Stop the tenure clock? Or make your standards compatible with people’s lives?

My understanding is that policies allowing tenure-track faculty to “stop the tenure clock” when they have children are relatively recent but also very widespread for tenure-track faculty in US higher ed.1 (Stopping the tenure clock means that the probationary period after which faculty will be evaluated and either accepted or rejected for tenure is extended, normally by one year, sometimes more than once during a person’s career. So a person who would normally be evaluated during their sixth year in a job would instead be evaluated in their seventh year, with the expectation being that this would allow them to make up for any “unproductive” time after childbirth or during the early years of a child’s life. Clock-stopping policies can also apply to adoption, medical leaves, family leaves other than childbirth, and leaves for professional enhancement. I’ll call these “STC” policies since that’s what other people seem to do. “Extended probation” would more precise and clearer about the stakes.)

(Disclaimer: these policies are basically all about tenure-track jobs at research institutions, which makes them mostly irrelevant to the vast majority of academic workers, large majorities of whom don’t have access to paid parental leaves or paths to promotion altogether, so questions about how parental leaves impact future evaluations are reasonably low on the list of concerns about academic labor policies. To the extent that higher ed is intensely hierarchical and largely governed by #dads for whom childbearing and child raising have only been sources of career advancement it is probably reasonable to be concerned about how we get many more people who are not #dads into high-rank positions even as we work on the primary goal of dismantling the hierarchies altogether. Also I guess that even though we/they may be a privileged minority I’m not quite willing yet to entirely discount the I think real hardship faced by, especially, women on the tenure track, and, last, I guess, is that I have this thought I haven’t seen expressed previously which I think does have implications for a wider struggle for equity in higher ed, and I feel like getting it down. Nothing here is urgent.)

(Disclaimer 2: None of this affects me. I am a purely conventional academic #dad whose reproductivity has only ever helped my career and I am probably wrong.)

On their surface these policies seem to be reasonable efforts to accommodate junior faculty who have children during a period when they are expected to be extremely productive at work but also may be relatively young and at a stage in life when they might be having children.2 (That word “productive”…) Having children requires significant time and attention, and may entail significant physical and medical challenges to birth mothers, that might reasonably be seen to interfere with a person’s ability to do as much at work as their peers who are not giving birth and caring for infants. Asking people who have just given birth and are caring for infants to compete directly against people who are not doing those things is unfair, and since women are the people who give birth and husbands are terrible this unfairness applies almost all of its force to women, and is therefore a problem for gender equity. (STC policies are normally written in gender-neutral ways and allow men as well as women to stop their tenure clocks when they become parents.) (This post is going to be all parentheticals, sorry.)

Criticisms of stopped-tenure-clock policies take a few common forms. Early on in their implementation people worried that pausing their tenure clocks would “earmark” faculty who made use of such policies for criticism or penalty. Like if you take time off to have kids it reveals your lack of commitment to the job, and your “colleagues” (supervisors) would then evaluate you negatively. Others worry that some faculty might end up getting professional work done while their clock is stopped in addition to bearing and raising children (being doubly “productive”!), which would negatively impact their peers who are not professionally productive while their clock is stopped while they bear and raise infants, and would therefore have fewer accomplishments than their peers when they are evaluated for tenure/promotion, leading to negative evaluations. Also (utterly predictably!) it appears to be the case that men who are the beneficiaries of stopped-tenure-clocks use the time to bolster their cvs (husbands are terrible is a really good rule of thumb), improving their chances at tenure while, again, setting unreasonable expectations for people with real family and other obligations outside of work (that is, mothers).

