Contextualizing Discourse

Who can write? Who can speak? The PhD-Design listserv is a publicly accessible email thread. Its current and archived communications can be accessed via jiscm@il, which is a collection of “email discussion lists for the UK Education and Research communities.” Despite this description, the PhD-Design listserv has global membership with “delegates” representing communities from six of the seven continents and too many countries to do justice to them all in a brief list. The breadth and depth of its membership yields a broad range of thread topics including: professional design practice issues, academic resources such as reading lists or book recommendations, student advising, calls for conference and journal participation, and even job postings. In short, no topic is off limits. And in principle no participant is off limits either. In other words, there are no formal criteria for starting or responding to a thread. Both seasoned researchers, whose presences are well known and expected on the list, to prospective PhD students looking for recommendations can post. Even the occasional troll posts to the listserv. Anyone can write. Anyone can post. This is at least the case in theory. It is not evident in practice. Some context will be helpful.

Not all topics yield discussion. Job postings, for example, seem to be “one-off” posts wherein a message is blasted to the entire list and it receives no responses—or at least the respondents do not address the whole list. They may respond only to the sender. Calls for participation in conferences and journals have yielded responses before. These fall into one of two categories: either (1) the respondent mistakenly sent their response to the whole list or (2) the respondent is calling attention to what they perceive to be the signs of a fraudulent conference. The topic of fraudulent conferences has received much attention on the listserv over the years. Topics of general interest tend to yield the most discussion. By “the most” I mean greater than five responses, each from a different author. A quick tally yields the average number of responses in January, February, and March of 2015 as X, Y, and Z, respectively. Few threads make it past 15 responses. And very few make it to 50. When a thread passes 50 responses, it is worth taking notice of what is going on, and an important part of this taking notice involves looking at who writes and speaks.

Mauricio’s thread, Research through design (hereafter: RtD) includes 55 posts from XX different authors. This is a fraction of a fraction of the list’s 2786 subscribers. Demographic data is not available for individual subscribers and so it will be impossible to ascertain with certainty who is not speaking or writing without engaging in a lengthy analysis of the archives in order to identify names of members who did not post on the current thread under scrutiny. However, I can attempt to synthesize a generic profile of the writers and speakers based on how they identify themselves to the list. Many writers identified as associate professors. Others identified as “research group leaders.” Still others identified as journal editors, while some identified through their university affiliation without indicating their role or responsibilities. Finally, a minority group identified as practicing designers. Note that members of these groups did not “identify” in the body of their messages. Their email signatures provided their credentials. Only one respondent to the thread identified his standing in the body of his message: a PhD candidate named “Joe” who explicitly cited his status at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training at Lancaster University.

It is perhaps apparent that although anyone can speak, not anyone “can” speak on the PhD-Design listserv in the context of a topic of general discussion whose primary discussants are highly credentialed senior researchers and practitioners. When less credentialed (read: less experienced) voices do speak they are written off or ignored as was (seemingly) the case with Joe’s contribution to the listserv. Joe began his post with the phrase, “This is my first post to the list… I thought it worth sharing my thoughts on the subject [of Research through design] (and various resources/perspectives that I don’t think have been mentioned thus far in the conversation.” I point this out to draw attention to the value with which Joe attempts to imbue his post. He is apparently posting something valuable to the discussion. Valuable on the grounds that (1) it has not yet been posted and is relevant to the discussion and (2) the resources he has are “good” resources worth looking into. The “goodness” or “badness” of resources is relevant to a sequence of emails preceding Joe’s in which several senior members attack and debate what counts as a “good” resource.

Despite the value with which Joe attempts to imbue his post, the next three emails ignore it completely. The fourth message (after Joe’s first) comes from him again, and it begins, “Just to add in my interpretation of Christopher Frayling again, because…” Joe seems to be making another bid for acknowledgement if not more in-depth engagement from the group. He reminds the listserv that he has added this interpretation before and sets up what ends up being an amplified argument for why it matters. But the response he gets is (again) perhaps not what he hoped for or expected. The next email in the thread came from an associate professor, Jeff.

Jeff writes, “It is very difficult to ask how design does research without becoming bewitched by scientific research norms or foundationalist attempts to find powerful arguments in Frayling that frankly aren’t there to be found.” Without acknowledging Joe as the one who raised Frayling, this comment seems to make a straw man out of Frayling and perhaps by commutation out of Joe. I characterize this as a straw man because Jeff does not engage with Frayling’s arguments, which have been treated formally by other prominent researchers. [xxx] Instead, he simply states that there are no powerful arguments to be found in Frayling’s work. He does not provide any grounds to support this statement perhaps because he assumes (possibly rightly) that the listserv will not require any additional argumentative support.

Joe contributes no more posts to the thread following this comment.

I am not suggesting that Jeff is out of line in his critique of Joe’s post. Nor do I mean to suggest that Joe refrains from additional contributions either (1) because of a lack of responses or (2) because of Jeff’s critical response. I am not even claiming that this type of interaction is typical for PhD candidates contributing to a discussion thread dominated by professors and practitioners. I am claiming that in this instance, which is one of two in which a PhD candidate contributes to the thread, that the candidate’s voice is (1) ignored and (2) critiqued and written off. PhD candidates “can” speak, but they do so perhaps knowing that there is risk involved and so they might opt out more often than they opt in.

One thought on “Contextualizing Discourse

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  1. Fascinating! And this is definitely something that was implicitly being thrown out at your data session a few weeks back. As you so nicely wrote, not just anyone can speak. There are norms and expectations (perhaps implicit but explicitly displayed through the discourse) around who is a “true” member of the discourse community — at least with the ‘rights’ to speak/write. It reminds me a bit of the idea of a gradient of epistemic rights — meaning only some have the rights to claim knowledge. In this case, position/identity shape the right to knowledge…hm…

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