Author Archives: Jessie Daniels

Free Social Media Events in NYC, Feb 26

Next week, we’re co-sponsoring two great events, both on Thursday, February 26. Lunch (free! really!) is served for the first event, stay for the second event, both conveniently on the 9th The Graduate Center, CUNY, 365 Fifth Avenue (at 34th Street), NYC, 10016. These events are free and open to the public, but a photo ID is required to enter the building. Further details below.

Deborah Lupton talk - flyer


Who: Deborah Lupton, Centenary Research Professor, Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra, Australia.

What:  Lupton will be discussing the phenomenon of “digital health” and the need for critical digital health studies. In contrast to popular and professional representations of digital health technologies in utopian terms, Lupton makes the case for a critical approach to digital health technologies, including analyses of self-tracking technologies, apps as sociocultural artefacts and 3D printing in medicine and health. In part, her remarks will draw on her books Digital Sociology (Routledge) and Risk, 2nd Edition (Routledge).

When: Thursday, 2/26, 12pm-2pm
Where: Skylight Room, 9th Floor, The Graduate Center, CUNY
Lunch: Provided (but RSVP required)

* * *

Liz Losh Event Flyer

Who: Elizabeth Losh, (Professor, University of California-San Diego).

What:  The New York Times declared 2012 to be “the year of the MOOC” but stories of failure abounded about Massive Open Online Courses in the years that followed. This talk argues that MOOCs themselves might have been remarkably uniform as vehicles for content delivery, but they spurred a valuable diversity of pedagogical reactions among faculty to their particular format for free large-scale distance learning.  Public debate and discussion about MOOCs has spurred a variety of innovative pedagogical experiments in higher education: SPOCs (Small Personalized Online Courses), DOCCs (Distributed Open Collaborative Courses), POOCs (Public Open Online Courses), and many other new forms of online teaching.  Her remarks will draw on her new book, The War on Learning (MIT Press).

When: Thursday, 2/26, 3:30pm-5pm
Where: Room 9206, 9th Floor, The Graduate Center, CUNY

Open Access Basics Explained

Sometimes when I speak to my academic colleagues about “open access” publishing, they often think I’m suggesting we eliminate peer-review. That’s a common misconception, but it’s not true. And, it speaks to the many myths and misconceptions about open access.

If you’re still confused about open access, this short (8:21) animated video is a good explanation of the basics of open access for faculty-types.

The Internet’s Own Boy: Why Academics Need to See This

As part of open access week, many organizations and institutions are sponsoring screenings of Brian Knappenberger’s documentary film “The Internet’s Own Boy.”   But, if you ask most academics not studying the Internet (in other words, the majority) what they know about Aaron Swartz, and they probably don’t know much. They probably know that he was under indictment by the federal government, that he took his own life, and they probably think he was a “hacker,” but are vague on details beyond that.

What most academics don’t know is why what Swartz’s life – and death – are incredibly relevant for the everyday work of scholars.

Swartz was by many accounts a prodigy, possibly even a genius, and he had something of a prophetic vision for the importance of open access for the public good and how academic publishing stands in the way of this.

From my perspective, Knappenberger’s documentary offers one of the clearest explanations, through Aaron Swartz’s story, about why academics should care about open access.

If you do one thing for open access week, catch a screening (or watch it online). Here are couple of NYC-area screenings:

And, appropriately enough, the documentary is available on the open web (you can buy it through iTunes if you want to support the filmmaker).

Introducing: Open Access Series

This week is Open Access Week International and with that we launch a new social justice series on the topic. As we’ve done in the past, we’ll curate and create content around a theme by a variety of contributors, post it here, then compile it into an open access eBook that anyone can use for teaching, writing or acting up.

So, why Open Access week? Many people are beginning to realize that current academic publishing is broken.  Here’s why:

OA Infographic

(Content: Jill Cirasella. Graphics: Les Larue. License: Creative Commons: Attribution, Non-Commercial).

Typically, academic researchers are paid by a university and/or a grant to do their work – conducting original research, coding, analysis, write up. Then, we give away our work to for-profit publishers (e.g., Elsevier, Springer, Wiley). We add further value to that work by doing volunteer labor to conduct peer-review on other scholars’ work. Then, the academic publishers format that work and put it behind a paywall where the only people who have access to it are people affiliated with an institution that pays increasingly huge sums of money to those for-profit publishers. If you don’t have a university affiliation, or live in the global south and are affiliated with an institution that can’t afford to pay the steep prices for subscriptions to these publishers, then you’re out of luck.

