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On Respecting “Deep Knowledge” in Collaborative Feminist Work: a Discussion with Jacque Wernimont

By Liz Polcha

On Wednesday, March 15th, Arizona State University English Professor Jacque Wernimont held a discussion with a group of graduate students, faculty, and staff at Northeastern on the topic of building digital feminist communities. I was particularly excited for Jacque’s visit, as a group I helped organize at Northeastern, the Digital Feminist Commons, co-sponsored the event with Northeastern’s NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks. The Digital Feminist Commons is a very new collaborative group, and we are trying to address the needs of the feminist digital workers and researchers at Northeastern and in the Boston area, while also building a sustainable community. Fortunately for us, Jacque shared a wide range of advice on how to collaborate across disciplines and backgrounds, building on her experience as a digital scholar who is at the forefront of a number of interdisciplinary feminist, digital-oriented organizations (such as HSCollabHASTAC, and FemTechNet). I’ve written up here a few of my larger takeaways from Jacque’s talk that have helped me think through the logistical and emotional work of building interdisciplinary communities.

Collaborative work is emotional labor: One of the most important overarching threads in Jacque’s talk was that feminist, collaborative work is emotional labor, and it is often uncompensated labor. Jacque reiterated that most diversity work is conducted by women, people of color, and trans and gender-nonconforming people. Often, this work is uncompensated—like sitting on diversity and inclusion academic committees without pay. Part of organizing feminist collaborative groups is always being attentive to this type of invisible work. Jacque also underscored that in building any feminist group, it is important to listen. This means that it is necessary to ask what has already been developed before trying to reinvent the wheel, and to realize that other feminist organizers have likely been doing similar collaborative work for years.

The agenda must be set by the community: Similarly, collaborative work, especially work that includes groups outside of the academy, needs to be flexible and conscientious of the disparate needs and wants of all collaborating members. Collaborators should be involved with every stage of the process—the agenda for collaborative work must be set by the community working together in order for the work to be inclusive and reflect the needs of the community.

Respect the unfamiliar and the “deep knowledge” of your collaborators: When collaborating with anyone who is outside your discipline, it is important to find a mutual research agenda. Part of finding this mutual agenda is learning to respect that your collaborator’s research output might look very different than your own. Jacque emphasized that it is important to be comfortable with talking about the aspects of your collaborator’s work that might seem foreign to you—and to respect the unfamiliarity of their work. For example, Jacque works with computer scientists, and the reason why their collaboration is successful is because they “respect each other’s deep knowledge.” This also means that you need to make your own work, and your own “deep knowledge,” responsive to someone other than yourself.

Be willing to be uncomfortable: To build on that last point, respecting what is unusual or unfamiliar to you in your collaborative partner’s research also means that as an interdisciplinary collaborator, you are willing to be uncomfortable. For Jacque, part of this uncomfortability is letting yourself be okay with not being an expert: know enough about your collaborator’s work so that you can contribute basic ideas, but recognize that you aren’t a specialist in their field. When collaborating with people from widely different backgrounds, institutions, political ideologies, it is important to be able to recognize when your feedback isn’t needed or wanted. Instead, return to the larger needs of the community—be willing to ask, what do you need? Where are the possible harms and how can we mitigate them? How can we move forward?

Give your community time to grow: Jacque pointed out that in working collaboratively in academia or with academic resources, it is necessary to be cognizant that the timeline of the academic world often does not match with the timeline of building trust in a community. It is essential to include what Jacque calls “dialoguing,” or hearing out the needs of the community, into your timeline. For example, allow the outcomes of your group’s collaboration to be set by the community members, which would encourage you to pull from existing community interests. Jacque cautioned, “Don’t be an evangelist”—instead, find those who are interested in collaborating, figure out what your community wants to do, and move forward from there.

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