· Open Access
· Organizational Design
· Accessible Web Design
· Sensory Accessibility
· Inclusive Publishing
The website of the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA), which publishes the journal Cultural Anthropology (CA or “Culanth”). The new design discussed in the episode went live in February 2019, with accessibility consulting performed by the Institute for Human Centered Design.
Read SCA board member Anand Pandian's commentary on Open Access publishinghere. For some further commentary about how Open Access at CA works logistically, this statement was composed by the journal’s editors in the summer of 2018.
The spring 2018 virtual conference, Displacements, discussed in the episode, took place both online and in face-to-face nodes around the world. You can read Tyler Zoanni's call to Displacements participants to embrace access as a kind of conviviality, including tips and tricks for captioning videos.
A special issue of the journal Learned Publishing, which came out in 2018, provides an in-depth look at how publishers large and small are grappling with questions of accessibility.
Follow Marcel on Twitter at @spinsterofutica.
The podcast introductory segment is composed to evoke friction. It begins with sounds of a wheelchair rhythmically banging down metal steps, the putter of an elevator arriving at a person’s level, and an elevator voice saying “Floor two, Floor three.” Voices begin to define Contra*. Layered voices say “Contra is friction…Contra is…Contra is nuanced…Contra is transgressive…Contra is good trouble…Contra is collaborative…Contra is a podcast!…Contra is a space for thinking about design critically…Contra is subversive…Contra is texture…”
An electric guitar plays a single note to blend out the sound.
The rhythmic beat of an electronic drum begins and fades into the podcast introduction.
Credit: Kevin Gotkin
Music excerpt: “Tumbling Lights” by The Acid
Welcome to Contra*: the podcast about disability, design justice, and the lifeworld. This show is about the politics of accessible and critical design—broadly conceived—and how accessibility can be more than just functional or assistive. It can be conceptual, artful, and world-changing.
I’m your host, Aimi Hamraie . I am a professor at Vanderbilt University, a designer and design researcher, and the director of the Critical Design Lab, a multi-institution collaborative focused on disability, technology, and critical theory. Members of the lab collaborate on a number of projects focused on hacking ableism, speaking back to inaccessible public infrastructures, and redesigning the methods of participatory design—all using a disability culture framework. This podcast provides a window into the kinds of discussions we have within the lab, as well as the conversations we are interested in putting into motion. So in coming episodes, you’ll also hear from myself and the other designers and researchers in the lab, and we encourage you to get in touch with us via our website, www.mapping-access.com or on Twitter at @criticaldesignl
In Episode seven, Critical Design Lab contributor Cassandra Hartblay and I speak to Marcel LaFlamme about how the concept of open access publishing relates to accessibility. This episode is the second in a two-part series about critical design and accessibility within or adjacent to academia.
In this episode, we talk about how design tensions and opportunities arise in relation to accessibility within two sets of practices. The first is publishing platforms (in this case, the new website for the journal Cultural Anthropology). The second is conference planning (particularly with a new move toward conferences happening in online spaces).
Here's our interview with Marcel.
Aimi: In episode seven, Critical Design Lab Contributor, Cassandra Hartblay and I, speak to Marcel LaFlamme about how the concept of Open Access Publishing relates to accessibility. This episode is the second in a two part series about critical design and accessibility within or adjacent to academia. In this episode, we talk about how design tensions and opportunities arise in relation to accessibility within two sets of practices. The first is, publishing platforms. In this case, the new website for the journal Cultural Anthropology. The second is, conference planning. Particularly with a new move towards conferences happening in online spaces. Here's our interview with Marcel. We're here with Marcel LaFlamme and Cassandra Hartblay for today's episode.
Cassandra: My name is Cassandra Hartblay. I'm an assistant professor in health studies and anthropology at the University of Toronto Scarborough. I'm also a contributor to the Critical Design Lab and the Contra podcast.
Marcel: My name's Marcel LaFlamme. I am currently a visiting scholar in the department of anthropology at University of Washington. I also serve as the managing editor for the Open Access journal, Cultural Anthropology. It's a scholarly journal that's published by the Society for Cultural Anthropology, which is part of a larger society, The American Anthropological Association.
