Category Archives: Topic Series


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?

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.

FutureEd Recap: Unlearning

At our Feb 21 lunchtime FutureEd discussion, we had the good fortune to be joined by Cathy Davidson for a chat about unlearning and the state of the MOOC.  We opened by each sharing a story that involved unlearning.  In examples that ranged from home aquariums to classrooms to social justice, we shared moments of transformation.  As far ranging as the specific instances were, what emerged from the group is that unlearning is transformative because it pushes us to have authentic learning experiences and to know by doing, not to know by thin content acquisition.  When it comes to our classrooms, this is especially tricky.  Academic professions are built around the idea of content mastery in specialized fields, and our students often come the expectation that we will transfer knowledge to them.  Even when teachers and students both understand that active, experiential learning yields the best results, we can experience significant resistance on both sides when we leave behind the simple transaction between the lecturer and listener for the wilds of the immersive and experiential.  Perhaps what teachers can do for our students is to model how to be comfortable with uncertainty, and take risks ourselves.  Our current cultural fascination with technology in the classroom is really just a ruse: technology is the ploy that encourages teachers and students to move out of their comfort zones and into better ways of learning.  Professor Davidson echoed this sentiment in sharing what has been the most surprising about teaching a MOOC: it is not the massiveness of the scale, but the intimacy of human exchanges via the discussion forums, social media, and local groups.

See the Storify of live tweets from the talk!

Information Sharing as a Common Good

On the Intersection of Traditional Interlibrary Loan Services and Open Access Publishing

A scholarly communication system can enable information sharing. It can encourage it. Or, it can make sharing impossible.


Dennis Dillon observes that traditional scholarly publishing, maintained by copyright protections and subscription licensing, exploits and encourages competition. Talent, funding, and resources accrue easily to élite universities with large budgets and huge libraries. Traditional publishing does little to ensure widespread, unfettered access to academic knowledge. Within this system, however, libraries have devised and improved systems to share and redistribute information otherwise purchased or licensed — at great and increasing expense — for regulated, discrete academic audiences.

Open Here

Embracing the mission to preserve and to provide meaningful access to the world’s cultural record, librarians have developed interlibrary loan (ILL) and cooperative collection management. These innovations defray the individual burdens of cost and preservation, allowing libraries to diversify, to collectively assemble more material, and by opening collections to use by others, to provide greater access to a broader range of library resources for more people.

However, there are significant limitations to what libraries can share under this framework. While no library, even the wealthiest, can afford to purchase everything, neither can libraries perfectly distribute items so that everyone who wants something can get it. Not everything is available via ILL, and some of it is expensive, slow, and troublesome to deliver.

Given the successful interventions libraries have made to democratize access, it is particularly troubling that publishers now increasingly preclude libraries from sharing. ILL has worked well for PDF journal article distribution, and it has not toppled the academic journal subscription system as was once feared. But e-book publishers are threatened by the ease and speed with which PDFs can travel through ILL networks. E-books are not generally distributed in PDF. Instead, publishers license e-books to libraries on an array of proprietary platforms that regulate reader use and prevent sharing. Even those e-book publishers buckling to reader demand for PDF often prohibit libraries from sharing titles via ILL. These anti-sharing licenses force libraries to reduce service again to only those regulated, discrete audiences from the days before the creation of efficient high-speed ILL networks.


Open access publishing, in comparison, epitomizes barrier-free information sharing. It’s the scholarly community’s best improvement on a publishing system attempting to restrict and regulate, not to expand and de-regulate, distribution of scholarly work.

As long as all information is not equally available, because of cost, rarity, copyright or license restrictions; as long as it exists in different formats, including print, libraries will continue to facilitate sharing. Our mission – connecting people and information through discovery, evaluation, preservation, print, media and computer access – remains as important as ever. Whatever it takes, we continue to work to build a world where information is freely distributed, scholarship is freely read, and libraries are free to share.

Authors: Silvia Cho and Beth Posner

FutureEd Recap: Neoliberalism and Higher Ed

Our Valentine’s Day noontime #FutureEd discussion transcended MOOC platform and performance commentary and got on to the topic of neoliberalism and higher education.

See the JustPublics@365 near blow-by-blow captured in Storify mini-documentary format, featuring live tweets from the discussion.

As you can tell from the Storify, we identified neoliberal ideas and imperatives that shape and reflect our work in higher education, for example:

  • Return on Investment (ROI) is expected, researchers must demonstrate excellence in a framework that factors in profit
  • Some higher ed initiatives profit while others do not; administrators balance this
  • Higher Ed rewards transcend a likely (or promised) higher salary (and taxable income)
  • Education hides its value; benefits are elusive, unpredictable, uncertain
  • a recent LSE Impact Blog points to the limits of neoliberal argument; the greatest imperative to open access (OA) scholarship isn’t that it will save higher ed $$
  • Is the move to “massify” higher ed necessarily neoliberal?
  • Digitization and OA scholarship has opened medieval studies to new, larger audiences
  • How do we resist the influence of money in higher ed?

Additionally, we circled back a couple times to the multiple choice test, reading the course’s perpetual correct answer “all of the above” as critique of a flawed form.

And, we admired Michael Wesch’s and students’ A Vision of Students Today that crafts a student-reported survey into a cohesive narrative critique of higher ed’s lecture format. Form=content.

A final tip: the free Coursera mobile app offers an additional platform for the course. It’s perfect for watching videos and linking to most readings, but it doesn’t fully support all forum interactivity on all devices.  Download it to experience another MOOC platform and to do your course work on the subway.

Coursera app from iTunes

Coursera app from iTunes

Join us next Friday, 2/21 at noon in the GC Dining Commons (8th Floor) when the word on the street is that Cathy Davidson may, in fact, visit with us in person for our lunchtime chat.

