Public ethnography as innovative learning: an in-depth statement

Phillip Vannini and Laura Milne describe public ethnography as innovative learning in this writing prepared for Chris Schneider and Ariane Hanemaayer's forthcoming UBC Press edited volume "Public Sociology in Canada: Pedagogy, Ethics, and Politics. The text below is an advance version of their book chapter.


As part of a global popular advertising campaign plastered in more of the world’s airports than we have been able to count, financial giant HSBC tells us that our planet is full of untapped resources and investment possibilities. In one particular ad we are told that there are more people learning English in China today than there are native English speakers in the whole United Kingdom. We see potential of a related kind: there are arguably more students learning the language of the social sciences today than there are journalists, documentarians, think-thank researchers, and policy pundits combined. That is not all. There are probably more professional researchers writing scholarly monographs and articles on social issues than there authors penning trade books and paperbacks on the same subjects. Yet, neither social science students nor professional social scientists are particularly apt at speaking the language of the many publics they study and at speaking louder and more clearly than their better known, “pop” counterparts. We view this as a missed opportunity for the social sciences. Without wanting to sound too “entrepreneurial” we indeed view this as a great “investment opportunity” for the new public scholarship of the future.

So, how can social scientists—learners and scholars alike—make their voices heard? How can students and academics work together to popularize their work? What opportunities for the public to learn from social scientific research are made possible by different ways of communicating knowledge? In the pages to come we provide some answers to these important questions. We argue that one of the ways in which social scientific research can play a greater role in public discourse and in shaping the popular imagination is by taking inspiration from some of the qualities of an important social scientific tradition: ethnography. Ethnography, we believe, is endowed with rhetorical and substantive characteristics that are of great appeal to the general public. When carried out with the information and entertainment needs and wants of the public in mind, ethnographic research can reach beyond the confines of academic discourse and can position social scientific knowledge at the nexus of public debate, current affairs, and popular culture. Through a fully public ethnography social scientific research can better engage multiple stakeholders and play a key role in the critical pedagogy of the general public. But for that to happen social scientists must first learn to understand the grammar of twenty-first century public ethnography. They must recognize the importance of student involvement and collaboration, and the pedagogical affordances of multimodal communication languages and technologies.

We begin our essay by introducing the field of public ethnography. We situate public ethnography in a broader paradigmatic shift in ethnography towards reflexive, sensuous, interpretive, narrative, arts-informed, and more-than-representational qualitative research. Subsequently, we anchor our view of public ethnography in the technological currency of the times. That is, rather than in an exclusively print-based world, we believe that public ethnography can thrive in a public domain inspired and informed by diverse popular media, genres, and communication modes. We then shift our attention to pedagogy by outlining possibilities for collaboration between professional scholars and students. Students’ role in scholarly research is often limited to dirty work. But in a rapidly evolving technological context in which students’ communication skills are often superior—or at the very least different—to those of scholars, academic learning and research can offer new opportunities for collaboration. We finally conclude with a brief reflection on institutional support. We argue that universities can facilitate the growth of public scholarship by promoting transdisciplinary collaboration, applied research, innovative pedagogies, and community-based criteria of scholarship relevance.

As a co-authoring team comprised of an academic and a student with professional expertise in the field of knowledge mobilization and community-based research we hope that our diverse experiences, visions, and reflections presented in this essay will hold value for university faculty, administrators, and learners, as well as the multiple audiences outside of academia who stand to gain from an innovative approach to research production, distribution, and consumption.

Public Ethnography

Throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century several social sciences including sociology—as discussed by contributors to the volume—have experienced various pulls and pushes for more publicly-engaged forms of scholarship. Sociologists have debated at great lengths the merits and perils of a different social function for their discipline and found numerous reasons to disagree with each other. But ultimately we find that most of these differing viewpoints can be traced back to the competing differing epistemologies—such as positivist, humanistic, and critical—which for so long have fragmented the discipline.

