Post by Jennifer Evans
At the very beginning of the Winter 2012 semester, I learned that my application for an I-CUREUS undergraduate researcher was funded (http://www5.carleton.ca/students/enhance-your-degree/undergraduate-research/i-cureus/). The programme is designed to give undergraduates research experience during their BA to provide them with a new skill set and an introduction into academic problem solving. David — a third year History Honours student — was warmly recommended to me by a colleague. He seemed eager, curious, a bit wary, but ultimately excited about jumping into a project with both feet, especially one on something so un-history-like like social media and online hate. Our first meeting went swimmingly, and after a few administrative hiccups, he was well on his way to his first task: a review of the literature. Collect was is out there, assemble it according to theme and argument, and provide some synthesis and a working way forward. Only in this case, the terrain was vast and the surroundings unfamiliar. Unconventional is one word for it. I’m certain he thought of a few other descriptors as he wiled away the hours huddled in front of his computer, tapping his way through search engines, article databases, and boolean keyword strings. The end result was a cogent review of all he was able to find — with only a minimal direction and “guidance” (in scare quotes). This sense of alienation, frustration, and possibly even despair was exactly what all researchers face when exploring a subject for the first time.
And it was what I wanted him to feel too. My sink-or-swim method was precisely that — a way to make him unsettled, to de-familiarize a subject which at first hearing might appear self evident, especially to a generation weaned on Facebook, Twitter, and smart phones. Did he find all the relevant information? Of course not. But that wasn’t the purpose either. Rather, I wanted him to figure out for himself the nature of the conversations out there in the academisphere (my word, at least I think it is). What did he find? That while there is much emphasis on skinheads, hate literature, and far right groups, very little exists on how average people register and mobilize creative opposition online. Thinking he had failed in his task, he was oh-so-happy to find out that, in fact, no, this was precisely what I had wanted: for him to find the gaps in the literature and recognize the sheer enormity of the issue. How best to proceed? By defining our terms between far right and neo-Nazi, by recognizing there are important and vast differences between media platforms and the discourses they generate, and understanding that all research comes from a bit of organized chaos, a haphazard process of fits and starts. I-CUREUS for what develops. R U?