Ever since the third grade, when an assistant principal generously offered to teach him and two classmates French, John Miles Foley has been curious about how languages work. Starting with the early epiphany that language is always embedded in culture, Foley followed this line of thinking until it led to oral tradition, which the MU Professor of Classical Studies and English has now been researching for over three decades. It will surely be a lifelong journey, for the field far outstrips written literature in size, diversity, and social function. In fact, all the written literature we have, Foley is fond of saying, “is dwarfed by oral traditions.”
Citing an analogy used by those in public health fields, Tina Bloom explains that health providers wait on the banks of the river to rescue people who have fallen in and are drowning. But Bloom wants to help more and help earlier. “At some point, you start to think about what’s happening upriver,” she says. As an assistant professor in the Sinclair School of Nursing, her research focuses on safety planning for women in abusive relationships; specifically, she is designing and testing a website that might help women find ways to lessen their danger.
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.
Finding a way to transform MU’s School of Journalism into a think tank for the news and advertising industry has been the main research goal for Esther Thorson, who serves as Professor, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Research, and Director of Research for the Reynolds Journalism Institute. While medical schools, law schools, and engineering schools have long provided think tanks for their fields, journalism schools have never focused on the creation, research, and application of new industry ideas. Simply put, thus far journalism schools only “produce the fodder for the personnel in those companies,” but this is something Thorson aspires to change.
Recently in the United States the majority of citizens have come to reside at the extremes of either the political right or the left. “Most people either love George Bush or hate George Bush,” Professor Wayne Wanta explains, with few people falling in the middle. Wanta carefully recounts his recent research concerning such polarization of attitudes, especially in terms of how the media contribute to this phenomenon. Initially he suspected that the internet (now about ten years old) was the primary factor affecting this polarization, that perhaps people were going online to get information that reinforces their already existing beliefs, resulting in those beliefs becoming more extreme.
Betty Houchin Winfield has earned a reputation for her fascinating and illuminating research, whether it concerns the roles that the media play in the reputations of such public personas as presidential candidates’ wives or those individuals who undertook the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition. As a University Curators’ Professor, based in the School of Journalism, she also looks at the media’s building of “social capital” in the United States, that is, people actively participating in the democratic process. In contrast to those naysayers who claim there has been a decline in social capital in the U.S., Winfield examines how the internet may reverse this trend. In fact, many internet sites actually stimulate “bridging and bonding” of like-minded individuals that seems to result in people becoming more politically involved.
Historically, humans have used images and writing to “wire their brains together for collective intelligence.” Today, the Internet allows an even greater breadth and depth of interconnectivity.
Foley describes several other ongoing projects. One involves relocating the journal Oral Tradition from a conventional paper format to a new incarnation on the web in 2006. The decision to put the journal online stemmed from his commitment to forge a truly international conversation about this multidisciplinary field. In addition to the online journal, the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition has published three book series, comprising over 27 volumes. Foley is also involved in various collaborative research projects with scholars in Sardinia, Finland, China, Mexico, Indonesia, and the Basque Country.
The Pathways Project explores the comparison between OT (oral tradition) and IT (Internet technology), showing the similarities between these two network-based modes of navigation. When it’s finished, there will be a paper book, Pathways of the Mind, as well as a website. The two methods of navigating through networks—oral tradition and the web—mimic the very way we think.
A unique feature of Bloom’s decision aid is the way it helps women to rank their priorities. “What we’re doing is pair-wise comparisons,” she explains. The woman uses a slider to compare different factors: feelings for her partner versus concerns for her children, concerns for her children versus privacy, and so forth. Each woman has a chance to weigh all of the important factors in her life, so that she can make the best decisions.
Typically, health care providers and women’s advocates sit down with one woman at a time to evaluate her priorities. Bloom walks through the latest version of the web-based decision aid she has helped to develop as a way to reach more women and yet provide individualized treatment.
John Miles Foley explains how the two centers—the Center for the Studies in Oral Tradition (est. 1986) and the newer Center for eResearch—are cooperative ventures: “All of our activities at both centers have in common the philosophy of sharing intellectual content (knowledge, art, ideas) across barriers…to make it as easy as possible for everyone in the world to participate.”
Founder and director John Miles Foley explains the thinking behind the creation of SyndicateMizzou, with its mission to make research and creative activity occurring at MU accessible to the public on a 24/7/365 basis.
The Center for the Studies in Oral Tradition, founded in 1986 by John Miles Foley, became the model for the Center for eResearch. The mission of the CeR is to bring together people from diverse fields doing innovative research on Internet or digital projects so that they might profit from the exchange of ideas.
Garcia and his colleagues across the state rely on “virtual meetings” over the Internet with extension agriculturalists to touch base about certain issues related to sustainable agriculture.
The internet is still an unknown quantity, says Wells, and it needs to be studied. “Some have argued that people have great access to information because of the internet, and to some extent that’s true,” she observes. But many people, in fact, experience information overload. However, Wells cautions, “getting information and knowing whether it is true can be very difficult.” Moreover, people tend to search the internet with preconceived notions and, predictably, wind up reinforcing their existing beliefs rather than nuancing, challenging, or debunking them.
Internet Advertising: Theory and Research, which Thorson co-edited with David W. Schumann (University of Tennessee) and now in its second edition, was the first book on Internet advertising. Its contributors are some of the most innovative scholars in the area of advertising and the Internet.
Finding a way to transform MU’s School of Journalism into a think tank for the news and advertising industry has been the main research goal for Esther Thorson, who serves as Professor, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Research, and Director of Research for the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Her first major effort, in collaboration with Margaret Duffy, was to address the news and advertising crisis caused by the “digital revolution,” reacting to the reality that newspaper and television audiences have been plummeting as consumers and advertisers alike are shifting toward the Internet and other new media technologies.
This study addressed two questions: 1) Can written emotion disclosure over the internet produce psychological benefits? 2) Does writing about positive and negative topics produce the same benefits? Participants were randomly assigned to write (for twenty minutes, once a week, for three weeks) about one of three topics: a negative life event, a meaningful event in the past week, or a non-emotional control topic. Participants completed measures of depression and subjective well-being two months later. Results indicate that writing online does produce benefits: negative emotional disclosure leads to decreases in depressive symptoms and positive emotional disclosure leads to heightened psychological well-being.
Winfield discusses the use of Moveon.org as a case study of an Internet site that increases social capital.
Is there a decline in social capital in the U.S.? Winfield discusses how the internet may increase political involvement in the democratic process.
“Marketing Mavericks”—people who exercise a new kind of power in the online world by influencing consumer behavior online. How people use this online information from specific purchasing websites (such as Amazon.com), where people post reviews of products and where other people read those reviews as part of their decision-making process. Research methods: using the internet to unobtrusively gather data about people’s real behavior, prior to more direct investigation by questionnaire or interview.