Category Archives: Publics

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 

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

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

Scholarly Life Transformed by Digital Media

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

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

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

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

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

Networked Scholars

(Image Source)

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

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

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

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

Terras concludes by saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roundup of Responses to Kristof’s Call for Professors in the Public Sphere

Nick Kristof, columnist for the New York Times, published an op-ed on Sunday pointing out the need for professors in the public sphere. His criticism is basically that most academics are not engaged in ‘today’s great debates’:

Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.

Lots of academics immediately jumped on Twitter using the hashtag #engagedacademics (still going strong) and let Kristof know what they thought he got wrong, primarily that many of us are (already) engaged and we’re doing it through Twitter. Kristof replied via his Facebook page, saying (in part):

One objection is that in fact there are lots of professors on Twitter. Sure, but there are 1.5 million professors in America, and not nearly enough throw themselves into public engagement.

Basically, the Twitter critics of Kristof came down around a ‘cast a wider net for how you define engagement’ argument, such as this comment from Professor Blair Kelley (@profblmkelley):


The print edition of the New York Times has the letters to the editors they selected to respond to Kristof (I see mine didn’t make it), with a range of critiques suggesting:

  1. more user-inspired, policy-relevant research (Gromes),
  2. cast a wider net for defining engagement (Sugrue),
  3. change the outputs of scholarly research to include forms intended for public audiences (Iglesias)
  4. this is an old attack on academics and is anti-intellectual (Steinberger)
  5. think tanks are the answer, though even think tanks have a hard time finding academics who can speak to a broad audience (Selee).

A number of #engagedacademics  took to longer-than-140 blog post form to post their critiques of Kristof.  Here’s a roundup of what they had to say, organized very broadly by key arguments (of course, many posts make several arguments, so please do read the linked posts for more nuance than this bulleted list summary).

What academics need is more online navel-gazing: 

This is an old criticism:

  • Sarah Chinn, The Public (Anti-)Intellectual :  But beyond the specifics of whether academics do or don’t have anything to say in the public square, I’m more interested in the theme itself, which seems to reappear every now and then. In a nutshell, it’s this: oh you eggheaded academics! Why can’t you talk to the common person about interesting things? This is hardly a new development. Richard Hofstadter wrote the groundbreakingAnti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1966, for God’s sake, and he traced complaining about people who think they’re smarter than everyone else back to the very beginnings of the American Republic.

  • Pat Thomson, academics all write badly..another response to a familiar critique: In the UK context, Kristof’s argument seems like a very cheap shot indeed. Another go at academics for being obscure and difficult. Yes, we all write the odd arcane paper and yes, it is rewarded and yes, it might only be read by three people. But we also try really hard to write other things too. Today’s academic writes and publishes for a range of audiences. What’s more, and by the way, I thought mentally wagging my finger at Kristof, the UK academy and the public are not as easily cut apart as that.

It’s the reward structure:

  • Austin Frakt, “Publish and Vanish”: academics are generally not directly rewarded professionally for translation and dissemination work, particularly via new and social media. Promotion and tenure is usually based on number and prestige of scholarly publications, classroom teaching, and “service” (e.g., roles on institutional committees). Of these, publishing is the most uncertain and angst-ridden process. “Publish or perish,” is a familiar characterization. But, if by publishing only in obscure academic journals, one disappears from broader, public view, perhaps we should say, “Publish and vanish.”

  • Syreeta, UofVenus/Feministing: Above all, his column and subsequent blog post just seem so out-of-touch with the machine of the academy. There are real-life economic interests that drive our intelligentsia towards publishing “gobbledygook…hidden in obscure journals,” which are inextricably linked to a very powerful interest by said academics in securing full-time employment. People need jobs, my dude! And publication is a critical motivator and performance metric for the academic seeking tenure at any private or public institution. Compounded by the rising cost of tuition and the painful underfunding of scholarly research (the social sciences in particular), these spots for long-term employment are coveted; in March, a vote led by Senator Coburn barred funding for scholarly research in political science that doesn’t promote national security or economic interests. Colleges cut tenure lines for departments with a frequency that I’m not able to quantify. Add as a multiplier the growing adjunct specialized labor underclass, highly competitive and woefully underpaid posts for emerging academics seeking entry into the academy, who also have to write and publish to gain visibility and survive.

  • Christine Cheng, Academia and Incentives: The core problem is one of incentives within academia: Academic prestige/tenure/promotion is based purely on publications. On the surface, this seems like a fair way of gauging merit. But it means that everything else that professors do tends to run a distant second (teaching, administration and service, public engagement). Given the fierce competition for academic posts these days, no one is going to give up their research time for public engagement (unless s/he enjoys doing it if they don’t already have tenure.

  • Stephen Manning, Transforming Academia: There might be another, underutilized way of making academia more progressive and impactful: hiring and promotion policies. Many of us scholars are involved in recruiting new PhD students and faculty every year. And oftentimes – let’s be honest – it comes down to a simple question: can this person publish or not? It should be obvious that this selection mechanism will reproduce the very mindset that prevents academia from making a more important impact in this world. Instead, I propose that hiring should be guided by: academic interest, mindset and experience outside academia.

  • Janet Stemwedel, Scientific American: “…ignores that the current structures of retention, tenure, and promotion, of hiring, of grant-awarding, keep score with metrics like impact factors that entrench the primacy of a conversation in the pages of peer-reviewed journals while making other conversations objectively worthless — at least from the point of view of the evaluation on which one’s academic career flourishes or founders.”

I would, but I’m teaching four classes (variation on reward structure):

  • Laura Tanenbaum, Jacobin: As one of those professors teaching four classes at a community college, I do wish I had more time for my (perfectly lucid if I may say so) writing, but I also have a crazy idea that teaching hundreds of working-class, immigrant, and first generation college students every year might be a way of serving the public. I didn’t realize the only way to do that was to be a consigliere.”

We’re already here (variation on ‘cast a wider net’):

  • Erik Voeten, MonkeyCage: Yet, the piece is just a merciless exercise in stereotyping. It’s like saying that op-ed writers just get their stories from cab drivers and pay little or no attention to facts. There are hundreds of academic political scientists whose research is far from irrelevant and who seek to communicate their insights to the general public via blogs, social media, op-eds, online lectures and so on. They are easier to find than ever before. Indeed The New York Times just found one to help fill the void of Nate Silver’s departure. I am with Steve Saideman that political scientists are now probably engaging the public more than ever.

  • Erica Chenoweth, A Note on Academic (Ir)relevance: This is the part that surprised me the most about Kristof’s article: the supposition that our work is only relevant if it directly influences “important people.” But what if one’s work speaks to people outside of these traditional halls of power? Is such impact irrelevant? For example, many sociologists, whom Kristof writes off as a bunch of radicals who are hopelessly lost of any relevance, tend to be quite engaged with the problems of our day — just not in the way Kristof seems to privilege. Just check out Sociologists without Borders, or different proponents of applied sociology, and you will find that many sociologists work tirelessly (and often without compensation) to draw on the insights of their work to improve the lives of ordinary people.

