Creative PhD Dissertations: Are Universities Closed Minded?

So I’ve been thinking about this topic of creative dissertations for a while… I am a 3rd year PhD candidate studying Research Methods and Statistics, which is housed in DU’s Morgridge College of Education, and being more of a “trans-discipline” this topic probably comes up every year in one class or another. And it’s not just my program that this concept is being examined. The field of education relies on the fusion/intermixing of a variety of knowledge branches, which has resulted in a growing expectation of flexibility/creativity when it comes to dissertation composition. Performance, art, and text that surpasses the confines of 1″ margins are gaining attention in a variety of academic fields and are being discussed in many graduate classrooms. However, while we learn about alternative methods of knowledge dissemination that go beyond a “text-centric” view of communication, we also need to consider why we’re choosing to utilize these more novel methods and techniques.

Within this debate some have argued that a more creative approach is often hindered by the glacial speeds of academia, involving individuals who are slow to take action and allow for more creativity. Recently a research team from Harvard and Northwestern sought to test out the idea of proposing innovative work within the science fields. Interestingly, the researchers found that “highly novel research proposals were being systematically rejected, receiving worse ratings than those with only moderate novelty” (Matthews, 2016). The authors state that this is due to the amount of creativity the reviewers are able to understand cognitively. One of the authors, Dr. Riedl, defines this concept as “bounded rationality,” which is the inability to “look across and beyond the knowledge frontier” (Matthews, 2016). He concludes that these findings are particularly concerning given the fact that this bias can affect the proposals that do and do not receive funding.

I think this is an important finding to explore in the debate surrounding flexibility with dissertation composition/presentation. In order to gain a more in-depth picture of this discussion I sat down with Drs. Barbara Wilcots, Ryan Gildersleeve, and Bernadette Calafell. They provided insights into this debate and I learned that it isn’t a binary, black or white situation. I came into this dialogue with a more simplistic “us vs them” mindset, thinking that writing a dissertation that doesn’t look like a bound tome was something that graduate offices just needed to get on board with. I rationalized that this reticence was because chapters and textual contributions are much easier to regulate and measure than performances and art installations. What I learned is that, like most things, this topic is complex and multifaceted, requiring us to use both critical and reflexive lenses when we make our academic decisions regarding dissertations.

Substitute vs Supplement

One debate that has arisen when students propose a more creative approach to their dissertations is that of substitute versus supplement. Some graduate offices have agreed to allow students more creative license with their dissertations if they produce both a written product as well as a less tangible supplement such as a video, performance, art installation, etc., with the latter used to enhance the researcher’s message/point. One of Dr. Calafell’s students chose the “performance as supplement” option and created a powerful dissertation about the oral histories of Chicano men in Denver that included a written portion as well as a performance of those experiences after submission. However, some individuals feel that this “double work” isn’t fair and that more offices need to move past their “bounded rationality” and allow students to perform or present their dissertation without the written component. While many institutions are choosing to compromise by offering the “supplement” options, others are starting become more flexible. For example, a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article featured A.D. Carson, a Clemson University PhD student and activist who defended his dissertation in rap. Rather than submitting a written thesis/dissertation, “Carson created a 34-track rap album entitled ‘Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes & Revolutions‘” (Zamudio-Suaréz, 2017).

Dr. Calafell also mentioned that some of her students are incorporating performative writing to fuse together the two substitute/supplement approaches. For example, one of her former advisees, Wanda Lakota, wrote a script for her dissertation. Her endeavor started as a documentary but evolved into a film script that focused on her brother’s struggle with paranoid schizophrenia (watch a digital story by Wanda called Betsy Bug). Dr. Calafell also incorporated this approach by poetically crafting her own dissertation, “Towards a Latina/o Politics of Affect: Remembering Malintzin Tenépal.” This technique can be used in a variety of ways, including poetically transcribing interviews in a way that emulates spoken speech or writing a personal narrative. If you’re interested in trying this out for yourself or learning more, one resource Dr. Calafell recommends is the performance studies journal Liminalities. Liminalities is a digital journal that lets scholars publish textual performance, experimental art, and film among other mediums.

Dr. Calafell admits that unfortunately these culturally ingrained options are still stuck on the page and expressed that PhD students should have additional materials available to them such as black box theater. She opined that text-centric approaches and requirements could potentially stem from our desire to “make our mark” on society; a physical trace that’s focused on individuality rather than communality. Dr. Gildersleeve concurs, stating that text is not the only way to represent theory and institutions’ text-centric mindset is a result of dismissing long traditions and histories of research methods that are performance based. He states that text-centricity centralizes privilege, white supremacy, and patriarchy. However, he doesn’t completely write off this approach stating that it’s the deployment that matters. He also asserts that the form and medium/media should be dictated by the methodological traditions in the field and not by administration.

