by Esther Dessewffy and Bao-Chau Pham
In February 2021, marking the first anniversary of the COVID 19 pandemic, Fredy, Andrea, and I newly arrived at the STS department. Well, not quite newly. After completing the department’s masters program, I was curious to finally get to know it “from the inside”. The three of us were warmly welcomed to the new office by our colleagues Bao-Chau and Sarah. Our office was in a building that was so new, not even all the construction workers had left yet (there was still quite a bit of hammering and drilling going on). I felt instant relief; good bye home-office, no more working at the kitchen table. And hello face-to-face interactions and office banter… As the following year has taught me (I dare say most of us), my experience of academic work in pandemic times simply does not live up to my initial, naïve imaginations of a spatially (and temporally) confined workplace. – Esther
Apart from excitement and nervousness, the overwhelming memory of my first few weeks as a PhD student in September 2020 is that of feeling uprooted. Within the first week, I was met by welcoming new colleagues (many of whom I would end up exclusively seeing on Zoom for the rest of the year), moved into a new flat, hot-desked in other people’s offices since the one I was allocated was still a construction site and ended up back in a makeshift workspace on my kitchen table as we all had to self-isolate. While this constant moving didn’t help with settling into a routine, knowing what is expected of a new PhD student, or finding one’s place within a large and yet unfamiliar group of people, I began to realize that this rupture allowed me to suggest and somewhat freely practice my own understanding of academic practices. Ironically, while studying how infrastructures often become visible as they break down, I was experiencing it first hand. – Bao-Chau
Settling into our work environment at the STS department, we wondered how our evolving research designs and the way we connected with colleagues would be impacted by the uncertain circumstances of the pandemic. Even though academic work has arguably been digital by default for decades, it seemed to us that the current (ongoing) situation added an unprecedented dimension, where the spatial and temporal confines of the workplace were blurred and working from home had become the new normal. To us it felt like the rules and rhythms of academic work were at a critical juncture – no longer in total disruption as they were at the beginning of the pandemic in spring 2020, but not yet calcified – a sort of uncharted territory for us to settle into, explore, and shape for ourselves.
As a means of reflecting on these experiences, we – alongside our colleagues – initiated an autoethnography project where we would attend to how we, through the digital aspects of our labor, coexist, create workspaces (in our homes), and encounter our work environments and colleagues. The group involved in this autoethnographic project met several times over the next couple of months to document and jointly reflect on our digital work practices. Next to an interest in digital infrastructures and the production of scientific knowledge, the project is based on the conviction that attending to the mundane practices through which we navigate and balance our workplace and our homes (with partners, family members, and all), enables us to interrogate the nature of academic work, and perhaps find ways of doing it differently. Crucially, making our diverse living situations visible allows us to imagine and create a workspace that will accommodate our common grounds, needs, preferences, and our differences, since these are not always accounted for structurally and institutionally. Hence, in the project we draw on notions of care (Lindén & Lydahl 2021), attending not only to our practices of care but also critically examining them, taking into consideration how they have become necessary in the first place, and which (institutional) structures they support.
In this post however, we outline the autoethnography process from our perspectives as early career researchers and describe how the autoethnography has helped us find our place at the department and amongst our collaborators, as well as how it has shaped our sense of self as early career researchers. Rather than focusing on critical care (Martin et al. 2015) and institutional power relations that emerge from this vantagepoint, we use this blogpost (interspersed with ethnographic vignettes) to focus on how collaborative autoethnography as care practice has shaped our evolving researcher identities.
I think this autoethnography makes the work of arranging and curating what we write, collect, and think about in producing “data” really obvious. Our partial vision becomes particularly palpable when we compare the different aspects of (academic) labor we paid attention to and considered worth noting. Our living and working arrangements have such a huge impact on the things we attend to. – Esther
Being made to engage with one’s own, stay-at-home, sweatpants-wearing self and writing about the drudgery of home-officing, at first seemed to amplify Esther’s feelings of isolation. Luckily, meetings with fellow members of the autoethnography project gradually alleviated these anxieties; we realized that sharing and reflecting on the smaller and larger struggles of our everyday lives brought us closer together. Learning about colleagues’ care-work, relating to each other over back pain and infrastructural issues (like “how do I get MaxQDA to work on my home and my work computer?”), and becoming acquainted with the conceptual “glasses” through which each of us understood their work practices gave us a sense of belonging and shared identity, while the diversity of themes and practices complicated creating a linear, journal-friendly piece.