Many academics will respond favorably to a request by a colleague at another institution, such as: “does your library have access to this article I need?” I’ve responded to such requests before. Checked my library, found the article in question and sent it via email to someone else. This sort of thing is what I believe those in philosophy refer to as “Minimally Decent Samaritanism,” acts that it would be indecent not to perform.

But this sort of individual, backchannel Samaritanism is not enough for creating real, lasting change in the current system of academic publishing.

In order to do that, we need a much wider effort, a global one in fact, something like Open Access Week International.



Fall ’14 MediaCamp Workshops

MediaCamp Workshops are skills-building sessions for intellectuals who want to combine research and digital media for the public good. These three-hour comprehensive workshops are FREE for faculty, staff, graduate students, and intellectuals who seek to enrich their digital media skills. MediaCamp is made possible by a partnership between JustPublics@365, theCUNY Graduate School of Journalism (J-School) andThe Graduate Center Library.

Our workshops are typically three-hours of instruction and hands-on, skill building work with world-class instructors. You can bring your own laptop or use a computer in one of the classrooms at the J-School. The topics include both legacy media, such as Op-Eds, digital media, such as Twitter, blogging and podcasting. And, this time we’ve added a new workshop on strategy. Here’s a full roster of the workshops this fall:

To help you get a better sense of the workshops, we created this short video (2:51):

For more information and to register, go here. Then, click on the workshop that interests you. Workshops fill up quickly and there are often waiting lists, so sign up soon!


MediaCamp Workshops at ASA

We had a successful run with taking MediaCamp workshops on the road to the American Sociological Association meetings in San Francisco in August. This post is a long overdue but very heartfelt thanks to the many people who worked to make this a success.

Thanks to Annette Lareau (outgoing President of the ASA) for having the vision and inviting us, and to the Executive Office of ASA for all their help with logistics, especially Kareem Jenkins.  Special thanks to our instructors: Pepper Schwartz, CJ Pascoe, Nathan Palmer, Tressie Cottom McMillan, and Heidi Knoblauch. Thanks to Shawn(ta) Smith who helped coordinate logistics and served as on-camera talent for some workshops. And, special thanks to Tina Fetner and Arlene Stein who came and hung out even when they didn’t need to. You are all rockstars!


Heidi Knoblauch and Shawn(ta) Smith at the JustPublics@ASA MediaCamp, next to the world’s largest poster.

Finally, we’re especially grateful to people who participated in the workshops and hope that you’re still learning. As a reminder, there’s a place where you can ask questions, meet other people interested in developing skills, and share your successes at the MediaCamp Learning Community.

10 Things about Twitter for Academics

Twitter bird in academic capAcademics who are skilled at writing long, nuanced, complex arguments may be flummoxed by the 140-character constraints of Twitter but they needn’t be.

I’ve been using Twitter since 2008, and in the six years (how time flies when you’re sharing in 140-characters!) since then, I’ve gleaned a few things that may make Twitter easier for my academic friends.

