Episode 3: Joel Bergholtz

(Released July 16, 2021)

Show Notes

Welcome to Tell Me More!, a podcast for amplifying the work of graduate students. In this episode, we hear from Joel Bergholtz, a fourth-year PhD candidate at Florida State University in the Department of English. Joel walks us through his dissertation project on birther artifacts and the spreading of birther conspiracies, or the notion that various politicians of color must be publicly investigated. Joel also talks about race-based skepticism in public spaces and what we can do to understand them.

If you'd like to learn more, chat about digital literacy and methodology, or discuss his topic further, email Joel at jmb10c@my.fsu.edu. If you'd like to learn more about the show, find transcripts, or sign up to be a guest, please check out tellmemorepod.com. Feel free to follow us on Twitter at @TMM_Pod, too. See you in the next episode!

Links to things discussed in this episode:

Transcript for "Episode 3: Joel Bergholtz"

Wilfredo: You’re listening to Tell Me More!, a podcast for amplifying the work of graduate students. I’m your host, Wilfredo Flores... or just Wil.

[opening theme song plays, “Metre” by Slow Alarm]

W: This is a show where we ask graduate students a singular question: Tell me more!

[music continues]

W: So, let’s get into the episode.

[music continues and then fades out]

W: Hi there. Welcome to Tell Me More! where we chat with graduate students about their work ideas and more in this episode, I'm chatting with Joel Bergholtz, a fourth-year PhD candidate at Florida State University. So welcome, Joel! Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

Joel: Yeah! As you mentioned, I'm a fourth-year candidate. I 'm interested in sort of digital literacies in the public sphere, as well as social media ecologies. I sort of have a combined a lot of different, large areas into—there's a lot of different interests that come into and influence the project that I'm working on right now, the dissertation project.

W: Awesome! So you're here today to give us an overview of that project, your dissertation project on birther artifacts, media articles spreading the birther conspiracy, or the notion that various politicians of color must be publicly investigated and coding their responses with the comments and comments section with these articles.So rather than claiming any essential truth about the birther conspiracy or blaming individuals, you want to capture the ways individuals have wrestled with race-based skepticism in public spaces and how others engage with those responses. This is fascinating! So please tell me more!

J: One of the really interesting things to sort of start it off, and one of the reasons I mentioned when I submitted to this podcast, I wanted to emphasize that we're not looking for like individuals to blame. We're not looking for a black-and-white cause and effect. And this is something that, you know, my committee has struggled with because, you know, most projects are, they're supposed to have some key finding, and you know, the kind of finding that I want to produce isn't to say, like anything concrete instead it's to capture all kinds of ways that individuals have, sort of, engaged with race and, and their own racial ideologies as a result of these sort of repeated questioning of politicians of color in the public sphere. You know, so it all started for me with, I remember I was an undergrad, and it was 2012 or whatever. Right when Donald Trump started really fanning the flames of this notion that Barack Obama's birth certificate was not legitimate. And I mean, even then one of the first things I did was I bought a Barack Obama, like, coffee cup with his birth certificate on it, just as like a joke. [laughter] So, I've been interested in this birthday thing for so long, because to me it represented like this bizarre conspiracy with, with no truth that individuals continued to sort of hold on to, and individuals continued to amplify in the public sphere. And so as long as you have those types of—you have these types of you continue to have these questioning of politicians of color. And that's what, you know, citizens have... It's like, one of the kernels there is as, as long as that's, what's being produced and it continues to be pumped out into the public sphere and engaged with, then it continues to be a thing that are like, you know, that we uphold or that we chew on or that we deal with. You know, if an individual is seeing a change in America, and they don't know how to name it. And you know, it might have some racial underpinnings, and they had sort of a racial anxiety. Instead of having to deal with it themselves, if it can be found in some objective truth that, “Actually this anxiety is, is legitimized,” and that “actually these individuals that I may distrust for no legitimate reason. I have a legitimate reason.” And it's because, you know, they, they may be aren't trustworthy. They may be a part of this larger conspiracy. So, you know, then you let individuals replace sort of racial ideologies that they might examine with conspiracy theories that they can believe.

