Dissertating In (and About) a Pandemic

My name is Brittney Knotts, and I am a fifth year Ph.D. candidate working in the field of English Critical and Cultural Studies. My dissertation project involved work at two research sites in Pittsburgh, The Ellis School and Assemble, where I met with girls involved in computer coding and STEAM curriculum. I spent last school year (2020-2021) at these sites talking to girls about computer programming, the work that goes into learning to code, and what types of coded artifacts they had created. In my dissertation, this work sits alongside rhetorical and historical analysis of girls’ computer coding culture in the United States to point out overlaps and divergences in adult-made narratives and experiences of girls in the Pittsburgh area.

This year I have been focusing on writing my dissertation and maintaining contact with community partners to assess how my research might be of use to them. The shift from largely ethnographic work—being with girls—to writing has been jarring to say the least. Coming from English, I was not formally trained to do ethnographic work. And, while I am lucky enough to have an advisor and peers that find value in this methodology and also use it, there is nothing quite as daunting as sitting down with a year’s worth of material and trying to make sense of it. However, the conversations that I continue to have with community partners have helped to nuance and enliven the work that I am doing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Covid-19 has become part of my project in ways that I could not have foreseen when developing this dissertation in 2019. The pandemic shaped how I collected ethnographic material and interacted with communities, shifting what was supposed to be in-person participation to virtual meetings with much shorter time frames. Perhaps even more important, it made close work with teachers at both locations difficult to fit into their already taxed schedules. This is now evident at this point in the dissertation process when trying to re-imagine the work in ways that might be useful in the classroom. It also altered the artifacts that the girls were able to complete and what I am then able to write about, even though pedagogical methods might not have changed drastically (largely because coding was primarily taught through an online platform from the start).

During my writing process, Covid-19 has stayed present, infusing every chapter that I write (whether I originally wanted it to or not). Unexpectedly, I have an entire dissertation chapter dedicated to what happens in a coding classroom when there is no coding. Though frustrating at first, this particular situation helped me to position the girls in that class as human capital theorists in their own right because of how they articulated their coding experiences sans coding. In many ways, this research project has become a study of what happens in schools and after-school programs during unprecedented times and how that reflects labor expectations, particularly as schools grapple with incorporating computer science more fully into curriculums. In other ways, it is difficult to write about girls’ lives without touching on the pandemic when it features so heavily in their day-to-day—the friends they’re able to see, the vacations they can or can’t take, and the sports they miss playing. As a researcher, I lived this reality with them, and we often lamented together about the holidays that would be different or Zoom fatigue. I also got to know the girls in a new way because of their frequency of working from home; there are many more pets and bedrooms in my dissertation than I ever anticipated.

Attempting to do research and write during Covid has helped me realize that part of ethnographic research, and maybe any research, is staying open to what happens. During the writing process, I have discovered new and interesting aspects of conversations that I missed the first time through, drastically shifting focuses of chapters from what I originally proposed. I have also realized that the ways in which I imagined girls reacting to computer coding and how they actually reacted were much different. And, despite my best attempts to *pretend* Covid wouldn’t change my work, staying open to its inclusion has made my work stronger and relevant to a variety of audiences. This is the biggest take away from the past six months of research: working with people means sometimes letting your research lead while you get out of the way. No matter how much I worked on articulating the perfect chapters in my prospectus or how much research I did, my immersive research pushed me behind, around, and in the opposite direction from what I thought I’d be writing. And, I believe, it is in that movement that my scholarship actually happened.

Brittney Knotts
January 2022
Learn about all the projects from the Immersive Dissertation Research Fellowship