You might also follow the #FutureEd CHE weekly student-centered blog . This is the first time that we know of that the Chronicle has created a blog for students, inviting the 21st century learners to talk about their experiences with the massive, open, online platform.

Teaching and Learning with Documentaries in the Digital Era

Young people entering college today have grown up immersed in a multimedia digital environment. Yet, the classroom environment they encounter often reflects nineteenth-century pedagogy of “walk and chalk,” of a lone professor standing in front of a chalk board, professing about their subject. Not surprisingly, emerging research indicates that teens are not engaged by this antiquated mode of instruction.  Moreover, the work force our students are entering demand a different kind engaged learner.

Multimedia Worker

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At CUNY, I’m also honored to have a wonderfully diverse student body. That incredible diversity presents some pedagogical challenges. How do you have a conversation, use examples, illustrate points when people don’t share a common cultural background? Once in a gender course, I tried to use an exercise about the gendering of Halloween costumes only to have it fall flat when half my class reminded me that they didn’t grow up with Halloween and the whole thing still seemed bizarre to them. In another course, the students included one woman who had been a sargeant in the Bosnian army and another who had fled the famine in Somalia.

This set of challenges required more of me as instructor than writing a new lecture or getting students to put their chairs in a circle. We needed to find a way to have a meaningful, deep discussion about the course material. And, unfortunately, the books and assigned readings were often as much a barrier as they were a gateway to those discussions.

In re-thinking my strategy in the classroom, several years ago I began experimenting with various forms of digital media to engage students in learning the abstract, sometimes difficult, concepts of the basic sociology curriculum. My explorations led me to documentaries, a medium experiencing its own digital revolution, as a mechanism for engaging students, encouraging critical thinking, and enticing them to complete assigned readings.

Nat'l Geographic Documentary Crew



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For at least a decade, educational scholars have urged teaching critical media literacy through popular culture. Popular culture is often an easy pathway to student engagement because it has already captured young peoples’ attention, and then instructors can scaffold more difficult concepts around that interest. The images that drive much of popular culture may be part of the key to this as a pedagogical strategy. Scholars in cognitive psychology are finding that students learn more deeply from visual media (words and pictures) than from words alone (Mayer 2001).

Shifting Paradigms: Docs, Digital Media & Distribution 

Today, there are simply more documentary films in existence than ever before due to the rise in the independent and documentary film industry, widespread use of digital video cameras by the general public, and the rise of documentary-style television. Prominent documentarians such as Michael Moore (e.g., Sicko, 2007; Fahrenheit 9/11, 2005), Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, 2006), and Morgan Spurlock (e.g., Super Size Me, 2004) have experienced mainstream commercial success with the theatrical release of their films. In addition, documentary-style television shows (e.g., Discovery Channel and A&E have re-branded their entire programming schedules around these shows) and made-for-television documentary series (e.g., Transgeneration for Sundance Channel) abound on cable channels. HBO Documentaries led by Sheila Nevins, an arm of the cable powerhouse HBO, has built an impressive archive of documentary entertainment over twenty years, many of those titles concerned with social issues. For instance, in a landmark collaboration between National Institutes of Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, HBO launched Addiction(2007), an award-winning collection of documentary films by some of the leading directors in the field. The ascendancy of the documentary form has led some commentators to suggest that we are experiencing a “golden age” of documentaries.




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At the same time that professionally produced documentary television and films are rising in prominence, the price of digital video cameras and digital editing software are falling, effectively lowering the barrier to would-be documentarians.  The shift from more expensive analog celluloid film stock to less expensive digital video, and the equally important shift to digital editing software, has meant that more people are producing, directing and creating documentaries.  Indeed, digital video technologies are becoming commonplace in American households.

The do-it-yourself digital video technology allows almost anyone to document the most microscopic details of their existence and make them available to the larger public, in effect becoming a new, visual form of memoir. This democratization of documentaries further contributes to their wide availability for the sociology classroom and increases the likelihood that beginning students will have some familiarity with the documentary form. Taken together, the rise in the number and the success of professionally-produced documentaries alongside the DIY (do-it-yourself) documentary and digital video means that today there is an ever increasing array of documentaries from which instructors may choose. Given this greater selection, it is now likely that there is a documentary film that addresses nearly every topic covered in the typical introductory sociology class. Not only is it likely that there is a documentary for each unit in an introductory college class, it is also now possible to acquire said documentaries through a shift in distribution networks.

Distribution networks for films shape the way they are used in the college classroom. Professors have long used feature films as teaching tools in college courses. At least in part, this pedagogical practice was shaped by the distribution networks for feature films produced by Hollywood studios. Conventional distribution networks, such as chain video stores and cable television channels, made feature films widely available to the general public and thus more accessible for sociologists interested in using films in the classroom.

The explosive growth in the production of documentary films means that there are simply more documentaries to distribute.  And, the commercial success of a few of those documentaries released in theaters has made distributors more aware of the broad audience for the non-fiction film.   Most importantly, vastly diversified distribution networks mean that many of the economics of the “long tail” work to the advantage of documentaries without a wide theatrical release.




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According to Chris Anderson’s theory of the long tail, creative products and content of all kinds with a smaller than mass-market appeal can find modest commercial success through distributed networks; so, for example, one can now find obscure tunes via iTunes which would have once been difficult to locate in record stores based on old distribution networks that relied on mass-market appeal.


And, this shift in distribution networks has affected documentaries as well, most notably through the online retailer Netflix which has gained a reputation for distributing relatively hard-to-find documentaries.  In addition, literally millions of short documentary films and clips from longer documentaries are available at no cost through online video portals, such as,, and

Taken together, these shifting trends in digital video technology and distribution networks have led to an increase in the number of non-fiction films being produced, and this increase in the number of films has driven down the overall cost of acquiring documentaries for individual instructors and educational institutions.

