Skip navigation
All Places > The English Community > Bedford Bits > Blog > 2018 > March > 29
Jack Solomon

Things Fall Apart

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Mar 29, 2018


While there appears to be some significant doubt over whether Cambridge Analytica really had much effect on the outcome of 2016 presidential election (Evan Halper at the L.A. Times makes a good case that it didn't), the overall story of the way that millions of Facebook profiles were mined for partisan purposes is still something that is of profound significance in this time when digital technology seems to be on the verge of undermining the entire democratic process itself. As such, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica controversy is a worthy topic for a class that makes use of popular culture in teaching writing and critical thinking.


If you happen to be using the 9th edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A., you could well begin with John Herrman's "Inside Facebook's (Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political Media Machine." In this extensive survey of the many ways in which Facebook has fostered an ecosystem of political activists who invade your news feed with ideologically targeted content, Herrman shows how the marketing of online behavior has been transformed into a "(Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political Media Machine." That our Internet activity is being tracked and our data mined is no secret anymore, and many people don't seem to mind—so long as it only results in specially curated advertising pitches and coupon offers. But what Herrman describes goes well beyond product merchandizing into information manipulation, the building of highly politicized news silos where the news you get is the news that someone has calculated that you want to get, and nothing else, as more and more Americans transition away from such traditional news sources as newspapers and television to Facebook, Twitter, and a myriad of other social media.


Brooke Gladstone's "Influencing Machines: The Echo Chambers of the Internet" (also in the 9th edition of Signs of Life), succinctly explains the effect of this shift. With no pretense of presenting a balanced palette of news and information, the new media are exacerbating and deepening the social divisions in America, creating ideological echo chambers that effectively constitute alternate realities for those that inhabit them. The result is a kind of political and cultural echolalia.


It's little wonder, then, that the contending parties in America cannot find a way to communicate effectively with each other. Already divided by a history of cultural conflict and contradiction (chapter 7 of Signs of Life explores this division in depth), Americans have vanishingly less in common with those whose lives lie on the other side of the great divide.


There is something profoundly ironic about all this. For many years it has been assumed that the effect of modern mass media has been to chip away at America's regional differences, flattening them out into a kind of unaccented (literally and figuratively) sameness: a mass culture watching the same TV shows, eating the same food, and talking in the same way. But now something is changing. Rather than tending towards a common culture, America, sliced and diced by digital algorithms, is dividing into mutually hostile camps.


William Butler Yeats said it best long ago at a time when his own country was divided in two: "Things fall apart," he lamented, "the centre cannot hold." Now there's something to hashtag.



Image Source: "Facebook security chief rants about misguided “algorithm” backlash" by  Marco Verch on Flickr 10/08/17 via Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Andrea A. Lunsford

CCCC 2018 and DBLAC

Posted by Andrea A. Lunsford Expert Mar 29, 2018


Like many in our field, I had second, and third, thoughts about attending CCCC this year, given the NAACP’s travel warning for people of color. I followed the debate on several listservs and read all of the statements sent out by CCCC leaders explaining their decision to keep the conference in Missouri and the steps they were taking to work with the NAACP and other groups to support civil rights in Missouri. In the end, while I believe that our organization should have pulled out of Missouri (we have taken such action in the past, so there is precedent) and while I supported the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition’s decision not to meet at this year’s CCCC, in the end I decided to attend for one day (Thursday) in order to be part of a panel on “Feminist Rhetorics in the Age of Trump.”


That panel was inspirational to me, as I knew it would be, but I also got a surprise treat when I attended another panel, called “DBLAC: Challenging Narratives of Deviance and Disruption in Writing Spaces.” This panel was a surprise because I had not known about DBLAC, and it was a treat because the talks were all outstanding!


As its website defines it,

Digital Black Lit (Literatures & Literacies) and Composition or DBLAC is a digital network of Black graduate students in the United States, formed in May 2016 at the Digital Media and Composition Institute (DMAC) at The Ohio State University. We are comprised of graduate students who self-identify as Black in the fields of Literacy Studies, Literature, Writing Studies, Rhetoric, English Studies, Creative Writing, Digital Humanities, and other related fields. This network provides safe spaces for members to testify to, discuss with, and share support for each other in response to the continued marginalization of Black bodies in academia. DBLAC also acts as a learning community for professional development, networking, and resource-pooling aimed at the academic retention and success of its members.   


The panelists introduced us to this fairly new organization, and told us a bit about its history and their involvement in it. As I listened to them talk about establishing safe spaces for graduate students of color and about how to establish a supportive community, I finally noticed what they were wearing: each member of the panel had on a black t-shirt with a series of names printed in large, white block letters. When these finally came into focus for me, I realized they were the names of these panelists’ mentors, scholars of color who had provided safe spaces for them. BANKS, ROYSTER, GILYARD, MOSS, NUNLEY. . . and others. In short, the panelists were embodying their message, delivering it not only through their words but through their actions and clothing.


Khirsten Echols, Brittany Hull, Louis Maraj, and Sherita Roundtree each shared experiences of being in UNsafe, hostile, and disrespectful spaces in the academy, stories that are all too familiar to all who have had the privilege of working closely with graduate students of color. They didn’t stop there, however, going on to share their research and scholarship on recognizing, respecting, and valuing the knowledge and insights of young scholars of color.


Sherita Roundtree, in “Black Women’s Noise and Institutionalized Spaces,” argues that Black women are often “scripted out” of spaces of belonging and that addressing this long-standing act of exclusion calls for literally making space and recognizing the right of Black women to occupy it, in their scholarship, teaching, and professional development. They have been kept from occupying such spaces by what Roundtree identifies as “noise,” a term used by Jacqueline Jones Royster in her award-winning essay, “When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own”:

At the extreme, the African American community, as my personal example, has seen and continues to see its contributions and achievements called into question in grossly negative ways, as in the case of The Bell Curve. . . . Such interpretations of human potential create a type of discourse that serves as a distraction, as noise that drains off energy and sabotages the work of identifying substantive problems within and across cultural boundaries and the work also of finding solutions that have import, not simply for a ‘race’ but for human beings whose living conditions, values, and preferences vary.


In her presentation, Roundtree took this concept of “noise”—the chatter/clatter that distracts attention from African American women’s achievements and contributions, that literally drowns them out-—and then expanded it. In Roundtree’s work, “noise” affects the perceptions of African American women in such negative ways, yes, but the term also signals something else: the “noisiness” of Black women is not negative but can instead be thoroughly grounded in Black culture and ways of knowing and being. Roundtree’s goal goes beyond reducing the negative noise that affects Black women so profoundly; in addition, she aims to explore “the perceived and known noisiness of Black women GTA’s in the academy and their teaching of writing,” thus seeking to “develop a more nuanced understanding of Black women as teachers, learners, and mentors.”


As I listened to this group of very smart and very talented researchers, I wished that everyone at CCCC could have heard their presentations. In the meantime, I urge everyone who works with graduate students of color to make sure they know about DBLAC!


Credit: Pixabay Image 2488359 by gtjoflot, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License