Imagine Otherwise: Josef Nguyen on the Politics of Flexibility

by | Mar 11, 2022

Imagine Otherwise: Josef Nguyen on the Politics of Flexibility

by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire | Imagine Otherwise | ep 145

The promises and perils of flexibility

In different ways, we’ve all had to learn to be more flexible in our plans recently.

Ironclad schedules and predictable resources really are a thing of the past (if we ever experienced them to begin with), and being able to adapt quickly in response to changing circumstances has moved from being an ideal to just how we can make it through the day.

In some ways, this increased flexibility has opened up new opportunities to us rethink how we want our work and home lives to be and allowed us to forge new socialities grounded in mutual care and creativity.

But this new required flexibility is also challenging, as the labor involved in making constant changes starts to take its toll.

When flexibility is unevenly distributed across communities and individuals, it means marginalized folks bear the brunt of the new “flexible normal.”

To tackle this question of flexibility, in episode 145 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Josef Nguyen, the author of a new book about the creative economy and its demand for flexible labor called The Digital Is Kid Stuff: Making Creative Laborers for a Precarious Economy.

In their conversation, Josef and Cathy chat about the promises and perils of flexible planning, especially when environments require new flexibility without funding it.

They also discuss the history of youth creative labor and why cultural anxieties over uncertain futures are so often routed through debates over technology in education, which we’re seeing play out in debates over online versus in-person education during COVID.

Finally, they close out their conversation with ways to put flexibility to use in the classroom, on the page, and in our daily lives in ways that center collective support and more just worlds.

In this episode

  • Flexibility as both promise and peril
  • The role of flexibility in the creative economy, including education
  • Transforming a dissertation into a book
  • Embracing flexibility in the classroom to build better worlds
Josef Nguyen wearing a pink shirt. Quote reads: Figuring out where I can be flexible and open up a space to share governance with students is part of building a better educational world, even at a small scale.

About Josef Nguyen

Josef Nguyen is an assistant professor of critical media studies in the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication at the University of Texas at Dallas.

His research and teaching focus on investigating technological labor and design in the political economy of digital culture, with particular commitment to intersectional feminism and social justice.

He is the author of The Digital Is Kid Stuff: Making Creative Laborers for a Precarious Economy (University of Minnesota Press, 2021), which argues that images of and debates over creative digital youth index profound anxieties about emerging digital technologies and precarious employment for “creative laborers.”

Josef’s new book project examines how approaches to consent in digital technological design construct and differentiate subjects in an increasingly informatic world.

Josef also co-directs the Studio for Mediating Play with Dr. Hong-An Wu. Foregrounding intersectional feminist theory to address social and material issues, the Studio treats play both as a significant cultural phenomenon of study as well as grounding for critical research and practice.

Transcript

Click to read the transcript

[00:00:00] Cathy Hannabach: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise.

[00:00:19] I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

[00:00:23] In different ways, we’ve all had to learn to be more flexible in our plans recently. Ironclad schedules and predictable resources really are a thing of the past—if we ever experienced them like that to begin with.

[00:00:34] Being able to adapt quickly in response to changing circumstances has moved from being an ideal that we strive to achieve to literally the only way we can make it through the day.

[00:00:44] Now in some ways, this increased flexibility has opened up new opportunities as we rethink how we want our work and our home lives to be organized and it’s allowed us to forge new socialities that are grounded in mutual care and creativity.

[00:00:58] But this new required flexibility is also deeply challenging as the labor involved in making constant changes starts to take its toll.

[00:01:07] And when flexibility is unevenly distributed across communities and individuals, it means that marginalized folks bear the brunt of the so-called “new flexible normal.”

[00:01:17] to tackle this question of flexibility. I’m excited to bring on the show Josef Nguyen, who is the author of a new book about the creative economy and its demand for flexible labor called The Digital Is Kid Stuff: Making Creative Laborers for a Precarious Economy.

[00:01:33] In our conversation, Josef and I chat about the promises and perils of flexible planning, especially when work and home environments require new flexibility but don’t actually fund it.

[00:01:45] We also discuss the history of youth creative labor and why cultural anxieties over uncertain futures and diminishing resources are so often routed through debates over technology in education, which we’re certainly seeing play out now in debates over online versus in-person education under COVID.

[00:02:04] Finally, we close out the conversation with ways to put flexibility to use in the classroom, on the page, and in our daily lives in ways that center collective support and more just worlds.

[00:02:17] Thank you so much for being with us today, Josef.

[00:02:19] Josef Nguyen: Thank you for having me, Cathy. I’m super excited to be here and to chat with you.

[00:02:24] Cathy Hannabach: This month at Ideas on Fire, we’re talking quite a lot about flexible planning or how to make goals and set directions in ways that are also adaptable over the long term. I know this is something that we’ve all had to wrestle with in various ways over the past several years.

