3 Feb 2023

Let’s get back to it. There’s catching up to do but in the meantime, I invite you to join me in the middle. Here are some thoughts from the past week.


As part of my Interfaces seminar this term, I am having students do their projects around a process I called “hermeneutic reverse-engineering” (this term is stolen from Anne Balsamo and Heather Love; the process is partly stolen from Chandra Mukerji and Josh Kun). The basic idea is that humanists need to be intentional about what parts of others’ research we reproduce and how. Too often it’s a simple citation, a reproduction of findings (I call this “shopping for panopticons” ) or the profusion of a single metaphor or stylistic tic of an author’s influence. If we are, instead, intentional, then even scholarship we disagree with is available as a rich intellectual resource. And as a bonus, we also have a much more critical relationship to reproducing the methods, findings, or politics of other scholarship.

Meanwhile, the social sciences continue to demonstrate that putatively “scientific” research on culture and society is very very hard to replicate in anything approaching a laboratory manner.

If you are curious about the Hermeneutic Reverse Engineering exercise, here is the handout.

Chat GPT Hot Take

I am so tired of the hype cycle of ChatGPT filling up my social media feeds. I sort of agree with the glib “Mansplaining on demand” meme about it. If it actually worked to produce something accurate and factual, it would be like when calculators showed up in math, science and engineering classrooms. I would consider that useful, not a crisis.

I was teaching part of Alex Galloway’s Interface Effect this week and he has this line about the “paradox” of mediation (I don’t think it’s a paradox): media tend to erase themselves in use but that fact makes them spectacular. People are being blown away that a robot can mimic prose styles and sound confident doing it. But that doesn’t mean it’s good or accurate. For instance, a colleague in science sent me this as an example of how “good” ChatGPT is:

A Twitter post where someone asks ChatGPT to explain how to remove a peanut butter sandwich from a VCR in the style of the King James Bible.

This is very funny, but it’s actually terrible advice for removing a peanut butter sandwich from a VCR. It makes the task seem way simpler than it actually would be. I think the author is implying that the sandwich is IN the VCR. Chat GPT assumes the sandwich is ON the VCR, which makes it a much simpler problem than intended.

ChatGPT is not very accurate about things that I care about (which oddly does include peanut butter, sandwiches, and even VCRs), it does not do critical thought or interpretation, and worse, if you don’t know, you can’t tell when it’s being shitty. So, in sum, from a pedagogical standpoint, this is like handing out shitty, glitch-ridden calculators to undergrads.

Speaking of which, I asked my undergrads about it–keep in mind these are Liberal Arts majors in a senior seminar so not a representative group–and none of them took it very seriously as a writing tool, and some didn’t even know what it was. I will eventually have more to say about it but right now my position is similar to Cathy Davidson’s: make better assignments.

Meanwhile people are busy designing software to detect if writing was produced by ChatGPT. I do not want to be the police.

We’ll see where we’re at in September when my big lecture course starts up again.

Teaching Highlight of the Week

We are doing a compare-contrast sort of assignment for the first short paper in my undergrad disability seminar. A student comes to meet with me to pitch her idea.

“I want to start with Hamraie’s knowing-making and Piepzna-Samarasinha’s idea of crip wisdom.”

I say ok.

“I’m thinking of this as a sort of disability knowledge management thing.”
I am confused, but I say, ok, continue.

“I want to write it as an actual dialogue.”

I say ok.

“And I want them to be designing a spaceship.”

Yaaaaaaaasssss! My work here is finished.

Art and Pain

Again, there’s lots of music news since I last wrote, let’s just start in the middle.

Hard Red Spring is the only band where I still play bass. Hand pain from my cancer meds has led me to switch from bass to touch guitar as my main instrument. Touch guitar is just less painful (I still wear gloves to play most days); I’ve also spent a lot of time with synthesizers. At Tuesday’s HRS practice, for the first time ever, even with gloves, it was too painful for me to play finger style. So I played everything with a pick and it was better. This leaves me with a decision: do I try to learn all our music with a pick, or do I try and convert all of my basslines to things I can play on the touch guitar? The pick is the technically easy choice since I can already almost do it, but there is still some pain. The touch guitar choice is less painful but more technically difficult because what’s easy on bass (especially that post-punk thing of repeating 8ths) is hard on touch guitar and what’s hard on bass is easy on touch guitar. Over the pandemic I relearned the Volte repertoire on touch guitar but this is a different kind of playing.

