Stories#079 Fenna’s inclusive podcast series

#079 Fenna’s inclusive podcast series

The story of Dipti’s meaningful imagination is a story of Fenna’s inclusive podcast series

When lecturer Dipti Sarmah came to UT, she was looking for interaction with people from different backgrounds. She’s delighted to hear about the podcast PhD student Fenna Hoefsloot launched on diversity and inclusion. The two women discuss what it means to be female in academia. ‘Just being somewhere can be a radical act.’

Click for Dutch version

Monday 30 may 2022 

Pick your battles

Dipti: ‘Hi Fenna! I saw you completed both your bachelor’s and master’s degree at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). I’m curious: what differences with UT do you observe?’ 

Fenna: ‘I think the main difference is the scale. The UvA is very big. Coming here, I noticed that ITC – the faculty where I work – is a tightened community. People also take time to talk and listen to each other as a person. That has really shaped my experience. Doing a PhD can be an individual and lonely trajectory. Being at a faculty that is so “homey”, gave me a sense of community.’ 

Dipti: ‘I can imagine. When I joined UT in 2020, I also looked for that interaction. Unfortunately, the covid pandemic didn’t allow it until now…’                                                   

Fenna: ‘Yeah, the past two years have been challenging. I myself had just returned from fieldwork in Lima, Peru, when the first lockdown started. It was such a weird time. Doing research from home made me feel detached. At times, I thought: I’m isolating myself on this small academic island, with abstract thoughts that nobody is ever going to read. What am I even doing this for?’ 

Dipti: ‘How did you manage to keep going?’ 

Fenna: ‘It really helped me to reconnect to others. I joined several online conferences and participated in a project with people from Lima. Of course, doing research is still abstract to a certain level, but I now feel there’s people to who my work is relevant.’

Dipti: ‘Your research is about geo-information. I’m very new to that field. Can you explain in layman language what exactly you are doing?’

Fenna: ‘My colleagues and I look at the interaction between geo-technology and society. In my words, geo-technology means: the sum of tools that are used to understand the geo-spatial phenomena. My own research is about the use of digital technologies in water management, in the city of Lima. Water infrastructure has a lot of sensors and meters. All data is collected in a control room at the water treatment plant. You can see exactly where the water flows and who has paid their bills. I look at how those technologies influence people’s lives. Okay, I’m actually not sure if that was layman, ha ha…’

Dipti: ‘I can understand a bit! Your research clearly has a societal aspect. Speaking about that: on your LinkedIn-profile, you mentioned a podcast you’ve made, called Dialogical Spaces. Could you tell me what that’s about?’

Fenna: ‘Yeah, thanks for asking! Dialogical Spaces is a project that I started with Ana, an ITC-colleague of mine. As a result of the ‘black lives matter’-protests in Europe and the US, many universities started to think about their role in maintaining or dismantling racism and sexism. Here at UT, that conversation was often reduced to two things: how do we get more international students, and how do we get more female professors? Those questions are important, but they do not cover diversity and inclusion as a whole.

To open the discussion, Ana and I organised a webinar series. We invited experts from all over the world, to discuss diversity and inclusion from their perspective. The UT Incentive Fund financed our project. We also transferred the webinar series into a podcast.’

Dipti: ‘What lessons did you personally derive from the series? Do you have any advice for how we can improve ourselves, when it comes to diversity and inclusion?’ 

Fenna: ‘Oh, there’s so many things! I want to share two lessons in particular. The first is the idea of holding space. In one episode Aminata Cairo, the first black professor at The Hague University of Applied Sciences, explained that for some people just being somewhere is already a radical act. She said: even before opening my mouth, just by putting my body in that space, I’m already challenging the status quo in academia.

Her story made me reflect on my own position. Coming from a highly-educated, middle-class white background in The Netherlands, for me it was a natural step to go to university. But when you come from a different background, just entering that area might take a lot of energy.’ 

Dipti: ‘That’s very true. And the second lesson?’

Fenna: ‘It’s from the final episode, with professor Rosalba Icaza Garza. She’s very critical of Northern European universities: how we’re not diversifying in the way we think and the theories we teach. During her talk, I felt a bit guilty about my role in the system. And then, she formulated four principles on how we can improve. I definitely recommend listening this episode to learn more. I now often repeat those principles to myself, to reflect on how I’m doing.’

Dipti: ‘Being a young woman in academia, what are your own experiences when it comes to inclusion?’

Fenna: ‘A lot of times, I am very aware of the fact that I’m a woman. Especially at UT, where women are still a minority. It’s hard to explain, because it’s often about small remarks and underlying messages. Like when I walk into a room, and people tell me: luckily you’re here for the gender balance. In my first week, one of the higher people in my faculty said: it’s a good thing you are hired, we need more women. I was like: no, I that’s not because I’m a woman – I work here because I was damn good at my application!’

Dipti: ‘And right you are. I notice that sometimes I’m ignoring those messages. I just move on, although it touches my confidence. Do you think it’s always better to stand up?’

Fenna: ‘No, in many cases walking away can be a healthy choice. Because it takes a lot of time and energy to confront these issues. Sometimes we have to pick our battles. And maybe on good days, we feel confident and strong enough to stand up.’

Dipti: ‘Thank you, Fenna. It’s been really nice talking to you. I hope to meet you in person some time!’

Dr. Dipti Sarmah (1979)

got a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and a master’s degree in Information Technology before she became an Assistant Professor at MIT Academy of Engineering in Pune (India). For a brief while, she left academia to work as a Microsoft patent analyst at CPA Global. Dipti then returned to work as an Assistant Professor at Symbiosis International University in Pune, where she also obtained her PhD in Computer and Information Security. She is a lecturer at UT since February 2020.

Fenna Hoefsloot MSc (1992)

did a bachelor’s in Future Planet Studies and a master’s in International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2018, she started her PhD research on infrastructuring urban futures, at the UT Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC). At UT, she started a webinar and podcast series on inclusion: Dialogical Spaces.