Transforming (my) College Classroom through Documentaries

The wider accessibility of documentaries has transformed the way I approach the classroom. Now, I combine documentary films with peer-reviewed articles or other assigned readings around key concepts. My background and training is in sociology and I teach in a public health program, so the content I teach is, broadly, in the area of “medical sociology.”

In courses I design, there is some overlap between the films and the readings, this repetition is meant to reinforce the material for students, as well as provide opportunities for insights about the connection between the films and the readings. In order to highlight the importance of authorship and credibility, near the beginning of the semester I describe for students the process of peer-review for publication and contrast this with the publication process for print-based journalists and for new media journalists, such as bloggers.

In lecture and class discussion, I drive home the importance of peer-reviewed literature and emphasize that this is the research that professionals consult and rely upon for their work. I challenge students to master the ability to find and read the peer-reviewed literature as a basic standard for becoming a college-educated and engaged citizen. As I introduce the first documentary to the class, I revisit the issues of authorship and credibility in visual texts. For each film, I provide students with a “Video Worksheet”  prior to the class the day the film is shown through the a learning management system (e.g., Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard).  Students are required to bring the worksheet with them and to complete the assigned reading before the class. The “Video Worksheet” includes questions about the key concepts, the content of the film, the connections between the film and the assigned reading, and asks about the mechanisms the filmmaker employs to convey their message.

After the film, class discussion – either in small groups or with the class as a whole – focuses on answering the questions on the worksheet. I collect these worksheets and give participation points based on completion, but do not grade them closely for accuracy; rather I rely on the class discussion following the films to drive home the correct answers. Questions from the worksheets are often adapted as exam and quiz questions. The “Video Worksheets” also help scaffold the development of students’ critical media literacy skills by helping them understand the “point of view” (POV) of the director by analyzing the component parts that make up the documentary.

Can you give me an example? 

As just one example of this approach, I offer this example of one of the more difficult topics I cover: medical sociology and race.

Race, a socially constructed category, is nevertheless an important determinant of health. This can be a difficult concept for students to understand. By providing some historical context for contemporary health disparities, a deeper understanding of racial discrimination in the U.S., as well as the ethical violations in medical experimentation can be an effective strategy for teaching this concept. To address this topic, I show “The Deadly Deception” (Denisce Di Ianni, writer, producer and director; Films for the Humanities & Sciences, 1993, 60 minutes), a documentary that deals with the Tuskegee Syphilis Study conducted by public health officials in the U.S. from 1932 to 1972. The film features first-person accounts of African American men who were enrolled in the study and a number of doctors who were investigators on the study – some of whom objected to the study and one white doctor who still defends the study as a worthwhile scientific endeavor. In addition, the film features archival footage and interviews with experts in medical sociology. The documentary is quite affecting and holds up well even though it is now older than most of the students.

For most traditional-aged college students (born around 1995 or 1996) who are unfamiliar with the history of the Tuskegee study, the film is compelling. For an introductory class, the power of this documentary is further enhanced through the assigned readings and there are a number of articles that work well with this film. For an early undergraduate course, “The Tuskegee Legacy: AIDS and the Black Community,” (1992) is a short (three page) article written in easily accessible language. For more advanced classes (and learners), Thomas and Crouse Quinn’s article, “The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, 1932 to 1972: Implications for HIV Education and AIDS Risk Education Programs in the Black Community,” (1991) works well as a companion reading to the documentary. Both articles provide a connection between the historical background on the Tuskegee study and contemporary distrust of medical intervention on the part of African Americans. Rather than seeing resistance to medical professionals as an artifact of social isolation, lack of education, or cultural superstition, these readings provide students a way of seeing the deeply rooted, systemic racial oppression that pervades the U.S. and the consequences this has for the lives of African Americans. The film students with an engaging and critical background to the history of racial discrimination in the U.S. and its attendant health consequences. The film also raises important questions about the ethics of medical experimentation and about public health research that focuses exclusively on one racial or ethnic group. The peer-reviewed readings take the background provided by the documentary film as a given, and add further complexity by exploring the implications of this history for the health of contemporary African Americans. Without the film, most students unfamiliar with the history of the Tuskegee experiments would have a more difficult time with the peer-reviewed readings; without the peer-reviewed literature, students who only saw the film might erroneously assume that the lessons of Tuskegee were confined to a remote historical period. The “Video Worksheet” and class discussion build on theses lessons and introduce students to critical media literacy concepts by asking questions about the point-of-view of the filmmakers and the way they used particular filmic techniques to construct an argument visually.

But, is this an effective strategy for teaching and learning? 

I’ve published a couple of pieces on the results of some research I did on how this teaching method works. The shortest answer is: it seems to work well for increasing student engagement in course material. I have a good deal of data (both quantitative and qualitative) on student responses to this method, but perhaps my favorite is this quote from an undergraduate student:

“The videos helped because they were usually taking a stance on an issue, while the text briefly described the arguments/positions. Seeing and hearing video is much better than reading the text because the historical footage, impassioned speeches, and other interviews are relayed with much more clarity. The videos are easier to watch for 90 minutes than 90 minutes of reading the text, so even if the information was the same, I grasped more of it.”

As an instructor, hearing a student say this method of teaching enabled me to “grasp more of it” is gratifying.

I measure the effectiveness of this as a teaching strategy in other ways, as well, such as the number of other instructors who have adopted this method. The wiki I set up to catalog documentaries has, at latest count, received more than 67,000 visitors.

We are living in a different era, one that is saturated by multimedia and students come into the classroom expecting to learn this way, but they are often disappointed. This method of combining visual culture through non-fiction films digitally distributed with traditional peer-review literature as a way of teaching critical thinking provides a way forward.

If you’d like some help getting started using this teaching method, here are some resources:

Happy doc watching! 😉


Scholarly Impact: Measurement, Resistance and Human Need

Our new series on scholarly communication continues with a look at the idea of “scholarly impact,” a topic we’ll feature regularly.  The central issue at hand: how do we measure the value of scholarly work in a meaningful way?

