By Hanna Karin Wideman Grue
Failing is seeing? An initial association
This first paragraph is a parenthesis about my featured image above. The image itself is the materialization of my failed attempt to make a generic collage of children and tech in schools. Why did I fail? Well. I turned to www to collect images for a collage with children using tech in school. It was an instant success: there were tons of images to choose from and the collage was perfect for showing an array of situations where tech is part of the teaching/learning environment. Then I realized I hadn’t taken rights and consent regarding the images I had selected into consideration. I couldn’t use those pictures! Then what? Luckily ETHOST Lab has a license to ‘Canva’, a slide-show service with royalty-free photos (where I assume that rights and consent are taken care of). But there were practically no pictures of children in a school setting interacting with tech on Canva. Instead, I ended up making above collage. So, what does that show? How Canva presents children in schools? Books, paper and pens all over. Is this actually an expression of how ‘we think’ or maybe how ‘we prefer to picture’ children in schools? I don’t know. And I don’t know if I ever will, because this blogpost is about something completely different. It is about the great extent to which being a part of ETHOS Lab community has influenced my work as a Junior Researcher.
The story of my scoping journey starts an early day in September 2021 when I am introduced to the existence of ETHOS Lab and the Junior Research program. The moment I heard about it, I wanted to apply. Because it sounded compelling, fun, and challenging all at the same time and because I want to learn as much as possible about doing academic research during the two years, I have been granted at ITU, coming from a non-academic background. Becoming a part of the ETHOS Lab Junior Research-program appeared like a perfect opportunity to get going towards knowing.
To be able to participate I needed a vehicle: an area of interest to carry the application. Having to decide what to research was the first obstacle I encountered, and it generated a minor personal crisis because I find many things interesting and potentially worth researching, but I lack experience in scoping a research project and prioritizing among ideas. I need to unlearn my skills in excluding myself in the scoping process which I have refined for twenty years realising other people’s ideas within performing arts. Though I do believe that my work in academia can benefit from my extensive experience in facilitating developing processes of performance arts concepts and managing performing arts productions, this initial scoping-phase turned troublesome for me. I had to make choices of what I want to do, which is new territory to me, and does not come easy. So, my first action as an aspiring ETHOS Lab Junior Researcher was to reach out to our Lab Manager, Merethe Riggelsen Gjørding, and ask for help to locate an area of interest for my application.
I came to Merethe with a long and diverse list of areas of interests, two of them being something about tech and children and something about bots’ role in SoMe-communities. Both ascending from my everyday life, ‘Tech’n Kids’ from being a parent to two teenagers, where I see them being heavily affected by the way we have organised the use of tech in our schools and in our society, and ‘Bots in SoMe’ from being married to a leisure-musician, where I am often the audience to complaints about the amount of bot-listeners and -likers on Sound Cloud and how it pollutes the community. Merethe helped me order my thoughts and I ended up deciding on the Bots in SoMe-question because I find the topic pressing and important, but also because the Tech’n Kids-question felt overwhelming to approach. So, I left our conversation convinced that I wanted to examine something about bots/automated content on social media and how this influences SoMe communities and culture. I wrote the application, sent it in, and was granted a place as Junior Researcher in ETHOS Lab with the research project Bots in SoMe.
The necessary detour
I worked on this project from September 23rd till the first Junior Research Pitch & Play session on October 25th. At this point I had conducted some initial research and ended up with a research question that was slightly twisted from my initial research idea. I had excluded the question about performability of the bot-structure and focused on problematization instead. The question ended up being: Which controversies are hidden in rules and regulations regarding social media automation on Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter? To investigate this, I planned a research design where I (among other things) wanted to apply Carol Bacchi’s (2012) WPR-analyses to the written regulations on social media automation from Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook to be able to render visible some of the invisible assumptions and ‘truths’ stated in them – and maybe even be able to say something about how those assumptions and truths might be disrupted. This was the project, the research question, and the reflections on research design I brought with me to the first Pitch & Play session.
At this Pitch & Play session we, the Junior Researchers, are invited to present our project to and ask for feedback from ETHOS Lab staff and researchers (and fellow junior researchers of course!). We are told that it is a space for sharing, not only what we are sure about, but also what we are insecure about when it comes to our project and the progression, we are in. With this in mind, I decided to dare and share how I found my everyday-wondering about Tech’n Kids’ to a constraint in my Bots in SoMe-research process. Even though I did (and still do) regard the automation-question to be very important indeed, I kind of had to force myself when working on it because this noise from my Tech’n Kids-worry were very present almost all the time. It has been for years, actually.
My mind constantly lingers to the question about children and youth and how their lives are affected by mainstream tech culture and values in Denmark. Based on my nothing-but-life-experience-opinion, one side-effect to these young lives affected by tech, is that both we, their families, and our society as a whole, are affected by the affect tech has on our young in their formative years. Me being a struggling parent to a struggling young adult is of course the main reason for the noise being so loud. My best description of working in such a noisy environment was that I had to put on some internal, mental hearing protection on to be able to shut the Tech’n-Kids-noise out and focus on the bot-thing. That was the constraint I shared. And I totally survived!
Staff and researchers initially gave feedback on my Bots in SoMe-project, which was very useful. I had too many ideas on what to do and was recommended to scale down and be less broad in my research design. But then, in the very end of feedback, a researcher – I don’t remember who – said that I might want to change subject and go where my mind is. My recollection of it is, that I initially disregarded the very thought. Changing subject opposed my default life understanding that ‘if you say A (i.e. applied with Bots in SoMe), you must say B (i.e. keep going in that direction).
