Making Do

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Nathan Fisk, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Nathan's prior posts: post 1 -- post 2 -- post3]

I believe I mentioned in my first post the ways in which I’ve engaged with ethnographic practice in my particular position of precarity, something which I’ve largely avoided talking much about so far. As should be clear for those who have read my earlier posts, I’m not really doing much by way of ethnographic work in my current state of job application scramble/burnout. Although, I suppose I have done a significant amount of participant observation with the feline subjects that share my home, but outside of Facebook I rarely write up my findings. That said, I have had some interesting experiences with ethnographic work during my time as an adjunct – and I think the discussion thus far is pointing towards some interesting implications for ethnographic work in the non-academic world. So, in this post, I want to get at my research experiences as a sometimes ethnographer, adjunct and potential escapee from the academic career track.

As I mentioned previously, I was lucky enough this past spring semester to have the opportunity to develop and teach a course based on my own dissertation work – Youth and Teens Online. I saw it as an opportunity to broaden out my work, moving away from the emphasis on risk and safety, and towards a broader picture of youth life online. The syllabus was filled with central readings that I wanted to return to, and selections from the vast constellation of literature that never quite made it into the frame as I wrote my dissertation. Given that I had to develop a discussion guide for every class session, I read and reread every one with a new post-dissertation perspective – and I had time to do it in a careful, deliberate manner. Better yet, I had to do the reading, and had to think of things to say before each class without fail, regardless of my feelings of post-dissertation fatigue.

Even beyond the reading, the classroom itself quickly became an unofficial field site, in some ways better than any I previously had access to during my actual dissertation research. Many of my students were themselves the teens we were discussing in class, and could draw on actual experience to critique the assigned readings. In fact, I frequently ran the class as an informal focus group, developing a series of questions for students that would measure their understanding of the material, while simultaneously encouraging them to think about their own experiences through the lenses provided by the reading. By establishing the classroom as a casual, safe space, I was excited to see how quickly rapport developed, and looked forward to my four hours with my students every week. Interestingly for me, I watched as students criticized the 3-4 year old research for failing to look forward to new trends in youth sociality, and explained how things were both similar and different for youth online today. Some students even brought new literature to my attention through their own final projects and everyday engagement with class material!

Deepa insightfully brings up the “committed and incomplete” nature of ethnographic work, and I think approaching one’s research as such through the precarious positioning of an adjunct can be truly productive. If this series of guest blog posts has shown me anything, it’s that we are all making ethnography work somehow, cobbled together from various fleeting opportunities. Certainly not all adjuncts will have the opportunity to create courses based on their own research, or happen to have youth subjects at the center of their projects. That said, even in the fall semester – where I was saddled with a course on ecological economics, of all subjects – I found adjuncting to be a useful opportunity through which to explore new topics and approach my work from different angles. Besides, it was always an interesting exercise to see how I could integrate my work into the course material, even if only tangentially.

I think Deepa’s most recent post speaks to the comment she made in response to my previous post, where both she and Nick (if I twist his words a little) ask what ethnographic practice and the academy will become under the pressures of “selling out”. While I do not wish to advocate for doctoral coursework and training to be entirely guided by the pressures of corporate (dare I say applied?) ethnographic work described in the other guest posts, fostering an awareness and tolerance for that mode of research as a sub-discipline of sorts would be beneficial, which is what Lane speaks to in his final post. In addition to making a transition into non-academic life easier, should they choose or be forced into it, it would prepare students to embrace the “cobbling together” of research as a means to remain connected to the academic community and advance – whether that advancement be academic or corporate in nature. It is not as if students cannot be aware of both modes of ethnographic work – the academic monograph and the corporate video ethnography – both can clearly be productive in different ways.

Regardless, after all of my discussion of selling out and escaping academia, it looks like I’ll be staying in for the time being. Behind the scenes, these last four weeks have been a roller-coaster of interviews and rejections, but ultimately all (but one) of my leads have fallen flat, and I’ll be returning to adjunct in the fall. At least the financial pressure is off, thanks to a recently meteoric career change by my own smart, supportive spouse – a key component in many academic lives, according to John – and I’m returning to teach Youth & Teens Online once more. However, I’ve found the reduced pressure has only increased my drive to demonstrate that I can make it without what my friends – often in similar positions themselves – jokingly refer to as my “sugar momma.” Maybe I’ll go check those listings one more time…

Nathan Fisk is an Adjunct Lecturer in the Science and Technology Studies department at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he teaches Sociology, and Youth and Teens Online. His research has focused primarily on issues of youth Internet safety, although he has been occasionally been known to make vaguely interesting statements concerning video games, childhood, digital democracy, and hacking. He is the author of two books, “Understanding Online Piracy,” and “Digital Piracy.”

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