In today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Aisha Labi writes about the resistance among researchers in the UK to having the impact of their work measured.  As Labi describes it:

The fundamental idea is relatively uncontroversial: As government spending in Britain has become more constrained, public investment in research must be shown to have value outside academe.

But calculating research’s broader value is a challenge—and a growing number of academics find themselves arguing that the requirements are unduly burdensome and do little to achieve their stated goals.

In the context of the UK, there is something called the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which requires that the impact of research by university departments accounts for 20% of the formula for financing them.

The resistance among UK academics, like Professor Philip Moriarty quoted in the article, is that while he sees his research in nanotechnology having a broad benefit to society, a focus on impact is a “perversion of the scientific method,” one that emphasizes “near-market” research, designed to generate a speedy economic return for taxpayers, he says.

I agree. If the definition of impact of scholarly work is going to be defined in business-school terms about ROI for taxpayers, then that’s not only a “perversion,” it’s a recipe for disaster for higher education as a long-term endeavor.

Resistance though there may be, some in the UK see value in the discussion of impact. The good folks at the LSE Impact of Social Sciences project are involved in a multi-year project to demonstrate how academic research in the social sciences achieves public policy impacts, contributes to economic prosperity and informs public understanding of policy issues and economic and social changes.

In the US, there’s a much different landscape of higher ed and impact is not (yet) tied to research funding in as systematic a way as in the UK with the REF.  This doesn’t mean that academics in the US are uninterested in the impact of scholarly work, quite the contrary. There’s a long history of attempts to measure impact here.

How many inches? 

The idea of measuring impact within scholarly disciplines has for most of the last century relied on counting the number of citations within peer-reviewed journals. For example, an individual scholar’s listing in the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI), which compiles number of citations in journals, has been a frequently consulted resource in tenure and promotion cases.


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I know of stories in the olden days of analog when tenure and promotion committees would graduate student assistants to the library with an actual ruler in order to measure the number of inches a prospective candidate had in the SSCI.  Sometimes a ruler is just a ruler, but is this really the best we can do in measuring the impact of our work?

Alternative Measures, or “Altmetrics” 

Recently, attention in higher education has turned to new ways of measuring scholarly impact by incorporating the use of social media. The idea behind alternative measures, or “altmetrics,” is that the traditional metrics of citations in peer-reviewed journals (a la the (SSCI) should be joined by new measures, like number of page views, downloads, “likes” and re-tweets on social media. These have spawned a new generation of tools to automate the collection of this data into one platform or indicator (e.g., Almetrics,FigShare, PlumAnalytics, ImpactStory).


However, altmetrics are not yet widely used forms of measurement within academia by things like hiring committees or tenure and promotion committees. In fact, people in higher education don’t yet know what to make of these alternative measures and are actively working on how to resolve these issues. I, personally, sit on at least 3 committees within my institution and 1 committee in a professional association, that are all trying to come up with equitable, reasonable and widely understandable ways to measure scholarly work in the digital era.

Upworthy is Not the Same as Peer-Review

Many scholars express concern about the turn to social media as a measure of impact because of the kinds of information that often gets rewarded in an economy of “likes.”  We might call this the “upworthy” problem. If you’ve ever seen this site, or been lulled into clicking on something there, there’s a kind of relentless cheeriness and warm, touchy-feelingness to all things shared on the site. People who want to endorse content there indicate that it is “upworthy,” meaning worth moving “up” on your pile of things to read and do online. But it’s hard to imagine most of the research I’m familiar with and admire ever getting a vote as “upworthy.”

In a recent piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jill Lepore turned a critical eye to the problem of using social media as an indicator of scholarly impact. Lepore writes:

“…when publicity, for its own sake, is taken as a measure of worth, then attention replaces citation as the author’s compensation. One trouble here is: Peer review may reward opacity, but a search engine rewards nothing but outrageousness.”

Lepore is right to challenge us to think about what it is that search engines reward.  And, I think it’s also critically important to reconsider the value we put in publishing writing that is opaque in journals locked behind paywalls with tiny audiences.

I think where Lepore, and lots of others, get the importance of social media for scholarly work wrong is when they assume that it’s all just “publicity” or self-promotion.

The reality is that many scholars are using social media so that they can have an impact on the world, not just on their peers in academe.

There’s a Whole World Beyond Academe

Many disciplines have traditions of talking about “impact,” but it’s usually in a negative context. I’ll pick on a couple of disciplines that I spend some time in. So, for example, sociologists are very accustomed to pointing out the negative impacts of social structures and policies on inequality. Scholars in public health and demography are all about measuring the impact of lots of things on “mortality rates” – a serious measure of impact if ever there was one.  And, most social scientists of all stripes are perfectly fine with tracing worsening measures of inequality to changes in policy.

Yet, scholars are much less clear, timid even, on how scholarship might affect those laws and social policy.

This is especially ironic given what we know about what scholars want. According to a recent survey 92% of social science scholars said they wanted “more connection to policymakers.” 

Are academics just not capable of thinking about their own impact on the world? I think we are because, well, because we’re human.

The Desire to Have an Impact is a Deep, Human Need

We all, as human beings, want to know that our life matters, that we had an impact. Many scholars, but certainly not all, want to know that the work they spend so much time, training, money and effort into matters in some way beyond the small circle of experts in their chosen field.

Martin Rees, an emeritus professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge and one of Britain’s most noted scholars, quoted in the Chronicle piece mentioned at the top, says:

“Almost all scientists want their work to have an impact beyond academia, either commercial, societal, or broadly cultural, and are delighted when this happens. But they realize, as many administrators and politicians do not, that such successes cannot be planned for and are often best achieved by curiosity-­motivated research.”

