Foucault Comes to Tumblr: An Experiment in Digital Pedagogy
My past self would be overjoyed if she knew that someday I would use Tumblr to create a mock course on biopolitics. She might also be a bit confused to see me assume the role of an educator, a position I never imagined for myself until recently. Before the pandemic and the move to remote learning, I never saw myself as an experimentalist in any sense of the word. As an undergraduate, I often defaulted to writing papers when given the freedom to experiment with form—it was familiar, safe, and did not require the vulnerability I perceived in more creative forms of expression. However, when I was accepted to the 2020-2021 Graduate Residency in Digital Scholarship at the Sherman Centre, my first remote residency and my first year of graduate school, I knew it was time to push myself and try something different, and so my pedagogical residency project was born.
Stepping into this role, I’ve learned that many of the methodological challenges implicated in digital pedagogy are not so different from the ethical challenges I’ve encountered in anthropology. As creator, I am everywhere in this project, but my own baked-in assumptions and ideological orientation to the material may not always be self-evident. I am likely not even fully conscious of all of my biases and reasons for making the choices I did. The fact that I chose to create a mock course with nine weeks’ worth of content grounded in Foucauldian biopolitics (see Foucault 2003 for a discussion of biopolitics and biopower) is a reflection not only of my historical and disciplinary positioning as a medical anthropologist-in-training, mentored by critical medical and cultural anthropologists, but also of my involvement in leftist political circles in the United States where Foucault is a frequent topic of conversation.
Image description: A screenshot of my course website’s home page on Tumblr.com. A sidebar on the left side of the screen reads, “An open resource for folks wanting to learn more about biopolitics. Follow along with my mock course or browse at your own pace.” Below are links to my About page, an Acknowledgements page, and Additional Resources. To the right is a still frame from one of my video lectures. A map of the world with gray circles of various sizes, indicating the size of regional COVID-19 outbreaks, is the background image.
I’ve also been grappling with the question of expertise. What gives me the authority to educate others on this topic? At the same time, calling this project a mock course seems to imply that the labor I have invested and the knowledge contained within it are somehow less than real. I could argue that as a graduate student in cultural anthropology, I have spent countless hours reading, writing, and speaking about biopolitics and biopower. Equally, I could point out that graduate students in research-based programs typically receive only minimal training in pedagogy, undermining the stance I assume as an educator in my mini-lectures. Everything I have learned about pedagogy has been gleaned piecemeal, through a hodge-podge of personal readings and sporadic class assignments. Nevertheless, I believe I have a responsibility, as someone whose research and education is publicly funded, to give something back to the community where I can. I chose Tumblr because it is free to use and popular among high school and college students (the target audience for my mock course), but also because, as a teenager, I was an avid Tumblr user. Much of my early learning in social justice came from the work of activists on Tumblr because all of the information was freely available rather than locked behind institutional paywalls. Throughout this process I have been guided and inspired by their example.
Even if I set aside questions of authority and expertise, sometimes I find it incredibly difficult to convey complicated thoughts in straightforward, jargon-free ways. As I prepare to launch my course and put my videos out into the world, I wonder if they really make any sense. In this regard, I am comforted by the approach our cohort has taken over the past year. In our residency meetings, we often talked about the importance of “process over product,” which has boosted my confidence in the value of imperfect work. The reading guides and mini-lectures I have created are far from perfect—they may not even be particularly good! But because they exist, they are at least something. Someday I may go back and improve them, or perhaps they will inspire someone else to create something better, and that is enough.
You can access my mock course at https://biopolitics4beginners.tumblr.com/.
Foucault, Michel. 2003. “17 March 1976.” In “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-1976, edited by Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana, 239-263. Translated by David Macey. New York: Picador.