My first keynote: on life as an interdisciplinary and feminist ECR in UK academia

I was invited to give my first keynote presentation at the EPSRC Nottingham University Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training. Of course I was nervous and terrified about what *I* would have to say, and was riddled with imposter syndrome not understanding why anyone would ask me to open a 2-day event for multiple cohorts of PhD students, their supervisors, and support team. The CDT focuses on ‘my life in data’ and many of the projects relate to data very directly and concretely, something I have am not entirely sure about how to talk about in the ‘data science’ sense…

But I accepted the invitation anyway.

It was wonderful and difficult to prepare the talk, and took me much longer than it probably should have. What I said wasn’t perfect and will be riddled with flaws, but it was also part of my own thinking and development. I shared personal stories and experiences.

As has become customary during the pandemic, I wrote out most of my text, but ad-libbed throughout as well. I copied my notes and screenshots of the slides below:

Thank you very much for the invitation and wonderful welcome, Velvet, and thank you to everyone who is here listening. My name is Angelika Strohmayer, and I’m a lecturer at Northumbria University’s School of Design and co-Director of the recently established Design Feminisms Research group alongside Dr Reem Talhouk. I am also a founding member of fempower.tech, an international network and technology collective exploring the relationships between theories and practices of feminisms in relation to technologies and activism within academia.

I am really humbled (and a bit scared) to be invited to give a keynote at your Horizon CDT. I did my own PhD in the EPSRC CDT for Digital Civics at Newcastle University, graduating in 2019, and have invested a fair amount of time into thinking about academic and non-academic collaborations, and have worked with students across different CDTs, including velvet, on writing and activism projects. Being part of this wider network of CDTs has been one of the best things of doing a PhD, and before I get into my talk, I do just want to encourage you all to take up the opportunities that are afforded to you thorugh the Digital Econmy CDT network – participate in the writing retreats when they can happen again (I wrote a first draft of an entire PhD chapter in the one I attended!) and remember: you are the network. If you want to see something happen or change, talk to other students in the network, your CDT manager, the network management, and apply for funding to make the things you want to make happen happen.

But that’s enough about the CDT networks – if you want to know more about those things, feel free to ask me at the end of my talk! But onto my talk now.

Today, I am going to try to achieve two things: give you a bit of an honest look at (1) a somewhat honest understanding of what it means to me to be an Early Career Researcher who works in interdisciplinary, or (perhaps antidisciplinary?) ways, who has been educated in lots of different ways of knowing and studying, and who has a PhD from an EPSRC CDT. I will do this by thinking through (2) using feminist lenses to understanding our world, data, research, and academia.

At this point, it’s hard for me to distinguish precisely which disciplines I am inspired by, which is also making it increasingly hard for me to figure out what disciplines my work contributes to.

While this is of course on one hand quite terrifying when working in a system as rigid and academia – where we are constantly told to do interdisciplinary work, but when we require pragmatic and material resources to be able to do this we are met with barriers.

On the other hand however, combining and interweaving approaches, methods, thinking, and collaborations to entangle different worlds is incredibly exciting for me. As I think back at my 6 or 7 years of research in Higher Education settings, I am now able to point towards what I think has been driving my explorations and research: an attempt to better understand what we mean with research, action, collaboration, and technologies.

I will take you through my research journey so far, pointing towards particularly important projects for my own learning and development, point towards how feminist theories and practices gave me the space to be courageous with my methods and work, and show you some new things I’m currently working on. However, I am also taking this opportunity of a ‘keynote’ to not necessarily present the resarch I do, but to think more holistically about my journey and work as an academic.

Hopefully, some of the ways of thinking I present in my presentation will be useful for you to think through your own research from a slightly different perspective. But even if you don’t see any of what I say in your own work, or if what I say is completely at odds with your own work perhaps, I do want you to take away something from today: no matter what it feels like to you right now, regardless of where you are at in your PhD…I want you to know that the PhD is not an end-point, it is a starting point.

