Caring for Our Sidelines

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Ali Kenner, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.]

What might one find on the sidelines of academia? If you’re the managing editor of an academic journal, such as Cultural Anthropology (CA), the sidelines are rich with activity – trouble-shooting Open Journal Systems and managing content on; staying up on open access conversations; running CA’s editorial intern program; coordinating various projects and figuring out how best to archive them; overseeing the production of the journal, in print and online; and managing the redesign of CA’s website. You’ll spend untold hours with your email client, and talk about how much time you spend there (this is part of your “busy” talk).

I didn’t see my work with CA as academic, or ethnographic, until recently. “Sidelines” is a fitting concept for the work I do at CA – managing editor by day, and ethnographer – of asthma, yoga, and alternative healthcare systems – by night, and weekend. I told myself I would stay on the sideline just until my partner finished grad school, then we could go on the job market together. But this isn’t honest – CA is much more than a day job for me (especially when you consider how I really spend my nights and weekends). I am compelled by our professional gold standard, the tenure-track position. That’s the endgame for many of us, I think. On the other hand, I love the work I do at CA. It’s an incredible space of production, if not in terms of conventional social science research.

As for my precarious position – I work on a 12-month contract and I ignore this fact. For now.

In this first post I’ll sketch some of what I’ve done in the last six or seven years, focusing on details most important for where I am today – full-time managing editor and program director (I’ll come back to “program director” in Post #2) of Cultural Anthropology, and adjunct professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). A year ago I filed my dissertation, completing my PhD in Science and Technology Studies at RPI. I’m currently trying to figure out what postgraduate research looks like and how to build an academic career outside a tenure-track line. I’m also trying to figure out where and how my work with CA can be understood, in part, as social science. This figuring marks a shift for me – for the past five years I diligently bracketed my work as managing editor from my dissertation research. Practically speaking, there were very good reasons to separate the two. But as it turns out, bracketing has several meanings, which may help to explain why I haven’t been able to keep things properly parsed out.

My work with CA began at the end of my first year in RPI’s Science and Technology Studies doctoral program. Kim Fortun and Mike Fortun were then editors; the Fortuns had just published their second issue and launched CA’s first website. With Casey O’Donnell and Shailaja Validya (also editorial assistants at the time), I would learn the peer-review process, inside and out; work with digital platforms that supported journal publication; and build a repository of supplemental material for CA essays. The internship (from May 2007-August 2008) gave me the opportunity to work closely with the Fortuns. It also kept me in the digital humanities world, a world I thought I had left for the PhD.

Prior to RPI’s PhD program, I earned my M.A. in Women’s Studies from the University at Albany, SUNY. My work there brought feminist praxis to emerging digital humanities projects – exploring how digital space allows for (and produces) different pedagogies; analyzing the landscape of digital research and its pitfalls; and working with forms of representation made possible with digital infrastructure. My thesis was a historical hypertext fiction, a story written around the Triangle Factory Fire and presented in digital form. Imagine a 100+ page website with images from public archives, maps and technical drawings created with Adobe, all presented with fictional and nonfiction accounts of the Triangle Factory Fire. I assumed I would never be able to undertake this kind of work in a PhD program, even if the program was “interdisciplinary”.

Thankfully, this wasn’t the case.

My doctoral research focused on chronic disease epidemics and the various forms of care that emerged around these epidemics. My original project looked at Alzheimer’s disease and aging; my later, dissertation work turned to asthma, a complex and poorly understood environmental health problem. This later project was embedded within the Fortuns’ larger digital humanities project, The Asthma Files. At RPI, digital projects are everywhere – built into course curriculum, a key component of grants, and, increasingly, a site of ethnographic practice. The School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences has been a productive space in this regard; digital scholarship proliferates. My colleagues inspire me, and the context infuses the work I do. Although I’ve often felt discontinuity and fragmentation in my training and research, a solid thread can be found in the mash-up. It’s just not the thread I’ve desired or focused on.

Maybe all I need is a slight shift in perspective and practice, a move that could merge my day job and night work. The split identity is tiring. If I were to continue being honest I might admit that my split sense of identity – my struggle to maintain an ethnographic project while working at CA AND teaching at RPI – is produced on the sideline, because of the sideline. A sideline I ran to with open arms and much enthusiasm.

Can precarity really be ignored?

Production from the sideline sustains academia today, that’s the story. It’s my story, and my ethnography. It’s an ethnography informed by my interdisciplinary training in STS and Women’s Studies. The study is project-oriented, and lives on several scales. Projects embedded within projects. The projects are collaborative, envisioned with colleagues from various fields and situations. We trade in technical tricks and specialized language. It’s ethnography directed by the problems and possibilities of academia. It unfolds in the relationship between the “field” and its sideline, the space where I catch myself doing ethnography, on the job, everyday.

Collaborative, interdisciplinary work – the kind that I find myself doing at CA – is increasingly needed in/from the humanities and social sciences. I don’t want to romanticize the digital humanities or interdisciplinary projects. Collaboration can be incredibly difficult. “Production” often happens at a snail’s pace. Yet it’s the problem areas, the problematic, where care is most needed, where care is practiced – open-ended process characterized by “various hands working together (over time) towards a result” (Mol, 2009).

What might it look like to turn my sideline into ethnographic project? Living as a digital anthropologist instead of managing editor + ethnographer of contemporary care + adjunct professor + …

Ali Kenner is managing editor and program director at Cultural Anthropology, and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She also teaches Vinyasa and Kundalini yoga in Upstate New York.


Deepa S. Reddy is a cultural anthropologist with the University of Houston-Clear Lake and Human Factors International. She lives and works from Pondicherry & blogs her gardening and food adventures on