Kristof things the category ‘public intellectual’ is only for white dudes: 

  • Raul Pacheco-Vega, Challenges of Public Engagement for Marginalized Voices: he reason that prompted me to write this post was the repeated process where the pieces most retweeted and engaged upon (even by Kristof himself) were those of white males. You could always say that it was only those academics who took it upon themselves to write a piece in response, and I’m grateful that they did. But there were several women who wrote very smart take-downs of Kristof’s column, and I saw less conversation and publicizing of those while I followed the conversation on Twitter.

Marginalized people are to be saved, not speak for themselves: 

  • Corey Robin, Look Who Kristof’s Saving Now:  I don’t ever expect Kristof to look to the material sources of this problem; that would require him to raise the sorts of questions about contemporary capitalism that journalists of his ilk are not inclined—or paid—to raise. But Kristof’s a fellow who likes to save the world. So maybe this is something he can do. Instead of writing about the end of public intellectuals, why not devote a column a month to unsung writers who need to be sung? 

Some practical advice for how to be more engaged:

  • Robert Kelchen, What Can We Do?Work on cultivating a public presence. Academics who are serious about being public intellectuals should work to develop a strong public presence. If your institution supports a professional website under the faculty directory, be sure to do that. Otherwise, use Twitter, Facebook, or blogging to help create connections with other academics and the general public. One word of caution: if you have strong opinions on other topics, consider a personal and a professional account. Try to reach out to journalists. Most journalists are available via social media, and some of them are more than willing to engage with academics doing work of interest to their readers. Providing useful information to journalists and responding to their tweets can result in being their source for articles. Help a Reporter Out (HARO), which sends out regular e-mails about journalists seeking sources on certain topics, is a good resources for academics in some disciplines. I have used HARO to get several interviews in various media outlets regarding financial aid questions.

Oh, look, we’ve built an organization (or two) to connect scholars to the public sphere: 

  • Amy Fried and Luisa S. Deprez, Talking Points Memo: “…in 2009, when recognizing the gap between those researching possible solutions to pressing policy issues and those in power searching for such answers, Theda Skocpol, a world-renowned professor of government and sociology of Harvard University, led the charge with other top scholars like Jacob S. Hacker of Yale University, Lawrence R. Jacobs of the University of Minnesota, and Suzanne Mettler of Cornell University, to start the Scholars Strategy Network. The organization is a national association of professors and graduate students devoted to sharing their expertise with policymakers and the public to improve public policy and enhance democracy.”
  • An Open Letter from the Scholar Strategy Network.
  • And finally part of my, unpublished, letter to the editor in response to Kristof: PhD’s are rarely trained to be public intellectuals. Public engagement garners little reward in tenure and promotion structures that favor publication in journals largely out-of-reach to readers not affiliated with a subscribing university library. Last year, with Ford Foundation support, the Graduate Center, CUNY launched JustPublics@365, a project to connect academics with wider publics. More than 400 (with 1,000 more waiting) attended digital media training. More will train at the American Sociological Association meeting in August. Many professors want to engage more fully, they just don’t know how. It’s time for professors to go back to school, and it’s time for universities to reward public scholarship.

Still ruminating on Kristof’s provocation? Did I miss your favorite response? Post a comment.


Documentaries: Social Justice Storytelling

Documentary filmmakers are at the forefront of telling stories that help change the world. When the U.S. Congress held hearings on the sexual assault of women in the military, many people pointed to the documentary “Invisible War,” as a powerful mechanism that helped galvanize attention on this issue and support for the hearings. Indeed, one account speculated that this one film “might change everything” about sexual assault in the military.

Invisible War

Indeed, if you look at the website for this film, you’ll find that the filmmakers see the documentary as one component in a larger movement, working to “end sexual assault within the U.S. military and to help survivors of Military Sexual Assault heal.” Their strategy for doing this is to combine research with policy advocacy and good, old-fashioned movement building, augmented by a documentary film and social media campaign.

Military Sexual Assaults

(From Not Invisible: Policy)

This kind of innovative documentary, informed by research, and connected to a social media campaign and focusing on policy change is a 21st century model for how scholars, activists and media-makers can work together for social justice.

On Fridays in our series on scholarly communication, we’ll focus on documentaries as examples of art, activism, scholarship and key components of social justice campaigns in the digital era.

Shaping the Narrative through Arts and Technology: Youth Activism in Stop-and-Frisk

Youth activism in stop-and-frisk is often overlooked in mass media.  Much of the news regarding stop-and-frisk is centered on the class-action lawsuits filed by Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), a collective made up of several organizations, including  Center for Constitutional Rights, Make the Road-NY, New York Civil Liberties Union, Picture the Homeless and Bronx Defenders.

With the focus on these high-profile efforts to end stop-and-frisk, the individual and collective efforts led by youth are often overlooked.  These efforts at the local community level often include an array of micro-mobilizations such as “know-your-rights” campaigns, “cop-watch” projects, community meetings and video storytelling, as well as door-to-door advocacy, that are much less documented than the court cases which garner lots of press attention.  Considered together these community-based efforts demonstrate the ability of youth to advocate for neighborhood change.  

It’s been well documented that the communities most affected by the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policing strategy are also characterized by low civic engagement and pessimism regarding the likelihood of neighborhood improvement (Rengifo & Slocum, 2011 in, “Police stops and community responses in the context of the New York crime decline“). The reality of youth mobilizations counter these prevailing ideas about these communities and demonstrate that the creativity and intelligence young people bring to these issues should not be overlooked. Particularly, as academics will be getting together to discuss deeper reforms (see the new Academic Advisory Council that will help implement stop-and-frisk reforms.)

Here’s just a short list of examples of some of these youth-driven and community-based responses to stop-and-frisk:

  • NLG-NYC Street Law Team, is made up of a group of law students from various New York City law schools.  These students meet with community groups throughout NYC and conduct free Know Your Rights: What to Do if You’re Stopped by the Police workshops.
  • NYC High School Youth from the Peapod Adobe Youth Voices Academy at Urban Arts produced, directed, and scored the documentary, Unreasonable Suspicion, which explores the causes and effects of stop-and-frisk.
  • 16-year-old NYC Black and Latino male, Cory Smith, created this photomontage which won first price at a Resilience Advocacy Project’s (RAP) “Youth Experiences of Stop-and-Frisk Told Through Art” contest.  The photomontange features a young man at the edge of the frame: he is seated facing its bottom left corner, shoulders hunched forward, hands folded in his lap.
stop and frisk nyc youth

Photo Credit: Cory Smith

These examples highlight two powerful lessons for the Academic Advisory Council and for academics looking to further study stop-and-frisk:

(1) The arts and technology are powerful mediums for not only engaging youth, but changing narratives and helping often-marginalized voices be heard.   These two combined can help overcome some of the pessimism and low civic engagement that often affect youth in low-income neighborhoods.

(2) The youth voice should be integrated into the discussion of police reforms and community healing.  New research should consider innovative strategies to capture the traction of these youth-led movements and to help amplify their voice and impact.