W: Right!

J: Yeah, and that was sort of the larger sort of exigence. And then, when I started getting into like circulation studies, I started to notice that people did a lot of studies where they followed, you know, all kinds of online artifacts. But, and again, I, I know not, I do not know all the scholarship in the field, but I wasn't seeing as many things looking at how comments, how we could look at the effects of something circulating by looking at how people responded, you know what I mean? Instead of saying like, “Oh, it went to all these places,” how can we look at the impact it had? Especially without relying on big data, you know what I mean? Because we can use sentiment analysis and we can, we can pay companies or we can you know, develop the digital literacy and coding literacy necessary to do that, but are there other methods that like a more humanities-based person could sort of enact without learning coding and or paying someone to do that work.

There was a stat I pulled into my prospectus defense that said, like in 2008, Pew Research, they've done like a bunch of birther stuff, luckily. They've asked basically every two years or so, like, “Is the president Muslim?” And different things like that. And by 2008, like 41% of the people polled, you know, it's like four and 10 said that like, “We've, we've heard too much of this, of this, of birtherism, of this idea that the president is like a Muslim spy. We've heard too much of it.” That's like in 2008. So if you think about the project like this, what happens when in 2008, 40% of the people think this is too much and in 2020, that, you know, there wasn't a repeated study, but the numbers rose in the amount of people believing, right? That like the, the amount of people suspicious. So, you know what I'm suggesting there maybe is that like, as you do this year after year, after year after year and, and in different ways, you know, it could be Trump, it could be someone else. It could be Ilhan Omar, it could be different politicians being targeted, but as long as you continue to sort of launch these public, you know, very public private investigations of persons of color as they gain power, you know, then what then, how do people's minds change and adapt to those persons?

W: Right, yeah!

J: So in addition to this, there's, there's a sort of, I would describe the project as having almost like two sides to the coin. That side that I just talked about is about, you know, race and racism. And so as a result, you know, this project has a very Critical Race Theory backbone, and more specifically, like, raciolinguistics. So it's looking at the way that race and racial ideologies are upheld through language. So even though race and racism are very material and real, they're often upheld and strengthened through language. And so one half of this project is about that. The other half of this project has more of like a rhetorical theory back. And so that's what I was going to kind of touch on because I feel like I've, I've touched a bit on the race aspect. But this other aspect is, it comes back to doxa, you know? So doxa...

W: Ah right,

J: Yeah, so I've been using this term doxa, which Richard Nordquist the basic definition I'm using is just like the opinions and beliefs that that individuals have in a culture that or that are upheld in a culture. But I've looked at a lot of different people's definitions. Pierre Bourdieu looks...at he gives a visual model. Right? I don't know if you seen it; it's like, there's this black, black doxa all around this white sphere of like what's being discussed and it's controlling how we talk about these things. So you have doxa, you have that idea of doxa, but what I’m talking about is more of an Isocratian doxa. So Isocratian doxa is all about the idea that a public speaker in the moment can hold a public together through their language. And so, Takis Poulakos, I’m not quite sure how to say their name, but they wrote about Isocratian doxa, and they noted that Isocratian doxa really highlights rhetoric’s constitutive possibilities and the ability to hold a public together. And then I was looking at that, and I was looking at Michael Warner's work with publics and counterpublics. And in there, he says that in the absence of a public speaker, you know, the circulation of written texts is a way of forming a public. So the other side of this project that I wanted to articulate here is that, in comments, we also might see the formation of publics and how can we see the formation of publics and counterpublics through things like likes, comments, shares? Does a share or a like, you know, I would never say that it necessarily means the formation of a public, but what does it mean if a racist meme gets a bunch of likes and a really provocative response that challenges, racism gets no likes, you know what I mean? And, and, you know, that's, that, to me is a really, that to me is a really interesting aspect is trying to figure, trying to put a finger on, you know, a methodology that can highlight how publics might be being formed. And when I say publics being formed, I don't mean real publics. I mean the imagined publics, you know, like, the publics that we see if we see a racist response, and it has hundreds of likes and I'm an individual just reading the space. How does that shape my reading of the space? You know, I mean, for one, it places that racist thing near the top, unless folks like Twitter flag it, it means that I'm going to see the racist thing near the top because whatever has the most engagement is placed at the top. So that's one aspect. It also might mean that I'm, that I, in my head feel more comfortable with who's coming to this artifact, you know, what are the types of people that it attracts and, and, and how did the comments, you know, show how these individuals are orienting to the artifact? You know what I mean?