Complicating this viewpoint, is the argument that this approach opens doors for appropriation. Academics, in their fervor to create something fresh and innovative, could misrepresent these methods and the cultures that created them. Over our history, scholars have been criticized for their disregard for the cultures that they’re studying. It makes me think of the situation with Dr. Carolyn Ellis’ research of the fisher folk communities on the Chesapeake Bay. She wrote her dissertation and book on, what has been considered by others, as an unflattering representation of a group of Guinea watermen that turned her from a “beloved outsider and frequent guest into a traitor” (Allen). Charlotte Allen points out that this instance “illustrates the degree to which the profession is caught in an uneasy bind between fulfilling research objectives and honoring ethical obligations.” Similarly, the same problem can arise when methods are used by non-local outsiders. Dr. Wilcots aptly points out she would have difficulty accepting a rap dissertation from someone who wasn’t from the culture that created, knowing nothing about its history for its creators, but rather seeking a fun, creative way to present their subject.

Deciding on the Appropriate Medium

One critical point to address when considering non-print dissertations, is the fact when you adopt a non-textual approach, it’s difficult to demonstrate whether or not it effectively represents the acquisition of expertise in a field. I think that’s what makes this whole debate so difficult to tackle; if we don’t have standards that we can actually measure how can we differentiate between a PhD and professional degrees such as an MFA or a JD? This concept of measurement and being able to properly evaluate accuracy, thoroughness, etc., comes with a wide range of opinions. Dr. Wilcots, former associate provost of DU’s Office of Graduate Studies, states that one reason universities require a standard in the case of dissertations is so they are able to provide evidence for the PhD credential. She reminds us that the word credential originates from the word credence and when one earns a PhD they are receiving a title that certifies their knowledge and tells others that there is credence to what they have to say about a topic. It is because we function in this system of credentialing that we are required to demonstrate our expertise in a prescribed manner. That’s why individuals pursuing an MFA degree are able to create a novel and PhD students are required to produce a dissertation. Dr. Wilcots also states that one of the problems with this debate is the fact that the concept of a dissertation isn’t properly defined in the first place. Since we’re lacking a structured explanation of what a dissertation is, it’s extremely hard to argue how it should be shaped and changed.

Dr. Calafell’s answer to this discussion is that performance, which involves a lot of theory, can be just as effectively measured as written work. She contends that performance itself can be the final product, due to representations of social, political, and cultural-critical perspectives. Dr. Soyini Madison, Performance Studies professor at Northwestern, has written extensively on this topic (one great article is Performing Theory/Embodied Writing). Dr. Calafell outlined 6 types of rigor related to the proper evaluation performance based scholarship:

  1. Interrogation of one’s own positionality
  2. Experiencing emotional labor that can’t be quantified
  3. Constantly revising- performance is fluid
  4. Staging/audiencing
  5. Interlocuting- She states that the best part often comes after the performance, during the discussion
  6. Placing concern on the process

Dr. Gildersleeve states that individuals in applied fields like education should be pulling from other approaches outside of social science due to its interdisciplinary nature. He asserts that education should become transdisciplinary, seeking a more pluralistic approach that is similar to Anthropology’s multi-methodological use of discourse analysis. For example, the aforementioned A.D. Carson’s “work included a timeline of social movements on campus, a blog, music videos, transcribed lyrics, and a peek into his compositional process. At his defense, he performed four of his songs and showed one music video” (Zamudio-Suaréz, 2017).

However, when we do decide to utilize mediums and approaches outside our field we need to ensure that we’re not just borrowing from the creative writing, performance studies, etc fields that created those methods but properly investigating and critically applying them. Dr. Wilcots states that not doing so dismisses the fields that produced those techniques and reduces them to a mode of communication rather than a field of study. Anyone can write a novel, pick up a camera and make a film, or compose a script. Nothing about those methods require what Dr. Wilcots describes as “an understanding and artistry of that genre.” She argues that what we need to be focusing on in this discussion is interdisciplinary presentations of knowledge. She states that “at the core of interdisciplinarity is understanding both fields of study, which takes time, effort, and a respect for all fields and disciplines represented in the scholarly work.” That certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be pushing for more creativity with our chosen mediums, but Dr. Wilcots states it does indicate that we need to be able to show that we’re not just a “tourist in the field,” borrowing what we need without proper knowledge or expertise to support that decision. It’s for this very reason that she recommends that any dissertation that draws upon a field of study outside of the discipline in which the degree is being offered have a defense committee that includes a faculty person from every field represented. For example Anthropology faculty are not trained and credentialed to provide a scholarly decision on the quality of a novel, and Higher Ed faculty are not trained and credentialed to provide a scholarly decision on a film.

