movement of money

Number one rule: a ‘wet signature’ is required on virtual expense reports at some point in the hierarchical chain of accountability, as far up the line as possible. Associated trope 1: “the buck has to stop somewhere.” To launch Dirty Methods, we co-authors plus ten more researchers secured a Connection Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada) which is part of a tri-council funding system (health and science are the other two foci). The project was called “Developing Feminist Digital Research Methods,” and came to be known as the 12 Technoculture Seminars, presented in four countries and involving over 500 people. 

While preparing the grant application, we put together letters indicating wildly varying levels of support from our institutions (not all of us held a permanent position at the time, and if we did, it was in the first year or two). Once we secured the grant, we combined that to (in corporate language, trope #2A:) ”leverage that to the greater good.” Or as trope #2B would have it, “the sum is greater than the parts.” So too was the sum of the processes of accountability: beneath seemingly banal bureaucracy, there lurked a set of assumptions about how economic resources in the academy are deployed. A dirty methods approach mobilizes intersectionality in sometimes troubling ways (see, for example, Introduction, particularly the discussion of Puar, 2011 and Sundén, 2007) to unearth and stay with the trouble of these class dynamics. The privilege of being able to apply for grants to support direct expenses contrasted with the inability (indeed, the prohibition against) to augment the relatively low salaries of the many early-career, activists and artists involved, most of whom could have used a little more salary support for the time involved in the project, on top of the work they were doing for their respective full-time (often precarious) jobs. Of course, much scholarly funding in Canada (and elsewhere) is set up assuming that people applying for grants have well-paying full-time jobs in the academy. Tri-council partnership projects and grants that faculty are encouraged to seek (and as a promotion benchmark to achieve) are meant to develop public intellectual contributions, open access materials, and cross-pollination between the academy and the rest-of-the-universe, as in our case). However, there are significant limits on what the funding can be used for, and it is tightly monitored in the financial office of universities as well as funders. These grants are also structured so that a percentage of the grant comes to the university as an overhead contribution to support research and finance office personnel. The reality, however, is that the reporting requirements impacted those marginalized by class in particular.

For early-career researchers working as Postdoctoral Fellows or in limited term contracts or as sessional instructors (e.g. teaching one course at a time) or as independent researchers based in activist organizations, university staff are not readily available to help with administration processes or for training, not least because chances are good that the temporary or precarious researcher will likely move on to another institution very soon, and so an investment in supporting them has little long-term direct payoff for those staff. To complicate matters, universities are not just held to account for the funding secured for research and knowledge mobilization, no matter how big or small the grant is, but in such financially complex ways that broad and complicated bureaucratic processes are instituted to ensure that there will be no negative impact on their long-term research or teaching funding–rather than to help the researcher efficiently process simple expenses. Expense reporting becomes a risk management exercise rather than a way to make things happen.

What this translated into for the Technoculture Seminars was that the administration of the grant entailed a great deal of labour on the part of the researchers, particularly the PI and a research assistant paid from the grant funding to physically walk expense reports across campus. The processes we developed helped to mitigate the substantial amount of financial reporting and detailing involved, the unreliability of internal mail services, and the need to secure signatures from multiple people. (And our experience has been disturbingly consistent in the years that followed, no matter how big or small the grants or the universities.) We didn’t realize how complexly and time-consumingly banal expense-reporting would become when we originally developed the proposal. This is the dirty underbelly of professionalization in grant administration. 

Considering an Ethics of Care

When we put the proposal together, our commitments as researchers to flattening the hierarchy of grant administration was meant to include and support not just graduate students but also creative, professional, and often precarious members of the communities within which we work. For us, with ten universities in four countries involved, we found that every step of the administrative process required the attention not just of the person named Principal Investigator (PI), but also the people aiming to pay participants (such as graduate students or community members), as well as the participants themselves, at least one (and often two or three layers of) the administrative staff at the seminar site and an additional three or four layers of administration at the home university. Total number of people who handled expenses ranging from $25 to $5000 for the $50,000 grant? Best estimate would be about 50 people, excluding the core research team. This volume and complexity had consequences, with some expenses taking more than six months to be reimbursed. But what are universities — and indeed ourselves as members of them — assuming about those we ask to participate in reimbursement models? Who can afford to be a researcher in this institutionally normalized approach to work expenses, which presumes either ready savings, available credit, or the option to borrow from family, friends and colleagues? We argue that this poses a barrier to participation in research for graduate students and non-academic partners operating at economic margins. It is uncomfortable to realize that the people you have invited into your project are bound by these systems and experience financial burdens as a result. A dirty methods approach exposes the processes in our formal research institutions that are premised on assumptions about the financial stability and indeed privilege of academic subjects before turning to an ethics of care to consider how to deal with this knowledge.