If you are feeling inspired by these youth efforts, here are a few things you can do to participate in stop-and-frisk discussions and events:

  • Have a Smartphone? Encourage everyone you know to download the Stop-and-Frisk app and report any instances of stop-and-frisk that you see in the community.
  • Are you on Twitter? Join the conversation and learn about local advocacy efforts by following these hashtags: #stopandfrisk, #Floyd, #communitysafetyact.
  • Work with youth? Contact NLG-NYC Street Law Tea at to set up a free “know your rights” workshop for your group. 
  • Feeling social?  Attend a local stop-and-frisk event and meet and collaborate with other activists.  This website features upcoming events: ChangetheNYPD.

For another discussion on youth involvement in stop-and-frisk, check out Morgane Richardson’s post on Envisioning A Better Future: Youth Action Against Stop-and-Frisk.  And for academics interested in getting involved in stop-and-frisk policy making, make sure to read, Julie Netherland’s post: Tips for Academics Who Want to Engage Policymakers.

Tips for Academics Who Want to Engage Policymakers

Many academics want their research to have broader impact.  In fact, according to a recent study, an estimated 92% of social science scholars said they wanted to connect more with policymakers.  With the ever-increasing clamor for “evidence-based policy,” policymakers –  elected and appointed officials at the local, state and national level – really do want to hear from academics.  Here, I offer some ways academics can get involved, tips for effectively engaging policymakers, and some frequent challenges.

As someone who was trained as an academic researcher and has worked in policy for a number of years now, I’ve come to realize that academics have an important role to play in transforming policy.  Most recently, I’ve been working on the front lines of efforts to end the war on drugs and reduce mass incarceration.  In my view, academics not only have important knowledge that can shape policy, their voices often have enormous weight and credibility by virtue of the training and credentials they carry.

Simply put, academics have an easier time accessing policymakers and are more likely to be taken seriously than does the average citizen without an advanced degree. There’s a privilege and a power to holding a PhD or an MD that can and should be used to promote social justice.

Despite a long tradition of notable scholar activists, many academics are either reluctant to get involved in policy advocacy or simply aren’t sure exactly how to go about it.

Here’s the good news: for most issues, you should be able to find a policy, advocacy, or grassroots community organization that is willing to work with you to be your most effective.  There are lots of nuances to policy advocacy; in return for your help, most organizations will gladly walk you through those.


NYS Capitol Building(New York State Capitol – Image source.
One place to find policymakers)

How Can Academics help?

Quick policy activities. These are some ways to engage for those who are just dipping a toe into the waters of policy-making or only have a few minutes, including:

  • Signing up for and responding to email action alerts (yes, these really can have an impact);
  • Writing letters and making phone calls;
  • Attend conferences, receptions where academics and policymakers mingle.  My organization, Drug Policy Alliance, is teaming up with JustPublics@365 and the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy to host one of a reception that’ll do just that.  Stop by the Sheraton Downtown Thursday night (6:15pmMT, Plaza Court 3), if you’re in Denver. We’d love to see you there!

DPA JustPublics ICSDP Reception

If you have a little more time and energy, you might try engaging with media, both traditional and digital to get your research out to policy makers.

Get your work in legacy (broadcast) media outlets, such as:

  • Letters to the Editor (LTEs)
  • Op-Eds
  • Be a guest on a television news show

Broaden the reach of your own work by learning to use the tools of digital media, such as:

  • Blogging
  • Twitter
  • Storify

If you’re an academic that’s fresh out of skills in either legacy or digital media, then you might consider taking some of these Mediacamp Workshops.  They’re all completely free and designed especially for academics who want to reach a broader audience with their work.

Other ways to get involved include:

  • Create fact sheets, policy briefs or other highly accessible materials that summarize research about the issue;
  • Tell a compelling story to help personalize an issue and highlight the human costs (I’m talking to you, qualitative researchers and humanities scholars);
  • Organize your academic colleagues – at your institution, or in your professional association – for sign-on campaigns and other forms of advocacy;
  • Convince your professional association to sign on to a policy proposal;
  • Lobby at your state capitol or city council or meet with legislators in their district offices;
  • Flesh out the policy implications of your research (or, the research you’ve reviewed in your area of expertise) to influence policy proposals.

To get you started, here are a few “tips of the trade” that can you help you avoid some of the most common mistakes. My work lately has been mostly at the state level working in Albany, but these guidelines are useful whether you’re trying to reach city, county, state or national lawmakers.

Tips for Being More Effective

TIP #1: Identify an organization working on the issue you care about and find the most effective one.

On any given issue, there will be a few organizations that are working on the issue.  Your first step should be to familiarize yourself with the landscape of organizations and identify the one you think has been most effective.

TIP #2: Be sure to refer to your credentials when contacting policymakers – they matter.

When you reach out to elected officials, make sure that you mention your degrees and institutional affiliations. These sorts of credentials matter when you’re talking to policy makers.  Without your credentials, you’re just another person with an opinion.  And if you happen to be a constituent of the policymaker, be sure to mention that too.

TIP #3: Messaging really, really matters.

Most advocacy organizations have worked long and hard to develop effective messaging on their issues.  It’s worth your time to speak to folks who have given this a lot of thought. Some organizations will even help you craft and/or place your op-ed or Letter to the Editor in major news outlets.

TIP #4: Work closely with an organization that understands the political scene to help craft a realistic policy proposal.

After you’ve become more deeply involved on an issue, you may have an idea for a new policy that would address a seemingly intractable problem.  Crafting a policy and seeing it through the legislative process is definitely a long-term project, but it can be worth it to see lasting change.  Before you spend a lot of time on your own crafting what is no doubt a brilliant new policy, it’s a good idea to work closely with an organization that has a clear understanding of the current political scene and what kinds of proposals might just make it through and which ones are dead-on-arrival.

  • Scholar Strategy Network (SSN) – If you want your research to influence policy, but don’t know how to make those connections, you might consider applying to become part of the Scholar Strategy Network (SSN), which brings together leading scholars to address pressing public challenges at all levels. Scholars in the network prepare short, vividly written briefs highlighting their research findings and offering policy options about a wide range of issues. SSN scholars engage in consultations with policymakers in Washington DC and state capitals, and also work closely with advocates and leaders of citizen associations.

TIP #5: Ask what research needs to be done and do it. 

Typically, academic researchers have their scholarship done before they contact a policy organization, but it can also work the other way around. Sometimes, scholars will ask what kind of research needs to be done to address policy needs, and then set about to do that kind of research.  CUNY Professor Harry Levine had been doing important research on marijuana arrests. He got involved with the Drug Policy Alliance and then worked with them to produce a number of highly influential reports highlighting the racial disparities and fiscal waste of marijuana arrests.  Levine’s report on the fiscal waste of such arrests is here, and was picked up by Alternet;  Jim Dwyer of The New York Times then featured some of Levine’s research in an Op-Ed, “Whites Smoke Pot, but Blacks are Arrested.” (There’ll be more about Harry Levine’s work in a post to follow in this series.)

  • The Tobin Project – If you want to do research that fills a gap in policy-making, you might contact The Tobin Project, which emphasizes “transformative research in the social sciences” and facilitates policy-scholar connections.  The Tobin Project starts by identifying the gaps in research that might influence policy, and then finding scholars who want to engage policy by conducting original research that makes a contribution in this way. They recently received a MacArthur Award for Creative & Effective Organizations, so it looks like they might be on to something.