These are all important criticisms, and they reveal how blinkered our business is, how obsessed gatekeepers are with shallow notions of accomplishment and excellence, and how efforts to make the job somehow more equitable are totally impotent (this whole post is about having babies and the separation of production from reproduction, so I think that word is maybe appropriate here) and more or less designed to fail. The focus of all of these criticisms is, in effect, on the idea that as well-intentioned as these policies may be it is all too possible that for many women who give birth the clock is still “ticking”—that there are tacit expectations that mothers who give birth continue to be productive, that mothers who give birth and are not “productive” (lol) will be evaluated negatively, and that many may or do use the policies as a sort of trick to squeeze in more production. They all come down to the idea that evaluators don’t care about equity or the challenges faced by their colleagues who bear and raise children and instead are obsessed with gatekeeping and maintaining against all else their hollow standards and precious obsession with shallow notions of excellence and professional accomplishment that have no material value.

So, all of this is preliminary to the point I want to make: What nobody ever seems to mention is that increasing the time it takes people to get promoted is bad.3 If you have a group of people that you are trying to help, and your solution is to increase the time it takes for them to get promoted, to get raises and job security, and to achieve basic professional status, then you are not helping those people, you are harming them. If the alternative is to fire them, well, sure, okay maybe it is better just to delay their promotion than to fire them. But that is a blinkered choice. If you design your policies so that women who have children take longer to get promoted than men, then you are systematically decreasing their wages and rank relative to men.4 If men are being promoted in six years and women who have children are being promoted in seven or eight or nine years, then those women are literally being made “junior” to their male peers in their cohort. This is bad. STC policies don’t “level the playing field” between women and their male counterparts, because the women to whom they apply are being held back and not evaluated in parallel with their entering cohort of men. Instead they are being evaluated next to men who are junior to them. How is it not obvious to everyone that STC policies are designed to systematically deny women timely career advancement? Certainly that is better than just firing them outright (or I guess tacitly encouraging them to quit before they come up for tenure?), but it is not good.5

Everybody seems to agree that the standards for tenure are incompatible with bearing and raising children (or we wouldn’t have widespread STC policies), and everybody seems to agree that we want people who bear and raise children to be among the ranks of tenured faculty. If your goal is to help a group of people get promoted and you have determined that a major impediment to that goal is that your standards are incompatible with their lives, there is a really easy solution that doesn’t present all these predictable and bad effects. You just make the standards compatible with their lives. But somehow this is unthinkable. The very existence of all these STC policies is an explicit admission by universities everywhere that their jobs are designed to be incompatible with having families. The solution to this problem is to redesign the jobs so that they are compatible with having families. The way you would do that, in this case, would be to adjust your standards for tenure so that that are achievable by people who are also bearing and raising children.

The idea that we can’t evaluate people and determine if they are qualified, successful, on track to contribute to their departments and institutions, good colleagues, and “productive” based on a moderately smaller dossier than they might assemble after five years desperately working toward that goal is just laughable. How do we know that we can evaluate people based on smaller dossiers? Because we’ve done it for most of our history! In the past generation tenure standards have increased almost everywhere, which tells us that the same institutions that currently can’t figure out how to offer tenure to qualified women who also bear and raise children without first penalizing them with lower wages and rank than the men in their cohorts, these same institutions have measurable histories of offering tenure to people (men) with equivalent dossiers in the past. Let’s do that again!

Returning the disclaimer at the top that this is all just handwringing about policies that tinker at the edges of an already privileged population who get way to much attention in higher ed discussions anyways. I think that’s right, but I also think that the obsession over precious standards when we talk about tenure is a big part of how the hierarchical stratification of job categories in higher ed is maintained. If it were possible to change how we think about tenure so we’re not always obsessing about the moving target of our precious standards but we can see regular employment with protections for academic freedom and professional autonomy as a pragmatic tool for supporting workers rather than a gold ring handed out for supposed merit (by which logic the relative scarcity of tenure is good because it reflects a distribution of quality or accomplishment or whatever, which is obviously bullshit), anyways if we could think about tenure that way I think we’d already be a very long way toward a more equitable situation for academic laborers generally. And probably the causality goes the other way: if militant academic labor movements ever manage to really shift power in this industry and break down the deep-seated but baseless hierarchies that seem so important now, our discourse will likely follow, and we’ll be able to address gender inequality directly rather than through these counterproductive rube goldberg policy contraptions. All the strained handwringing over things like STC policies and the underrepresentation of women at high ranks (with the focus always on high ranks) in higher ed is, I think, evidence of the fundamental contradictions in the way higher ed conceptualizes labor, which is a sort of house of cards built on divisions between workers that have no material basis in the actual work they do. (That is, people on and off the tenure track do the same work, and their different titles and salaries and perks have no substance and are entirely about producing and preserving a hierarchy that obscures their potentially shared interests and disrupts any solidarity between them before it can get going.) So the discourse about tenure (of which discourses about stopped clocks, etc are a subset) is motivated by this desperate need to make these divisions feel real when they are in fact fantasies. Which is to say, the solution to the problem of promoting women is to disavow the logic of “promotion” altogether.

