Category Archives: Topic Series

Lynn Roberts on Public Health and Social Justice Activism

Lynn RobertsA key focus of JustPublics@365 is on the work of scholar-activists. Someone who exemplifies this model of engaged scholarship is Lynn Roberts is an Assistant Professor at the CUNY School of Public Health. Her broad range of work and research has included reproductive justice, youth development and juvenile justice, the prevention of intimate partner violence, models of community organizing for social justice; and the intersection of race, class and gender and its influence on health disparities. In this series on East Harlem, we’ll feature on a number of scholar-activists.

Collette Sosnowy: Thanks for talking with me today, Lynn. Can you share a little bit about your work in East Harlem and in the South Bronx?

Lynn Roberts: I suppose my work in East Harlem began actually many years ago when I was also teaching at Hunter College, in their public health program. I developed a course about 12 years ago focused on initially the South Bronx because I have been doing some work there and expanded it to include Harlem, not just East Harlem but Central and West as well, from the perspective of people who lived and worked there, so that you could look at it through various disciplines and also through lived experiences rather than just an academic lens and then updated the course when we moved into the community here of East Harlem in Fall 2012.

That brought me back to East Harlem with fresh eyes and in a different period of time in its, I guess, evolution, depending on how you look at it because a lot of changes in the community in terms of real estate and gentrification and then our being here and being able to reach out again and form relationships with those who are doing interesting and exciting community work here.

Collette Sosnowy: What are the parallels between South Bronx and East Harlem?

Lynn Roberts: They’re each very rich communities and one of the things that I think was highlighted in the course was just the diversity. I choose the South Bronx and Harlem because they both represented what I think are perceived by the general public as iconic communities.

People here at South Bronx, they hear Harlem they might have a preconceived notion about what each one of those communities represent if they haven’t been there or lived there. I wanted to demystify and clarify the richness of each of these communities, not just as whatever someone’s preconceived notion of what might be described as a low income or an urban community is like. They each have rich histories of growth and decline of innovation in terms of the arts and just really rich histories in terms of the larger American story.

I think it’s important for all of us to know about that these communities from those who know best and bringing the community into the classroom I think is really important. A large part of wanting to revisit the course was to, I guess, dispel some of the myth and even some of the apprehension and fear of that, some of my fellow colleagues and students had about being in East Harlem in particular, fear of crime, fear of some type of danger, which I didn’t experience and I didn’t think was any different than other parts of New York City.

I thought if they knew more about the community, that would widen their lens of working in any community and approach any community with eyes wide open and with ears more attentive to hearing from those community voices.

Collette Sosnowy:  How is health a social justice issue?

Lynn Roberts: Very much so. I think that social justice is necessary for health. When you have social justice you have health and wellness, all the positive attributes we associate with that. You have clean air. You have clean water. You have equity in terms of resources such as education, employment … You have a diversity of ideas and background. You have democracy. You have people who get to decide what will happen in their community, in their society, in their country and that is fundamentally good in terms of these people overall well-being but also just how they also feel about themselves and how much they feel willing to participate civically and have raised expectations for themselves, for their families, for their entire communities. I think they’re intertwined. I think they’re one in the same. I don’t think you can have one without the other.

Collette Sosnowy: As you were talking about before, some academics are hesitant to get involved in controversial issues like those confronting East Harlem. What do you say to critics who might question your “objectivity” as a scholar?

Lynn Roberts: First of all, I probably identify first as an activist and second, or simultaneously, as a scholar. They’re both a part of who I am. I don’t think scientists or scholars really can practice objectivity. I think all questions are based on our lived experiences, our exposures. What we consider valid depends on that. We’re all subjective in terms of how we pursue knowledge and what knowledge we consider important.

That’s not a quest of mine. I’m probably more inclined to just disclose what my subjectivities are, whatever my biases are as I know them. Not all of them are known to me but being more accepting of that, I’m much more inclined to be accepting of that in others. I’m much more inclined to engage with others in a way that I think, maybe it’s an objective but is open. If I’m open I can probably look at things and consider another point of view in a way that makes me more accessible and makes others with whom I interact more accessible to sharing.

I see it as an advantage in terms of my scholarship. How that plays out on the academy depends on, again, someone else’s perspective on that, so that can be a challenge.