Challenges for Academics Who Want to Influence Policy

Part of the reason I encourage academics to work with experienced policy organizations is because academia isn’t generally set up to train scholars to be effective policy advocates. In fact, many features of academia actually may make pose challenges for those who want to influence policy, such as:

  • Different metrics of success.  Even though changing a policy can impact thousands and thousands of lives, the kinds of activities above are rarely acknowledged or rewarded within academia. Books and/or peer-reviewed journal articles are likely the currency of your institution, but unfortunately, it’s the rare policymaker that looks to those sources to develop policy.
  • Different language. Most academics are concerned with precision and nuance, while most policymakers are looking for bullet points and sound bites.
  • Different forms of power and influence.  Just like the politics of academic institutions, each legislative body has its own set of (usually unwritten) rules about how power really works and who is really running show.  A good policy advocacy organization can help you uncover how policy is really made in your jurisdiction.
  • Different skills sets. Academics have lots of great skills that make them naturals at influencing policy, but some people may not know the first thing about how to conduct a lobby visit or neutralize an opponent’s argument.  Again, this can be taught.

The great news is that – for the most part – these are challenges that are easily overcome. More and more, I’m hearing from academics at all stages of their career that they wish their research could have more of a real-world impact.

It can.

I’ve worked with a number of extraordinarily talented scholar-activists who have re-shaped and profoundly influenced policy and in doing so, they have positively impacted the lives of thousands of people.  With a little investment of your time and talents and working with the right policy organization to gain the information and skills you need, so can you.


~ Guest blogger Julie Netherland, PhD (Sociology, CUNY, 2011), is Deputy Directory of the New York State Policy Office within the Drug Policy Alliance.  She works closely with Compassionate Care New York, a group of patients, providers and organizations working together to pass a bill that would relieve the suffering of thousands of seriously ill New Yorkers by establishing a carefully regulated medical marijuana program in New York. You can follow her on Twitter @jnetherland.


“Reading the Riots” : Academic-Journalism Partnership

Partnerships between academic social science researchers and journalists hold great promise for addressing inequality.  At a meeting earlier this month at the London School of Economics (LSE), Professor Tim Newburn of the LSE discussed the Reading the Riots project. This project was run jointly with The Guardian with the aim to produce evidence-based research that would help explain why the rioting spread across England in the summer of 2011. The slides are below and the full podcast of the event is available.  It’s definitely worth a listen to hear Newburn describe the opportunities and challenges of this unique academic-journalism partnership.

As Newburn describes, one of the key opportunities the partnership with The Guardian provided traditional academic researchers is reach.  The readership of The Guardian far exceeds that of any academic publication by several orders of magnitude and that’s really a game-changer for social science research.  At the most basic level, it means that academics need to think about who they want to speak to (and with) when moving beyond the narrow scope of other specialists.

Among the challenges that Newburn enumerates are the radically different pace of work for academics and journalists.  Journalists are trained to write quickly to meet deadlines.  Academics, well, we like the sound of deadlines as they “whoosh” passed and are accustomed to a much, much slower pace of producing writing (aside: I think this is part of why blogging proves so challenging for many academics).

Newburn also points to some of the interesting methodological issues that arose during this collaboration. He observes that academics and journalists are often engaged in the same practices (e.g., interviewing people, analyzing data), but that academics are often mired in contemplating “how” we engage in these research practices. (Following Newburn’s remarks, the podcast of the event continues with an interesting discussion about “impacts,” something that we’re very interested in here at JustPublics@365.)

In our own academic-journalism partnership between The Graduate Center and the CUNY J-School, I’ve been delighted and amazed at the success of this collaboration around creating the MediaCamp workshops. These workshops offer skill–building in media and digital media  combine research and digital media for the public good. We haven’t yet attempted collaborating around a specific research topic, such as the Reading the Riots project, but perhaps that will be next.

What Newburn’s Reading the Riots project and our own MediaCamp workshops mean to me is that there is a new kind of space opening that combines the best of both research and journalism.  In this hybrid space, academics and journalists will increasingly collaborate, borrow and remix methods from both fields, and at least potentially, reach wider audiences beyond the narrow range of specialists. Perhaps most exciting to me, is the idea that academic-journalism collaborations could be an innovative way to address issues of social inequality.

Modernism and Audiences, or Killing Time

There has been much happening on this blog of late, and as I return from this mass of ideas that almost sizzle with newness to my more prosaic world of undergraduate teaching and reading, I feel my head brimming over with ideas. I want to bring ALL of this to my students. I want to restructure my entire syllabus(es) so that we can discuss, say, immigration reform and web technologies. I want to build a whole class around the Stop and Frisk app, and turn the conversation away from essay structuring, thesis statements, narrative arcs, and so on to the one that I want to be having: this one.

Rest assured, my English Composition students will still be stuck discussing themes and writing claims until they can formulate insights on their own in well-worded journals and essays. My British Modernism students will be brought back to the Eliot poem (The Waste Land) or the Bernard Shaw play (Pygmalion) on the syllabus for the week, even though we could talk about the social nature of linguistic markers in contemporary New York for hours. And it’s (kinda!) relevant, because Shaw especially builds his whole play around the hollowness of sounding “posh,” showing a flower girl who changes her accent to completely change social perception about her. Language, especially slang, is delicious, as these authors show. Moreover, such “text-to-world” conversations where we take an idea from a play from 1916 and relate it to us today are really important. But they remain curtailed parts of my classroom. Caught between my responsibility to finish the syllabus and the appeal of transforming that curriculum, I am struck in a way by the question of audiences.

Take, for instance, a previous student wandering around the hallways of our department last semester. Seeing me, Rahila popped into my office and with sweet naïveté assumed I was available to speak with her. She told me about enjoying her Chaucer class but that she kept feeling the same disconnect she had experienced with British Modernism in a previous semester. I liberally paraphrase: “These people are clever enough about describing their problems,” she said, “and I like their skills. But where am I in that audience? And, where are the books from then that talk to me and of me?”

The real Alice from Alice in Wonderland

Rahila’s real intellectual distress put me in mind of an article by Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (2008; in the spirit of open access, here is a non-subscription copy), where they discuss the broadening scope of Modernist studies in recent times. For them, modernism is no longer a time-bound and hidebound grouping of canonical texts but an organizing principle with core texts and ancillaries so that “scholars now attend to works produced in, say, Asia and Australia” and “investigate complex intellectual and economic transactions among, for example, Europe, Africa, the United States, and the Caribbean.”

As a result of expansions in the field, we can and should disrupt the idea of modernism as “a movement by and for a certain kind of high (cultured mandarins) as against a certain kind of low (the masses, variously regarded as duped by the “culture industry,” admirably free of elitist self-­absorption, or simply awaiting the education that would make the community of cognoscenti a universal one)”. To emphasise their point, the article teems with references to further reading. In other words, to see Eliot’s work as simply a “high art” piece meant for elitist people with lots of extra energy for esoteric research is reductive of the literary work which teems with high and low art references, its author’s desire to be both intellectually rigorous and populist, and our own imperative to see beyond the prescribed modes of learning. It’s unfortunate that Rahila still finds herself trapped on one end of the high/low paradigm that critics working in the field find as limited and limiting as she does.

