Thinking about research ethics

July 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

I didn’t get much (well, any) training in the ethics of research during my formal studies, apart from the documents that came along with my first ethics application. Over the years, I’ve been thinking more about what constitutes ethical research involving activists, and how I can use my relatively-privileged position within academia. The work I’ve been doing with Tim Highfield on the Mapping Movements project has also raised new challenges as we’ve tried to think about how to use social media material ethically (and rigorously). Over recent years, I’ve also come across more critiques by feminists and people of colour of the ways in which their lives, analyses, and work has been appropriated by academia and the media.

In response to this, I’ve tried to put together a rough public document about the ethical guidelines for my research. This is intended as a public statement of accountability, and I hope to continue updating it in response to further thinking and self-education.

Teaching on Facebook and content restrictions

October 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Today when I logged into Facebook I Imagegot a message letting me know that I was banned from posting any content for the next 24 hours. Another contributor from a group I help to moderate had posted ‘inappropriate content’ and so all moderators for that group were temporarily locked from posting to Facebook at all.

This would be mildly annoying most of the time, but at the moment I’m teaching a unit where a substantial proportion of the discussion takes place through a Facebook group. Ironically, the unit is on ‘power and politics’ and the Internet.

While there are compelling reasons to experiment with Facebook in teaching (including students’ preference for the site over universities’ official learning management systems), doing so will inevitably raise issues like this. Should I leave the group? Should I, and other educators, avoid posting to Facebook about issues that may lead to bans? Should I try to create a teaching profile and a personal profile (which is against Facebook policy)? I and other contributors have touched on some of these issues in the chapter I contributed to An Education in Facebook?, but we need to be thinking more about ownership and control as we explore new teaching tools.

MOOCs: thinking about context

May 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

Recently, professors at a San Jose State refused to use a lecture series by Michael Sandel at their university: it’s well worth reading their explanation of this decision. After a long and somewhat frustrating discussion about this, I think it’s worth teasing out some of the issues surrounding MOOCs. Much of this draws on the conversation which I just had, but mostly because these views are representative of much more widely-held opinions.

Image of empty chairs in a lecture-room, overlaid with a network

Image courtesy of opensourceway

There’s the assumption that just because something is ‘open source’, it must be good. This is tied to other assumptions about what openness means, such as the assumption that ‘open source’ necessarily means more participatory and more accessible. While MOOCs certainly have the potential to make interesting, useful, learning material widely available so that students (and others) can enrich their learning, we do need to bear in mind the context in which they’re being developed. Context matters. ‘Open source’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’ in all contexts, because other considerations must be taken into account.

In this case, we need to remember that MOOCs are being developed in the context of cuts to university funding around the world, and in the context of university systems which tend to privilege publishing over teaching, with ever-increasing class sizes and workloads for lecturers. We’re seeing a massive casualisation of the workforce as we shift from full-time lecturers doing most of the teaching to the use of underpaid teaching assistants who are usually on short-term, precarious contracts. Funding for students is also limited, making it harder for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to get a university education (in the US far more than in Australia).

What does this mean for our evaluation of MOOCs? Firstly, we need to be aware of the probability that requests (or demands) that lecturers use content from MOOCs hosted at other universities are motivated more by a desire on the part of university management to cut costs than by a concern for quality teaching. Secondly, there is a strong chance that the use of lecture content from MOOCs will be used to justify further casualisation of the academic workforce on the basis that as the backbone of the unit is there, all that’s needed will be teaching assistants/tutors rather than full-time lecturers. Thirdly, this is likely to contribute to and reinforce the existing two-tier system (more so in the US than Australia): some students will have access to lecturers who develop units, have funding for research, and engage in hands-on teaching, while poorer students at under-resourced universities will get content developed elsewhere, taught by tutors who are unlikely to have the resources and support necessary to develop themselves as teachers and as researchers.

There’s also the issue of what we use as the standard. While I’m sure Sandel is an engaging lecturer with many valuable points to make, the outline for the ‘Justice’ unit which the San Jose professors declined to use states that, “principal readings for the course are texts by Aristotle, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls.” In a unit covering “affirmative action, income distribution, same-sex marriage, the role of markets, debates about rights (human rights and property rights), arguments for and against equality, dilemmas of loyalty in public and private life”, it’s worth questioning whether a backbone consisting purely of dead white men is most appropriate.

Some of the books taught in Ethnic Studies units in Arizona – those usually left out of mainstream curricula.

Universities, and particularly the most prestigious and well-funded US universities, are still disproportionately accessible to privileged groups within society. If unit content is increasingly produced primarily by these universities, and then farmed out to other places, we are likely to hear a more and more narrow range of perspectives. The existing constraints on marginalised voices within academia will be reinforced: women and minority groups will, in all likelihood, be those who are pushed (further) into precarious employment as short-term teaching staff unable to create their own units.

I’m not against the idea of MOOCs. But we need to think about the broader context in which they’re developed, and take active steps to shape them in positive directions. We need to hold open spaces for participatory, accessible learning that values a diversity of voices – including those of both students and teachers. In order to do this, we can’t take the discourse of ‘openness’ associated with MOOCs at face value.

‘Big data’ and gender

April 24, 2013 § 1 Comment

A page of a book on arithmetic, stitched with yellow thread.