W: Yeah! Especially with the lack of actual text in some cases, as you say, with like likes or a favorite, or even like a retweet, because the retweet can mean so many different things in different contexts, depending on who's doing that action. It reminds me of that time when Twitter made the move from the star, I think what—I don't even remember what it was, but to a heart...

J: Yeah, it was a star!

W: It was a star. And there was all of this talk about like, “Oh my God, like, I have to love things now?” And it seemed to be like this really big hullabaloo just for such a, a relatively minor change. So those are the more immediate things that I think of, but I'm sure you can talk a little bit more about that.

J: Yeah. Well, it's so true because I think what that gets at, right, it's like one thing it gets at it's a minor change, but it's something that a lot of these individuals have like internalized and turned into like part of the genre. You know, I think about it as like the various genres that individuals are thinking through. When you go to Twitter, you know, like how, how is the individual thinking what a tweet is? And if you change the visual of their means of engagement, you know, for them it might, it might symbolize to others, something very different, like a star and a heart are so different. You know, a star to me seems like a pinned tweet kind of, and a heart seems like a tacit approval, you know? And I think what that gets at too, which is why I emphasize with this project all the time, I'm not going to claim like black and white out right conclusions to anything because a big part of this thing for me, When I first started this project, I was in research methods with Dr. Yancy, and I was saying like, “How is meaning made?” That's what I want my whole project to be about: “How and where does meaning get made?” And she was like, “That's an impossible project.” You know? That impossible.” That's really large, meaning gets made everywhere, blah, blah, blah. But it was like, you know, these media ecologies, and does the text make the meaning? Does the author make the meaning? Does the reader make the meaning? And how do all these things sort of—I guess what I'm trying to get at here is you, there's no concrete ways to say for sure—in these digital spaces, and this is true of non-digital spaces too—like what things mean for each individual? And so that's, what's dangerous about like a birth or artifact is you don't know what it could do and you don't know what these comments could do. You could trolling, and it could really convince like an impressionable mind that this is an appropriate way to respond to this, you know, so, right, the lack of knowing how to— let me say, let me, let me... It's like on one hand, how do we figure out how individuals make meaning of these crazy, provocative conspiracies? On the other hand, there's all this evidence via comments. But then we can't make assumptions about what these comments really mean. We can't say like, you know, a like is not a like and a comment that says, “I appreciate this,” could be sarcastic. It could be ironic. It could be it could be antagonistic. It could be like, some, some enemy trying to, you know, make your side seem worse. There's so many meta-games going on online with trolls bots, algorithms, 4Chan, 8Chan targeted attacks on Twitter where, you know, they talk on $ Chan exactly how they're going to speak and, and, and in order for something, for them to get this response. So when you have all that going on, you can't really trust the engagements, the stuff you see to be the true meaning made, but it also is the meaning made for every individual that just comes in innocently and has no knowledge of all the underlying things going on.

W: Right, yeah. Like I’m trying to figure out things to say to that because it's so good.

J: Yeah, it’s so big! So big.

W: One of the things that immediately comes to mind is the, like the overall, like the telos of the project. Like, you don't necessarily want to make a claim about a specific finding, but rather it sounds like you're trying to provide like a methodology or like an action—or not an action—like a set of things that we can consider when methodologizing within our own works. If we were working with similar artifacts or in similar spaces, especially because there's this very big move, right? “Very big,” wow. There's this large move to understanding how these media ecologies function and how the rhetorical power of platforms in particular allow for specific kinds of violence, really, online in these very important ways as we, as they're seeing around in the nation.