To start off, I want to give you a boraod understanding of my background of my academic, epistemological, and to a degree also ontological journey of discovery. I started off with a bachelor’s degree in primary school education which I did at a teaching university in Linz, Austria – this was a practice-focused degree where almost every single person in my cohort of 200+ students went on to be teachers, teaching assistants, or are now school directors in Austria. I went on to do an MA in International Development and Education, as at the time I was hoping to work in that space. I did my teaching degree so I would know what I was talking about, but really I was interested in activism and advocacy, and in improving worlds with and for people. At the time, even though I had worked in third sector organisations for more than 5 years by then, I was still quite naïve and looking back also probably quite arrogant to think of my work in that way.

As I was working on my MA, I read more and more about poverty, about globalisation, and the role that ‘international development’ has had in the oppression of those who are already made marginal. This was also the first time I considered doing a PhD – or even really saw it as a viable option for myself (a daughter of parents who have GCSE equivalent degrees of formal education).

At this point, technologies were something that I was only marginally interested in – instead, I wanted to learn more about informal learning networks – which led to thinking about peer learning, self-organizing systems of support, and care at later points. During the research, however, the importance of technologies (particularly facebook and mobile phones) and their multiple situated uses came out as a really important part of informal learning among people experiencing homelessness in Bucharest, Romania.

So that led me on to my PhD of looking at relationships between technologies, peer support, and design methodologies.

At this point, I moved away from homelessness and the research became more about stigmatized communities and their use of digital technologies to support their safety and activism more broadly. In the PhD, this related specifically to sex workers, but later turned into thoughts about criminalized communities and the importance of research as mechanisms of social justice – but I now also think a lot about the arrogance of design and technology researchers based on technosolutionism. This really was a starting point for me to develop new ways of thinking and working, and it allowed me to experiment with differet methods and theories – which I have made more nuanced, diversified, and gotten sued to more in the last 2 years since finishing – an dI look forward to working with PhD students now to be part of their journeys and to further think through new concerns and topics – it really was the beginning of something that is still beautiful to me.

After that, I worked as a REF Impact Case Study author at Swansea University – working on the student sex work project case studies. Not quite a year later, I applied for and (to my surprise) was actually successful in getting a lectureship at Northumbria University’s School of design.

This way of thinking of course developed throughout my academic journey and is likely to change again as time goes on. However, it is also part of my move into a design school a year and a half ago – which has shaped my thinking more than I thought it would.

I don’t know whether it’s the high of passing my PhD viva and finally being out of what seemed very stressful and complicated departments, or whether it was a change in gear in my brain by being surrounded by so many amazing resaerchers and teachers who truly cared about the nuances and difficulties in craft and co-creation, or even just being a more mature researcher and person…but this last disciplinary change has given me the courage to think about work in a different way – to think about reserch through co-creative making and from a more high-level look at epistemology and meanings of resaerch work. It has given me the ability to start things that I never would have dared think about as ‘work’ previously.

At the same time though, it has also laid bare a lot of difficulties of being an Early Career Researcher (or ECR) in general, and an interdisciplinary ECR in particular. the majority of the research work I have done in this time has been unfunded – and took place alongside writing funding applications, teaching, doing academic service work, and building up capacity for PhD students and feminist research in the department. It also happens alongside trying to publish work in different venues and disciplines, contributing to different academic conversations, and honestly – trying to find the conversations that I want to be a part of.

It is taking place during a global pandemic, which has impacted all of us in unprecedented and unexpected ways.

All of this messy and complicated work also comes at a time where I am trying to figure out who I am after completing my PhD research. Where I am asking myself questions like: What kinds of work do I want to read? What kinds of statements do I want to make? How do I go back on what I have previously written if I have changed my mind or learnt more about a topic and so wish I had provided more nuance in earlier arguments?

To try to draw this academic learning and development journey all together, I started off in a very different place to where I am today, and while it might seem like it makes no sense as to how I got to where I am on paper…(from primary school education to international development, to computing, and now design??) this all makes sense to me; and looking back there are many things in my current teaching, research, and academic service work that I do the way I do because of that primary school education degree, because of my learning about epistemologies in computing disciplines, and because of my understanding of some criminology literatures and non-academic ways of working in UK Higher Education.