Cassandra: Awesome. I'll just give a little overview of why we thought of you, Marcel, for this podcast. This is the first joint interview that Aimi and I are recording for Contra. Contra's a podcast about design, disability and techno science. We're especially interested in what Aimi calls, Unfinished Techno Science, which is this sort of way of being less positivist about the answers or prescriptive paths forward. Instead, we're really seeking with the podcast to document processes and design processes as they unfurl.
Cassandra: We think that what CA is doing as an academic journal is important, and we wanted to reach out to you and capture our document you're thinking about access in a moment that seems like it's a design moment, when you're actually working out new processes. In part we see this as an advocacy plug for access in a couple different sense of the word. Then also as an opportunity to document technology changes that happens. I think in this episode, something that I'm really interested in, and I've been seeking to contribute to our conversations is, this sort of ethnographic movement to chart the different ways that the word access gets used in different communities. Open Access is one, and then this disability access frame is another. I'm really interested in the overlaps and cleavages that we might find there.
Marcel: Absolutely. Maybe I'll walk back chronologically a little bit, 'cause I think that our thinking about building accessibility into the kind of new iteration into the Cultural Anthropology website and publishing platform, that's the work that I'm really engaged in on a day-to-day basis right now. But to go back to this past Spring, The Society for Cultural Anthropology decided to, rather than doing an in person conference, a bi-annual conference that we've run for a long time, the idea was to try to run a virtual conference or to do an online event for the first time. There were ... I was involved with that, and [inaudible 00:03:39] our conference chair, we assembled a team to start to think through how to do that.
Marcel: I wanna say it was December of 2017, we sent out our call for submissions and opened the door and said, "We're looking for pre-recorded video presentations from scholars." I think what was behind the idea of a virtual conference was access. The ways in which bringing folks together to one city for a conference comes along with all kinds of challenges. It's expensive to fly in, especially for early career and precarious scholars. It chews up a lot of Carbon. There's a real environmental impact to doing that. I think we're mindful that given the current political environment in the United States, it's become more and more difficult for scholars from certain countries to get Visas to be able to come to conference in the United States.
Marcel: I think there was a spirit of access behind this desire to explore this online format, in parallel with the kind of potential for multimedia. That's something that cultural anthropology incorporating embedded media into our research articles. Launched that back in 2016. In some ways, those two strands of looking at the possibility of multimedia storytelling and form, and also extending access in new ways. We send out this call for submissions, and feel like we've really got our ducks in a row, and we've put together this little tool kit that might help those record a video presentation if they haven't done this before.
Cassandra: I remember that. There is a lot of excitement and fanfare around it. There's this sense that we're breaking new ground and we're doing something that hasn't really been done before. We think we're gonna do something really good that could potentially level the playing field in terms of equal access in these spaces of intellectual exchange for scholars coming from the Global South or the East, or various places.
Marcel: That's it, yeah. I do think it was a swing for the fence kind of thing to say, "Let's reimagine what the academic gathering might look like going forward." We send out this call and we're starting to get some interest from various folks, but at the same time, we're starting to hear from folks particularly in the disability studies community saying, "This event sounds great, but it strikes us that there's not much if any attention paid to making the event accessible."
Marcel: The version of access that talked about borders and talked about money and plane tickets, that's great, but it's interesting, as you said in your introduction, that a version of accessibility fell out or it was left unmarked. The assumption was that as long as it's on the internet it is successful and we've done it. The barriers to entry had been taken care of. I think of that, again ethnographically, as a really interesting moment of critique of intervention among colleagues, and one that I think was really generative for us to take that moment that was constructive, but I think there was some frustration too.
Marcel: I think it indexed a longer history that disability scholars have had about trying to make spaces of academic sociality accessible that went back to conversations that have been happening for a long time, and I'm sure both of you have been involved with, in encouraging folks who convene spaces like this, to include folks with disabilities in the mix when designing those spaces in the first place.
Cassandra: Yeah, exactly. To get specific about it, I remember that the issue that was coming up about the displacement conference in particular, was that the CFP came out and it said, "There are gonna be videos." For scholars who have hearing impairment or are ASL users, or for whom audio tracks where they can't see someone's face and lips are quite inaccessible. It really flagged, "Hey, we're making this space that's uniquely accessible, but we haven't considered or thought about how people who don't hear are going to participate. The intervention and conversations that happen was, how can we open up the conference committee to bring in people who are gonna make sure those questions are included in the conversation going forward. Does that sound right to you?