[00:02:39] So I would love to maybe start off our conversation today by hearing about how are you thinking about flexible planning?

[00:02:45] Josef Nguyen: I would really like to start by stating that I am generally a planner type. I wouldn’t say that I’m really strict or rigid about my plans, or at least I try hard not to be. But I do like to have at least a vague sense of the future horizons that I am moving or acting toward to help sort of figure out what I might need to expect.

[00:03:06] We often might think about plans as something being a lot more rigid or cemented and some have to be that way. But I think plans can also be something that we use to just give us a little bit of direction. And I think this is where thinking about flexibility can help if we think to some degree that planning always involves some negotiation of flexibility.

[00:03:29] I kind of want to unpack some thoughts I have about what is even the flexibility to begin with. I would start by accounting for what I think is a really common understanding of flexibility as this kind of individual attribute or quality or personality trait.

[00:03:44] Flexibility is often defined as someone’s ability to not be rigid or stubborn or overly controlling, someone who can go with the flow or be spontaneous.

[00:03:53] I’ve been increasingly thinking about flexibility in my own work and my own teaching and my engagements with others as a kind of capacity or capability that we negotiate in specific contexts.

[00:04:06] I’m starting to think about flexibility more as a kind of possibility space of what can potentially unfold within a particular set of conditions or relations and resources that we might have or not have available to us.

[00:04:20] And this means that we should recognize that flexibility isn’t evenly distributed or evenly expected of everyone.

[00:04:28] Cathy Hannabach: One of the things that I know a lot of people are thinking about with regard to flexibility is not just as an individual practice, right? We are individually expected to be flexible or hope that we can be flexible or just have to be flexible in our daily lives right now. But also thinking about how flexibility gets produced, gets challenged, gets assumed maybe in our work lives or in spaces where we don’t get to control the terms.

[00:04:52] I know a lot of people have run into this with teaching and with universities and with campuses and various other kinds of employment contexts. How have you seen that show up with regard to higher education?

[00:05:03] Josef Nguyen: One of my first responses is that shift to thinking about flexibility as this relational and contextual negotiation, which then allows us to point to things like work demands as something that can constrain or afford how someone can or cannot be flexible.

[00:05:19] There are particular kinds of ways of flexibility is a kind of demand or something that we can contest.

[00:05:25] Flexibility is work and it requires labor. There has been a long history of uneven demands for flexibility that has largely impacted women and people of color in quite distinct ways.

[00:05:37] In the case of the COVID pandemic, I’ve really been thinking about how educational industries have been weaponizing a rhetoric of flexibility. For example, faculty and staff can get memos and announcements from their administrators requesting—and really requesting means demanding—that they be flexible on behalf of students about what modalities or formats they may offer their classes and services and programmed events, and that they potentially have to be able to switch among any of those formats and modalities at a moment’s notice.

[00:06:15] But this request for flexibility from administration is often quite burdensome and largely made without providing really clear and helpful guidance or support and rarely if ever with additional compensation for the labor that this flexibility really entails.

[00:06:33] This kind of flexibility that I’m discussing here has for me really manifested saliently in how I’m preparing classes. The prep work has really ballooned multifold because now a class has to be able to be potentially offered in person or online or hybrid or some combination of those —and often without firm decisions from the administration about which will be the definitive mode we’re working with.

[00:07:02] Cathy Hannabach: That labor of flexibility is something that a lot of folks I think are wrestling with right now. And phrasing it as labor is really important.

[00:07:11] The work of flexibility. It’s active labor to switch things up at the last minute—

[00:07:16] Josef Nguyen: Yeah.

[00:07:16] Cathy Hannabach: —often with little notice.

[00:07:19] Josef Nguyen: Right. Being flexible is a kind of response that is celebrated to deal with uncertainty and uncertainty is very much linked to precarity. So if you’re flexible, then you can figure out how to hustle in order to like make your rent, rather than seeing that as a failing element of our employment and economic markets.

[00:07:44] Cathy Hannabach: I know this is something that you’ve taken up quite a lot in your research, particularly your recent book, The Digital Is Kid Stuff: Making Creative Laborers for a Precarious Economy. And while that book isn’t about flexibility per se, it certainly is a thread that runs throughout it and through the representations and the work practices that you’re looking at.

[00:08:06] Our team was really privileged to work with you on this book. I think it’s really, really smart and it offers a unique take on the creative economy that we’re all living in regardless of our individual place within it.

[00:08:18] I’d be curious to know what got you interested in studying creative workers and their flexible careers as well as how they are represented, which might not be exactly the same thing as who they actually are.

