Translating Research Beyond Academic Journals — Potential Wins and Pitfalls

Since I left TED and returned to Grad school, I have been navigating the world of research writing and regularly asking “who is the audience here?” I care very deeply about making research accessible to a wide audience, not just other academics. I remember grimacing my way through some TEDtalks, cringing when statements were made with too much certainty or an exaggerated finding. But I also find myself grimacing through lectures that run for hours without clear definition. Writing for a book or an article is a very different practice than writing for video or radio. Since media has taken may different forms, media literacy — and expectations — need to be clearer. So, how do we approach all the cool tools that exist in our Media ecosystem?

For precision and peer review, academic journals are unparalleled. It is easy to follow conversations between them and see where someone was coming from because there is a clear code of conduct with citations. Debates are also public, so when something is uncertain, there will likely be notes nearby. The community is good about critiquing work and bringing to light inconsistencies. That said, academic journals are inaccessible to most people (paywalls) and so full of dense, clunky writing that requires training to unpack successfully that it cannot reach some of the communities who need it the most. There are some debates where nothing seems certain and selecting a direction forward seems difficult and dangerous. But these are the best places to go for truly in-depth research and understanding its limits. These articles require a lot of time and attention to unpack.

Nonfiction, wider audience books try to turn this clunkier writing into a format for a wider audience who is still excited to read 350 pages on a specific topic. Editors will shape stories with the researchers to help the book “flow” a little better, and some of the precision is lost in the sculpting of the story line. Books are not always fact checked, though books written in an academic press/setting may be subjected to similar peer pressures for rigorous methods that academics writing for journals may experience. Non-fiction books are written by academics but also by journalists and other writers who may have different or more limited training. The best way to gauge what kind of writing it is is to read about the author and consider some of their previous work. These books require commitment and attention to reading. It is also to important who the author is and what claims they make about their research methods in the book: what is disclosed? What is omitted?

Daily Newspaper articles — This media is produced more quickly than books and peer reviewed journal articles and has a different goal for its readers. These are shorter articles — geared towards informing busy people who are unlikely to interact with the nuts and bolts of the research behind the story. They want to know how it will affect them and they want the writing to be clear and quickly digestible. How you design sentences and storylines matter. This means skimming off another layer of precision. This is not necessarily a bad thing — quick exposure to many topics allows for individuals to be better informed about all the diverse activity taking place in research. But the limits of the research may be more difficult to understand immediately. “It kind of works sometimes” doesn’t really sell stories. It means you should continue digging, asking what the sources are, and following stories over time before determining what is “true.”

Radio and Video — Writing for Radio and Video presents different challenges. Listeners cannot easily go back and make a section go really slowly so they can comprehend it. Especially if it’s live. Sometimes you can pause it and replay it, but the ideal is to explain something with enough clarity and the right pacing that keeps the audience interested before they get bored. If radio/video speakers spoke the Methods Section of a peer reviewed paper aloud, the majority of their audience would tune out. Both are faster paced and require some elements of drama to make their elements engaging in ways that academic papers may not need to. Does it shave off some precision? Yes. But what is the goal with these elements? For a TED Talk, it is to present a window into a new world of research that may have previously been intimidating before. It is not meant to be cited necessarily, but hopefully it can guide you towards research that you can cite and engage with more deeply. Radio and Video are excellent for the “so what?” elements of your written work. Why should non-academic people go through the trouble of tracking down your article? How does it serve the community outside of universities?

Perhaps one mistake I see most often with research presented through Radio/Video is the certainty demanded from these kinds of performances. We all know politicians are lying when they say “we will do X AND Y AND Z AND A AND B AND C!” but it’s required from this public performance. I think that pressure translates into these mediums sometimes as well. In my ideal world, researchers would have a cool, intriguing question AND a clear “so what?” that was accessible to a wider audience. Then they could take you on a journey of discovery — what have you been trying along the way to answer your question? Not promising a result and immediate application. The TEDTalks and podcasts I’ve heard about the discovery journey are among my very favorites — and they serve to inspire new generations of young researchers.

I think it’s easy to say “X MEDIA HAS RUINED EVERYTHING” but harder to say, what is this medium doing well? How can I use it to make my research more accessible and engaging? How can we work together to improve the ways that research is presented in media? THESE are interesting and challenging conversations. It’s worth thinking about how your research would look in each of these formats — and how/why it changes.