One thing that has stayed with me throughout however are: (1) my dedication to understanding and engaging in the politics of what I do – whether that is about genuinely critical and student-centred teaching practice or the importance of including understanding of sex worker rights discourse into the development of digital technologies and service delivery. And (2) my love of creative, participatory, and co-developed ways of working – whether that be in the production of teaching materials at the primary school level or for teaching in Higher Education, or whether that is about engaging in systems change with a national charity in developing a cross-organizational understanding of trauma-informed ways of working through reflexive practice.

These two things lead me to actually explain where I get a lot of what I say from: feminist Science and Technology Studies, theories, design and HCI. One quote I keep coming back to is Maria Puig de La Bellacasa’s statement that “ways of studying and representing things can have world-making effects.”

Taking Maria Puig de la Bellacasa’s words as a starting point in how I think about my research, I often think about not whether my research will have ‘impact’ in the world, but rather what kind of impact it will have. And how can I configure, contextualise, and conceptualise my work in a way that it will not only ‘not do harm’ but instead actually work towards having positive effects?

While this is all very admirable and great to think through theoretically, the practice of this can be very messy, complicated, and filled with anxiety.

It means I have to look beyond the research practice, methods, and outcomes and instead think about what it means to do the work I do. To me, thinking about sewing helps illustrate this. Just like in our research, we present these beautifully crafted pieces, in this case illustrated by this embroidery hoop I am currently working on. In academia, this is perhaps the paper, report, or PhD dissertation that we publish once the project is finished – even if our thinking about those topics is not complete. As early career researchers and phd students, we read these papers and think that research projects were exactly as described in them – that things worked, that analysis is a tidy, clean, linear process, and that the argument makes sense from start to finish. And we try to emulate this – and in some cases are even told to read papers to do things in ways that they describe.

But when we look behind this façade of research, just like we can look behind this embroidery hoop in the slide, we see that things are much more messy. And we can and should do this with our data too.

Resarch is rarely a tidy activity, especially when working in participatory, collaborative, in-the-world ways as I do, it is not linear and clear-cut. Arguments change while doing the work, and there is so so so much work that is done that is so rarely described in a paper. This can of course lead to anxieties among PhD students (or perhaps it was just me?) where I thought: why is my research not as tidy as that described by my academic crushes and idols? How come my data analysis is so much more complicated than what is neatly described in papers? And why is it not enough for me to just say ‘I analysed these interviews’ when really what I did was think about where these interviews took place, the cups of tea that we shared and had before even getting to a point where I interviewed someone, or why do I care so much about what materials and methods we use in our workshops to make people comfortable?

At this point, I want to come back to one of the first slides I showed you about my journey. Something that was not visible in this inter- or anti-disciplinary journey and current ways of working is all the emotional labour, the work that is necessary to make this kind of work possible, the failures, the starting points that didn’t lead anywhere. A feminist ethos and worldview allow me to think of my work in this way.

Thinking of my journey as one that is not only about the presence of disciplines, but the epistemologies I learnt about, and the many ‘invisible’ or ‘hidden’ things I have done have allowed me to read more widely and deeply at the same time. It’s allowed me to interpret the same ideas through different lenses. Through all the different projects and work I have done, I learned that my personal politics about equity and social justice and experiences of volunteering, my activism, and own experiences of violence and oppression were seeping into my research. On top of all of that, I care about the people with whom I work, and the work I do has deeply personal impacts on my own life – or in some instances the research becomes a kind of mirror to my own life.

The traditional research training I had in social sciences and HCI taught me that this would mean that I was being biased in my research. The more critical and participatory approaches I had learnt about would have allowed me to acknowledge these as part of my research process, but that still felt like it wasn’t really enough: to just acknowledge them. The research as experienced, what it reminded me of, and what it made me think about was shaping what I was thinking, doing, how I felt. I could no longer separate my personal life and my research completely. Experiences with participants and research partners made me care and feel things. While at first I tried to keep my life and research separate (with this fear of subjectivity that’s been instilled in me in my training!), deep down I knew this was not sustainable.