[00:08:31] Josef Nguyen: That’s a great link that I am thinking a lot more about in the context of the, this concern with flexibility. You’re right that the book isn’t itself centrally focused on flexibility, but flexibility lurks in a lot of interesting ways in it, because it’s something that is explicitly and implicitly seen as a requisite element of a successful creative worker or creative laborer or in our contemporary employment imagination.

[00:09:01] A lot of this is a response or a kind of PR framing of the fact that it’s really a more complicated economic and employment world that people are responding to and that they don’t really have a choice to be flexible.

[00:09:14] So while I’m very much interested, as this book suggests, in critically interrogating creativity as a concept and a cultural idea, it was never an original or planned part of what I thought my research was going to focus on when I started out as a PhD student or even when I began writing my dissertation, which ultimately served as the foundation for The Digital Is Kid Stuff.

[00:09:35] There was something about questions of creativity that kept drawing me to them because I think the term and the concept of the creative worker has such baggage to it.

[00:09:49] There’s so many things that get wrapped up and associated with it, that it became this rich site of unpacking these really interesting ideas about taking risks or being innovative. A way to demonstrate that you’re creative is to be able to respond flexibly to uncertain and unknown conditions.

[00:10:11] Cathy Hannabach: The dissertation to book process is something I would love to dive into a little bit more, because I know it’s something that a lot of our clients, a lot of our authors, are working with and it’s one of my favorite things to help authors go through. And it’s also one of the hardest parts of writing that first book, particularly because you find that the project changes so dramatically from the dissertation version to the final published book version.

[00:10:37] What are some of the surprising things that you learned in researching that book or transforming that book into it’s ultimate book form, and how did those surprises shape your approach to the topic or to the project?

[00:10:52] Josef Nguyen: So way back when I first began my dissertation, I was actually very much interested in cultural battles over scientific expertise in the popular imagination and in popular media. I was thinking about DIY and maker culture in particular as a possible case study and was really struck with Make magazine. I was like, “Oh, this seems like a really great place to start in thinking about home educational resources as a way to negotiate scientific expertise.”

[00:11:22] In reading the magazine really closely and tracking the discourse and the language that was being used and the images, there was so much about children—about how to raise them, about people’s experiences as children. And I noticed that this was often in relation to concerns around creativity and innovation.

[00:11:42] I really thought that this was just going to be contained to this chapter, this interest in children and creativity. I didn’t expect that the entire project would transform into being centrally about that very problem.

[00:11:56] After I completed a draft of that chapter, I decided to let it sit aside for a bit and work on what I had planned to be a standalone article on the digital game Minecraft. It was really big in 2011, 2012, 2013 in terms of popular discourses saying everyone needs to play it or at least know about it. All children need to, to encounter it. I really did want to pay attention to this increasing popularity of Minecraft in schools as a learning tool. I started to see connections again between children and creativity being worked out.

[00:12:29] I became really interested in presenting what was happening in the contemporary moment in a longer history of cultural ideas.

[00:12:39] And I found that I kept going back to the 17th and 18th centuries in ways that I never expected as someone who is trained as a 21st century Americanist in an English department. I kept returning specifically to figures and texts and philosophies that we attribute to the European Enlightenment. In part that was because they were founding what become modern theories of children and modern theories of children are inextricable from modern theories of education and modern theories of naturalness.

[00:13:10] And so turning back to the Enlightenment and then seeing how concepts about children, education, and creativity evolved became really important to the project.

[00:13:20] Preparing this manuscript to send off to editors at presses, I was also developing the proposal to provide a framing document.

[00:13:28] I was so committed to framing the project as a political economy project. It’s starting intervention was going to be in complicating how we think about the creative economy and discussions of youth were really secondary to this intervention.

[00:13:41] However, when I would share the proposal draft with colleagues and friends for feedback, everyone was like, figure out how to start with the kids part and in part this was because people have a more immediate buy-in to the book as a project because of children.

[00:13:58] We all have ideas about children, or we hear things about children all the time. We all, one imagines, experienced some version of childhood. That was something I kind of resisted for a while was maybe we would say inflexible about.

[00:14:12] Eventually I understood that yeah, I might do a better service to this project and to my work by meeting my audience somewhere closer to what they’re more interested in immediately looking for.

[00:14:28] That insight allowed me to develop a framing for the project that thought about those elements in more interlocked relation so that it was a digital political economy book and a childhood studies book at the very same time. That became a really important moment of clarity in terms of being able to effectively and succinctly describe and communicate the project to myself and to others.

[00:14:53] Cathy Hannabach: In the book you point out there’s been a very long cultural anxiety over the type or amount of digital skills that youth are presumed to have, and the ways that those assumptions rarely map very well onto how actual youth use digital media and digital tools.