Getting “Buy-In”

You need both faculty and administrative buy-in when it comes to pitching a creative dissertation. Dr. Wilcots states that while academics do need to shift the conversation and redefine research, PhD students need to be communicating how their more creative or alternative medium is germane to the discipline that they are trying to advance in their dissertations. She recommends that students desiring the experiment with alternative approaches demonstrate how the creative component reflects the theory when discussing their ideas with administrators. In other words, you should be answering questions like “How is this novel format or art installation advancing knowledge in my field? What makes a novel/performance/script more effective than a traditional textual dissertation? She acknowledges that there is room in higher education for more creativity but states that imagination needs to have a purpose when it comes to dissertations/theses. As was discussed in the previous section, as long as we function within the system of credentialing we need to find ways in which to properly represent the associated levels of knowledge and theory advancement that are required. Dr. Wilcots denoted the importance of being able to distinguish between professional degrees, such as an MFA, JD, etc., and research degrees, such as a PhD. With individuals holding the latter claiming to discover new knowledge in a field, things get complicated when their scholarly products become indistinguishable with those who are focused on the practice of a profession. To add to this complexity Dr. Gildersleeve points out that not all PhDs go into academia and institutions need to adapt to this shift as well. Additionally, Dr. Calafell claims that often times, departments are receptive to exploring new ways of communication, but unfortunately expectations are still very traditional at the national level (which likely comes from the unacknowledged biases of people in power).

Moving Forward

These discussions are percolating at institutions across the country. It’s important for us to continue to have these conversations and facilitate a dialogue that surpasses elitist knowledge and celebrates alternative methods of communication that go beyond prescribed textual formats. It is difficult for administrators to understand what they don’t know, and as doctoral students we should be working to expand and shape the definition of our degree and the products expected from it. We just need to also ensure that during these discussions we are also critical and reflexive about our methodological decisions. Dr. Wilcots suggests that one way to advance this conversation is to publish papers and present these issues at conferences, stating that the more we talk about these issues the more likely we’ll gain broader acceptance. “Paradigm shifts take time, and it’s important that we’re realistic in our proposals and reasonable with our requests.”

There are some universities that are starting to experiment outside of textual dissertations. For example, you have the aforementioned student at Clemson who submitted a dissertation in rap, Iowa State which is allowing visual ethnography such as participant and researcher photography and photo essays as ways to represent knowledge, and the University of London where PhD candidate Lucy Harrison was able to build a musical fort for her PhD. Nevertheless, I think that together as a PhD community we can be doing more to advance this agenda. At the very least we could pitch it to universities as a great PR move on their part. After all, PhD candidates who are thinking outside the box are getting featured in major publications. But I think the real onus is for us as PhDs to 1) explore alternative methods and techniques of knowledge representation, 2) be reflexive about those choices (Why are using performance, art, etc. over text? Is it essential to our production of new knowledge and advancement of theory?), and 3) present our choices in a cohesive, relevant, and understandable way to faculty and administrators. Dr. Gildersleeve believes that we need to innovate traditionally used methodologies and push boundaries from philosophically sound foundations. He claims that academics need to accept alternative versions of knowledge representation in order to stay relevant. With that thought I’d like to leave you with A.D. Carson’s words from his dissertation as inspiration for those who want to push boundaries in the cloistered confines of the ivory tower:

“Kweli said ‘I speak at schools a lot because people say I’m intelligent, no it’s cause I’m dope, if I was wack I’d be irrelevant.’ …This world of academia, however we want to describe it…is that world not ready for that dope in its uncut form? Can the scholars not just create or speak through hip hop as opposed to having it mixed with something else in order for it to be acceptable? We already know that people can experience and talk about rap without having someone else filtering it… I don’t think there should really be that much of a problem with me doing the scholarship that we call hip hop through rap, it shouldn’t be a problem” (A.D. Carson).

Resources/Reading List

Dunford, C. M. (2009). Deploying nature: A performance ethnography of community gardens, gardeners and urban change in a Chicago neighborhood. Northwestern University.

Lakota, W. (2013, May 22). Betsy Bug. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ra7pdwpvU9k

Carson, A.D. (2016, Sept 11). A.D. Carson: Owning My Masters Dissertation Intro. [Video File]. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/kWBhP0EQ1lA. 

Madison, D. S. (1999). Performing theory/embodied writing. Text and Performance Quarterly, 19(2), 107-124.

Pasque, P., Carducci, R., Kuntz, A., & Gildersleeve, R. (2012). Qualitative Inquiry for Equity in Higher Education: Methodological Innovations, Implications, and Interventions: AEHE, Volume 37, Number 6 (Vol. 164). John Wiley & Sons. (specifically chapters 2 & 3)

Tips for Landing a Postdoc Position: Insights from Hiring Faculty Members

The postdoc application process can be confusing to navigate for many PhD students. Deciding on what institution is the best fit, how you can set yourself apart from other candidates, and even identifying what postdoc positions are available can be tricky. To help you navigate this process, I decided to get some perspectives from the other side of the hiring process by asking some Sié Center faculty members about their thoughts and recommendations regarding the whole the process.

Finding the Right Fit

Before you start emailing faculty and  submitting applications, Sié Center director Dr. Avant recommends that along with salary and research support that each position will offer, applicants should consider the term, location, and job responsibilities for the position in which they’re interested. Where would you be willing to move for a short period of time? (Postdocs, at least in the social sciences, are generally for 1-2 years.) Are the responsibilities compatible with what you want to do? What does the position require? (Most postdocs require some writing and research; some also require participation in activities or research.) Specifically, at the Sié Center Dr. Avant states that the faculty are looking for high quality research, but also for research that reflects a broad view of global security issues and is directed toward contemporary problems: “We are specifically looking for students who want to engage with global politics as well as study it.”