  1. There is Twitter lingo, but it’s not that hard.  When you’re learning a new software platform (or, a new anything really) there’s often specialized language that goes along with it. We all know this from the jargon in our academic fields (post-structuralism anyone?), but somehow it often comes as a surprise in Internet-land. Really, if you’ve mastered any field well enough to get a PhD (or, through the first few years of grad school), you’ll be able to master Twitter lingo. The first term you should know about Twitter: “handle” or, the name you use on Twitter.
  2. Choose a short, easy-to-remember handle.  When you choose a handle, you want it to be something that’s short (your handle takes up part of your allotted 140-characters). And, you want something that’s easy to remember. Usually, people include part of their name. Many times, academic folks want to include “Prof” as part of their handle. Fine if you want, to but there are a lot of these now, so it might not be as easy to remember. You probably don’t want to include your institution in your Twitter handle in case your Dream School calls and you switch affiliations. Or, if you’re already at your Dream School, you might not want to include it because people may mistake it for an ‘official’ account. My Twitter handle is @JessieNYC. It seems to work fine except for the unlikely event that I decide to move out of New York City.
  3. Write a bio that captures your interests. Take a few minutes to set up your profile. You can always change this, and should update it as your interests change. People will read this to get a sense of who you are and what kind of information you’re likely to share on Twitter. So, your profile should give some sense of your interests in 160-characters (slightly longer than the standard Tweet).
  4. Include a photo of yourself so people know you’re not a spam bot. The default icon that you get on Twitter is an “egg” (get it, like a bird’s egg?).  When there are spam bots — and yes, this happens sometimes — they can be easily spotted by the default egg icon. So, an important way to distinguish yourself from the spam bot is to change that default icon to a photo.  You want to show people that you’re a real person, and at least moderately friendly. Put a photo of yourself in there. Yes, we’re all pleased that you got married and had kids, but leave those photos for your Facebook page. On Twitter, people expect to have a glimpse of who you are.
  5. Figure out what you want to contribute. There are a bunch of metaphors that are useful for explaining Twitter, one of my favorites is “DJ.” Think of yourself as a DJ, and the Tweets you’re putting out into the world as your playlist. What do effect do you want to have on people listening?  On my scholarly blog, Racism Review, my focus is on race and racism. On Twitter, I have a broader range of topics I’m interested in and that I share. I Tweet about race and racism, and also about: academia, higher ed, digital media, documentary films, and memoir writing.  For academic folks, think about sharing what the latest news is in your field. Did you see a recent journal article that seems especially path-breaking for people in your field? Compose a Tweet about that and then people will begin to look to you for the latest news in that field.
  6. Learn to tune your TL.  More Twitter lingo! (breathe)  “TL” stands for “Timeline.” Timeline is the string of Tweets I see when I log into Twitter. Every person’s TL is different. What I see in my Timeline is a result of who I choose to “follow.” So, at the moment, for someone who is very into the World Cup, their TL may be filled with updates about who won the latest game and what the prospects are for their favorite team. For someone else who is very interested in Supreme Court decisions about reproductive health, their TL could be filled with updates about the Hobby Lobby decision.  When I first started Twitter, I didn’t get it. It just seemed boring to me. But, a friend who’s opinion I respect, said “this is where the action is, keep trying.” Finally, I figured out how to adjust my Timeline so that the flow of information is useful to me. It’s sort of like learning to tune a radio in the car, you want more “signal” than “noise.” For academic folks, you’ll want to figure out who to follow so that Twitter is useful for you professionally. Often this means following other academics, but it can also mean finding journalists, activists, policy makers, and philanthropists who are Tweeting about the topic you’re interested in. These sorts of connections can help inform your work, and may even yield real, material benefits for social change or just career advancement.
  7. Getting the flow of Twitter into Academic Life.  “I’m so busy already, I don’t have time for Twitter!” I hear this a lot from academic colleagues. I’m busy too. And, I’m on Twitter often. My experience is not that Twitter takes me away from the flow of academic life and knowledge production, but rather that it is now a part of how I conceive of what we used to call “the life of the mind.” When I say that I’m on Twitter often, by that I mean that I usually have one browser tab open to Twitter if I’m working on a desktop or laptop computer, or if I’m out in the world, I’ll check Twitter on my phone. But, it doesn’t mean I Tweet that often. I read Twitter and “listen” in the morning while I’m having coffee, and at breaks from work during the day. Twitter is something I learn from and something I think with. I’ve written more about how I use Twitter in knowledge production here.
  8. Find people you want to connect with. Re-Tweet them. Talk to them. Connect with them. I’ve heard it said that “Facebook is for connecting to people you already know, Twitter is for connecting with people you want to know.” I don’t know if that’s true for everyone, but it’s certainly been true for me. In many ways, finding and connecting with people on Twitter allows me to curate the ideal academic department (which also includes lots of non-academic folks). On Twitter, I can follow people that I want to know, without the reciprocity required and expected of being “friends” on that other platform. I can also go beyond merely “following” and reading the Tweets of someone by “re-tweeting” them. Re-tweeting, sometimes abbreviated as RT’ing, just means re-sharing a Tweet that someone else composed. When you’re on Twitter, you can see that someone has RT’d you and that’s a form of connection (people like it when you RT them). You can also talk to people using the “@reply” – more lingo! – which is just simply clicking on the “reply” button and it appears as a mention, sort of like a RT.  Too much lingo? Don’t worry about it. It’s one of those things that sounds harder than it is. It’s just a way of connecting with people.
  9. Academic conferences with Twitter. Perhaps one of the most useful implementations of Twitter is at academic conferences. For the uninitiated, the junior, the marginalized, or the just-plain-shy, academic conferences can be a nightmare of face-name-badge-scanning. Twitter changed this for me. Whereas I once felt alienated, connecting with people on Twitter (see #8) transformed the hallways of academic conferences into giant meet-ups where warm embraces replaced dismissive face-name-badge scowls. The Twitter backchannel has also enlivened sometimes dull academic conferences. The backchannel is just a conversation going on about the conference by people using Twitter.  The way this works is that people are using a particular hashtag (just any word, set of letters and numbers with a # symbol in front of it). For example, #ASA2014 becomes a hashtag for the sociology conference and so on. It also means that I can follow the conversation at a particular conference even if I didn’t get to attend it in person. This is a tremendous boon for academics with both intellectual curiosity and a limited travel budget.
  10. Be generous and kind. There is often some anxiety about using Twitter as an academic, especially for folks who are still in graduate school or early in their careers. “Won’t this hurt my career chances?” Well, it depends on how you use it. If you say evil, hurtful things – like wishing death on someone’s children – it can get you in trouble. My experience is that if used without malice, it won’t hurt and it might help. I started on Twitter when I was pre-tenure and got tenured (and promoted) since then. Some of my colleagues even suggested that getting added to this list helped my chances. In general, I think the world would be a better place if people were generous and kind, so I’m adding that as a recommendation for how academics should be on Twitter.