1. This 2013 piece [pdf] says 90% of research institutions.

2. As Marc Bousquet has pointed out the time when people normally start tenure-track positions comes after such extended periods during and after graduate school that it would not be quite right to think of the average starting assistant professor as “young.” I started my current entry-level position at 32. But for the sake of argument.

3. Probationary periods for junior faculty are already ridiculously long. Marc Bousquet, again, likes to compare professors to firefighters or teachers, who have probationary periods of two or three years. Not six years! Or at some deranged Ivy League and other “elite” universities eight years to tenure! You don’t stop being “junior” in your job until after you have completed probably seven or more years of postgraduate education, then probably a couple years in one fellowship or postdoc or contingent position or another, then probably started as an assistant professor somewhere else, and then—twelve years into your career?—got hired by an Ivy something or other and now they have to wait eight years before they can be a full member of their institution. AAUP policies are clear that seven years should be a maximum for probationary periods. Upon googling a bit it appears that institutions around the country have been trying to increase their probationary periods beyond seven years. Which is terrible.

4. This fantastic paper on the “13+ Club” asks why women are so rarely promoted to full professor in a timely process. (13+ refers to years from the PhD—if we envision six years to tenure and another six years to promotion to full, then the number of people who are 13 years past their PhD conferral date but not full professors is a good measure of non-promotion. And predictably women are much more likely to be in that group.) The absence of women at high ranks in universities is a commonly identified problem. I think there is a real question that even if STC policies might increase the number of women who are tenured, by delaying their timelines overall it plausibly also might also increase the number of women who are well into their careers but still unpromoted. (That is, STC policies probably prevent women from being fired after six years but otherwise they would seem to increase women’s underrepresentation in high ranks.)

5. When people talk about the gender pay gap, economist/apologist types often try to explain it away by saying that women freely choose to delay their careers by focusing on bearing and rearing children. So a male and a female lawyer who are equally qualified and start entry-level positions simultaneously may still end up later in their careers at different ranks and salaries because the woman is more likely to have taken time off to bear and raise children, thus delaying her opportunities for promotion and, perhaps, disconnecting her from her professional networks and skills. (This is not my story; I’m reciting the litany.) But that is normally presented as a “free choice,” where women just have a different set of preferences than men, and they trade money and professional advancement for family pleasures, and who are we to second guess their preference rankings. STC policies, though, institutionalize that supposedly free choice that everybody including anti-feminist rightwing economists already admit is a source of gendered pay inequality. If we want to reduce gendered pay inequality, we should not create new policies that institutionalize widely acknowledged contributors to gendered pay inequality.

The most promising targets for campaigns are employers large and multifarious enough to implicate workers of many different kinds, as well as the broader community. Hospitals, school systems, and universities leap out as potential targets. These are the institutions where the RN, the custodian, and the fast-food worker are under the same roof. They might actually know one another. The meaning of their alliance might cut across lines of race, gender, and status.

Such institutions tend to have major footprints in their local labor markets. In New York City, the Department of Education is the largest single employer of all agencies of the city government, itself the largest overall employer; health-care providers and universities make up eight of the top ten in the private sector. What’s more, the students, families, and patients who are served by the institution often have interests that can be aligned with those of workers: Do you want enough nurses on the hospital floor? What is all this debt for if the money’s not going to the professors? Do you want your children tested to death and jammed into overcrowded classrooms? Here the classic case is the Chicago Teachers Union, which has successfully positioned itself at the head of a popular majority against mayor Rahm Emanuel.

