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Imagine Otherwise: Jessie Daniels and Polly Thistlethwaite on Being a Scholar in the Digital Era

Imagine Otherwise: Jessie Daniels and Polly Thistlethwaite on Being a Scholar in the Digital Era

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December 28, 2016
Jessie Daniels wearing a black shirt and Polly Thistlethwaite wearing a black blazer

How are digital technologies, including open access publishing, transforming higher education?

In episode 27 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach chats with guests Jessie Daniels and Polly Thistlethwaite, founders of JustPublics@365 project about the impact of digital technologies in higher education, why so many scholars who are interested in open access publishing are also social justice activists, and how those scholars and activists can expand public access to scholarship.

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Guests: Jessie Daniels and Polly Thistlethwaite

Jessie Daniels is a professor of sociology and critical social psychology at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of the books Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights and White Lies: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality in White Supremacist Discourse, and is also the founder of the scholarly blog RacismReview.

Polly Thistlethwaite is a professor and the Chief Librarian at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). In the pre-internet 1980s, at the beginning of her career in academic libraries, she joined the activist group ACTUP and channeled activists and people living with AIDS into libraries, then the only places where medical information was available. Polly is devoted to changing the system of scholarly communication to allow greater access to more academic work by more readers.

Jessie and Polly are co-founders of JustPublics@365 and co-authors of the new book Being a Scholar in the Digital Era: Transforming Scholarly Practice for the Public Good (Policy Press, 2016). The book explores the way digital technologies are transforming higher education as well as what these changes mean in an age of austerity. It imagines a world in which scholarship enlivens the public good.

Jessie Daniels wearing a black shirt and silver necklace. Text reads: We're nnaive if we say the internet is all good or all bad. It really is a battleground and what it ultimately ends of being is up to all of us.

We chatted about

  • How digital practices have changed what it means to be an academic (06:50)
  • The connection between open modes of knowledge production and social justice movements (08:52)
  • Polly’s work with ACT UP using access to academic libraries to do queer AIDS activism (13:21)
  • How universities and academic departments can better support open access publishing (15:20)
  • Jesse’s work on cyber racism (20:00)
  • Imagining otherwise (24:25)
Polly Thistlethwaite wearing a black blazer and tshirt. Text reads: For activist scholars and colleagues, their research questions are driven by the communities they’re hoping to serve. So it doesn’t make sense to produce this kind of scholarship in a vacuum.

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Takeaways

Open access publishing and social justice

Jessie: The assumption of openness and transparency in research is something that connects us as academics to social justice movements. I think the pay walls behind which we have traditionally hid our research are barriers to activists and to people in communities that want to engage with our research.

How open access can save lives

Polly: I helped connect anyone with HIV to the medical and drug trial information they needed. Pre-Internet and pre-PubMed, I invited people into the brick and mortar libraries so that they could stand in front of the Lexus Nexus computer terminal and search the medical databases. I was in a position as a librarian to vet requests for access, and I connected as many people as I could.

Common misconceptions around open access publishing

Jessie: As scholars and faculty we have a lot of misconceptions about open access publishing. One of the most common ones that I hear from my faculty colleagues is that open access means not peer reviewed, and that’s simply not the case. There are a lot of well-reviewed publications that have different kinds of open access publishing.

Cyber racism and how online spaces reflect real-world violence

Jessie: We are the racism in the machine of the Internet. It’s not this place where we can escape that.

Imagining otherwise

Polly: I’d like the world to be one where publicly funded research and art is free and available to anyone on the planet, not only to those who can pay for it. That’s the only way I can see to allow anybody to engage in the debates and matters of the day, and it’s the only way in so many cases for people to save their own lives.

More from Jessie Daniels and Polly Thistlethwaite

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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    Transcript

    Cathy Hannabach (00:03):

    Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host Cathy Hannabach.

    Cathy Hannabach (00:22):

    Welcome to the Imagine Otherwise podcast, which is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive interdisciplinary scholars write awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

    Cathy Hannabach (00:38):

    This week’s episode is brought to you by our grad school Rockstar Program and Dissertation Rockstar Bootcamp. Enrollment for both are now open for Spring 2017. Both of these programs help progressive interdisciplinary scholars like those featured on this podcast create awesome work, build accountability and community for their projects, and rock their interdisciplinary careers. If you or someone you know is a grad student who wants to create a regular writing routine, stop drowning in email, don’t we all, prioritize self care, and actually finish their dissertation alongside other social justice oriented scholars you can go to ideasonfire.net to find out more.

    Cathy Hannabach (01:18):

    This is Episode 27, and my guests today are Polly Thistlethwaite and Jessie Daniels.

