By Katie Cox, Connie McGuire, Michael Montoya
** This is the second post in a series in which scholars and practitioners reflect on ethnography and innovation, with a particular focus on the University of California System.**
This blog post springs from a collective at UC-Irvine called the Community Knowledge Project (CKP), an initiative in the CoLED network. CKP seeks to create collaborative spaces to reimagine the world, how to know it, and how to heal it. This post is a reflection on the CoLED workshop held at UC-Irvine in October of 2015.
As part of CoLED’s fall workshop at UC Irvine, CKP proposed an encounter between workshop participants and the UCI Farm. UCI Social Sciences founded the short-lived Farm project in 1968 as an experimental enterprise in ethnographic knowledge-making. Using a reading practice called Feminist Theory Theatre (FTT), developed by graduate students at UC San Diego, CoLEDers staged improvised performances based on texts and archival media about the Farm.
The workshop organizers designed this process of ‘reading’ the Farm through Feminist Theory Theater with two critical interventions in mind. First, the use of FTT was meant to be unfamiliar and uncomfortable– for faculty, postdocs, and grad students alike. By encountering texts through embodied performance rather than through more familiar forms of reading and discussion, we hoped to unsettle the dynamics of communication where perspectives are amplified or muted based on positionality within the university hierarchy.
Second, we hoped that a critical engagement with the racist and colonialist legacy of the Farm would enable a reflexive discussion on CoLED’s own situation within the University system and the ethical and political implications of this entanglement. We sought to trouble the market-driven logics that transform scholarship into research for hire and that convert education into preparation of middle managers for an ever expanding private sphere. Through the productive discomfort of FTT, we sought to know and to be otherwise by disrupting conventions of inquiry that keep our biographies separate from learning instead of centrally a part of it.
In the conversations following the FTT activity, critical assessment of the CoLED project stopped where they should have begun. We note a missed opportunity to productively critique our engagement in CoLED through comparison to the deeply troubled history of the Farm, another university-based initiative premised on its aspiration to transform the field through innovation in ethnographic practice. From this unsettling comparison, we might be required to ask ourselves what drives us as university researchers to participate in a project like CoLED or the Farm: Is it our intellectual interests? The pressures to secure funding to advance our careers? Our commitments to disrupting structures of inequity and violence, old and new?
These are questions about what is at stake in collaborative ethnographic design: What are we really doing when we collaborate? When we design? When we do ethnography?
Absent a critical assessment grounded in these stakes, we find it important to acknowledge the structured power that configures both the Farm and CoLED. New ways of knowing and engaging with the world (acting, climbing a tree, making a pamphlet, a few examples of activities at the workshop) are only as innovative as they are power sensitive. For us, the absences speak louder than everything else.
We believe that we are not alone in our frustration with these absences and that many of our co-participants are motivated by the possibility that ethnography can be used to unmask, disrupt, or at a minimum not perpetuate, the dynamics of power and violence that mark its past and present. We pose these questions for our collective consideration.
What does looking at and talking about The Farm side-by-side with CoLED show us about CoLED that we might not readily see? For example, how are legacies of colonialism and anthropology (and thus ethnography) at play today as they were in 1968 and how might university endeavors mitigate past harm, and more optimistically, do something reparative, non-violent, and/or transformative? We ask, should consideration of such reparation or transformation be part of the ethnographic design process? Moreover, if CoLED is particularly concerned with ethnography AS a sort of design, how might the particular and fraught history of a designed project like the Farm point us to larger lessons about the critiques that ethnography-as-design can enable, as well as those that it cannot? How might a self-critical engagement with the Farm shape our understanding of the meaning, purpose, and outcomes of critique itself?