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Online Writing as a Tool for Decolonization

January 8, 2013

I write this piece for those of us who are academics. We trumpet our forward thinking research, yet so often fail to be forward thinking on how we engage with our communities, how we spread our thoughts, and what it means to live out and generate a decolonizing praxis.

How do you envision your role as an academic, particularly in regards to the communities you live in, engage with, and research in/with? Often, academics are described as living in an “ivory tower”, as being cloistered and out of touch with what happens in the daily lives of people who don’t have their scholarly privilege. And, to a large degree, the critics are right. For many of us who work, write, seek, and live out a decolonizing praxis, we often challenge these ivory tower ideals – we desire connection, the back and forth exchange of theory with reality, where our struggles and lives inform and are informed by our anticolonial and decolonizing theories.

What does this praxis mean for our writing? Writing is a primary form of engagement for many academics; the bulk of their research and thought is intended to end up in articles published in journals, books, conference papers, or other scholarly work. All of these happen within the walls of the university and often don’t leave those walls. Critical scholars, such as prominent critical pedagogue Henry Giroux, have advocated for the return of ‘public intellectuals’, whose goal is “reclaiming higher education as a democratic public sphere.” This, he argues, is done through a more public contestation and critique, a challenging of current neoliberal trends in society and in the university.

And, in part, this is what I am calling for as well. Challenging power is part of the decolonization praxis. Colonial power must be contested at all levels, in all spaces, and – even – within ourselves. We cannot afford to let oppression, violence, and hatred operate with impunity, to operate unchecked and unchallenged.

But it’s bigger than this if we believe, and put into action, decolonization for an Indigenous future. The very idea of the ‘public good’ must be challenged, in that a particular public is assumed and a particular belief in an open, equal ‘public’ is taken for granted. Instead, the ‘public’ has operated as a cover for Whiteness and colonialism, parading universalism over the corpses of localized Indigenous particularities. The ‘public’ has thieved ideas from, shackled in chains, stolen land from, sought to destroy, and oppress at all levels the Indigenous peoples of the world. Indigenous peoples have not been seen as ‘the public’ but an obstacle in the way of ‘the public’ and its good; so why produce writing for a ‘public good’?

Rather, how do we write for an Indigenous good? How do we work and act for Indigenous decolonization? Giroux, in the previously mentioned article, makes the distinction between ‘subversive figures’ and ‘public intellectuals’, calling for the latter – this is the same distinction I am making but calling for more of the first. How can we be subversive intellectuals, engaged in disrupting colonial power and supporting Indigenous sovereignty? How can we be more subversive with our writing?

In thinking through these questions, I offer three starting points where I believe that online writing, particularly through short articles such as this one, can play a role in writing and living a decolonizing praxis.

Open Access

Too often our academic work is under lock and key, sold to those who can pay for it. Often, you don’t even hold the rights to distribute your own writing. By publishing online, whether it be through Open Access journals, blogs, or other accessible venues – you are opening the discussion to anyone who can access the internet. If we are writing for the Indigenous good, ensuring that Indigenous communities can access our work is a vital first step. To take it even further, printable pamphlets and articles can easily be designed to share with those who might not read online, such as a recent example from Taiaiake Alfred and Tobold Rollo. How else can we make our work more accessible to all via the Internet?

Image by Dwayne Bird, www.birdwiremedia.com

Image by Dwayne Bird, http://www.birdwiremedia.com

Access also means more than taking one of your scholarly articles and pushing ‘Publish’ online. For many, to read twenty plus pages of scholarly jargon is an arduous task, at best, and impossible at worst. Accessibility also means writing in accessible language for a wide audience to understand, appreciate, and use. That’s the goal. In a decolonizing praxis, as a crude example, how many citations your paper receives is not the goal but, rather, how many views/reads. You want people to read, share, and then go out and use your work for more than padding in their latest research paper bibliography. Online writing is written accessibly and can pack an informative and engaging read into a short space (we encourage writers at this blog to aim for no more than 1500 words). It’s a skill and one worth developing.