    Cathy Hannabach (01:24):

    Polly is a professor and the chief librarian at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, CUNY. In the pre-internet 1980s at the beginning of her career in academic libraries, she joined the activist group Act Up and channeled activists and people living with AIDS into libraries, which were then the only places where medical information was available. Since then, Polly has been devoted to changing the system of scholarly communication to allow greater access to more academic work by more readers.

    Cathy Hannabach (01:52):

    Jessie is a professor of sociology and critical social psychology at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She’s the author of the book Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights, as well as White Lies: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality in White Supremacist Discourse. Jessie’s also the founder of the scholarly blog, Racism Review.

    Cathy Hannabach (02:15):

    Polly and Jessie together are co-founders of JustPublics@365 and coauthors of a new book called Being a Scholar in the Digital Era: Transforming Scholarly Practice for the Public Good. The book explores the way digital technologies are transforming higher education as well as what those changes mean in an age of austerity. It imagines a world in which scholarship enlivens the public good.

    Cathy Hannabach (02:39):

    Thank you so much for being with us.

    Polly Thistlethwaite (02:42):

    Thank you for having us.

    Jessie Daniels (02:43):

    Good to be here.

    Cathy Hannabach (02:44):

    So Polly and Jessie, you are both the founders of JustPublics@365 and you recently coauthored a book about that project, and we’ll talk about the book in a minute, but I’d love for you just to tell our listeners a little bit about the JustPublics@365 project. How it came about, what your goals were with it, and how that project went?

    Jessie Daniels (03:06):

    Yeah, so this is Jessie. I’ll start out. It was intended to connect scholars, activists, and journalists in a way that enlivens the public sphere. It’s a project that had multiple prongs. So many in fact that it was kind of hard to keep track of in many ways. The new book is really meant to anchor that multi-pronged project in one place and talk about the different facets of it.

    Jessie Daniels (03:32):

    So we did things like summits or in-person gatherings that brought together people across these silos. We did an open online course, what we call the POOC, participatory open online course, sort of our response to the MOOC movement. Then we did a bunch of things that we called knowledge streams, sort of getting knowledge out into the public through lots of different ways, including a podcast series that we did.

    Polly Thistlethwaite (04:02):

    We sponsored a series of workshops for faculty and activists and people involved in the public sector called Media Camp where we worked with people to improve their online interview skills. We had a series called How to Write an Op-Ed where we brought in op-ed editors and had them critique along with fellow students how people’s work was translating to the public sphere. We had a very popular Twitter workshop and a blogging workshop. So that was just one arm of the many pronged.

    Cathy Hannabach (04:42):

    That seems so necessary these days. I mean, there are so many academics who write this amazing brilliant scholarship that has such a ability to shape public policy, public discourse, kind of the cultural debates more broadly, and yet so many academics aren’t given kind of training in how to bridge those silos, as you put it, or speak in these different spaces. So it’s great that you gave them kind of hands on training on how to speak in different spaces.

    Jessie Daniels (05:12):

    I think it’s really important for academics to get training in these, what we call the hybrid skills, right, of sort of speaking into registers, right? The register for academic peer-reviewed publications. Then translating that, figuring out how to get that same research into a public discussion about those issues that are relevant to people beyond the academy. While I think there’s increasing awareness that that’s important, there’s just so little training for academics to be able to do that. So I think that was one of the most successful aspects of the project.

    Jessie Daniels (05:51):

    I should also give a shout out to our colleagues over at the CUNY J-School who were our partners in that, and they were terrific to work with. I think it also speaks to the kind of collaboration that we did in JustPublics@365. There’s a lot of collaboration across lots of silos, even within our university, that don’t usually speak to each other, right?

    Polly Thistlethwaite (06:11):

    Right. I’ll have to say as the librarian involved, one of several librarians involved in the project, that it was an intense collaboration between discipline-based faculty and the librarians. So we all worked together to train each other in our scholarly production practices and with our shared goals of making scholarly work available to broader publics.

    Cathy Hannabach (06:35):

    So the book that you both have written that came out of that project just came out. It’s called Being a Scholar in the Digital Era: Transforming Scholarly Practice for the Public Good. What did you find over the course of doing that project and writing this book? What are some of the ways that digital cultures and digital technologies have changed what it means to be an academic these days?

    Jessie Daniels (06:57):

    Yeah. Well, for me it seems like all the traditional areas of being an academic, teaching, service, and research, are changing because of digital technologies. The main focus of the book, and the area that I think has already changed the most profoundly, is research. Digital technologies have transformed research even for scholars who don’t think of themselves as doing digital scholarship.