Collette Sosnowy: A major focus of JustPublics@365 is bringing together academics and activists and journalists in ways that promote social justice through civic engagement and greater democracy. What sort of “lessons learned” do you have from your experience as an academic / activist in going into some of these fields that are usually more in the area of activism and journalism?

Lynn Roberts: First and foremost I go as a listener but that doesn’t mean that I don’t also bring who I am and my own point of view. It means sometimes hearing first and then hoping that we all come to some conclusions where I’m also listened to. I know that as an academic, in some instances, my voice might be given more credence than someone else’s, so needing to balance that and have some humility around that is really important.

Then using my voice may be perceived a greater agency or power, if you will. Effectively but again, in collaboration, not in speaking for or instead of others. I can contribute to in ways that others might not but I don’t really distinguish doing that in or outside of the academy. I really don’t. I think a lot of those lines are rather artificial.

There’s a lot of wisdom everywhere. There’s expertise everywhere and it’s just realizing that and when you approach it that way you tend to get a lot more done and people, once you dispel that notion of difference … I just find it’s just really easy to work with people.

 

Renewed Focus on East Harlem Following Explosion

A gas explosion that caused two East Harlem buildings to collapse on March 12, killing 8 people, tested the community’s capacity for emergency preparedness and response.

This tragedy has prompted a renewed focus on East Harlem in local media, and here at JustPublics@365 given our ties to this community.

In addition, given the CUNY campus in East Harlem, and that one of those killed was a member of the CUNY community – Sgt. Griselde Camacho – there are some efforts at CUNY to work with community-based groups in response to this disaster.

Although East Harlem has a rich, extensive network of community-based groups and organizations, a month after the disaster it is still unclear how well these services were utilized.

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image source

According to the East Harlem Emergency Preparedness Collaborative (EHEPC), despite major investments by the federal government to increase the ability of U.S. cities, communities, and neighborhoods to prepare for and respond to public health emergencies and disasters, research has shown there has been limited participation by those in vulnerable and minority communities.

This Saturday, April 26, JustPublics@365 will co-sponsor a forum at the Silberman Campus of CUNY in East Harlem (2180 Third Avenue) about these issues. Community members and all those affected by the blast are invited to attend and share their concerns, listen to others and learn.  Details are in the flyer below. Please RSVP here.

April 26 Forum Flyer

In order to augment and extend the work of the forum, we’ll also be curating a new social justice topic series with a focus on journalism, scholarship and activism in East Harlem. More about that to come. 

 

Scholarly Communication eBook

Our recently-concluded social justice topic series “Scholarly Communication in the Digital Era for the Public Good” is now available as an eBook.

Scholarly Communication in the Digital Era for the Public Good

Sch Comm

As we’ve done before with “Imagining New York City After Stop-and-Frisk” and “From Punishment to Public Health,” we curated a topic series – blog posts and multimedia content, like podcasts, around a specific topic – then compiled them into an ebook. In each one, we feature guests and highlight work here across traditional silos of academia, activism and journalism and media.

In the 20th century, scholars communicated within relatively small fields of other experts and did so primarily through monographs and peer-reviewed journal articles. Those works of scholarship were discoverable because they were indexed and sorted into card catalogs and bound reference manuals.

These analog forms of scholarly communication are now joined by new modes of digital expression that augment and occasionally supplant earlier forms.  In this topic series, we explore changes in the modes and emphases of scholarly communication, examining the shift from book- and journal-centric academic publishing to open access hybrids and alternatives, including film and video.

We also explore the ways that social media can serve scholars to connect their work with wider audiences, including non-academic readers, activists, journalists and engaged citizens. We examine scholars’ responsibilities to shape and reflect public understandings, and what academics do to contribute fully to efforts to enhance the public good.

We encourage you to read, re-use, re-mix and share this eBook with fellow scholars, activists, journalists, and citizens.  If you’d like to reach out, you can find us on Twitter @JustPublics365, Facebook or email us directly at justpublics365@gmail.com.

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.

American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs

“You don’t choose the times you live in but you do choose who you want to be and how you want to think.” This quote from Grace Lee Boggs nicely captures the essence of her life, as does a new documentary.

Am Rev film header

Activist, writer, and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs has spent more than 70 years involved in the African-American movement, encompassing housing rights, labor, civil rights, Black Power, environmental justice, and urban community development. Boggs, a Chinese-American woman with a Ph.D. in philosophy, makes an unusual portrait of an activist in the Black struggle, but as Angela Davis notes, “Grace has made more contributions to the Black struggle than most Black people have.”