Thinking and working in the way I have described often feels like I am going down weird spirals of thought: for example, with the practical work I have done in the last year about systems change in a charity I often think that while the practical work may have some great impact in the real world, I am not always sure about how that can be translated into academic writing.

Ways of reading wide and deep can lead me to overthink – especially at a time where I am trying to figure out who I am as a researcher.

I feel like during the PhD it felt like that was the most important work I would ever do – it is what will establish me as a researcher of a particular area of inquiry. Almost 2 years after completing my PhD though, it feels like that identity is falling almost completely apart. I have had the privilege of thinking more, developing my epistemological understanding, and have thought a lot about what it means to ‘do’ research – which has of course led me to over think.

To go down so many different paths that lead to other ideas and yet more paths. That have made me think about how previous projects have intersected and led to new ways of doing or thinking.

Importantly though, that trajectory of doing a PhD, to having no idea what next steps will be, and then starting to find my feet again, has made me so hopeful and thankful for the journey I have been on – it has made me think about the different people with whom I have shared parts of my path with, the people who’s paths crossed mine at particular points and how those intersections have led to interesting thoughts and conversations.

I feel like as an interdisciplinary ECR, I am building up a different understanding of research altogether to what I was taught and trained in – I have the privilege and anxiety of bringing togheter disparate pieces of knowledge, experience, understanding, thinking, doing, and making: to create a whole that is more than its parts – my own personal approach to being a care-ful and rounded academic.

Now that I am a lecturer, an academic, I am not only thinking about research anymore. So how does this way of thinking and being translate not only into research methodology but also into pedagogy and teaching practices? Into my capacity as a PhD supervisor and mentor to those who are at earlier stages in their careers to me? Into my academic service such as peer reviewing articles, conference organization, and continued activism to build more inclusive and justice-oriented ways of working in academia and beyond?

I often think about and experience different ways in which academia can be toxic and horrible. And now that I am part of this system I need to find ways of making material change within it – slowly, and in collaboration with others, I think I am starting to do so. And I see talks like this one today as part of that work. So I want to share a tidbit of something I have learnt about doing this kind of in-the-world work of research and activism: if you are experiencing a toxic environment, collaboration, supervision, or feel in other ways overwhelmed by the prospects of your PhD and academia; find allies and talk to them. Develop a shared understanding of what you’re experiencing and build each other up to have the strength to deal with it and work against it.

And to the supervisors and management staff in the audience: please listen to and believe the students who speak up. Allow yourselves to feel  with students and please remember that current academia is very different to where we were 20, 10, or even 5 years ago.

Coming back to this quote and way of thinking about research from Maria Puig de la Bellacasa – this of course relates to how we write and present our work, but it also relates to the kinds of data we explore, look for, produce, etc. It relates to what we do with that data, what it means to us, the kinds of worldviews we place upon it, and how it relates to the argument we are building through our research.

From a positivist lense, this might make you flinch and say: but that means our research will be biased! As a constructivist, you might say: yes, and that’s why it’s important to explain how and why we construct our understanding in certain ways.

But to me, taking a feminist lens to this work means we not only acknowledge but embrace and explore the standpoints we come from in our research (which is called standpoint theory) and situate our knowledge in wider contexts, discourses, politics, and actions (which is understood as situated knowledge).

No matter what your epistemology (ways of knowing) are, data will have a very specific meaning to you. And I now want to invite you listen to what I think about data – not in the data science sense, but in the socio-technically complex ways of studying interactions between people, technologies, and our ways of understanding.

These statements stem from my ways of working and interacting with data: based on working with non-academic partners, with communities who are stigmatized, marginalized, or criminalized. And takes a design-driven approach to research: one that examines not just what we do in research but why it is we are doing it and to what end – centered around a feminist way of understanding the world.

