Dr. Alex Ketchum is a Faculty Lecturer at McGill’s Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies. She is also the director of the Just Feminist Tech and Scholarship Lab, which is supported by a multi-year SSHRC Insight Grant. Since 2019, she’s been organizing the Feminist and Accessible Publishing and Tech speaker and workshop series which covers topics such as artificial intelligence, podcasting and open access scholarship, issues that are prominently featured in her first peer-reviewed book, Engage in Public Scholarship!: A Guidebook on Feminist and Accessible Communication.
Published by Concordia University Press, her latest book, is a timely guidebook for students, academics and the public at large in how to engage in feminist and accessible communication.
We asked Dr. Ketchum to speak to us about her latest book.
Q: What is “accessible public scholarship”, and why is it important to talk about it in a feminist and intersectional framework?
For readers, researchers, and the public, barriers to accessing information range from paywalls for journal articles, to hard-to-read texts, to not having dependable internet access, to images without alternative text descriptions that pose difficulties for Blind people or people with visual impairments. Accessible scholarship seeks to address these class, language, gender, racial, cultural, social, and infrastructural barriers and more. This work is guided by the work of disability activists and disabled scholars.
Feminism provides useful tools for complicating the discussion around accessibility and public-facing scholarship. It is especially useful for thinking about the ethics of care, labour, and intersecting identities of producers and consumers of knowledge. Furthermore feminists have long taken seriously the role of work and who is doing that work. When we are talking about scholarship, we are talking about labour.
Q: Academics are frequently called upon to contextualize current events in the media. Why is this responsibility more important now than ever before, considering the rise of misinformation on social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook?
Well in that question you already have pointed to the answer. At present so much misinformation circulates on free websites, whereas solidly researched materials are hidden behind paywalls. Furthermore, so much of our research is funded by the public (especially at a university like McGill) and I think we have responsibility to make those research findings available to them.
Q: Women, people of colour and the queer community are at a greater risk of facing online harassment and abuse on social media platforms; how did you explore this reality in your book? What recommendations do you have for them?
I don’t shy away from discussing the structural, social, and cultural barriers from doing public scholarship, especially online. The risk of harassment, trolling, and doxxing is greater for marginalized folks including women, people of colour and the queer community. While I do share strategies for folks who are experiencing an onslaught of harassment online, I also think that universities need to offer concrete, institutional support if universities are going to encourage scholars to do this kind of engaged work. Places such as University of Massachusetts, Amherst have begun to develop these kinds of policies and protocols.
While folks are waiting to receive their copy of the book (or to read the open access version), I can also direct you to my 2020 Report on the State of Resources Provided to Support Scholars Against Harassment, Trolling, and Doxxing While Doing Public Media Work and How University Media Relations Offices/ Newsrooms Can Provide Better Support. My research team and I contacted every Canadian university to see what resources they provided already and offered suggestions. There’s also a list of what to do if you are presently being doxxed. So check out chapter 12 of the book and this report for more information.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges, and some of the greatest opportunities, scholars face when they make their scholarship accessible to a wider range of audiences?
As I discuss in chapter 2, while there are multiple barriers to doing publicly accessible scholarship, there are also benefits. Publicly accessible work is rarely paid. It requires learning new skill sets. It is barely taken into account in academic job applications and tenure files. It makes researchers vulnerable to doxxing and racist and sexist online attacks. Most of these barriers are institutional, yet they are felt by individuals. It is particularly important that those with the most power—and not only those who are most vulnerable—embrace strategies of public scholarship. Through modelling other forms of scholarship, the most privileged individuals within an institution can set new standards by which others can be judged.
Through lowering risk and expanding who can participate in public scholarship, researchers, universities, and society will benefit. New audiences allow scholars to hear fresh perspectives on their work that can enable further insight and collaboration. Writing in new genres and distributing findings on non-traditional platforms can spark creativity and even be pleasurable. More diverse communities will be able to access research and divisions between academic institutions and those outside of them will decrease.
Q: In what way has the pandemic changed the delivery of public scholarship? What are some of the positive and negative impacts you’ve witnessed?
More public scholarship is happening online- and that can open up some opportunities who might be unable to participate in scholarly forums such as events due to disabilities, parenting or care giving responsibilities, or less financial resources. One of the negatives is that many scholars’ workloads have increased during the pandemic (often uncompensated) and doing public scholarship seems like an additional burden. Some folks who might have wanted to do more public scholarship might now feel too burnt out to do anything.
When it becomes safer to gather in-person, scholarly communication methods such as readings at public libraries, exhibitions, and performances can resume again.
Q:In your book, you address open access; what will it take to make free and accessible scholarship, such as books and articles, a permanent fixture in academia?
Another big question. I argue that open access is one step towards accessible scholarship but it is not the only thing. There’s a difference between throwing a PDF online for free and writing about your research for different audiences. Some large funding bodies, such as the Canadian Tri-Council, have been requiring open access publications, but there hasn’t been perfect adherence to those requirements. What we are talking about is also an academic cultural and structural shift. What are tenure and hiring committees valuing? That plays a big role.
I want to add that also, not all publications and data should be open, for example Indigenous communities should be able to determine what data is made open about their communities.
Q: Drawing on your experience as a faculty lecturer, how would you describe the way the students of are engaging in scholarship both in and beyond the classroom?
My Gender, Sexuality, Feminist, and Social Justice Studies undergraduate students and graduate students in the Women’s and Gender Studies Option are fantastic. The graduate students and honours students often created multiple versions of their work: the academic theses and articles AND some kind of public scholarship in the form of blog posts, social media, and more. My GSFS 300 Feminist Research Methods students have written comprehensively about how they would display their research and communicate their research in both traditional academic formats AND other formats, especially making sure that the communities they are working with can benefit from the research.
Dr. Alex Ketchum is a Faculty Lecturer at the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies of McGill University. She is the Director of the Just Feminist Tech and Scholarship Lab. Her research focuses on the role of technology, food, feminism, and environmentalism in 20th century social movements in the United States and Canada. Dr. Ketchum's doctorate from McGill's Department of History was supported by the FRQSC (Fonds de recherche du Quebec). Her dissertation focused on feminist restaurants, cafes, and coffeehouses in the United States and Canada from 1972-1989. She has an MA in History and Women and Gender Studies from McGill University and an Honours BA in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Wesleyan University.