These institutions are also susceptible to public pressure. Hospitals, school systems, and universities all depend on the public — its opinion, its dollars. If a significant number of people who work at these institutions can be mustered to volunteer in local elections, that group can persuade an even larger group of workers, students, and patients to vote for the same candidates. Then you have a shot at building real, substantive unity between different sections of the working class.

Source: Who Works for the Workers? | Issue 26 | n+1

Microsoft Advanced Threat Protection is a disaster

tl;dr: I’m pulling my hair out about this terrible email security service that is ruining my work email, so I blogged about it.

My employer uses Microsoft Exchange for university email. It recently purchased and implemented the “Advanced Threat Protection” package, primarily to combat phishing. The “Safe Links” feature, in particular, is a disaster. Pitt’s webpage explaining this service is here. Microsoft’s is here.

So the “Safe Links” feature replaces all links in incoming emails from outside servers with links that begin with “https://na01.safelinks.protection.outlook.com ” and are followed by several lines of complex code. This is a solution of sorts to phishing scams, but seems to have exactly the opposite effect as it should. For example, I now regularly receive emails with links such as this:

https://na01.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=http%3a%2f%2fwww.tandfonline.com%2ftoc%2ftmam20%2f10%2f1&data=01%7c01%7cbickford%40PITT.EDU%7ca9f7b386fae94ca994bb08d38e3a59bb%7c9ef9f489e0a04eeb87cc3a526112fd0d%7c1&sdata=st79jNKGyGbI%2fcDprP%2fgra%2fTQz7lni5uZCS7a1W83OI%3d

In emails formatted with HTML that would be embedded as a link. In plain text emails the whole link is included in the text.

This is bonkers for several reasons:

(1) Security

My normal approach to potential phishing emails is to check whether the links go to the expected servers or not. If I look closely at the above link I can see that it may resolve to a site on the domain http://www.tandfonline.com, but there is no way to actually confirm that without actually clicking the link. That, then, requires me to trust that the Advanced Threat Protection service will in fact catch every potentially malicious link and will never go down. But, predictably, this service has already had major vulnerabilities that let malicious links through and apparently lasted for months.

This trains users to blindly trust long, complex links in general. One of the ironies here is that Pitt’s IT office recently implemented a “Phishing Awareness” program, to train and encourage email users to be more careful about phishing emails. That campaign tells us:

You can identify a phishing scam by looking for email messages that:

  • Create a sense of urgency
  • Invoke strong emotions, like greed or fear
  • Request sensitive data
  • Contain links that do not appear to match legitimate resources for the organization that is contacting you

So when you receive an email that seems to create a sense of urgency, invoke strong emotions, or request sensitive data, before you click you should check the links to make sure they go to expected servers.

The Safe Links program makes this impossible. Now when you receive an email that seems to create a sense of urgency, invoke strong emotions, or request sensitive data, you can’t confirm that the link goes to the expected server, because all links go to https://na01.safelinks.protection.outlook.com!

That domain itself is much more complex than normal. I can look at

https://na01.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=http%3a%2f%2fwww.tandfonline.com%2ftoc%2ftmam20%2f10%2f1&data=01%7c01%7cbickford%40PITT.EDU%7ca9f7b386fae94ca994bb08d38e3a59bb%7c9ef9f489e0a04eeb87cc3a526112fd0d%7c1&sdata=st79jNKGyGbI%2fcDprP%2fgra%2fTQz7lni5uZCS7a1W83OI%3d

and confirm that it ends in “outlook.com” as the top-level domain. But it is a lot of work to parse. And it is so complex that it would be relatively easy to imitate and confuse even sophisticated users with small changes, like one more top-level domain.

With the Safe Links program, users now have no choice but to trust that the service never goes down and that it never misses a malicious link. Except that the service already has gone down and missed malicious links!