    Jessie Daniels (07:23):

    There are a lot of examples to make this point, but I think maybe the most salient one is Google Scholar, which kind of shapes what we do now. Within my own lifetime, my experience as a scholar in graduate school, one of my jobs as a research assistant was to go to the Perry-Castaneda Library at UT Austin, the brick and mortar library, and cull through the table of contents of the journals and report back to the professor I was working with what the latest research was, right? Now I know almost no scholar that uses this method to find new research or asks a graduate student to go and use this method to find new research. Right? Instead what we’re all accustomed to doing now is using Google Scholar and other online means as well as those proprietary databases that are library subscribed to.

    Polly Thistlethwaite (08:16):

    The library database.

    Jessie Daniels (08:16):

    Yeah, that help us search and find the latest work in our field. So I think that this sea change is one that most scholars take for granted, and what we’re trying to do in the book is to surface this taken for granted difference and sort of sketch out what it means for all the work that we do as scholars.

    Polly Thistlethwaite (08:37):

    I was just going to add that the shifts in our research capacities also influence how scholars can make their work discoverable by researchers. So we’re sort of like trying to focus in this project and in this book on the cycle of scholarly life. Scholars who want their work available to non-academics are often the same people who want to engage with social justice activists may have so many options now about where to place their work. But we can even maintain our traditional or, what we are calling in the book, legacy habits of publishing in mainstream journals and then follow publishers standing policies that allow us to post our work on our personal websites or on institutional repositories after an embargo period.

    Cathy Hannabach (09:26):

    Why do you think that is that the same scholars, because I would agree with you, the same scholars who are, I think, most interested in the radical possibilities of open access and getting their work into other spheres and being part of other kinds of broader conversations, those same scholars are the ones who have always insisted or have long insisted that scholarship has an activist potential to it? Why is that? What’s the connection that they’re making between kind of more open modes of knowledge production and social justice movements?

    Jessie Daniels (10:01):

    Yeah, I mean I think that the assumption of openness and transparency in research is something that connects us as academics to social justice movements. I think that the paywalls behind which we have traditionally hid our research are our barriers to activists and to people in communities that want to engage with our research but don’t have $40 an article to get beyond those paywalls.

    Jessie Daniels (10:35):

    For me, I mean, I just tell this one story about there was a time in which I used to share articles, speaking of Google Scholar. If I get an email in the morning, Google Scholar alert, about research that I’m following, that I would often go on Twitter and sort of share, oh, this looks interesting. I haven’t read this article yet, but it looks interesting and I share it on Twitter. Then very soon after I started doing that, there were people that I consider smart, intelligent people, but not affiliated with a university or an academic library, who would come back to me and say, you’re sharing this article, but do you have $40 so that I could access it?

    Jessie Daniels (11:17):

    That, to me, was a real learning experience, because it reminded me that sitting in a university with an academic affiliation that gave me access to all that research is a really privileged position. So I think that that kind of push back on you’re sharing this, but it’s behind a paywall, was a way of challenging that privileged position. So I think the move toward openness is a way of subvert that privileged position and connect to people that don’t have access to those same resources.

    Jessie Daniels (11:49):

    I think it’s also something that we’ve learned from our colleagues in anthropology, who have a much more global awareness of how their research circulates. The kind of access that we have in the global North just as an exist in the global South. So if you’re trying to build connection internationally across those North and South borders, you really have to rethink what you’re doing with your research, like where you’re putting it and who you hope to read it if you’re going to hide it behind a paywall.

    Polly Thistlethwaite (12:22):

    Yeah. I think for a lot of our activist scholar colleagues, I mean, the research questions are driven by the activists where the communities who they’re hoping to serve. So it just doesn’t make sense to produce this kind of scholarship in a vacuum without review and constructive criticism and feedback without completing all the conversation with the people you’re having conversation about.

    Cathy Hannabach (12:47):

    Polly, I’m curious about how your kind of work as a librarian and an archivist plays into the kind of open access movement that both you and Jessie have been part of. I know you have a long history of activist work in Act Up, and there’s a great kind of discussion of that in the book itself. How does that kind of radical queer AIDS organizing history play into how you see the kind of radical potential of open access publishing?

    Polly Thistlethwaite (13:20):

    Yeah. Well, I’ll summarize the story I tell in the book. When I moved to New York City in 1986 for an academic library job, I also joined the AIDS activist group Act Up and I got on coordinating committee at the Lesbian Herstory Archives.

