On TED talks and being quiet

I don’t like TED talks. I’ve discussed my dislike of them here on the blog before. In writing about one of the reasons I am troubled by Brain Pickings I wrote the following:

Her love of TED, with its business self-helpy tone and its pedagogical model that idolizes Experts-who-enlighten, influences the overall tone of the blog. For a number of reasons, which I’ll leave for another post or a series of posts, I don’t like business self-helpy shtuff and my vision of pedagogy comes into conflict with the Expert-as-awesome model.

One of these days I might have to get around to writing a post/article in which I critique TED by drawing upon feminist and queer pedagogical tools. Has anyone done this yet? For now, I’ll use this post to mention a recent New Yorker article that critically discusses “how the conference has turned ideas into an industry.” Although I haven’t read the article yet, I’m intrigued and amused by the opening image which humorously breaks down the standard format of the TED talk (overly polished and formulaic) performance. I especially like the Head Tilt at 12 degrees. While searching for this article online, I also found a post the author did about the article for the New Yorker blog: Five Key TED Talks. In this post, he illustrates some of the features of the TED format through a description of five talks. One of these talks just happens to be about a book I’m currently reading: Quiet.

I have some misgivings about this book (and Cain’s broad generalizations), but I’ll suspend my critique until I finish reading it. Teaser: I’m troubled by her failure to consider how race, gender, class or geographical positioning complicates our experiences and understandings of being introverted or extroverted. And, I can’t help but wonder, in what ways is the introversion she wants to claim a privileged position (one that requires time + money + space) that many can’t afford? Maybe she addresses these questions in later chapters? I should stop writing and start reading…

some troublemaking concepts, TED-style

In recent posts, I’ve mentioned my dislike of TED talks. Admittedly, this dislike is somewhat visceral and not based on my watching or studying a lot of them. I’m not a big fan of the lecture-style and the cultivation of an elite group of experts who dazzle and delight (entertainment is the “E” in TED, after all) a mostly anonymous and silent audience. The audience depends on the type of TED talk; sometimes they are present and very responsive, like both talks below. This morning, I randomly came across two recent TED talks that address concepts that are central to my own thinking and practicing of troublemaking: 1. cultivating/valuing wonder and 2. asking the question, “why?”

Disruptive Wonder

Kelli Anderson’s TED talk:

Here’s how she describes her talk:

Aside from just showing/explaining pictures, the talk makes the case for creating absurdist/surreal work that disrupts our preconceived notions about the world through small, intimate experiences. This type of work can defy conventional expectations by presenting the hidden “talents” of everyday things that we easily take for granted. On a handheld level, these projects rail against unnecessary/unhelpful assumptions—the kind that lurk in the unexamined, quotidian corners of our day-to-day. In these very places of non-examination, the tiniest of subversions can open up small, alternate realities and become amplified into (modest) conversion experiences about our surroundings.

I must admit that I found this talk to be very interesting. I love the idea of Disruptive Wonder and the connections it draws between social justice and creative re-imaginings of the world (through various art projects). While she never explicitly links her work with any movements (like feminism), I see connections with both queer and feminist visions for making trouble and challenging the status quo. I love her last line:

By rejecting normal order, by messing things up, and by rearranging the pieces, we can expand our notion of what we demand from reality. So today, I want to put forth this idea that an avenue to better is for a million teeny-tiny disruptions to whatever’s sitting in front of you. So go mess with the complacently rational!

Her website is really cool and so are her own projects of disruptive wonder (she describes 4 in her talk). Note: I found Kelli Anderson’s TED talk via a tweet from brain pickings.


The other TED talk that I want to mention is Jacob Soboroff’s “Why for a Change“:

In this talk, Soboroff discusses the importance of asking why, in general and with one particular question, “Why (do we vote on) Tuesday?” He discusses how asking “Why Tuesday?” might help us to find solutions to low voter turnout. When you begin to ask this question, you can imagine other ways (and other days) for voting; Why Tuesday? becomes Why not another day?, like the weekends when more people would have time to vote.

Soboroff focuses all of his attention on asking why Tuesday to politicians (mostly, but not exclusively white male politicians). Why not ask people on the street the same question: Why Tuesday? Or, what about: Why does voting on Tuesday make it hard for you to vote? or, Why don’t you vote? Maybe they should add a “how” question here too: How can we make it easier for you to vote? I really appreciate Soboroff’s emphasis on valuing “why,” but I think it could benefit from some feminist awareness; asking why is good, but we need to expand (beyond those in power and at the top) who we ask and whose answers we take seriously.