American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, a documentary directed by Grace Lee (no relation to Boggs) portrays the story of this remarkable woman’s long tenure as an activist. The film was recently screened in New York City, which I attended. The film chronicles Boggs’ lifetime of activism and demonstrates the philosophical threads that weave throughout.

When she completed a Ph.D. in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College in 1940, there was no place for a woman of color in the academy, so she took a low-wage job at the University of Chicago Philosophy Library. Her involvement in the African American movement began when she moved to a low-income, primarily black neighborhood in Chicago. Unable to afford rent, she lived in a co-worker’s rat-infested basement in a poor, primarily African-American neighborhood. It was there that she witnessed first-hand the impact of urban poverty. She joined a tenants’ rights organization, launching a life of activism that touched on every major social movement in the U.S. in the latter half of the 20th Century into the present, compiling a thick FBI file along the way.

Grace-Lee-Boggs

She moved to Detroit in 1953 with her husband Jimmy Boggs, an African-American auto worker and fellow social activist and organizer. They stayed in Detroit as factories closed, unemployment rates soared, white residents moved out of the city, and municipal resources dried up. She remains there today, continuing to engage in creating change through community engagement through Detroit Summer, a multi-generational urban gardening program she founded.

Philosophically, Boggs continually emphasizes the importance of discourse, as well as action, in working for social change. She has said that she often feels that social movements overestimate action and underestimate the role of reflection in creating lasting change and argues that social change needs to be a two-sized transformation: revolution and evolution. “Revolution is evolution toward something much grander in terms of what it means to be a human being,” she said, “just being outraged does not constitute revolution.”

Am Rev book

Boggs puts scholarly communication for the public good into practice everyday by engaging in practical philosophy on the ground through dialogue with others and dogged, dedication to the lengthy process of engaging in community-building and creating social change. Through dialogue and reflection her views and approaches have altered over time, but what remains is her commitment to the view that engagement and thought are what push us forward in our efforts toward greater equality. 

Boggs makes a compelling subject for a documentary, a media which brings the story of this scholar-activist to a broader audience and gives us a better sense of the breadth of her work. This film does an exemplary job placing Boggs in a historical social context, and even provides brief, accessible lessons on Hegel and Marx. Against this background, Boggs’s voice, her perspective on social change and the consistency of her message are heard loud and clear.

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.

 

GIDEON’S ARMY Receives Prestigious Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize

This week, on the anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, The Ridenhour Prizes announced that GIDEON’S ARMY, directed and produced by Dawn Porter, will receive the 2014 Documentary Film Prize.

The Ridenhour Prizes recognize and encourage those who persevere in acts of truth-­telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice, or illuminate a more just vision of society.

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) is the landmark Supreme Court decision that unanimously ruled that states are required to provide counsel in criminal cases to represent defendants unable to afford to pay for their own attorneys. GIDEON’S ARMY follows three young public defenders in the Deep South — Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, and June Hardwick — as they struggle with staggering caseloads, long hours and low pay, trying to balance their commitment to public service with a criminal justice system strained to the breaking point. Here’s the trailer (:45):

In reflecting upon its decision, the awards committee said, “We are thrilled to have selected Gideon’s Army which celebrates the legion of idealistic young public defenders who are fighting for equal justice for the disenfranchised within our broken and biased legal system, while struggling to stay one step ahead of poverty themselves.”

brandyclient

(One of the attorneys featured in the film, Brandy, with a client.
Image source.)

GIDEON’S ARMY highlights the work of public defenders while also exposing the subtle and not so subtle ways in which the justice system is complicit in the mismanagement of indigent defense. Rather than taking their chances with a court appointed lawyer — who may have hundreds of other cases — increasing numbers of defendants agree to plea deals or sentences outside of a trial. As a result, between 90 to 95 percent of defendants plead guilty and never receive the right to counsel as guaranteed by the sixth amendment to the Constitution. This disconnect between the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright and the reality of the law’s implementation has clearly contributed to prison over-crowding, violence, and a reduced chance of rehabilitation.

study of the 100 most populous counties in the United States found that 82 percent of indigent clients were handled by public defenders. In the most recent year that numbers are available, a mere 964 public defender offices nationwide had to handle nearly 6 million indigent defense cases.