J: And so it's like on one hand, how do we capture that? And we can, I know I mentioned earlier wanting to talk about the bigger issues, but I can totally go into the methods of how I'm capturing those things, but certainly one of the big questions for circulation theorists that are so interested in chasing these big media ecologies where meaning gets made in all kinds of unseen ways. You know, one of the big things is methodology.

W: Did you want to share a little bit about what particular methods you're using for this project?

J: So, you know to talk a bit about the methods of, of, of how to do this kind of work because like, so I'm a graduate student, right? And this is a podcast with graduate students. And one of the things that I think graduate students grapple with is like, I know there's all these methods out there, and I have to go locate the method that works for me that's out in the world that I can go locate that will, that I can follow concretely and, and it will produce the results I want to produce. You know what I mean? And, and I remember reading a piece. I wish I remember the name of it, but it was basically saying like, that's not what, that's not a good way of teaching methods to graduate students because methods are something you ultimately construct that you need to sort of figure out based on the available methods out there, but then you need to adjust and tailor it to yourself. And that's also something that digital methodology has really explicitly emphasized that, you know, like my favorite piece for this argument that I always bring in is Caroline Dadas’ “Messy Methods,” you know, which then goes back to, I think it's John Law's messy methods. And but it, you know, I love that piece because it just, it emphasizes again and again the need to, you know, shirking binaries. She talks about when you go into these spaces, you want to have the knowledge of traditional—dare I say the word traditional methods—but you have to have this sort of kairotic sensitivity and adjust on the go. She also uses the term phronesis, as you can see, like I've lifted a lot of her sort of model because it influences how I'm thinking about these things. And she used the term phronesis, practical judgment making in the moment. And that's really what digital methods call for, I think.

And so I was going into this and I was like, okay, all the digital methods are saying that I need to like, have kairotic sensitivity that I need to construct my own method, but also like, what the hell? What do I do? You know? Like, I—all I just know that I want to look at like, these, this racist stuff going on, and I want it, I didn't even know about it. Like I wasn't trying to pick comments at the beginning, you know, it was just like, I just wanted to try to talk about this in abstract ways that wasn't like pinned down to some grand theory of exactly what happened. I just wanted to explore these things and sort of capture a portrait of the ways that the birther thing has been articulated and dealt with. And so I think the hardest thing for a grad student going into like digital methods, circulation, anything, big and abstract, like this is to create a methods. And for me, like I finished my prelims in January of last year. And a lot of my friends got the prospectus done in like three or four months. It took me a year, to get my prospectus done—an entire year. And everyone I talked to was like, “Man, that's a really long time.” And so, you know, there's, there's some fear to that, but the, the upside is like, I have a very concrete and clear methods. I knew exactly what I'm looking into and how I'm looking into it. If there's any grad students to ever listening to this, my biggest piece of advice, dude, is like, think about the how, in addition to the why and what. Because I was thinking about the why and what, you know, how does birther meaning get made when, you know, artifacts are circulating and individuals are seeing them and how do they transform into multiple meanings and remix and all this stuff. And it's like, right, okay. But you got to dial it back and figure out how you're going to do it. And that was like the big hurdle for me. So to launch into my methods. They're pretty, I would like to say they're pretty simple. I've dialed it back. So it has a very much a circulation exigence, but it's now very squarely, like a raciolinguistics project.