Other social scientific fields and disciplines have responded to calls for public scholarship in different ways. Human geography, for example, has been much less divided over its public role. As several commentators have noted, geographers have much to gain and very little to lose by playing a greater role in public discourse (Castree et al. 2008; Davis and Dwyer 2008; Fuller 2008; Fuller and Askins 2010; Murphy et al. 2008; Ward 2006, 2007, 2008). Dissent with this view, indeed, has been minimal. To be sure, the discipline of human geography is in a unique position due to the enormous influence of the “cultural turn” amongst its practitioners. Amongst other dynamics the cultural turn has influenced the subject matter of human geography’s research agendas, research methodologies, and dissemination strategies—freeing human geography of many of the anxieties caused by traditional value-free research. Also thanks in large part to the diffusion of more-than-representational theoretical ideas human geographers are now at the forefront of methodological experimentation, collaboration with the arts and humanities, and theoretical innovation.

Cultural anthropology enjoys a similar state of affairs. Due in large part to the historical acceptance and traditional relevance of general audiences-friendly approaches such as visual ethnography—with a foot firmly planted in the academic realm and a foot planted in the documentary film tradition, or the type of photographic documentary coverage made popular by wide distribution magazines such as National Geographic—cultural anthropologists are potentially well-equipped to play a visible public role (Borofsky 2000, n.d.; Lamphere 2004; McClancy and McDonaugh 1994; Purcell 2000; Scheper-Hughes 2000). Indeed pronouncements on the importance of a public anthropology have been met with little or no resistance, and wherever resistance has been manifested it has centered more around the identity of public anthropology (e.g. how was it different from the well-established tradition of applied anthropology?; e.g. see Gottlieb 1997) than around its inherent value. So, in short, the degree of acrimonious debate over the worth of public scholarship that has taken place within sociology seems to be less of a norm and more of an exception to the generally positive recognition of the value of a public scholarship. Sociology’s intestine struggles between quantitative and qualitative research are unknown in anthropology and a thing of the past in human geography.

To appreciate the potential of public social scientific research, therefore, one has to learn from pan-disciplinary trends and circumstances. This is why, as opposed to many other contributors to this volume, we do not even pose ourselves the normative question of whether or not we should do it. Indeed we are already doing it (e.g. see Vannini 2011, forthcoming). And it is from this practical—not normative—and post-disciplinary point of view that we begin with our treatment of public ethnography.

By ethnography we mean the in-depth study of people’s ways of life, of cultures. There are many different kinds of ethnography but in its most basic terms ethnography is research focused on describing and understanding social life from the perspective of the people who take part in it. Besides putting themselves in the shoes of the people whose ways of life they study, ethnographers work differently from most other researchers in virtue of other qualities of their research, such as its ability to portray people, places, and times in vividly descriptive detail, and its emphasis on the researcher’s immediate and direct involvement with, participation in, and experience of the lifeworld object of study.

Recent trends in ethnography have further honed these qualities, emphasizing the narrative, sensuous, embodied, participatory, confessional, impressionistic, and interpretive value of this form of research (e.g. see Knowles and Cole 2008). By ethnography, therefore, we further mean here a type of research that—not unlike conceptual art—imaginatively enlivens and animates lifeworlds, evoking cultural dynamics that creatively render the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. Ethnography is also a simple and intuitive way of knowing which is well-recognized by many in the general public as a way of doing empirical social scientific work. Joe Average and Jane Doe may not be able to define ethnography, and may even never have heard the word before, but the idea of a researcher becoming immersed in a community to learn the ways of life of its members is a powerfully captivating and broadly understood idea.