Marcel: Yeah. To be thinking of that moment of comrade-ly critique is sort of how we were talking about it with the organizing committee. What do you do in the moment where something has been flagged for you. Inclusion or a form of a mission of marginalization has happened. Do you ignore it? Do you push back and say, "Well you just don't understand the brilliance of our plan." I think that was a really interesting moment. I would say almost immediately snapped into focus. Gosh, we're not proud of the fact that this wasn't on our radar, but now that it is, let's figure out how to convene a network of folks who can help us to think about this more deeply.
Cassandra: I think that it also raised a really interesting set of questions around labor, because on the one hand, I think what you guys ended up doing was going back and saying, "Hey, how do we get some of these people that are thinking about these things that have a lot of expertise in the room or the virtual room, and the conversation and really participating in the design of how this conference is going to function, what the platform is gonna look like on the web and what the requirements for presentations to make them accessible?"
Cassandra: The disability anthro community is sort of saying, "Nothing about us without us is the rallying cry of the disability rights movement. Let's get people in the room at the same time." The same five scholars have been doing so much work around access for so many years and are pretty burnt out. At the same time, there's this activism burnout kind of problem where it's like, if everybody who has been fighting for access in the discipline for so long, is always the one that gets called in.
Cassandra: That's where people like my generation came in of anthropologists who are working on disability, and therefore part of the conversations that senior scholars have been doing this for longer, have been having and saying, "Okay, how much of this can we take on as allies or as junior scholars take that burden, and move the conversation forward with our generation." It's kind of a cool opportunity. I remember thinking that when that whole displacement thing was happening, because it really did feel cool. We're creating a new platform that is gonna be the foundation for the next generation of scholarship to really participate in these exchanges. What if from the get go it really wraps accessibility, including disability access into the design.
Marcel: Absolutely. I'm glad you brought up the labor element of it. Maybe I'll say two things about that. One thing we were able to do is bring on an access advisor onto the organizing committee for the conference. Tyler Zoanni just did such a terrific job. Created an addition to our participation toolkit about creating an accessible presentation. What I love about that piece of writing, is that it's simultaneously a practical, technical intervention and a real intellectual intervention at the same time. It talks about image description, it talks about practices of making different kinds of media accessible.
Marcel: But the framing that Tyler uses is around language like hospitality, conviviality. He talks about that accessibility as an art of living together. It's so beautiful. I think it really, for some of us who were involved in the conference and for whom admittedly these issues weren't on our radar, it really reframed it for us, I think, in a way that was about, "This is consistent with our values, this is consistent with the sorts of spaces that we're trying to convene." To what I'll say about the conference too is that, I don't think that the finished product was to go back to this idea of unfinishedness.
Marcel: I wouldn't call it the platinum standard of accessibility either. We ended up with a livestream that was not captioned in the final production. There were technical reasons for that. But then individual video presentations. An exciting thing I would say is that, of the 100 and some presentations that we ultimately had, close to 80% of them did end up being captioned, each of them by the scholars who had submitted the presentations, it wasn't outsourced to anyone else. That's exciting to me. I think about that maybe in the context of something like responsibilization. Often we use that word in a negative way to talk about the withdrawal of the state, and services that were once provided now being pushed out into a market.
Marcel: But I think there's a kind of responsibilization that says, "If you are participating in an event like this or any sort of event, part of the call, part of what you are asked to do is to make sure that your work is accessible, and that folks can engage with it." To me, that 80% figure is a really heartening one and an exciting one, because I think for many of those folks, it was the first time they had been asked to do something specific, something concrete, in order to make this intellectual intervention they were making accessible. Even if they spend all of 15 minutes or half an hour creating these captions using an online tool, that's an interesting pedagogical moment for me. How is this next half hour that I'm going to spend, a form of intellectual work, a form of ... Yeah, of a commitment to making my work public.
Cassandra: Yeah, that's really great. I think one of the things that was nice about it also is, in some of the materials, there's this discussion of the ways that captioning benefits not only the marked category of people who are hard of hearing, but lots of people who maybe speak a different dialect of English, or English is not their first language or are maybe listening with the sound off or watching with the sound off because they're on public transit or in a shared office space, or something like that. Yeah, I think you get this clear through line from that to the kind of dialogic interaction that we hope to have in scholarly spaces.
