[image description: Nine people, a mix of organisers and participants, sit around a table, smiling at the camera]
By Simy Kaur Gahoonia, Barbara Patricia Nino Carreras, Caroline Anna Salling, Katja Sara Pape de Neergaard, Anne-Sofie Lautrup Sørensen. Edited by Marisa Cohn and Henriette Friis.
In September 2021, five PhD students from the IT University’s Technologies in Practice Research Group decided to organise a PhD course on Feminist and Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies (STS). The idea to organise the course came from a shared disappointment in realising that it was difficult to find courses that addressed the intersections between feminist and postcolonial theory and STS in Danish universities. Due to our interest in learning more about Postcolonial and decolonial theories that have informed the study of technology development, we proposed the idea to our colleagues Katrine Meldgaard Kjær and Rachel Douglas-Jones, who are members of the ETHOS Lab. They helped us organise a course dealing with these theories. With their support and guidance, we developed the course and invited students from Denmark and abroad for three days of workshops and guest lectures. In this blogpost we attend to the questions of: How did we make such a PhD course happen, and why was it necessary? In terms of both learnings and unlearnings, which form did it take?
The course was imagined during the second Covid-19 lockdown in Denmark. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these conditions had a lot of influence on how we organised the course. We were working from home when we began to brainstorm about the content of the course, but we knew that possibly the course would take place in the summer when meeting in person would be possible again. Isolation from our colleagues was particularly difficult for those of us who missed spontaneous conversations with colleagues. In this context, meeting online to ideate the course was a way for us to remember we were part of a research community. Without overstating, planning the course was a collective experience of pure joy.
Because we were five organisers who had different motivations to be part of the course, it soon became clear that we needed to find a common ground on what the course would be like and consequently distribute responsibilities among us to make the course happen. We wanted to, and found it necessary, to see each other and talk through our motivations, ideas, and concrete suggestions for the course. But we also wanted to avoid zoom fatigue. In doing so, we made sure to create short-term milestones. After each meeting, we summarised a list of next steps and divided tasks among us.
We worked hard to transition from boiling down our motivations and ideas about the course to a feasible course structure and plan. An important consideration we all shared was to be sensitive to feminist and postcolonial approaches to knowledge production. Because we were not experts of the theories, we wanted to engage with in the course it was important for us to invite guest lecturers that could inform the course and help us shape the literature list and exercises in the best possible way. Excited as we were, we found ourselves in a vulnerable space due to being insecure about
not knowing enough about the theories we wanted to engage with. In this regard, we are thankful for the supervision and feedback that we received from senior colleagues and guest lecturers.
Constructing the reading list
At the suggestion from Katrine and Rachel, we began to design the course around a reading list. Part of our motivation to create the course had been that there was a lot of literature we wanted to read and engage with, with others, but had not found the space to do so. The reading list became a key organising object. When selecting literature, we dealt with the tension of wanting to incorporate “key texts” about feminist and postcolonial STS, while also working against the idea of a canon. Practically, we worked through this by first developing a course module and dedicating a full day to citation and referencing practices to consider how to resist the pressures of citing only “canonical” work. Secondly, we repeatedly delegated cutting and modifying the reading list amongst our group, so that over many months the list went from a chaotic google doc with highlights, countless comments, and frenzied in-text notes of “maybe this???” into a neat and carefully selected list: we were aware that such a list needed to reflect the ambitions of the methods we wanted to engage in.
To no surprise, in the end it was the pressure of a deadline to circulate the reading list to participants that finalised our decisions about what to keep as key readings, what to move to “additional/suggested readings,” and deciding which readings were central to the course questions. We figured out that crafting syllabi for a course is always difficult and one needs to make decisions on what to include and leave out. Removing literature was not easy, so we decided to keep a list of the things we cut out, so we could return to them at another time. Making the reading list was a learning experience that made tangible the decisions and labour that is embedded in crafting syllabi for a course and how important the final syllabus is as an artefact of the course.
The course also began to take shape through another important artefact: the playbook – a text-baseddocument with an elaborate course description which served as a valuable place for expectation-setting. The use of a playbook was inspired by one of us enjoying a similar artifact for a course organised by the computer science department at The University of Copenhagen called ”Methodological Foundations for Design & Research of Responsible Data-Driven Technologies” managed by Naja L. Holten Møller. In a similar vein to this course, our version of the playbook was shared with course participants before the course took place. In this way, students knew what to expect, and so did we as organisers.