In other words, scholars and authors have already responded to her dissatisfaction–but she hasn’t yet reached them, and not for want of trying but for lack of time. She’s what can be called a new audience member, and it seems to take a lot of time for true insight to develop. (I speak from experience; eight years of graduate study have mostly revealed the stretches I still need to learn and think about.) Unfortunately, the typical undergraduate survey course hardly allows the time to cover half of what one ought to know about a subject. My students often leave vaguely dissatisfied while I follow them out the classroom door talking about all the outside reading they should do when they can. Sometimes, they invest all their frustrations into a final research paper that digs deep into its chosen subject, and after long hours of their reading and thinking, emerges at the end of the term like a crystalline gem.

This returns me to my original thought about audiences. I don’t know if Rahila read the article I referred her to, nor if my Composition students would have preferred to talk about au courant social justice issues instead of the regular lesson on a Gwendolyn Brooks poem. How can I give them those things when I haven’t given them a good handle on the concept of modernism yet, or even some basic guidelines about how to write cogently? In class, I privilege the core skills from my syllabus “Learning Outcomes” and hope that my recommendations, reading lists and the like, will at some later stage be of use to these next wave of thinkers and citizens. The new digital technologies we use certainly allow us more “room” to think and write in, but we need both space and time. How can we, as audiences new and less-new to a variety of subjects, use these new technologies to re-confront the tyranny of time?

Legacy vs. Digital Models of Academic Scholarship

There are far-reaching changes happening in higher education today, and I think we need some new – or a least, borrowed – terms for talking about these changes.

Journalists and scholars of journalism talk of “legacy” news organizations  — such as The Philadelphia Inquirer (now defunct).  The Philadelphia Inquirer, like other legacy news organizations, was based on print publication and relied on newsstand purchase or home delivery option for economic viability.  Ultimately, it wasn’t able to make that succeed as a business model (see C.W. Anderson’s excellent Rebuilding the News. Anderson, @chanders on Twitter, is a CUNY colleague).

In contrast, there are many news organizations that are increasingly “digital” in the way they both gather and report the news, and the way they make money. Most notably, The New York Times now includes remarkable digital content, such as Op-Docs and Snowfall; and, it relies on a digital subscription model in addition to print sales. To be sure, there are lots of differences between academia and the news business, and I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting an easy parallelism between the two. I do, however, think that this language may be useful for framing how we think about some of the changes in higher ed.

2054107736_e231ed3572_o(Flickr Creative Commons)

LEGACY ACADEMIC SCHOLARSHIP.  What I’m calling a “legacy” model of academic scholarship has distinct characteristics.  In broad terms, “legacy” academic scholarship is pre-21st century, analog, closed, removed from the public sphere, and monastic.  I think that this is mostly going away, but only partially and in piecemeal fashion.   What did the legacy model of academia look like?

Yale_card_catalog(Wikimedia Commons)

Within a legacy model of academia, the only option for publishing was in bound volumes or journals. We typed words and paragraphs on paper. We had to use white out to make corrections on things we typed.  In order to “cut and paste,” we would literally cut sections of paper, a paragraph at a time, and then paste them with glue or tape in different order. We would go to libraries to find and read information.  We would use card catalogs (like the ones pictured above) to look things up.

In order to measure or demonstrate the impact of our research (at least in sociology), we used something called the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI), which tracks the number of times a particular work by an individual author has been cited by others in the peer-reviewed literature. So, for example, if I published an article then the SSCI would list my name and then underneath my name track all the citations referencing that article. In effect, the SSCI is a method for counting citations as a measure of academic success. The more citations in the SSCI one has, the bigger success as an academic.  In many sociology departments, it was common practice to rely heavily, if not exclusively, on the SSCI to assess a scholar’s prominence in the field.  Tenure and review committees would actually use rulers to measure the number of inches beneath a scholar’s name within the SSCI as a way to assess impact. This crude metric of counting the number, and number of inches, of citations is characteristic of 20th century legacy academic scholarship.

408971482_c87bc0325f_b (Flickr CreativeCommons)


To be sure, academic scholarship is being transformed in the digital era.  In contrast to the 20th c. legacy model, the emerging, 21st c. model of academic scholarship is digital, open, connected to the public sphere, worldly.

To state the obvious, there has been an expansion of digital technologies.  For some, this has been transformative because it is so different than the analog way of doing things. For others who were born after the digital turn, these ways of doing are simply the way things are. Whichever group you fall into, these digital technologies have already begun transforming scholarly communication.

Simply put, the shift from analog to digital is about code, coding information into binary code of 1’s and 0’s. When this happens, it fundamentally changes how we can manipulate data.  That is, information (or ‘data’) is easier to move around, edit, analyze in digital form then it is in analog.  Think for a moment about the difference between “cut and paste” when it involves paper scissors clue and tape versus the simple keystrokes of control-x and control–v.  This illustrates a key difference between analog and digital.

The shift from analog to digital and the explosion of different sorts of technologies are already affecting how we do our jobs as academics. Rather than comb through a card catalog, we look things up on Google Scholar.  The whole notion of a “library” is now one that’s digital, distributed, like the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which is a real game-changer when it comes to libraries in the digital era. While physical libraries remain crucial, the expectation among academics for how we use libraries has changed.

As scholars we increasingly expect, and even demand, that there are digital tools within those libraries that we can use from any location, at any time.  In fact, most graduate students and faculty I know would be outraged if they could not access their library at any time from any place. In many ways, libraries have led the digital turn in higher education and it is where academics have most embraced the digital.

Digital technologies have changed how we keep track of things we have read, citations, and bibliographies.  With tools like Zotero, we can create bibliographies, keep track of citations, and share them with others who have similar interests.

Digital technologies have changed how we write.  Technologies such as Commentpress (a WordPress plugin) make it possible to write collaboratively and make peer-review an open, transparent process.  Several people in the digital humanities have used this technology to compile entire books for well-regarded academic presses.  One of these is my colleague, Matt Gold, who issued a call for papers for his Debates in the Digital Humanities, and in 14 days he had collected 30 essays, which garnered 568 comments, with an average of 20 comments per essay.

The volume went from call for papers to a bound volume in one calendar year, a remarkable achievement for an academic book.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick, another digital humanities scholar used Commentpress for her book Planned Obsolescence.  Reflecting on this experience, Fitzpatrick writes that these new platforms are changing the way we think about publication, reading and peer review.


Digital technologies are changing how we teach and making them more open. We think nothing of emailing students. Some faculty hold office hours through IM, Skype or Google HangOut.  At many institutions, Learning Management Systems (LMS) like Blackboard & Moodle are commonplace. And, some professors are teaching in ways that are augmented by blogs and wikis.  To the extent that these new technologies allow sociologists to reach a wider audience, these are also forms of public sociology.