I hate substack

If people can do substacks that are basically compilations of short takes from the week, I can do a blog that is short takes from the week (or an amorphous but regular period), AND I can do it while NOT letting a corporation ask you for money. I’ll be fishing around for newsletter plugins sooner or later.

It’s been awhile

Today I returned to my office at McGill for the first time since February 2020. There was stuff in the fridge that I’d left in 2020. The most frightening thing was some store bought hummus that had not developed any visible weird molds on it. I did not taste it–it is almost more disturbing that it just looks fine than if it add all sorts of funky colours on it. I will also not be buying that brand again anytime soon. It, and everything else in the fridge went in the trash, along with expired medications, print copies of journals that I don’t want (when will they learn?), and so much mail.

There were letters and books that arrived in 2020, 2021, and 2022; I took a little time to write thank you notes (and belated congratulations) for some complimentary copies sent by authors.

And there was dust, oh so much dust everywhere. The office had been cleaned, but not fully and mostly in the areas that were being regularly used. I think McGill now employs a single porter per three buildings, so I don’t blame them.

I spent most of the day cleaning, decluttering (a bit) and putting things right. My museum of quirky/obsolete communication technologies is looking a bit worse for wear and may need some refreshing. The walls definitely need some new decorations. I need a new desk chair.

I was in because I had an appointment with an instructional tech person to try out tech in a classroom because it looks like–Covid willing–I will be teaching on campus in the fall. I also needed to check out the classroom in case I had to address other access needs before the term starts. My approach to dealing with the pandemic is simply to follow my doctor’s instructions. I outsource my thinking to him, because he seems to have a good balance between “be careful” and “live your life.” He thinks I can do it and that I won’t be in serious danger (though of course I could get sick and probably will).

It’ll be me and 200 undergrads in a crowded lecture hall, so I wanted to make sure the lecture recording system works with the audio setup I want to use. I want to be able to tell students not to come to class if they are feeling sick, which means providing decent recordings.

Campus is usually pretty deserted in July. In fact, I almost never go in during July, but it’s been a weird month. We pushed off most of our vacation to August, and that’s meant an uncannily busy summer with only 10 days off to go see family (plus nights and weekends). I have never had so much to do in July. I don’t know if it’s because I lost a month to Covid in April and feel like I’ve been playing catch-up ever since (another reason why this space has been all crickets), or if it’s something about the outside world.

The office visit was so incredibly banal, but also somehow punctuated time for me. Things were really different in so many ways when I last set foot there. To say I didn’t know what was coming was an understatement–not just the pandemic but so many other things. I catch myself talking about pre-pandemic time as if that’s “normal” and everything since then is exceptional, but people have started and finished master’s degrees in the time since I last walked in that room. They’re different, and so am I.

McGill faculty: if you don’t provide Covid accommodations to your disabled, high-risk, or ill students, nobody will

Here are some things concerned faculty ought to know about McGill’s return to campus happening next week (or in three weeks, depending).

Faculty need to step up and be the ones to provide accommodation for students who need it. The university is NOT currently accommodating students who are high risk or who live with people who are high risk. (This may change but currently it does not seem to be the case.)

Chairs and faculty are being told that students will be accommodated and to refer them to OSD. THIS IS NOT CORRECT. As this Twitter post from Emily Black explains, OSD is not presently authorized to provide, facilitate, or mandate remote accommodations for students who are high risk or someone who lives with high risk. This is not a criticism of OSD, but rather the executive decision not to allow remote learning as an accommodation. Apparently, students can apply to the Dean of Students, but as of now, there is no announcement as to what accommodations may be available, what support there will be for instructors to make those accommodations, and when people will hear back.

A Twitter post showing correspondence with the OSD. It says in part that the OSD “does not hold the authority to provide remote education as an academic accommodation.”

This means that faculty DO have the discretion to accommodate students, and do not need permission from OSD or deans to decide how to accommodate students’ access needs.

But wait!

