Doing more to make academic work accessible to the Deaf community?
In the last week, Deaf academics Dai o’Brien and Steve Emery have had an article published. Their paper picks apart the politics of power that regulate the roles of Deaf and hearing academics within Higher Education, and highlights (in particular) the massive dislocation that exists between ‘academic’ and ‘community’ and the critical role that academics who are themselves Deaf play in bridging that gap.
Given that it was written before the demise of CDS, it’s one of the most prescient papers that I’ve read in a long while. Unfortunately, you probably won’t be able to read it, or the one that it responds to which was by two hearing researchers, and about how they define themselves as marginal within an already-marginal field.
Both papers are published in a subscription-only journal.
The irony of this is probably sufficient in itself, and it’s led to questions from the Deaf community about how academics can make information and thinking available to the community.
With a three-year project about to start, and fuelled by the thinking in my last post, this is something that I’ve been thinking about… a lot.
Before I get to some ideas, though, it’s worth underlining some of the things that we (as academics) have to manage.
- We have to satisfy at least a minimum set of academic output requirements. That means producing at least X (2 at Bristol) outputs a year that score highly by academic rules. Beyond that, we’re pretty free to do what we want, but we do have to toe the line for that minimum to maintain academic credibility (and ultimately our jobs). This pressure is even greater for Early Careers academics, or those in fragile fields – like Deaf Studies.
- We have to follow the rules of the publishers and the University. We sometimes don’t have a choice where we publish, and we probably can’t make our own papers available if contracts don’t allow it. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take the opportunity to publish in accessible journals if we can, or that others can’t give away our papers if they are willing (as we can give away others’), but we can’t be asked to simply break publishers’ rules.
- We can’t give away too much pre-publication. Publishers want to know that what they are publishing is new – if they can find evidence that we’ve already put it online, or given it away, then they won’t publish it.
- We have to guard against intellectual theft, and loss of communicative control. In other words, if we share information (even in a ‘non academic’ form) before it’s been formally published, others can steal our work and publish it in their own name in any form they like. We have to be prepared to lose ownership of any information we make available, and assume that we may never be able to use it again.
There are possibly others, but these are towards the top of the pile. You can see why those unprepared to think outside the box struggle to produce anything that is accessible at all.
So, taking those things that we can’t do into account – Here are some things I think we can do:
- Regularly explain what we are doing. A couple of 8000-word papers a year that people can’t access isn’t much to show for a full year’s work. How can the community trust us if they don’t see our daily busyness? Blogs, mail groups, Twitter, and FB are easy. ‘Offline’ is harder work… (I’m particularly bad at the last bit – need to change!)
- Work together to break rules quietly. OK, so Person X publishes a paper and they can’t give it away themselves. But Person Y probably can without attracting too much attention. Let’s work together to disseminate.
- Make things easy to read where possible. This is self explanatory, but what’s the point in subversively getting papers out there if people can’t read them anyway.
- Work hard, then give away ‘spare’ time. For example, if I need 2 really good papers a year, but am capable of writing 5, then I could write 2 (or 3) and use the time for the other 2 for outputs of less prestigious forms – including face to face delivery at community events. Yes – this potentially means sacrificing career progression to do our jobs better… go figure.
- Use some of the time freed up in 4. to make things available in BSL. I also fail here… I want to do better.
- Initiate exchanges with community members, and community academics. We shouldn’t assume that we can just launch a paper, or idea, without having gained community feedback. Nor should we assume that we can ever really reach the deep grass roots of the community directly. Getting information into and out of a community will require conversations. Either carry out the exchanges publicly (on Twitter or FB for example) or incorporate that community ownership into the paper (the latter being a way of achieving point 8).
- Give away what we can after publication. All academics sit on massive stores of data that will never, never, make it into print. Give it away if you can.
- Exploit the rules. Community accessibility is a ‘methods’ issue for academics… so use high quality outputs to not only get academic work done, but community campaigning too. Co-author papers with the community and then open up the issues that that highlights.
- Learn to write outputs that can’t be stolen. No-one’s going to steal something that they have to work on. So, write ideas pieces, conversations, poems… other forms that people can’t just take and use.
- Exploit media contacts. If the press, for example, get in touch… then don’t just lose their details after the interview. Pursue them throughout a project, and start asking awkward questions… “How do we make this radio show accessible? Can we provide a BSL version of this for the website?” They’ll unashamedly exploit you and your work for their own benefit. Take control and do it back.
Please feel free to comment on any of these, or share your own.
In a future post, I’ll try and fit this into a three-year plan that I can deliver around the “Scripture, Dissent and Deaf Space” project.