According to Dr. Kaplan, who was a postdoc for two years at Stanford and Princeton, the nature of postdocs varies widely across different schools—some positions are with individual faculty, while some are with broader departments, and others are attached to research centers or projects. A benefit of being attached to a particular project or center is being more closely tied to a research community, which can be helpful since postdocs can fall through the cracks between grad students and faculty, and may have trouble connecting with an academic community. However, he states that a trade-off (if one can term it that) to that attachment is that the center- or project-based postdocs may spend more time on group projects relative to their own research; but this can also be mutually beneficial, since group projects offer postdocs the opportunity to learn new skills and methods, and develop substantive areas of expertise.

Conducting Your Job Search

You should be ready to apply for a desired position approximately six months to a year beforehand. Dr. Avant recommends that students also start looking at postdoc positions they might be interested in before that period so they are ready to apply when the time comes. “From a practical perspective, it might be a good idea to apply for postdocs and jobs at the same time in order to manage your time more efficiently.” Sié Center postdoc, Dr. Kelsey Norman, applied widely for postdocs and jobs. She recommends letting other academics (in your department or elsewhere) know that you’re on the job market. “This can help you discover jobs that aren’t circulated widely enough, as well as aid in your ability to learn about opportunities as new position announcement get released.”

C.V.s and Publications

When updating your resume/CV make sure that it’s clear and jargon free. Dr. Avant states that “applicants who communicate clearly and take the time to think about what their audience will want to know are highly advantaged.” Now, in regard to publications, Dr. Sisk’s advice is to “publish, publish, publish.” He advises potential postdocs to thoughtfully weigh the short-term monetary benefits of adjunct teaching (which universities will always have a need for) with the gains (such as getting hired and promoted) against longer term trajectories that come from a focus on publishing. He states that while he “would never have a blanket advice of ‘don’t make money,’ postdocs will likely have less time to take material to publication once the teaching, committee service, and other obligations of assistant professorship crowd in. ” Dr. Avant supports Dr. Sisk’s recommendation, asserting that more and more students are publishing in graduate school, making it increasingly important for interested applicants to have publications. However, she also says that “a very interesting project and strong recommendations from esteemed faculty about the worth of the project can sometimes outweigh the publication component.”

Hopefully this is helpful as you start your postdoc search. If you have any suggestions please feel free to add them in the comments section!

Award Winning Database is Revolutionizing the World of Data Access on Social Conflict One Incident at a Time

Data on social conflict now comes in a clean, flat, .csv file with any number of IV/DV combinations ripe for the picking (or analyzing) thanks to Dr. Cullen Hendrix’s  collaborative endeavor with researchers at the University of Denver and from the University of North Texas. Nearly a decade since its inception, the Social Conflict Analysis Database (SCAD) project was given the 2017 J. David Singer Data Innovation Award by American Political Science Association for being this year’s “best data contribution to the study of any and all forms of political conflict” (APSA). Today, researchers have the opportunity to combine, juxtapose, and differentiate information on nearly 20,000 social conflict events in Africa and Latin America with approximately 50 attributes per episode (think of the statistical power!).

Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with one of the co-parents of this brainchild, Dr. Cullen Hendrix, to learn more about this nationally recognized achievement.  Dr. Hendrix is a professor at the Josef Korbel School for International Studies and researcher at the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy. His current work “focuses on the political and economic consequences of environmental degradation and climate change for peace, security, and stability in the developing world, with a particular emphasis on Africa.” (About). During my conversation with Dr. Hendrix I was specifically excited to learn about the involvement of DU graduate students on this project!

Database Background

The SCAD project was conceptualized in 2008 and officially released in 2011. It serves as a resource for exploring various forms of social and political unrest in Africa and Latin America that are not covered in traditional datasets (think smaller-scale events such as protests, strikes, and riots). Information is aggregated via media reports from LexisNexis and manually coded into the database by a team of researchers. The project provides a robust repository for researchers seeking to explore a variety of different avenues of inquiry surrounding global social conflict. This year new variables were added which include information on women’s participation, gender, and sexual identity. Funding was provided for the first six years by the U.S. Department of Defense and is now being supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation.

An Open Environment for the Public Good

In academia, it’s an unfortunate reality that data is often hoarded by researchers in order to avoid getting scooped by competing scholars. In creating SCAD, Dr. Hendrix, Dr. Salehyan, et al. took a risk; they chose to make data available as soon as it was cleaned and ready for analysis. While there was definitely the possibility for researchers to get the jump on Dr. Hendrix with this approach, he stated that it actually turned out to be an effective way to drive interest to the data project and resulted in some really fascinating research. Many of these contributions have moved far beyond the contribution of the SCAD database and demonstrated what can happen when you tear down the firewalls surrounding data and open it for use toward enhancing the public good. SCAD data underpins analysis on topics ranging from the effects of cell phones on violence to the role winning national team football matches has on ethnic self-identification.