It is easier than you think to accommodate students who want to be remote. Last fall I posted a simple guide to hybrid classes (also called hy-flex). It’s not perfect and it’s a skill people have to learn, but you do not need tremendous technical facility to do it. If you are teaching a large lecture course, even just recording it and making it available online, is a good option. If your classroom is not set up for recording, use your phone and upload the recording and your slide deck to MyCourses, or ask one of your students for help. Then, if there is a demand, you could take an hour of class time every couple weeks and do a Zoom meeting for the online students to check in with them.

This can also go in reverse. I am immunocompromised and am teaching online this term, at least until such time as my oncologist says it’s safe to go back to campus. However, I will be arranging for the students who want to be present together in class (or who have to be) to be able to meet in the classroom together and to have the shared experience they want. This is exactly as complicated as doing it the other way around. IE, not that hard.

Students, like faculty, are divided about the best course of action. Though I can’t go back right now, I really would like to and am tired of being on Zoom, so I get it. In an ideal world, we’d have a situation where the people who want or need to be on campus can be, and the people who need to stay off campus could also do that. We’re not going to get to that ideal world in two weeks, but we can do a hell of a lot better than we’re doing right now.

Translation of McGill’s Return to School Announcement into English

For most years since 1997, I have taught a first year university intro to communication studies course. While I don’t often focus on interpretation of media messages or public relations–there are lots of other things to cover–sometimes it’s a good exercise. To keep myself in shape, I thought I would practice on McGill’s latest announcement about our return to campus in the middle of a raging pandemic and a failing public health infrastructure in Quebec.

Following George Orwell’s famous “Politics and the English Language,” I have translated Fabrice Lebeau’s message that went out yesterday to the McGill community into English.*

As announced during Premier Francois Legault’s press conference on Thursday, universities and CEGEPS will be allowed to resume full in-person academic activities starting on January 17. The curfew will also be lifted January 17.  

McGill will therefore follow its plan to transition to in-person classes for most teaching activities on January 24.  

Most lectures with more than 200 students will remain online, as announced previously.  

All faculty, staff, and students will need to be in Montreal.  

For administrative and support staff: 

Staff who need to be onsite to carry out their job functions will continue to come to campus, including staff carrying out administrative activities in support of on-site operations.  

Staff who need to be on campus to provide the best support to students or to in-person academic activities (learning, teaching and research) will also be asked to return, with the schedule determined by their supervisor. 

Other administrative and support staff will begin to return in the coming weeks, with a timeline for return to be announced soon.  

You have to go back to campus on the 24th. Staff with immediate supervisors who believe more fervently in science than bureaucratic directives may have somewhat greater flexibility in their working arrangements, at least in the short term.

New government projections show that Quebec may have hit its peak in cases and hospitalizations will likely soon begin to stabilize, though the situation in the health care system remains difficult. Thank you to all McGill faculty, students and staff contributing to the fight against COVID. 

The government has stopped testing people for Covid and our hospitals and emergency rooms are full beyond capacity. Our premier would like it if the rate of infection were to decline soon. There is no need to wait and see if their projections pan out. Now is the time to return to campus.

Thank you to all our hard working employees.

We have been receiving many emails and getting other feedback. People are divided in their opinions about in-person activities. While online learning has its place, many are exhausted by it and feel isolated. Many students and instructors are very eager to come back in-person. But some people are very anxious about in-person activities because of the transmissibility of the Omicron variant.  

People are talking. Some people are saying that they very tired of being in a pandemic and are tired of all the safety measures. Other people are saying that they are very tired of being in a pandemic and tired of all the safety measures, and are also concerned about dying or becoming permanently disabled from–or infecting a loved one with–a virus that is not currently well understood or under control.

We understand these concerns.

Both sides have valid concerns.

We will be communicating throughout next week to answer various questions, discuss our safety measures, and address your concerns.  

Omicron is indeed highly transmissible and presents differently than previous variants, but vaccination still provides strong protection against severe illnessIf you are worried about yourself or those around you, get your third dose as soon as possible. Three doses of vaccine prevent upwards of 70% of transmission. Nearly all COVID cases in triply vaccinated people are not severe.

Even double vaccination provides a strong level of protection against severe illness requiring hospitalization, and more than 96% of our students are now vaccinated with at least two doses.  

The risk to a small number of our staff and students is a risk we have to take at this time because we are tired of being online. Since there is very little research on long Covid from Omicron, there is no reason to worry about it at this time.

A high level of vaccination, plus the many other layers of protection McGill has in place, makes us confident that we can continue our commitment to in-person academics and maintain a safe environment on our campuses.  