But the seed had been planted, and the supporting, curious, and openminded milieu of the ETHOS Lab community had gotten under my skin, so over the next couple of days I reached the conclusion that I would and should change my course. I presented my wish to shift my focus from automated content on social media platforms to Tech’n Kids to Merethe, who encouraged a shift. But how to scope this? I had no research question and no research design. I only had frustration and curiosity.
The answer appeared only a few days later while sharing my thoughts with my fellow junior researcher, David Søbæk Olsen. We got to talk about why I didn’t just keep the Bots in SoMe-research design where the idea was to explore written regulation on three SoMe platforms through the WPR-analyses and just replaced the artefact for scrutiny? Plain and simple. I totally loved the idea of replacing ‘regulation regarding automation on social media platforms’ with ‘tech-regulation in Danish public schools’. I wonder if this is an example on one of those ‘all boats rise’-moments where something developed in one domain is effectively inserted in another domain saving developing time and resources that Ribes (2019) mentions?
With this I knew how I wanted to work, but I had lost my initial research question, and I must admit that I am yet to fully land on a new one. I am OK with that, though, leaning on Marres’ (2017) radical empiricism – or maybe rather the not quite as happy-go-lucky critical empiricism-approach that she has moved towards since she first distributed the idea of radical empiricism, as mentioned in the interview with Norrtje Marres conducted by our very own Pedro Ferreira and Jessamy Perriam (2021). Based on this, I began my journey along this new research path confident that my research question will emerge while researching tech policies in public schools in Denmark in an as inductive and critical empiricist manner as I am able of.
Why am I sharing this experience in a blogpost? Well, I am trying to pass on my revelation that there can be unexpected ways of entering a research area that initially comes across as unenterable to you.
I want to share how I found answers by reaching out and inviting in and thanks to other people investing time and reflection in me and my work. First, when a community member was questioning my decision to walk away from this privately troublesome area, maybe a Haraway (2016) inspired push to stay with the trouble that grows in the tension, or maybe rather the fusion, of tech and teaching and tech and children in a chthuluscene age? And secondly, when another community member was there to hear my thoughts and reflect with me about my research design.
I also want to share my personal experience that a research design for a whole different question can be the almost magical solution to untying the Gordian Knot on how to enter something initially considered to be unenterable. Research sometimes moves in mysterious ways – if you are open to it.
A voluntary detour
This all happened in October, and before we knew it, it was time for the second Pitch & Play session in November, where we were to prepare an interactive event for the research community. Due to being blown back to start research-wise by changing research interest and artefact, I had no direct findings to work from. I only had the decision that I wanted to research ‘tech-policies in schools’, so I decided my activity should revolve around that very artefact. After a brainstorm with my incredibly supporting and totally ingenious husband I ended up preparing a role-play for fellow junior researchers, ETHOS Lab staff, and researchers. I invited them to join me in a playful and reflective meta-experience about the making of a tech-policy in a school: I was gamemaster as well as the headmaster of ‘our public school’, everyone else was given a persona (teacher, student, or parent), and asked to participate as if in a meeting where everyone contributed with their persona’s idea of ‘the most important thing to have in our school’s tech policy’. With this I got a free-fantasy-look into the plurality of thinking and the multitude of situatedness, agendas, and feelings that the role-play participants associated with being either a parent, a student, or teacher in a public school. The outcome was a list of suggestions for a tech-policy as seen in figure 1.
After the role-play there was a couple of minutes left for sharing thoughts generated from the role-play. The joint feedback was that the role-play was potentially giving a sense of how a tech policy making process might like look like in a public-school setting. A hypothesis surfaced that I might find that tech-policies would look very much alike based on an assumption that it is likely that schools will look at other school’s tech policies and copy them. And last I got the feedback that the role-play had made the three groups of stakeholders materialize: teachers, students and parents, but there might be more stakeholders – the municipalities for instance.
I am very grateful that I have been given this opportunity to draw on the ETHOS Lab community’s joint imagination. It turned out to be fun and engaging, just like I wanted it to be, but equally important it made the question of tech policies in public schools more real and tangible as well as simultaneously more complex and more distinct to me. And gave me inspiration regarding interesting directions to go look for a research question.
And then what?
After digesting and reflecting on the experience with our joint meta-reflection, I am back in my structuring phase (Flyverbom & Madsen, 2015). An analytical moment where I am making choices about how to build my data corpuses and classification systems in the quest to turn data (that is accessible to me and that I consider to be relevant) into knowledge. Concretely this means that I am searching for ten tech policies in Danish public schools to problematize with Carol Bacchi’s (2012) WPR-approach. A snapshot from the research is that I have assembled and randomized a list of 1,383 Danish elementary schools, I have gone through eighty-two schools, fifty-eight live up to my criteria on which school’s websites to investigate, and seven of those has had tech policies so far. Already now findings and hypothesis are beginning to present themselves, for instance about whether the schools do copy tech policies or not, so I feel quite confident even though I currently work without a research question. I see the phase I am in as if I am ploughing the land without quite knowing what to sow, so to speak. Trying to feel good in the dirt, trying to stay with the trouble.
Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the trouble. Duke University Press.
Flyverbom, M & Madsen, AK 2015, Sorting Data Out: Unpacking Big Data Value Chains and Algoritmic Knowlegde Production . in F Süssenguth (ed.), Die Gesellschaft der Daten: Über die digitale Transformation der sozialen Ordnung. Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld, pp. 123-144.
Ribes, D. et al. (2019) “The logic of domains,” Social Studies of Science, 49(3), pp. 281–309.
Bacchi, C. (2012) “Why Study Problematizations? Making Politics Visible,” Open Journal of Political Science, 02(01), pp. 1–8. doi:10.4236/ojps.2012.21001.
Marres, N. (2017) “Are we researching society or technology?,” in Digital Sociology.
Marres, N. (2021) Interview with Perriam, J. & Ferreira, P.