Conversational contributions

Hit and Miss #3

Good afternoon!

It’s scorching here in Ottawa, so I escaped this morning to the National Gallery’s patio, where I edited this week’s email. Star Trek: Discovery is starting tonight, and the new season of Kim’s Convenience launches Tuesday night, so I’m getting ready for some evenings spent happily in front of the TV. Of interest to some of you may be this behind the scenes post I published on Wednesday, documenting the edits I made to last week’s issue before publishing it. If you like photos of marked-up drafts, check it out!

This week, I’d like to discuss what we value as work. Specifically, I’d like to talk about some of the challenges we run into with valuing different kinds of work. What do I mean by this?

In the spaces I inhabit—for example, the edges of the tech industry—work is often categorized as either “technical” or “non-technical”. The former applies mostly to coding, while the latter is a nebulous category encompassing, well, everything else. (This is an oversimplification, but it’s a useful one for this discussion.) Kate McLaughlin explains the wide realm of non-technical contributions that we ought to value, in this 2016 Model View Culture piece. (Also check out the other pieces under MVC’s excellently-titled “technical privilege” tag.)

On a similar note, Reg Theriault, from whom we first heard in issue #1, writes about the division between blue- and white-collar workers:

[Workers, older workers in particular,] see [white-collar people] gaining a great deal of status and respect that they feel are denied them as blue-collar workers. … From listening to the complaints of my white-collar friends, however, I get the impression that though white-collar people may stay clean and may spend much of their time sitting down, they all seem to put in a pretty full, hard day. … To cap it off, most of them make less money than I do.

– Reg Theriault, How to Tell When You’re Tired, 65–66

Theriault speaks here to the need to recognize both blue- and white-collar workers as just that—workers. But his message applies equally across any classification of work: we ought to value all contributions, because somebody worked to make them.

Let’s turn now to the heart of this week’s email: valuing conversational contributions. We often ignore the importance of discussion. That’s to say, we don’t treat discussion as work. But discussion is a valuable form of contribution, and we ought to always remember that.

This often surfaces at Ottawa Civic Tech. Whenever I introduce the federal contracting analysis project that a bunch of us are working on, I make sure to say that those with non-technical skill sets are welcome: our project is as much about understanding federal contracting through discussion as it is through analysis of the contracts themselves. (We could definitely better facilitate those conversations, though—that’s the next step.)

Sometimes the value of a conversation isn’t immediately obvious—it may be some time before we realize its importance. This can be disheartening at times, but conversation doesn’t need some kind of tangible output to be valuable. Perhaps its greatest value is that it equips participants, especially those less familiar with the topic, with the vocabulary and confidence necessary to continue that discussion elsewhere. Really, this email is partly the result of some discussions about this issue—they took place over the last few weeks, and at the time they may not have seemed particularly valuable, but they enabled me to write this essay. (Whether this email is valuable… I’ll leave that to you.)

On an indulgent closing note, I’d like to share that I was in the CBC this week. (Look for the photo of me, midway through the article, featuring my famed twelve-year-old blue water bottle!) Through the Civic Tech project mentioned above, I’d provided some contracting data to Julie Ireton, who brought me in to the CBC offices for a more structured interview. I wouldn’t have had the vocabulary and confidence to participate in that interview if it hadn’t been for the many discussions I’d sat in on at Civic Tech. This is a great example of how the value of conversations may only appear long down the line.

Thanks to everyone whose conversations over the years set me up for where I am today. We may not have realized the value of those chats at the time, but hopefully they benefit us both with time. Here’s to many more.

Sent from Ottawa, Ontario on September 24th, 2017.