by Lisa H. Schwartz
February 3, 2020

For Nathan Schneider, scholarship is fundamentally interdisciplinary and community engaged.

Schneider is an assistant professor of media studies in the College of Media, Communication and Information and a journalist who writes about religion, technology and democracy. His current research explores models for democratic ownership and governance for online platforms and protocols. He is also the founder of the Media Enterprise Design Lab.

Schneider has family roots in rural Colorado, which have spurred his interest and connection to the long tradition of cooperative enterprise across the state and how it might inform today’s startup world.

“Involving practitioners as partners makes the work more fun and grounds the research questions in practice,” Schneider said. ”They help us to identify where the pain points are and then we get to play with those challenges and come up with new approaches.”

Schneider publishes widely in popular, professional and academic journals, such as Harper’s, The Nation and The New York Times, and Media, Culture and Society, Media Industries and the Penn State Law Review. He underscored that writing for popular and academic audiences can be equally intellectually challenging and mutually informative.

“I don’t think of one being derivative of the other, I think of them as two potentially rigorous forms of publication and communication that really inform each other,” Schneider said.

Below, Schneider talks about how he collaborates with a diversity of academics and practitioners in his community-engaged scholarship, from defining the goals of his research to gaining feedback on publications and new ventures. He also shares how his nontraditional path to being a professor shapes how he values, balances and leverages practical and disciplinary knowledge.

This is part of the Office for Outreach and Engagement's Engaged Scholars Interview series, which is designed to bring the process of community-engaged scholarship to life through discussions with exemplary CU Boulder scholars.

Why do you do community-engaged work as part of your research, teaching or creative work?

The whole point of my role at a public university is to contribute to worlds beyond it, while also being accountable to the academic community. In the middle of the Iraq war I left my graduate program in religious studies because I felt a need to be more engaged. I felt uncomfortable with feeling I couldn’t do more in that context. I moved to New York and became a journalist. When I came back to the academy almost a decade later, after deep involvement in activism and other work, I came back with the goal of serving the communities I had worked with and finding new communities with which to collaborate. To me, these partnerships give the academic work context and purpose. Otherwise, I think going through the exercise of academic production could feel like a chore.

Reflect on your particular experience and journey as a scholar. How has your experience shaped your beliefs and practices?

Currently, I am working on tech business models and ownership structures in close collaboration with entrepreneurs, labor organizers, people in finance—a range of people who are looking for new strategies. I am in constant communication with these collaborators. People come to me for advice on projects they are building, or I reach out to people doing things I am interested in studying. In the process, we are building long-term relationships.

For some years, I was working with a new generation of co-op entrepreneurs, and they were facing tremendous barriers. After I moved to Colorado and reconnected with my extended family, some of whom are still farmers and members of agricultural co-ops, it hit me that the co-op model was an integral part of my family story. It gave me a sense of confidence in working in this tradition—a reminder that this is a powerful historical phenomenon, and it can be powerful again. Relationships like that help strengthen the speculative work that I do—such as proposing new finance mechanisms and sometimes radical policy strategies—by grounding it in past legacies. I spend a lot of time learning lessons farmers learned a hundred years ago and trying to apply those lessons to the context of the internet today. In the process, I try to reverse conventional logic, which positions rural people as needing to look to cities for cutting edge practices; instead, I want to show how rural communities possess innovative knowledge that people in cities should learn from.

What role do different forms of publication play?

I frequently write in magazines (i.e. the Nation, America, the Atlantic, Chronicle of Higher Ed), and this is a part of my work process. It’s not just a matter of publicizing scholarly work. Sometimes I am testing ideas out in those arenas, and then I get feedback and hone that for an academic article, or the other way around.

After years of pursuing mass audiences as a journalist, I appreciate the ability within academia to write for a small set of experts in academic journals. The idea of publishing for just a handful of people, which a lot of career academics complain about, actually comes to me as a huge relief, especially if those people love the topic as much as I do. Great feedback from other scholars can be worth more than a million retweets. If academic production is not all you’re doing, it’s easier to see why it can be so valuable.

