Things left unsaid: reflections on academia, aspirations, and accountability; or approximately 2100 words about heartbreak and failure

A collage, chaotic. Anatomical drawing of a heart layered with a skelatal torso, another heart upside-down and over the pelvis, the next layer flames. A mirrored skeleton, this one with a brain on fire. Hands point from the top, small fists reach up, growing out of a flower.

Last Friday, I had a conversation with some lovely humans (if you were one of them: I am happy to name you, but also respect that you may not want to appear in someone’s self-indulgent, meandering, and emotional diary entry). After we ended the call, the conversation kept turning over in my mind. Between then and now feels like a year rather than a few days—and to be candid, I lose thoughts in the middle of words on the regular—so what follows is perhaps more of an exhalation than elaboration. These are, perhaps, things that have been caught in my throat.

A non-comprehensive list of thoughts and/or confessions, mostly in no particular order:

  1. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to revisit “Human-Computer Insurrection: Notes on an Anarchist HCI” because I actually haven’t looked at it in an embarrassingly long time and—this sounds dramatic (I mean, it’s just a paper and shouldn’t I be cynical about papers anyway?)—the shadow of its absence has been haunting.

    Apparently, I struggle with recall and linear time even more than I knew, so some details may be inaccurate (and I hope to be corrected). We wrote this paper while I was working a very-wrong tech job, working on a professional MS, and daring to daydream about applying for a PhD.

    This is how I remember it: almost like first love. There are moments from that summer that are indelibly etched into my memory, moments that made me feel like time was suspended and anything was possible. There are moments when I thought: if graduate school is anything like this, I’m home.

    And then much about the first year of my PhD was painful1—even before the pandemic arrived a few months in and grief and fear and loneliness further blanketed the world2. What happened was this: I thought I was following a path that, while fraught, made so.much.sense for perhaps the first time in my life and then all at once (and for the most part independently) many of my guiding stars imploded or were lost to me: deep, intense friendships and intellectual partnerships, organizing efforts, hard-won cognitive coping strategies—and with these my sense of place within multiple communities. And there came new chapters to old traumas that I won’t begin to allude to here but that I’ll (sometimes, maybe) talk about in intimate, ephemeral conversation3. Challenges that months before I had felt prepared for suddenly felt insurmountable. I felt lucky to already know many of the best places to cry on campus4. And then campus was replaced by a laptop in a small, lime green room.

    This isn’t the story I intended to tell here and it’s perhaps not at all interesting when the prompt was a paper, but I bring it up to say that for me this work wasn’t an intellectual exercise, it wasn’t just a critique of “the field,” it wasn’t just an invitation. It was all of those things, but it was a personal manifesto as much as anything. For my part, I had meant it to be a warning, a clarion call, and a threshold over which I could not double back. I was as much the audience as anyone else.

    And then things fell apart and I began a PhD. (Actually, when the time came to present at CHI, things had already begun to fall apart, though I was only just slightly and unwillingly aware5.) I spent much of the next two years feeling like I needed to avoid and work around the edges of this thing that was only partly mine but that felt, in so many ways, like a piece of my heart excised into text.

  2. I’m a third-year PhD student now and I still often struggle to introduce myself and I tremble at being asked “what’s your research?” People ask “Who are you? What is your research?” and I hear “To whom do you belong?” and my heart breaks because I thought I knew but then I didn’t.6.

  3. I don’t know how to speak to the question of “hope” for “HCI.” I mean, thoughts are in the paper but a few years later and I’m no more invested in the term’s redemption or the field’s coherence. Who would that serve? And anyway, it’s difficult for me to do much more than shrug about the definition or boundaries of HCI when I’m not reaching into history to pull together a thoughtful answer for students who deserve thoughtful answers. I’m not invested in the redemption of the academy as an institution/industry, either. But I care that people survive it and bleed its resources.

  4. Sometimes I’m surprised when someone says this paper made them feel hopeful. Sometimes I think: me, too.

  5. I keep a lot of scraps and I have a text file of notes and remembrances from writing the paper that I haven’t looked at in a long time7. I can’t find it now, so it’s possible I lost it or let it go, but I know there was something important there, a message to myself about the future.

  6. “To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.” — Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

  7. A few times, after I’ve bumbled my way through telling someone about my “research interests,” they’ve recommended this paper to me. 

  8. I did not at all expect it to actually get published. I thought it might end up being a blog post no one read. My coauthors are brilliant but I guess I went into this (and into academia) with the same impulsive energy with which I distributed zines and forbidden flyers in my junior high and secondary schools. Make of this what you will. (And yet, at the time I was also working on other texts and was super stressed about having a publication because people had told me there was no way I’d ever be considered for a PhD program without one.8)

  9. I had been to my first CHI the year before, alone and as a vacation because I had fallen in love with the vast library access that came with my out-of-pocket tuition. I thought “what a privilege to visit a source of this culture I am learning!” I thought “wow, I recognize these names, these alleged creators-of-knowledge!”9. I thought “maybe I am capable of being part of this!”