Finally, accessible language also takes into account privileges, biases and language that is violent towards anyone who doesn’t fit the colonial ideal of heteropatriarchal, cisgendered, able bodied White males. Colonial oppressions are all connected and if we are to put a decolonizing praxis into action in our writing, access must account for the exclusionary nature of much of our language.

Timeliness

Real life happens in real time. This revelation shouldn’t be a shock to most of us, but in the academic publishing world ‘real time’ is of little bearing in contrast to the overwhelming weight of peer review, multiple edits and revising stages, and publisher’s schedules. Even for strictly online journals, as we know all too well with the publication of Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, publishing scholarly journals takes an immense amount of time. Social movements don’t wait for publishing schedules and, unless you are content for your writing to be a distant afterthought, online publishing offers a real time alternative.

Publishing in ‘real time’ online allows you to engage with the discussions that are happening as they happen; this engagement helps move the weight of your critique towards the creative. As you participate in the discussions that happen online and on the ground, you engage in the building process and put all your theory, training, and thought into use. You dialogue, you learn, you build, you share – all of these things which, in the current academy, have often become stagnant and tepid. Online writing expands the communities you engage with and learn from, it makes your own work and thought more dynamic.

Listening 

Not only we must engage more broadly and more eagerly with our communities, but we must listen and learn better. Writing is too often seen as a method of sharing knowledge – a form of speaking – which it is. But we must also listen better. Our communities are not receptacles for our knowledge, they are the elders, mothers, organizers, daughters, and practitioners; they have a great wealth to contribute to our writing and thought if we can be better at listening. This demands dialogue, which in turn demands openness and a willingness to engage at a shared level.

Online environments such as the blog, or even Twitter, have built in dialogue mechanisms where anyone can speak back and respond to your work. How useful your work is can be dependant on how well you listen – to the needs, the critiques, and the input of your communities. Critique and input can be difficult online where we often are distant from the voices, bodies and knowledge attached to the words. But if we are open to listening and learning, this works to break down the ivory tower, the one-way transmission out of the academy, and the lack of practical application that so often plagues our work.

All of this is not to say that the Internet and online writing don’t pose some problems. As intimated earlier, the Internet is a disembodied medium that encourages distance and anonymity. It is built on a technological ideal that seeks to tame nature and bend it to its will. Technology has been used by colonialism as a yardstick for civilization and to demonstrate how ‘uncivilized’ Indigenous cultures were/are.

The answer is not to throw out technology but to seek out methods that work and demand that it work for the Indigenous good. As an Indigenous writer once put it: It’s not new for us to steal the White people’s fast horses. Once it’s stolen, though, how do you use it differently? For Indigenous peoples and those working for a decolonized future, online writing can connect ideas and bind together movements. For scholars, it is a way to take their writing out of the scholarly industrial complex and make it do different work, work that furthers decolonization for communities outside of the academy. Online writing is not a simple cure-all, nor should it be exempt from our continued close scrutiny and testing, but it does offer a possible piece in the puzzle towards a collective decolonization.

________________________________________________________

Eric Ritskes is a PhD student in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and Co-Editor of the Open Access, online journal Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & SocietyYou can follow him @eritskes or visit www.ericritskes.com for more information.

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53 Comments leave one →
  1. Opinionated Man permalink
    January 9, 2013 4:10 pm

    Well said Sir!

  2. January 9, 2013 4:29 pm

    Well said indeed!

  3. January 9, 2013 4:50 pm

    In the mid-1990s, for a diversity online project, I collected URLs of Black-, Brown-, Asian-peoples, Women, people with disabilities, and of course Indigenous web sites. Indigenous URLs far more in number at that time. I thought it incredible given prevalence of dial-up or no connection in so many communities, so I double-checked. Nope. Same result.

    It’s also amazing how many Indian (FN), Métis and Inuit kids communicate with their cell phones (dumb or smart). Texting, Tweeting, emailing and FB’ing via cell phone is the preferred transport rather than talking and burning air-time. I’m out in the boonies with dialup (typical reserve black hole for Internet services) and cell phones is the way under-40 crowd stays in touch with each other, other communities, national news, & the world.