Cassandra: Because I think the standard ableist view of disability is that these are ... That disability means a defect or a lack, and that people with disabilities need to be helped. But a more enlightened view is that, people with disabilities have a particular kind of expertise, and social knowledge as well as scholarly expertise. If you're not making your scholarship accessible, you're closing yourself off to that kind of dialogic interaction that you might get feedback or really interesting comments from scholars all around the globe who wouldn't feel invited to be a part of your presentation otherwise. I think that that's an ethic that got really explicitly underlined by the video captioning problem, but which also holds true for other conference spaces, right?
Cassandra: Even the sort of traditional conference space where you're in the room. I've been to so many round tables where everyone gives up on using the mic 'cause it's corded. Then I've seen senior scholars who aren't out as having lost hearing just walk out of the room, 'cause they give up. They're like, "I can't hear anything, I'm leaving." Then, how many people in the room miss out on having that senior scholar hear their comment and know what they're working on." I think we all have something to learn from these technological moments of design and redesign, even reflecting back to the quote on quote more traditional model.
Marcel: Very much so. I'll just say, that's something that I think in starting to engage with Aimi's work that I've ... The way in which that kind of problematic of universal design gets framed, is interesting. One argument that you can make as I understand it, is that in designing for accessibility, you're also designing for other publics, and there are these other duel use effects that emerge. Aimi, my sense from your book and other writings is that, there's attention in and of itself in the disability community to say, "How do we ... To what extent is universal design a strategic way of advancing a set of aims." Are there ways in which universal design also lets folks off the hook for designing for specific kinds of disabilities, and naming the fact that that's the work in which they're engaged. Can you say a little bit about that?
Aimi: I think you're referring to the way that universal design sometimes gets used to either deprioritize disability design to say, it should just be good if we design for everyone, but not specifying who that everyone is, versus the prevailing focus which is on mobility, and to a lesser extent kind of sensory and other types of disabilities. Is that what you're referring to?
Aimi: Yeah. Did you see that tension come up in the work that you're doing around designing the conference or the journal?
Marcel: I did, yeah. I think that maybe to extend it forward into the work we're doing in the journal now, one thing I've been learning in starting to immerse myself into this kind of world of inclusive publishing, is the language the folks would use, there's a standard around format and the way in which the PDF, which a lot of academics take to be the kind of ... Yeah, in a sense, your article doesn't exist until there's a PDF for it. It's just sort of a manuscript until it's served up to us as this beautiful book like form.
Marcel: But I mean, in working on the Sound and Vision project, where we were embedding media object and research articles for the first time, a thing that we learned there is that, there are limitations around the PDF precisely because it gives you a snapshot of the text. Even if the characters can be recognized, there are ways in which the PDF really is not a very accessibility friendly as the finished form, and as the instantiation of an article in all of its finishedness is to make certain kinds of things not possible.
Marcel: A thing to be learned on Sound and Vision was that, to embed media in a PDF, it's very difficult. It will work on some devices and not on others. Really, the standard that in electronic book publishing that has emerged, but is working its way over into the article world too, is the EPUB. EPUB have the advantage of being reflowable. There's a universal design case for the EPUB too, right? That there are ways in which EPUB can benefit you. You can embed media files in it. Once an EPUB is downloaded, you have the files on hand even if you're somewhere that doesn't have internet connectivity, you can play them back.
Marcel: But in an inclusive publishing context, there's a specific benefit to the EPUB in terms of it's compatibility with things like screen readers. Yeah, I think that's a place where right now Cultural Anthropology just provides EPBUs for the Sound and Vision articles. If we're publishing an article with embedded media, and we take the extra step to generate an EPUB. But for everything else, we're still on PDF. One piece of this kind of move into exclusive publishing for us, is to make a commitment that starting in 2019, all of our published journal content will be available in EPUB form.
Marcel: We're working with the folks at the Institute for Human Center Design, and Boston, to validate the EPUBs that we're producing, and to say, "How do we make sure that those EPUBs do what we want them to do." Yeah, that process for us I think has been interesting to see how a format that we tiptoed into for one set of reasons, we're now finding that it does align with this sort of movement to inclusive publishing we're trying to make.