I think of academic publications as playing the role of clarification and validation. Peer review helps to make sure I am learning from the best of academic discourse, so that when I go to my practitioner collaborators, I am not misleading them about what the state of the art is. For me, it’s not a question of having two different voices or hats, it’s about making sure that the two kinds of intellectual work inform each other. I don’t think of one as being derivative of the other; rather, they are two potentially rigorous forms of publication and communication that each have value. If you think an academic peer review process is especially difficult or rigorous, try getting fact checked by an intern straight of college at the New Yorker. That is not fun (laughs), and it can be humiliating and humbling. 

I remember once being in the car with an eminent professor of religion. He had been training to get ready to go on the Colbert Report. To prepare he was trying to summarize different religions of the world in one sentence. From an academic point of view that might seem like heresy, because any religion is obviously so complex, but from a popular communication point of view you need to do that, because everyone needs to hear their first sentence about Hinduism somewhere. And what an amazing intellectual challenge. What is the sentence going to be? That experience was a powerful reminder that just because something is shorter, or in more accessible language, doesn't mean it’s any less of an intellectual achievement than something that is longer, more in-depth and full of citations. It’s a different medium.

How does interdisciplinary work play a role?

I’ve come to appreciate the importance of disciplinarity, to be honest. I’m a non-traditional academic, and my path has been wildly interdisciplinary, but don’t think everyone should do what I do. I appreciate that I have colleagues who are more oriented around a single discipline and who ask me important critical questions that others may not. I feel grateful that many of my collaborators were trained in “silos,” because it means they have a firm foundation in whatever their silo happens to be, which I usually don’t have. What is more important than blending the disciplines into a big blur is learning how to see how one’s discipline can be useful to others—in and out of the academy.

How do you engage your community partners in the research and writing you do?

Constantly. My research questions generally start by noticing needs among communities of practitioners and then looking for ways their experience could be put into conversation with the best scholarship—and for how their experience can inform even better scholarship. I build research projects that involve non-academics as full collaborators. Involving practitioners as partners helps ground the research questions in practice and in an understanding of the problems that people face who are doing relevant work day-to-day. And it makes the project more fun.

One current project is developing governance tools for online platforms that enable communities of users to self govern in new ways. We are working with a gaming company, a social network, a fair-trade marketplace, and some blockchain platforms. Another project is on identifying new ownership strategies and structures for startups. This is largely in partnership with a network of founders and investors who are also trying to develop new models. They help us to identify where the pain points are and then we get to play with those challenges and come up with new approaches.

Before I send a scholarly paper to a journal, I will generally share it, not only with academic collaborators but also professionals or community members in the areas I study, and I’m often gratified and surprised to see how seriously they take it. When the research questions emerge from a community’s experience, people enjoy diving into a rigorous engagement with those questions, and their suggestions are often amazing.

Recently, I was talking to an entrepreneur and investor who said that one of my journal articles—a super theoretical one at that—opened up his mind about how he does his work and what It means. This was the last paper I would have expected him to read, as I wrote it mainly to justify some of my projects for my academic colleagues. This is the kind of experience that I love—when the two contexts seem to serve each other.

How do your publication practices play a role in your current projects?

I try to think about publication in terms of how it can advance social interventions. Sometimes that means validating insights that come from otherwise marginalized communities. Sometimes that means generating discussion that can hone future practice. Recently, I worked with a legal scholar to publish a law review article on a topic I had been working on, because we saw an opportunity to affect policy in ways that law reviews are uniquely positioned to do.

I also keep on publishing more accessible essays for practitioners and others. Again, I don’t see the “popular” work as derivative, it’s part of the same process. For instance, in my work on cooperative models for tech startups, the research doesn’t get very far unless there are people on the ground trying those models out, and they have to find out about these options somewhere. My writing can also help provide encouragement and visibility for experiments facing tough odds.

At the same time, magazine articles and op-eds are important for academic communication in ways scholars might not like to admit. Many scholars don’t read journals outside their particular subfield. A new set of terminology can be as off-putting to other scholars as much as anyone else. So if you’re trying to start a conversation with scholars even in fields very close to your own, the best bet is to draw them in with the same kind of article you’d use to reach non-academics.

Do you also integrate community-engaged scholarship into your teaching?

