Reproductive academic work and the land of lost projects

Invisible work

A year ago, I spent more or less two months writing a Marie Skłodowska Curie postdoctoral application that I didn’t get. This is by no means unfrequent, and will sound familiar to any researcher. The truth is that in academia, as it is in other creative jobs that are project-based and dependent on contingent funding, there is a huge amount of work that gets done to high quality standards and never sees the light. Work failing to attain the objectives meant for: unpublished papers, unfunded research projects, untaught syllabi.

This lost work is often experienced as a personal failure, in a time when feelings of inadequacy, lack of power, and of a sense of purpose are very common. This is due in part to the ideal of meritocracy that has been inoculated into us with the mantra “those who deserve it, get it”. Regardless of the never ending proofs of the contrary that we see in our daily professional lives, it is a lifetime struggle to get rid of this belief.

I have taken some distance from academia while developing a more personal initiative (Spanish only, for now). It was a breath of fresh air. This distance allowed for a more critical viewpoint on our work and the organisational system we depend upon. Having a break from the fear of the consequences of not “giving it all at each minute” has been an opportunity to learn how to live an academic life other than feeling as not being good enough and afraid of being disposed of at any moment.

For this particular MSC application, I carved out time from the rest of my obligations as a casual academic worker –my teaching and consultancy gigs, and paper writing– and I spent a considerable amount of hours reading, writing, reflecting, and doing other tasks implied in a project such as this one. I know how much time I spent –approximately 8 weeks within a 5-month span–, and how many readings I did for this particular project because I recorded this otherwise invisible work as part of how we, digital and freelance cognitive workers in neoliberal times, have internalised the responsibility and the methods to micro-manage our own production.

Reading track. Idea from Ellie Mackin Robbins.

During these weeks of intense work, a question came to me while I was writing: what if I don’t get any funding? Will all this work be a total loss of my time? Is this just going down an imaginary drain?

A drain that might suck you up

 

The invisibility of this work on possible projects is even more salient when you are applying for funds individually. Projects that only you, your supervisor or mentor –if you are lucky to have one– and maybe your family know about, and that’s it. In these cases, both the projects and your effort remain private, and this reveals the big problem of the lack of recognition of this work. It is work which is physically invisible –because it is performed at non-standard places of work such as your home, a coffee shop, a library–, but also willingly invisible by managers and decision-makers at universities or other kind of organizations.

You did not get what you expected: so what?

I spoke informally about this to a friend who’s a software developer. He looked at me with a grim on his face saying: this is the story of the majority of projects ever!

So why is this an issue? I can think of two reasons, basically. First, it points at a worrying reality and it’s that knowledge and creative work is in the hands of neoliberal governments, advisers and managers who are not familiar with, nor supportive, and who don’t see the value of creative knowledge work –unless clearly profitable–. We have to show that we deserve a share of the meagering resources that are made available to us through speculatively inflated CV’s. These documents show the visible, tidy part of all this hidden work. 

Second, this is work that is just not paid for in most cases, and therefore not recognised. Precarity in work conditions at universities all around the world and the difficulty to get a stable job or income explains at least in part why we are willing to perform that non-paid, non-recognised work. And that is pretty serious.

Regardless of the above mentioned structural conditions, we experience those orphan projects as personal failures. These projects are originated from a personal or even a family investment that didn’t pay off. Even though we obtained positive rewards out of this work such as eventual human contact(s), new ideas, interesting theories reviewed or learnt, it doesn’t fall within the category of work that makes us feel good. It is amazing how our personal productivity is so intertwined with our perception of our own value/worth (Gregg, 2018, “Counterproductive”).