“I am honored and so very grateful to receive the Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize,” said director Dawn Porter. “The award will help amplify the critical issues Gideon’s Army exposes, and further share the harrowing stories of America’s overworked public defenders with audiences across the world. Ron Ridenhour was a man committed to truth-telling and correcting injustice. My hope is to advance these same ideals, by using Gideon’s Army to educate audiences, spark civic debate, and ultimately advance constructive solutions to the problems facing America’s criminal justice system. On behalf of the 15,000 public defenders and their clients, and with special thanks to the wonderful lawyers of Gideon’s Promise who are the inspiration and heart of the film, I thank the Ridenhour Award Committee.”

We here at JustPublics@365, congratulate Dawn Porter on this prestigious award. We’re also pleased to have this opportunity to share our recent interview with her.


 

GIDEON’S ARMY will be awarded the 2014 Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize on Wednesday, April 30th, from 12pm to 2pm at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. This event is open to press.

 

 

The Unhappy Divorce of Journalism and the Social Sciences

Just about the worst thing you can say about a piece of sociological writing is that it’s “journalistic.” The term is often used as a criticism, interchangeable at times with “descriptive”, “thin,” or just plain superficial.

There’s good reason many us have little confidence in journalism: the closer a story comes to our own experience, the easier it is to see its flaws. Take, for example, the article about the proliferation of “hooking up” on college campuses that appeared in The New York Times a few years ago.

Image from NYT "Sex on Campus"(Source: New York Times, “Sex on Campus”)

The story claimed that hooking up—sex outside of relationships—is commonplace on college campuses, and is being pursued as actively by women as men. On the basis of interviews with a small number of women at elite schools like the University of Pennsylvania, the article claimed that busy women students didn’t have time for full-blown relationships, so they opted for more superficial sexual liaisons.

It was quickly denounced by sociologists, who charged that the reporter based on claims on flimsy evidence. It was even more roundly criticized on the Internet by college students who felt that the article’s generalizations were unfair or inaccurate. Many of their classmates were indeed pursuing long-term relationships, some argued. A veritable cottage industry of commentary cropped up alongside the article, showing the press’ power to incite and engage. (See, for example http://goo.gl/vg57t.)

Journalism Dictionary Image(Image Source)

“Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,” journalists frequently joke. And in fact, for journalists, who must hook the reader in and keep their attention in order to hold onto their jobs, storytelling is an end in itself. Since their audiences are reading for the sheer pleasure of good writing, they write, at least partly, to entertain, and to encourage readers to keep reading.

This is how George Saunders, the award-winning author of nonfiction and short stories, puts it:

“I’m essentially trying to impersonate a first-time reader who has to pick up the story and at every point has to decide whether to continue reading.” If an “intelligent person picks it up, they’ll keep going. It’s an intimate thing between equals. I’m not above you talking down. We’re on the same level. You’re just as smart, just as worldly, just as curious as I am.”

Academic books, in contrast, tend to be written for a finite group of other experts, conveying an argument which is typically based on  an extended research project. Writing a first book, which often emerges out of a dissertation, you may envision your audiences as particular professors on a tenure committee. Later on, you’re probably addressing experts in your field. While the writing should be persuasive, academics don’t particularly care if they’re holding the reader’s attention or not; they assume that what they say is inherently interesting, and that their potential readers are sufficiently intrigued by the topic to read on —even if the writing is less than scintillating.

Faced with these differences of purpose and audience, some would suggest that we leave storytelling to the journalists, and sociologizing to the sociologists. Let journalists speak to the people, while let sociologists keep working in the trenches, doing the hard work of data collection and analysis. As a graduate student of mine recently told me, “Sociology is supposed to be serious and scientific, not entertaining and story-like.”

Sociology and journalism, he was taught, are as different as cows and horses.

Horse and Cow(Image Source)

Early in their graduate school careers, students learn that professionalization means performing the role of sociologist, and differentiating oneself from those who value good writing for their own sake, and who write to entertain—writers of fiction and nonfiction. Rather than writing pleasurable prose, they are supposed to be advancing sociological knowledge.

But in fact, sociology and journalism have long existed in relation to one another. For one thing, sociologists know what they know partly through the media. And of course social scientists rely, at times, upon the media to disseminate our ideas to broader publics.