Cassandra: That's awesome. Marcel, I realized I skipped a couple questions at the beginning, but maybe it makes sense to go back to them now. Which is, would you talk a little bit about your work for the Cul Anth journal, and how that fits together? I think people in anthropology versus others out there, we've been talking a lot recently about the structure of journals and how different ... The design of hierarchical or parallel bodies that bring journals into being is significant. Maybe just telling us a little bit about how the journal functions and what your role is within it, would be really useful here. Also, this is a whole separate question, but I'm really curious about what Open Access means to you in general.
Marcel: Absolutely. I think as I said in the beginning, the journal of Cultural Anthropology is published by a section of this larger American Anthropological Association. There are good and bad things that come along with that, that we ... There are ways in which the infrastructure that this larger scholarly society has created and maintained. Things like processing membership is something that we can rely on them to do, but it also constrains us in some ways. It means that power, governance, process, is nested within this larger organization that since 2008, has had a publishing partnership, or is the language they use, although I might not, with a corporate publisher Wiley.
Marcel: For the American Anthropological Association journal portfolio of 22 journals, they are largely published on a subscription basis, which means that if you are a member of the American Anthropological Association or if you are affiliated with an institution that subscribes to the suite of journals that the Triple A publishes, you can read one of the journals. If one of those two conditions isn't met, there's also a philanthropic access arrangement that applies to certain countries in the developing world. Although, not many of the ones in which our readers are, like India.
Marcel: If those conditions are met, you can read the content, and otherwise you can't. It really functions on the model of scarcity that some people can read, and some people can't. The way that societies like the Triple A make sure the publication revenue keeps coming in, is to make that cut, and to say some folks can read and some folks can't. That coercive move is about generating the revenues to keep the society going. I'd say within anthropology for ... Going back nearly to the early 2000s, there was an interest among scholars in Open Access, in those scarcity of the kind of material object isn't the barrier, might it not be possible to open up access to the scholarly record.
Marcel: Yeah, to sort of get away from that subscription model in which some folks can read and some folks can't. The culmination of really a decade of activism within the Triple A, came in 2014 when Cultural Anthropology became the first journal within this broader portfolio, to go Open Access. The Triple A and it's publishing partner, Wiley, agreed on a trial basis or as an experiment, was the language that was being used, to allow one title to go Open Access. And Cultural Anthropology was the only one bold enough or fool hearty enough, depending on the day, to step forward and to say, "Yes, we wanna take that step."
Marcel: Yeah, 2014 was really the rebirth of the journal in some ways, not only as an Open Access journal, but as a self published journal. This is a distinction that my predecessor, Tim Elfenbein, who was the managing editor at the time of the Open Access transition, made. When a journal goes Open Access, it doesn't stop having a publisher, right? It's just that the responsibility for who does those publishing activities, who tends to that infrastructure, shifts potentially. For us, it meant that a lot of the functions of publishing, of type setting, and pushing out meta data to indexers, I mean, that kind of brass tax of online publishing, were things that once upon a time, we had a commercial publisher take care of that for us.
Marcel: 2014 was really a moment where to go back to responsibilizaiton, where we became responsible for doing that ourselves. My role as managing editor at the journal, is really kind of overseeing that production process. In 20 hours a week, I mean it's a half time position, is how it's budgeted. We're trying to recreate a lot of the functions that this big established publisher that has hundreds of titles under it, can do.
Marcel: That's an ambitious undertaking, and one that ... I think it's given us a lot of freedom to be able to try new things, to embed media at a point when Wiley couldn't deliver that to the rest of the Triple A portfolio, and because we had our own platform, we were able to do that. But conversely there is maintenance and infrastructure entailments there that we've signed on for, and that as managing editor, I don't do it all myself. I have a team of vendors and contractors that I work with, but I guess I'm the point person to make sure that all of those things come about.
