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“In Their Own Words” as SyndicateMizzou ‘Turns’ 50

A visit with SyndicateMizzou, a project of the Center for eResearch

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: oral tradition Center for Studies in Oral Tradition Pathways Project internet communication

The idea for SyndicateMizzou, if I recall the story correctly, arose during a lunch conversation involving two Center for eResearch personnel, founding director John Miles Foley and Information Technology Manager Jamie Stephens, shortly after the center was born in April 2005. “Wouldn’t it be great,” remarked the latter, “if there were a website that could syndicate diverse content, be fully searchable, and bring MU’s innovation, accomplishment, and expertise to the rest of the world?” It was initially over soup and sandwiches that this conversation grew into a conception of SyndicateMizzou—a website created to document and promote research and creative activity at the University of Missouri-Columbia. In fact, the trajectory from idea to reality provides a worthy case study for imagining and executing an online project.

The Center for eResearch was established to study emerging technologies of communication, and especially to use those internet-based and digital media to forge links among disciplines and people, to connect solitary, unconnected “silos” within an interdisciplinary, democratic network. Toward that end the CeR sponsors a campus-wide seminar on methods in eResearch and combines with the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition to produce digital tools for research and presentation. Current projects include the online journal Oral Tradition, eCompanions, eEditions, and the Pathways Project, with several new initiatives (iTunes U and MizzouTube) on the near horizon. The core philosophy revolves around sharing knowledge, art, and ideas through new media.

Part of Syndicate Mizzou’s mission from the start was to scan the campus, to find faculty doing innovative work in their fields and to help them explain their activities to a large and diverse audience “in their own words.” The key notion was to avoid filtering as much as possible, and then to provide ready access to these interviews in a convenient, 24/7/365 format—via listening, watching, and reading. Then, as now, SyndicateMizzou serves several constituencies: prospective students, alumni, colleagues nationwide and internationally, potential donors, state legislators and, perhaps most importantly, citizens of Missouri who are interested in new directions in research and creative activity at the state’s flagship campus.

I joined SyndicateMizzou in order to conduct these interviews, a job that has proven remarkably easy. Most professors, given an eager ear, love to talk about their projects and do so with great passion. My background as a folklorist has trained me to be a good listener, to help people tell their stories and to let their unique personalities shine through. Essentially, I see myself producing an ongoing ethnography of academic life at Mizzou. In this case the “folk” consist of the many faculty members busily going about their daily routines.

Pausing to reflect on the history of this young online project, and the fifty stories already “live,” this special feature of SyndicateMizzou in effect celebrates our own birthday. In that spirit, we have compiled some intriguing highlights from interviews with faculty, focusing particularly on moments when they speak about the natural intertwining of teaching, research, and creative endeavors, as well as when they respond to questions about the personal motivations behind their vocations. Why do they do what they do? What drives them? Why is it important, both in itself and to others? Not surprisingly, the personal aspect is often my favorite part of the interview, and on numerous occasions I have been deeply touched by stories of why MU faculty dedicate their lives to their work. I am as inspired by their commitment and passion as by their gratitude to be doing what is for them the most interesting work in the world.

At the Center for eResearch we have come to think of our work with SyndicateMizzou as a kind of digital storytelling. Believing that the best people to tell stories about research and creative activity are the researchers and artists themselves, our guiding motto—“in their own words”—allows the individual’s story to emerge on its own terms. The written article that accompanies each feature, therefore, seeks to supplement the actual filmed interview, rather than lead or replace it. The heart of the enterprise remains the selection of video excerpts that can be streamed to desktops or downloaded to computers or iPods.

And over the past two years, we have heard a lot of stories. We’ve learned about the performances of world-class musicians; the secret language of insect communication; mental illness and the brain; the cross-disciplinary intersection of literature and visual culture; the evolution of the human spine; the artistry of mathematics; landscape ecology and wildlife conservation; journalism and the new media; assisted living for the aging; “fuzzy logic,” semiconductors, and rocket science; and a great deal more. To say that the experience has been educational would be a gross understatement.

As I listen to each individual describe his or her work, the stories I eventually sit down to write arise out of my own amazement at the inherent diversity of research and creative activity taking place at MU. These stories stem from the fascinating accounts of why an individual feels drawn to a certain field—whether a goal pursued single-mindedly from childhood or stumbled upon later in life as the result of a serendipitous event. They grow out of the potential for how such fundamental work benefits society, whether leading to treatments for cancer, blindness, and speech disorders; understanding the depths of the human condition through literature, art, and music; helping to protect the environment and conserve energy; or improving mental health and education. Having reflected on the scope of the past fifty features, we eagerly look forward to the still-to-be-told stories on the path to SyndicateMizzou’s centennial birthday.

The Staff of the CeR:

  • John Miles Foley, Director
  • Mark Jarvis, IT Manager
  • LuAnne Roth, Associate Editor
  • Kathy Andresen, Administrative Assistant
  • Sean Powers, Editorial Intern
  • Daniel Friesen, Editorial Intern
  • Chad Godsey, IT Intern

Fall 2008 Interns:

  • Daniel Friesen, Editorial Intern
  • Chad Godsey, IT Intern
  • Jessica Huang, Editorial Intern
  • Jacqueline Lampert, Editorial Intern
  • Samantha Liss, Editorial Intern
  • Stephen Sliker, Editorial Intern
  • Tanya Sneddon, Editorial Intern