    I think Indigenous peoples (certainly 40 & under) actually ahead of the curve by necessity and using tech in particular with issues like Idle No More to learn, express, connect and coordinate. Fast horse? Hell, they went straight for the motorcycle.

  4. January 9, 2013 5:14 pm

    Very Well put. There are often times when I find an interesting article or journal publication, only to find out I need a subscription (pay) in order to access it. Definitely takes away from mine and others ability to learn and enjoy scholarly research.

    • January 9, 2013 8:54 pm

      This, and as I mention, more scholarly work that is written in a language that is meant to be accessible to all are keys in expanding awareness and education outside of academia’s walls.

      Peace,
      Eric

  5. January 9, 2013 6:13 pm

    When I was in high school I still would get most of my information from magazines and word of mouth. When I wanted to talk or see a friend I would call them dialing their number from memory. If I could not reach them I would stop by their home. This was all considered normal. Now days people consider it weird, intrusive or even rude.

    • January 9, 2013 8:54 pm

      What is it you think that has caused this disconnect?

      • January 9, 2013 10:07 pm

        Well, lately age is a growing factor in forgetting phone numbers. As for the rest of it, I think is the adaptation of technology. My mother is over 60 and she loves her nook and text messages everyone. She still prefers a phone call but has adjusted to texting for the younger crowd.
        I love technology I use it daily and I am in awe at the next best thing but I also enjoy real human interaction. The truth, I think, is that technology has made things too easy in the way that we no longer have to be face-to-face, remember phone numbers or ask questions to get answers. This is why, as much as I love technology, I need to get away from it and surround myself with nature, or attend social events.

        • January 10, 2013 3:42 am

          **@”I love technology I use it daily and I am in awe at the next best thing but I also enjoy real human interaction. The truth, I think, is that technology has made things too easy in the way that we no longer have to be face-to-face, remember phone numbers or ask questions to get answers. This is why, as much as I love technology, I need to get away from it and surround myself with nature, or attend social events..”

          >First time I’ve seen this said online or anywhere in a while..I totally agree and co-sign! Well said ..

  6. January 9, 2013 7:31 pm

    There needs to be a decolonization of the American university. That is the true “indigenous good.”

    • January 9, 2013 8:55 pm

      I don’t disagree, though I question if such a colonial institution is salvageable or whether it’s very pillars are rotten?

      Peace,
      Eric

  7. January 9, 2013 7:45 pm

    Another interesting thing I’ve noted is that academics feel a freedom to explore other genres online. Ideas shared differently sometimes spark different ideas.

    • January 9, 2013 8:56 pm

      This is a fantastic point – increase of interdisciplinarity!

    • January 19, 2013 1:11 pm

      I agree. I have always worked across many genres, sometimes intersectionality at play, often not. I also do visual artwork (now usually digital) and music. Few of us are single-genre.

  8. January 9, 2013 7:58 pm

    it may be those with the insights are in ivory towers or on the mountaintops, and perhaps distinct from valley people who have their minds at the task of living, whether fully colonized or struggling to maintain, or revive cultural traditions. Maybe we need more go betweens? mediators who can speak the valley language ,who can take the mountain insights to the people and deliver it in their own language.

    One of the most difficult jobs for us cultural activists is to awaken the colonized with the truth of what has happened to us. Not to lecture people about how they’ve been brainwashed, but to help,to give them the tools to wake themselves and to begin to ask important questions about their own lifestyles.
    Traditional people learn well by watching. If we say “We need to revive our languages!” Am I learning my language? “We need to live more simply on the land!” Am i planting and/or harvesting in a culturally sensitive and sustainable way?

    The ivory tower(or mountaintop) might be good for getting perspective, and learning the skills of articulation, but our people will be watching us close. When we speak they’ll want to see if there is any dirt under our fingernails…or maybe we’re just a really good talker.