I was speaking some weeks ago to a woman colleague and friend who is an independent researcher about how she was feeling irritable these days and thought it had to do with her hormones. Regardless of the fact that hormonal changes can have an influence in how we perceive the world and what happens to us, our work and life conditions impact us and are an objective fact. Hormones might amplify the negative impact of those conditions. She was questioning the fact that she was spending a lot of time designing, writing, presenting and defending projects that were sometimes funded, but most of the times weren’t. She was resenting the fact that the contract for a project that was supposed to provide her with the money needed to pay for her bills until the end of the year wasn’t ready after a whole month. She said: “Maybe, with a bit of luck, we will sign it just before the summer. I don’t know if it makes sense to keep on working on things that don’t pay off”. Again, these are the consequences of precarious work conditions.

How to make this valuable or visible?

How can we make all this effort, the time and energy spent, valuable for us and others? I guess this blog post is a start.

With this blog post I am adhering to the initiatives of others, mostly researchers, designers, architects, taking advantage of their social media networks or their personal publication outlets to show the existence of this lost or invisible work. I am often impressed at the effort we put making all our work and work processes visible on the Internet. Examples of this would be the anthropologist Jodie Lee-Thrembat who talks about her research on the academic work that is willingly not seen by her university’s decision-makers, among many others.

There is also Inger Mewburn’s bit on how her working time is really spent as a university professor. She is developing very interesting research that aims at calculating exactly how much time is spent on average by university staff on tasks not recognised as work. This example focuses on stable staff and not casual workers, so it would be interesting to check those figures for the less stable workforce. Again, Melissa Gregg focuses on how “immaterial workloads” are distributed unequally, following local hierarchies (2018: 4). And last but not least, there is Rosalind Gill’s research on the Quantified Self of Neoliberal Academia

A subjective sense of worth and the impact factor

It is interesting how productivity can be a subjective perception influenced by objectified definitions of productivity created by powerful stakeholders. How vulnerable we are!

I write objectified and not objective because I am, of course, thinking about university rankings determining what is valuable and what isn’t. In the case of unrecognised “productive” work, these indexes override our own sense of productivity and worth as workers and erase, in a way, the value of the actual work done –the number of hours spent hunched on a project, number of papers read, of words written, and so on–. This, of course, adds up to increasing levels of anxiety demonstrated in casual knowledge workers and university staff among them, and affecting our well-being altogether.

In a way, productive work becomes reproductive work through the shaping of the neoliberal university focused on status for profit. I am very curious of the connections between this devalued work and women’s traditional assigned role in reproductive work.

Autoethnographic vignettes (see this blog post for references on what texts support my appropriation of this method) opened the way to explore other researchers’ experience of project-based, temporary and contract-bound,  unrecognised work.

These reflections can be further explored in the existing literature and developed focusing on how, in a capitalist context, academic work is similar to that of women’s reproductive, unwaged and unrecognised work, only that now it impacts both men and women in a differentiated way. I am sure interesting differences will appear through a feminist analysis that takes into  account gender differences. 

Let me know of key texts I should include in such an exploration……………………..

To be continued………………….

 

Unpacking idyllic remote work

I have been taking photos in almost each place where I have been to get work done since the end of 2015. You’ll see me in Barcelona, Madrid, Bogotá, Aarhus and Brussels. This collage shows I’d say a 10% of the photos I have in my computer.

I want to underscore with these photos what we can call the side B of working with digital tools in a nomadic way. I want to show the less visible side of seemingly privileged jobs in what I called earlier glamourous precariousness.

I want to show also that being a “digital nomad” is more than free floating between paradisiacal beaches, meeting cool people and making money while at it. There is a material relationship between us and our technological devices, between us and the transient places we occupy, and our place-making is imbued with our structural positions -our salaries, our work conditions. Even though surrounded by people who are also working remotely, our relationship with those people around us is often non-existent or reduced to mere functionalities: is this seat taken?

The connection to my mobile phone and computer screen is stronger than to the person sitting next to me.

The idyllic image of the life of a digital nomad fails to account for the bodily burden of being constantly on the move and carrying your work equipment with you, digital devices breaking down on you, lousy wifi connections, feelings of isolation and disconnect from your remote coworkers, and so on. 