Open Scholarship for Open Education

The promise of massive, open online courses is that they would be available to anyone, anywhere, at anytime, and that could be revolutionary.

Unfortunately, these attempts at open education are mostly not that open.  This is especially true when it comes to reading materials which are severely limited because of copyright restrictions. In spring, 2013 when we piloted our massively participatory open, online course (#InQ13), we worked with librarians to find and use legitimately open access reading materials. As it turned out, this involved a lot of work on the part of some heroic librarians.

This presentation from the CUNY IT Conference, 2013 explains some of the nuances of that process:

If you’d like to read about the nuts and bolts of this in more detail, here is a self-archived, pre-print version of our paper “Open Scholarship for Open Education,” co-authored by Shawn(ta) Smith, Polly Thistlethwaite and me.

Guide to Good Presentations

One of the traditional forms of presenting academic work is to read a paper. Literally. I’ve seen this done for years. A scholar will stand and read a paper aloud to a group of seemingly intelligent people, as if the mark of an intellectual is how much boredom one can endure.  It’s dreadfully dull as an information delivery mechanism.

This form of presenting academic work has changed to include the use of slides. The problem is that this is often just a glorified version of reading a paper, with far too much text and charts crammed into slides that are impossible to read. This is sometimes referred to as “death by powerpoint.”

We can do better than this. And, indeed, if we’re interested in communicating scholarly ideas with a wider public, we need to get better at this.  Here are some resources for how to do this.

Guidelines for Good Presentation Slides 

Concluding Our Series on Scholarly Communication

Back in February, we began this series exploring scholarly communication.

Printed, Bound Journals on Shelf

(Image source)

What does it mean to be a scholar now?  In the eight weeks of the series, we’ve had thoughtful contributions from experts discussing a wide array of areas related to the changing landscape of what it means to be an academic in the 21st century. The topics we’ve discussed here include:

  • being a public intellectual;
  • responses to Nick Kristof’s critique of academics as not public enough;
  • the convergence of social science and journalism;
  • the perils and promises of open access publishing;
  • conversations about the Future of Higher Education with and around Cathy Davidson’s meta-MOOC;
  • documentaries as a multimedia form that incorporates scholarship, activism for social justice and art;
  • the way measures of ‘impact’ are shifting and how those measures can be used to further social justice.

Next, we’ll compile all these posts into one, easy-to-download, completely free e-book for you to read, use and share.

Reach, Impact and Scholarly Communication Now

Academics working today are laboring in a rapidly changing landscape of scholarly communication.

When acclaimed Internet researcher danah boyd published her recent book, “It’s Complicated,” about the social lives of networked teens with the highly reputable academic house Yale University Press, she also put a free PDF of the book up on her own website.  She wrote this about that decision:

“…I didn’t publicize this when I did so. For those who are curious as to why, I want to explain. And I want you to understand the various issues at play for me as an author and a youth advocate.

I didn’t write this book to make money. I wrote this book to reach as wide of an audience as I possibly could. This desire to get as many people as engaged as possible drove every decision I made throughout this process. One of the things that drew me to Yale was their willingness to let me put a freely downloadable CC-licensed copy of the book online on the day the book came out. I knew that trade presses wouldn’t let a first time author pull that one off. …But what I started to realize is that when people purchase the book, they signal to outside folks that the book is important. This is one of the reasons that I asked people who value this book to buy it. Your purchasing decisions help me signal to the powers that be that this book is important, that the message in the book is valuable.” (emphasis in the original)

It’s an important and worthwhile book, and you should buy it and/or download it, depending on what you can manage. What I so appreciate about what she’s done here is to find a way to thread the very thin needle of open access and a prominent, scholarly book.

