Center for Digital Society and Data Studies
As a postdoctoral research associate at the Center for Digital Society and Data Studies, I am studying the implications of technology on civil society and democracy. In particular, I am studying political expression under surveillance and attitudes about privacy. As a postdoctoral scholar, I'm working through three main challenges: I am working on developing a scholarly identity in an emerging, interdisciplinary field, learning how to develop projects of the right size, and orienting myself at the University of Arizona.
First, studying "digital society" as a "data scientist" means that every person I meet asks what that means, and my answers evolve as I figure it out myself. I am working with a wonderful multi-disciplinary group of scholars, including Drs. Catherine Brooks and Yotam Shmargad of the School of Information and Dr. Samara Klar at the School of Government and Public Policy. I believe that working across disciplines is a stimulating--and increasingly necessary--process, especially in evolving areas of study, including how people behave online. From an interdisciplinary major as an undergraduate (Ethics, Politics & Economics) to a Ph.D. in Education, focused on the Economics of Education, I have developed skills in quantitative social science, particularly statistical and econometric methods for causal inference and randomized experiments. These skills--focused on proving that one factor can be causally linked to another--are very nicely informed by other processes of meaning-making (including historical and qualitative inquiry) and other quantitative findings (including associations unearthed by machine learning and carefully crafted measures from sociology and psychology), which makes multidisciplinary collaborations that much more valuable. My dissertation used descriptive and experimental methods to understand how participants interacted in three-month-long Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for teacher professional development. In crossing disciplinary divides, I find that normative ideals are one of the best constants to start from: I believe that the process of exchanging ideas can improve learning, cooperation, civil society, and democracy, and I want to build our knowledge of how that can happen.
Second, as a postdoc I am learning how to develop new projects that are the right scope. About a week after I began here, I began working on a proposal for a software platform that could revolutionize certain kinds of research. While developing this idea with my mentors and several others, however, we found that this should be something that we might build up to later. (A wise aphorism, "The perfect is the enemy of the good," comes to mind here.) Since then, I have learned a lot about taking smaller incremental steps. One of my current research projects involves how students think about educational data and what their privacy concerns may be. Another project, withmy fellow post-doc Dr. Volodymyr Lysenko, concerns how disinformation is spread online during elections. I am also learning more about how people choose what political and self-expressive information to disclose to others, as related to the literatures on communication, the spread of information through social networks, political opinion, and concern for privacy; this is leading to surveys and behavioral experiments to better understand interpersonal behavior in social media and elsewhere online. I am also very interested in Internet behavior that is heterogeneous by social group, particularly when this leads to blindness or bias; I got a chance to write about this in the New York Times' Room for Debate when I first started here.
Third, I am learning my way around the University of Arizona. Being on the University of Arizona Postdoc mailing list has been helpful in that, as has been the Writing Accountability Group I joined through that. I'm auditing a class with Dr. Jenny Hoit, "Survival Skills and Ethics," which is filling in some gaps from grad school and advancing me toward a NSF Responsible Conduct of Research certificate. Looking around for on-campus arts events has helped me see fun concerts like HarpFusion and the Faculty/Staff Choir and eagerly await the musicals Evita and In the Heights. Events like Tucson Meet Yourself (October), the All Souls Procession (early November), and Tucson Festival of Books(looking forward to it in March!) are helping me learn about my new city.
I hope that 2017 allows us all to tackle tough challenges, recognize as we make progress, and maintain our focus on and hope for a better future.