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This week is about the role of the researcher in this multi-stakeholder field of media reform, from several angles. [And, at the end, how to post your Policy Briefs. Thank you Ilona for pioneering!]

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From my perspective,  here’s a short thank you to all of you:

Please take a look at Dropbox. I have uploaded the entire book Communications Research in Action (edited by Phil Napoli & me) on real-life cases of scholar-activist collaborations in the field of media reform and internet rights. And here’s a list of some resources for those who wish to be engaged scholars.

Media activist and evaluation expert Catherine Borgman-Arboleda has written a great blog post (originally for an earlier version of this course) about why scholars and activists should collaborate.

“Why should you care about researcher and activist collaboration? To start, are you concerned about who reads or is influenced by your work? If we look at the number of research citations as a proxy for relevance, most research published in peer-reviewed journals is largely irrelevant! (One study found that papers published in management journals were cited on average of .82 times per year)  This speaks to the need to find other ways to make sure that academically-produced knowledge has other venues for distribution.

But effective engaged scholarship goes beyond dissemination, to thinking about how to make audiences understand research, and even more so how information can lead to a change in action or behaviour, that can lead to new approaches and innovation. Even if a scholar is less interested in contributing to political activism around media and communications and more concerned around building a career (and who isn’t, at least on occasion!) I’ve found that researchers often report that an engaged scholar is simply a better researcher. Researchers often report that the quality of their research improved through collaboration with practitioners.  They find that questions asked are often more relevant, precise and interesting. They notes that the process of talking through the “abstraction” and “jargon” that characterizes academic communication helped the clarity and quality of the writing

A central strand of my work over the last ten years has been about decreasing the divide between research and activism, and finding ways to make knowledge useful for and usedby practitioners. This focus began at the Center for International Media Action CIMA) , where I was focused on bringing together different sectors to strengthen the media democracy/reform/justice and communication rights movements. As I moved into actually doing  (rather than translating or facilitating) research and evaluation to strengthen social justice work (expanding outside the media/communications field), I’ve found myself struggling with this theme on a daily basis.  These issues of relevance and use can’t be just addressed through dissemination, but through actual co-production of knowledge.

In thinking about what might be useful for this course, I thought I might put together a list of key themes that I’ve found to important to consider for anyone interested in doing or supporting engaged scholarship and mobilizing knowledge for use in media and communications change movements.

-Collaborative research is not second nature. Experienced engaged scholars havelikened the process how porcupines make love, very carefully! Collaborative research in general takes more time, and that attention to process is important. Practitioner groups have much different (generally shorter!) timelines, and often many competing priorities that need to be attended to in advancing their agendas. Compounding this, they also generally have fewer resources, and don’t have the security of an institutional job, or access to the benefits a university can provide. Given this, academics need to think creatively about providing support in other ways besides just activities directly related to their research project – such as helping with fundraising proposals, or even in some instances providing transportation to meetings.

-Balancing power. Nearly all researcher/practitioner relationships are characterized by traditional hierarchical power imbalances, especially when scholars are working with marginalized groups. University researchers are often perceived, and often see themselves, as the “experts”. They have access to university resources, and are compensated for their work. It is important the contributions by both academics and practitioners are viewed as equal, although necessarily different, which requires more than just good intentions and paying lip service to equality.  It requires creating space and a process for activist communities to engage at their speed and level. This does not look like throwing them a report, or a proposal brief and asking for any comments within the week. The sharing of resources is essential, and shared compensation is one of the most fundamental means of addressing a need for parity. The traditional hierarchical power arrangements in academic/practitioner engagements can also  be counteracted by both parties collaborating on the planning and design of a project.

Engage groups on the margins. Groups that represent or reflect the interests of constituencies that could be considered new voices for a movement. Scholar-activists often highlight the importance of involving marginalized communities and other under-resourced groups. Moving beyond the issue of rights, this is where the new claims from for social change will come from, creating new ways of doing, new perspectives, new innovative approaches.

-Approaches to dissemination and mobilization of knowledge.

I’m always struck by how little time and how few resources are put into thinking about how research will be transformed into knowledge that is accessible to and used by the audiences who will act on it. There is this underlying assumption that we will write it and they will come. This is especially misleading when it comes to long reports written in obtuse and, let’s be frank, boring academic language, with the key finding buried 10 pages in. This final form/product that the research will take, and the strategy for dissemination are key components of any engaged scholarship research design.  It might be a colourful 1 page of research highlights with key citations that can be lifted for advocacy purposes, or a u-tube video, etc.  The questions that should drive planning for research mobilization are:

-How will the world be different because this research exits?

-Who needs this research in order to make change?

-What format will most engage them?

-How can it be presented in a way that will make it easiest for them to use?


Policy Brief – final assignment checklist

To think about:

  • Who is your audience?
  • How can you represent your knowledge so that it can be understood and embraced by your audience?
  • What is your “Theory of Change” informing your recommendations?
  • Do you have concrete suggestions for action?
  • Finally — the big question in engaged scholarship is to navigate the challenging waters between being engaged in an issue (which one might care for deeply) and being a scholar, doing rigorous research, whatever the outcome. So, although this is not perhaps exactly relevant for the final assignment, engage for a moment in a make-believe:  Whom would you represent, what would your stake be in the issue (do you belong to an organization, are you an activist-researcher,  are you an independent researcher packaging your work for anyone benefiting from it , are you commissioned to do the work)?

To do:

  • Finish the brief. Use one or some of the templates and examples as your guide (= form is important, including the executive summary).
  • Share your work with the rest of us via our Dropbox. Remember, the link here allows view-only. You need to use your invitation.
  • Deadline 9.3. at midnight. Before that let me know if you have any questions.
  • Allow me 7-10 days for feedback & final grade.
  • I will maintain the Dropbox until 15.4.2016. So please take a look at everyone’s briefs, and copy the readings you want to keep, by then.