Cassandra: That's really interesting. I mean, I'm not someone who knows a lot about the history of Open Access as a concept, but it struck me as you were talking to think about the ways in which infrastructures stay with us after technologies have become less or have moved forward. Even the idea of a subscription model makes a lot of sense when you're printing physical journals and mailing them around the world, 'cause it's literally, "Who wants me to mail them a copy of this thing that I just made, this object?" But then for digital subscriptions, it's a very different kind of process of figuring out what needs to go out, and how does it get out. The idea of indexing, that you were just talking about, I think that's something that from the side of someone who writes for academic journals but doesn't necessarily know the publishing details, is totally opaque to me. Yeah-
Marcel: I'll just say that it's interesting to think about the kind of barriers that actually get built in order to make sure that content doesn't move freely. I don't want to embrace that kind of information that wants to be free, kind of cyber libertarian perspective here, because I think scholars like Kim Christens Have written really beautifully about the ways in which, for communities to make decisions about how content travels is important, and especially in indigenous and colonial context. To say that all knowledge ought to flow freely and without limitations.
Marcel: I actually think that anthropology is has been able to offer a powerful critique of that ideology, which is in many ways, a very market driven one. But, it's fascinating to think about libraries. I think I mentioned to you folks that, before I went to graduate school for anthropology, I was a librarian. I got a masters degree in library science from Simmons College in Boston. I ran a community college library for a few years. To think about the kind of service ethos the libraries have, and that in general libraries are about making materials available. If it didn't already exist today, I think to propose it would be ... You would be seen as a revolutionary, right?
Marcel: The idea that you would challenge the idea that everyone needs to own every book themselves, but instead this community institution could provide that, and that we would use tax revenue to do that. If libraries have this access ethos at their core, it's fascinating how in the digital publishing era, libraries have been responsibilized to deny access. If you think about, if you're in academic and you sign to your certain institution because you wanna read a journal, you'll be asked to type in your credentials, has been offloaded to libraries.
Marcel: It's fascinating that the work of making sure that content is not accessible, and that that coercive cut between who can read and can't read is maintained. What's deeply ironic to me, is that it's not the publishers who are even doing that work, it's libraries that have been tasked with making sure that the right people can read, and that the wrong people can't. From a design perspective, libraries spend time and money on this, trouble shooting these authentication products.
Marcel: Everyone's had the experience where it says in the catalog that you have access to the journal but then you don't. Then there's this back and forth. Libraries were actually starting to try to produce metrics for this and to say, "What does it cost the library to deny access in this way? How do we put a number on that by way of being able to understand how the current regime of publishing ... What are the effects of that on libraries? What are the ways in which that gets budgeted into operational costs.
Cassandra: Wow, that's really fascinating. I hadn't thought about it from that point of view before, at all. I think that brings us to this question that we were chatting about before we started recording, which is something we've all been thinking about in terms of how academics and the work of doing scholarship and doing higher ed, a lot of times design work, and Aimi maybe you wanna say something about that also 'cause I think it's something you've thought about a lot.
Aimi: Well I think, Marcel, you've given us so many examples to think with. The space of the library, the space of the conference, the practice of sharing information, or the setting boundaries around information. Gate keeping information. All of these are designed sites in the same way a building is a design site. Someone made a decisions to produce them to function in a particular way. I wonder if you could just say a little bit about whether you think about your work as design work?
Aimi: If not before, after this conversation, what considerations might you have about things designers think about, like investigating a problem, building a prototype, testing a prototype, interacting with users, anticipating users, all of these things that we don't typically think about as the normal means of academic practice, but they're clearly what we've been talking about this whole time. I wonder if you have any thoughts about that.
Marcel: Yeah. I think that in part because ... Certainly since this move towards self publishing for the journal, but even before that, to go back 10 years to ... Cultural Anthropology was one of the first journals to have it's own free standing website separate from the journal. Actually one of the first ones within the American Anthropological Association. Even 10 years ago, there were the editors of the journal, and graduate students who were working with them, I would say were actively thinking about designing spaces for interaction. Ways that we could extend the reach of an article and provide different foot holes or points of access into them.
Marcel: Doing things like author interviews, providing supplemental content that didn't make it into the article, but could maybe live on the site. Yeah, I think that that design ethos is one that has been within the Society for Cultural Anthropology as a publishing organization, for some time. But I do think it's different than the kind of vendor/client model that I think a lot of societies have to their publishers. Where the model that says, "Infrastructure's the publisher's responsibility. That's the thing that they're bringing to the table. We supply the content, they do the infrastructure. That's the division."
Marcel: I think for going on a decade now, Society for Cultural Anthropology is in building infrastructure too. You know, making choices about, to what extent is it important that we own all of this? To what extent can we use hosted services and the expertise of others? Is it necessary that all of this be in house? The current iteration of the Cultural Anthropology website is a radically custom set up. We're the only publication in the world that runs on it. We have a freelance developer who makes changes to it, for us.