Taken from the Facebook page “Digital Nomads Around the World”, with 99.452 members.

 

In the case of intellectual and creativity based professions, the idyllic image of remote work also fails to recognise the impact of the degradation of our work conditions as “cognitive protelarians” (the term is not mine, I will soon provide a list of references for those interested). 

Taken from my personal Facebook page with the author’s permission.

This project is among others such as the one by Jeff Thompson on mechanical turkers and Catherine Banner on the daily life of a writer opening the blackbox of remote work. 

I have learnt today to find a better balance between moving around and staying put, between working alone and with others. A balance that is never perfect, that is a constant negotiation between a myriad factors -money, kind of project, day of the week, available places, and so on-, and that is never reached completely.

 

 

Shut up and write… and care

Creativity is key to economic development, to personal fulfilment, and so on. This is pointed at repeatedly these days, as entrepreneurial values are stimulated in a post-crisis economy. But, when can we get the time to be creative when the daily demands of our jobs makes it difficult for us to stop and think? The managerial model in universities has made it more and more difficult.

Since last June 2018, I have been meeting with a group of members of the itdUPM —where I physically attend to work these days— to write while being together. Lost projects, current projects with deadlines, unfinished projects. We have been introducing little by little also reading/reflecting/planning time.

Time to read and write and then to reflect has become a luxury. With the idea of opening a spot a week for these very essential activities, I decided to invite whoever was interested at the itdUPM on Wednesdays for shut up and write sessions. I had already been doing those remotely for a year with my colleagues Yenny and Natalia in Bogotá, but physical co-presence and connection became important.

At first, it was Cecilia, Candela, Mariángeles and me. Then Ander started to come, and then Sara and María José. The group is variable (I cannot myself come each time), but I can say that we have consolidated a group that meets currently on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the “ático” (attic) of one of the universitie’s department. Following Cecilia’s idea, we created a closed Facebook group for eventual feedback on short excerpts of our projects. 

 

Idea and collage: Cecilia López.

We are generating a sense of belonging, and a time and space for things that are impossible in the everyday work rush. We are opening up a time and a space to think and to create stuff in written form. And that’s revolutionary! OK, a slow revolution. Or the path towards some kind of change, at least.

Besides the satisfaction that generates advancing projects —individual and collective—, I am very proud of how this very dedicated bunch of people are developing written, planning, and reflective skills. We are even slowly becoming a Bullet Journal (https://bulletjournal.com/) community of nerds.

But the most important thing is, I think, that it’s because of our being together that it has been possible to develop a discipline to pursue things that really matter to us but that are not important or visible tasks in universities. We all feel like we have done something really important when the session is finished.

 

Look at this amazing people. Please note how the attic itself can change from one session to another: find the differences!

Other members of the itdUPM react when we bump into each other, saying: “I want to come next time!” and it normally takes some weeks before they finally find the time. When they come, this quality time for our minds and spirits stop being a luxury and becomes a priority. Even though this is not a new practice, I hope it extends more and more.

Isolation makes part of our work conditions, especially in an academic setting. This being together makes part of a wider reflection on the generation of some kind of awareness of a collective work and life condition. It also places the emphasis on an ethics of care.

A feminist ethics of care -at least in an academic context, and I will here share an excerpt of a very sharp blogpost by my colleague Ester Conesa-:

“(…) helps make visible the power relations behind the masculinised ideal of autonomy and competitiveness. An ethics of care perspective supports ideas of interdependency and vulnerability. As an analytical approach, it offers the possibility to display and study the genderedness of care across its multiple layers: personal, collective, familial, at the workplace, at decision-making level, within institutions, etc. The ethics of care allows us to also focus on the temporal dimension in the academic environment and on the politicisation of distress when care is absent, invisible, devalued, or displaced to the peripheries of these multiple layers. (…) The Great Lakes Feminist Geography Collective, also advocate for the feminist ethics of care as a way to disrupt the neoliberal university.”