As Gans (2010) has outlined, ethnography is in a unique position to command the general public’s attention. Ethnographic description and tropes resemble those of the novel. Ethnographic portraits of cultures, people, times, and places speak to the general public’s predilection for intimate, personable, context-bound, curiosity-evoking renditions of life. Ethnography’s anchoring in everyday life dialogues and interactions is also liable to make sense to a public that may otherwise be baffled by the abstruse conventions of laboratory experiments or the jargon of discourse analysis. And ethnography’s tackling of contemporary topics speaks well to public needs for in-depth coverage of current affairs as they affect them and their local communities. In short, ethnography’s treatment of culture and places seems to resonate well with audiences broader than academic ones. Ethnography has enjoyed strong recognition in sociology, anthropology, and geography—there should be no mistake about it.

But in sociology—more than in anthropology and human geography—ethnography has suffered from a somewhat contested status. Sociology’s dominant nomothetic and realist epistemologies have often translated in the under-privileging of the ethnographic tradition, which has more or less therefore remained castigated in a minority position. From such position sociological ethnographers have had to fight hard to defend their legitimacy. These struggles have yielded various kinds of ethnographic techniques, procedures, and stratagems that have often lent sociological ethnography a certain aura of “scientificness.” Triangulation, various checks, grounded theorizations, anonymous and formal representations and the like have often made ethnographic research more similar, rhetorically, to the hypothesis-testing flavor of its positivist and post-positivist counterpart than to more captivating travelogues and novels (see Adler and Adler 2008). As a result, despite its potential to attract the attention of the reading public, sociological ethnography has had only mixed success at the bookstore. Because of the broad relevance of sociology as a discipline on the rest of the social sciences, sociological tendencies in ethnographic methodology have become relatively widespread. So, because of the science wars happening in sociology, ethnography as a whole has often felt uncomfortable in its own skin, and often missed opportunities to play a greater public role.

Today more and more advocates of a fully—that is, more self-secure—public ethnography however are coming forth (see Tedlock 2005). For example within sociology Herbert Gans (2010:98) has argued that public ethnography appeals to the public “more effectively than other ways of doing sociology at least when it reports on topics and sites of general interest.” Not only does ethnography make for a better read than most research, according to Gans, but it also brings out some of the best virtues of social scientific research, as it is “about the lives and problems of ordinary people, and because it obtains much of its data directly from such people” (2010:99). For Gans ethnography has to be relevant and accepted by the general public. Carefully chosen topics, timely coverage, accessible writing (which often translates in research that is less theory-driven), and the ability to speak to issues that the public deeply cares about can make public ethnography more relevant and attention-demanding than what can be found in the news.

Indeed, public ethnography can offer more depth than news and documentary journalism can. Its in-depth treatment of issues can aid in explanation and understanding—something which journalism often has neither the means nor the interest in providing. Similarly Vaughan (2005) and Becker, Gans, Newman, and Vaughn (2004) have argued that public ethnography can not only capture the attention of the reading public, but also of policy-makers. The communication strategies that public ethnography demands have similarly been the subject of reflection within public anthropology. For example in a recent collection by Waterston and Vesperi (2009) several ethnographers have reflected on the tactics needed to make writing more engaging. For Scheper-Hughes (2009) making ethnographic work more accessible and accountable requires pleasant writing, but also collaboration with journalists and the popular media. Thus whereas for Gans journalists and authors of trade books represent a form of competition to both learn and take distance from, for Scheper-Hughes (2009:1) the news world is potentially an ally characterized by “thoughtfulness, thoroughness, dedication to accuracy, and […] ethical and political sensibilities.” While she recognizes some of the dangers at stake in playing a public role, rather than “contaminating” oneself by meddling with journalists and the masses a public ethnographer has much to gain from making one’s research public. In sum, ethnography has traditionally been in a unique position to command the audience of the general public.

Because of insecurities fueled by academic diatribes, however, ethnographers have not always taken advantage of the potential of their work to enter public discourse. But as of recently, as calls for public scholarship writ large and public ethnography continue to mount, and as trends especially within cultural anthropology and human geography continue to pull ethnographic research farther away from some of its positivist tendencies, public ethnographers find themselves better actualizing the potential of their work by writing in more appealing styles and by engaging in public discourse together with journalists and popular media. The next step for the growth of public ethnography as a form of public scholarship, we argue, is to take advantage of the continuing changes in the acceptance of multimodal research, as well as the expanding possibilities for producing and distributing appealing and wide-reaching multimodal research.