    Polly Thistlethwaite (13:39):

    It was a heady time to be in New York. My friends were dying and politicians were ignoring it and funding and research agencies were doing little to address the spread of HIV. So Act Up members, at that time we didn’t have an office or copy machine or anything, and we just brought our skills to bear on the direct action that the organization was about. So for my part, I helped the scholars in the group, and some were academics, but most were not. I helped people do the research we needed to bring pressure on the funding agencies and this big pharma and the social service centers and politicians and even the mainstream media who were not reporting fully.

    Polly Thistlethwaite (14:24):

    I helped connect anyone with HIV to the medical and drug trial information they needed, which meant back then, pre-internet and pre-PubMed, that I invited people into the brick and mortar libraries, as Jessie calls them, so that they could stand in front of the LexisNexis computer terminal and search the medical databases. So I was in a position as a librarian to vet requests for access and I connected as many people as I could, as did other information professionals in the group.

    Polly Thistlethwaite (14:57):

    So we worked hard to connect as many people as we could to the information they needed, but it was really obvious that it really shouldn’t have to be that way, that people shouldn’t have to go through a librarian every time they needed to consult medical literature, that it should be free and online openly. With that experience, here we are today.

    Cathy Hannabach (15:18):

    I know so many scholars who love the idea of open access publishing and publish a lot of their work online for precisely that reason, but are often hamstrung by tenure requirements, if they’re lucky enough to be tenure stream professors, or by the kind of precarity of being a contingent faculty member, especially if you’re continuing to be on the job market and continuing to need to pick up adjuncting gigs or other kinds of contingent labor and open access publishing is not as valued by tenure and promotion requirements, by academic departments. So I’m curious if you have any advice or suggestions for how academic departments and those who write the policies themselves can better support open access publishing?

    Jessie Daniels (16:08):

    Yeah. I think one of the most important things that I learned in this project and in writing this book, which is in some ways geared toward exactly that audience, the department chairs and the people that serve on those hiring tenure and promotion committees, but I think one of the most important things I learned is that we, as scholars, as faculty, really have a lot of misperceptions about open access publishing. One of the most common ones that I hear from my faculty colleagues is open access [inaudible 00:16:43] means not peer-reviewed, and it’s simply not the case. There are a lot of very well regarded peer-review publications that also have different kinds of open access publishing.

    Jessie Daniels (16:54):

    So when Polly and I are talking about that, we’re often talking about what she mentioned earlier, the kind of being able to post a pre-print of your article on, say, your institutional repository or your own website. That’s a form of opening up your research and making it open access, right? It doesn’t have to be that you go through a journal that that is making everything available online, though that would be better.

    Jessie Daniels (17:24):

    I think the other thing that I learned is that, talking about books more than articles, that we really have to think about what the kind of rights are that we’re signing away for our books as well. So not only journals, but books as well.

    Jessie Daniels (17:37):

    So I tell the story in the book about an earlier project I did called Cyber Racism, and found out soon after the book came out that people were using torrents to do illegal downloads, or what the young people call ripping versions of the book. I was on a Call-in radio show and this guy called in and said you told my a blog publisher to make me take down a torrented version of your book. Well, why are you doing this work? That, again, sort of like the people on Twitter who said do you have $40 for this paywall article, was a real moment for me to sort of think about why am I doing this work? If I’m going to yell at people for ripping copies of my book, whose service am I working in? I realized that I was really working in the service of my publisher who wasn’t going after people who were doing torrents of the book.

    Jessie Daniels (18:39):

    So I think that’s one of the things that we have to talk about even in this precarious economic environment where we do have to make our work count in particular ways, and we have a whole chapter in the book about sort of the history of metrics and what that means. But I think that there’s a kind of deeper philosophical, ethical question about why we’re doing the work. For me, I came down on I’m doing the work cause I want to be read and I want to make a difference in the world. You know?

    Polly Thistlethwaite (19:12):

    There’s a site called the directory of open access journals, doaj.org, and that lists 9,000 open-access, peer-reviewed scholarly journals. There’s another site called SHERPA/RoMEO that lists standing policies that publishers have, most academic publishers have, that allow for the public posting of academic work generally after an embargo period. Those two tools are really terrific for helping scholars who want to make the effort to put their work in open contexts and also get the credit they reserve for its promotion and tenure.

    Cathy Hannabach (20:00):

    So Jessie, you brought up your, your work on Cyber Racism and I’d love to turn to that now, because a lot of your work over the years has focused on kind of challenging some of the assumptions that online and offline worlds are radically dissimilar, right? You do this specifically through the lens of race and how white supremacy and racial ideologies manifest just as prominently online as they do offline. Why do you think that is?