I think Professor Rees is right that most academics want their work to have an impact beyond academia. I don’t know that I agree with him that there’s no planning for it (more about that another time). The desire for our work to matter is a class-bound one, to be sure, in ways that may not be obvious. Sanitation workers have possibly the most important jobs from a public health perspective (much more important than doctors); they can certainly take comfort in the impact their job is having on promoting the health of large populations of people. It’s harder for academics, who trade in ideas, to point to the impact of our work, but I think that the desire is an existential one.

In many ways, the classic Frank Capra film, “Its’ a Wonderful Life,” (1946) is a film about impact. As you may recall, Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, on the verge of suicide, is given the gift of seeing what the world would have been like without him in it. A guardian angel, Clarence, replays key events in his life and then runs the reel of what unfolded because he wasn’t there. “Your brother died, George, because you weren’t there to save him when he fell in the ice,” Clarence explains. As he sees more and more of this alternative reality without him in it, George Bailey begs, “I want to live again,” and his wish is granted.


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The moral of the film, of course, is that we all have a much greater impact than we realize on the lives of others.  But it seems to be lesson that is lost on scholars and academics. Perhaps we are too practiced in the art of cynicism and critique to imagine that our research could have an impact.

The place where most academics I know are much clearer about their impact on the world is in the classroom. Academics will joke amongst ourselves about “shaping young minds,” but the joke reveals a truth we hold close: that what we do there matters. It can change lives. In many instances, we are academics because there was a scholar once, somewhere, who changed our lives, and then all we wanted to do was that… talk about ideas in ways that changed peoples’ lives. How do you measure a life? In cups of coffee, or in lectures given, in semesters taught.

Can We Work for Justice, Measure Impact, and Resist? 

There are many reasonable arguments on the side of those who want to “resist metrification,” as my colleague Joan Greenbaum puts it. Governmental, institutional attempts to link research output to business profits are, to my way of thinking, wrong-headed and doomed to fail. We should, and must, resist efforts to use any form of measurement to surveil and discipline faculty in the service of economic gain.

But, I don’t think that’s the moment we’re in right now in the US.  

I think that the moment we’re in is one in which academics are beginning to work in new, digitally augmented ways, and most institutions of higher education have no clue how to assess that work or evaluate the impact of a scholar who is up for tenure or promotion with a mostly digital portfolio.

I also think the moment we’re in is one of appalling economic inequality, and many, many academics I know want to join their work to the struggle to reduce that inequality.  Mostly, they don’t know how to go about doing that. And, if they do go about doing that, they wonder: how will this work “count” for me when it comes time for hiring, tenure or promotion? 

I think the moment we’re living in requires us to come up with innovative new ways to measure impact that take into account more kinds of work, including work for the public good. This is not as radical an idea as it sounds. I think we do this in some ways already. 

When I write a tenure letter for someone to get promoted, I’m crafting a story about their impact on the world as a scholar, a teacher, and a member of a community.  It’s very often the case that I will write about scholar up for tenure something like: “This scholar has made a profound impact on her/his community through their work engaging local residents about the topic of her/his research…” and then go on to detail the forms this impact has taken.  Quite simply, a tenure letter is a way of crafting a story about impact.

We’re left with many questions about scholarly impact in the digital era. Most pressing for me is this rather grand question: How do you measure an idea that takes hold and changes peoples’ lives, changes public policy, and changes the way knowledge is created and shared? 

I don’t think we know the answers to this question yet. We are still way before the beginning in understanding how to measure impact in ways that are meaningful.

FutureEd Needs Open Access Publishing

Open access publishing is crucial for higher education to reach larger publics. MOOCs without strong content can’t draw decent audiences. And as much as we can love a charismatic sage-on-the-stage, decent higher education requires, well, doing the homework.



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Our #FutureEd lunchtime discussion last Friday focused for a while on MOOC politics. Cathy Davidson’s Coursera experiment allows registered students access to the texts supporting the course, but students can’t link to them from elsewhere else (say, from a blog), and there’s no access to the readings after the MOOC is over. MOOCS vary in their degree of openness.

Coursera is a licensed xMOOC platform designed to extend higher ed by lowering costs of delivery and eventually developing a profitable business model. xMOOCs, mostly funded through venture captial now, anticipate income from student consumers, someday, somehow. xMOOCs license text books and library databases to registered Coursera students. Registered students provide a limited audience of readers with limited access to course readings – the articles, books, book chapters, film, and videos assigned. How far can higher ed extend if essential reading continues to be tightly regulated, locked behind paywalls? Not far.

cMOOCs (the 1st “c” is for “connectivist”) , on the other hand, involve open source, home-designed platforms that require no course registration. cMOOCs intend to extend peer-to-peer contact and learning without barriers. They are usually wholly accessible in every way without tiers or time-limits to content. cMOOCs have the greatest potential to extend higher education to new audiences. Open access scholarship is at the heart of this effort.

Last spring’s JustPublics@365 Participatory Open Online Course was an academic project close in shape and spirit to a cMOOC. Organizers wanted everybody engaged with the course Reassessing Inequality and Reimagining the 21st Century: East Harlem Focus  — those with a CUNY affiliation or not, those who registered for course credit or not — to have free, complete access to the entire body of presentations, discussions, articles, books, and film. We also wanted the readings and videos to stay available for those coming along after the course finished, here. GC librarian colleague Shawn(ta) Smith performed the journal literature review; I covered the books and book chapters. Out of 117 assigned readings (film, articles, book chapters, books), 65% were either found or forged open online, at least for the duration of the course. 48% of those 117 are now in permanent, permissible open access contexts —  in open access journals, posted on author websites, self-archived in institutional or subject repositories. Another small percentage of the 117 are posted on the open web in violation of publisher’s licensing agreements. These “rogue postings” are freely discoverable until a publisher decides to issue a take-down notice, as Elsevier did recently in response to articles authors self-archive on 65% is pretty good, I guess, but open access work has got to become the norm, not the exception, for higher ed to reach new citizen audiences. For MOOCs to work, open access scholarship must work.