Cassandra: I just wanna add here for people who don't use the Cul Anth website, culanth.org, you guys have done a phenomenal job of having website only content that is still scholarly, so that very often if you have a conference or if you have a set of ideas that you want to get on the web and available within a year, you can do an edited series and send it to Marcel. Then the team of social media folks will pump it out there, and it will be on Facebook, and it will be on Twitter, and repeatedly tweeted out. It's got this really great kind of ... I think you guys have designed a really nice infrastructure in terms of generating ongoing content that is not only the classical academic journal content, but also academic content that is really customized to how people use the internet.
Cassandra: That's really thoughtful in terms of imagining your users, right? Because how many of us are taking a break from writing and clicking through whatever social media site, and seeing what's going on in the discipline? So that it becomes, or social media use becomes quote on quote, work. Also in the sense of networking and keeping your finger on the pulse, but still kind of taking a step back from your own research or teaching practices. Yeah, I feel like you've done a really nice job of designing the site to hit those contemporary impulses.
Marcel: Thanks. Yeah. I think the acknowledgement of what scholarly publishing looks like, is changing. That the eight to 10,000 research article is only one form that people are working in today and want to work in today. We're at the point where, our short form web content drives more traffic to the Cultural Anthropology website than the long form, peer viewed journal articles. That's a little deceptive. There are other points of access to the long form content too, but absolutely, I think there's a way of that there is an appetite for these new forms. To be honest, it's been a bit frustrating to work within the strictures of the larger association in that way.
Marcel: Some of the accessibility work that we were hoping to do as part of the website redesign, there were some grant funds that we were hoping to draw down, that had been rewarded to use by this publishing futures committee within the Triple A. But when we came to them earlier this summer and said, "This is what we'd like to draw down the funds to do," that request was not approved. It's interesting, and I think kind of revealing, the reasons why. I think it goes to questions about who's job accessibility is. There are two parts to the answer. One part was, there is no problem with accessibility.
Marcel: The idea was that, because most other sectioned websites are WordPress sites, which WordPress has a pretty good track record actually, of working with folks with concerns around accessibility, and because they're centrally posted, there's no problem. All of the sites, except yours, are already accessible. There's no need to devote resources to this. Of course you can use an online accessibility check and quickly determine that that's not in fact the case. That if disability media scholars have helped us understand that, access is not a one time fix, but it's part of this ongoing labor of tagging images and providing image descriptions. There is no argument, really, where it didn't stand out.
Marcel: But in the other move, which I think goes to your point about changing the nature of content, the committee said to us, "Well, this isn't our problem anyway. We oversee journals, and journals are the serious form of academic publishing that we're concerned about. This other stuff, this web content, whatever you folks are up to, it's all well and good, but it's really not the serious business of publishing, which we're concerning ourselves. That strikes me as an interesting way of rejecting an engagement with accessibility. One is to say, "There is no problem," and then one is to say, "It's not our problem. It might be someone else's problem, but it isn't ours."
Marcel: I think The Society for Cultural Anthropology has said, "Well, it is our problem, and we're choosing to take this on with or without this particular form of support." The Society is absorbing the cost of, we have a nonprofit fundraising arm. Friends of Cultural Anthropology is actually launching a Kickstarter campaign this Fall to try to crowdfund the remainder of the work. I think that locating the resources to do this kind of work, it self produces these diagnostic moments, where you can see institutional logics at work in terms of what's prioritized and what isn't.
Aimi: Wow, that's so fascinating, and so familiar at the same time with other places in academic context where responsibility gets shifted or denied around accessibility. You may be interested, there's great work from David Mitchell and Sharon Snider. They were some of the first folks to make the Modern Language Association meeting accessible. They went into their own archives from that meeting 20 years ago and found all the documents where they've been told, more or less, the same things by the MLA. Then presented them in a contemporary context in which access was still be denied to say, "You've been saying this isn't a problem for 20 years, and yet it continues to be a way that institutions align themselves against responsibility for accessibility.
