Part of the work I do now is going into organizations and working with people on the ways they would like to change both their own and their institution’s collective practices around research, teaching and learning within digital contexts. I facilitate workshops, collaborate on research, and deliver talks wherein I try to center the practices and priorities of people, rather than the technology they are using.
In this work, I have encountered a troubling pattern. I’ve started thinking of it as the terra nullius framework for digital. I don’t want to push this metaphor too far, because I don’t want to say that justifications for digital change initiatives are the same as the justification for colonization, dispossession, and genocide. What I am struck by is the number of times I’ve been asked into a room, or encountered people within a particular room, and heard “we need to become digital” “People don’t do digital around here.” “No one here is engaged with [insert digital thingy here.]” And then in the course of the workshop/conversation/research project it becomes obvious early on that people are engaging in and within digital platforms, places, and tools. Just, perhaps not in the way that institutional leaders assume they should be, or that marketing folks recognize as valuable practice, or that lecturers recognize as legitimate educational behaviors.
When leaders, managers, lecturers, or consultants (who are becoming more common in higher ed, she said, advisedly) or indeed anyone suggests that there are no valuable digital practices in their particular context, they set the stage for the wholesale import of a set of practices. They ignore what is actually there because it’s more convenient, or more politically useful, to suggest that there is no pre-existing landscape of behaviors that deserves attention. The political reasons for such an approach are clear–people brought in to effect and manage change want to be able to point to massive “progress”–”See, there was nothing here, and now LOOK WHAT THEY ARE DOING it’s all down to me.” And then they can move on to the next post, on the back of their record of “effective change.”
The terra nullius approach to digital takes away at least two things: 1) the ability to recognize and encourage good practices, and 2) the ability to recognize and change practices that do not currently serve anyone particularly well.
Making the assumption that there is “no useful existing state of affairs,” means that during any change process you will be leaving people behind; and whatever emerges from the process will also have meant leaving any pre-existing effective practice and culture behind too. A terra nullius approach does not recognize or value people.
I see mapping practice, and then communicating the content of those maps, facilitating conversations that emerge from the mapping, as one antidote to the problematic assumptions of a digital wasteland, empty of good things. It’s an approach that values the people in those workshops, that recognizes their presence in their organizations, and the value of their work.
All of the metaphors in my head are colonizing, are military, are brutal. Any “leaders” or “change agents” who assume that the people in their organization are lacking, and have been until the moment the new leader showed up with their all-new plan, are acting in violent ways towards the people who work for them. Why assume people aren’t doing anything that works? Why assume there is no reason for practice to look the way it does? Why assume people don’t know things?
It’s also worth asking who might get to continue doing what they are doing, after the change initiatives take place. Whose practice gets valued? Is it only one kind of person? What structures of power, of racism, of sexism, of other discriminations, are shot through organizational assumptions around what people are doing, and whether or not it is worthwhile?
How about asking:
What are you doing?
What works for you?
What would you like to be doing?
How can I help?
How about saying:
I see you.