Yes. For instance, I teach a class on “disruptive entrepreneurship,” which is an introduction to startup culture and its discontents. The class attracts students from media and communications, business, engineering and other areas, and it draws on the unique startup community we have here in Boulder. Students are required to attend two off-campus community events to get to know the local scene, as well as to interview people who have been adversely affected by disruptions. They talk to multiple stakeholders and learn about different perspectives. My goal in all my classes is to show students how, if they get out and start meeting people, a lot of the apparent barriers to learning come down.

What are some strategies you use to balance the demands of community work and academia?

One strategy takes the form of the new Media Enterprise Design Lab that I’ve been building. My collaborations started engulfing more and more of my time, so I found ways to bring graduate students from our Media and Public Engagement program into the process. I borrowed some features of the typical scientific lab, and we’re making the rest up as we go along. Because all of our work is so connected to challenges in the communities we work with, we’ve so far had success finding funding, both from those communities and from the university.

When there’s a lot going on at once, I find it helpful to connect the pieces together into a narrative that matters to me on an elemental level. Somehow that makes it all feel manageable. Having a story to tell myself turns the work from merely professional into something vocational. I think the academic life should be about this. We don't have free time exactly, but we have flexibility to determine how to prioritize and orient our time. We need to make it count.

Participating in small groups has also been important to me. As a journalist I was part of a group with a strong feminist orientation that would meet every month. We were very focused on the politics of time and fair pay, and helped each other think through how we were prioritizing our time and how to demand fairer terms from employers. I encourage people who do highly individualized work, as our graduate students do, to make sure to have strong communities to help them talk and think through how to use their limited time and effort.

For me, doing the collaborative, engaged work feeds academic production, and puts me on track to make useful contributions to the field. Whenever I go to meetings with practitioners I am always thinking, is there something here that would be useful for my field as well as what they are doing? I am always looking for that intersection, and there are many projects that fit. It would be harder not to be in contact with real problems. I would be sitting in my armchair, rocking my baby, wondering what to write about. If I suddenly cut off all the collaborative work and had to come up with research projects and write papers on my own, I would probably fail.

The engaged work also raises my visibility. I am invited to contribute to books and journals that are probably above my academic weight, just because I have a visibility in these communities.

I am grateful to have an incredibly supportive department. Both Media Studies and the leadership of the College of Media, Communication, and Information have always supported my commitment to conjoining community and academic work. I don’t take that for granted.

What kind of mentorship have you received and how do you mentor others? Any advice for others who are interested in this work?

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from an old friend. She taught me that successful people appreciate it when someone approaches them, tells them that they admire their work and asks them to meet to talk about their trajectory. You might be surprised who will say yes—though it’s okay when people say no. Reaching out to people I admired was something I practiced a lot earlier in my career, and I encourage others to as well.

I still do this, and I’ve also started to see the process from the other side. If a student demonstrates they know even a little of my work, I am thrilled to give them attention and support. It means so much that they have taken time to learn about what I put so much energy into producing.

How do you find mentors? And who should they be?

Sometimes people imagine that, if they want to become experts in something, they should sit in isolation and study it and think about it. We forget that there is no greater teacher than relationships. They motivate us, they help us see the blind spots we didn’t know were there. And relationships must be two-way. Ask for help by offering to help. When I started out as a reporter, I sought out the writers I most admired and tried to find ways I could be useful to them, while also asking them for help on my early projects. It’s the ancient logic of apprenticeship.

Find a good balance. Right now one of my mentors is an academic mentor and one is a practitioner. This combination reflects the balance of the work I am trying to do as well. I highly encourage young scholars to make sure they have a mentor who is not a scholar, who is doing the thing that they are studying. That kind of person can be a powerful counterweight to academic pressures. Your list of mentors doesn’t need to be the same as your dissertation committee.

There is a freedom in having a balance of accountability between academia and other communities. For example, this week I learned that a paper had been rejected by a journal, and that didn’t feel good, but I had the consolation that a draft I had circulated was already generating new collaborations with people. When you have one foot in the academy and one outside, it helps you appreciate both even more—while not taking either so seriously that you lose sight of why you are doing the work to begin with.