In 2012, The New York Times declared it the “year of the ‘MOOC’.”   MOOC is an acronym for Massive Open Online Course coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier, to describe an innovative approach to teaching that fostered connection and collaboration, and was intended to promote life-long learning and authentic networks that would extend beyond the end of the course.

MOOCs have garnered a lot of media attention in the mainstream press, and in the higher ed press, and there is even talk of revolution. This hyperbole surrounding MOOCs is both misguided and misplaced.  What is perhaps most puzzling about all this is that there is nothing new, much less revolutionary, about the technology here. Some speculate that the attention is due to corporate players entering the field of online education, such as Coursera, which is backed by Venture Capitalists, and is partnering with elite academic institutions, like Stanford

Our own JustPublics@365 version of a MOOC, the POOC, is one that is participatory rather than massive and is closer to Dave Cormier’s original conceptualization.  Our goal was to create something in keeping with the roots of CUNY as a public institutions, truly serving the public through education that’s open and available to everyone. We made sure that all the videos, the real-time livestream as well as the edited, archived videos were open to anyone that wanted to view them (without registration).

Likewise, we wanted to make all of the readings available to anyone that wanted to read them, even if they didn’t have a CUNY login and even if they weren’t registered for the course on our site.  This sort of commitment to openness is one of the major distinctions between our efforts and the large, corporate MOOCs, which among other shortcomings, are not very “open.”  As it turned out, making all these readings truly open turned out to be an enormous amount of work which fell on the shoulders of our heroic librarians.

We are still at the beginning of understanding how digital technologies will transform pedagogy in higher education, but it seems certain it has and it will continue to do so.


Part of what’s changing about scholarly publishing has to do with changing views of copyright.  It’s beyond my scope here to fully explore copyright, but Larry Lessig explains a great deal about copyright and how current laws don’t make sense in a digital environment in this TED talk.  If you want to understand more about copyright, there’s no better place to start than with Lessig.

There is a lot wrong with academic publishing, much of it having to do with who holds the copyright to the work we produce, and more people are seeing that now.  What’s wrong with scholarly publishing? This infographic explains it all.

Problem infographic3 (Image credit: Les Larue, Content credit: Jill Cirasella)

The way the system of academic publishing is set up is this:

  • Faculty are paid to do research & report results, then we
  • Give away this writing and copyright to publishers.
  • Publishers make HUGE profits, they do this by
  • Selling our work back to libraries at enormous and rapidly increasing costs.
  • Finally, the very often people who might benefit from reading our work can’t get to it because it’s locked behind a paywall.

As academics, we tend stash our research in places like JSTOR, where most people outside the Ivory Tower can’t get into. Some people have even begun to argue that it’s immoral to hide publications behind a paywall. A few scholars are marking a reasoned case for open access, such as Peter Suber’s book Open Access. Still others, like Jack Stilgoe, are simply dumbfounded at how stupid the system of academic publishing is.


All these changes in scholarship, pedagogy and publishing mean the ways we measure academic success are changing, too.  We are shifting from 20th century ‘metrics’ to 21st century ‘altmetrics.’ So, for example, Jeff Jarvis (another CUNY colleague) has 123,667  Twitter followers. That’s a kind of “altmetric” – a measure of his reach and influence. Increasingly, book publishers, even some employers, look for evidence of your reach on particular platforms before awarding book contracts, even some jobs. This is less prevalent in academia, but it is on its way.

Not only are there new methods and ways of thinking about measuring impact, but it seems that old methods – like “citation counting” I described earlier with the SSCI – are broken.  As the altmetrics site describes the situation:

“As the volume of academic literature explodes, scholars rely on filters to select the most relevant and significant sources from the rest. Unfortunately, scholarship’s main filters for importance are failing…” 

So what are altmetrics?  These are a “new, online scholarly tools allows us to make new filters; these altmetrics reflect the broad, rapid impact of scholarship …”

It might be useful to think about the way scholarship is changing in the digital era – as a shift from 20th c. models of creating “knowledge products” – to  21st century model of creating “knowledge streams.”   With products – you count their impact once – with “knowledge streams” – you can also count various aspects of distribution – such as number of downloads, unique visitors to your blog, number of Twitter followers – which can have a much wider impact.

These new, digital knowledge streams (and measurement) don’t replace the “knowledge products” of traditional, legacy models of academia, rather they augment the traditional ones.  For example, when you write submit a paper to traditional, peer-reviewed journal you want to think about optimizing the title of that paper for search engines.  As another example, a peer-reviewed article that gets mentioned on Twitter will get more citations in the traditional peer-reviewed literature


There is not a complete transition from a “legacy” past that is behind us, and a “digital” present or future. The legacy and the digital are imbricated, that is, they overlap in the here and now.  This can play out in painful ways. For example, on tenure and review committees – where reviewers are tied to legacy models of academic scholarship and those up for promotion are engaging with digital models of scholarship.


The politics of austerity mean that the funding landscape of higher education is changing.  We are also living in a global (certainly US, UK + Western Europe) context of ‘austerity.’

Oct20-austerity-placard(Image Source)

Of course, ‘austerity’ is a convenient lie that says we’re out of money but reflects the reality of economic inequality and that the rich and super-rich will not invest in public goods and services.

Political attacks on higher education in the US are changing the landscape of funding.  There is a Republican war on social science.  Sen. Coburn managed to prohibit any monies for NSF-funded political science unless it was somehow “promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.”  He also tried to put the ax to NSF’s political science funds once before, but that failed in the short run, but in the longer run, the tighter definition allowed him to argue that the funds could exist, “as long as they weren’t squandered.”

There is a different political landscape in the UK, where there is an overall commitment to funding higher education.  The Research Excellence Framework, or REF shapes these discussions in the UK.  The REF means that the funding is tied to demonstrated “research excellence,” part of which relies on evidence of “impact” on wider publics.

Back in the US there is no longer any broad commitment to funding state-funded public institutions of higher ed, at least when you look at data from state budgets, like this one from Georgia and this one that explores the overall trend in the US:

CPBB_Higher_Ed_Cuts_Tuition_Relationship(Image from The Atlantic)

You really don’t need much more there than the dramatically, downward-pointing arrow to know that this means faculty have to be more entrepreneurial in securing their own funding for research (much like journalists are now considering ways to be entrepreneurial as a response to changing business model in news.)

And, of course, there’s very bad news in academia regarding the way we hire (or don’t hire) faculty.  An estimated 73% to 76% of all instructional workforce in higher education are adjunct faculty.

Given the grim prospects for legacy tenure-track jobs in the academy, it is inevitable that many people with PhDs are going to do other things with those skills.

Increasingly, given the grim political economy of “austerity” and the many, many under-employed PhDs, I think that the affordances of digital technologies will create more and more entities like the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.


In academia, as elsewhere, we’re faced with competing forces of commercialization versus democratization as Robert Darnton, of DPLA noted in a recent talk at the Graduate Center.

The political economy of austerity, up to and including slashes in funding to public institutions of higher ed, the adjunctification of the academic workforce, and the attacks on funding such as the Coburn amendment, point to this broad conflict between forces of commercialization and forces of democratization.