Multimodal Ethnography

Traditional ethnographies are unimodal, that is, they are communication products that make use of only one mode of communication: writing. In simple words modes are the ways in which people, objects, or animals communicate. Speech is a mode of communication, for example. Gesturing and singing are other modes. Modes are not synonymous with media. Media are the channels carrying our communication modes. Thus, for instance, a book—which is a particular medium—can carry writing, but so can other media such as a newspaper, a website, a peer-reviewed journal, etc. There is nothing wrong with unimodal communication—indeed it has served rather well the intent of communicating complex and abstract ideas clearly. Unimodality, however, is only one option for communicating. There are other valuable options, such as bi-modality, tri-modality, etc. There are, in other words, possibilities to combine ethnography writing with other modes (Dicks, Soyinka, and Coffey 2006).

As more communication technologies become cheaper and user-friendly these options demand we take them into serious consideration. We are not suggesting that ethnographers abandon writing or that they take on other modes of communication simply because they are available. But we believe that multimodal communication can serve the aims of public ethnography effectively. Thus, whenever it makes sense for it to be so, we argue that public ethnography ought to be multimodal. Multimodal ethnography can be many things. Visual ethnography, for example, can be a combination of writing and photography (see Pink 2009). Such has been the most typical multimodal research expression in the social sciences.

But other multimodal possibilities exist. Writing, for example, can be combined with video. In this case an ethnographer can write a paper and produce a film that can be distributed through a website. By doing so a researcher can easily satisfy both career imperatives (which often demand that research be written and published in a peer-reviewed printed journal) and calls for public engagement (for example by uploading one’s video on a popular website like YouTube or Vimeo). Indeed even a photography-based ethnography can be shared in similar ways: with a paper ending up in a journal and photography being distributed through a website like Flickr, or better yet, a personal photoblog. Since print journals often severely restrict the number of publishable photos, and since they can only reproduce them in black and white, publishing them independently on a website makes sense.

Of course the need to publish photos or a video separately from a written article ceases to exist when a journal is published on the web. In those cases, whether a journal is published in html or pdf version, photos and video can be embedded directly into one’s writing. While photography needs writing to convey a more thorough message, video is immediately multimodal when it conveys multiple forms of communication such as speech, gesture, movement, other sounds, etc. Video is still unable to convey smell or taste, obviously, but its utilization can still aide ethnographic description considerably. Since ethnography is intended to convey sensations of a lifeworld (Pink 2009), video can do so quite efficiently. Think about how many words it can take to describe an object, or a person’s facial expression, or place, and compare that with the number of seconds it can take video to convey that. But video’s role in ethnographic research is not just to allow ethnographers to accommodate for larger quantities of their thick descriptions to be shared, or to render sensations, practices, and experiences otherwise difficult or impossible to capture through writing.

Video can also be used as a secondary multimodal technology to reproduce and report on other multimodal research productions. For example, some public ethnographers lately have made effective use of theatrical performances to share their research (see Tedlock 2005). These performances can benefit from a secondary, wider audience if cameras are employed to record theatrical shows. Video can also be used to report—in journalistic style—on other kinds of multimodal productions. For example, some researchers organize exhibits, gatherings, festivals, and other events that are essentially bound by space and time—that is, by the necessity of being there in person. Video can be used to record these events and share them widely, via the web or television. As local TV stations continue to struggle with budget cuts and find themselves limiting the original content they can produce, it becomes easier for research teams to have their productions (which represent “free content” for TV stations) featured on television channels, either as a short story as part of a newscast, or as a full-length special feature (perhaps for a community or public access channel). In these cases the video does not need to capture every single message the research intends to convey. Rather, a short video can simply be used to “advertise” the complete project (e.g. a book, article, etc.) accessible elsewhere. Whether it is a still photography-based essay, a documentary video, an event or performance, or a short video reporting on such event or performance, we believe that multimodal products resonate well with public audiences for at least four reasons.