  9. January 9, 2013 8:00 pm

    is it the too many academics are colonised by the material they studied to get their qualifications? Is it that they critical thinking is skewed in the process/ just asking.
    Good article… It made me think

  10. January 9, 2013 8:01 pm

    Is it that their critical thinking is skewed in the process?

  11. January 9, 2013 8:48 pm

    Reblogged this on B&Gjournals and commented:
    So often I struggle with my place in grad school and the frustrations of wanting my interests in academia to intersect with everyday society and human rights..and have spent my first semester very frustrated at and overwhelmed by just how difficult that is to actually do. That said, I so appreciate the articulation of those frustrations and the discussion of various tangible solutions here…for any of you in academics, this may be worth a read for you.

  12. January 9, 2013 8:53 pm

    so well said, thank you so much for bringing attention to this. i am in my first year of grad school in the humanities and it has been an incredibly frustrating dynamic to see how difficult it really is to allow your academic interests and research to intersect with the very populations you are “theorizing” about, let alone how isolating academic conversations can be. i take so much comfort in your articulation of the need to tear down the ivory tower—thank you for writing and sharing this

    • January 9, 2013 9:32 pm

      Grad school can be incredibly alienating and isolating, actively working to distance and create ‘objective’ researchers. I believe decolonization rejects this and goes to demand a rejection of objectivity, and the adoption of a political, engaged stance that is lived out in all interactions. But, as anyone who has tried to practice this will tell you, it’s easier said than done…

      Peace,
      Eric

    • January 19, 2013 1:16 pm

      bell hooks wrote about this some time ago. She wrote about multiculturalism something like notice who’s throwing the party, who’s getting paid to teach about it, and who isn’t invited. I’m not near my books at the moment, so I’m paraphrasing here. As a white man, the first time I taught a course (as a grad ta) on multi-cultural lit, called then lit of America minorities, I began by raising her questions and others from and essay by Ishmael Reed, and asked first, why was I teaching this course, and second, why was this literature in its own course rather than part of Introduction to (American) Lit? That is, what were the colonizing structures that were already at play that created the course, its structure, and their attendance.

  13. January 9, 2013 8:58 pm

    I love this article. I have been struggling to find a method, some way of becoming active in the postcolonial literature movement as a writer: supporting the voices of those oppressed, discovering forms of literature unique from those forms written in anthologies, and reconsidering grammar techniques and style. I can honestly say I have not yet considered the impact accessible scholarly articles have on this entire motive and the important vehicle social media is for this accessibility.
    I, personally, have struggled to find definition as a white, American woman being so impacted by postcolonial forms of literature and study. I rant (casually) a little bit about it in my blog Bluestockinghack.wordpress.com in the post titled A Writer’s Rant: Struggling for Purpose. Being raised in a privileged suburbia, I am interested in knocking down the ivory tower surrounding me. Thank you for sharing. If you have further inspirations, I will definitely enjoy the conversation.

  14. January 9, 2013 10:22 pm

    Appreciate very much your article. I consider myself a “thinker” and just naturally drawn toward academia. However, as I get older, I’m grateful for the “do-ers” in my life: The Kinesthetics, who are busy out there “doing” life. Their truth is simple and to the point.

    They won’t necessarily read articles like these. Their philosophies of life are developed through their daily experiences and their reaction to what’s around them. Their wisdom will be shared when they are older and done “doing” (maybe) Your point about listening is very important, because, we as “thinkers” not only carry responsibility to share our vision and an overviewing perspective, but also to interact with our “do-ers” and include their position with ours. Sometimes, in their focus, they see the truth quicker than we do.

    And, sometimes we just have to leave the blog at home, and go join others in the trenches for a while. There is a valued balance between the two sides.

    • January 9, 2013 10:57 pm

      In Indigenous communities there is also often the divide between older knowledge keepers and the younger generation who use social media more, etc… to share ideas. Challenge is to integrate & connect the two…

      Peace,
      Eric

  15. January 9, 2013 10:27 pm

    Fantastic article. For me it raises questions about the privileges that most academics operate under – and the responsibilities that might come along with them. I appreciate your suggestion that ‘listening’ might be one of those responsibilities. Thanks for sharing this.