DU Student Involvement

One exciting aspect of this project being housed at DU is the fact that Korbel students have the opportunity not just to gain a great education about world affairs, but also attain applied data oriented skills that give them competitive edge when they hit the job market (and including your involvement on a grant funded internationally recognized project on your CV isn’t too shabby either). Skills in data management and content knowledge have provided a springboard for DU students to market themselves after graduation. For example, Richa Bhatia, who is now an analyst with the US Department of Defense, reports that as a DOD Minerva Project funded endeavor, SCAD helped get her foot in the door for interviews with potential federal government employers.

Additionally, one can really gain some intimate knowledge of a region when their combing through media coverage of social conflict events in that area. So as students are analyzing, coding, and managing data, they’re also gaining deep substantive knowledge on a social conflict in a specific geographic location. To enhance the somewhat tedious task of culling and entering information, those involved in the project have the opportunity to bid on countries that they find interesting and/or relevant to their area of research. One of the first coders on the SCAD project, Jennifer Williams, who’s now the Deputy Foreign Editor at Vox, had the chance to code data for Egypt. This comprehensive content culling for SCAD provided fertile ground on which to grow her knowledge for her honors thesis: “External Financing and Extremist Group Viability: A Human Capital Perspective on Egypt’s Al-Gama’a and Islamic Jihad.”

PhD candidate and former Sié Center research fellow, Jonathan Pinckney, worked on SCAD both as a coder – reading newswire articles and transforming the information in them into lines of data – and as a supervisor – managing the work of the student research assistants and troubleshooting day-to-day problems in the coding process. For him the best parts about working on the project was “getting to learn so much about the political dynamics of particular countries and working alongside a world class scholar like Dr. Hendrix, which was both a tremendous privilege and an incredibly rewarding experience.” Jonathan is planning on using his strong data skills in his new role as a postdoctoral research fellow at Norwegian University of Science and Technology. At NTNU he’ll be working on the “Anatomy of Resistance Campaigns” project; an effort to build the scholarly understanding of the organizations and social groups that participate in resistance movements.

Database Challenges

However, involvement on the SCAD project isn’t all publication-induced academic glamour; it takes a lot of time and dedication to code data. The daily grind inherent in data coding and management takes a specific personality type that involves discipline, nuance, and a certain contextual understanding. One of those discerning individuals, Jonathan Pinckney, cited “quantitizing” qualitative information as a challenge that he faced while involved with the project. He states “any data collection effort involves translating the complexities of reality into simple, consistent numerical coding. Dealing with events that are unexpected, or weren’t anticipated in the original coding scheme is thus always one of the most challenging things about working on this kind of project.”

Another challenge involves the complicated nature of creating a database that relies on material that is inherently based on varying perspectives and subjective vantage points. Exemplified by Dr. Hendrix as the Rashomon effect, this challenge involves the many (and often differing) ways in which people experience a certain event. Having to depend on information generated in this murky space that involves the imperfect process of human observation inserts a certain degree of bias to the information that comes across a SCAD coder’s computer screen. That’s why proper discernment and judgment are so important for the grad students who are examining these accounts. This, however, is tempered by a detailed codebook intended to ensure interrater reliability among coders and facilitate consistency with those using and interpreting the data.

Developments on the Horizon

In the coming years SCAD will continue to be maintained and updated. The research team is also working with a librarian who will help get the data hosted on a SQL server. This will serve to enhance the scalability of the project as well as provide an opportunity to generate data visualizations in the future. This year Dr. Hendrix is leveraging SCAD’s bevy of data points to explore more nuanced insights about repression and uncover connections between climactic conditions in Africa and social conflict. Be sure to stay tuned for his upcoming research publications as well as articles using data from SCAD!

 

Image Credit: Takver, Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Yolande Bouka is investigating female freedom fighters in Namibia’s liberation struggle

Meet the Sié Center’s newest postdoc fellow, Dr. Yolande Bouka. Dr. Bouka is a highly accomplished scholar who not only conducted the first systematic investigation of the legal journey and reintegration of former prisoners of the genocide in Rwanda, but had two children during the process! Here at DU she is working on completing her book manuscript on transitional justice in Rwanda and continuing her study on female freedom fighters in Namibia’s liberation struggle. In this study she employs a feminist analytical lens to narratives of military participation to explore women’s agency. Enjoy reading more about her groundbreaking research and the advice she has for DU grad students.

Researcher: I received my PhD in International Relations from the School of International Service at American University. My MA was also in International Relations from Seton Hall University. At the Sié Center I am continuing my work on micro dynamics of violence by looking at women’s agency in non-state armed groups based on field research conducted with former female combatants who fought during Namibia’s war of independence.