    It was, with some very notable exceptions, a demoralizing experience. As it turns out, quite a few academics are comfortable expanding departmental budgets with exorbitant fee-based programs but they don’t see a reason to converse with the students who enroll in them (except sometimes when looking for an industry job/internship). There was that keynote. I’m both shy and socially awkward. It was bright and loud. I learned some of the best places to cry at a conference. And yet I remained stubbornly transfixed10.

  10. It’s also probably just inescapably awkward to go back and read past words, shaped by page limits and submission deadlines and prior selves. In another timeline, this ache in my chest may have only been mortification. I think we had each talked of plans to directly build on and extend this particular paper in different ways, including with some threads that ended up cut because not every idea fits into one narrative11. Over the past two years, my coauthors have done this in their work. We were more excited about connecting with others and keeping in contact and seeing how they might build (and unbuild), too.

  11. Before I finish rambling about this paper: there are so many others to include in speaking of anarchism and the academy (including many sharp and necessary rebukes) but it literally kept me up at night for weeks around publication time that “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology” by David Graeber wasn’t included as a reference and inspiration for a disciplinary conversation because, well, yeah.

  12. I am perhaps still standing at that threshold12.

  13. “We have presented a vision for a remaking of HCI, one that synthesizes together theories, methods and fields of study that focus on the dignity, not efficiency, of humanity. With this remaking, designers and technologists are no longer gatekeepers of knowledge or production; we are potential (rather than necessary) collaborators. Our focus is on those marginalized by the way things are, and how we can participate as willing accomplices in the destruction of the perverse machinery that perpetuates this state of affairs. In serving as accomplices, we may find our vocational knowledge and output is valued as secondary to the contributions and perspectives we can offer as individuals, or as members of our communities.”13“Human-Computer Insurrection: Notes on an Anarchist HCI”

    And it invites and requires crossing again and again and again.

  1. Everyone warns you about how difficult a PhD will be. How lost and alone and incompetent you will feel. How no one will (be able to) tell you that what you are doing is enough. How you will feel lucky with little, rather than zero, institutional support. How—if you care about such things—you will never know if you are helping or harming, siphoning institutional power or lending it credibility. And you will assume they are warning you so that you can ready yourself for it, protect yourself by internalizing that the problem isn’t you, or learn from their experiences and thus avoid the same fate. But they aren’t. They are warning you that this is coming for you no matter what you do. This does not mean you will not also find (immense) joy and connection and meaning and love.[]
  2. I realize as I’m about to press “publish” that this is ridiculous as an aside and there is no way to unravel this.[]
  3. I often share too much or too little, always followed by intense anxiety. This is undoubtedly one of those times. But I’m learning that it’s often less painful to be betrayed by others than by myself.[]
  4. Fun fact! I also did my undergraduate degree at UW.[]
  5. I attended CHI that year funded in large part by the big tech job, standing on the bridge as I burned it, and that was an absolute mindfuck. I have chronic illnesses; lengthy travel and time changes can be extremely painful and disruptive. I was trying to keep up with work back in Seattle and was in the final push of my MS. We had planned a collaborative presentation (and I want to give so much thanks and credit to the generous and thoughtful people who participated but I want to do it in a different context rather than associate them with my breakdown) but it wasn’t originally supposed to be me facilitating and I just wasn’t up to the task. Our part of the paper session felt chaotic and went over time. I was not prepared for all of these things and basically ended up experiencing an ADHD overload and shutdown that contributed to the aforementioned implosions and a long-term burnout and crisis-of-confidence that I’ve only just begun to recognize and heal from.[]
  6. Related: it took me far too long to figure out that these exchanges in academia are usually intended to be performative rather than descriptive. “Imposter” didn’t even begin to describe how I felt.[]
  7. Wow, it really feels like I had a messy breakup with grad school but then had to keep sharing an apartment.[]
  8. I was later told by many surprised people that this is…not true.[]
  9. I wrote on social media: “CHI is full of celebrities and also I have a really low bar for celebrities.” A friend wrote back and we decided that “academic-famous” generally ranks slightly below “improv-famous,” in case you were curious.[]
  10. And, really, the credit for keeping me buoyed goes to Make the Breast Pump Not Suck, where I went directly after CHI 2018, and to the UW cohort I returned to[]
  11. Or one blog post. Note to self: wrap it up.[]
  12. There is nowhere else I’d rather be.[]
  13. Last week, I vented to a friend that while many (usually job-secure) academics will say—with the very best of intentions—”publications don’t matter,” so many opportunities for not only accolades or approval or funding but skill-sharing and rapport are by default focused on research milestones or outputs of some kind (and thus, novelty). I quipped that there weren’t gatherings of the type core to our work—and thus, of course, our “value”—that advertised talks about “how to meet access needs as a class community and practice emotional first aid as a TA” and she said “Maybe you should propose it for a lab meeting. I think it would be well-received.” Obviously, she is much wiser than I am and I am forever grateful for friends who offer gentle corrections and remind me of the soft places I have landed. It also made me feel that maybe I have not entirely lost my way. Right now, this university is one of my communities and we are trying to live through a g-d pandemic.[]