  16. January 9, 2013 10:34 pm

    I appreciate your intent and applaud your effort. I’m left with three questions….

    1) How many of us bloggers who “liked” this article actually read it all and could digest it?
    2) As a white male, would I be cutting off my colonization nose to spite my oppressive face?
    3) Could you fit this concept into a “3 minute record, baby” (as Springsteen would say)?

    But again, thanks for your thoughts. If you make it manage to make it into the ivory tower yourself, perhaps you could build on a coffee shop with free wifi and invite me over to visit?

    • January 9, 2013 10:44 pm

      Tony, I’m not sure I understand or desire to engage with each item in there, but I think it’s quite a strong point and challenge to make a “3 minute record, baby” & make even my own work more accessible language wise. Thank you.

      Peace,
      Eric

  17. greenie permalink
    January 9, 2013 10:36 pm

    I’m an academic as well. I prefer blogs that are like magazines.

  18. January 9, 2013 10:59 pm

    Forgive me, Eric, for sounding so cynical. It’s just that the academic jargon in this post seems to get in the way of what you are trying to say. Thank you for accepting my critique in spite of its mean-spiritedness. You do have excellent ideas.

    • January 9, 2013 11:00 pm

      It was a fair critique, though it was intended for an academic audience – as stated in the first line ;) Though, as I argue in the article – we need to write for larger audiences, which I obviously failed to do to a certain extent. Thanks for reading & commenting!

      Peace,
      Eric

  19. January 9, 2013 11:28 pm

    Very valuable commentary–essentially, it’s time that the academy engaged with the community rather simply itself.

  20. January 10, 2013 1:24 am

    Academically,you killed it with this article.!
    I hope my graduate school professors can read this.

  21. January 10, 2013 6:14 am

    just the right words!

  22. January 10, 2013 6:51 am

    Reblogged this on Musings of an aspiring Journalist and commented:
    Online writing as a tool for Decolinization…

  23. January 10, 2013 8:51 am

    woww! powerful! perfectly said. thanks for sharing this!

  24. Makere Stewart-Harawira permalink
    January 10, 2013 10:49 am

    Reblogged this on The Turning Spiral and commented:
    An excellent piece by Eric Ritskes, PhD student in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and a Managing Editor of the Open Access, online journal Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, on the challenge Indigenous scholars face in mediating between making their work accessible, meaningful and timely for Indigenous movements, and the demands of academic publishing.

  25. January 10, 2013 3:30 pm

    This is extremely genius. If you allow me to, I may print this out so I can show it to the rest of the professors at the university for which I work. Really well said!

  26. January 10, 2013 5:24 pm

    Well written piece! Profound & thought provoking.

  27. January 11, 2013 1:07 am

    Excellent piece and, as an academic, much appreciated. Do you feel the growing popularity of massive online open courses will obviate, to some extent, the need to decolonize the ivory tower? Or will it just shift the ivory tower to a glass-and-steel one?

    • January 11, 2013 10:14 am

      maybe “Ivory tower” isn’t a good word to represent good FPs academic education.Its a colonizers term anyway. When FP choose academia I doubt its to ESCAPE into a tower of ethereal brainwaves for ego stimulation. I think what Academia CAN be for FP is a mountain top view. I won’t put it on the same level as “vision quest”, BUT goals can be similar. To experience a view of reality so enlightening and profound that it changes US. It can change HOW we see, and HOW we return ourselves back into our indigenous communities. The difficulty comes in returning.There must be a persistent self-check against any hint of a “messiah” complex we might have been contaminated with among settlers, conquest-bent.
      One hint of superiority picked up by our community will destroy any progress we want to achieve and we’ll find ourselves ostracized and distrusted, and ears closed.