I’m sure it is difficult to train a large number of users at a large institution to be sophisticated, skeptical email users. But Safe Links trains users in exactly the opposite direction, to be passive, trusting email users. And then when Pitt students and faculty use their personal email accounts (very possibly on Pitt machines!) they will be even more susceptible to scams because we are teaching them the wrong habits.

Ironically, this works directly at cross purposes to Pitt’s own phishing awareness campaign. A significant element of that campaign is that Pitt is sending out fake phishing emails (so fake fake messages), which have phishing awareness sites on the other end of their apparently malicious links. So I received this message:

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 9.14.07 AM
screenshot of fake phishing scam email

Hilariously, that link at “Manage Order” goes to this page:

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 9.19.43 AM
screenshot of phishing awareness website

Which includes this (excellent) advice:

You should always be suspicious of links in email. Before you click, you should verify that you recognize the web address that is used in the link.

But if you look at the original fake phishing scam, the link that is supposed to go to “http://orders.discontcomputers.com ” (a site I would know I did not have any recent orders with, and therefore would be suspicious of), instead goes to:

https://na01.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=http%3a%2f%2forders.discontcomputers.com%2fgp%2fr.html%2fb0aaed%2f%3flogin_id%3db14486b8-9334-44bf-9fc4-138293e06303&data=01%7c01%7cBICKFORD%40pitt.edu%7cc13ccde9ce0e4cd6ef3008d39075f908%7c9ef9f489e0a04eeb87cc3a526112fd0d%7c1&sdata=3X6xloziBnsaxoXfn9c0r%2fID5AWUG2xOyfvszXODQs4%3d

This makes no sense.

(2) Usability

Replacing simple direct links in email with links that are almost 300 characters long (!) seriously impacts the readability of plain text messages. Most of the email lists for professional/disciplinary organizations that I subscribe to require messages be formatted in plain text, so I get a lot of these. For example:

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 8.21.21 AM
screenshot of email message with lots of really long links

I can’t even.

Now when someone’s email signature includes a link to their homepage, it is four lines long, and can’t be understood as links to an individual’s homepage. To learn where that person’s website is, you have to actually click the link and load the page! Paragraphs and sentences are broken up to the point of unreadability.

Unembedded URLs are good for email security, because they ensure that readers see where links are going, and we should encourage them. Instead this change further encourages email senders to embed URLs as hyperlinks in email, which makes it much harder for users to recognize and decipher the links they are clicking on, which is bad.

(3) Record-keeping

Of course this will also create serious “linkrot” problems in the future. I keep an archive of my work emails going back over a decade, and email is an important form of record-keeping (this is especially true for public institutions like the one where I work). This service relies on Microsoft servers continuously running to scan and translate clicked URLs. If Microsoft ever discontinues this service (and why wouldn’t they if it stopped being profitable? Google killed Reader, after all), all of these links will become completely unusable. The links themselves may not even contain all the information in the original URL, so the original destination may not even be able to be decipherable in the future. (They do seem to include all the original link information in some form, but I haven’t looked at enough of them to confirm that it is all in the new safelink URL and not stored online in a database, say. And even if the information is all there it is very heavily processed.) This means that we are relying on Microsoft to continue an active link analysis service in perpetuity to maintain the basic usefulness of our own email archives in the future. If Pitt ever decided, say, to switch from Exchange to Google’s Apps for Education, or even if Microsoft discontinued the Exchange service altogether, we would not lose our archives hosted on our own machines. But if this new service were discontinued we would lose access to basic information in messages in our email archives. That does not make sense to me as an approach to record-keeping either for academics or for a public institution.

(4) Privacy

On Microsoft’s webpage explaining this service, they advertise this feature:

Get rich reporting and track links in messages
Gain critical insights into who is being targeted in your organization and the category of attacks you are facing. Reporting and message trace allow you to investigate messages that have been blocked due to unknown viruses or malware, while URL trace capability allows you to track individual malicious links in the messages that have been clicked.