(Open Scholarship for Open Education: Building the JustPublics@365 POOC
a presentation by Shawn(ta) Smith, Polly Thistlethwaite, and Jessie Daniels)

Authors and librarians can work together to make scholarly work free and available to larger publics, without violating publishers’ contracts. Help yourself to our presentation on the topic, and watch this space for more.


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.

Open Access Publishing: Promise and Uncertainties


Librarians have been too successful. We have made it seamless for faculty and students to get to licensed electronic books and articles that are, in fact, locked behind paywalls. We render paywalls completely invisible to searchers in library IP-space. And off-site users are guided through proxy servers to their information destination with minimal interruption, sometimes only once the first time we login.

We’ve made it easy, then, for those within academic institutions to not realize that anyone outside, without a research library to go to, without university credentials to unlock access, is blocked from the databases, books, and articles we in higher education enjoy for free.

GC Library proxy login

Well, it’s not really free. University readers pay for access with taxes and tuition, not with a credit card like unaffiliated readers must.

PurchaseAccess Paywall

Universal, open access publishing is essential to extending the works and benefits of higher education. Publishing “open access” allows authors to connect with the widest possible audiences, locally and globally.

We in higher ed must rethink how we produce, distribute, and value scholarship. Why do scholars write? Why is scholarly publishing out of reach to so many readers? What evidence signals that scholarship is meaningful?

Some of the pressing questions about open access publishing and scholarly communication include:

  1. Can MOOCs succeed without open online scholarship?
  2. Does open access publishing threaten university presses, learned societies, the peer review system, and academic life as we know it?
  3. How do I guard against predatory publishers trying to make a buck off of OA publication fees?
  4. How does an author find an open access journal or publisher?
  5. How does an over-extended public university academic actually self-archive work that is already published? Is any good?
  6. How does an over-extended public university academic editing a peer-reviewed journal make that journal open access without sacrificing all free time to the effort?
  7. What started this open access craze, and why are librarians smack in the middle of it? Is it just a fad?
  8. How can a CUNY scholar negotiate with a prestigious publisher to retain copyright to a work, and live to tell about it?
  9.  What are Creative Commons licenses, and what does copyright have to do with open access publishing?
  10. What the heck is metadata, and what does it have to do with open access publishing?
  11.  Do social scientists and humanists really have to worry about open access scholarship? Our journals are not so expensive.
  12. If a publisher’s prestige isn’t as important as the impact of scholarship, how do we evaluate faculty for tenure and promotion?

In this topic series on scholarly communication, I and my CUNY librarian colleagues, will explore open access publishing – its promise and its uncertainties.



Launching New Series on Scholarly Communication

We’re launching a new series on Scholarly Communication in the Digital Era for the Public Good.  As we’ve done with the previous series, we’ll feature guests and highlight work here across traditional silos of academia, activism and journalism and media.

card catalog

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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 final topic series, we will 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’ll 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. What responsibilities do scholars have to shape and reflect public understandings? What can academics do to contribute fully to efforts to enhance the public good?

As part of our series here, we’ll recap the Friday in-person discussions we’re hosting of Cathy Davidson’s meta-MOOC on the future of (mostly) higher education (#FutureEd).  These changes in higher education and scholarly communication are intricately connected to the debates happening around, “open access,” and we’ll feature regular contributions from experts in this area. We’ll talk about the changing landscape of “impact” in scholarly communication, as well as the implications this has for the work we do as academics,  particularly for early career scholars. And, finally, we’ll feature regular interviews with some of today’s leading documentary filmmakers, discussing the many ways that their work traverses scholarship, activism, art, and journalism to create social change.

It’s going to be a great series, we hope you’ll follow along! And, of course, at the end of the series, we’ll bring it all together in one, handy easy-to-read and download format.

Punishment to Public Health: Bringing it All Together

Over the last couple of months, we’ve highlighted the ways scholars, activists and journalists work to further social justice by shifting the public policy framework from one of “punishment” to “public health,” or P2PH. As we’ve shown, the research is clear that our policy of mass incarceration of the past 30 years damages our society.  Today, we bring it all together.

The P2PH Information Guide is designed to bring together scholarship, activist strategies, and digital media tools to help you create your own social justice campaign.

punishment(Image source)

Our goal with bringing this all together is to create a practical, resource-rich, all-in-one introduction to start a social justice digital campaign, whether you are an activist on the ground,  a journalist writing a story or an academic who may want to connect your research to creating a more just society.

We hope that the Information Guide will help you reach you more people by integrating some of the most widely used social networks into your social justice campaign, your reporting, and your research or your classroom projects. 

Click here to download the PDF.

Click here for the eBook.

If you have any questions in planning your campaign, please feel free to contact us at or send us a tweet, @JustPublics365.


Closing Out Punishment to Public Health Series

As we close out our series on “Punishment to Public Health,” I wanted to thank the many scholars, activists and journalists who contributed to the series. I also wanted to draw your attention to some relevant news.

You may have heard Gov. Cuomo’s State of the State speech in which he came out with a proposal for limited distribution of medical marijuana. This is clearly a situation where leaders are following constituents, given that a majority of New Yorkers support medical marijuana.  This is a decidedly public health, rather than punishment, approach to this issue.

Perhaps more remarkable was Vermont Gov. Shumlin’s State of the State speech in which he spent the entire time addressing the problem of heroin in Vermont. In a turn from the usual “lock them up and throw away the key” approach to drugs, Gov. Shumlin’s framed Vermont’s trouble with heroin as a public health problem.

Both of these gubernatorial mentions of drug policy are at least partly the result of efforts by one of our partners this year, Drug Policy Alliance.  The reframing of drug policy as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue was the focus of our last two Summits. Of course, it’s impossible to draw a straight line of causation between any single event but it does speak to the relevance of this topic series.


