Online Writing as a Tool for Decolonization
by Eric Ritskes
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 & Society. You can follow him @eritskes or visit www.ericritskes.com for more information.