Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Talking about Community Based Research

Episode 53: Community Based Research

RICHES podcast documentaries are short form narrative documentaries that explore central Florida history and are locally produced. In this episode, I discuss the evolution of my community based research projects.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The First Question: What Ethnicity Best Describes You?

What Ethnicity Best Describes You? 

 Dr. Claire Jenkins and I have a project called The First Question (TFQ), based on our shared interest in Doctor Who.  For Dr. Jenkins, Doctor Who represents a means to explore questions linked to popular culture and gender.  For me, The Doctor represents an opportunity to investigate the superhero archetype outside the U.S. context.  Through our conversations and later presentations, we decided to develop a project to facilitate our exploration.   

TFQ in an online survey focus on Doctor Who fandom. Initially, looking at examples of digital humanities projects, I intended TFQ to collect fan responses to a questionnaire and allow them to upload artifacts.  The technical hurdles for that kind of online portal proved too much for me to accomplish.  Taking a step back and assessing the project's goals, I worked (with Dr. Jenkins) to hone a set of substantive questions aimed at exploring Doctor Who around questions of identity.  Naturally, our decision to pursue this approach was influenced by the explosion of scholarship that has greeted the program since its 2005 return and the 50th anniversary of the program  in 2013.  


Although scholars have argued the new series revived by Russell T. Davies was highly critical of the United States, TFQ seeks to understand the audience through their reflections. Building on scholarship that has discussed Doctor Who’s link to 9/11 geopolitics and the consequences of the war on terror, TFQ asks questions to garner insights linked to identity, culture, and power in Doctor Who.  



In practice, TFQ has collected over 600 response from all over the world.  With so many responses, we are slowly processing meaning in the answers. Currently, I'm concerned with clear conclusions that I can pull from the raw responses.  The word cloud above is based on the question, "What Ethnicity Best Describes You?"  

 I will spare you the story of the long discussion I had with a colleague about the difference between ethnicity and race and why ultimately I asked both questions in the survey.  Moving beyond the why of the question, the result sparks reflection. The image was generated by Wordle, which creates clouds by presenting words that appear more frequently as larger than words that do not. By taking the raw response from the ethnicity question, you can see the result.  We hoped to get response from places other than the United States and the United Kingdom.  We did, but not surprisingly, the Anglo-American success of Doctor Who came through in the responses.  This conclusion is too simplistic.  Indeed, Scottish, Irish, and English were lesser responses, which I believe will factor into discussions of the Britishness in Doctor Who.   Our efforts come at a time when fandom is waiting for Peter Capaldi's turn as the iconic character and Steven Moffat's tenure as showrunner faces strong criticism.   Perhaps our efforts can provide some clarity to this moment in the program's long history. 


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Black & ___________ : Seeking Meaning Around Words and Deeds

The Michael Dunn verdict adds to our collective disappointment around race and justice in the United States. I share the frustrations that Mr. Dunn's conviction does not seem to address the crime committed. Students approached me about the trial and I'm sure some will ask about the verdict. I will be honest with them. I will explain that I agree with comments that racism mattered in this case. I will discuss how a systematic prejudice linked to African Americans (especially males) in the public sphere allows violence against their persons.  I will point out that the mechanisms that created and encouraged this way of thinking are greatly diminished, but the legacy persists. However, rather than rest on statements alone, I decided to illustrate my point using Google Ngram, a phrase-usage graphing tool integrated into Google Books. Below is a series of usage charts between words used as racial descriptors for African Americans such as negro, blacks, and colored and several American English words in books printed between 1800 and 2000. I omitted African American from the comparison because it came into use late in the 20th century.
Google Ngram functions by searching millions of scanned texts. This tool shows the association between words over time.  Thus, the relationship between black and gun versus blacks and gun suggests a pattern of collective thinking shaping their use in printed material. The implication provides some window into comments from social critics.  Despite civil rights activism, racialized thinking links people of African descent to incivility. Based on that association, those that are inclined to do so can react violently against black people. Michael Dunn's claim of self-defense should give us pause, not because he claimed it, but because the jury could accept it.  However, their actions merely affirmed what the collective narrative suggests, that black equates to dangerous.   Using that logic a rational white person faced with a black person (especially a group of black people) acting outside the strict bound of civility (whatever that may be) should fear bodily harm.  I hesitate to suggest a reversal of those circumstances would provide a different legal outcome (I leave it to your imagination). Instead, my goal, the best goal for anyone, is to consider the intersection of culture and history.  The words we use to tell our collective story point to an anti-black sentiment in the public sphere.  If we can raise awareness of the historical legacies that are influencing our contemporary,  perhaps we can overcome its effects.