Language and crowd-sourcing

I’ve started work on the actual writing of the actual project and right now it feels like all I’m doing is poking around the edges  to see where the entrance is.

Before I got past my first paragraph, I ran into a language issue. I am arguing for the use of porn worker (and other sex industry worker) voices as secondary texts on equal footing with academic secondary texts. (Secondary because I will be using them to help me understand my primary texts, which are the two porn films I’m writing about.) I am not comfortable calling these texts “non-academic” because of the way that sets academic as the default and implies that the other texts are somehow lesser. Less rigorous in their thought, less informed, less impartial, etc. As one of my commenters said, “”Academic” is too often a word privileged by its own meaning, though- it is intended to convey (often specialized) learning and a great deal of study, which has the effect of lending it gravitas, deserved or not.”

That quote is a result of bringing the issue to my facebook wall, where I ended up with a 37-comment thread that gave me a lot of think about (and the brilliant term “community emergent”).

I’ve included some of the quotes, with my expanded thoughts on the suggestions, their supports, and what it means for the language I might use (any critique of the suggestions is not a critique of the suggester – the help yesterday was invaluable):

First, the wording of my question – “I need a word that means “writing by people who are not academics” that does not have the problems inherent in “non-academic” (which I see as problematic because it makes academic writing the default and therefore privileges it). Alternatively, I need to be convinced that “non-academic” is not as problematic as I think it is. Help???”

The responses – “Some people use “professional” as it implies expertise without assuming academic standards/rigors.” – This was really interesting, because it separates expertise from standards/rigors, and says that expertise can exist anywhere (true) and that academic writing is held to a specific standard (theoretically true). Similar to this was the suggestion of “non-scholarly” and “non-peer reviewed.”

In both instances academic writing is assumed to be held to a different standard. And this is true – the worker writing I want to include is not peer-reviewed, it often does not use a recognized citation format, etc. But I balked at both of these suggestions, because although they do not actually indicate that the standards are met and the peers doing the reviewing are impartial, I think that is implied (though later commenters disagreed).

This issue of language is fairly emotional for me – I have a visceral negative reaction to the idea that academic writing has more value, is more informed, etc. I think that emotional response was actually getting in my way yesterday, because I was reading into suggestions such as these a hierarchy of writing which still favoured academic writing. This emotional reaction is relevant to my research process and to my writing process, because I would like to keep in mind that my readers may also have an emotional reaction and I’d like to be as clear as possible in my writing to help mitigate that.

“Layman’s terms” was suggested, but feels, to me, like a phrase that refers to the language/word choice of the writers I want to cite, rather than to the type of writing itself (some of which is as full of jargon and insider-speak as any academic work, it’s just a different regional dialect).

Then, “I think that forcing one vague term instead of writing out the actual specific terms is problematic.” Bam! Of course, my goal of finding a specific word rather than articulating the reasoning behind that word choice is problematic! It is problematic precisely because of the reactions I had to the first few suggestions – without clearly articulating the meanings of the specific terms, the reader is left to interpret and may, as I did, bring their emotional responses into the interpretation. That obscures my meaning, and runs the risk of setting up other linguistic hierarchies accidentally.

Immediately following that comment, “I think simple is better always. Make what you’re saying easy to understand and more people will grasp it and not zonk out.”

Similarly, “I agree that “simple” can work extremely well in many different settings. Simple doesn’t have to mean simplistic. It can enhance clarity and it can pair well with brevity and judicious use of jargon.”

I tried to synthesize those two points and came up with – “… writing by workers involved in the sex and pornography industry and writing by academics observing the industry”

“Book smarts vs Street Smarts” was suggested, and I found it really interesting. When I hear “book smarts” it calls up the flip-side of the “rigorous academic standard” image – here the academic is ensconced in the ivory tower, nose in a book. The hierarchy of ways of knowing is flipped, here. I loved this suggestion, though not for my project since I am hoping to flatten the hierarchy rather than invert it.

Similar to the suggestion to keep it simple, “I personally see no problem with ‘non-academic’. I don’t see it as creating privileged status. I consider myself ‘non-violent’ which doesn’t mean violent is the default. Ya know? I understand who you’re talking about when you say non-academic.” This is the comment that made me realize how strong my emotional attachment to the issue and the language was/is, and how that emotional attachment would not be true for all (or even most?) of my readers. My facebook is full of insight!

The idea of “non-academic” being a word that does not privilege academic writing was supported by other commenters, “I don’t see “non academic” as priviledging “academic,” esp with the quality of writing one can find online in blogs etc these days, both by people who have never been through academia and by people who teach/write in academia and either write more “popularly” in blogs or online “magazines” for lack of a better word (b/c I’m having word-finding problems today) or who have made their academic writing available online and have had that writing dovetail into various lines of discussion, both academic and non-academic, simply due to subject matter and interesting, sometimes new, points being made.”