Likewise, journalists regularly mine sociological work for insights on everything from young adults’ changing pathways to adulthood, to the question of whether equality diminishes sexual desire, and sociologists are used to being consulted as experts for that telling quote on a variety of subjects. The best journalists do even more: browsing the web and journals for story ideas. They regularly raid our work, popularizing it for others to consume—at times without citing us.

Sociologists and journalists also have in common the fact that they’re both in the business of producing representations of social reality— stories– accounts of connected events that unfolds through time, which have characters that interact with another in different settings. Journalists and sociologists have different strategies of storytelling, to be sure. When journalists tell stories about social phenomena, such as hooking up on college campuses and other social trends, they tend to tell them through the lives of individuals—they show the reader what is going on, painting portraits of scenes and characters. Sociologists, in contrast, tell—they make arguments, drawing on data— numbers if we are quantitative sociologist, or vignettes and thick description if we are ethnographers.

But while we sociologists have been busy honing our rigorous methodological skills and ways of telling, we’ve ceded the field of translation, which requires showing, to smart journalists. By failing to discuss our work in compelling ways, we limit its impact, placing a wall, in effect, between our work and potential audiences.

Rather than deride “popular sociology” which addresses larger publics, in book-length works of general interest as well as shorter articles and essays –it’s time to reclaim it as something to aspire to. Popular sociology offers the general reader a sociological take on something he or she may be curious about. It embodies a hybrid style of writing, bridging journalism and sociology by showing and telling, painting a portrait of a group, a scene, or a trend that unfolds over time, offering thick description while analyzing what is occurring beneath the surface of events.

~ Arlene Stein is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, and editor of Contexts Magazine. You can follow her at twitter @SteinArlene. She blogs at https://steinarlene.wordpress.com.

Getting Academic Research into the Public Sphere: The Rundown on Repositories

A big focus of JustPublics@365 is getting scholarship into the public sphere. But, how do scholars do that? What, precisely, is the mechanism that academics are supposed to use to share their work with a wider audience?

Open access journals — that is, journals that make their articles freely available online, immediately and permanently — are certainly one way to do this. You may have heard the buzz about the Nobel prize winner who publicly rejected “the tyranny of the luxury journals” and committed himself to supporting, as an author and an editor, open access journals.

Open Access is Not Only about Journals

Discussion about open access often focuses exclusively on open access journals, and often on the extreme ends of the quality spectrum: the really excellent journals and the really awful ones. There’s a lot of fascinating and nuanced and ever-evolving stuff to say about open access journals, but there’s a whole lot more to open access. And today I’m going to talk about open access repositories, freely accessible online databases of articles and other works.

What Are Open Access Repositories?

Thanks to Google (and the irrepressible urge to research health symptoms), you’ve almost certainly found and read materials in open access repositories, but you might not have realized that there was anything special about the sites hosting those document.

One reason open access repositories are special is that they’re created and maintained with long-term preservation in mind. They will persist, and offer persistent URLs to documents, much longer than most other sites. In particular, they will outlast authors’ personal web pages, which often disappear shortly after retirement, resignation, death, or failure to pay for domain name renewal. So, unlike most free web content, works in open access repositories aren’t just open access now and a year from now; they’re open access for a very long time to come — ideally, forever.

Types of Repositories

There is no single, universal open access repository, but that’s okay because Google and other tools search across many repositories and generally do a good job of finding what you’re looking for, wherever it may reside. Here are some of the different flavors of open access repositories:

  • Disciplinary repositories are repositories that welcome submissions in a certain field, regardless of the institutional home of the author(s). Some of the biggest and best-known disciplinary repositories are arXiv.org (for physics, math, computer science, and several other sciences), PubMed Central (for the biomedical sciences), and the Social Science Research Network, or SSRN (for the social sciences). One big benefit of disciplinary repositories is that they collect a large amount of related research in one place, so it’s often well worth a researcher’s time to go directly to the appropriate repository and browse or search for papers of interest. Of course, some disciplinary repositories are more robust than others, and, while there are many, there is not a repository for every field.
  • Institutional repositories are repositories hosted by an institution (usually a college or university) to make available the works of its researchers. Successful examples include the repositories at MIT and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. One big benefit of institutional repositories is that they accept all kinds of documents — slideshows, posters, speaker’s notes, images, etc. — whereas many disciplinary repositories limit themselves to articles/papers.
  • Commercial networking/profile sites, such as Academia.edu, ResearchGate, and Mendeley, allow researchers to create profile pages and upload their works. These sites have helped many researchers (including those who don’t have an appropriate disciplinary repository or an institutional repository at their disposal) make their works open access, and have connected many others with those works. But the commercial nature of these sites make some worry about what’s being done with data about users and contributions, as well as about the longevity of the sites and the fate of the documents if the sites shut.

