Learning Agency, Not Analytics

I’m sitting watching this Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) presentation about learning analytics, and I’m cringing throughout. It’s so corporatized, so capitalist, so reductive. In fact, one of the slides in this presentation showcases a Gartner Business Information graph that correlates the progression of analytics sophistication to business value. The presenters relate this progression to the kind of analytics that can and should happen in education to improve learning.

Graph showing Business Value on Y axis and Data Analytics Sophistication on X axis. Information optimization moves up the slope from Descriptive to Diagnostic to Predictive to Prescriptive analytics.

Screenshot of Gartner BI analytics graph from Oakleaf and Brown’s March 2017 CNI presentation on “Institutional Learning Analytics: How Can Academic Libraries Connect?”

When I watch presentations like this, about plugging business metrics and corporate assessment values into education, it makes me sick to my stomach. Have none of these folks opened a history book or taken a look at our socio-political present? Do you know who and what, throughout history, has gotten “analyzed” and “assessed” to “determine value”? Property. Animals. People considered property or animals. Indigenous people to this day are sorted and “analyzed” by colonizing governments based on the quanta of their blood, like purebred dogs or horses. Enslaved people were “assessed” by their physical characteristics and breeding capabilities (again like prize-winning animals); and today, their descendants continue to be monitored and analyzed by the violent police state. To think that we want to take this kind of legacy, these kind of tools, and use them on our students? Often without their knowledge or consent? Absolutely repulsive.

Granted, my disgust is nothing new or original. I followed the conversations several months ago when Zoe Fisher laid out the history of learning analytics and the growing resistance and critique against it. I read LibSkrat’s tweet thread about the absolute importance of protecting our students’ privacy and data. And I pored over Emily Drabinski’s blog post calling for us to do more than cry “Resistance!” but to actually formulate action to push back against the encroachment of the neoliberal corporatization of our work as academic librarians and higher education more broadly. I’ve been taking all this in and reflecting on what I think should change, how it should change.

Ideally, we should get rid of learning analytics altogether. It is a colonialist, slave-owning, corporatizing, capitalist practice that enacts violence, yes violence, against the sanctity of a learner’s privacy, body and mind. It is not in keeping with our professional values as librarians or educators. But, as Emily points out in her post, there are very powerful people in our institutions who are demanding that our learners be analyzed, that our value be quantified—even going so far as to insist that it’s all being done for our students’ own good. How can we keep our jobs so we can continue to dismantle the system from within, while making actual progress to protect the interests of our students, all in keeping with our values?

For me, I think the first step lies in providing students with that one thing that property, animals, and people treated as property and animals never get: AGENCY. Lisa Hinchliffe talked a bit about this during the big discussion months ago, though she focused mainly on students wanting to opt in. I’m not as interested in that because I think learning analytics is so pervasive, opting in just isn’t a problem. It’s like worrying that people with privilege won’t have space to exercise their privilege in the fight for equity. Just. Not. An. Issue.

No, instead, I’m talking about agency for learners who may not choose to participate in being analyzed, those who want to push back. You can’t object to something if you don’t know it’s happening to you. You also can’t object if you aren’t empowered to speak up. One of the things we can do for students is help enact their agency by educating them about what’s going on. Rather than continuing these conversations about learning analytics behind their backs, so to speak, let’s engage them in these discussions. Let them see the slide decks and presentations and analytic reports being crafted about their learning. Let them have access to all these data being gleaned from them, so often without their knowledge or consent.

Then, as we provide them the knowledge, let’s empower their agency by amplifying their responses to this knowledge. It could be a simple matter of collecting and reporting on student opinions about learning analytics practices and the way they affect their educational well-being. We could help arrange meetings for students with library and university administration to discuss their concerns or share their ideas about gathering their data. We could collaborate with students on research projects and presentations relating to learning analytics, instead of just reporting on them. Essentially, it’s the difference between exploiting a community to study and report on them versus collaborating with that community in studying their needs. It is the very essence of feminist research methods, rooted in an ethic of care, trust, and collaborative empowerment.

We still need to “reject metrics” and “reject learning analytics,” as Emily says. But as we engage in that resistance, let’s join forces with the students and researchers we both study and serve. Let’s empower agency in our communities and work with them to push back against the corporatization of our work and our values.

 

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How to Become White Famous

With Jamie Foxx’s new Showtime comedy series on tv this past fall, it’s got me thinking abut what it takes to become “white famous.” You know, when a person of color in the entertainment industry goes from just being known and celebrated by their communities to being super-famous and widely celebrated because white people “discovered” them. (It’s kind of like how Columbus discovered America. Actually, it’s just like that.)

There are so many examples of entertainers of color who have achieved white fame—Beyoncé, Jackie Chan, Jennifer Lopez, Jamie Foxx—I thought it’d be interesting to look at some common threads that pop up when entertainment by or about people of color suddenly makes it big among white folk.

So, here are a few tips on how to become white famous:

Tell a story about famous white people.

White people love nothing more than to read/watch/listen to stories about themselves. They love their accomplishments. And if you can manage to make their stories even cooler than they actually are, all the better. Ask Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of the musical Hamilton. He retold the story of one of the many white founding fathers in musical form with rap and R&B and presto! white people the world over lost their shit. Many of the rest of us knew Miranda from his show In the Heights—it also had rap and salsa and even some Spanish. But nah, that was about colored people living in a colored neighborhood; it wasn’t white famous material. When he tells the story of a famous white guy, he can even go so far as to remake the entire cast of characters with actors of color and white people still fall head over heels for it. (Well, not all of them. A group of white performers tried to sue the show’s producers early on for “discriminatory” casting.) The key, though, is that the entire story is about white people. (In fact, the only actual character of color in the show is Sally Hemings who makes a minute appearance during a Thomas Jefferson number at the beginning of the second act.)

