Cyber digital interactive argh – moving teaching online

The courses I teach at Birkbeck use Moodle for uploading slides and other material and I use online forums a bit for follow-up and discussion between sessions, but the programmes are very much face-to-face. Birkbeck is “London’s evening university” and a strength of this is that students who work or have other commitments during the day can physically come to class. Students do readings, discuss these in class, write essays and other projects. In a stats course I teach, students analyse data using R so it’s a bit more techie but still primarily taught face-to-face in a computer lab.

So the coronavirus pandemic has been a huge shock – especially as it came just after a fortnight of jury service and UCU strike action. ARGH.

Here’s where I’m up to, a little over a week into work-from-home. I’m sharing here in case helpful!

Overall “strategy”

Firstly, I accepted that I’m overwhelmed and a bit terrified. Can I do any of this digitally? How will it feel? Oh god I hate the sound of my voice.

I’m working under the assumption that there’s a chance the academic year 2020/21 will be online-only; that this is a marathon not a sprint, so not to burn out!

Luckily I don’t have any more group teaching this academic year so most contact is individual, e.g., project supervision and personal tutor support. However, it quickly became apparent from a questionnaire (see below) that I will need to make an effort to support all students to continue to feel part of the programme and to facilitate students building support networks now they don’t see each other in class. I will also need to support a group with revision prep for a (now take-home) exam.

First steps

I started with the familiar – an open source audio recorder and editor called Audacity which I used to play with years ago. I used this to record myself reading a message to students (which was also sent as text) and to make it slightly less painful (for me anyway) mixed this with some gentle ambient by Brian Eno.

Another familiar: questionnaires. I made a short anonymous “check in” questionnaire with the following questions:

  1. What app do you prefer to use for individual tutorials/other one-to-one meetings (including phone!)
  2. Do you prefer audio, video, or text-only chat?
  3. How well do you think you’re keeping up with deadlines?
  4. Open text comment – how are things generally?

In the group I asked, there was about a 50-50 split between a preference for audio-only and video chat, so I am sure to ask about this and to reinforce that people have different preferences and that’s okay. Nobody wanted live text-chat, but I assume somebody somewhere will, so it’s worth bearing this in mind as an option.

The open text responses were most helpful – and moving: students shared how the pandemic is affecting them, changes to caring responsibilities and employment workload, their worries, how they feel disconnected from university.

Experiments with the digital

Here is where I am up to:

Whole programme check in using Blackboard Collaborate video conferencing

This initial session was unstructured and badged as such: I’m flailing around; let’s see what happens. I made some slides with key results from the survey – mostly as an excuse to see how to share them using Collaborate.

It turned out to be helpful and amusing to share the online whiteboard which anyone could write to. Some students started to write notes there about what was being discussed (alongside noughts and crosses). A text chat thread started with someone sharing an article.

Incidentally, I was pleasantly surprised that it was possible to dial in using a telephone – this seemed to work fine.

The next whole-programme meeting is in a fortnight (following a student’s suggestion) and will have the following structure:

  1. Whole group chat – how are people doing?
  2. Whole group Q&A – if you have any questions for me about programme stuff
  3. Breakout groups to use however students want; the magic of randomness will determine with whom students chat

I have allocated 1.5 hours for all this but was clear that students can leave whenever they want.

Support group roulette

The idea for this emerged from the whole-group chat with all (taught postgrad) students. Those who want to join a group complete a form with their name, email, year of study (if part-time), and can share any other comment to constrain the randomisation (free-text box).

I’ll randomise to groups and share contact details to each group – group members will then decide themselves how to communicate.

Interactive revision session

Next Monday I will try a more formal revision session, including PowerPoint, for the stats course and plan to record this so others can view it later.

Queering anarchism

Image result for queering anarchism

If you’re looking for something to read over the next few weeks as we deal with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, try Queering Anarchism.

Anarchists are a varied bunch but share a desire for social organisation in the absence of imposed centralised authority. There are anarchist ideas floating around in current society which become apparent when it feels like something is self-organising or when people take it in turns to lead across formal leadership hierarchies. “Queer” is often used as a synonym of LGBT+ but it can also mean a stance of opposition to dominant societal norms – usually concerning sexuality, relationships, and gender. It’s deliberately vague, encouraging a continuous critical stance. It’s also used as a verb, “queering”, which can be thought of as playful mode of theorising which critiques all we take for granted. This book takes these two contested terms of “queering” and “anarchism” and uses them to explore a range of topics including love, feminism, migration, non-monogamy, gender identity, disability. Give it a go for ideas to try to out or to inspire heated arguments with your pandemic cohabitants.


