Spotlight on: Community Engaged Research
What kind of open work do you do?
I am a PhD student in English, and my research topics are mobility and racial dynamics that involve mobility. The open aspect is ambitious at this point but is definitely where I’m leaning. Mobility has historically been an issue since the 1850s – especially for African Americans. It’s very apparent that African Americans use the term differently than whites. Fast forward, in the 1960s and the civil rights movement where a different vocabulary and philosophy emerged about what mobility was. For instance, bus boycotts were so important because they showed us how autonomy intersects with public transportation as well as with civil right and human rights. That led me to the Negro Motorist Green Book and Travel Guide. These were travel guides that African Americans used when they traveled country: they advertised safe places for us to go, where we could get gas and lodging in the Jim Crow era. Push ahead to the 1990’s and the present where we ask if mobility should be considered a human right. Is automobility considered a human right?
How would you describe your research to your family vs. your advisor?
There are major differences. I explain it to what my dad would call no non-stakeholders by simply saying we have to think about how we move around the nation and our local communities. We have to look introspectively and think about how our travel is affected by our history, events we’ve seen, and our nation of citizens. One of my biggest terms is autonomy. Faculty understand this because they’ve read entire books about this concept but when I talk with students I explain it as free will. You have the ability to get into a car, because of physical and social mobility. That’s your autonomy. I say, “Hey, take a look at that, you have the free will to do what you may.” History has an answer to this question I’m always posing.
As someone pursuing a PhD in English, how did you get interested in this topic?
A few ways. First and foremost, I grew up thinking about transportation in Houston. It’s a car-crazy culture, and the city is set to build up social and physical mobility. Cars were amazing rolling through different parts of the city. I went to college and chose English because I thought books are great! But I was influenced by how I grew up in the suburbs of Houston. My father and I moved around the state throughout my time in high school and when we moved to inner city Houston, and I didn’t have a license. I wasn’t ready to drive. So I started using public transportation, and it changed my world! I had my own sort of autonomy.
As an undergraduate student, a professor said, “Matt, you really like looking at movement, so sign up for this class about kinesthetics.” In that class, I wrote my capstone essay about James Weldon Johnson’s “The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man”. It was a pivotal book for me because it covers the intersected issues of race and mobility. It highlighted the consideration of race in navigating space. I thought, “This is brilliant!” He’s talking about moving but being challenged through it all. I didn’t take that project up again until I started graduate studies here at the University of Washington and took a class about digital humanities. There I worked on an open research project regarding automobility and I started finding more instances of mobility and automobility in the literature I was reading. That was my lightbulb moment. I started thinking, “How do I make this relevant?” I found that my own experiences using all forms of transportation can be applied not only to literature and history but also to anthropological experiences across cultures and nations.
I’ve been reaching out to different providers of transit like Sound Transit and King County Metro Transit in hopes of collaborating with them. All of this work is wrapped up in my English 121 course I’ll be teaching on accessibility and affordability in Seattle.
How do you incorporate open scholarship into your teaching?
I’m trying to figure out if I can incorporate openness into my teaching. I’m testing the waters, so to speak. Teaching this English 121 course is my first step into pedagogy rooted in service learning. So my students go into the community and do different tasks and writing assignments, and they reflect on these. I want to see what their thought process is. Who are they as people? Why do they identify with a certain community? Why do they engage in mobility this way? My goal is to write a 20 page paper on this course to submit to the MLA [Modern Language Association] Convention next year. I’d also like to create a mini-summer course teaching on community engagement. It could also be a sort of call to activism. We’ve seen on the news stories about driving while black or flying while brown and there’s history behind this that can’t be locked away in the ivory tower. It should be on the front page of what the University of Washington and any university who hires me has to say. We have the research out there and the questions have been posed. We’re extending past books and we’re reading into the community service realm and culture studies by extension. This is one of few topics that resonates with everyone–how do you experience movement?
What are the methods and tools you are using to make your work open?
That’s one thing I’m still experimenting with right now. I plan on submitting an essay I’ve been sitting on for the past six or seven months to my committee chair. I’d like to get it out there before I start the dissertation process. One thing you can do is put it on a peer reading list and get feedback from that to form your PhD thesis. Basically, there has to be a launchpad from letting the idea sit to making it full-on open research. It seems like a lot of work but I think it could work out well. I’m interested in open access journal publishing as well but need to do more research on that.