I’m still undecided as to how those observations, that were shared in this safe space we’ve created, will translate into an academic journal. In crafting our reflections into a coherent narrative targeted at specific journals I’m wondering what we’ll be front-staging, thereby reproducing what we think is suitable for academic publishing, and what we’ll backstage because it seems too personal to share beyond our group. – Bao-Chau
Given our diverse family, living and working situations and the realization that our collective reflections had gradually become impossible to detangle from our individual ethnographic observations, the thought of forcing our impressions into a linear narrative felt kind of insincere. Luckily, there is some sympathy for working with non-linear, experimental narration in STS. John Law for instance proposes to use a pinboard to collate empirical material around logics of ‘juxtaposition and difference’ (2007, 135).
The possibility to try alternative ways of writing excited us and reassured us that it is alright, sometimes even sensible, to not always force our thoughts into standardized genre structures, and that the occasional struggle with crafting a linear narrative didn’t disqualify the two of us as “proper” social scientists. Indeed, our fellow collaborators agreed that the pinboard analogy made emergent patterns and crucially discontinuities among our field notes visible. We became attuned to the way our different living situations imbued our idiosyncratic care practices that had become necessary to pursue academic work in pandemic times.
Getting to know each other
Getting to know someone quite intimately through digital words, images, practices, icons (like Fredy and I doing the ‘night shifts’ and seeing each other’s green Slack circles), before getting to know one’s mannerisms also made me think about digital identities and their embodiment – I now associate Sarah not only with her face and voice but also with her profile picture on Slack, for example. – Bao-Chau
As a side-effect of the autoethnographic observations’ care-sensitivity, we have understood that even mundane practices such as writing this blog-post or simply noticing common work-rhythms, made us feel like our academic (writing) practices were a way to get to know each other, our thoughts, habits, and values, and thereby helped us establish caring collegial relationships. As Bao-Chau once put it “doing autoethnography was performative as a method in shaping our group to be what it is today”; it also attuned us to the digital dimensions of knowing and encountering each other.
The exercise of deliberately writing down, sharing, and engaging with our diverse work habits and routines in group discussions and workshops gave us the opportunity to reflect on the kinds of caring relationships we want to foster as colleagues, and how we imagine liveable workspaces in academia. We also became acutely aware that this specific way of conducting research as a team, taking field notes, joint reflections, thinking theory together, and writing vignettes, was gradually blurring the boundaries between individual and collective sensemaking.
Practicing care in collegial relationships
The autoethnographic writing required a lot of vulnerability and honesty with ourselves and each other. Digitally sharing and communicating private situations, feelings, uneasiness, emotions and struggles added a whole new layer of emotional commitment to each other. – Bao-Chau
Reflecting on and appreciating care practices in academic work that tend to fall short of recognition, such as reviewing, organizing activities, sharing relevant information and calls, or cleaning up text and quotations, has made us attend to the often less visible labor (emotional, interpersonal, time commitment). As early career researchers these were pleasant revelations that reaffirmed our career choices. Both of us had been warned of exploitative and hierarchical structures, but now found ourselves pleasantly surprised to be in such a caring, liveable work environment.
While this collaborative autoethnography project is ongoing (with new members recently joining and a few publications in the works), we have found that it has simultaneously shaped our experiences and perspectives in the early phase of our PhDs. It has also encouraged us to further pursue our interest in reflexive methods by organizing a panel at EASST 2022 called “Making Liveable Worlds Through Reflexive Methods”, to which we have received a number of fascinating contributions dealing with issues ranging from reflexivity in the biosciences to caring through entertainment magic. Moreover, we have understood the value of continuously reflecting on the practices and skills we adopt in order to become what we perceive as caring, attentive, and collegial researchers. Apart from acquiring ‘lockdown literacies’ (Gourlay et al. 2020) to navigate the new challenges and constellations of pandemic living/working, we have also become versed in shaping caring work environments together with our fellow collaborators.
Gourlay, L., Littlejohn, A., Oliver, M., & Potter, J. (2021). Lockdown literacies and semiotic assemblages: Academic boundary work in the Covid-19 crisis. Learning, Media and Technology, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2021.1900242
Law, J. (2007). Pinboards and Books: Juxtaposing, Learning and Materiality. In D. W. Kritt and L. T. Winegar (Eds.). Education and Technology: Critical Perspectives, Possible Futures (pp. 125–150). Lanham: Lexington Books.
Lindén, L., & Lydahl, D. (2021). Editorial: Care in STS. Nordic Journal of Science and Technology Studies, 3–12. https://doi.org/10.5324/njsts.v9i1.4000
Aryn, M., Myers, N., & Viseu, A. (2015). The Politics of Care in Technoscience. Social Studies of Science, 45(5), 625–41. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312715602073
Esther Dessewffy is a doctoral candidate and university assistant at the STS Department. She researches the academic practices enacting simulation software for designing and understanding processes in the built environment.
Bao-Chau Pham is also a doctoral candidate and university assistant at the department. She studies the sociotechnical imaginaries that underpin the governance of Artificial Intelligence on the EU-level.