To give you a very brief, and very messy overview of feminist HCI or feminist ways of approaching research, here’s what I think, generally:

  • It is an ethos more than a methodology so can translate into all parts of being an academic and a full person
  • It allows me to think more critically about what it means to do research, what data and analysis are
  • It allows me to bring myself, experiences, and metaphors into research practice
  • It goes beyond studying individual things and instead places things into ecologies and systems

It’s important at this point however, to say that this is my interpretation of very specific strands of feminist research – and that one of the beauties of this way of thinking is the importance of plurality, multiplicity, and polyvocality. This means that it is precisely the different perspectives and ways of knowing and understanding that is centered in this way of researching: that we put things in converastion with one another, that we reflect on these conversations, that we analyze individual situations and circumstances as part of wider ecologies and systems; and that we do this through thick understandings of care.

Importantly, and perhaps more so for you as people coming a little bit more from the ‘data science’ end of the spectrum of explorations of data, I want to point you towards Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein’s incredibly important work on Data Feminism. They have 7 principles of what it means to do data science through a feminist lense. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but their book is filled with examples of how data has been used in these ways to enact positive change in our world with and through the collection, visualization, use, and analysis of data sets (in the more traditional data science way of understanding data).

I’ve talked a lot today, so I want to try to draw things to a close now. and summarise a little bit of what I have talked about related to my research.

Really, engaging in my research (and particularly the PhD) the way I do and did means: working in true collaborations with non-academic partners, reflecting on my the work, data, and invisible labour throughout the projects in creative ways, and putting the research into a wider contexts and political systems. Researching in this way has made it possible for me to see values of research beyond academia without disregarding the importance of academic writing and academic discussions and discourse, even if they happen in the true sense of the meaning of ‘academic’ as being of no practical relevance.

Now, I want to share some concepts and questions with you that we can discuss after my talk. I have thought about some of these more than others, and have only really written about the third, in my upcoming book…but they are all ways in which I am trying to distill my way of working as an academic, not only as a researcher, and think about how I can enact proactive hope for a better academia as an ECR, now within this flawed system we currently have:

-Selfish reading. This is something I feel like I have been doing for a long time, but didn’t have a word for it. Of course my ability to read deeply and reflexively changes drastically – there are weeks and where I cannot read anything usefully, or where I hit a bit of a wall and nothing makes sense anymore. But there are also weeks where I get excited by a paper or book that is only very tangentially related to my research. It’s often when I end up reading these things, out of selfish interest or pleasure, that I learn more about my research projects and practice than when I read specifically for a reason. So I want to encourage you to read selfishly – and ask: What happens when you read things you actually care about rather than things you think you need to read? And what happens when you reflect on how they relate to your own work and the work of others while reading these things?

-Careful curiosity: of course curiosity is very important when working on a PhD or engaging in any kind of research project – and I distinctly remember saying I was a curious person when I interviewed for my PhD! But curiosity can also turn into voyeurism, especially when we work with communities that are in some way made marginal in society – when we study people and their interactions with technologies and data. So I want to advocate for a more careful curiosity and ask:What happens when we slow down in our research and carefully move towards alternative ways of knowing? And what happens to our research when we do it more carefully, treading slowly to try to genuinely, and deeply understand what is happening and why this is the case?

-Praxes of hope: I work with people who are marginalized, in settings that often feel hopeless when working in a political setting as we have – where cuts to social spending seem to constantly be made, directly and negatively impacting the people with whom I work. But working with partners who do proactive work, and also working to make academia a better place for people, especially early career researchers, makes me think about praxes of hope: What happens when we think of our research as playing a part in a wider praxis of hope towards better futures? And how would this way of thinking influence our methodologies to include elements of building, co-maintaining, and co-infrastructuring hopeful actions?

If we engage in selfish reading, careful curiosity and work to enact praxes of hope, we are almost forced to to shift how we think about research as a whole. So I want to now ask you the following question:

What happens in your research when you stop thinking about isolated contributions to knowledge and instead think about how you want to layer existing language and understanding? When you think about which conversations you want to be a part of? And what kinds of world(s) you want to contribute to?