Tell a story about white people being “reverse oppressed” by people color.

Not only do white people love reading/watching/listening to stories about themselves, they love reading/watching/listening to stories about themselves being “reverse oppressed” by people of color. It lets them cross their proverbial arms in self-satisfaction and say, “See, they don’t have it so bad. We don’t treat them any worse than they treat us. We all are hurt by racism.” Ask Kumail Nanjiani, the creator and star of The Big Sick. His film is about how he fell in love with a sick white woman and bonded with her family while his Pakistani family and community, in all their backward non-Western ignorance, refused to accept the interracial relationship. White people loved this film and are really mad that it wasn’t nominated for any Golden Globes. I mean, what’s not to love? It’s got ignorant, stereotypical brown people, with extra points for the overbearing maternal brown women characters. It’s got the innocent heart-rending love of a beautiful white woman, the prize of any brown heart. It’s got the kind, accepting, well-meaning, super-progressive white family full of support and racial utopian-kumabaya-why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along “color-blindness” (apologies for the ableist language here). My goodness, people, the white woman is sick! And the brown people are so unaccepting of her! The film is based on actual events, so it’s horrible that Nanjiani’s partner had to suffer so much with her health. Nevertheless, with the caricature brown folks and the up-play of white sympathy, it is a white person’s dream romantic comedy.

Tell a story about people of color being oppressed and then rescued by the timely arrival of a couple “white saviors.”

Yes, this is still a story about white people. Look, do you want to be white famous or not? But in this case, you can actually tell a bit of the story of race oppression. The only caveat is that you’ve got to include at least one, preferably a few, white saviors to rescue the poor oppressed people of color from their degradation. Some of the best examples of this aren’t actually created by people of color but they do feature people of color as the main characters and have helped catapult some of colored folks’ careers, so that’s something. Basically, take any slavery movie—Twelve Years a Slave, Django Unchained, whatever—make a spectacle of the real degradation and violence of slavery, then add a well-meaning, abolitionist Quaker or two and you’ve got yourself a white famous hit. It even works for other time periods. Like, The Help wouldn’t have been so white famous without the sweet Emma Stone character to help the help tell their stories. Oh, thank goodness for kind white women! Or in the modern-day tv show Longmire that centers on the story of a Wyoming sheriff who often leaves his jurisdiction in the white world to invade life on the local Crow and Cheyenne reservations and lay down the law in aid of the poor natives. What would we all do without a strong white man to take charge of us! White people love stories like this because they can completely ignore their complicity in the ways of the “bad whites” and only identify with the grace and goodness of the “good whites.” Every white spectator reads/watches/listens to these stories and immediately sees themselves as the Quaker, the sweet young journalist, the fair and impartial lawman. It’s a sure shot to white fame.

Finally, if all else fails, tell a story full of racist stereotypes…BUT dress it up as irony.

Nowadays, even in this political climate, white people know they shouldn’t say or do blatantly racist things. They know better. And even when they mess up, they know they can always rely on irony and high humor to save their white skins. But what they enjoy even more is when they’re given the opportunity to enjoy some good old-fashioned racist humor without feeling bad because hey! it’s ironic! There are just too many examples of this to even go through them all. Apu, the supposed South East Asian convenience store owner from The Simpsons. Anything starring Jackie Chan. Madea from practically all Tyler Perry movies. (I know what you’re going to say about that last one: Hey! April, I thought Black people loved Tyler Perry? How is that white famous or even racist? Please. We pretend to love Tyler Perry the way Black folks pretended to love shuck and jive minstrel shows back in the 1830s. That kind of unabashed coonery has always been and will always be for “massa’s” amusement.) White people know they shouldn’t sing the “We Are Siamese” song from Disney’s Lady and the Tramp or “What Makes the Red Man Red” from Peter Pan, by the same company (Disney has always been hella problematic, y’all), but they figure they can laugh all day as thick-accented Jackie Chan kung-fus his way through rush hour with loud-mouthed Chris Tucker cooning it up at his side. These caricature characters of color are no problem in the name of modern-day irony. And mega-bonus points if you can combine these racist stereotypes with white characters from other types of marginalized identities. So Gloria, the young, buxom, heavily accented, shrill, money-grubbing, violence-prone Colombian wife of a wealthy old white man is totally fine because she plays opposite the old white man’s gay son and his husband. It’s totally fine, everyone, they’re a Modern Family. Also, irony. Ha.

As you can see, it’s not too difficult to become white famous. The formulae are pretty clear. The challenge, though, is staying white famous. Thing is, you can’t stray too far from the scripts. Remember when Beyoncé dropped Lemonade and white people suddenly remembered she didn’t belong to them? Yeah. They didn’t like that much. Of course, Queen Bey had already built up so much white fame that it didn’t faze her profile at all. But still, entertainers of color walk a fine line and have to be careful. In any event, if you’re aiming for that grand prize of white recognition, I hope these tips help. And good luck. Remember, though, us folks of color still see and love you. No matter what.