Even though this seems to be “just” a gathering of mostly women who want to shut up and write, we are indeed generating political action. The most evident one is Candela de la Sota’s project on raising a gender and feminist awareness at the itdUPM.

As Narelle Lemon and Susanne Garvis (2014: 2) say (thanks, Edgar, for pointing to a great blogpost on the subject):

‘‘“Our stories assist in the telling and retelling of important events. Reflecting on these events allow the ‘processing’, ‘figuring out’ and ‘inquiring’, leading to behavioural actions to change situations.”

The phone rings and Mariángeles says: “This silence was too good to be true”, she picks up the phone and there is no one on the other side. She hangs up and… shuts up and writes, and we all care.

 

Lemon, N., & Garvis, S. (Eds.). (2014). Being “In and Out”: Providing Voice to Early Career Women in Academia. Animal Genetics (Vol. 39). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

On glamorous precariousness

Autoethnography. This post is about making your life situations part of the method to study a certain topic, and to uncover the tensions and contradictions of a settled official version, that are not readily visible when you research other people’s lives.

Of course, the criticism made to this method comes to mind right away, such as those presented by Sara Delamont (2009). Autoethnography gives voice to those who don’t need more space or time to be heard, because they already have it. That is to say, autoethnography is criticised for amplifying the voice of the privileged, and reproducing a system of privilege. This criticism is understandable, but leads to a vision of a world made of black and whites, and no greys. It is a vision that doesn’t allow to open black boxes and a prioris, which should be one of the principles of ethnography in the first place. Delamont also states that social scientists have powerful methods to study unknown worlds (p. 59), and social scientists world’s aren’t among these, and aren’t interesting.

This is ironic, as one of these black boxes is that academics are seen as privileged and “no problem” people. But is a fact that academics, and especially those starting their careers in current higher education and research contexts, have serious trouble getting a decent job. They can’t just be considered as privileged and as performing mental work and that’s it. This is a dated official truth. 

It’s true, we, young academics, often have mac computers which are expensive, a nice pair of glasses, a often modern place to go and get work done, and have powerful methods of study.  We are able to speak and write in different languages, and often travel a lot. But based on the work I have done documenting not only my daily life being an academic precarious worker, but dialoguing with others in similar situations in different cities of Europe and Latin America, I can’t help but wonder if this is some kind of glamorous precariousness, in the current market-led higher education. I wonder what my colleagues think of this phrasing. 

Before getting more and more involved with the itdUPM (never mind the numbering on the pictures, it’s all mixed up),

one of the places I went working at in Madrid was the Medialab Prado. As always, I carried my equipment or “essential kit” with me (you can find more tidy ones in a photo project on “portable kits” here). One day, the bottle of water I had spilled inside my bag and flooded my stuff. I had to lay everything on a sunny (and pretty hot) spot and cross my fingers I hadn’t lost my precious tool of work: my computer (1, 2).

I couldn’t get any work done that day.

I won’t spare you the image of my sweaty face complaining to my mobile phone camera (5). My computer finally made it.

 

With glamourous precariousness, it’s the little details. Like when you have to find a sentence to explain your flexible attitudes towards work in a postdoc application (3), and feel a tiny knot on your stomach as you have to make yourself look like you’re endorsing the practices that will -hopefully, if getting the job- represent your future work and life precariousness. The section 7 of this form reads “(Essential to the job) A flexible attitude in working practices”. It maybe pointed at interdisciplinarity, or having a group spirit. But I didn’t get it like that then.

 

This is not just as a complaint of a privileged PhD. I write about this to show how we are made responsible for our own work conditions and logistics, and this adds up to fragile/precarious lives. I think this deserves public discussion (as others do as well, e.g. Conesa, Gill, Castillo y Moré, Santos et al.), and this is why I publish such personal and even derisory events here.

