Experts and PhDs: Reflections as I Leave Pitt

My name is Brittney Knotts and I am a recently defended PhD student in English! My dissertation “Labor, Play, and Futurity of the Twenty-First Century Girl Coder” explored both the cultural narratives of the girls’ coding movement as well as the creations of actual girls in the Pittsburgh area. I developed my methodology based on two main beliefs/arguments: first, cultural narratives of childhood are culturally specific and help to shape the lives of actual children; second, actual children are doing really interesting things that aren’t always captured within these narratives. For instance, while coding clubs I analyzed often talked about apps girls created to talk about social justice issues, they rarely (if ever) talked about things like the Zac Efron app that a girl in my study made.

This difference really came to light only through spending a year in my ethnographic sites. In reality, this dissertation would have been completely different if I hadn’t had the time and space to work within classrooms and afterschool clubs in Pittsburgh. It was here that I realized that computer coding was so much more than just the future-oriented rhetoric that I was seeing on websites. It was a way for girls to share their love of popular culture, for them to play around with sounds, and to ignore coding and produce digital drawings instead. Computer coding was both frustrating and fun for them, and it was a place where they could flex their own expertise over me (as I always reminded them, they knew more than me when it came to computer coding).

At my dissertation defense, I was asked to reflect on my argument that the girls in my study were theorists and experts, things that are usually associated with older people (historically white men). Positioning the girls in this way was important to me, partially because they were in fact the experts in our setting—they held a computer coding knowledge that I didn’t possess and chose not to pursue during the ethnographic component of my project. But it was also important because their experience seemed, in some ways, so different than what I read from adult content creators about what a coding girl is and does. Culturally, our understanding of the term “expert” is tied to age and experience, something that automatically makes it impossible for children to be experts except under unique circumstances. National coding organizations understood girls as always on the path to future expertise and financial success. This is something that I wanted to push against and something that will continue to be important to me even after my dissertation is turned in. I wanted to imagine the girls in my study as already inhabiting that positionality and space of expert. This also meant taking girls’ voices seriously for who they were in the present instead of what they would be in the future.

As I leave Pitt, I am trying to find a way to balance my interest in scholarship with my commitment to community voices. For now, it feels like the best way to do this work is outside of the academy. My hope is to eventually position myself to act as a bridge between the ivory tower and the community more widely, but to really center this work in what communities want instead of what I (or the university) think they need. Again, at this point it feels like the best place to do this is elsewhere, and I am in the process of finding a space where the research and writing skills I developed through my PhD will best fit. Skills that I developed in the ethnographic portion of my project—interviewing, developing short term projects, and communicating with different audiences—also transition nicely outside of academia.

A piece of advice I might leave on my way out is to use opportunities at Pitt—whether that be an immersive dissertation research fellowship, mini-internship, or even teaching—to imagine yourself beyond the university. Choose skills to develop that fit with work that interests you outside of being a university faculty member, and purposefully reflect on how to utilize those skills in communities or the private sector. We are more than experts in a specialized area. PhD students have the skills and capacities to be useful beyond the university space, and I hope that opportunities continue to exist to help us cultivate those skills in real and meaningful ways. Finally, I want to thank the girls in my ethnography for showing me that expertise can exist anywhere and that we all have something to share.

Brittney Knotts
May 2022
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