It's Complicated - book cover

Elsewhere in that post, she describes her experience with the machinery of publishing, and it goes like this:

“If you haven’t published a book before, it’s pretty unbelievable to see all of the machinery that goes into getting the book out once the book exists in physical form. News organizations want to promote books that will be influential or spark a conversation, but they are also anxious about having their stories usurped by others. Booksellers make risky decisions about how many copies they think they can sell ahead of time and order accordingly. (And then there’s the world of paying for placement which I simply didn’t do.) Booksellers’ orders – as well as actual presales – are influential in shaping the future of a book, just like first weekend movie sales matter. For example, these sales influence bestseller and recommendation lists. These lists are key to getting broader audiences’ attention (and for getting the attention of certain highly influential journalistic enterprises). And, as an author trying to get a message out, I realized that I needed to engage with this ecosystem and I needed all of these actors to believe in my book.”

Her experience with publishing is quite different from the traditional academic’s experience, but then that might be expected as danah boyd is not a traditional academic.  If you’re not familiar, danah boyd is something of a celebrity among folks who study the Internet, works as a Principle Researcher at Microsoft, and is starting her own research shop called Data & Society. Her work is also on two areas  — the Internet and teenagers — that has wide public appeal.

The reality for most traditional academics is that they produce “Long, complex monographs are expensive to produce yet sell only 150 to 300 copies.”

The news is even worse for academic papers published in traditional journals. A study at Indiana University found that:

“as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.” That same study concluded that “some 90% of papers that have been published in academic journals are never cited.”

This is a certain kind of impact, to be sure, if who you are trying to have an impact on is an elite group of specialists in your field.  But this model of publishing is never going to have much of a wider reach.

As Anthony DiMaggio, writing for CounterPunch, notes about his own field of Political Science, that it is dominated by “over-specialization and obscurity” with scholars who carve out “extremely narrow niches” that have “no practical utility.”  DiMaggio minces no words as he calls out social science academics broadly for a lack of relevance and what he deems as cowardice:

“Lack of relevance to the political world doesn’t make one’s research interesting or worthwhile, but this message falls on deaf ears in insulated places like high ed social science departments.  A main reason for scholars’ contempt for political advocacy is cowardice.  The vast majority of scholars have been socialized their entire lives to believe they must always remain ‘objective,’ and that to take a position on an issue would be heretical.  Most scholars operate according to a pack mentality – fearful of engaging in unconventional behavior.  By producing useful real world research, one is challenging the sacred rules governing ‘objective’ social science that celebrate esoteric research agendas. To step outside that mold would be to endanger one’s prestige, and risk that one will be seen as unprofessional in colleagues’ minds. Such pressures ensure that academics remain part of the problem, not the solution. They fail by design to challenge the political and economic power status quo and injustices that occur around them.”

There’s something to what DiMaggio says here, but I don’t know if it’s cowardice as much as institutional reward structures.  Or, perhaps those are two sides of the same coin.

The legacy model of scholarly communication values writing obscure books and papers for tiny audiences makes sense within a certain kind of reward structure. Within legacy academia, the people that sit on hiring, tenure and promotion committees still place value on at things like ‘impact factor’ of little-read journals and the fading prestige of boutique publishers with minuscule runs.

However, the appearance of digitally fluent, hybrid scholars – like danah boyd – who are more interested in reach and impact on a broader public, point to a new kind of reward structure, one that values influence beyond a small group of specialists.

The real challenge, I think, comes when a researcher that doesn’t have the star-power or following of a danah boyd wants to write about something that’s much less appealing than what teenagers are doing on the Internet.  What kind of broad reach or impact can a relatively unknown scholar writing about a topic that’s unpopular expect to have? This remains an open question in this changing landscape of scholarly communication, but it seems to me that the Internet offers a set of opportunities to reach beyond the conventional audiences for academic research.

Still, even when academics use social media there’s little to indicate they are doing so in order to reach a broad, general audience. Indeed, we know from recent research that even when academics use social media, such as blogging, they mostly don’t do this to engage with a broader public. In a recent study of 100 academics blogs, researchers found that most academics are blogging for professionals peers, rather than for the public in any general sense: 73% of the blogs analyzed were geared toward other academics, while just 38% were designed for general readers.