We will maintain a safe environment for nearly all members of our community.

Booster shots now open for everyone 18+ 

All adults are now eligible to receive a third COVID vaccination if it has been at least three months since your last dose. Santé Québec recommends that you get the booster shot, even if you have recently had COVID. 

Three doses will soon be required to be eligible for a vaccine passport, so we advise you to get your booster shot as soon as possible. More information here

Rapid testing available for symptomatic individuals living in residences 

As the government is now restricting rapid tests to people with COVID symptoms, we have transitioned to testing symptomatic individuals living in downtown residence buildings. Three rapid test sites are opening today.  

All residents should have received an email with further details and how to book a test. Testing will expand to Macdonald campus residences in the coming weeks. 

We are restricting the rapid tests to symptomatic people living on campus, as we do not want to encourage members of our community to travel to the University if they are symptomatic. If you have COVID symptoms, self-isolate and follow these instructions.  

Get a booster shot.

Do not test if you might have been exposed. It is important to conserve tests. Even though this virus is extremely contagious, only test if you have symptoms.**

If you have been exposed to the virus, but are asymptomatic, you can come to campus.

Extracurricular activities must be virtual 

Danielle McCann, Quebec’s Minister of Higher Education, announced via Facebook that, for the moment, extracurricular activities would need to take place virtually.  

Report your symptoms or positive COVID diagnosis to the Case Management Group 

Call 514-398-3000 if you have had a positive test OR if you are self-isolating because of COVID-19 symptoms AND have been on campus in the 48 hours before your symptoms began.  

Reporting is extremely important in helping us identify and manage any possible outbreaks on campus.  

The case management staff will also provide information to you about next steps and resources.  

[This section appears to be written in English.]

Take care of your mental health 

It is your responsibility to take care of your mental health.

The uncertainty and isolation from the COVID pandemic can take a toll on your mental health. We all need help sometimes. If you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed, resources are available to help students and staff.  

Because we believe mental health is important, we launched a program called “My Healthy Workplace” in the middle of a pandemic. It’s a web portal.

In the midst of this uncertainty, please remember to take a break and do something relaxing that is not in front of a screen. Go outside, call a friend, meditate – whatever works for you.  I hope to see you very soon.  

Do not rage at doublespeak appearing on your screens, or the fact that your employer, who also employs some of the world’s leading epidemiologists, is not taking an extra week or two to see if the infection rate is actually ebbs. That would not be good for anyone’s mental health.


*Since I’m writing in Quebec, here’s your obligatory clarification that this isn’t about the quality of anyone’s English fluency. In fact, the announcement shows the deft use of English to, in Orwell’s words, defend the indefensible.

**The province has ceased offering PCR tests to most of the population and therefore can no longer accurately track Covid rates.

Read more here for the context in which McGill announced that everything was about to get better:

Aaron Defel tweet thread explaining how Quebec deaths are rising–click it to read it on Twitter.

Zoom Teaching: Omicron Edition (or, the ballad of Mr. Twinkles)

We are in what feels like semester 1 trillion of Zoom teaching. I don’t know about you, but I’m still talking with people about engaging students online. Here are a few things that have come up. It’ll be elementary for some readers but useful for others.

This post is adapted from a conversation I was having on Facebook and a Zoom call with a friend coming off sabbatical that happened yesterday. My Facebook friend was frustrated because students weren’t turning on their cameras; my Zoom friend was just worried about doing a good job and not getting tripped up in his performance. I’ve added in stuff and developed a few things.