Strategies that we employed to counterbalance the unnecessarily complex and demanding administrative work required to carry out this relatively low-stakes but still complex research grant inside the academic institutions involved included the following:

  1. The PI filled in expense reports with as much information as possible before sending to a participant in another university or country, and highlighted specific information that would have to be filled in. 
  2. The participant sent information back by email or a more confidential online system if they had one, or called in with highly private social insurance numbers, bank account information or equivalents. 
  3. At the height of activity (12 seminars and several planning meetings in an 18-month period), the PI also mentored and supervised an incoming PhD student, who took on the banal work of receiving expense reports, checking receipts often sent virtually, and literally walking around campus to secure ‘wet signatures’ from live people, and then to deliver them in-person to the finance department rather than risking various national mail delivery services or the internal university delivery system. 
  4. We learned about the dirty underbelly of grant administration through bitter experience of the loss of expense reports sent via internal office delivery at the university. Even more perturbing than the initial loss was the prospect of imagining confidential information circulating unaccounted for, perhaps read by many unintended recipients. 
  5. The paperwork required us to secure replacement receipts and attest to missing receipts, which was sometimes more time consuming than the original involvement in the seminars. 
  6. The more information that came in with digital signatures (e.g., a seminar contributor overseas, the PI, the supervisor of the PI), the more senior the ‘wet signature’ had to be (e.g., the Associate Dean or Dean). 
  7. If one small piece of information was missing, or a minor receipt (without a replacement document), the whole package could be returned by interoffice mail. Or it might disappear enroute, starting the whole process again. Lessons learned: scan everything; store it on an encrypted drive. 
  8. It’s important to build a good working relationship with finance office staff — and pay a graduate student or resource manager to work on your project — in order to set up a workable system of communication that is based on rapid responses (phone calls and emails) rather than the endless circulation of confidential paperwork in a sometimes dicey internal mail system.
  9. Don’t forget, many of the people in the finance office are also precariously employed and/or have heavy workloads and complex rule systems to administer.
  10. Develop a document that can be shared with participants and financial officers so they know timing, paperwork requirements, and the urgent need to reimburse or pay someone for involvement within a few weeks of the work being completed.

We are not the first to experience these challenges. For example, in “Feminist Grant Administration and Coalitional Fair Finance,” Danielle Cole and co-authors (2018) recount the complexities of their funding administration approach, which was similar to our own, and helpful best practices that evolved from their experiences. Interestingly, previous experience with complex program and budget management at other large institutions (such as provincial and federal governments and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) for much larger amounts of funding pales in comparison to the complexities experienced in the varied scholarly environments we were in for the Technoculture Seminars to imagine and co-ordinate the support needed to schedule the 12 public seminars and several planning meetings that supported this network of emerging scholars and events in North America and Europe. 

As a result, we suggest that if you are aiming to secure a grant, or when you do, ensure that you establish a streamlined working protocol right away with the finance office, and that you have sufficient funding to hire someone to keep track of all the expenses and timelines as well as to prepare expense submissions and make catering and travel arrangements. More broadly, what this vignette insists on is that by following the money–and the labour required to process the money–a classic political economy analysis, it becomes possible to identify and document how reporting requirements not only interfere with the time meant to be spent on research, outreach, writing and analysis but also downloads complex financial workloads to researchers and community participants not qualified to do this work, rather than being undertaken by university financial offices. Part of our commitments to revealing dirty methods is not only pointing out the frictions here but also to suggest active processes of care that have worked for us in what are in many ways uncaring systems. In this case, our commitment is to assure the financial wellbeing of often precarious academics, artists and participants — from graduate students to contingent postdoctoral labour to academics from economically disadvantaged or strained circumstances. Rather than compelling grant administration to be so dependent on the labour and care of individual PIs and researchers, we suggest there is a need to revisit and revise the way we move money in academia with an eye to inclusion, along lines of class, funding structures and requirements and intersecting conditions and identities.


Cole, Danielle, Mobley, Izetta Autumn, Wernimot, Jacqueline, Bailey, Moya, Cowan, T.L., & Paredes, Veronica. (2018). Accounting and accountability: Feminist grant administration and coalitional fair finance. In E. Losh & J. Wernimont (eds.), Bodies of information: intersectional feminism and digital humanities (pp. 57-68). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Puar, Jasbir. (2011). ‘I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess’: Intersectionality, assemblage, and affective politics. Transversal. Retrieved from:

Sundén, Jenny. (2007). On cyberfeminist intersectionality. In Malin Svenningsson Elm & Jenny Sundén (eds.), Cyberfeminism in northern lights: Digital media and gender in a Nordic context (pp. 30-50). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Navigate Sequentially

The way the authors intended.

Navigate by Vignette

Jump from vignette to vignette.