Sometimes academics conflate the “commerce v. democracy “ struggle with the transformation from “legacy” to “digital” forms of scholarly communication, and I think this is unfortunate.

Given this context, what are academics to do to resist the forces of commercialization?  I argue that owning the content of your own professional identity is key to this…  For most faculty, their “web presence” is a page on a departmental website that they have no control over and cannot change or update even if they wanted to.  “Reclaiming the web” means owning your own domain name and managing it yourself, a move Jim Groom has put forward for students and I argue should be the default strategy for faculty.

Too often academics, who are a contrarian lot, want to resist commercialization by refusing the digital. This refusal is misplaced and reflects a misunderstanding of the forces at play here.

Owning our own words, “reclaiming the web,” and our own professional identity online as well as offline is just one step.

Another step for academics, especially that handful with tenure, is to say “no” to publishing in places that don’t allow you to own your own work by retaining copyright.

A further step for academics, and especially for those in my discipline of sociology, is to use blogging to open up a space between research and journalism in ways that are creative, interesting, and contribute to an engaged citizenry.

In sum, the current state of affairs in higher ed looks something like this.  On the one hand, we have the grim political economy of “austerity,” declining support for state-funded public education and attacks on other funding mechanisms like NSF. On the other hand, we have these amazing new opportunities to do our work in new ways, and make that work open to wider publics.

We are caught in the middle of the colliding forces of commercialization and democratization at the same time institutions of higher ed are making the transition from “legacy” to “digital” modes of operation.

Resisting digital scholarship in order to forestall the forces of commercialization is a mistake that too many academics make.  Instead, we as academics need to embrace digital scholarship in ways that help foster democratization.

Public Sociology in the Digital Era

While traditionally trained sociologists and other academics may have once had the luxury of speaking to small audiences of specialized experts, the digital era, changing economic models and pressing social problems are creating a new set of expectations, challenges and opportunities.  Last week, I gave a talk about this in the Sociology Department at Rutgers University.   I was there at the invitation of Professor Arlene Stein, who is both a public sociologist as editor of Contexts magazine, a quarterly magazine of the ASA that aims to be the “public face of sociology.”  Stein also teaches a graduate seminar on the practice of public sociology.  Here are is my slide deck from that talk (check the ‘notes’ view for links, image credits and additional resources):

The key takeaway is that sociology, as a discipline, must begin to reimagine scholarly communitcation for the public good in the digital era.

If public sociology can find a way to be digitally engaged and more fluent in the digital lexicon of the 21st century in which we find ourselves, then I believe there is hope for sociology to be a force for social good, and by that I mean, an engaged citzenry, and a more democratic and egalitarian society.

If, instead, sociology chooses to cling to a dying, legacy system of higher education, invested in status wars and internecine theoretical debates,
it will fade into irrelevancy.

The future of public sociology is up to all of us.

Opportunities for Digital Activism: How Social Movement Repertoires, Data, & Community Partnerships Provide Them

Lessons from the Birth of the “Stop and Frisk Watch” App

I recently reached out to the New York Branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) in order to find out more about their new “Stop and Frisk Watch” app for IPhones (available in English and Spanish) and Androids (only in Spanish).   This app appeared to be a perfect unison of grassroots activism and digital technology in addition to being a good example of how digital technologies can alleviate a social injustice.  As I later found out from the NYCLU Communications Director, Jennifer Carnig, the way that this app came to fruition also provides important lessons for academics trying to incorporate digital technology into their research and/or activism.


The stop-and-frisk practices of the NYPD having been troubling academics, community groups, and digital activists alike.  Just two weeks ago, Dr. Michelle Fine and Dr. Maria Elena Torre spoke at the participatory, open, online course “POOC”: Reassessing Inequality and Reimagining the 21st Century: East Harlem Focus, on their participatory action research study of the NYPD’s “Stop and Frisk”.

Stop and frisk raises grave concerns over racial profiling, illegal stops, and privacy rights.  You only need to take a closer look at the NYPD’s own facts and figures to notice a troubling pattern.  Looking at NYPD data reveals that among the thousands of law abiding citizens that are stopped every year, the majority of them are black and Latino.  Last year alone – of the 533,042 New Yorkers that were stopped:

  • 89% were innocent
  • 55% were black
  • 32% were Latino
  • 10% were white

The Stop and Frisk App

With this persistent and growing concern, NYCLU seized the opportunity to partner with a Brooklyn-based visual artist and software developer, Jason Van Anden.  Van Anden was the developer who had previously created the Occupy Wall Street app, “I’m Getting Arrested.”  Together the NYCLU and Van Anden set to create an app that would provide New Yorkers with the tools needed to monitor, report police activity, and hold the NYPD accountable for unlawful stop-and-frisk encounters and other police misconduct.

The app currently allows New Yorkers to:

(1)   Film an incident with audio which after being submitted would go to the NYCLU for review.

(2)   Receive alerts of when people in their area are being stopped by the police.  This is an important feature for community groups who monitor police activity.

(3)   Report a police interaction they saw or experienced, even if they didn’t film it.

(4)   Learn about their rights when confronted by the police through “Know Your Rights” resources that instruct people about their rights when confronted by police and their right to film police activity in public.

stop and frisk app nyclu

(cc Capital New York)

 Lessons for Seasoned and Aspiring Academic Digital Activists

1)  Pay close attention to current trends in social movement offline and digital repertoires of contention.

The New York Civil Liberties Union developed this app as a result of what they dub, “intersection between crisis and opportunity”. During the height of Occupy Wall Street, the NYCLU kept getting press calls about an app called I’m Getting Arrested, which allowed Occupy Wall Street protesters to send a text message to select people to alert them that they were getting arrested.  The NYCLU loved the app and immediately thought about all of the ways that same technology might be useful to deal with the issue of unlawful stop-and-frisk practices among young black and Latino men in New York City.  They reached out to Van Anden to discuss possible collaborations and he was immediately sold on the possibilities of bringing technology to social justice.

2) If the data presents a disturbing trend – don’t just report the trend.  Also, consider and propose ways that free and easy to use digital tools can empower your population of interest to take matters onto their own hands!

The NYCLU noticed a disturbing trend since 2011.  During this time, they saw that police street interrogations were skyrocketing. Over the course of the Bloomberg administration, stop-and-frisks had gone up more than 600% – from 97,000 in 2002 to nearly 700,000 in 2011!  Concurrently, 9 out of 10 people stopped are eventually found innocent, and as noted earlier more than 85% of people stopped are black or Latino.  The NYCLU thought it would be empowering for New Yorkers to have a free, easy way to fight back, using the one tool that most people have in their pockets all the time – a smartphone.  Stats show that two-thirds of young adults own smartphones. This technology clearly has the power to help change the way we look at and understand the world around us.

3) Always embed your research and digital activism within grassroots networks and grassroots realities

In putting this app together the NYCLU relied on their network, Communities United for Police Reform, of which they are part of the steering committee.  This allowed them to get much needed feedback and support from other member organizations who were either formally or informally involved with developing, testing or sharing information about Stop and Frisk Watch. They also noted that Justice Committee and its Cop Watch groups have been particularly helpful in testing and their members are using the app themselves as they observe the police.  At the same time, they partnered with NYC immigrant social justice group, Make the Road by Walking, who translated their app into Spanish.