They include this image:

Image_RichReporting_713x325
image of list of links from Microsoft website

This appears to suggest that institutional IT administrators will receive reports with individually identifying information about every link clicked by every email user. Surely there is some tradeoff between privacy and security, but this seems, at least, like a significant movement away from the norms of privacy that university employees currently expect. My understanding is that Pitt’s IT administrators do not, for example, see the text of all my emails, or even their metadata, though that may be possible in extreme cases. But here Microsoft is suggesting that they will produce and make available reports detailing every link clicked on by individually identifiable email users. That seems like a bad thing.

I suppose there is some logic here, which is that if you ruin email as a useful tool for scholarly communication, then people will stop using email, and then you won’t have to worry about users clicking on malicious links in phishing scams.

 

New article about Hannah Montana in Women’s Studies Quarterly

An essay I wrote about the strange ways the Disney Channel show Hannah Montana adapts the “having it all” problematic from postfeminist women’s TV to a 21st century tween sitcom came out this month in a brilliant issue of WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly on the theme CHILD. The special issue also includes articles my new colleague at Pitt Julian Gill-Peterson and amazing people like Natalia Cecire and Nicholas Sammond. It is already a thrill to contribute something to WSQ, and to be part of this incredible issue is even better.

Buy the whole issue from Feminist Press; or if your library subscribes it’s at Project MUSE; or it’s here.

 

coming at you like spider monkeys

The clock is ticking. Those 16-year-old girls are coming at you like spider monkeys, and everyone else is going to feel left out. —Angelo Sotira, “Never Forget that 16-year-old Girls Run the Internet

I have read this weird advice/app review column by the deviantART founder/CEO so many times, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what the 16-year-old girls that bookend (and headline) the article have to do with the body, about new “secret-sharing” web apps. Is the advice about keeping 16-year-old girls out? Why does the advice not also apply to 16-year-old girl users? Will 16-year-old girls adopt any platform regardless of its merit? Will they destroy a perfectly good tool? There isn’t even a coherent passage to quote!

And don’t plenty of 16-year-old girls use deviantART? Is this column expressing Sotira’s resentment of his own client base? Is his the cautionary tale? When he writes, “Imagine that you’re in your apartment, scrolling through the latest confession/messaging/social app, and it’s full of woes of teenage heartbreak. You realize that this app doesn’t speak to you.” is he complaining about his own site? Because, um, go look at the stuff on the front page of deviantART (which is an amazing website—truly no disrespect or criticism there is intended, but the point is obvious I hope).

And if teenage girls run the internet, why WOULDN’T you want them on your site?

I guess I know it’s obvious that everyone hates teenage girls, but is it THAT obvious? Are they such a pure symbol of abjection?

cf, I guess. sigh

This new special issue of Differences, “In the Shadows of the Digital Humanities,” is great. David Golumbia’s article “Death of a Discipline,” in particular, is spectacular. It certainly confirms many of my biases so it’s a joy to read. But it is also really a pleasure to read after Matthew Kirschenbaum’s complaint in the same issue that critiques of digital humanities commonly refuse to address the actual works produced by scholars who identify as doing digital humanities. Kirschenbaum goes to some lengths to argue that DH scholars are just doing something different from “traditional” literary scholars, and the terms of its evaluation should be participation and membership in its own networks:

So it is with digital humanities: you are a digital humanist if you are listened to by those who are already listened to as digital humanists, and they themselves got to be digital humanists by being listened to by others. Jobs, grant funding, fellowships, publishing contracts, speaking invitations—these things do not make one a digital humanist, though they clearly have a material impact on the circumstances of the work one does to get listened to. Put more plainly, if my university hires me as a digital humanist and if I receive a federal grant (say) to do such and such a thing that is described as digital humanities and if I am then rewarded by my department with promotion for having done it (not least because outside evaluators whom my department is enlisting to listen to as digital humanists have attested to its value to the digital humanities), then, well, yes, I am a digital humanist. Can you be a digital humanist without doing those things? Yes, if you want to be, though you may find yourself being listened to less unless and until you do some thing that is sufficiently noteworthy that reasonable people who themselves do similar things must account for your work, your thing, as part of the progression of a shared field of interest. (55)