I'm looking at three birther artifacts, AKA like media things. One is a Donald Trump tweet. One is a John Eastman Newsweek op-ed, and one is a sort of conspiracy YouTube video. So, you know, in choosing these three different contexts or artifacts, you get to choose different contexts, as well. I wanted to look into Trump somewhat, but more importantly, the relationship between politicians and Twitter and how individuals engage with politicians plus Twitter. So when I go into, you know, when—the way the dissertation project is broken up is into basically, you know, those three sort of instantiations of the larger case study of birtherism. And by picking those three areas, I sort of get to pick, you know, presidential politics engagement over time. I get to do, you know, the Newsweek op-ed and the sort of ways that op-eds as a genre work and how you know, because they're not research articles, they're not reports and everything, everybody responding to John Eastman was acting like it was a report. It's an op-ed, you know, it's an opinion piece. And John Eastman is free to, to, to write that opinion piece. You know what I mean? So much of this is like, like emphasizing the agency of individuals. On one hand, we keep getting these types of these types of articles have made available to us. On the other hand, you can't blame, you can't always blame the media. You know, like you have a agency to say like this artifact, this, this is an op-ed. It's an irresponsible op-ed it's made by, you know, a a legal scholar, a white legal scholar, and yeah. If anything, it's just a reflection of him or whatever, you know. Anyways. It's just like, it's tricky. And, and the other thing I want to say about that, and I recognize how spread out all these ideas are, but like the left—the left, there's radicals on the left too. This isn't project about QAnon, this isn't a project about... This wasn't a project meant to like, build a hate and distrust of the right. And this is in this, isn't a project of even like subjectifying the right into these like interesting creatures that can't deal with race. There are so many people on the left in these comments saying interesting things. You know, one of the things I see a lot from the left Is arguments about Melania Trump, you know, and trying to pin her as, as not legitimate because of her place, you know? So they see birther artifacts and instead of contending with the very, you know, racist logic underneath it, they uphold that logic and then say, “Oh, well, let me prove that Barack Obama was legitimate. And then we'll say, well, we'll switch the narrative over to Melania.” You know, other people have said, I've seen multiple comments saying that he was raised by a white grandmother. You know, what does him having a white grandmother had anything to do with anything? You know what I mean? So. It's not. And that, and that, that was from someone that was defending, you know, Obama. So presumably someone who's a Democrat or at least you know, not attacking Obama. So, so that's the other thing, you know, so many different areas that we've touched on here, but they're all sort of important and they all influence each other, you know?

So to get back on that methods, just to kind of conclude what I'm doing to, to give a concrete sort of idea of how it goes down. So you take these three artifacts that have very different contexts that I'll be able to discuss, but then you take the URL, plug it into a CSV—there's different ways, you know, you can basically get these large grabs of comments. And then I'm ordering them by user engagement. The statistics on one, on one chart and then I'm ordering them just randomness on another chart, and I'm not comparing these, I'm just trying to give a portrait of sort of a variety of their responses. And one of the most important responses for me are the ones that get the most attention, obviously, because it's an attention economy, right? So you have the ones that get the most attention and then you just have a big onslaught, some of which may have attention, some of which won't, they're all just random comments. So, you know, you can pick any number to do. Yeah. So I have like 50, I'm doing like the 50 most-engaged-with responses to the Trump tweet and 50 pulled at random the 50 most-engaged-with YouTube comments to the video and 50 pulled at random, and the 50 most-engaged-with Newsweek comments and 50 pulled at random at random. From there, I put them onto a Cartesian graph, and this is Elaine Chuns work, you know, I borrow this from Elaine Chun, she has a chapter in Raciolinguistics, and it's called “The Meaning of Ching Chong.” And it's basically a look at how individuals responded to a really racist YouTube video and how their responses upheld race or not. And she puts them on a sort of Cartesian graph that tries to pin racial ideology and it does it as either determinist or potentialist on a Y axis, and it does it lexicalist or contextualist on an X axis. So if you can imagine here, one axis is about when individuals, whether they're being, you know, trying to fight racism, reaffirm, racism, whatever—however, they're talking about race, are they're doing it in a way that is deterministic in terms of like racial categories or potentialist, you know, are they doing it more in terms of focusing on the language itself, which would be lexicalist or are they pinning it on individuals and larger things, which would be contextualist. So then I'm trying to place all the comments on these Cartesian graphs, and the other thing I'm doing is I'm offering tables that offer to readers my process of determining it.