I can’t help but wonder how different academic research would look if we were guided by danah boyd’s goal: “I wrote this book to reach as wide of an audience as I possibly could.”  

The counter to this, of course, and one that I often hear in talks I give about this work, is something along the lines of: “well, small publishers and journals are providing a valuable service for getting academic work published that wouldn’t ever be interesting to a wide, public audience. This work is often too complex, theoretical, esoteric, important, too politically unpopular for a wide audience, so we must rely on the obscure publishing options to keep doing what we do as academics.”

There is something to this argument.  For example, I write about racism – a thoroughly unpopular topic in the US.  My academic books have done ok, but they will never be as popular as the work that danah boyd does.  It’s also the case that academic presses have published books of mine that probably would not have been picked up by trade presses for a general, public audience. Still, what I also know to be true is that the work I do on racism has gotten a much bigger following from my various social media outlets than it has from the books and articles I’ve published.

The skepticism about “reach” for academic work is built on a misconception that there won’t be an audience for that work. In fact, I think there are multiple audiences, varied publics and a wide citizenry that’s really interested in more substantive contributions about the state of the world than they’re currently getting.  And, I think academics can step up and make a contribution, if we’ll begin to re-think what scholarly communication is now.


Creating Change with Storytelling

The way we measure impact is changing, whether the “we” is academics, grant makers or activists. Recently, I wrote here about “transactional” and “transformational” metrics.  Transactional metrics are things we can quantify and count, including altmetrics.

Transformational metrics have to do with those qualitative changes that are more difficult to measure, such as collaborative projects, changing the conversation about a topic, or really creating social or cultural changes. In order to measure these kinds of changes, what I argue is that we need more kinds of storytelling.  We do this already in academia, when we craft recommendations, tenure letters, or make our case to a committee for why someone should be promoted. What we do is tell a story about the impact this scholar has has on the field, or the world.

And, storytelling is a crucial part of what makes us human. We have a deep, human desire both to have an impact on the world and to tell stories.

Around the campfire

Given that I’ve been saying this for a while now here, I was delighted to come across this Storytelling & Social Change: A Strategy Guide for Grantmakers (pdf) by Paul VanDeCarr.

Story Guide Cover

This guide compiles the wisdom of more than 75 storytellers, media-makers, community activists and foundation staffers into a comprehensive overview that’s the first of its kind. It’s aimed at grant makers, but of use to other change makers as well.

In a recent post, VanDeCarr notes other, less obvious, applications of storytelling that can create real change, such as Heart & Soulor Marshall Ganz’s “Public Narrative” method, adapted by the 2008 Obama campaign. There are also projects designed to educate the public such as Voice of Witness does with human rights or to advocate a cause such as the grantees of the Health Media Initiative of the Open Society Foundation.

VanDeCarr also highlights Nation Inside, a project he works on, which hosts a web platform for activists working on mass incarceration to organize around personal stories. VanDeCarr finds that more and more organizations are integrating storytelling into their daily work as a more effective way to meet the demands of the massive challenges they’re facing.

Engaging with communities to create innovate social change is finding its way into some universities as well. For example, in 2006 the University of Minnesota established an Office for Public Engagement (OPE) to further the integration of public engagement into the University’s core mission of research and teaching.  Part of the conversation that’s happening at University of Minnesota’s OPE includes a discussion about metrics, in other words, how do you tell if you’re successful at “public engagement.” And, sure enough, under their menu item “Impact” are Stories and Videos.

There will be a time, in the not too distant future, in which young scholars, grant seekers and activists, will be compiling videos and multimedia portfolios to tell stories that illustrate their impact on the world. Or, perhaps that future is happening now.


Transactional and Transformational Measures of Impact

As we come to the end of the meta-MOOC #FutureEd conversations prompted by Cathy Davidson and our lunchtime interlocutors here at CUNY, I’m pondering how we measure the impact of such a course, and more broadly, the impact of the work we do as academics.

In a recent post at The Chronicle of Higher Ed, Douglas Howard considers the unfinished feeling of so much teaching in general:

Did Jim, who talked about becoming a therapist, go on to graduate school in psychology? Did Jessica, who argued so passionately in class against the death penalty, make it as a lawyer? We fill in the blanks about them based upon what we know (or think we know), and tell ourselves that their stories ended the way that we hoped.

Teaching, in this regard, is the great open-ended narrative, the romantic fragment, the perpetually unfinished symphony.

The fact is, we almost never know if a course we taught, or a book we wrote, or an article we labored over, has any impact on anyone else.