The stitching is based on the graph of the data that is in the table. By Jessica Kelly

There’s been a significant push in Internet Studies over the last few years towards ‘big data’ studies, which aggregate huge volumes of information (such as tweets or website linking patterns) and subject them to analysis, often quantitative analysis. Much of this research provides valuable insights into how people are using the Internet and its impacts on society, politics, and economics. At IR13 last year there were plenty of projects which took a ‘big data’ approach to the study of social movements, particularly the Arab Spring and Occupy, and provided important analysis about how they organise and communicate. And, of course, my collaborator on the Mapping Movements project, Tim Highfield, is doing excellent work in the area.

However, I do think that there are important aspects of this shift towards big data that we need to maintain a critical approach towards. Part of the reason why ‘big data’ is so appealing is that it looks like Science: there are numbers! and statistical analysis! There have been claims that it will allow us to ‘do away with the need for hypothesis and theory’ (presumably ridding ourselves of the biases contained in these processes). It fits within our perceptions of what ‘proper’ science should be: more objective, less reliant on qualitative methods like participant observation and interviews. This notion of science has, of course, been critiqued from a number of perspectives. Emily Martin’s ‘The Egg and the Sperm‘, for example, provided an excellent demonstration of how profoundly even ‘hard’, supposedly objective, science, is shaped by cultural assumptions, including those surrounding gender.

The shift towards ‘big data’ is not only linked to the uptake of new analytical tools, it is also linked to our (gendered) ideas of what science should look like. As more funding becomes available for big data research, it is important to bear in mind the ways in which our assumptions structure the value we place on different research, and the ways in which access to different research fields is gendered. While many women provide vital contributions in STEM fields, there continue to be significant structural barriers to participation by women and minority groups in these areas. Devaluing qualitative research in favour of quantitative big data not only builds on misplaced assumptions about the value of ‘hard sciences’, it also adds to the factors excluding marginalised perspectives from academia.

A page outlining the addition of two columns, stitched with spirals and loops.

By Jessica Kelly

This is not to say that we should abandon big data approaches. As I said, I believe that they provide many helpful insights. There’s also some fascinating work out there that uses big data in ways that undermine the assumptions that this research must be ‘objective’ – Zizi Papacharissi and Maria de Fatime Oliviera’s work on affective publics springs to mind here. Tim and I are approaching the use of big data by drawing together big data approaches and participant observation, interviews, and other qualitative methods. So the issue is not so much whether we use big data, as whether we remain aware of the ways in which its use is structured by our assumptions about what constitutes ‘science’, and of ways in which this may privilege some groups’ participation over others.

Gifting and research

April 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Here in Athens, I’m starting to get a much  better idea of who I need to speak to and where I need to go, in part because I’ve had some fortuitous introductions from friends-of-friends-of-friends. This aspect of research on social movements is, I think, often under-acknowledged. You can, when doing research, make a more-or-less disinterested decision about the case study that will serve your research project best, show up, and then make contact with activists through websites or by showing up to protests. But activists in many circumstances are understandable cautious about talking to strange people who show up out of nowhere. As well as the security concerns that accompany state surveillance of many movements, activists have many competing demands on their time and talking to academics who may retell the story of the movement in ways which activists aren’t comfortable with.

a mindmap of gift economy features

Gift economy by London Permaculture

So I’m tremendously grateful to the people who take some time to introduce me and to tell me who it’s important that I speak to. Our work in Tunisia relied heavily on connections from friends and colleagues, just as my work in Athens does. In return, I try to ensure that my work is relevant for activists, that I write in a way that’s clear and accessible rather than all wrapped up in academic jargon, and that my work is publicly-available (preferably for free as open-access publications). I’m not sure that I always succeed in each of these, but I do try.

As well as attempting to give something of worth back in return for the introductions, explanations, and time taken for interviews which activists give me, academia relies on a complex web of gifting. This morning I spent two and a half hours going through over two hundred applications for Adacamp SF, and after I finish this post I will review conference abstracts for the Internet Research: resistance and appropriation conference. In fact, none of the work I’m doing at the moment is paid, as I’m taking a break from teaching to do research. The book review I’m writing is unpaid, the three book chapters and one article I have due soon are unpaid, the research I’m currently doing is for a book that will only be published a long way down the line and is unlikely to bring me any substantial income in royalties.

photo of a knitted jumper in progress, with a notebook

‘mad-scientist type stuff’ by sarkasmo

Much of this ‘gifting’ is not entirely altruistic – it brings me benefits in one form or another, even if that isn’t financial (just as gifting does in other gift economies). Publishing is essential to getting an academic position, even a teaching-focused position (which is sad, given the importance of good teachers, and the extent to which this is gendered). Some of it also feeds into exploitative systems, like the use of academic articles and peer-reviews (both unpaid) to build a massively profitable academic journal business - one reason why I won’t do reviews for journals which aren’t open access.

I can’t do my work without the gifts – of time, energy, and reputation – that others lend me. And I wouldn’t want to do my work if I didn’t feel like I was gifting something in return (although sometimes I do worry that I’m giving the academic equivalent of an ugly sweater that will never get worn). The context of that gifting, and the relationships involved, need careful thought.

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