Why it’s hard to record beautiful, hidden moments in labor organizing

Recording history as it happens is much more complicated than it seems. Victories are often celebrated privately and hope grows from these shared experiences with other organizers. I wonder now, how and why are these stories about successful labor organizer harder to find?

The voices of workers provide important feedback on the type of community we want to live in and the type of economy we can sustain together. When it is omitted or skimmed over, we lose a crucial piece of how economies are negotiated and built together. Most importantly,  there is a lot of creativity that goes into successful campaigns for change. Especially when the side arguing to “stay the same” can play to the same “fears of loss” factors that are so powerful.

I appreciate the creativity that goes into successful labor negotiations and the complexity, what it takes to get to the negotiation table and win important victories for workers. But the power dynamics of the work place and the economy makes recording stories from our workers and our organizers challenging. Sometimes part of the negotiation is keeping information, and how things play out, a secret.

While I was researching leads for a story, I ran into a case where the story was so important and inspiring… but the organizer needed to remain in the shadows to organize successfully. I was caught in a tension of wanting to celebrate this story that made me more optimistic about the future of labor… but it’s success depended on keeping private, between negotiating parties.

It made me stop to think about the role journalism plays in recording history, but also the complex partnerships and conditions that have to form to make long term change possible.

Labor is an important part of our community and efforts to silence workers and organizers limit our ability to have honest political discussions. If the only people with a voice are the CEOs and stakeholders, we have a very weird and unrealistic image of what it means to work in the company or the current workforce. And long term… creating a working experience that is only pleasant for the C-suite is not sustainable for the fabric of our communities.

Organizers like Saul Alinsky and Dolores Huerta have shaped how we think about organizing people, from political campaigns to voter turn out, workers strikes, negotiation in many different settings, research methods and so much more. Their creativity and strength lead them through some seemingly impossible battles to come out on top. It also gave me hope that “social structures” do change, we can negotiate. That violence and money as two currencies for dictating the rules are not the only options.

As a student, I learned so much from groups like Unidad Latina en Accion (ULA) in New Haven, which is an amazing organization that supports undocumented workers and protects them when their wages are withheld, they suffer sexual harassment in their work places, and they are not protected by the full extent of their rights as guaranteed by the labor laws of Connecticut regardless of their immigration status.

In the last few years, I am also so excited about the work happening through Palak Shah at National Domestic Workers’ Alliance who is thinking about different ways to protect and negotiate for workers rights. The Worker’s Lab is another group working to improve working conditions through negotiations between workers and their employers. Carmen Rojas, from the Worker’s Lab, gave a talk at Personal Democracy Forum last year about some of the work place conditions improved by direct negotiation.

I spent time talking to other students who later became Union Organizers themselves. Some publicly, and others in a system where organizers work covertly, organizing from within the workforce. Both of these methods are important and offer different methods for negotiating work place conditions.

I, naively, wanted to celebrate both methods for organizing, hoping we could use public discussions to support workers and organizers, and maybe inspire a new generation of organizers who see there are people fighting for better. But I also needed to acknowledge that the organizers who are not public in their efforts are private because the secrecy is a necessary condition for their work.

While I want to preserve their present efforts in history to other students can read about it now and later, to add this layer of complexity and creativity to our labor history, but I cannot do so without compromising their work.

The power dynamic of these work places (typically hotels and other service sector businesses where workers are expected to be invisible or close to it) is that the leadership is set on keeping workers disorganized and afraid. The organizer preserves an alternative and devotes time and energy to helping support internal efforts among workers to organize for their negotiation. The organizer is not meant to be a public leader, the silence is also about being part of the team and not calling more attention to themselves than to the negotiation.

As I can relate from my more recent jobs, negotiation is a sensitive and often quiet process. Victories are often private moments, and failure requires quiet moments of recovery.

I frequently wonder if this covert organizing if the future of labor organizing. In an era where Unions have lost some of the favor they once had, my interest in labor issues usually ends up with the typical derogatory “Socialist” comment (because we have a nasty history here of black listing “communists” and anyone who is sympathetic to workers with a label), and where inequality is seems to only be increasing… Is the best way to protect workers completely off-record, hidden, and perhaps forgotten with time?

I wonder, too, about the role of journalists here. If they play an important role in recording history as it happens, are there sections of history we are meant to celebrate more privately and then lose to time? Or does this story sit in a sort of escrow until enough time has passed to record it, before it’s lost?

I am left with my questions to explore and waiting for ways to support organizers, as they need it.