Mark McGuire has a thoughtful post at HASTAC about the difficulty in rating transformational experiences specifically in the context of a MOOC, such as the one on #FutureEd:

We rate hotels, music, live performances, movies, etc., so that others are able to make an informed decision about how to best invest their time and money. Rating and reviewing MOOCs seems like a sensible thing to do for similar reasons, and it would not be surprising to see such a practice develop. However, unlike a hotel or restaurant franchise, a living, changing, organic learning experience cannot be packaged, replicated, and sold to consumers who are looking for a satisfying (and predictable) product or service. It can’t offer the same experience to the same person twice, and one person’s experience may not be a good indicator of the experience another person will have. A transformational learning experience is like a good pot luck dinner party — you might have had the time of your life, but it can never be repeated.

I like the dinner party metaphor for teaching much better than the “unfinished symphony,” perhaps because I’m much more likely to attempt a dinner party than a symphony.  I do think that there is a kind of alchemy in teaching, and good dinner parties, that makes it easy to assemble the same people, elements and conditions but difficult to replicate magic when it happens.

It’s also difficult to think about how one might measure any of this. Unfortunately, to my way of thinking, the word “measure” has become synonymous with “quantify.”  When we think of measurement exclusively in terms of quantification and counting, we lose a great deal of the story of impact.

I want to suggest an alternative way of thinking about impact that includes qualitative measures. In the chart below, you’ll see a way of conceptualizing “transactional” measures – quantifiable things we can count, alongside “transformational” measure – qualitative measures, that are more difficult to count but represent more lasting change.

Transactional v. Transformational metrics

(Chart content from Bolder Advocacy, h/t gabriel sayegh.
Chart design by Emily Sherwood)

In this schema, transactional metrics include both traditional (or “legacy”) academic measures of impact such as citations, along with alternative measures (or “altmetrics”), such downloads, or mentions on social media. Quantitative, transactional measures of impact can also include lasting social change, such as changes to public policy.  One of the things I like about this conceptualization is that it illustrates the incremental change that altmetrics represent. In other words, altmetrics are just another way of counting things – downloads and social media mentions, rather than citations – but it’s still just counting things. Counting and quantification can tell us somethings, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

On the “transformational” side are those things that it’s difficult, perhaps even impossible to measure, but that are so crucial to doing work that has a lasting impact. These include identifying allies, building relationships, establishing collaborations, and co-creating projects. Ultimately, transformational work is about changing lives, changing the broader cultural narrative, and changing society in ways that make it more just and democratic for all. These kinds of transformations demand a different kind of metric, one that relies primarily storytelling.

How might this work in academia? Well, to some extent, it already does. 

To take the example of teaching, you may have gotten the advice – as I did – “save everything” for your tenure file. This advice often goes something like, “everytime a student sends you a thank you card, or writes you an email, or says, ‘this class made all the difference for me’ save that for your tenure file.” That’s part of how we ‘finish the symphony,’ to borrow Doug Howard’s metaphor, we get notes from students, we compile those into a narrative about our teaching. It’s impartial, to be sure, but it’s something. The comments that students add to teaching evaluations are another place we see that impact in narrative form, although these are so skewed by the context of actually sitting in the class that it misses the longer term impact of how that course may have changed someone.

For the diminishing few of us on the other side of the tenure-hurdle, think about those letters of recommendation we write for junior scholars.  Whether we’re writing for someone to get hired, promoted, or granted tenure, what we’re doing when we craft those letters is creating a narrative about the candidate’s impact on their corner of the academic world so far. Of course, we augment that with quantitative data, “this many articles over this span of time,” and “these numbers in teaching evaluations.”

The fact is, we already combine transactional and transformational metrics in academia in the way that we do peer evaluations. What we need to consider in academia is expanding how we think about ‘impact’ and realize the way that we already use both quantitative and qualitative measures to evaluate and assess the impact of our work.

More than this, we need to reclaim storytelling and narrative, augmented by the affordances of digital media, to tell stories of impact that make a difference.

Research without Borders

Earlier today, Polly and I attended an excellent panel hosted by our cross-town colleagues at the Scholarly Communication Program at Columbia University. The event, “Research without Borders: Negotiating Constraints and Open Scholarship,” featured a stellar panel of interesting speakers, including our very own Leith Mullings is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center, CUNY, Dennis Tenen (@dennistenen) is Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities and New Media Studies at Columbia University, and Lela Prashad (@lelap) is co-founder and Chief Data Scientist at NiJeL.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there was also a lively backchannel discussion happening via Twitter. Here’s the Storify of those Tweets:

Scholarly Life Transformed by Digital Media

Scholarly life is being transformed by digital media, changing both how we do our work as scholars and the audiences we can reach with our work.