Delamont, S. (2009). The only honest thing: autoethnography, reflexivity and small crises in fieldwork. Ethnography and Education, 4(1), 51–63. doi:10.1080/17457820802703507

 

Qué es la cultura organizacional y por qué es importante?

Visualizar el futuro que queremos y guiar nuestras acciones siguiendo esa imagen. Esta es una herramienta poderosa para vivir con sentido y también para hacer que los cambios ocurran.

Me encanta leer el trabajo de personas que logran resumir lo que ya sabemos sobre un tema y al mismo tiempo ofrecer una idea convincente de cómo puede concretarse un futuro que nos entusiasme.

Este es el caso del libro de Fréderic Laloux, “Reinventar las organizaciones“. Continuar leyendo “Qué es la cultura organizacional y por qué es importante?”

Una multitud de espacios de trabajo

Hay una diversidad enorme de espacios de trabajo, de los que el coworking es sólo uno de ellos. Además de ser sólo un tipo de espacio entre decenas que existen, se puede decir que el coworking es en realidad el resultado de la mezcla entre muchos tipos de espacios que ya existían. Desde ese punto de vista, podríamos decir que cada espacio de coworking es una mezcla única de diferentes modelos de espacio.

Continuar leyendo “Una multitud de espacios de trabajo”

Cómo protegerse de los grandes players del coworking

Los espacios de coworking medianos y pequeños se enfrentan a grandes firmas multinacionales que se implantan en el país… Propongo una estrategia mixta para seguir existiendo.

Está muy presente entre las personas que montaron/que están montando/que dirigen espacios de coworking la inquietud de que se desvirtúe lo que siginifca el coworking, y que se convierta en una etiqueta vacía de significado.

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Interactivos?’17 prototipado colaborativo en Medialab Prado

Este año tuve la fortuna de estar en Interactivos?, y no sólo como colaboradora de los proyectos como el año pasado, sino también como evaluadora del Taller más grande del Medialab. Es el más grande por el número de personas y el número de proyectos que coinciden ahí. La idea es que durante 17 días -del 17 de mayo al 2 de junio de 2017- grupos de trabajo colaborativo e interdisciplinar se juntaran a desarrollar un prototipo que mezcle la tecnología con un interés social, y este año también medioambiental.

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Rafa de Ramón: el diálogo entre las empresas y los espacios de coworking

Rafa de Ramón explica desde su expriencia en Utopic_US de Madrid por qué a los coworkings les interesa colaborar con las empresas tradicionales, y lo que hay que tener en cuenta a la hora de pensar los servicios que se pueden ofrecer. Lo que viene a continuación es un resumen de su presentación “Cómo vender Coworking a empresas”, en la Coworking Spain Conference 2017. Encontraréis información valiosa para la gestión de espacios y relaciones.

Continuar leyendo “Rafa de Ramón: el diálogo entre las empresas y los espacios de coworking”

Carlos Almansa: La vuelta al mundo en 8 coworkings

Él es fundador de Nexudus, y durante la Coworking Spain Conference nos ofreció una estimulante charla sobre los enfoques de los coworkings de diferentes ciudades del mundo, pioneras en el desarrollo de diferentes estilos y modelos de negocio. Se trata de estrategias que es útil entender para luego poder extrapolarlas. Su charla se enfocó en 8 ciudades -Londres, Nueva York, Vancouver, San Francisco, Shanghai y Estocolmo-, cada una con su especialización.

Continuar leyendo “Carlos Almansa: La vuelta al mundo en 8 coworkings”

Coworking Spain Conference 2017: nuevas estrategias para ser diferentes.

El lema de este año es “La industria del coworking”, apuntando a una nueva etapa en la maduración del sector en España. La conferencia organizada por Manu Zea y su equipo duró sólo dos días (el 11 y 12 de este mes), pero aprendí tanto como durante muchas semanas de trabajo por mi cuenta, y estoy segura que no estoy sola en esto.

Continuar leyendo “Coworking Spain Conference 2017: nuevas estrategias para ser diferentes.”