Ostherr encourages scholars to seek real-world applications for their work

Kirsten Ostherr’s newest book, “Applied Media Studies,” provides a map for those moving beyond traditional scholarship models

When it comes to works of scholarship, there’s a traditional model to follow: Do research, then publish it. But academics like Rice’s Kirsten Ostherr, the Gladys Louise Fox Professor of English and director of the Medical Futures Lab, are encouraging emerging scholars to break that mold by looking beyond the dissertation and finding real-world applications for their work. Ostherr’s newest book, “Applied Media Studies” (Routledge, 292 pages, $39.95), is aimed at providing a map for those heading down a different path.

Kirsten Ostherr

Kirsten Ostherr’s newest book, “Applied Media Studies,” encourages emerging scholars to look beyond the dissertation and find real-world applications for their work. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

A collaborative work among a global group of scholars who’ve pioneered the field of applied media studies alongside Ostherr, the book collects their experiences and wisdom gained over years of projects that range from redesigns of medical media interfaces to reverse-engineering Spotify algorithms. The latter project led its team to discover how ad placement works on the streaming music service and offered a way of analyzing and critiquing the business models of platforms like Spotify and the ways they often exploit the artists whose work is housed there.

This kind of work is especially noteworthy following recent news of Bulgarian hackers who found their own means of exploiting Spotify’s algorithms to scam millions of dollars from the service. And yet, Ostherr said, “It’s not universally accepted that this kind of work is scholarship — especially for grad students — because it’s not the same as writing a single-authored monograph. And that’s what dissertations typically, traditionally have been.”

Ostherr’s own work in applied media studies intersects with her interest in medicine, pioneering research in areas such as wearable medical devices and privacy concerns around increasingly digitized medical data. Ever the collaborator, she co-founded the Medical Futures Lab in 2012, which brings together faculty from Rice, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas Health Science Center to reimagine medicine at the intersection of humanity and technology. In 2016 she took her medical humanities expertise to the White House as part of a workshop on engaging patients as participants in medical research.

The contributions in “Applied Media Studies” span many fields, including her own, “so some of it will inspire people who are working in health and medical domains, but some of it is more about political activism, some of it is about doing technology work in low-resource settings and some of it is about doing collaborative work with communities around universities and recovering history projects,” Ostherr said. “What I really hope this does is inspire more scholars and grad students to experiment and try to build on their training in media studies to actually design projects that make an intervention in the problems they identify in the world.”

The book was inspired by conversations that followed Ostherr’s presentation at the 2015 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Montreal. There she described the work done at Rice’s Medical Futures Lab, where Ostherr’s undergraduates help medical professionals amplify their health messages through creative design. And as distinctly 21st-century questions emerge — Will wearable technology empower patients? Can greater investment in digital health lead to a greater democratization of medicine? How is human communication between physicians and patients impacted as a clinical space becomes one that’s also a digital space? — Ostherr’s hope is that her lab, among others, will be able to use applied media studies to offer answers and analysis.

A huge discussion followed her presentation. “One of the things people kept saying was, ‘Wow, it’s really hard to do this kind of work, and if only I had had this conversation five years ago when I was starting, it would have saved me so much time and it would have helped me move this project along so much more effectively,’” Ostherr said. Inspired to capture those years of hard-won wisdom and insights, Ostherr said her mind was made up in an instant. “So I said, ‘Let’s do a book!’”

She spent the next year corralling other applied media scholars from across the world and universities of all sizes, creating queries and prompts designed to pick their brains and collecting their contributions into “Applied Media Studies,” published in December. “The thing we did that I’m especially proud of is that in this book every one of the contributors has a chapter they wrote that’s a case study of their particular kind of work,” Ostherr said. “And in between those are collaboratively authored chapters where I posed a series of six different questions and said to people, ‘I want you to answer this question as if we were having a conversation.'”

Questions like “How do the time and energy required to cultivate and sustain applied media studies projects compare with the effort required by more traditional scholarly work?” and “What role does your institutional setting play in shaping the kinds of work you find possible to create?” were among those Ostherr heard most frequently from colleagues. In a way, these sorts of questions are both theoretical and practical concerns; Ostherr knows they’re equally important to the emerging field of applied media studies as examples of case studies.

“I really wanted this to be something that people would be able to pick up and look into for sources of guidance,” Ostherr said. “It’s not a how-to book — it’s more theoretical than that — but it is grounded in practice, as everyone who’s in this book has done a lot of applied media studies projects, so they know what the typical challenges are but they also know how exciting it can be to complete these things.”

Providing a glimpse into that rewarding endgame, she said, is important for people who are just starting out, “because it can be long and hard and it’s often unclear what the outcome is going to be because when it comes to applied media studies, we’re trained to do research and publish it — not trained to do research and then design a digital technology about it.”

Media studies scholars who are training new generations of graduates and undergraduates to think differently about the impact their work can have in the world are Ostherr’s ideal audience for the book. But she also hopes designers, community organizations and others who could benefit from collaboration with scholars will be able to draw inspiration from the case studies contained within, whether it’s tales from on-the-ground technology fieldwork in rural Zambia or the story behind the AIDS Quilt Touch project.

“This is a whole scholarly approach that is emerging and gaining a lot of traction and can make a real impact in the world,” Ostherr said. “That is something worth supporting, and I hope this book will help people make that case.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.