“What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms – in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1873), On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense

An infinite trolley problem

Remember the trolley problem?

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

    1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
    2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?

There are now thousands of variants of this. Today I saw this one:

My first thought was, aha, finally a chance to apply Cantor’s diagonal argument to something useful.

Let’s start with an easier version. Suppose the lower rail is bounded in length, say to 99.9999… metres and there are as many people tied to the track as there as real numbers in the bounded set [0,100). That’s infinitely many reals. Each person lies at a position somewhere in [0,100).

Give each person in the heap a number 0,1, 2, … Since there are infinitely many reals in [0,100), there must be infinitely many people stacked up in some way within that almost-100 metre stretch.

Now work along that infinite philosophically imagined mound of people and construct a new real number as follows from where they are lying along the rail (in metres). (You have a very precise measuring tape.)

From person 0, take the number to the left of the decimal point on their measurement and compute 99 minus that number. From person 1, take 9 minus the 1st number to the right of the decimal point. From person 2 take 9 minus the 2nd digit, and so on. So from person i, take 9 minus the ith decimal digit (pad out the digits with zeros where necessary).

So now we have a new position on the track where by definition there is nobody tied to the track. Our original assumption is false: it was not possible to stack infinitely many people in infinitely many real-numbered positions along an almost 100 metre long stretch of track. Contradiction.

We can’t do it for [0,100). That means there’s no hope for doing it for all real numbers since [0,100) is a subset.

So it is not possible to tie heaps of people to a track so that there are as many people as there are real numbers.

It is (sort of) possible to do it for countably infinitely many people—the top track. But see the distinction between potential and actual infinity.

A more daring approach to writing theory

“What if we took a more daring, modernist, defamiliarizing approach to writing theory? What if we asked of theory as a genre that it be as interesting, as strange, as poetically or narratively rich as we ask our other kinds of literature to be? What if we treated it not as high theory, with pretentions to legislate or interpret other genres, but as low theory, as something vulgar, common, even a bit rude—having no greater or lesser claim to speak of the world than any other? It might be more fun to read. It might tell us something strange about the world. It might, just might, enable us to act in the world otherwise. A world in which the old faith in History is no more, but where there are histories that still might be made—in a pinch.”

—McKenzie Wark (2019). Capital is dead.

The limits of technoscientific capitalism

“I am not a man. I am not a woman. I am not heterosexual. I am not homosexual. I am not bisexual. I am a dissident of the genus-gender system. I am the multiplicity of the cosmos trapped in a binary political and epistemological system, shouting in front of you. I am a uranist confined inside the limits of technoscientific capitalism.”
– Paul B. Preciado (2020), An Apartment on Uranus

Agential identity

How can we make sense of social phenomena like being “out” as queer, varying how salient that identity is depending on whether we’re in an LGBTQ+ bar or with queerphobic family, or having strongly-felt and clearly expressed identities invalidated? These are example phenomena addressed by Robin Dembroff and Cat Saint-Croix‘s new paper, “Yep, I’m Gay”: Understanding Agential Identity.

Their idea is to bridge what we take ourselves to be (self-identity) and what others take us to be (social position) using the concept of agential identity.

Agential identification with a particular social group follows this pattern:

  1. You self-identify as a member of the social group.
  2. You make that self-identity externally available
    (a) consciously or unconsciously;
    (b) by behaving a particular way and/or displaying perceivable features; and
    (c) those behaviours/features manifest or are intended to manifest social properties associated with the group.
  3. You accept or allow that others take you as belonging to the group.

Self-identity isn’t necessarily established effortlessly and it depends on the people around you. Dembroff and Saint-Croix draw on Katharine Jenkins’ norm-relevancy account in which we decode which groups we belong to by tuning into the norms which seem relevant to us – even if we disagree with those norms. The extent to which this process is deliberate, they argue – for instance, in terms of how much research someone does on a particular social group and its history – can lead to stronger or weaker self-identity. We may not even have a name for a particular identity; it’s possible to be polyamorous or bisexual without using those terms or even being militantly opposed to “labels” (see also: label aren’t glitter).