The Carlson Leadership & Public Service Center is great in finding community partners each year. I’m trying to develop a community partnership with transit and with the Housing Development Consortium, a group that offers affordable housing opportunities. I’d like to solidify those relationships so we bring this topic to students more often and have conversations about homelessness and the factors that lead to this. Usually accessibility and mobility are factors, which comes back to transit. So, if I can build more relationships at the community organization level, I’d like to spearhead new projects about how the University of Washington affects urban planning and the research behind it becomes more and more relevant.
What barriers have you faced in trying to work openly?
I would say I don’t know just yet. The only thing I can think of is that someone has already spoken about these things. They’re in journals I haven’t read yet. I’m trying to get work out there accessible to everyone. I’m just getting started. It will take me a while to know what specific barriers are there.
What skills have you had to learn in order to work openly?
Ironically, researching! I’ve been working with Elliott Stevens, English Studies & Research Commons Librarian, on more techniques and to find more sources that I need. When you make it to the graduate level you have to be able to do that. You have to be able to dig into archives and understand research better. As I learn more and more about it, I think these are the things I want people to know how to do to learn more about my own topic as well as others’. So as I build more and more skills in that realm, I build in reflection about how to build my topic in the future to make it attainable.
Why do you work openly?
I want to work openly because I have a connection to it from having grown up the way I did and thinking about spaces, who gets to go to what spaces, and how we get there. It’s such an interesting thing that we don’t think about. We take it for granted. We don’t think about it until something goes wrong and you can’t drive your car where you want to go. Or you can’t get a U-Haul. Or when you’re late getting somewhere and the bus isn’t working. Transportation is pivotal in how we understand this world and it’s only going to become more relevant as we become cramped and crowded. This isn’t something just for academics; this is something for all political discussions. If you want us to live next to each other, we need to be able better understand each other’s movement. We need to talk about these things openly, by hosting an event each quarter. I want to [say to my students,] “Keep a log about how you use your U-PASS and how it could be more accessible.” It could do a lot of good.
I want to be an asset not only to University of Washington but also to anyone who would hire me. If we study literature, it has to expand beyond just conversations of the past. Rather, service learning and community could enhance our learning experience. It’s your movement!
What opportunities does working openly offer that traditional scholarship does not?
It gives me so much more input from a wider group of people, and traditional scholarship —from what I’ve seen—revolves around exclusivity, not only in speech but also about topics. There is a bubble. When you expand the bubble, you get more information. You may be getting a lot of the same feedback but maybe those are the things we need to study. For instance, we need better public transit but where are these roads going to go? How is everyone’s mobility tied into that? When you open the field to more input, you get more speech back and forth that draws attention to details once overlooked. There’s more room for collaboration. I don’t want to lock myself into the ivory tower and say these topics are only for academics and students. I want everybody to read and talk about these things because they are critical.
What do you think is the future of open scholarship in your field?
My field is English. What I’ve figured out is that English is at a pivotal point where they’re trying to draw from other fields to make the work interdisciplinary. Open access and open research encourages that because it’s not just people in that field. A perfect example is textual studies because it’s not just writing but also publishing history: how ideas are put into physical form and distributed around the world. That’s an example of how English is merging with other fields, and the result is beautiful. English is tilting toward this for relevancy, new blood essentially.
What’s the vision we should be working towards as a community?
That’s a hard one. It’s definitely got to be rooted in accessibility of information. One [undergraduate] professor at University of Texas was telling me about the democratization of information. We live in a world where the term “fake news” is thrown around but we don’t push against it any more. We leave it there. We have piles of information at libraries and we’re lucky to be university students. You can go to the information source and figure out what’s wrong with that information. Open research allows us to come into contact with differing skills, views and fields one book, essay, or study at a time. It leads us to say there’s more to this work than these weird ideas we see in pop culture in our daily lives. We are here. We have voices coming at you from this field or that field. You should take it on. Videos are becoming increasingly important. I took a digital storytelling workshop recently and would love to have my students create digital stories for service learning work that could wield potent information. Digital stories can show us these are the issues, and this is how it’s enacted in the real world.