Dissertation Research: My dissertation, “In the Shadow of Prison: Power, Identity, and Transitional Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda,” investigates power relations in Rwanda’s transitional justice program. More specifically, I analyze how the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) manipulates the transitional justice program to legitimize its post-genocide rule. The project explores the legal journey of former prisoners accused of genocide crimes. This exposes the bearings of long years of socialization in post-genocide prisons on ordinary citizens and how one-sided criminal accountability challenges social repair. It also explores how released prisoners remember the multiple episodes of violence in Rwanda that took place during the 1990s. My research finds that incongruences between their memories and the official narrative on violence frame which violent acts the RPF regime chooses to criminalize or normalize for political purposes. My research finds that the legal framework forces Rwandans who journey through the judicial system to take on unitary identities that highlight their assumed criminality but eschew their victimhood at the hand of the state. I argue that the transitional justice program in Rwanda is one of the new battlegrounds of identity politics in a continuation of power struggle between political elites since the colonial era.

In my dissertation, I used a mixed-method approach that involved four months of ethnographic work in Northern Rwanda, where I conducted in depth semi-structured interviews with released prisoners. The project also entailed a critical discourse analysis of the official narrative on the legacy of violence in Rwanda to contextualize my ethnographic and interview data. My research is the first systematic investigation of the legal journey and reintegration of former prisoners of the genocide and offers a new investigative window into the role transitional justice can play in identity politics following mass violence.

Research at the Sié Center: I am working with Marie Berry on a project on women in politics in Kenya and Timothy Sisk on a project on innovations in peace building. During my time as a postdoc fellow I will complete my book manuscript on transitional justice in Rwanda. Aside from that, I will focus the bulk of my time on a new research project  “Gender and Security in African Wars: Learning from Female Combatants in Namibia’s Liberation.” This ongoing study investigates female freedom fighters in Namibia’s liberation struggle. As part of my recent Fulbright Scholar grant in Namibia, I used life history interviews and archival data to investigate the agency of female combatants in the country’s war of liberation. While contemporary analyses often look at women in non-state armed groups as a new and emerging phenomenon, they have in fact always been part of such groups in various capacities. Because scholarly studies of insurgencies in Africa are based primarily on analysis of masculine perspectives, I gender the narrative of the Namibian liberation by looking at women’s agency and how they navigated the rules and norms of the non-state armed group despite the limits to their participation. This ongoing project breaks new ground within the gender and security literature by applying feminist analytical lenses to narratives of military participation in episodes of political violence, which has not been applied to the case of Namibia to date. This research hopes be part of larger project on women’s agency in warfare in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Postdoc Job Search Steps: Because I have spent the past few years working in security policy, away from academia, it was important for me to focus my search on postdocs that would enable me to focus on academic publications. At the end of last summer, I started looking for postdoc through various sites, but my most fruitful finds were through word of mouth. Once I identified the fellowships I wanted to apply for, I familiarized myself with the faculty, the vision and mission of each program to tailor each application.

Biggest Challenge as a Doctoral Student: My biggest challenge was staying focused during the writing process while parenting young children. I had two children during the course of my doctoral studies. Luckily, I had a very supporting chair who encouraged me to stay focused and even came to my house once to discuss one of my chapters.

Advice for DU Doctoral Students: Publish before you finish your doctoral program and apply for research grant, even if you don’t necessarily feel the need for it. It will one of the key things committees will look for on your applications. Also, look for balance in your life. Mental health is a problem in academia.

Sie Center Postdoc, Kelsey Norman, Explores Migrant and Refugee Settlement in the Global South

A photo of Kelsey taken by an interviewee while conducting fieldwork in Alexandria, Egypt in 2015.

Happy day 2 of National Postdoc Appreciation Week! We’re taking this week to acknowledge the wonderful research our DU postdocs are conducting on campus. Today we’re featuring Dr. Kelsey Norman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Josef Korbel School’s Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy. The Sié Center’s many research projects focus on managing violence and maximizing resilience at the local, national, regional, and global levels. In her scholarship, Dr. Norman examines Middle East and North African states as countries of migrant and refugee settlement. Below she explains more about her research, dissertation process, and steps she took in her postdoc job search. Happy reading!

Researcher: Dr. Kelsey Norman: I graduated in June this year from The University of California, Irvine with a Ph.D. in Political Science. I received a Master of Public Policy from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Dissertation Research: My dissertation, “Reluctant Reception: Understanding Host State Migration and Refugee Policies in Egypt, Morocco and Turkey,” explores migrant and refugee settlement in three Middle East and North African host states and asks: What policy options do states in the Global South have for engaging with migrants and refugees, and what factors make a state choose one option over another? To answer this question I conducted extensive fieldwork and 131 interviews in Egypt, Morocco and Turkey with government officials, international organizations, local NGOs, and individual migrants and refugees.  I find that in the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, Egypt, Morocco and Turkey were able to mostly ignore the implications of their new inward migration due to three primary factors: migrants and refugees found ways to integrate into large informal economies, international organizations and domestic organizations intervened to provide essential services, and the issue of migration was not so highly politicized that it gained prolonged traction in media or amongst the national population. By allowing migrants and refugees to integrate in a de facto sense through minimal government intervention and by relying on international organizations to provide primary services, host states derive international credibility while only exerting minimal state resources.