Agential identity involves some attempt to broadcast self-identity. Dembroff and Saint-Croix explore variation in how this can be done and emphasise that the social processes involved are often complex. For instance, agential identity can vary in how salient it is (pp. 583-584):

“consider a gay teenager who comes out to his parents, but otherwise acts conservatively at home in order to minimize the salience of his gay identity. This same teenager might, in other contexts, deliberately talk and behave in ways that persistently signal and emphasize his gay identity.”

A strong self-identity and salient attempts to establish a matching agential identity may not be taken up in a particular context; someone could persistently signal their trans identity in all contexts but it is only accepted in LGBTQ+ spaces and ignored by transphobic colleagues. Agential identity depends on self-identity and consent to belong to a particular social group – these are key conditions – and expresses preferred social group membership. However, that preference may not be accepted.

Readings on relationship anarchy

Some interesting readings along with a sprinkling of excerpts.

The short instructional manifesto for relationship anarchy, by Andie Nordgren

“Relationship anarchy questions the idea that love is a limited resource that can only be real if restricted to a couple.”

“Don’t rank and compare people and relationships — cherish the individual and your connection to them. One person in your life does not need to be named primary for the relationship to be real. Each relationship is independent, and a relationship between autonomous individuals.”

“A great trick is the ‘fake it til’ you make it’ strategy — when you are feeling strong and inspired, think about how you would like to see yourself act.”

“Talk to and seek support from others who challenge norms […].”

“Sometimes people have so much going on inside themselves that there’s just no energy left to reach out and care for others. Create the kind of relationship where withdrawing is both supported and quickly forgiven.”

Relationship anarchy vs. nonhierarchical polyamory, by The Thinking Aro

“Relationship anarchy is not about romance or sex, although it can include either one or both, so a relationship anarchist’s partnerships and important, intimate relationships are not going to be limited to their romantic, sexual, or romantic-sexual partners.”

“A relationship anarchist is not only someone who rejects hierarchy amongst partners but amongst romantic vs. nonromantic relationships. An RA could make a nonromantic friend their partner. Even without sex in the picture. An RA could take all of those romantically coded ‘partner’ behaviors — committed cohabitation, child rearing, financial interdependence, integration of partner into family of origin, etc — and perform them with a nonromantic/nonsexual partner instead of or in addition to a romantic and/or sexual partner.”

Thinking Relationship Anarchy from a Queer Feminist Approach, by Roma De las Heras Gómez

“[Relationship anarchy] rejects categories such as ‘couple’, ‘lover’, or ‘just friends’, in which the hegemonic relationships model compartmentalizes emotional bonds, and separates them according to their content: sexual, romantic, both of them, or neither of them. In this sense, RA rejects two aspects: on one hand, the meanings and contents that the hegemonic relationship hierarchy attributes to the personal bonds (what fits into each box: ‘friends’, ‘lovers’, ‘couple’, etc.); on the other hand, the distribution of social roles (prestige and structural function) that are assigned to each bond according to the category where they fit (the place in hegemonic social structure for a couple, friends, etc.).”


Bisexuality – a short note on the number two

The term bisexual is frequently misunderstood as meaning sexual attraction to men and women; see, for example, the dictionary definition Google provides.

This definition works for cis binary people. It includes trans binary people too, since trans men are men and trans women are women; however, it excludes non-binary people.


One response is to define bisexual as attraction to two or more genders. This is the approach taken by the Bisexual Index. But this can be confusing since the “bi” means two, e.g., as in binocular, biennial, biweekly. So where does the “or more” come in?

There is a simple non-binary inclusive definition, which has apparently been around forever (note to self: citation needed!) and is compatible with definitions of heterosexual and homosexual:

  • Homosexual means attraction to people who are a similar gender to you.
  • Heterosexual means attraction to people who are a different gender to you.
  • Bisexual means attraction to people who are a similar gender to you and to people who are a different gender to you.

So accepting that there are more than two genders, this is compatible with the definition that “bi” means two or more. Additionally, it spells out what the “bi” (two) refers to.