  1. If they are going to have their cameras off, I ask them to please have an avatar–a picture of themselves, a pet, or a beautiful place. That way I’m not looking at black boxes. It’s actually really nice. I always take a few minutes the first day and let one of the students who knows how explain to the other students. I still associate some of my students with their pet pictures from last term.
  2. McGill students LOVE to be polled. This is an easy way to get things happening in class. I poll them on serious things, I poll them to see how they’re doing, and I poll them on jokey things. This also gets them involved. There are other collaborative things we can do too: google docs, jamboards, etc. It’s not think-pair-share, but this fall I did a couple generative exercises on jam boards and referred back to them all term.
  3. The chat function also works very well as a backchannel. The chat has been a revelation. I tried a Twitter backchannel one term years ago and didn’t like it at all, but this is somehow different. In my lecture course a few students who rarely spoke supplied a steady stream of emoji and text reactions. It was great. If you have a TA, they can monitor the channel and interrupt proceedings every so often. If you don’t have a TA, stop every so often and respond to the channel if something good is in there. NOTE: there will always be someone who needs to be trained. I had to explain a couple times that the chat wasn’t for asking off-topic questions (requirements, procedures, etc). That’s what office hours is for. Keep in mind that they may just not know and it’s not necessarily intentionally being rude. (Though you’d hope by now that wasn’t the case.)
  4. In my case, letting them see my sense of humour even more than usual has been a godsend and encouraged them to bring levity to the proceedings, which keeps it fresh for me. Maybe this is an “I’m an extroverted white dude” thing but there is probably some slightly exaggerated part of your personality that could be helping out with classroom hospitality. I have a giant stuffed unicorn in my background at all times. His name is Mr. Twinkles The Destroyer. (He’s a gift from Carrie and he is a Covid unicorn.) I also use other props from time to time. Your mileage may vary with that sort of thing.
  5. You have to consider that there may be reasons they don’t want the camera on. Some people don’t know how to hide self-view on Zoom and seeing themselves all day on camera is super stressful. PRO TIP: hide yourself as well. You haven’t spent your career watching yourself teach–why start now? Social class issues come up depending on where they’re connecting from, and that can also affect whether they can talk. Last term, I had a bunch of students logging in from places like the library as well. For discussion and Q&A I let people type into the chat.
  6. Some will just check out–at least from your perspective. Teach to the ones who are there for it and make it as great as can be for them, but also for the people who might watch later or who can’t interact for whatever reason. Nick Seaver pointed out on the thread that it’s more like the performance of a dialogue for the other students, and it is very helpful for students to hear multiple people talking about ideas and not just you. That’s all you can do but it’s also a real thing. Students will go back to the recordings, and people who weren’t there will listen as well.
  7. Remember that you’d just not going to cover as much. I decided I was going for trying to reproduce the depth of engagement, but to let go of covering as many topics. That’s just how it is.
  8. One thing that I’ve noticed is it’s somehow harder to go “back to the text” in Zoom. This is because often students are using the same device to connect to Zoom and to look at the text. I am talking about it with my students this term and we will try different things: putting passages up on screen for everyone (if they’re visible), getting people to use multiple devices, collectively switching from Zoom to the text, or doing it in audio-only.
  9. Bonus round: audio and video media. Yes, I know, visual culture blablablabla. Trust me, sound is what matters on Zoom. This is a little more technical. In my lecture class, I play them music on breaks. I use a Loopback function with my audio interface. If you’re on a Mac, loopback also works well for this. If you’re going to play music for them, go into your Zoom audio settings, and set them up as in the image below. You don’t want to turn on stereo as that doubles everyone’s bandwidth consumption.
A picture of Zoom's audio settings, with the following boxes checked: "low" for suppress background noise, "show in-meeting option to enable "original sound"; "high fidelity music mode" and "echo cancellation."

Once you’re set up this way, there will be an option in the upper left-hand corner of your Zoom window to turn on original sound.

To play music, it’s best to have it on your computer rather than to stream it (otherwise you get compounding compression artifacts). THIS IS ALSO TRUE FOR STREAMING VIDEOS. Turn on original sound, hit play. When you’re done, turn off original sound. Otherwise, they’ll hear every time your hand hits your trackpad.

Many of my friends in film studies just send the students to the video directly, rather than streaming it in class. This also works, and you can leave the chat function on in Zoom while everyone is watching.

Some additional thoughts: In fall 2020, I initially erred on the side of breaking down big assignments into too many small components. It felt, and was, micromanagey and destroyed the intellectual flow of some of the work. But in winter 2021 I overcompensated and found by the end of term some of my students were a little lost on the semester project–they just didn’t have it in them to impose that level of structure after 18 months on Zoom. A semester long project is really going to need some careful guidance to work for most students.

So that was 2021

What a tough year. And I had it easy! All I had to do was not catch the virus. I succeeded on that front. But like lots of others, I was also tired a lot of the time and sometimes stressed out, and didn’t get to spend time with people I wanted to spent time with.