Following those points, “I’d probably define it in the list you constructed then put non academic in brackets. Then use non academic subsequently.” Basically, remove the hierarchy through the use of specific definitions, then use the simple and easily-understood term (now removed from the hierarchy) throughout. Smart!

Then – “Community emergent?” This thrilled me, not only because I love the way it allows for the sex work industry to be a community (with the positive connotations that word has for me) but because it creates a framework that allows me to discuss the writers who are both academic and industry workers. It breaks down the binary that I hadn’t even realized I was constructing. And that is always a good thing!

Other people felt similarly, “community emergent sounds good- it very precisely defines the material without being overly wordy (and, hence, can be used repeatedly in text), and without depending on other writing for its definition via counterpoint.” The last point, regarding a definition that doesn’t depend on other writing, really resonated with me.

“Experience-based” and “experiential” were also suggested, and both are good.

At the end of the thread, I felt like I had a much better understanding not only of my own emotional response to the issue but also of the potential language available to me. Crowd-sourced academics. I love it!

This is my project

This is the talk I gave earlier today to my honours seminar class. (Links added after the fact.)

My name is Tiffany and I love porn. I’m writing my honours thesis on the topic of feminist pornography.

As a genderqueer individual, pornography is one of the few places I can see representations of people like me. It is one of the few places where I can learn what genderqueer bodies are capable of, how lovers negotiate sex that respects the genderqueer body and doesn’t cause dysphoria or alienation. So, on a deeply personal level, I have experienced the liberatory power of pornography. When I can’t see myself represented anywhere else, Jiz Lee (link nsfw) is doing something to somebody somewhere in a way that reflects my experience. That’s important, and scholars like Weinberg, Williams, Kleiner and Izirarry have found evidence of the potential for empowerment and education as a result of viewing pornography.

The other part of my project is feminism, because I’m interested in porn that self-identifies as feminist. Feminism is critical to my own worldview. I believe in intersectional feminism, and consider myself a queer feminist activist. This is not a theory that I am interested in, this is my life. And just as pornography has been educational and emancipatory for me, and yet is also a site of oppression and marginalization for many, so feminism has been educational and emancipatory for me, and yet also deeply conflicted. Conflicted because not all feminisms are sex-positive, or even genderqueer-positive (if I reject the label of “woman,” can I still be a feminist? Some would say no.) Anti-porn feminism is vocal and convincing in casting pornography as a universal evil, damaging to women everywhere and especially to the women in porn themselves.

My supervisor is R.S., one of the first people I met at the University when I was considering whether or not to pursue academics. I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to pursue this topic if she hadn’t been so enthusiastic about it last year. In my first conversation with Dr. S. three and a half years ago we talked about pornography and feminism, so it seems fitting, in retrospect.

With this project, I hope to reconcile the sometimes fraught relationship between my feminism and my love of porn. This project will be in many ways subjective, personal. Using an approach similar to other feminist scholars such as Elizabeth Whitney in her fantastic essay “Cyborgs Among Us,” I will attempt to situate myself in terms of my privileges, my biases, and my agenda.

I want to learn what feminist pornographers are doing, and how academia is engaging with that work. How is the work different, if at all, from mainstream pornography? What place is there in an explicitly feminist academic engagement with pornography for the voices of porn performers, which are conspicuously absent from so much academic writing? The Feminist Porn Awards have existed for years now, and scholars like Linda Williams have been viewing pornography through feminist lenses for at least as long, but the most common question I am asked regarding my topic is, “Feminist pornography? Is that a thing?”

I will examine two winners of the Feminist Porn Awards; Courtney Trouble’s film “Fuckstyles of the Queer and Famous” (link nsfw) which won for Most Deliciously Diverse Cast and Erika Lust’s film “Cabaret Desire” (link nsfw) which won for Best Movie. I will attempt to answer two questions: What is feminist pornography? And do these films qualify, given the criteria that I will generate?

My project is exciting for multiple reasons, not least because I anticipate a long and torturous struggle with the language and the theory of both pornography and feminism. I am excited by the opportunity to engage with a topic that I think should receive more rigorous academic attention than it currently does. I am especially excited to attempt to bring my activism fully into my academics, and to produce an academic work that meets the requirements of the intersectional feminism that I believe in – a work that engages with performers’ own voices, and leaves space for non-academic ways of knowing to inform academic understanding.

Software and backpacks and granola!

I’m getting ready for the school year.

Classes started yesterday, and I felt equal parts excitement and trepidation. On the one hand – a new school year! And this year, my first honours thesis! Awesome! On the other hand – between my health problems and the developments in my personal life, and the ramping up of my activism and my new business… Yikes. Mostly the health problems, really. I’m not sure how to prepare for this, since it seems like things just keep changing.