Firstly, multimodal communication products such as video and photographic essays can be easier to find than most traditional academic products. Journals—except for the few that are open access—demand expensive individual or institutional subscriptions. Single article downloads can be pricey too. Books, which can be equally expensive, are also rather hard to find for most people, as they are neither marketed widely nor sold at large commercial bookstores. On the other hand accessing websites is inexpensive. By placing a multimodal ethnographic research study on a high-traffic website, or at least by carefully selecting strategic keywords and re-publishing non-final versions of peer-reviewed work on a personal or university site, or a widely used one like, an ethnographer can reach out to more people.

Secondly, multimodal communication products borrow from genres familiar to the public. Consider how widely read current affair magazines are in comparison to peer-reviewed journal articles. Despite the fact that many magazines welcome submissions from free-lance writers (such as academics and students) they are hardly ever the target of academics’ submissions. A photo essay article about one’s research study, properly “translated” for the magazine format, would undoubtedly be more appreciated by general audiences—indeed better understood—than a long and complex peer-reviewed journal article. Of course such magazine piece would not need to replace a journal article—it could simply be produced in addition to the former as a way of publicizing findings more widely. The same could be said about producing a video. Documentaries are widely consumed these days both on the Internet, Netflix, Satellite and Cable TV, and through DVD. Multiple publics enjoy watching a documentary video, much more than they might enjoy reading a journal article on the same topic. The fame of documentarians like Michael Moore—judged in comparison to social scientists who write on the same topics—is indeed quite revealing of this phenomenon.

Thirdly, multimodal communication products can make our research more visible and more accountable to our very own informants. Much too often people donate ethnographers their time, stories, and experiences without receiving anything in return. We have all heard informants complain that nothing came out of their research participation even when a peer-reviewed journal article or two were published on the subject. On the other hand, the ability to share one’s research with informants—and through them their personal networks—by the means of an accessible multimodal product can somewhat repay our debt to them. The first author of this essay, for example, has shared research back with his informants by publishing their photographs on his book’s accompanying website and by distributing research outcomes through a digital audio documentary that was aired on two widely listened regional radio stations (Vannini 2011). This has made the research more accountable (a politically important outcome since the research was taxpayer-funded), and it has even generated more informants because listeners and viewers contacted the researcher to volunteer to be interviewed after hearing about the research.

Fourthly, multimodal communication products can allow our research to enter the hypermedia realm—a realm that enjoys great popularity as more and more individuals spend greater amounts of time online, either on their desktops and laptops or mobile devices. Hypermedia research consists of scholarly work that makes use of internet-based hyperlinks (Dicks, Mason, Coffey, and Atkinson 2005). Therefore, an ethnographic study can feature files and external websites and various applications embedded within the text, which the user can access by following links. This kind of hypermedia product is likely to become increasingly popular as more and more users of academic research become accustomed to consuming research through electronic files only, without accessing print. Thus, an e-book for example can allow a reader to play sound files, view photos and videos, correspond with a book author via a book-related blog, and utilize other links. As more ethnographers learn to “compose” (not just “write”) for e-book readers, and as more book publishers look to e-book publishing to reach wider audiences, the possibilities to make ethnography more publicly accessible in virtue of its richer multimodal offering will continue to expand.

All of this, of course, opens the issue of collaboration. It can be technically difficult, at times, and certainly time-consuming to do this kind of public outreach. But newer opportunities open up if we tap into the resource of a large army of students who are often both eager to help and skilled enough to do it—the object of the next section.