Whose Curiosity? A very uncurious manifesto for curiosity

In my last post I mentioned that I have been following Brain Pickings a lot lately. I’m especially drawn to all the great visuals in her posts. I also like her focus on curation and her book lists.  In that same post, I also mentioned that while I enjoy reading and engaging with the site, something is just a little off about it. I’ve been thinking about it more, and I’ve realized one reason why: She really really likes TED. I don’t. Thinking about how much I don’t like TED gave me an inspiration for a new social/online media project (details TBA). Her love of TED, with its business self-helpy tone and its pedagogical model that idolizes Experts-who-enlighten, influences the overall tone of the blog. For a number of reasons, which I’ll leave for another post or a series of posts, I don’t like business self-helpy shtuff and my vision of pedagogy comes into conflict with the Expert-as-awesome model.

Recognizing what is off about this site doesn’t make me want to stop reading it or to reject it altogether; I still find lots of value in her curation and am very impressed with what she has developed and maintains (and without ads! that’s pretty sweet!). Instead, it simply helps me to understand my own troubling sense of unease when I read certain posts and learn about others’ projects via her site–like the one I want to write about today: Skillshare and their video, The Future Belongs to the Curious: A Manifesto for Curiosity.

The Future Belongs to the Curious from Skillshare on Vimeo.

Taken at face value, this video manifesto seems awesome. Valuing curiosity as the future. Encouraging the asking of lots of questions. Promoting life long learning. Yes! However, the video bothers me…and the more I watch and thinking critically about it, the more bothered I get. From the hyper-masculine voiceover to the heteronormative male POV throughout the video (we literally view the film through the eyes of a growing boy), I don’t see any space for my own vision of feminist curiosity–or even my own practicing of curiosity as a girl/woman. I also don’t any space for a whole lot of folks, that is, anyone not fitting the mythical norm of white, male, middle-class, etc!

The representation of women and the imagining of them in the past/present/future of who “we” are (of course the “we” = the universal white Male subject) as curious beings is as follows:

1. loving/caring Mom (twice: when boy is born and when boy breaks his leg) who doesn’t ask questions, just encourages others

2. teenage girl sitting in corner, passively listening to music while “we” play/experiment with guitar in a band

3. teenage girl in closet, looking shy/coy and puckering up as “we” move in to kiss her (hello male gaze!). I should mention that it was this image that first made me stop, question and rethink this whole manifesto. I find this to be a really problematic image–is it possible to read a counter-narrative into it? While it seems to imply that she is being kissed by a boy, could we imagine it otherwise?

4. the back of a girl’s head in Driver’s Ed as “we” playfully throw a paper airplane at her

5. smiling woman who seems to be dancing (but not questioning or being curious herself) just for us and for our camera

6. pregnant woman who is fixing up the nursery, presumably for our child

Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t see any girls/women asking questions and being curious. I didn’t see any girls/women having any agency in this heteronormative narrative at all. The only purpose that any of these women seem to serve is to further the narrative of the male thinking, acting, playing, kissing, filming, experimenting, networking, questioning, working self. Speaking of heteronormativity, the vision of the curious future is not that innovative, interesting or curious. Instead, it’s the standard normative model of future = grow up + marry + have kids. For some (myself included) that’s a nice future/present, but it’s not the only one that we should imagine and represent. If we’re truly being curious, why not be imaginative about how we represent the future. Why not include a wider range of folks in our visions of what it could be?

For Cynthia Enloe, in The Curious Feminist, curiosity is about taking the lives of women (I want to expand it to state: not just women, but a wider range of folks) seriously: being open to other stories, listening deeply to the experiences of those beyond ourselves, using our imagination to create spaces where they are agents who have curiosity and can imagine their own better futures.

Wow, this video really got me going. One final bothering thought: In light of all of the attention being given recently to the lack of girls/women in science and math (where successful, “productive” curiosity usually happens) and the need to value and encourage girls in these fields, why would Skillshare develop a manifesto that reinforces the idea that only boys/men are curious and that girls/women are only object and props to men’s practices of curiosity?

OH BOTHER! I might just need to create my own manifesto for feminist curiosity!