Event Sponsorship and Dismantling the Master’s House
by Dr. Sarah Payne, DLINQ Instructional Designer
I went to many inspiring, informative talks at the OLC Innovate Conference. One in particular that stands out is Andratesha Fritzgerald’s Fight: Personalize the Protest with Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning. UDL aims to provide multiple pathways for students to learn and engage with course material to ensure that all students have the chance to succeed. As Fritzgerald emphasized, racism is a barrier to learning. We must also apply antiracist principles to UDL so that BIPOC students feel welcomed and honored in our classrooms. Fritzgerald also provided a list of actionable steps that educators, or anyone really, can take to become more antiracist including demanding better of yourself, challenging and frustrating systems of oppression, and holding every system accountable.
In light of Fritzgerald’s call to action, I began to think more critically about the conference itself. The “National Titanium Sponsors,” meaning the highest tier, includes four companies. Three of these companies produce online proctoring software: Proctorio, ProctorU, and Examity. Earlier this year I wrote a short piece critiquing the use of online proctoring software for DLINQ’s Digital Detox series. As I noted in that piece, proctoring software cultivates a teacher/student relationship built on surveillance and distrust, which isn’t conducive to student learning. Additionally, this type of software is often algorithmically biased and can disproportionately harm BIPOC, neurodivergent, and transgender students. I felt uneasy attending a conference sponsored by companies that I knew caused harm to students. I wasn’t the only attendee to feel uncomfortable with the sponsorship. The keynote speaker, Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani, ultimately withdrew from the conference because his emphasis on ethical ed tech conflicted with the conference’s sponsorship. Other participants also boycotted the conference for similar reasons. Some participants that chose to attend changed their Zoom names to reflect their disapproval of online proctoring software.
I’m reminded of Audre Lorde’s assertion that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” For Lorde, we can’t dismantle oppressive systems by using the language and structures that created those oppressive systems in the first place. We have to refuse the current systems and create new ones. By withdrawing from the conference, Dr. Jhangiani seems to refuse the master’s tools. Importantly, however, he does not want his refusal used to “chastise or shame those who make different, principled choices.” Participating doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an agent of surveillance technology. Those who gave talks on antiracism, culturally responsive teaching, and student care provided an alternative narrative to the one put forth by online proctoring companies. I respect those who withdrew from the conference because of its sponsors and I respect those who participated and still protested the sponsors whether through the content in their presentations or their Zoom names. I don’t think one approach is necessarily better than the other. Both have inspired critical conversations about the use of remote proctoring software.
What I find interesting is that Lorde delivered her remarks on the master’s tools at a conference. During her talk, she excoriated the event organizers for their failure to include “poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians” in a conference that was supposedly focused on the role of difference in American women’s lives. She still participated in the conference and used her platform to critique the racism of academic feminism. I haven’t decided if I’ll attend future OLC conferences, but the words and actions of Fritzgerald, Jhangiani, and others have inspired me to be more thoughtful about if and how I participate in these types of events. If anything, my participation shouldn’t be a passive one, but an opportunity to push back against systems and technologies that harm marginalized communities.