Aimi: It's so interesting too that a professional organization that has a committee on publishing futures, the design considerations about that that future are being strategically shaped in this way. It seems like there's so much there to think with and to try to maybe think about alternative models for thinking about publishing features too, that cut across ... I haven't really thought too much about this, but I know that the folks who work at web accessibility specifically, are thinking so much about what the future of digital content should be like, and how to set the bottom line standard for that as accessible. There's quite a bit more universal design work in that world than actually in architecture or a field like that.
Aimi: It's so interesting to hear from you about how the non implementation of these things is taking shape, even while you are making so much effort to make things accessible, and to read disability theory, and to try to approach these design processes based on experiences that you've had with other accessibility projects, like we talked about earlier. I'm really grateful for you cracking open the black box of all of this, because I think so many of us just have no idea what's happening behind the scenes of publications that are produced, and it's clearly an area that is ripe for activism.
Marcel: Definitely. I think it's a space where bringing disability studies notion of access to there on how we think about Open Access, it's really productive. For me, it's not about substituting one for the other. I think there are differences that are important to mark. In some ways, I'm actually a big of a prescriptivist about what Open Access means, what that terms means, because I think there are ways that it's fudged, and that the American Anthropological Association has a journal called Open Anthropology. But what that journal does, and the folks who run it are great, but it ungates articles for 12 months, and then it gates them again at the end.
Marcel: It's true that they're free to read for that period, but if one thing that Open Access has come to mean, is that content is free to read indefinitely or for the duration of the copyright. I think that there's value in holding the line on what Open Access refers to, and what it indexes, to avoid it's co-optation in some of these other forms. I'd see colleagues of mine, Anand Pandian, who I worked with on the conference, wrote a piece earlier this summer that I think does something different. It really asks, "If we open up what we mean by open, and what we mean by access, how do we get to a more capacious understanding of the different things that we might want publications to do. I admire that argument.
Marcel: I think mine might say that, Open Access is only one horizon of aspiration for scholarly publishing. It matters to me that we use this stringent definition and talk about, that it's free to read but it comes along with rights for reuse in a digital environment. I think that that definition has served us well in certain respects. I would like to see those aims realized, but it's more and more clear to me that ... Open Access is in some ways a fairly conservative project, right? Because it's about taking an existing publishing system and publishing firm.
Marcel: But it doesn't do a host of other things. It doesn't ask, "How might those forms change?" It doesn't ask, "Did those systems really work for people in the first place?" Yeah, I'm inclined to think about Open Access as one star in this constellation of different forms of aspiration that we might have. I think inclusive publishing is the language I've come to use to think about a parallel and related effort that also is intentioned with and reveals productive contradictions between these different ways of thinking about access.
Aimi: Yeah, that's so helpful. Thank you. I think that might be a great place for us to conclude and give our audience some things to think about. Thank you so much, Marcel, for being here. We've really enjoyed this conversation. We look forward to seeing how all of these things develop going forward. Yeah, thank you.
Marcel: Very much so. Thanks for having me on.
Cassandra: Hi Contra* listeners, Cass here. The interview that you just heard was recorded in August 2018. You might be interested to know that in the 6 months or so since the episode was recorded, a few interesting things have happened. The new website of the Society for Cultural Anthropology and the journal Cultural Anthropology went live in Feburary 2019. In the course of the redesign of the site, Marcel and his colleagues at the SCA ended up opting for a customization of an existing website platform, rather than a fully custom site, as had been the case in the past. But, holding with their commitment to take inclusive publishing seriously, and considering the multiplicity of meanings of access, SCA contracted with the Boston-based consulting group, Institute for Human Centered Design, to conduct a full human audit of the new site. And, unlike much published online content, SCA’s leadership has consistently included disability access in their messaging and announcements about what Open Access or Inclusive Publishing means for their infrastructure and platform. If you’d like to learn more about inclusive publishing, SCA and their online conference, or the Institute for Human Centered Design, you can find links to all of this in the show notes for this episode. As always, Contra*’s show notes include a full transcript of the podcast audio. Over and out!
You’ve been listening to Contra*: a podcast about disability, design justice, and the lifeworld. Contra* is a production of the Critical Design Lab, Kevin Gotkin, Aimi Hamraie, Cassandra Hartblay, Maggie Mang, Jarah Moesch, and Leah Samples. Follow us on Twitter at @criticaldesignl and learn more about our projects at http://www.mapping-access.com.
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