Ryan  Burns, phd
December 16, 2011

friday harbor proposal workshop

Sometimes I feel silly for such repeated harping on the particularities of academic labor. It seems like every other blog post here is about What-I-Do-As-An-Academic. Partly this is because I have lots of friends and family outside the academic arena and What-I-Do-As-An-Academic is so different than what they’re most likely used to. Partly it’s because I think it lends a useful starting point into social critique writ large. Partly it’s because the more popular communication channel, Facebook, doesn’t really facilitate long, thoughtful musings. Partly it’s because it seems that no matter how many posts I write on this subject, some people still don’t get it.

In this post I hope to portray the epitome of academic labor, and what it entails, by talking about a recent experience I had. I want to use this story as evidence of how rewarding - yet draining - academic labor can be. To be more blunt, it will become clear in this story that academics don’t simply “sit on their ass all day”.

A few weeks ago a group of doctoral students from UW, University of British Columbia, and Simon Fraser University - all geography departments - met at UW’s Friday Harbor facilities for a weekend of research proposal development. Throughout the course of 1 1/2 days we developed our dissertation proposals under the mentorship of various faculty and with the advice of our peers. The facilities are a few hours outside Seattle on the beautiful and remote San Juan islands, where we occupied about a dozen cabins. Being so remote was, I suspect, so that we could focus on our thoughts and ideas.

The first night was dedicated to networking, to discussing ideas about how to make our research “matter”, and how we can use our research to contest the neoliberalizing university. These are monumental challenges that require collective action and strong social networks - we can’t do them alone. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is partly where public scholarship has potential to contribute.

The only full day at Friday Harbor we spent with close readings of each others’ proposals. In groups of 3 students and a faculty mentor, we offered suggestions, brainstormed, and really engaged in a deep way some of the ideas being explored. The day was split into two sections. In the first section my peers and I summarized our proposals and expressed our concerns. Our faculty mentor had many pieces of advice for our methodologies in particular. But here’s the thing: a methodology is only part of a larger research project, and the methods have to align well with the research questions while avoiding the colonial tendencies of the university. So when a methodological suggestion is offered, we immediately must consider what that methodology would give us that another wouldn’t; we must also consider the power relations fostered by our methodology; we must also critically engage with the theoretical literature that lays out our topics and methodologies. It’s a huge task, and we must quickly think of how productive, or destructive, a particular approach might be. For instance, two methodologies I have considered are the case study and the ethnography.

Here’s my thought process: Steve Herbert, a UW-Geography faculty member I greatly respect, has really been instrumental in bringing ethnography into geographers’ toolboxes. My own adviser, Sarah Elwood, is also fond of this method, though she has more often relied on case studies. I know that one of my first considerations should be the amount of faculty support I’ll get based on my methodology; if I choose a phenomenological methodology, for instance, no faculty member will be able to help me much since that’s not what they do. But more importantly, what will a case study give me that an ethnography will not? Well, for one, it will shed light on a particular context but not hold me to that specific place/context too closely. If I’m studying the geoweb’s influence on humanitarian aid distribution, for instance, what’s interesting is not Haiti specifically, but the flows and processes that manifested in Haiti at a particular moment. Ethnography might chain me to the Haiti context too closely and not allow me to see the process unfold in multiple spaces. But also, it will help me focus on the shifts and the non-Cartesian-place-based processes more than ethnography. As Herbert (2000) suggests, ethnography is about processes and meanings of a given social context, rather than the processes and meanings that extend beyond that particular context. Third, I find Burawoy’s (1998) extended case method particularly useful for my own research.

The second half of the day revolved more around my two peers’ proposals, and about the different concepts they might mobilize in their research proposal: are they looking at conjuncture or assemblage? Where do these terms come from? Are they “following” policies and ideas, or just looking at an individual deployment? How can they justify a qualitative methodology when the numbers are obviously so rich and important to consider? These are not just formalities, but considerations central to the ways we approach problems, topics, and our research subjects.

The day was interspersed with networking with other grads, engaging with ideas about mobilizing concepts, and communicating our thoughts with other faculty.

By the end of the day, I was completely wiped out. I could hardly muster the energy to meet anyone new or even to talk about non-academic things. My mind had been in overdrive for 13 hours and gearing down took considerable effort. Think about it this way: I wasn’t lifting physical blocks to build a physical building, but I was lifting conceptual blocks to build the infrastructure of my research project. And this is very strenuous labor. As someone who has worked in manual labor, I can say that intellectual work is often as difficult as manual work. In case this is starting to sound like a pissing contest, it’s not meant to be; it’s just that intellectual labor is unjustifiably often looked down on, and is often in need of defense.

The weekend was very, very productive and I think my understanding of the research process is much clearer now. My proposal has undergone a few substantial overhauls since then, and recently won the praise of my adviser. The reward is worth the labor.

Works Cited
Burawoy, M. 1998. The Extended Case Method. Sociological Theory 16 (1):4-33.
Herbert, S. 2000. Progress in Human Geography 24 (4): 550-568.

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