Part of our ongoing interview series with leaders and members of feminist-oriented labs and lab-like spaces, the following is our interview with Laura Devendorf (she/her), Director of the Unstable Design Lab at University of Colorado, Boulder. The lab was founded in 2017.
With which research area, or cluster of research areas, does the lab engage with? (be as specific or broad as you wish):
Design Research, Human-Computer Interaction, Science & Technology Studies, Textile Craft.
What is a project, publication, community collaboration, or other output from the lab that you feel proud of?
The recent paper, “Craftspeople as Technical Collaborators: Lessons Learned through an Experimental Weaving Residency”, found here.
What is one way (or a few ways) in which the lab centers equity, inclusion, or justice in its methods, protocols, or approaches?
—Alternatively, what is one way (or a few ways) in which the lab decenters dominant methods, protocols, or approaches through its work?
I try to make equity a norm. Some of the ways I try to build this in is by:
- Encouraging disciplinary diversity, as well as diversity between university and non-university groups. The key here is parity in pay and benefits, and I try to offer transparent guidelines to students about their pay relative to others.
- Actively engaging “critical” perspectives in the work and facilitating space to discuss social justice concerns as valid practices to occur alongside research. Actively including self-care as part of the lab values.
- More directly, we’ve started following Max Liboiron’s authorship workflow in our lab (thanks Femnisit Labs for introducing me to that).
- Including students in PhD student recruiting.
- A more personal value, is just not taking things personally and being okay with being wrong. As I’ve struggled through my role in racism and academia, one of the few things that I am sure of is that genuine listening to others is a positive activity. I’m still working on it, haven’t been perfect, but I try to make space for other people to talk that aren’t me. I have certainly been corrected on some of my language or actions, and I suppose I feel good that the students felt comfortable to bring those concerns to me.
What is one internal (within the lab) challenge that you have encountered while devising, following, maintaining, or revising these methods/protocols/approaches?
Is there a specific occasion that comes to mind in which an internal challenge presented itself? How did the lab work through it, or if it’s ongoing, what has been useful to think with?
I suppose having a priority of self-care creates friction against traditional notions of “productivity”. COVID has been a huge challenge for me and my lab and while it feels/felt like the university needed to keep moving, I felt increasingly troubled asking my students to participate in activities that may have been too much for them. It was hard to push research when the world was falling apart, but at the same time, we need to do the research to maintain some sense of “usefulness” to the university.
I think we are having a shared existential crisis in that the challenges our lab is poised to solve are not of the utmost importance at the moment (I don’t believe). Yet, I struggle because I feel like I am creating a false sense of security for my students and should they want to be competitive on the market, they may need an adviser that pushes them towards more traditional metrics of success like publishing and grants. I suppose I continue to see my role at the university as part research and part de-facto counselor. This year I had to hold back care of my students (in classes and lab) simply to care for myself. I was upset that the university was not more forward in offering childcare support and/or access to affordable mental health care for students. I resented being asked to hold space after the King Sooper’s shooting as I could not even hold myself together. I worried about the harm I might cause to others. I put “emotional labor” in my FRPA and reappointment materials to mixed responses. In my FRPA, I noted that my productivity went down due to lack of childcare and the need to offer support for students. People mostly ignored it in my reappointment materials and I had one colleague tell me that I shouldn’t have written about it in my FRPA because my publication rates are fine and it only points to weakness.
What is one external challenge that you have encountered while devising, following, maintaining, or revising these methods/protocols/approaches? (e.g. in terms of the lab interfacing with its broader institution or community). Is there a specific occasion that comes to mind when an external challenge presented itself? How did the lab work through it, or if it’s ongoing, what has been useful to think with?
I’m having a hard time with this one. I think most of the challenges come in admitting when I am wrong. In the paper linked above, we included procedures in our recruitment for an artist-in-residence that had the effect of homogenizing the applicant pool towards those with more access to technology. I reflected on that in the paper and decided not to include “technical knowledge” as a suggestion as it didn’t seem to matter, but I still wonder how we are shaping the pool implicitly towards those people “like us”, that have access to expensive looms and technology.
Where have you found lab inspiration and resources? Which labs, authors, and makers would you love to signal boost?
The Feminist Labs Symposium :). I have also appreciated Max Liboiron and CLEAR’s work, and I suppose I make it through with the ongoing support from my faculty mentors, friends, and students.