Poetry in Academic Writing

The following text drafts result from an exploration of how to write ethnographic stories differently that we conducted in September 2021. The exploration embraces both the practical work of putting words on pages and the concept building that texts do in ethnography. Mind the choice of words, their rythm, and the style.

RUSTlab conducts experiments like these where we are sensitive to the ways in which we conduct academic tasks – in this case one of the most fundamental ones: writing. The drafts are the outcome of a workshop with fabulous Laura Watts https://sand14.com/. We draw here and in other places inspiration from her book “Energy at the End of the World. An Orkney Islands Saga” https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/energy-end-world

“The data-outage” 

by Laura Kocksch 

During the summer of 2017, I conducted an ethnographic study of data science practices in a renewable energy company. As renewable power sources are introduced, and large nuclear and coal plants shut down, the company insists it needs better ways of predicting amplitudes in energy needs. 

The code runs silently, smoothly, fast,
In the night.
Not so at day
          Especially not today. 

The drive’s humming has come to a halt,
First, a repetitious and ensuring brrrrmm,
Then, a silent blob,
Now, nothing.

Electrons have returned,
          But the damage is done.
A patchy energy landscape leaves a patchy database.

Waiting, loading
          for the upload to resume
          for the humming to return
          for the energy future to arrive.


by Ruth Dorothea Eggel 

Context: A gaming event, somewhere in Germany. Part of my ethnographic PhD research on computer game events in Europe. The poem is based on a participant observation, where I caught a T-shirt of the game “Doom”.

Gamers: Start your engines!
up, up, up
Welcome home

     the dark belly of the beast.
     the red veins of the spectacle
     in the sparkling rainbow lights 

Do you smell the excitement?
Do you taste the adventure?
Do you sense the horde?

Stumbling through the crushing crowds
Blinded by luminous laser lights
Deafened by beats blasting

Pushing through gamers’ bodies,
     being pushed.
Moving your gamer body through,
     being moved.

Trying to catch up.
Catching the moment.
Getting caught up,
in soft fluffy cotton.
Doomed by a T-shirt.
Loot it!

Why do you stop?

Go on,
Move along,
Play again! 

Writing Sample

by Susana C.

A short ethnographic story from my ethnographic research in La Guajira, Colombia. The story is in the introduction of a piece I wrote for Kulturanthropologie Notizen 83/1 titled “A Fuzzy Embeddedness: The Ethnography of Corporate Social Responsibility in the Extractive Industries”. Below, the two first versions are the result of the writing workshop. The final text is the original published version. Great writing experience. So many new things come up just by changing perspective and rhythm.

First writing exercise – write the same scene in two different POV

Third person:

It was a hot and windy morning. She was on the third day of her doctoral ethnographic fieldwork in the “experimental farm,” a place from where the mining corporation coordinated social interventions in more than 300 hundred indigenous communities. She was alone and bored, writing some field notes and waiting for the corporate officials to arrive so she could go with them and observe their work, their interactions with the indigenous communities, how they become the face and voice of the “(Evil?)” Corporation. They were people just like her: Alijunas (or non-indigenous), young professionals, Spanish speakers, three-times a day eaters. 

An indigenous man in his 50s arrived and went straight to her. He handed her an envelope containing the names and ID numbers of the people in the small indigenous community he represented. He introduced himself and stated in a soft and humble voice: “food is not arriving in my community.” 

She felt sorry for him, but there was nothing she could do aside from calling someone who actually worked for the mining company. She felt even worse when that person arrived and told the man that food would not arrive in his community, at least not in the next few months. The recipients of the corporate social programs were defined already. She felt awkward. She never stopped asking herself how she might be representing the evil corporation too. 

Second writing exercise: 100 words of the moments using different styles and rhythms

The still low sun shined as if it was at its most. The gentle breeze made the hot pleasant, and the smell of the desert reminded me that I was far from home. “Buenos días” –the man said—. “Mmm … what is this?”—I opened the envelope he handed me… names… id numbers—“Wait, I will call someone”.

But “someone” cannot help. The man left quietly, patiently… his task completed, but without a satisfying answer.  In the back, the loud vibrating noise of the kilometer-long train filled with hard coal accompanied his departure.

Original version:

During a hot, windy morning in La Guajira desert, located in northern Colombia, I briefly met Misael Juriyú, an indigenous leader looking for the help of a mining corporation. At the time, I was conducting an ethnography of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs of the Cerrejón mine, one of the largest and most controversial open-pit coal mines in the world. The morning I met Misael, I was present at the “Experimental Farm”, a small compound in the middle of the indigenous territory from which the mining company manages aid and social projects for some of the more than 300 Wayuu communities in its area of influence. Misael, who spoke very little Spanish, handed me an envelope containing names and ID numbers of the people in the community he represented. He explained: “food is not arriving in my community.”

At first, I did not know what to do, but I quickly realized that for Misael, I represented the company he had come to look for, seeking help. I was, like most corporate employees, an Alijuna (or non-indigenous). I also shared other characteristics such as age, language, origin within the country, and ethnicity with corporate employees. I felt awkward. I wanted to correct the mistake, so that neighboring Wayuu communities did not see me as part of the corporation, but that did not make much of a difference for Misael, who patiently waited for my help.