Author Archives: Jessie Daniels

Office Closed

Today, we closed the JustPublics@365 office at The Graduate Center. Thanks to everyone who made the project such a huge success, especially our colleagues at the CUNY J-School. Of course, we owe many thanks to Doug Wood at the Ford Foundation for making the project possible.

Look for our book about the project, Being a Scholar in the Digital Era (by Jessie Daniels and Polly Thistlethwaite) due out in 2016, from Policy Press (UK).

Packing Boxes


The many accomplishments of the project are detailed in this report and in this series of social justice eBooks. And, if you’re one of one the thousand or more people who attended our MediaCamp Workshops, you may find this Social Media Toolkit for Academics useful.  If you’re interested in the work we did with our online course see this article. And, if you’re interested in the work we did to further open access, see this article.

Adieu! ~

Digital Sociology

Digital sociology as a field is gaining traction in Australia, Canada and the UK, and is lagging somewhat behind in the U.S.

Digital Sociology logo

Still there are some strides toward establishing this field here in the U.S. In February of this year, I and Karen Gregory and Tressie McMillan Cottom, organized a Digital Sociology Mini-Conference under the auspices of the Eastern Sociological Society. The convening brought together an international group of scholars around the topic of digital sociology for two days of panels and round table presentations. All together, the conference generated over sixty (60) submissions from eleven (11) countries.

As readers here know well, digital technologies now underpin academic work at all levels — from theorization and conceptual work, to research methods and data collection, to the professionalization of disciplines. Yet, as Deborah Lupton notes in her recent book, Digital Sociology (Routledge, 2014), the discipline of sociology more broadly has only just begun to take account of the broader implications that the digital has raised about the “practice of sociology and social research itself.”

Clough and colleagues (2014) suggest that the “datalogical turn” underway in the social sciences poses not only serious challenges to sociological methodologies, but also requires more robust theorizing of what we mean by the social itself. Social media platforms such as Twitter and blogging are not simply megaphones for broadcasting research done offline, but are becoming the very mechanisms we use to create sociological knowledge, formulate ideas, write first drafts, and engage in peer review.  But the burgeoning field of digital sociology is still “before the beginning” in theorizing and articulating the digital turn for the social sciences, as Jonathan Wynn has pointed out.

Why digital sociology? Why now?

To call for digital sociology is to engage in an act of (or an attempt at) disciplinary transformation. My colleague at CUNY, Cathy Davidson, contends that disciplines are “so last century”. She foresees a future of higher education where disciplinary boundaries matter less and less. In the 21st century university we are all interdisciplinary. She’s probably right, so what is the point of trying to transform sociology at this particular moment?

The fact is that many of the social implications of the Internet were articulated decades ago by leading sociologists without calling themselves “digital sociologists”.  Scholars such as Castells, 1996; Back, 2002; DiMaggio, et al., 2001; Hampton 2002; Ignacio, 2000; Sassen, 2002; Wacjman, 1991; Wellman, 2001, have all made important contributions to our understanding of how the digital and the material are imbricated, to paraphrase Sassen. Yet, overall sociology as a discipline has been relatively unconcerned with explicitly defining a disciplinary relationship to the digital. Instead, sociology has often ceded this terrain to other disciplines.

While this expansive view of sociology as a kind of universal donor discipline has worked to the advantage of job candidates with dissertations focused on digital technologies, it has disadvantaged the discipline and our understanding of the social world today. If sociology is to be relevant in the 21st century, we must offer a compelling theoretical understanding of digital media technologies. If we expect to attract graduate students and the next generation of scholars, we have to offer some guidance on what sociological research methods might be in a digital era.

Other disciplines are doing the work that digital sociologists could, and perhaps should, be doing; more than this, they are reaping rewards that we are not. Disciplines such as communications, cultural and media studies, library and information science, and journalism have eagerly stepped in to the void left by sociology to claim many of our top job candidates. When sociology loses top job candidates to other fields, it is likely that they will publish less often in sociology journals, attend fewer of our conferences and contribute less to knowledge that circulates within sociology.

The digital humanities claims most of the research money and sets much of the agenda for how we think about digital media technologies in relation to teaching and digital tools for scholarship. The traditional humanities disciplines – literature, philosophy, religion, languages, and musicology – are now often joined with history, linguistics, and semiotics as part of the digital humanities. Social sciences such as anthropology and sociology are sometimes included under the umbrella of DH, as I heard one preeminent scholar exclaim at a recent talk, “I have a colonizer’s view of what is included in the digital humanities – if you’re doing digital work, it’s digital humanities!” In many ways, the early and ardent embrace – even expansionism — of the digital by the humanities was a response to threats (perceived or actual) to cuts in humanities programs and funding. To looks at the funding infrastructure of the Office of Digital Humanities division of the National Endowment for the Humanities, this was a shrewd, strategic move on the part of forward thinking humanities scholars of twenty years ago.

