for those studies themselves and for professional careers in all digitally-mediated disciplines.