Students and Public Ethnography

Conducting and disseminating public ethnography necessitates an open door between our academic institutions and the public. It is not enough to simply push research products—innovative and creative as they may be—out to the general public in the hope that they may catch someone’s attention. Rather, the door must swing in both directions. We argue that the logical gatekeepers at this door—the actors who can move most gracefully between the university and the public—are students. Today’s students are a relatively untapped resource available to universities keen to engage in public scholarship. Working outside of the deeply worn treads of the tenure-track, graduate (and to a lesser degree undergraduate) students blur the boundaries between the university and the public. With one foot in academia and one foot in “mainstream society,” students can act as the structural support for the “bridge” that many universities have been attempting to build through various civic engagement, knowledge exchange, and knowledge mobilization initiatives. This has particular implications for public ethnography, whereby various forms of student expertise can be put to use in the creation of innovative and collaborative research products.

With an increase in blended, applied, part-time, and distance-learning graduate programs at Canadian universities, an influx of diverse, talented, and creative early- or mid-career professionals are bringing to these programs an array of skills and experiences. The opportunity to further one’s education without having to stop working, relocate, or generally put life on hold is appealing, and universities are catering to this demographic of potential students by offering less traditional graduate programs which do not focus on producing career academics. Artists, musicians, photographers, broadcasters, journalists, consultants, designers, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, bloggers, activists, and others are seeking graduate degrees, and many are hoping to leverage their talents by blending their educational and professional experiences. The outcome of this can be innovative, stylish, and relevant public ethnographies that have appeal both inside the academy and also with the public.

As discussed earlier in this essay, ethnographic research has in recent years moved away from the traditional practice of passive, participant observation, and now emphasizes involvement, interconnectedness, and open dialogue (Tedlock, 2005). This new celebration of transparency has encouraged contemporary ethnographers to embrace subjectivity and engagement—a trend that lends itself to the production of public ethnography, as well as creating an opportunity for our academic institutions to respond to topics that are relevant to “mainstream society” and local communities. But the question of how to determine what is relevant to the public must first be asked. Although interviews or consultation through various media can give indications as to what the public deems important, students—who are embedded within public cultures already—can offer insights into popular issues and help determine what various publics may or may not respond to.

Students have unique perspectives which are useful in the design and dissemination of public ethnography, as they can judge the relevance of the subject matter from both an academic and a non-academic standpoint. The varied agendas of faculty researchers—funding, publication, tenure, promotion, and so on—can cloud their judgment and alter what they view as relevant research material. Students, on the other hand, can judge a topic’s relevance differently because of their relatively different position in society. Also, while within the academic community, students can debunk inaccurate myths about popular issues, and can challenge what is accepted as conventional academic wisdom. In sum, students can represent a new breed of academics, and can positively alter the way that most people view “the ivory tower”. New discourses on public engagement, knowledge mobilization, and community-based programming are exercising pressure on universities to be more transparent and accessible. Granting agencies, post-secondary education administrators, policy makers, and the public are all demanding clear returns on investment—they are asking what exactly is being done with both research dollars and in-kind contributions. Universities are, after all, public institutions. Hence, the challenge today is for the academy to prove its relevance to the public, and to reassure society that they are listening.

So, to begin with, universities would do well to consult, involve, empower, and make use of their students. Students, unlike most tenured faculty, can skip back and forth from academic discourse to popular discourse. They can push and pull knowledge from both sectors, and can pool wisdom in the creation of collaborative, relevant, multimodal public ethnography. Graduate students enter programs equipped with a range of experiences, talent, ideas, insights, connections, and—perhaps most importantly—wide-eyed enthusiasm. They do not doubt the relevance of their ideas because, more often than not, they evolve out of participation in mainstream society, pop culture, and the public sector. In short, students are already a part of the culture that public ethnographers aim to appeal to. Because of this, their perspective should be recognized as extremely valuable.