Special Interview with Rebecca Tiger



Rebecca Tiger is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Middlebury College. Her first book, Judging Addicts: Drug Courts and Coercion in the Justice System, examines the re-emergence of rehabilitation in the criminal justice system by focusing on the medicalized theories of addiction that advocates of drug courts use to bolster criminal justice oversight of defendants.


Can you share a bit about how your research speaks to the issues of criminalization of public health?

I’ve got a number of research projects going on but one that I completed, it’s my book Judging Addicts, I look at the rise of coerced drug treatment in the criminal justice system. Really, it’s reemergence, because I think it’s incorrect to say that it wasn’t there before. I became interested in both this statistic that I found that the majority … well, the number one source of referral or the largest source of referral to publically funded drug treatment is the criminal justice system. The majority of people who are there are there under some kind of coerced order. Then I became interested in drug courts, which are these sort of formalized mechanisms where people are sentenced to drug treatment instead of prison, although the Drug Policy Alliance and other places have shown that actually it’s not necessarily drug treatment or prison, sometimes it could be nothing or drug court, so it’s not necessarily an alternative to incarceration. Anyway, I became interested in how theories of addiction, recovery, therapy get grafted onto a system of punishment leading to what I refer to in my book as either “force is the best medicine” … that’s a quote from someone I interviewed … or other people said “enlightened coercion.” So it was this kind of merger of both thinking of addiction as a disease but also thinking of drug use as a crime. So, to answer the question, in some ways what these courts are doing is drawing on prevailing theories of addiction as some kind of disease, as not solely the enactment of badness. What they’re doing is that they’re using the criminal justice system to leverage recovery. Their argument is that actually the criminal justice system is a better place to oversee treatment because of the swift and certain sanctions that the criminal justice system can met out, which is namely flash incarceration or weekends in jail or other sorts of punishments that voluntary treatment programs can’t enact. In some ways what I found in my work is this adoption of a sort of public health type framework and understanding of addiction as a widespread public problem, but then understanding punishment as an important vehicle for curing it.


What are some of the current projects you are working on? 

I’m now doing a project, I’m starting a project in rural Vermont where I live. Rural Vermont has, and the media has been playing up what they’re calling an opiate epidemic. That’s their language, not mine. Part of my work is I do a syringe outreach. We do a mobile syringe exchange. I am exchanging syringes with people who have had extensive … many of them … extensive interactions with the criminal justice system. We actually have to exchange syringes very quickly in parking lots. They’re concerned they’re going to be arrested. We’re concerned that the police are going to stop us even though we’re legally allowed to do what we’re doing.

How does criminalization and mass incarceration affect the lives of people in your research?

It’s hovering over everything. So, to get back to thinking of public health and criminalization, the people that I am exchanging syringes with are oftentimes under supervision of the court through a drug court, or they’re probation parole. But they’re also under intense surveillance of drug treatment program. Many of the people I exchange syringes with are actually using syringes to inject medicine that they obtained legally as treatment for their heroin addiction, right? If they’re getting Suboxone, they prefer to inject it. What’s really happening is I would say that there’s a much broader addiction control apparatus that they’re having to skirt around that’s both the treatment, comes from the treatment side, so that the treatment program finds out that they’re using syringes to administer their drugs they could be kicked out of the treatment program, which would have pretty severe consequences from them. But then they’re also skirting this other side, so some of the people if they have, for instance, Suboxone or buprenorphine but they’ve obtained it illegally, then they’ve got that end. I think that it’s really, in the realm of addiction, it’s very broad. That’s where this health and punitiveness can come together in ways that are very intense for people who are really just trying to sort of make it by.

What are your thoughts on policy approaches that draw from public health rather than criminal justice? Are there any examples of policy approaches that draw from public health rather than criminal justice? If so, do you think these are better or just reproduce the same systems of inequality?

Yeah, those are complicated questions, but I can try to answer. I guess the first question I would sort of ask is what does it mean to think in terms of public health? I’m not sure I know exactly what that means. Public health has had a sort of interesting history, but a lot of people who work in public health … and I worked in it for years … they’re not necessarily opposed to punishment or they’re not necessarily opposed to criminalization. Oftentimes it could be working within those same systems, although it’s not necessarily the case.

What I prefer to think about or tend to think about, especially in the realm of drugs and addiction … and that’s the field that I think I know the most about … is really, in some ways, it’s kind of the harm reduction approach, which is meeting people where they are, providing whatever care and services they might need or might say they need in a nonjudgmental fashion.

To that extent, there aren’t a lot of examples of that, but there are some. I think, for example, syringe exchange, it’s an example of an approach that says okay, you need access to clean syringes. Mostly it’s because … For instance in the town I live in, even though in Vermont certain pharmacies are legally allowed to sell syringes over-the-counter without a prescription, only one pharmacy in my town will do that and they make it extremely expensive, so that syringe exchange becomes necessary for people to use drugs safely. We don’t, the exchanging syringes isn’t tied to promises that people will get into drug treatment. It’s not about that. It’s about giving clean syringes because the state won’t do that. I think something like syringe exchange is an example.

Again, in the realm of drug policy, I think what’s happened in Portugal’s a really good example. Decriminalizing possession of all drugs is another example. I think that any efforts that … I guess I’ll just be straightforward. I’m sort of in support of any efforts that don’t involve the system of punishment at all. What I’ve found in my work, and especially in my book where I have a kind of pretty extensive historical discussion, is that any time … and this isn’t my original idea … but any time you have treatment and punishment coming together, or you have any form of health coming together with punishment, the more dominant system, the system of punishment and the kind of overtaking whatever therapeutic benefit there might have been in a voluntary program.