To explore the universe of repositories, visit OpenDOAR (Directory of Open Access Repositories) and ROAR (Registry of Open Access Repositories).

And here’s some really big news: The CUNY Graduate Center is in the process of rolling out its own repository — there’s almost nothing there yet, but soon it’ll have lots of papers, dissertations, master’s theses, and other works.  And here’s even bigger news: CUNY will soon be following suit with a university-wide repository!

GC Works

Sneak peek of the Graduate Center’s brand new institutional repository: Graduate Center Academic Works

Is All This Allowed? Isn’t It Pirating?

Sure, researchers can put all sorts of research output online. But what about their journal articles — aren’t a lot of journals commercial, and don’t journals require authors to transfer their copyright to the journal?

Yes, a lot of journals are for-profit enterprises, and yes, those journals almost always require authors to sign over their copyright. Nevertheless, a majority of journals allow authors to self-archive their articles (usually not the final PDF, but some version) in open access repositories. (Find out which journals allow what at SHERPA/RoMEO.)

So, yep, all this is allowed, and, nope, using repositories is not pirating!

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.

Open Education Resources Work for Faculty and Students

Eben Upton is best known as the man behind the Raspberry Pi, a tiny, $25 computer designed to help turn kids into programmers. Upton priced it at $25 because he thought that’s around what an average textbook cost: “I now understand that’s an incorrect estimate. If we had a better idea of what school textbooks cost we would have had an easier job with the engineering over the years,” he joked to Wired years later.

It’s a funny story but also a sad story. Textbooks are expensive. More expensive than most non-students even realize.

OER From a Student Perspective

textbook.cpi

The above chart is national data. But textbook pricing is high, even when examined at the local level. I work at a public community college. We recently priced out our reserve collection, which is made up of textbooks for classes. We looked at data for 18 months of checkouts and found the average textbook in our study cost $109.36 and had a median price of $107.25. More than half of the programs represented in our reserve collection had a median textbook price of at least $100. Seven of the 11 academic departments have textbooks with a median cost of at least $100. We know 61% of LaGuardia students living with their parents have family income of less than $25,000, while 79% of students living away from their parents have family income of less than $25,000. How are these students supposed to afford prices like these? And how many would love to have the $25 textbook Upton thought students were stuck with?

reserves.department.small

reserves.program.small

If you’re wondering what your program costs, do a quick survey of your colleagues about their required textbooks. The results are probably comparable to what we see above.

OER: The Faculty View

Open education resources (OER) are an attempt to solve the textbook pricing problem by giving students and faculty great content at more reasonable prices — even free, which many consider to be the most reasonable price point of all. You’ll often hear OER also referred to as open textbooks, but it’s really so much more than freely accessible textbooks — it’s freely available class content. That means textbooks, but it also means course shells, syllabi, class assignments, and slide decks. So while OER discussions often focus on cost from a student perspective, it also has the potential to help faculty develop and refine their own course materials. Student cost savings is but one component of OER.

One of the best ways to describe OER comes from Hilton, Wiley, Stein and Johnson. They define openness in terms of ‘four Rs’: reuse; redistribution; revision; and remix:

  • Reuse: This one could probably be called use, but it would ruin the alliteration of their thesis. Reuse is simply using content, which implies access, but also implies certain rights, like the ability to download content for later use. Thinking about this in CUNY terms, Blackboard, which so many of us use for managing our courses, makes it tough to share in a broad way. We can provide access to anyone who asks, but what if someone is from outside of CUNY? What if the person doesn’t know to ask for access? How can content be reused if it’s hidden behind a login and password?
  • Redistribute: This also has access implications. It’s the right to freely share work, either with students or colleagues. OER content needs to be shareable. Also, while it’s generally accepted that OER material is always cost-free in digital form, David Wiley hypothesizes there’s money to be made in college bookstores printing OER material on-demand.
  • Revise: OER is more about using static materials. An important part is the right to change material — to change it so it works for your students. We’ve all worked with a textbook and wished we could change certain parts of it. OER allows you to change those parts that don’t work for you. OER allows you to bend course materials to your pedagogy, rather than the other way around.
  • Remix: This is the right to combine content from disparate sources. Maybe your ideal textbook is built from more than one textbook. Maybe your syllabus is based upon the best aspects of three or four syllabi. OER lets you build something new on the shoulders of your colleagues around the world. But it also allows faculty to build on your work, also.

