/Inhabiting borders: autoethnographic reflections of PhD students in Colombia

Inhabiting borders: autoethnographic reflections of PhD students in Colombia


After seeing the call for papers for Teaching in Higher Education’s latest special issue, we thought that we should send a proposal to participate in this issue. That is because we knew that we have the possibility of making a contribution from the intersection of various under-represented positions. The focus on ‘borderlands’ intrigued us, because we, indeed, conduct our academic activities in borderlands and one of our aims was showing the features of our borderlands. Our position is shaped by the context, as well as by our practices and subjectivities.

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Various elements of the context and the practices locate us in ‘borderlands’, which usually result in invisibilization and exclusion. Many PhD students from the North Atlantic academy do not deal with the same issues that shape our academic activities and daily lives, thus, we thought that it is important that an analysis of our experiences as PhD candidates in a Colombian public university is also included as an article in this issue.

One element of the context is the violence. We study, teach, and conduct research in a violent context. This violence significantly affects us. It shapes our relationships, our practices, and our identities. Our university is frequently attacked by the police, and our students and colleagues are stigmatized. The education is interrupted various times every year due to protests, strikes, or clashes. The atmosphere is polarized. When we leave the campus for field research, we are affected by the violence again. There are places that we cannot go because of the violence, there are people that we cannot interview, data that we cannot collect, experiences that we cannot hear. And when we conduct research in these ‘off-limit places’ collaborating with ‘untouchable’ subjects, this implies danger and stigmatization for collaborators as well as the researchers. If we add the possibility of suffering a violent attack, robbery, or assault on our way to the university or during other kinds of daily activities, it is obvious that many of our practices are shaped by the atmosphere of violence.

Another element is neoliberalization. Even though neoliberalization affects all academic institutions throughout the world, the level of the effects is not the same. Colombia is affected by neoliberalism to the level that the number of PhD students that can dedicate their time to doctoral studies is strikingly low. Most students have a full-time job (or multiple part-time jobs) due to lack of scholarships and on-campus working opportunities, which means that they do not have the time to be a part of an academic collectivity. Thus, neoliberal policies in Colombia result in harsh isolation since most of us have to dedicate most of our time to working in precarious conditions.

As a result, the ones who have scholarships feel guilty because we see how hard our colleagues are struggling just to pay their bills, and we are also aware of the fact that we live in a country suffering from extreme poverty. It is hard to enjoy the benefits of a scholarship when most people in Colombia struggle to find food and accommodation, and there are more than 8 million people who have been displaced because of the armed conflict and living in terrible conditions while being re-victimized every day by the Colombian state. Also, due to the defunding of the university it is hard to fund our research activities, which forces us to modify our projects for economic reasons.

Our experiences are not only shaped by the context but also by our practices and subjectivities. One example is conducting transdisciplinary research. Here, the question is how we see ourselves as PhD students in a transdisciplinary program. This puts us in an ‘in-between’ place in relation to established disciplines. We may conduct fieldwork through ethnography although we are not anthropologists; we may add elements from social studies of science even though we are not experts in this field. We may find it necessary to understand how our subject is interrelated with gender theory and multispecies ethnography, but we may have been moving around another academic subject for the last two or three years. So, where are we? Or even, what are we?

Finally, our practices of working with subjects considered ‘other’s significantly affect us. We work with indigenous people, women, ethnic minorities, victims of the conflict, or non-human actors (such as plants or dead people). These practices mean touching different kinds of experiences and subjectivities, which strongly shape our identities, intersectionalities, and ‘borderlands’ that we occupy.

Anzaldúa’s borderlands theory helps us to search for answers. Where are we? In-between spaces. What are we? Border subjects. At least, this was what we reflected upon after multiple virtual meetings we made where each one of us shared her/his experiences about these questions, about fieldwork in Colombia and its difficulties, about being a PhD student in this country, about not knowing where we are as researchers, and about a lot of other issues. We present our article in hoping that our experiences and reflections may interest others occupying ‘borderlands’ and dealing with similar issues.

Serhat Tutkal, Valeria Busnelli, Isaura Castelao-Huerta, Fernanda Barbosa dos Santos, Luisa Fernanda Loaiza Orozco and Duván Rivera Arcila (Universidad Nacional de Colombia)

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