Which is to say that Kirschenbaum effectively defines DH as a separate field from “traditional” literary studies, to argue against ideological critiques of it from outsiders like theory-minded literary scholars. Which is an effective defense as far as it goes, but  it is almost completely unresponsive to the concern that DH may be threatening or encroaching on or trying to replace the existing practices and disciplinary formations of literary studies. In fact it seems to bolster those concerns. Kirschenbaum is also just weirdly dismissive of critics focus on the “discursive construct” of DH, as though that “construct” weren’t the thing that is making it possible for these people who apparently have entirely different professional networks and constitutive practices to claim the humanities and literary studies as their own.

The question, as Golumbia puts it, is “why professionals who are not humanists should be engaged in setting standards for professional humanists” (157). If practitioners of a field should be primarily responsible for defining their field and evaluating the work it produces, as Kirschenbaum says, and if DH is really a separate field, as Kirschenbaum says, then the terms of Kirschenbaum’s defense of DH ipso facto justify the skepticism that “traditional” literary scholars might have toward of its encroachment and claim of authority in their disciplinary and institutional settings.

In any event, Golumbia’s essay is fantastic for many more reasons than this.

[update: to be clear the goal here isn’t to add to a pissing contest but to point out that the same terms, and even apparently the same analysis, of disciplinarity, professional networks, etc, are being used to support pretty much opposite positions here, and that Kirschenbaum seems to be conceding Golumbia’s argument, and I wish he would actually engage with his implication that DH scholars really do represent an entirely separate professional network/discipline.]

Kids Sharing Earbuds and “Social Media”

I’ve been circulating my piece about kids sharing earbuds since 2009. I’m very pleased to say the volume it was slated to appear in has finally been published: The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies. The whole volume (two volumes, in fact!) is excellent. At $150 it’s much too expensive for individual purchase, but you might encourage your library to purchase it, if you have such influence. My understanding is that a cheaper paperback version should come out in a year.

Here’s the abstract:

“Earbuds Are Good for Sharing: Children’s Headphones as Social Media at a Vermont School.” In The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies, vol. 1, edited by Jason Stanyek and Sumanth Gopinath, pp. 335–55. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. [pdf]

Working from ethnographic research with K–8 schoolchildren at a small public school in Vermont, this chapter examines one of the central practices of music listening of contemporary U.S. children: splitting the cheap earbuds that lately accessorize many consumer devices in order to share them and listen jointly with friends. At Heartsboro Central School, students used their portable music players to move through space, tuck into clothes, and link friends from ear to ear. MP3 players bundled with headphone cables circulated among lockers, desks, pockets, and backpacks. Wires threaded under clothing and tangled across crowded lunchroom tables. Hanging from a shoulder or shirt collar, maxed-out earbuds strained to liven up group spaces with portable, lo-fi background music. In class, students listened surreptitiously to earbuds concealed in sleeves and under the hoods of sweatshirts. Most often two friends would share a pair of earbuds—one for me, one for you—listening together with one ear as they participated in the dense overlap of talk, touch, and gesture that characterized their unmonitored peer interactions. By sharing earbuds kids activated and delineated relationships, and they solidified certain types of social bonds. With the same actions they enforced and regulated status hierarchies, excluding certain children from listening even while expanding access for others who might be limited by parental resources or restrictions. While a complex logic of genre, celebrity, and consumerism informed HCS children’s musical tastes and habits, most prominent was the intimate embedding of earbuds as social anchors among the complex networks and hierarchies of these elementary- and middle-school children. This chapter argues that through their listening practices children’s upset the rationalizing logics of privatization and isolation that accrue to headphones and portable music, as they creatively reimagined their music devices to fit within the persistent and densely sociable cultures of childhood, as tangible technologies for interaction and intimacy that traced out bonds and tethered friends together in joint activity.