Popularizing ethnographic research requires capturing and holding the public interest. Media outlets, as well as the lay public, will decide which public ethnographies are recommended, liked, shared, blogged about, “tweeted” about, and so on. Students are a part of this powerful public sphere, and as such they are a lifeline between the universities that they attend and the public that they represent and comprise. This is not to say that faculty members are disconnected from public culture. Indeed, the walls that have been built up around and between institutions, disciplines, departments, and methodologies are arguably becoming somewhat permeable, with interdisciplinary and inter-sectoral research partnerships becoming more common. However, the differences between academic culture and public culture remain vast. Students can understand and translate the idiosyncrasies of both of these cultures better than career academics, and thus can represent the public within the academy and can represent the university in mainstream society.

Public scholarship and civic engagement are terms that are now regularly used within universities, funding agencies, and research councils. Academic institutions have set up knowledge transfer, knowledge mobilization, and knowledge exchange initiatives in an attempt to demonstrate the relevance of academic research to the public, policy makers, and practitioners. The translation and dissemination of academic research to the public has become an activity that university administrators and researchers can spend countless hours on. Whereas universities once coached students to write in a specific, regulated, rigidly structured academic style, now the struggle is in back-translating research for lay audiences—a process often referred to as “knowledge translation.” As discussed in the previous section, multimodality in public ethnography offers one type of translation necessary to communicate with diverse audiences, as it challenges the privilege of the written word by offering alternative modes of presentation.

But another simple and obvious way to produce public ethnography is to leverage, through collaboration and consultation, the diverse talents of students. Often, the talents of students result in multimodal research products that do not even need to be “translated” at all in order to be useful. For example, the student co-author of this essay coordinated a grant-funded knowledge mobilization initiative at a university for several years. As a part of this initiative, a community internship program that financially supported graduate students to work in partnership with a public organization of their choice was developed. Some of the partnering public organizations included various advocacy groups, a magazine, a youth organization, a food co-operative, an adult education institution, and a First Nation community. The products of these internships were indeed multimodal—ranging from documentaries to theatrical productions, from public events to marketing plans, and all were of extremely high quality. Other than an informal two-page reflection on the experience of the internship, the graduate students were not expected to produce anything written to either the program coordinator or the university. The benefits of this program were multifaceted: the students got experience working outside the classroom and in partnership with potential future employers, the organization got a capable and enthusiastic intern free of charge, and the university increased their visibility and engagement with the public. Rather than getting paid to write academic literature reviews or grade undergraduate papers, these graduate students were able to put their expertise to work in creative, inclusive, and inspiring ways. This is just one example of how students can contribute to public ethnography and public engagement.

The economic realities of our time mean that most graduate students have to work either full or part time while in school. However, teaching and research assistantships are no longer the only posts held by graduate students. While such on-campus jobs generally offer students a decent wage, they often demand a large volume of sometimes unacknowledged labor, and tend to focus on skills that are only useful within the confines of academia. Many graduate students are now early- or mid-career professionals and choose to maintain non-academic jobs while in school. Students who work in the public sector, for example, have access to a community of stakeholders who stand to benefit from academic research and are also a receptive audience for public ethnography. Additionally, this public audience can communicate their perspectives and needs to universities through working students, influencing research agendas, creating synergies for exchange and collaboration, and weighing in on what is and is not relevant.

Students who work in creative fields can not only apply their artistic talents to the production of multimodal ethnography in their educational endeavors, but can also facilitate the dissemination of public ethnography outside the academy through their professional networks in the creative industry. A graduate student who keeps a photo blog, for example, will have a very different readership than an academic researcher who chooses to publish in a traditional journal. If such a student blends their graduate research with their photography and posts it on their blog, their readers will become new viewers of public ethnography. Professors in the social sciences would be smart to recognize the value that graduate students can contribute to the design and dissemination of public ethnography, and should empower and consult with students, engaging them in their funded research as collaborators and communicators.