My new book “came out” if by “come out” you mean “have a publication date in” but its actual release has been delayed by the global paper shortage. Perfect for a book on impairments!

Diminished Faculties, Available January 2022!
Diminished Faculties, Now Available January 2022!

For some unexplained reason, I exploded with writing in May after the end of classes. I have a forthcoming piece with Mehak Sawhney on AI, voice, and the will to datify, and a few others things came out of that as well. I made my first “real” video. 2022 will see at least one, maybe more, essay(s) on sound and AI, again coauthored. I might also make some progress on my book with Mara.

I spent the better part of fall quite sick from my medication, and dealing with some related dental adventures. My TAs had to quietly bail me out a couple times with things around the big class. At the same time, teaching was mostly great, graded on a Zoom curve. I was lucky to be able to teach online, so at least I didn’t have to risk my life to do my job. I lost too many work days to illness or pain in fall term, but I did ok enough. I also managed to present my work in remote corners of the world via Zoom, which was not as fun as going places, but good enough for now. I attended a few Zoom talks but really all the Zooming for teaching and meetings was too much and my desire to attend talks waned, though I made sure to show up to a few events at conferences where I was speaking, to have at least a vague feel of participating.

I work with a lot of grad students and postdocs right now, and it has been loads of fun. I learned a lot this year from them in an incredible range of areas and read–and heard–some really wonderful work that should be coming your way in a few years.

The combination of the pandemic and disability motivated me to do some activist work around Covid and disability, and there’s more to be done for sure, but it was very worthwhile. I also joined a group of Jewish faculty who are against definitions of anti-Semitism that preclude criticism of the Israeli state (how convoluted is that?). At my own university I did what I could to educate administrators about McGill’s shameful attitudes toward disabled faculty and those faculty who are around people with disabilities. I did a lot of other service as well, some of it quite meaningful, like serving on the federal SSHRC committee in my area, and working on two hiring committees.

After vaccination and the loosening of some restrictions, I was actually able to see some people from time to time and to play music with bands that included people other than Carrie. Up until then, I’d been playing with Carrie in a 2-piece we invented with her on drums and vocals and me on touch guitar. We now have a name, Ex-Minnesotan, and a nearly-finished EP (some more vocals need to be tracked). There are also two Hard Red Spring EPs waiting in the wings. I got better at touch guitar, taking lessons every couple weeks–give or take–and even tried my hand at reading music in treble clef. Markus, my teacher, said I would be able to move around the 12-24 frets more intuitively by the end of the year, and he was right.

The loosening of restrictions was hard, though. People really got lax with masks, which made going out in public potentially more dangerous for me. I walked into stores–more than once–where people were not wearing masks.

Like most of the rest of bourgeois Montreal, we discovered the joys of vacationing in rural Quebec.

I learned to cook a bunch of vegan stuff, include vegan pizzas that are not based around vegan cheese. I have a standard sambar recipe now as well. Carrie now requests a couple of them on a regular basis. We upped our vegan Sichuan game (I know that’s not a real thing but whatever).

I’m not good with year-end lists, but I read a bunch of books and articles I liked, I listened to a bunch of good music, and I used a lot of fun music technology. I also had a lot of good conversations with people, online, and off.

Finally, in the sea of death, I want to note two cherished colleagues who passed–Trevor Pinch, who has an entry below this one, and Lauren Berlant, whom I discussed on Facebook:

Like so many others in my feed, I’m gutted by the passing of Lauren Berlant. It’s a huge loss to a whole constellation of interleaving scholarly communities. We had many great conversations over the years. Here is a story: the second time I met Lauren Berlant, I was a grad student at the University of Illinois, in the mid 1990s. They had come to give a talk a year or two before and we had a brief conversation. The second time we met, they remembered who I was and what I said. And I was just a nobody grad student. Although I can be terrible with names and faces, I have tried to emulate those two qualities: treating people as people rather than holders of status (still too rare in the university system), and really listening to what people had to say. In recent years, we had an on and off conversation going about cancer from nuts and bolts stuff like food and gloves to much more profound talk about how to think about academic aspirations and limits while living with uncertainty. The last two times we met were both spontaneous: me joining at a dinner after a talk with Katie Stewart at Concordia (I wasn’t planning to go because I was so fatigued, but Carrie talked me into it and it was worth a moment of “self-overcoming” to use a Lauren phrase), and then later the same year running into them at a restaurant in Minneapolis. What’s important about my stories is that they are utterly ordinary–I wasn’t special, just another person in their orbit: Lauren touched so many people’s lives in so many different ways.