I also look at the factors that cause migration and refugee policy to change over time in each host state. I find that geostrategic imperatives and international perceptions drive state engagement decisions more than the capacity of each host state. Capacity is therefore not only an empirical reality but also a perception that can serve strategic purposes, and this influences the choices that host states make regarding migrant and refugee responsibility. Additionally, I find that host states will enact a liberal strategy if (a) doing so allows it to co-opt domestic civil society critics, or (b) doing so will reap economic or diplomatic benefits from either a powerful neighboring state or a geostrategically important sending state. This contravenes the extant neoinstitutionalist and postnationalist explanations for why states in the Global North adopt liberal migration policies.

Research at the Sié Center: My primary project is working on turning my dissertation into a book manuscript, but I’m pursuing an active research agenda that includes: (1) further work on forced migration and host state policies in the Middle East; (2) migrant and refugee activism in semi-authoritarian settings; (3) the rise of global migration deterrence measures; (4) diaspora involvement in home country politics; (5) the role of international organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in determining host state migration policy outcomes. I currently work with Dr. Deborah Avant, the Director of the Sié Chéou-Kang for International Security and Diplomacy, but I look forward to working with various members of the center and of the broader Korbel academic community.

Biggest Challenge as a Doctoral Student: Endurance. Working on a project for five+ years is difficult under any circumstances. I began my dissertation project in 2012, just following the Arab Spring and as Syrians were only beginning to seek refuge in neighboring countries. I did not anticipate, as I was finishing fieldwork in the summer of 2015, that the migration and refugee “crises” I had been researching would suddenly become front-page news in Europe, the United States and across the world. What had been a niche topic as I was writing proposals, seeking out contacts and conducting interviews, suddenly became mainstream. Initially this seemed promising: increased attention would mean increased support in terms of international funding and perhaps even refugee resettlement. But the momentary global sympathy after the body of three-year old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach quickly dissipated, and was replaced by xenophobic nationalism, anti-immigration platforms, and calls for reinforced borders. Against this backdrop, the process of writing my dissertation between 2015 and 2017 was difficult. Often I felt that my efforts would have been better directed toward activism or public engagement that attempted to counter some of the racist and exclusionary rhetoric that has become so prominent. But I persisted in finishing my dissertation and the degree, and I’m hopeful that the research I conducted will eventually be available as a book, meaning that the labor and time spent in relative isolation won’t have been in vain!

Postdoc Job Search Steps:  I applied widely for postdocs and jobs. The primary resource I used was APSA ejobs, but because I was also looking at positions in policy schools or affiliated with institutes that aren’t necessarily composed of political scientists, I looked at positions advertised via other websites as well, including jobs.ac.uk and globaljobs.org. As a bit of advice, it’s a good idea to let other academics (in your department or elsewhere) know that you’re on the job market. Sometimes job advertisements aren’t circulated widely enough, but if something crosses your colleague’s desk and they know you’re in the process of looking for a postdoctoral position, they can easily forward the advertisement to you.

Advice for DU Doctoral Students: Various people during the course of my PhD told me, “the best dissertation is a finished dissertation.” Your dissertation won’t be perfect, and if you’re hoping to eventually publish it as a book you’ll have to do substantial rewriting anyway. More generally, I think this mentality applies to publishing and having your writing available for academic or public audiences. Don’t fret too much about perfection, and be brave about getting your ideas out there for peer-review or public critique.

DU IRISE Postdoc Fellow is Exploring Issues of Environmental Justice Between the U.S. and India

Did you know this week is National Postdoc Appreciation Week? Here at DU we are so thankful for the amazing contributions made by our postdoc fellows. They are such an important part of our scholarly mission and we’re excited to take this week and celebrate all their inspiring research. Today we’d like to introduce you to Dr. Pranietha Mudliar, a postdoctoral fellow specializing in Environmental Justice and Sustainability at DU’s Interdisciplinary Research Incubator for the Study of (In)equality (IRISE). IRISE  is designed to support research and creative work dedicated to issues of (in)equality, social justice, and inclusivity. Under this initiative, departments, programs, and units on campus have the opportunity to engage and mentor promising scholars in their field or in an associated field. Below Pranietha shares a little bit about her journey as a doc student and what she’s doing now as a IRISE postdoc fellow:

Researcher: I graduated from Ohio State University in August 2016 with a Ph.D. in Environment and Natural Resources. My interdisciplinary mentorship committee consists of Dr. Sarah Bexell (Graduate School of Social Work), Dr. Chad King (Sustainability Coordinator), Dr. Andy Goetz (Geography), Dr. Karin Wedig (Korbel School of International Studies), Susan Daggett (Sturm College of Law), and Patience Crowder (Sturm College of Law). I works closely with Dr. Wedig on fisheries governance and Dr. Bexell on teaching and additional research.