  28. rckiowa permalink
    January 11, 2013 1:13 pm

    I am not an academic but accessibility to content created by academics has been beneficial for groups I work with when I’ve served in the role of the Palin derided “community organizer.” I belong to an Indigenous Network of non violent direct action trainers who work with Indigenous communities when invited. This invitation is typically extended when a community is threatened by some policy or corporation operating under the guise of delivering a “public good” or some opportunity for “economic development.”

    In some cases, we’ve been fortunate to have academics who have done a critical analysis of the threat in a comprehensible form which can then be put into simpler messages for internal and external communication. Unfortunately, this is not the norm. From time to time I’ll have the opportunity to speak with university classes and one of the observations I share with Indigenous students is that we lack an Indigenous Intelligentsia for those at the community level. At least from my vantage point we do. If it’s out there, I’ve been missing it all these years. Maybe this blog can fill part of that void.

    • January 11, 2013 5:55 pm

      We hope both this blog, as well as our Open Access journal, can be something that appeals to and is used by both academics as well as community organizers, activists, social workers, etc… We are committed to engaging in two-way dialogue and publishing outside of the colonial boxes. Thanks for checking us out!

  29. January 11, 2013 4:03 pm

    I concur.

  30. January 11, 2013 5:13 pm

    Thanks so much for your piece. To answer your question about how I personally have tried to “live out and generate a decolonizing praxis,” I continue to stay engaged in academic discourse, but I have also changed how I write, who I write for, and who I work with. (My focus: a liberating and humane mental health field, which may turn out to be an oxymoron). I have started a blog (www.laurakkerr.com) as well as become a trauma-focused psychotherapist. Although I am more busy than I would like to be, I do feel I am contributing to creating a public discourse on the “academic” issues that matter to me. The experience has been very liberating and gratifying, although rarely straightforward. Academic standards and discursive practices at times are irrelevant, and other times, stand in the way.

    I really appreciate your effort to address this topic. It needs lots of attention!

  31. jolly2012 permalink
    January 13, 2013 2:13 pm

    Anthropologists have dealt with these questions of representation of the indigenous for the last hundred years. As a participant/observer, Anthropologists hope to enmesh themselves in the culture and objectively observe it at the same time. Many Anthropologist will then write about their observations in an objective manner but, others are beginning to embrace their subjectivity in the field and a narrative of Anthropologists’ experiences has emerged. The point is, being both a participant and observer is almost impossible, emphasis will always be on one or the other. In that context, how much is cultural reporting by members of the colonizer class a continuation of that colonization? What needs to be heard are the direct voices of the “indigenous” or better yet, of anyone’s cultural experience. Literacy then becomes a weapon against the colonist gaze and people are able to report their culture on their own, without a western scholar to guide them or translate their ideas. I think engaging other cultures with their own narrative, written or not, is the key when we don’t want to muddy a cultures message with a western/colonistic point of view. My other point is that sometimes to much “assistance” from western scholars in helping indigenous people tell their stories becomes stories about the assistance needed and not about the culture itself. Just a few thoughts. Thanks for your post!

  32. January 14, 2013 9:22 am

    Academics nowadays means mind over matter and that is the greatest shortcoming of academic writing (just for the sake of publications and impact factors). The lack of first hand experience is covered up by advanced statistics and we are poor at describing anecdotal encounters. This is no where more true than in sciences.

    Good thought provoking read.

  33. Jenna Mae permalink
    January 17, 2013 8:29 pm

    I think Eva Marie Garoutte’s call for “radical indigenism” within the academy (Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America, University of California Press, 2003) speaks perfectly to this. Check it out, might help stimulate more dialogue…

  34. January 19, 2013 10:50 am

    Quick and to the point. Well written.

  35. January 19, 2013 1:08 pm

    I have started posting my work on Academia.edu (http://independent.academia.edu/MichaelDickel) and have begun posting new work and re-posting bits from other online conversations (edited) on http://michaeldickel.wordpress.com. I’ve been linking to those on other social media, as well–FaceBook, Google+, LinkedIn. Trying to move the ideas out into the virtual commons.

  36. Tim permalink
    February 5, 2013 9:29 pm

    Powerfully put Eric. I’ll be submitting to the journal very soon…

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