28 June 2021

The cats, meanwhile, have had a very good year. Lots of attention.

A picture of Tako, our blind dilute calico, sitting on our amplifier, with a fake fire going on the screen behind her
Cat Heater and Simulacrum
Galaxie,  our fluffy white cat, laying on her side, looking seductive, in closeup.
Oh look, a present!

Trevor Pinch and Gratitude

On December 16th, my friend and colleague Trevor Pinch passed away. Plenty of people knew Trevor better than I did. But Trevor helped me to understand what it means to be a person in the academic world.

The most important thing I learned from Trevor is gratitude. I don’t mean the platitudinous “practicing gratitude” thing that goes around every so often. Trevor had this “I can’t believe I get to do this!” affect about him. He just lived it; if he worked at it, it produced the kind of effortlessness one finds in a master musician. He understood what an immense privilege it is to be a tenured academic. This is something that is all too often forgotten. And it’s really hard to see right now, as Covid makes everyone’s job immeasurably worse and more stressful. But it is still true. We are paid to talk about ideas, and not only books, but books we find really interesting, often with people we find really interesting. We are also paid to read them and write about them.

It is hard to express how rare and special and profound Trevor’s simple acknowledgment of this fact–“it is amazing we get paid to do this”–is in my world. Part of it is the break between the reasons people get into academia and where they find themselves in it. People get in for those intellectual reasons, but soon things start to cloud and crowd and push us away from those things and towards overwork, the stress of precarity, or if we’re the lucky few tenured, an absolutely obscene amount of middle-management box checking, paper pushing, and occasionally being forced into positions that contradict our own values. All of that sucks, but the fact that we get to spend some of our time doing meaningful work–work we believe in–is a privilege. Most people don’t, and for the last two years, some of them have also had to risk their lives to do it.

Trevor was also a great example of a successful academic: he listened as much as he talked, was always curious about others’ work, kept reading and showing interest in the work of new scholars and actively promoted it, and mentored generations of students. He took his turns at service; he helped build at least two fields as spaces for others to do work. I say at least two because I only know of the two we share, Science & Technology Studies, and Sound Studies.

He was also opinionated but aware of his own opinions and limits. Several times we had a conversation about politics and scholarship, where he asked me about something he didn’t “get.” We’re not going to be good at everything, and Trevor never pretended to be.

Although he was the wrong generation for it, he also had a bit of a punk rock attitude to what he studied. Sure, he could talk about physics, or epistemology, but I am certain his best selling book was his coauthored history of the Moog synthesizer. Even in supposedly critical fields scholars too easily confuse the quality or sophistication of the scholarship with the intellectual prestige of the object of study and its conformity to the bourgeois value systems of academics. I have occasionally seen it first hand in our two shared fields. In our conversations, anyway, Trevor just. did. not. care. Of course, I met him late career, and he followed the standard path of establish yourself with a high prestige object and then branch out to stuff that your advisors wouldn’t have wanted you to study. So he could! But that kind of work has also made space for many other people.

Later on, Trevor also became one of my cancer friends. I have two kinds: there are the friends who really went out of their way to look after me when I am going through shit; and there are people who are also going through shit, with whom I can talk about going through shit. Trevor started as the first kind and became the second kind. I just pulled up an email from February 22, 2010. I was in a 2-week hospital stay that I refer to as “the longest period of my life.” I could not talk (well, maybe by then I was talking again) so I was reading and writing a lot over email from the hospital. Trevor wrote me about his travels, an exciting conference he’d been to, some books he was reading, and some music tech stuff he knew I would find interesting. He also talked about the beauty of the desert. It was an utterly banal email, but also discursive, caring, and detailed enough to stimulate my imagination.

Sadly, later on, I would be able to return the favour. But then: we got to the kind of talking the other sort of cancer friends do. The conversations were more personal, as you might imagine, but still with Trevor’s somehow effortless gratitude for the opportunities he had, even when it was just about being close to his daughter.

There’s so much else I could say, like all the great things I actually learned from Trevor about my own fields. And about being a scholar and a musician. But this is what I will say for now.