Dissertation Research: As a doc student I was driven by the question of how social and economic inequalities among resource users affect water management strategies in developed and developing contexts. I synthesized theories from collaborative environmental governance, common-pool resources, and collective action to uncover conditions and institutions that promote collective action in socio-culturally heterogeneous groups in rural West Virginia, U.S. and rural Karnataka, India. I then examined whether these institutions address racial and caste-related inequalities. My findings indicated that institutions that promote collective action are actually repositories of power that merely mute racial and caste differences without challenging existing power asymmetries.

Research at IRISE: I am conducting a cross-national analysis of how adaptive governance can advance fisherfolks’ capacities to participate in and shape the outcomes of fisheries resource management in the Lake Victoria basin in East Africa. Specifically, I am comparing the socio-economic and political conditions in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania that create opportunities and barriers for the emergence of adaptive governance of fisheries in response to declining stocks of Nile Perch (Oreochromis niloticus) in the Lake Victoria basin. In our research, we found that even in the presence of enabling factors (networks, learning leadership, and trust) that facilitate transition to adaptive governance, widespread poverty among local resource users, relatively low state-institutional capacities, and institutionalized power asymmetries prevent such transitions.

In another research project, I am examining factors that contribute to the sustainability of collaborative watershed partnerships in the U.S. and in India. I am collaborating with Groundwork Denver, a non-profit working on watershed management in the lower Bear Creek in Denver, to undertake this research.

Biggest Challenge as a Doctoral Student: Finding a work-life balance was one of my biggest challenges as a doctoral candidate. Doing a Ph.D. is a full-time job with a myriad of conference and paper deadlines, teaching and grading responsibilities, conducting dissertation research, in addition to taking courses at the same time, which can take a toll on a student who is just starting out. Through the course of my doctoral career, I learned the importance of carving out time for myself and activities outside of school and breaking my work into smaller, manageable chunks.

Advice for DU Doctoral Students: As a graduate student, while finishing up with the dissertation must be a top priority, collaborating with other graduate students and faculty on other projects is a good way to get publications out of the door. Working on projects other than the dissertation gives you opportunities to expand upon the breadth of your experience in conducting research and build valuable and supportive networks with fellow graduate students.

Graduate Citings Tales from the Field – Samantha Brown

samantha-brown-university-of-denverHello Graduate Students! We hope you’re having a spectacular summer filled with a balance of relaxation and productivity. For August we’re featuring postdoctoral fellow and DU alumnae Dr. Samantha Brown. Dr. Brown is committed to reducing barriers to accessing services for vulnerable children and families and has conducted extensive research surrounding child health and well-being. As a recent DU grad student Dr. Brown is very familiar with the stresses brought on by publication and dissertation completion. Be sure to read her research advice at the end of the article!

Researcher: Dr. Samantha Brown, postdoctoral fellow in the in the SEED Research Center in the Department of Psychology and PhD alumnae from the Graduate School of Social Work.

Current Research: My overarching graduate research program sought to translate research on adverse childhood experiences, family functioning, and stress into the development and testing of preventive interventions aimed at promoting prosocial parenting behavior and child health and well-being. In support of this work, I implemented a randomized controlled trial of a mindfulness-based intervention that I adapted for child welfare-involved families with substance misuse for my dissertation. In addition, I am working with a research team to identify the mechanisms through which early adversity and family stress impact current parenting and child well-being.

While conducting my dissertation research (which I finished in 2016, yay!) I found that the mindfulness-based intervention could be feasibly integrated within public child welfare. Findings also indicate that the program reduced parenting stress and improved parenting and child behavior problems. These results are exciting in that there is potential to implement integrative mindfulness programs within child- and family-serving agencies. I am currently in the process of submitting findings from my dissertation for publication.

Collaborators: I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn from talented scholars across multiple fields. The work that I have accomplished thus far would not have been possible without the great support and mentorship that I have received from my advisor and dissertation chair, Kimberly Bender, and my committee members, Jeffrey Jenson, Jennifer Bellamy, and Lavita Nadkarni. I will also continue to pursue this important area of study as a postdoctoral fellow under the mentorship of Sarah Watamura in the SEED Research Center.

Initial Inspiration: My prior clinical experience as a substance abuse counselor and child welfare caseworker is the driving force behind my current research interests and has motivated me to serve as a catalyst for change in reducing barriers to accessing services for vulnerable children and families. I worked with many children and families impacted by early adverse experiences and became interested in exploring alternative interventions that might be useful in helping individuals to develop sustainable skills to cope with these stressful situations.

Biggest Challenge: Setting aside enough time to complete tasks has been a challenge! I often underestimate how long projects may take, and then feel guilty when I don’t cross items off of my list. I have slowly learned to be strategic about every bit of time that I have available, which has helped me to stay productive and motivated, for the most part!

Research Advice: It is important to connect with a community of scholars who can provide support during a time that seems like a never-ending process! Surrounding yourself by positive role-models can only strengthen your skills and will add immensely to your experience. Sometimes the publication process can be tedious, but don’t let rejections or negative comments sway you from pursuing your important work! It is simply part of the process, and use those moments as learning experiences.