So this is what I’ve done – I dropped to three classes per semester even though it will mean an extra year in my degree. I’m letting all of my professors know that wacky hijinks have been ensuing in my joints and my personal life and that these things might impact my performance this semester. (Better to say it right away than miss a couple weeks of classes because I’m flattened and not have given anyone a heads’ up, right?) I bought as many of my textbooks in ebook format as I could find. I’m delegating like some kind of actual leader in my non-profit. I’m scheduling time off, and my partner is awesome about reminding me to stop working when I’m supposed to be relaxing. I’m doing lots of reading about chronic illness, coping with changes, and theories of illness/wellness/bodies. It’s interesting, and engaging with my life through academics really works for me as a coping mechanism.

The other stuff I’ve been doing is all related to the tools that will make this year easier.

First, I wanted some sort of organizational tool for my research. Printing off papers is a waste of paper and difficult to keep track of. Keeping folders of pdfs is better, but not by much. I wanted something that would let me quickly and easily search for relevant articles, and would let me annotate and export citations. I also wanted something that would sync a library between my iPad and my MacBook.

I started with Mendeley, but found the interface clunky and difficult to navigate. I also had to import my entire library four times before it took – frustrating! Each time, the corrections I had made to the citation information were lost. And Mendeley was terrible at picking out the relevant information from the article to populate fields like title, author, journal, year, etc. That’s easy enough to fix, but annoying. Although Mendeley is free, I wouldn’t recommend it. I actually deleted it before I had even found a replacement, because it just wasn’t working for me.

Next up, Papers. Papers was recommended by a friend (working on her PhD – I’m consulting on issues of feminism and feminist theory!). I downloaded the free trial for my MacBook, and paid the $9.99 (ouch) for the iPad version. It imported my library on the first try, and although the program still sucks at pulling out the right information, it is much easier to correct. I had a few issues syncing between the iPad and the MacBook, but it was easily corrected by deleting the permissions file and retrying. The major issue with Papers is the cost. $9.99 for the iPad version, and a whopping $79 (US!) for the laptop. There’s a 40% discount for students, which is good. But it might still be too much. I’ll see how much I love it when I use it for the first ten pages of my honours project (due Oct. 1, oy).

Research software: check(ish).

Next up, a backpack. Seems like such a little thing, but it’s kind of a big deal. My trusty little purple backpack died a zipper-seizing death, and I needed a replacement. I can’t carry much weight, and I can’t use anything that sits on a single shoulder. I can’t even carry a purse these days! (Thank goodness for attractive utility belts.) So, I needed something small, light, but big enough for my iPad or laptop, a book, and my lunch bag. If I could carry a bag, it would be easy! But, that is not in the cards for the next while. I’ve been incredibly indecisive lately – along with my ability to focus, I have lost my ability to make quick decisions. It took hours to make my decision. I finally landed on a Thule backpack that’s small and light, with a padded laptop compartment, enough room for my lunch bag without much room leftover, and a couple little features that I love. It’s got a crush-proof compartment for my sunglasses, a little organizer pouch, and a weird vertical pocket that will hold my toque and gloves in winter.

Finally, food. This is huge. And does a discussion of my diet belong in an academic blog? Well… yes. I think it does. My entire honours project is on the topic of bodies. How we see them, how their representation is or isn’t feminist. It’s a deeply physical topic, and although I’m talking about my body in a way quite different from the porn performing bodies that I usually talk about, I think it’s relevant. It’s impacting my academic experience and the goal of this blog is to explore that experience, so, it seems relevant! Also, I have been thinking a lot about how issues that are seemingly unrelated to academics can have a huge impact on academic success and this seems noteworthy. Not that I have anything really meaningful to say on the topic other than – damn. Physical well-being plays a big role in academic performance.

Little things, like being able to carry more than a book or two. Or being able to buy a coffee to get through a long day, or a lunch on campus in the middle of a school day. Time that I would normally spend studying, I now spend cooking and actively resting (it’s work to not work, sometimes!). These are big deals. Being hungry all the time means less ability to focus, less stamina when I’m trying to get through a tough article or a difficult chapter.

So, food was a big issue that I needed to address. I needed to come up with quick, healthy items that I can actually eat (I’m currently not allowed gluten, dairy, eggs, nightshades, red meat or pork, tropical fruits, peanuts, soy, corn or sugar). I spent my week off researching. I made a huge batch of granola (delicious with fresh fruit, coconut milk and almond milk in the morning!). I found some soup recipes that work. I found some snacks that are portable, easy to eat, and fit the bill. I learned how to make hot chocolate with unsweetened vanilla almond milk, pure cocoa powder, vanilla and a tiny bit of honey. I bought rice protein powder and my awesome PhD-ing friend found me a second-hand blender.

And that’s where I’m at!

I’ve got four posts for this blog drafted, ready to be finished and uploaded. I’ve got most of my reading schedule and assignments scheduled into my calendar. My non-profit is doing some really cool stuff, my business is growing slowly but surely (I’m presenting two workshops at a staff retreat on Friday!), I’m doing everything I can to get the health issues under control and trying to be okay with them being out of my control, and I’m ready to tackle this year. I’ve got software, a backpack and granola.

Bring it on.