4)  Although the digital divide is alive and very much real, make sure to understand the technology trend among your target population

In choosing to develop an app, the NYCLU was well aware that 2/3 of young adults own smartphones; by 2013, 3 out of 4 Americans who acquire a new mobile phone will choose a smartphone; and 72% of smartphone owners will be between 24 and 35. This age range is the perfect demographic for the NYCLU to reach as it is this same group that is being targeted by the police and as such the most likely to use the app.  They also designed the app so that it would be extremely easy to use and hope that its usability will turn passive observers or other disenfranchised by this disturbing trend to become empowered community-problem solvers.


Publishing and the POOC, or, why we need open access

Isn’t everything up on the internet for free? Yes, most new books and articles appear in digital format, but NO-O-O they’re not (yet) mostly free. Libraries pay big bucks to license them, and the licenses require libraries to restrict access to narrow audiences (students, faculty, or people physically inside the library).

  • Publishers sell journal articles for $15, $20, $35 or more, but people affiliated with a licensing library get them for free. U.S. copyright law enables restricted access and constructs a formidable barrier to information for anyone without a university affiliation. Some publishers profit mightily from this arrangement. Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley all routinely clear around 30% profit by selling journal articles back to universities through library expenditures.
Elsevier clears more profit than Walmart, Apple, and Disney. Data from Mike Taylor, The obscene profits of commercial scholarly publishers, 2012Chart by Stuart Shieber, 2013.
  • U.S. copyright law as applied in traditional scholarly publishing protects publishers interests at the expense of readers and authors.
  • Online digital display of most post-1923 American book titles is limited to a few pages, unless you buy a licensed copy yourself or access it through your library license.
  • Challenging U.S. copyright law and scholarly publication practices, activist Aaron Swartz drew a civil lawsuit for downloading a ton of JSTOR articles using a computer surreptitiously stashed inside a MIT’s library IP-space.

The required readings for the Graduate Center’s Spring 2013 JustPublics365 POOC are selected not only because they’re interesting and relevant, but also because they’re available in a free and open digital format. Lots of what we want to read is still locked up behind digital pay walls; we were only able to liberate some of it. For this course, many of the suggested readings are marked with an asterisk. This means that to reach them online, you have to be a Graduate Center affiliate (with an active GC network userid/pwd) or an affiliate with another subscribing institution.  For example: restricted licensed article from the POOC suggested reading list:

example: restricted licensed article


The Open Access (OA) movement seeks to change this. OA advocates ask writers, particularly academics who give their work to publishers for free, to publish open access with a Creative Commons license so readers everywhere can at least read/view it for free, then re-use and re-mix according to the author’s rules. Scholars want the widest possible impact by reaching the widest possible audience. Librarians want to stop spending insane amounts of money to publishers for academic work the university has already subsidized with faculty salaries. Readers want to read for free.

Academic authors and activists have to make it happen. Publish in a journal that is all (or “gold”) open access with Or use a SPARC sample contract to negotiate with your publisher to retain author copyright. Or, use the Sherpa/Romeo tool to find a journal’s standing permission for open access author archiving (“green” open access). About 95% of academic journals have standing permission for authors to post already-published articles on the web after a 6 – 24 month embargo. If every academic would post their articles for following publisher guidelines already in place, there would be lots more reading available for our Spring 2013 POOC.

A few academic book publishers experiment with open access, but there are relatively few new open access books. Books published in the USA prior to 1923 may be in public domain (unless publishers extend copyright protection), but post-1923 US books can’t be distributed on the web without tempting copyright litigation. Nearly all the books available free online are so old that the copyright protections have expired, or, they’re government works-for- hire, or, the authors subscribe to the principle that academic work should be free to the public. Posting anything online from a copyright-protected book, even a single PDF book chapter password-protected for “reserve” reading by traditional university course, can tempt litigation.

A team of CUNY faculty, students, and librarians select and review every reading for this course. We’ve done our best to point you to the finest open access reading available, but we wish we had more to choose from. It’s up to all of us to transform the academy, to support open access scholarly publishing, and to make the work of public higher education a greater force for the common good.


Becoming Public: Academic Blogging as a Tool for Activism and Community Engagement

A recent feature on the London School of Economics (LSE) blog, asked a question which has been plaguing the academic community for over 10 years: Why are so many academics against academic blogging?”  There is much anecdotal evidence as to the reasons why academics refrain from blogging.  They include concerns that academic blogging:

  • Demeans or cheapens scholarly work
  • Can become misconstrued, misunderstood, and misused to fit narrow political or social agendas as it enters the public realm.  This may threaten the autonomy of academic work.
  • Takes too much time and so, takes away from “more legitimate academic activities”.
  • Leads to internalized self-censorship that comes with years of enforced academic perfectionism
  • Can hurt the academic and professional prospects of a scholar

Looking at these concerns it’s clear that academics have to mediate between the discomforts and concerns that surround academic work and the public realm. Academic blogging is merely one of the common ways that academia life intersects with the publics. LSE argued in their article above, “Academic blogging exists somewhere in an ether space between academic research and broader community.”  It is the space where academic research is made more accessible and so facilitates a more democratic relationship between academics and various publics.”  

And who is most equipped and suited to overcome these challenges and provide further definition and insight into this ether space – than academics themselves!  Many academics are trained in ethnographic and field work methods which prepare them to act as brokers and mediate between two worlds.  These are the same skills that can be used in order to merge the academic with the public and lay the groundwork for channeling  academic blogging towards activism and community engagement.

 photo ethnographicresearch_zps7999a203.jpg
(CC Image from Flickr)

Last week was the launch of CUNY Graduate Center’s first participatory, open, online course “POOC”: Reassesing Inequality and Reimagining the 21st Century: East Harlem Focus.  The speakers Dr. Michelle Fine and Dr. Maria Torres shared personal experiences conducting participatory action research (PAR) in regards to stop and frisk policy issues in NYC communities. Their talk described and emphasized the mutual reliance that academics and the communities they study have to foster and grow a shared learning process.  Academics have learned though years of hard lessons out on the field; to juggle the ethical demands and principles of their scholarly community with those that arise when they embed themselves in the lives and communities they seek to study.  Like in most types of field work research, as the mediation process is introduced, there are risks of misrepresentation, misinterpretation and exaggeration that may arise.  However, in field work we have learned to persevere and overcome these challenges. Why can’t the same difficult, long, yet rewarding learning process take place, as it is now academics and their work, ideas, and thoughts which are placed under the microscope of public scrutiny and for public consumption? The basis of much of academia is to bring people together across these boundaries, ideas, and beliefs – and we should be committed to contributing to this shared learning process.

So, my hope is that by acknowledging the difficulty of “becoming public” we can set ourselves on a path to identifying lessons we have learned in our own research and work that can help us move on and “get over it.”

With that being said, embracing a culture of connectivity is not for every academic. However, there has never been a better time to be a public intellectual thanks to the abundance of technology and digital tools available.  And as this article argues – academics are among the best equipped to help forge that path.