Networked Book CoverIn their 2012 book Networked, authors Barry Wellman and Lee Rainie (Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project) suggest that “Triple Revolution” – the simultaneous rise of the Internet, mobile technology and social networks – has transformed people’s relationships with each other and to information.  This transformation is also affecting researchers, according to a new study of a Canadian scholarly association, GRAND – an acronym for Graphics, Animation and New Media.   The report states:

“Digital media provides the scholars with enhanced global connectivity with kindred colleagues, including increased visibility, access to specialized GRAND experts, and contact with prestigious senior faculty. Yet, it is the scholars’ in-person encounters as collaborators and conference-goers that create and maintain their online contacts.”

The study also overturns popular assertions (for example, by MIT professor Sherry Turkle) that technology creates social isolation by replacing in-person encounters with online connections: “Rather than digital media luring people away from in-person contact, larger networks make more use of digital media, overall and per capita,” the study concludes.

There is also evidence that being a ‘networked scholar’ increases publications and presentations, as well as also in the informal exchange and advice between colleagues. Collaborative tools and technologies were also a factor in more papers being coauthored within and across disciplines and geographic areas. As a follow-up report internal to GRAND summed up: “In a nutshell, better-connected researchers are more productive.”

Networked Scholars

(Image Source)

I wrote recently about the way digital media is changing the way I do scholarship. In this piece, I chronicle the way a disgruntled conference Tweet became a blog post, then a series of blog posts, and then an article in a peer-reviewed journal.  For me, the use of digital media is transforming how I approach being a scholar. Twitter is not simply a tool for disseminating research, it’s a tool I think with and through. Blogging is often the way I compose a first draft of a thought I may develop further for publication elsewhere. Of course, not every Tweet or blog post goes on to a life in peer-reviewed publication, but every peer-reviewed publication of mine has made a first appearance in some form on digital media.

This way of doing scholarly life has opened up amazing new possibilities for much wider audiences for the knowledge we produce as academics.

Melissa Terras found in a recent study of the relationship between mentions on social media and peer-review papers that:

The papers that were tweeted and blogged had at least more than 11 times the number of downloads than their sibling paper which was left to its own devices in the institutional repository.

Terras concludes by saying:

 if you want people to find and read your research, build up a digital presence in your discipline, and use it to promote your work when you have something interesting to share. It’s pretty darn obvious, really:

If (social media interaction is often) then (Open access + social media = increased downloads).

Even when scholars choose to publish in journals that are not traditionally open access, there is a positive return on investing time in social media (and may even nudge publishers along the road toward opening their journals). For example, in December 2013 scholars Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson wrote about their experience with publishing articles about their academic blogging. They write:

As this post is being written, the Taylor and Francis count shows that our “Why do academics blog?” paper has been viewed 1914 times in the seven weeks since it was published (we should point out that this is about seven times less than one of our blogs attracts on a normal weekday).

As their articles drew more attention through social media outlets, it shifted the access their publisher provided. Here again, Mewburn and Thomson:

The link to 50 ‘free view’ copies, which each of us were sent via email, was tweeted once by each of us and placed on the Facebook page connected to one of our blogs. These free copies were rapidly downloaded and people started requesting the article via Twitter and social media. Noting the interest, Taylor and Francis themselves issued a press release about it and (thankfully) made it gold open access. An article appeared on the‘Third Degree’ blog attached to the Australian newspaper ‘The Age’. Third Degree highlighted some of the more controversial aspects of the findings, which generated yet more hits on the article database.

Here, Mewburn and Thomson point to an important way to shift the routinely closed vaults of a publisher like Taylor & Francis by using social media and legacy media, such as more traditional news outlets.  Where Mewburn and Thomson started with the question, “should academics blog?” they answer their own question in this conclusion:

But in our minds the answer to the question “Should I blog?” is now a clear and resounding “Yes”, at least, if conventional indicators of academic success are your aim. Blogging is now part of a complex online ‘attention economy’ where social media like Twitter and Facebook are not merely dumb ‘echo chambers’ but a massive global conversation which can help your work travel much further than you might initially think.

The research seems to support the claim that scholarly life is being transformed by digital media in a number of ways.  How is it transforming your work? Tell us in the comments.