In the playbook we tried to make it clear to participants what questions we were dealing with on any given course day and why, providing a clear overview of the course, timeline, exercises, mandatory assignments, and questions for each day. The idea of having a written summary or script of each day seemed like a good idea, as we knew from experience that jumping into a course can be disorienting if not guided properly.
During the crafting of each day, we came up with the idea of allocating time for journaling exercises. This exercise drawing from feminist writing approaches, consisted of 15-20 minutes of individual writing where participants could write down their takeaways, questions, and reflections in between lectures and plenary discussions. The idea was to prompt participants to write during the course so they would have some reflections that could inform and be part of their final essays. We highly recommend this activity!
Structure of the course
We designed each of the three course days around a set of key questions that had been with us since the inception of the course. We then sorted the final reading list, cutting and pasting into the three distinct days on 1) literature, 2) methods and citational practices, and 3) analysis and writing. These became the pillars around which we designed activities and invited guest speakers. We had a day for introductions, both to the keywords of ‘feminist’, ‘postcolonial’, and ‘STS’ and for introductions to each other, giving how the course would be taking place as the most severe lockdowns and restrictions were tapering; it would be nice to indulge a bit in this moment where we could meet new peers, other PhD students, face-to-face. The second course day was about citational practices, including perspectives on the institutional practices that facilitate or constrain our abilities to work against canon and/or
power and oppression. And finally, we had a day dedicated
to feminist and postcolonial perspectives analysis and writing.
The benefits and downfalls of delegation
We were able to delegate the course days amongst all the organisers so that each of us was responsible for only one day of the course – inviting, corresponding with, and hosting the guest speakers, while also sparring about the other days. During the course, this meant that all of us could find time to fully lean into being participants, while being on standby to support the person responsible for the day. Although this modular design and delegation made it possible to relieve some of the pressure of being course responsible for a given amount of time, it also made us vulnerable, because we didn’t necessarily have a detailed overview of each course day. As fate would have it, one of us got sick, and given the circumstances of the time, this meant a hard boundary: you don’t show up when you’re sick. On this day we managed via the technology and by all of us stepping up.
The course took place after/during weeks of jabs at (if not attacks) on academic freedom and critical research from the Danish parliament. Such attacks were not novel but had been bubbling at the surface at different times throughout the years. We found ourselves in the midst of a “panic” about the very words that served as our key terms. Feminist research and research deemed “political” was being debated right around the time of our final weeks of organising the course. Although we were not directly targets of attacks from individuals or groups in the political landscape, this debate made things a bit tense for us, because we felt like we were perhaps exposing ourselves to some of that ill-will. However, having conversations about the anxiety building up from such attacks eased the tension and made it possible to stay with the excitement. We had to remind ourselves that we were a group (not alone) that could expect support both from our seniors and from our institution.
What we didn’t expect was how strange it would feel to have people show up for the in-person course we had organised… in person! At 9:45 on the Wednesday, people, in the flesh, were filing into the seminar room, and it was almost bizarre that we could finally have such a thing take place given how the last months had isolated us from each other and from the PhD colleagues across institutions, and countries, we had yet to meet! Those minutes where people started showing up was a moment of real dissonance for a lot of us.
Key take aways of what made our collective effort work
- Responsibility! We were a group of PhD students that initially agreed to take equal but different responsibility for the course – without measuring and over-engineering ‘who does what’. During the design process we all kept up to date with the needed planning so we could take turns in stepping up to fulfil different asks, such as: creating The Playbook, sending the application to our PhD School, making the reading list, emailing with participants and lecturers, and so on.
- Excitement and curiosity! We were all excited about particularly two things: the content of the course, which we severely needed in our PhD education and organising and participating together as a cohort, including both the fun of collaborative work, and getting to know each other better.
- Supportive senior scholars! While much of the planning was done between us PhD students, it was crucial to be able to ask questions and having moral support from senior scholars that find the theme and content equally important and interesting. On top of that, formally, at our university, organising a course needs to be in collaboration with seniors that can help plan, oversee, and attend to course exams.
So, in sum, the course came about from a nagging question that bubbled up into other questions. From, why does a course not exist on feminist STS, to whether we can be the ones to organise and determine the contours of this subject, to questions about what to include and how best to organise in a feminist way. Rather than resolving these questions, they became the anchors for each of the days of the course, opening up for play and reflections with others. The final days of heightened public discourse on academic freedom only highlighted the importance of putting ourselves into the playful labour of making the pedagogic spaces we need.