The result, however, is that digital humanities as a field ends up with preserving and archiving a predominantly white, male canon of literature,  as Tara McPherson observes. Of course, not all digital humanities projects focus on white men. The NEH Office of Digital Humanities has funded a project called “W.E.B. DuBois in Cyberspace” to digitize and make available all of DuBois’ papers. This important work of preservation and access is at the heart of digital humanities, and it is part of what makes digital sociology possible. Such tools create an opportunity for “rethinking sociological craft”, but it would be repeating the mistakes of DH to focus too heavily on tools in digital sociology. Instead, the promise of digital sociology is to first consider the “disciplinary value of sociology and the theoretical frameworks of digital second, we arrive at a much more satisfying future for the intersection of digital and social,” as Cottom has pointed out.

So, to return to the questions I posed earlier: why digital sociology and why now? Perhaps I’m resisting the interdisciplinary future of the university, but I tend to agree with Jacobs (2014) that there is a place for disciplines. That said, the discipline of sociology is woefully under-prepared to face the digital present of the contemporary social world. I think that we – those of us doing digital work within sociology – are already doing digital sociology that should be transforming the discipline as a whole, but most of us don’t call our work digital sociology.

I want to suggest that there is a power in naming what we do ‘digital sociology’ that we might well consider.

As for why now, the moment we’re in is one in which there are sociologists around the globe who are doing related, relevant work and by simply tagging our work with digital sociology – we can find each other, as some of us did in February in New York this year.



~ A version of this post appeared in the CITASA (Communication Internet Technology section of the American Sociological Association) Newsletter, Spring 2015.


Higher Ed Is Changing, but Digital Media Training is Still Missing for Most

Higher education is changing because of digital media technologies. How we do our work as scholars, how we create knowledge, is changing because of digital media. And, increasingly, academics want to know their work has an impact in the world beyond the Ivory Tower. Yet, digital media training for academics is still missing at most institutions.

Kevin Anselmo, writing in a recent post at the LSE Impact Blog, observes that academia is increasingly moving in a digital direction, yet the reality is that most PhDs are not trained to speak to mainstream audiences.  The result is that traditionally-trained PhDs largely miss out on the opportunities created by the move to digital. Anselmo encourages academics to take advantage of whatever training their institution offers.

This kind of training is precisely what we’ve offered through our MediaCamp Workshops, which are skill-building sessions for intellectuals who want to combine research and digital media technologies for the public good.

Smart Phone in Hand

(Image credit: Almudena Toral, CUNY J-School)

Our workshops are run as a collaboration between two parts of the larger CUNY system – the academic, PhD-granting Graduate Center, the Mina Rees Library and the Graduate School of Journalism. The main goal of the workshops is to help traditionally trained academics develop the skills necessary to connect their scholarly work to a wider public and to social justice issues. The specific training includes both legacy media (e.g., writing op-eds and appearing on camera) and digital media (e.g., blogging, Twitter, using smartphones), as well as hybrid academic-journalism skills (e.g., data visualization). Due to a grant from the Ford Foundation (and later support from the Mina Rees Library of The Graduate Center), we were able to offer the workshops free of charge to anyone who wanted to enroll.

Lots people besides academics find the workshops useful. This kind of digital media training appeals to people working in non-profits and NGOs as well. We have also seen a fair number of higher education administrators in the workshops, too. It is often these workers – staff and administrators – who are given the responsibility for developing digital media for academic programs and departments, yet rarely if ever are they provided any training to go with these job assignments.

MediaCamp Workshops have been extremely successful on any number of measures. In one year alone, we offered over 40 workshops that reached more than 500 academics, activists, and non-profit leaders. And, there is an even higher demand for these, as we had over 1,000 on waiting lists for these workshops. Based on this success, we were invited to extend this work by offering these workshops at the 109th American Sociological Association meetings in San Francisco (August, 2014).


(Heidi Knoblauch, l., and Shawnta Smith-Cruz, r. at the ASA

Scholars, activists, and people from the non-profit sphere who participated in the workshops clearly indicated that the MediaCamp filled a distinct need: they helped people who are creating knowledge learn to share that knowledge with a wider audience. After every workshop, people shared enthusiastic, supportive reviews. Typical of the written feedback we received was this participant’s response:

“Fantastic workshop!!! I’ve been struggling with ways to engage with a broader public in my work and I feel much better prepared now. Thank you!”

We collected data on all the workshops and you can read the full report here MCampReportPDF.  Our experience with MediaCamp Workshops,  and the data from our report, support Anselmo’s assertion that there is a huge unmeet need for this kind of training within higher education.

What Anselmo’s exhortation to “take advantage of training” at your institution misses is that most institutions don’t offer such training. In part, this is because finding the support for digital media training is challenging. While the politics of austerity within higher education may be coming to an end, it is still a very real struggle to secure funding for this kind of training.

In the current social and political climate, it will take real vision – on the part of an academic leader, or a grant-maker, or both – to seize the opportunity that digital media technologies offer for academics and the institutions in which we work.

The ground beneath us is shifting. How we do our work as academics is already different because of digital media technologies. Card catalogs, anyone?  No, of course, not. We expect our libraries, our search strategies, and our results to be available digitally.

Because of these transformations, 21st-century scholars are much more enmeshed in the world around them than previous generations who may have envisioned an academic life sequestered from the turmoil of the everyday world.  Scholars today see themselves as part of the world around them and want their work to have some kind of impact on that world. For now at least, digital media training in how to use these tools and navigate this landscape are still missing at most institutions.

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.