OER isn’t easy, but it lends itself to scaffolding. It’s tough to instantly flip an existing course to entirely OER material, but it can be done incrementally. There’s no shortage of OER content; the challenge is not finding material, but rather filtering it. Having said that, a few places to begin discovering resources include:

Faculty can also make their work available, either in pieces, via projects like the ones above, or by making an entire class publicly viewable using an open course tool, like Canvas. There are a lot of little things faculty can do to contribute to OER and to integrate it into their teaching.

The CUNY Open Education Resources Group has created a short, 20-minute introductory class designed to provide an actionable overview of OER. The class can found here. You can keep up with OER news on the CUNY OER blog.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Guest author Steve Ovadia is Web Services Librarian at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY.

Unlearning Restrictions Culture

A few years ago, I was part of a panel called “Copyright, Fair Use and Open License Tools Online”  at the CUNY IT Conference. What I remember most about this session was the discussion. After my colleagues and I had finished our presentations–which outlined ways to alternatively license a work, Open Access issues, and Fair Use–a CUNY faculty member reflected that they hadn’t realized just how much there was to consider when publishing academic work–from the ways one might use an open license, to negotiating green or gold open access to their work with a publisher. This participant wondered why the topic of authors’ rights hadn’t been discussed with them before, and how they might now spread the word to colleagues about the many options that are available.

Librarians at CUNY have been working to fill this gap that our colleague inquired about at that panel in 2011. We’ve been offering authors’ rights workshops at many campus libraries where we begin conversation about what rights and restrictions we all can investigate and negotiate while sharing our work. But I think a bigger piece of this discussion for me has been to try to foster moments in which we feel free to unlearn or re-learn, or where we might feel confident to challenge the status quo, or to shed hegemonic tendencies that keep us from exploring new futures.

Copyright Machine by doctormo

Copyright Machine by doctormo

Those of us involved in the MOOC “The History and Future of (mostly) Higher Education” talked about unlearning in particular during our lunchtime discussion last week. During these discussions, I’ve been thinking back to a formative class I took in high school where we explored the history of the United States through a progression of landmark Supreme Court cases. Not only did it teach me quite a bit about a variety of decisions that have set precedent for our laws today, it also strengthened my ability to see these laws as constructs, as conversations, and as works in progress. I remember realizing in that class more than I ever had before that laws are plastic, and that they can (and often should) be altered. I’ve been feeling really indebted to that teacher (thanks Zanner!) for helping us all to think through what we discussed in that classroom, because our conversations have shaped my approaches since when I contemplate rules, regulations, and governance.

Since last week, I’ve been thinking about how one can foster un-learning, re-learning, or cultivate tendencies to break from tradition and reset our thinking anew. This can be hard with topics that are ingrained, intimidating–or that can be made to feel more permanent than they are, like the law. Like our colleague described at the CUNY IT Conference, it can be difficult to imagine alternatives at times, or to see the full landscape of an issue, rather than just our one perch’s perspective. Copyright is one topic that feels complex and proscribed, and it can be difficult to think our way around all the myriad ways that we have been taught to uphold the sort of permissions culture that it generates. And yet as we move into a world that insists we all become makers and coders and sharers, I think it becomes increasingly important to consider the licenses (or the restrictions, or the permissions) that regulate our activities–not just for the things we make, but also for the things we read, download, share and use.

Mimi & Eunice Dreadful Business Model

Mimi & Eunice Dreadful Business Model

I suppose what I’m really asking here is how, and in what ways, should we re-learn, or unlearn standard approaches to copyright? And what role does this conversation have inside of scholarly communications discourses today? And within libraries? How do those of us who believe in open access or free software share what we know without propagandizing or becoming the next thing to forget, and to unlearn?

Graduate Center CUNY Librarian, Alycia Sellie offers this week’s Topic Series post on Scholarly Communication. How do we unlearn the restrictions copyright law has imposed on our thinking?