And I just got out of my prospectus defense, and we had this really interesting conversation about activist research versus critical and objective research. And they were saying how, like, if you're offering these tables that invite people to critique your positioning, you know, like isn't this, this isn't quite activist, right? Because an activist agenda would be like, “I'm claiming this,” you know what I mean? And I think for me, it's like, I want that critical objectivity for a couple of reasons. One I'm a white dude who is no means like the end all be all of linguistics or racial language. I want to invite, especially people who know more than me to come in and say like, “Hey, you don't know what you're talking about. Like, this is, this is inaccurate.” I also want people to say, like, “How would I contend with this? You know, like how would I place? Where do I see race? Oh, I didn't even think of it as contextualist,” You know, it's interesting. They do, “I don't see it that way.” So that's the, that's the sort of larger methodology, right? You got three artifacts. You code the comments, you place the comments on. And you offer tables that sort of explain to readers why you placed them, where you placed them.

W: Right, yeah. All of that reminds me of a couple of other things, particularly like trying to bound the case reminded me of John Gallagher's relatively recent piece on internet case studies. Having to—cause that really helped me think through, especially because I'm working with a huge data set on Twitter with about like 15,000 tweets. And I'm like, “How am I supposed to bind this case, like, how am I not supposed to go down these rabbit holes?” But also, just the coding schema itself or just the, the overall methodology reminded me of Jennifer Sano-Franchini’s work on YouTube comments on Asian double eyelid surgery. So they're like—I see your, your work resonating with a lot of work out there. So that's really exciting because I think for like scholars like me, and other graduate students who might be wanting to do similar work or in the future—hopefully other graduate students listen to this—but I think this offers them a lot to do, and as you say, this is adaptive and reflexive, I think in those ways. So yeah, this all sounds great. This sounds fascinating. I love this.

J: Oh, thank you! And one of the big things speaking back to, to that is the, the, like I really want to offer to individuals, especially, like you said, just picking up right where you left off. It's just, I would like to give to individuals some sense of like, oh, I could go out and do this shit. And it's okay if I don't find anything or do find something, but like, here's how I could go out and do it. You know what I mean? Because like, I'm not even saying I wouldn't never have. I would never have the confidence to say that I'm going to give the field, you know, like a method or methodology. What I would rather give to anyone is young scholars thinking like I want to get into this digital stuff. I'm interested. I grew up in this digital age. I I'm interested in, in how fast it moves and all the things going on within it. But I don't know how to research it. And if someone read my piece, maybe they'd come away with the feeling of, it's okay if I don't find these perfect answers and it's, it's a process and it will have to, you know, like you have to change and it's ambitious, but it's, it's worth it. And these projects are worth it. You know, like you're telling me that there's a, that there's a bunch of archives of comments that we could code that deal with how individuals deal with race. And we shouldn't? You know what I mean? Like we may not know how, but that's not a good reason to not dive in. You know what I mean?

W: Exactly. Yeah. Well, this was awesome. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us about your awesome work. This sounds fascinating. I know personally, I can't wait to read more about this. Either the dissertation or articles that come out. So to wrap, do you have an email that you would like to share? If folks want to reach out and learn more or get in touch and maybe connect?

J: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely! My email, which, I mean, I really emphasize anyone that would like to share an article or ask a question or just talk—you could be undergrad and interested in going into this stuff or you could be faculty, whatever. I love to collaborate and talk. So my email is J-M-B-1-0-C. So that's J as in Joel, M as in Michael, and Bergholtz, one, zero, C as in cat at my.fsu.edu. So M-Y-Dot-FSU like Florida State, edu, like education. And yeah, I would love to, I would love to hear from anyone. And I also just want to say before wrapping up that, like, I really appreciate this podcast and what you're doing. I think it's super cool. I'm all about getting, you know, graduate students' voices out there. And I'm benefiting from it too. So thanks for doing it!

W: Yeah. Thank you for, for agreeing to do this! Take care. This is awesome. And yeah. Good luck!

J: All right! Thank you.

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W: Thanks for listening! You can find out more about this and other episodes at tellmemorepod.com, where you’ll also find transcripts for each episode. The opening and closing theme song is “Metre'' by Slow Alarm. Music licensed under an Attribution, Non-commercial, Share Alike License, and special thanks to Slow Alarm for providing the music free of charge. You can learn more about Slow Alarm at nultielrecords.blogspot.com. Be well!