Rachel Shadoan Muses

Our Bodies are Our Instruments

In 2008, I made the near-fatal mistake of taking two 4000 level and two 5000 level computer science courses simultaneously. The second to last week of the semester, affectionately known as “Dead Week”, I had two presentations, a poster session, two projects, a paper, and a couple of homeworks due.

I did not sleep that week. Zack’s flat, where we were running the machine learning algorithms, was littered with coke cans, coffee cups, and wrappers from whatever food-like substances we could grab in between engagements. (It was a year and a half before I could drink Coke again without feeling queasy and anxious.) I have virtually no recall of that entire week, (other than vague, watercolor washed memories of endlessly arranging CAPTCHA images in Powerpoint while lying on the living room futon that I grew to hate with a fiery passion), but I remember that Friday evening.

I was working on the last deliverable, a project for Data Networks. It was some modification of the Go-Back-N networking communication protocol. I was operating on five or six hours of sleep grabbed in one or two hour increments over five days, and running mostly on caffeine, high fructose corn syrup, and sheer force of will, with a turbo boost of desparation. But damn it, I was still writing code.

And then my project broke. Something somewhere went wrong, and it wouldn’t work anymore. Nothing I tried could coax it back into functioning the way it was supposed to, and I hit my own breaking point. Thus, two hours before my deadline, I found myself sitting on that hateful futon, computer on my lap, crying over my keyboard because the project refused to work.

But you know what? I finished that project. Still sobbing from frustration and exhaustion, I finished that project on time. I even received good marks for it. For ages afterward, Zack teased me that I am a finite state machine that inputs misery and outputs productivity. To a large degree, that was an accurate assessment. I spent my undergrad consistently taking on too much and then accomplishing it (generally quite well), at the expense of my health and happiness.

The reasons for that are probably complex. Puritan work ethic, maybe. American cultural myth, perhaps. Ludicriously high personal standards, definitely. Chronic abject stupididty probably played a role as well. Who knows? It’s possible that the reason doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that I can’t do that anymore, possibly because I no longer have the stamina of my 18-year-old self. More likely, I think, is that the kind of work I am doing has changed. You can write code when you are miserable and exhausted and frustrated. But you can’t do good ethnography under those circumstances. You need to come to ethnography calmly, openly. A compiler doesn’t care if you are crying while you code. Bursting into tears during an ethnographic interview, however, is going to alarm your participants mightily.

In some ways, an ethnographer is just a vessel, a sieve through which the world is organized and presented. Our bodies and minds are our instruments. A harpist wouldn’t dream of performing on an untuned instrument–so why would an ethnographer try to work in a body dissonant with exhaustion, mind a dischordant clash of frustration and misery?


An ethnographer must be able to listen–mental anguish blocks vital information from the outside world. An ethnographer must be flexible, to accomodate unexpected situations and serendipity–exhaustion stiffens a body and mind. An ethnographer cannot afford to be distracted by hunger, thirst, misery, and exhaustion–important insights sometimes arrive only once, and an ethnographer must be alert and prepared. A good ethnographer is well fed, well hydrated, well rested, and mentally and emotionally in order.

DE Minde Complete

This is something that I learned the hard way last semester, and it is a lesson that I see many of my compatriots encorporating into their working styles. We have come to realize that we must care for ourselves before we can care for our work, or our work will suffer.

Kate, whose wisdom never ceases to surprise me, came into the Design Ethnography studio last Saturday with a mission. She was going to take Caoimhe and I to the university shop for a treat. Then we were going to sit in the sunshine. We were taking a break from our work, and she was not taking no for an answer.

So we did. Kate bought each of us an adorable tiny carton of ice cream, complete with spoon, and we sat in the sunshine in front of the Queen Mother Building. We laughed and exposed our winter-pale skin to the sun to produce Vitamin D, clearing our heads of analysis and information presentation and scoping and management and nemawashi and stories and post-its and affinitizing. We took a few moments just to be.

It is only after those moments of “just being” that we can be good ethnographers.


This entry was posted on February 20, 2010 by in Uncategorized.
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