[00:15:12] I’d love to hear how you’re seeing some of those assumptions about youth or the actual digital practices by youth shift in the context of COVID and the new and, as we were talking about ever-changing, work and school and life environments that we all inhabit.

[00:15:29] Josef Nguyen: One of the foundational arguments that I work from at the start of the book, and that is very key to childhood studies, is that one of the ways that societies can make sense of uncertain changes or futures is to route and express those anxieties through discussions of children and youth.

[00:15:48] When there are new technologies generally and new media technologies in particular one of the things we do is figure out how to make sense of them by thinking about its impact or relation or influence on children. Perhaps one of the most famous terms that people use to link children and digital technologies and skills in some way, you know, the idea of the digital generation. So not just the individual child as a digital native but an entire cohort of children, a generation that is itself digital.

[00:16:19] This concept presumes that youth are then organically part of a digital world, that they have inherent and innate abilities that mean that they’re going to be fluent with computing and software.

[00:16:34] But part of the work of this concept is not just to say what children might or might not be capable of. It also takes for granted that the world will have to be, or will need to be, digital.

[00:16:45] The term digital native, of course, itself has long been critiqued. Figures like danah boyd remind us that the term ignores that labor and resources and infrastructures and knowledge are necessary to become comfortable with digital technologies.

[00:17:01] No one is actually ever natively able to, or naturally able to, use computers. They have to be taught and they have to have access to computers to do so. And scholars at the intersection of Indigeneity and digital culture, I think here of Jodi Byrd and Elizabeth LaPensée, discuss the problematic citizenship and nationalistic framework that is mobilized in the term “native” as well as related language that we often use in the context of computing and internet cultures that invokes tribalism.

[00:17:30] So if youth are really digital natives and are part of a digital generation, then shouldn’t they be perfectly equipped to handle online socialization and learning and interaction during COVID. The pandemic in some ways really forces us to make more explicit, whether that is to contest or to reinforce, some of our assumptions or beliefs about the relationship between youth and children and digital media and technologies.

[00:18:04] These debates over technological use are also debates about the demands of flexibility in domains like schools and higher ed, the conditions of work and education.

[00:18:17] When you say that children learn best in person and that online teaching isn’t going to satisfy them, you’re making demands and arguments about what people have to do in order to support children. So teachers have to be in person and have to be put at risk or staff have to be able to manage contact tracing and all this extra labor.

[00:18:37] This also manifests and things like social and civic participation as well. How do people become socialized to interact with each other and to meet each other and greet and participate in debate and conversation?

[00:18:50] Cathy Hannabach: So those podcast is called Imagine Otherwise, obviously, and one of the things that I love to close out every conversation with is that version of a better world that you’re working toward when you make these kinds of critiques, when you do this kind of research, when you publish these kinds of books, when you think critically with your students, rather than at your students, about what youth need and what they want and how they learn and how they engage with the tech.

[00:19:16] So what’s the world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?

[00:19:21] Josef Nguyen: One version of this is through the book and in my scholarship. If I can intervene in scholarly conversations to having people think more critically about what we mean by creativity and creative labor, and to understand that when we talk about children being naturally creative and naturally technological, that there are categories and swaths and politics of children that get purposefully or unintentionally overwritten or hidden or ejected from the kind of futures that we are imagining when we think about the creative economy and what it might be able to offer us.

[00:19:59] And so reminding us to pay attention to axes of difference and systemic and structural issues and inequities are really important in how I frame my work.

[00:20:11] Another more pragmatic day-to-day example of this is in my teaching. As a queer of color faculty member, I’m working with students to think about the world in really important ways that they aren’t necessarily always encouraged to do so or don’t have the tools or equipment to do.

[00:20:31] Reading with them and talking with them and engaging with them is at least one scale of helping make a better world, helping make at least one more antiracist or one more intersectional feminist out in the world to, to intervene.

[00:20:44] Another way that I think about making better worlds is also just thinking about the space of the classroom as a practice.

[00:20:51] One of the things that I do in my classes, and I’m able to do so because they’re fairly small, is provide space for students to participate in shared governance of what class can look like.

[00:21:02] And so it’s really important for me to not just work with students on the content of the class, but in terms of negotiating, whether we’re online or moving to in-person or a hybrid form, what is it that they want to make sure is acknowledged and attended to in our plans for how class unfolds and what is expected of them.

[00:21:21] I think figuring out where I can be flexible and open up a space to share governance with the students, I think that’s part for me of, of building a better kind of educational world, even at a quite small scale.

[00:21:32] Cathy Hannabach: Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of these ways that you imagine otherwise.

[00:21:38] Josef Nguyen: Thank you again so much for having me. It has been so lovely to chat with you.

[00:21:43] Cathy Hannabach: Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, and this episode was created by me, Cathy Hannabach. You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.

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