For me, syringe exchange, I would say that that’s an example of public health. The hope is that it allows people to use drugs safely. I think decriminalization or legalization is in some ways a form of public health because we could also look at the health consequences of incarceration and the psychological and physical toll that prolonged involvement with the criminal justice system has as something that is not productive of health.

I guess when I think of public health I tend to think in the big what are the institutional and structural factors that promote health and what are institutional and structural factors that promote ill-health? Obviously punishment does not tend to promote health.

I think this question of does public health or do these initiatives reproduce inequalities is a really interesting one. I’ve read some interesting critiques of syringe exchange, especially in urban areas, as efforts to clear out downtowns of their injection drug users so middle to upper class white folks can move in and have this nice residential experience without junkies on the street. I think that’s a really valid and interesting critique of it.

To the extent that if these initiatives are instituted in a context where the broader inequalities aren’t examined, then sure, I think they could reproduce them pretty easily.


A major focus of the JustPublics@365 project is bringing together academics, activists and journalist in ways that promote social justice civic engagement in greater democracy. What sort of ‘lessons learned’ do you have from your experience with syringe exchange about academics entering a terrain more frequently trod by activists and journalists? 

I participated in a number of things with JustPublics. I would say that there are smaller transformations that happen. I’m much more active on Twitter. I engage in public debates about things. But I think there was a sort of overall shift in thinking about what role academics can or should play in the issues that we’re interested in primarily around inequality and a lot of it having to do with punishment.

I feel like I’ve in some ways being involved with JustPublics has given me more confidence to cross that line between is this academic or is this policy, is it too applied and not worry about that so much. I think sometimes those divisions get built up partly for kind of professional hierarchical reasons within academia. Where do I need to publish to be taken seriously in the academic side?

I think it also gets built up because of these divisions in how to communicate. I actually think … I participated in a workshop on how to write editorials. I haven’t gotten anything published in editorial from that, but that really changed the way I think about a lot of things and it really sort of pushed my thinking about how to be succinct, how to link up with journalists, how to think about what policymakers are doing, how to understand their limitations while also learning a little bit how to push against their limitation.

I think broadly it’s really … I think something like JustPublics is really important for getting people to understand that there’s lots of different ways to be active with their research, and that that sort of reticence about crossing over … that I’m leaving the academic side and moving to something else isn’t … that there’s a lot more opportunities in that than there are possibilities of failure. It was also a good time for me because I had the book out so I had some sort of freedom. My involvement with JustPublics has happened when I’ve had a little freedom to make myself over in a way, I guess.


You are simultaneously doing important scholarly research and social justice work that has a real world impact. How to you see these two projects interacting with each other?

Before going to graduate school, I had worked in public policy and public health for years. I went back to graduate school when I was 32. I had had this whole sort of different life. That, for me … and graduate school was this like wonderful treat to be able to sit and read Foucault and all this stuff about punishment. It was really great. It did sort of affect how I think about things.

I guess I would say … for instance, the project that I started working on, I wasn’t working on this … six months ago I didn’t understand myself as working on a project looking at how the drug problem in rural New England is being constructed. I was, and still am, working on a book called Rock Bottom, which is about the media and visual culture of addiction, which looks at celebrity, looks at elite media. I’ve published articles on media coverage of performance enhancing drugs, whiteness, Lindsay Lohan, celebrity addiction.

I moved to this town. It’s just a poor, rural town in Vermont. It’s often denigrated by people in Vermont, regularly denigrated by my colleagues. Everywhere I went people said … made some reference to the drug problem. I became fascinated with how a town that’s economically struggling uses the drug problem as the sort of reason for its struggles.

I became involved in the syringe exchange really sort of accidentally. I went into the pharmacy. I was looking for something from the pharmacist and the pharmacist had a big sign up that said “We will no longer sell syringes without a prescription.” I said, “What’s the status of syringes in the state?” The pharmacist said, “We can, but we’re not going to anymore.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Because people use them to inject drugs.” I said, “Isn’t that good that they get their syringes?” She said no, that they’re liars, that sometimes they inject in the parking lot.

I actually got in an argument with the woman. I said, “I see you as community health professional. Don’t you have a stake in dealing with this?” She said, “No. Our hope is that these people leave and go somewhere else. That they just leave Rutland” … which is where I live.

It was a sort of interesting moment for me. I ended up calling someone at the state. They put me in touch with this woman who drives three hours who works for an organization called Vermont Cares. She drives three hours twice a month to come here and do syringe exchange, so now I work with her doing the mobile syringe exchange. The mobile syringe exchange was for me a sort of way of making some contribution to this drug problem that countered the criminalization, which is one of the dominant ways it’s dealt with in my town; not in the state, but in this particular town.

It’s only actually fairly recently that I’ve started see, oh wait, there’s something here. I’m in the middle of this, I’m in the center of this thing that’s happening. The Governor just made a big speech about the drug epidemic. The New York Times picked up on it and is now saying that Vermont has an opiate epidemic. The New York Times has been talking about the drug epidemic. All that and quotes in New England. All of a sudden I’m in the center of the thing and I’m seeing it from all these different perspectives because I’m also meeting with people at the local drug court and I’m sort of observing there, so I’m watching it from different angles.

I think the thing is about getting involved in things like syringe exchange is at some point you can do this because it doesn’t … maybe what will happen instead of it being because of your research, maybe you’ll do it because your conscience kind of pulls you there, and then you’ll see, oh wait, there is something here that’s maybe related to some of the ideas that have circulated in my other projects. That’s the thing too. For me, a lot of my work has to do broadly with how sort of “deviance” gets defined and what happens to a deviant person once they’re made. That’s a long historical process and that also touches in so many different areas so that, for me, I bounce around because that’s the bigger question I have. Here where I live, I see what happens to these people who have been really denigrated simply because they’re committed users of opiates. I really felt like to live here and to be a part of this community I wanted to get to know that more. The syringe exchange was the way in.