New audiences for public ethnography can be reached through students who actively participate— either through their non-academic jobs or through their diverse interests—in community events, art shows, festivals, workshops, creative seminars, rallies, volunteer events, theatre, and so on. In their daily lives, students not only disseminate, but effortlessly translate academic research into language that is meaningful and relevant to the public and can be related to popular culture discourses. The diverse relationships, social circles, and connections that students maintain in their personal and professional lives offer tremendous opportunities for public ethnography. Students are a type of knowledge broker, acting on behalf of the academic institutions that they study at as well as on behalf of the public they are a part of. They are better positioned than most full-time faculty members to match public interest with internal research capabilities, and can steer their professors towards topics and approaches that are socially relevant. Through the social and professional networks of our students, academic research can find its way into the hands of people who can put it to use or enjoy it. Flowing in the other direction, input from these networks of people can in turn shape the design of academic research, ultimately making our post-secondary institutions more responsive to the public.

All of this is not to say that social science professors are unable or unwilling to engage the public in their projects. Indeed, many faculty members do, and even more are looking for ways to do so. However, students are able to operate outside of the institutional bureaucracy and academic red tape that constrains many grant-funded and tenure-track professors. Moreover, they are able to bring valuable skills and resources (such as time) to the service of public ethnography. This suggests the need for some fundamental changes in the way that academic institutions view both the role of students as well as the value of multimodal forms of public scholarship—the theme of our final section.

Institutional Support for Public Ethnography

Throughout this essay we have examined ways in which multimodality, innovative public ethnography, and the engagement of students can bolster public scholarship. Conference delegates, academic associations, and funding agencies have traditionally been the privileged audience for social science research products—products which have come overwhelmingly in the form of academic books, empirical journal articles, policy reports, and conference presentations. Diverse audiences for public ethnography want to see research wrapped in new packaging and in forms that make sense to them. We suggest that the role of students in public scholarship should extend beyond co-op programs and classes that offer experiential learning. Although these types of programs should of course continue and be expanded upon, they often get collapsed into broad institutional “civic engagement” mandates rather than existing as opportunities for students to demonstrate their unique abilities.

The vast and eclectic forms of student expertise need to be recognized, valued, and utilized by universities. Creative, applied, post-disciplinary, public assignments, projects, and theses should be encouraged by professors so they can be relevant to students’ lives and the greater public, and should leverage their various skills and talents. Diverse topics and approaches that relate to students’ professional and personal activities should become central to the work produced in the classroom, and opportunities for students to contribute to faculty research in multimodal capacities should be supported.

Research dissemination should not be the final activity undertaken at the end of a project. From the start, social science research should be designed, conducted, and articulated in clear language and with strategic communication plans that both hold the public interest and is also easily understood. The public audience can no longer be an after-thought. As our institutions face the challenge of public accountability and remaining relevant to mainstream society, we need to think about how this public outreach can be more easily accomplished in the future with the resources that we already have. Many graduate students are in fact future faculty members, and this new demographic of young scholars will be better positioned to engage in public scholarship if they are rewarded and encouraged to do so early in their academic careers. Our departments, institutions, and funders need to actively support—financially as well as politically—student and faculty involvement in public ethnography and multimodal research.

Faculty projects as well as student theses that engage creative research methodologies, collaborative public partnerships, and multimodal dissemination need to be encouraged and rewarded. Debates about expanding criteria for tenure and promotion need to continue, and the peer review process needs to be restructured to include experts from outside academia. And finally, academics keen on connecting with the public need to approach the research communication process in creative and innovative ways. This means going beyond the status quo, where the written word reigns supreme. While writing should continue to be a priority, composing multimodally opens immense opportunities for public research and public ethnography in particular. As book and journal publishers gradually shift away from the monopoly of traditional, written word, printed products, academics can look toward students as knowledgeable teachers. Students can teach career academics, journal editors, and university administrators why and how communicating differently can make a difference. Students are already within the “industry”—their energies simply need to re-channeled. Their new roles and responsibilities might even attract new students, increasing enrollment and pleasing university executives. It is a very simple and potentially very rewarding investment opportunity—even business un-savvy and unfriendly social scientists can recognize that.


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