    Jessie Daniels (20:30):

    Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). I’ve been around the internet long enough to remember the early days of the popular internet in the early 1990s and at the time we had this kind of collective misconception about online worlds. First of all, it was a destination, right? It was someplace we left our regular life and went to. You might remember that or your listeners might remember that commercial from the early ’90s, the internet is a place without race, without gender, without physical disability, right? It’s laughable.

    Cathy Hannabach (21:07):

    Yeah, I teach that commercial. It works so well when students are like, oh yeah, that’s that discourse.

    Jessie Daniels (21:14):

    Right. That company doesn’t even exist anymore, but that commercial lives on. I mean, it’s laughable to think about the internet in those terms now, right? Because we’re so sort of aware of the kind of culture of don’t read the comments and the trolls and things like Gamergate and all the rest of it.

    Jessie Daniels (21:36):

    The fact is, we bring the societal racism with us to the internet in a bunch of ways, from the trolls who actively harass people to everyday web users who type racist search terms into Google and then they have those search terms auto-filled by the search engine. We are the racism in the machine of the internet, so it’s not this place where we can escape that.

    Cathy Hannabach (22:01):

    Yet so many marginalized communities have turned to digital technologies and internet to intervene in precisely those violences, right?

    Jessie Daniels (22:10):

    Yeah.

    Cathy Hannabach (22:11):

    And to kind of turn them around and to challenge them. Why the digital? If it is this kind of space that manifests the same violences as anywhere else, no better, no worse, what can the digital offer to social justice then on the flip side?

    Jessie Daniels (22:25):

    One of the points that I make in the Cyber Racism book is that the civil rights movement really is happening online now, right? So all those battles that were happening only in the street are happening both in the street and online now. As surprising as it might seem given my work on racism online, I’m actually quite optimistic about the potential of traditionally marginalized communities using the web and digital technologies to make good social justice actions. I think it makes sense that social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, which makes me extremely hopeful, are using digital technologies to spread their message and mobilize supporters. The reason they’re doing it is the reason that everybody’s online, which is the lack of gatekeepers, right?

    Jessie Daniels (23:15):

    When Martin Luther King was mobilizing people in the streets, he had to figure out how to mobilize events around the network schedule, right? Will a network camera like CBS, NBC, or ABC, will they catch this moment and will it get on the evening news? Yeah. But now with the many to many distribution of social media, the rules have all changed. So social movement actors from marginalized communities don’t have to engineer things to sort of fit the evening news, right? Because we have this proliferation of social media channels and then those gain the interest of mainstream media outlets.

    Jessie Daniels (23:52):

    So I think it’s a whole new media landscape and marginalized communities are savvy about how to take advantage of this, which I find delightful. I just think that we’re naive if we say that the internet is all good or all bad, that it really is this battleground, you know? What it ultimately ends up being really is up to all of us. What are we creating when we go online?

    Cathy Hannabach (24:22):

    So this brings me to my final question, the question that I feel very grateful to be able to ask all of these amazing people, including yourselves, which is that version of the world that you’re working towards. When you create whatever it is that you create in the universe, when you write your books, when you do your teaching, when you work in the archives, what is that version of a better world that you’re working towards? What kind of world do you want?

    Jessie Daniels (24:48):

    I think it’s so important to imagine otherwise. Yeah, I work for a world in which my students, the students at CUNY who I admire so much, are able to reach their highest potential. I’m also working for a world in which my faculty colleagues at CUNY and beyond can share their wonderful insights and research with a world beyond their scholarly peers so that they can really make a difference.

    Jessie Daniels (25:12):

    One of the concepts we talked about in the project and we talk about in the book is knowledge streams, this notion that the knowledge we create in the university is flowing out of our institutions rather than locked within them, and that’s the world that I want to see.

    Polly Thistlethwaite (25:27):

    Yeah, me too. I’d like the world to be one where publicly funded research and art is free and available to anyone on the planet, not only to those who cannot pay for it. That’s the only way I can see to allow anybody to engage in the debates and matters of the day, and it’s the only way in so many cases for people to save their own lives.

    Cathy Hannabach (25:54):

    I think that’s a great note to end on. Thank you both so much for being with us and for letting us know ways that we can imagine otherwise in our scholarship, in our teaching, and in the broader social world.

    Polly Thistlethwaite (26:06):

    Thanks so much for having us, Cathy. It was fun.

    Cathy Hannabach (26:10):

    Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Check out our website at ideasonfire.net to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books, and projects discussed on the show. While you’re there, be sure to sign up for our newsletter to find out when new episodes are released and to get tips to help you rock your interdisciplinary career.

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