GSLIS Professor Dan Schiller recently discussed the importance of inclusion in his teaching and research with Associate Professor Kathryn La Barre. Schiller’s remarks are part of the interview series Reflections on Inclusion, which explores the School’s efforts to respect varied perspectives and diversity of experiences.
Schiller teaches courses in information in society, information history, and U.S telecommunications history. His research focuses on telecommunications history, information policy, cultural production, and the political economy of capitalism.
How my teaching and research value social power relations and the different perspectives to which they give rise is a big question with a lot of pieces. On the subject of teaching generally, there is an overarching need for students to feel safe in the classroom—safe to express their own ideas and safe to evaluate ideas expressed by others. Sometimes I state to a class that this is, explicitly, an imperative for all of us; in addition, I try to model the behavior that I am looking to elicit. As a teacher I try to articulate the shape and significance of an issue, offer arguments for engaging it, and provide a sense of the evidence that might and/or should be consulted to validate or clarify it. As I explain my role, I may add that I will not attack or grade down someone who disagrees with me and who seeks to provide justifying arguments and counter-evidence.
Specific courses raise additional issues. I’ll say a few words about the course Information in Society (590IS):
Description: Drawing on classic and cutting-edge research on the system of information provision, this course provides conceptual foundations for historical, political-economic, and policy analysis of information institutions and infrastructures.
This is a doctoral seminar that reflects to some extent the backgrounds of the students who happen to be enrolled. This past spring semester, it was exceptionally diverse in both domestic and international terms. Seminar readings have been selected to include research that pertains to Indian, African, Southeast Asian, Latin American as well as European, U.S., and international contexts. Over the course of the semester in LIS 590IS, I regularly reference the idea that few places—certainly not the United States—may be considered in validly unitary terms with regard to social class, gender, and race. I try to incorporate, as opportunities arise, discussion of relevant international as well as domestic power relationships and the social and political differentials to which they give rise. In a course for master’s students, Information History (LIS 590IH), I adopt similar approaches to issues of diversity and inclusion.
In my courses on U.S. telecommunications history, both undergraduate and graduate, I am expressly concerned with how the political economy of networks has been shaped by varied, sometimes contending, social groups and institutions. Labor is central here. In considering how working-class agency has figured in this history, I am able to integrate aspects of African American labor history directly into our consideration of both the Progressive Era and the post-World War II period. From time to time, I bring Latino/a and Asian American experiences into U.S. telecommunications, but I find that this is more difficult because, so far, relevant historical research has been sparse. I am ever hopeful of finding students who want (and possess the relevant language skills needed) to study San Francisco’s longstanding Chinese Telephone Exchange, or Mexican American attempts to gain access to Spanish-language telephone operator services, or other topics involving language and/or race and/or ethnicity. Gender dimensions of U.S. telecommunications history are, thankfully, easier to represent: there is some substantial scholarship upon which to draw. I’m expecting that research on underrepresented topics and populations will continue to widen and deepen. I try to encourage this by allowing students to develop research papers in accord with their individual interests and experiences. These papers cover a great range of topics—some of which are new to me each time I teach such a course—in accord with their individual interests and experience.
Public and, to an extent, academic research libraries constitute some of the foremost institutional expressions of public service principles in the general system of information provision. This, however, is not an intrinsic virtue, nor a timeless attribute of professional ethics. It is a contingent and unfinished historical achievement, to which social divisions and struggles around race, gender, and class have been and are still crucial. For the issues are not only historical. We must find ways to work productively against the assertions that are so often made: that the new technology is wondrous in its own terms, and that therefore it is unnecessary to think beyond the technical design of organization and access. I tell my students that this kind of thinking is wrong and needs to be met head-on. No matter which new forms of information retrieval come into use, I believe, the principles of public service provision in themselves need to be defended, modified, renewed, and strengthened. We must ensure that our assimilation of new information systems does not relinquish or squander our always hard-won practical commitments to democratic processes and democratic accountability. All kinds of discussions about this are underway, and I hope that GSLIS will continue to play a central part in them.
My research continues to connect centrally with U.S. telecommunications history and with the political economy of information and communications in the contemporary world. I spent my Fall 2012 sabbatical researching postwar U.S. telecommunications policy. The Postal Service is a principal part of this wider history. Working at the Nixon Presidential Library, I tracked down some fascinating documents detailing the run-up to the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, which transformed the system into our present Postal Service. And I was able to relate some of those documents to a recently published work by Philip F. Rubio, There’s Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice and Equality. This line of research engages with a longer history of African American struggles in and around telecommunications, in pursuit of both human rights and labor rights. In contrast to the Post Office, where relatively large numbers of African Americans were employed during the twentieth century, U.S. telegraphy and telephony long remained racially exclusionary industries. These are critical differences, and they will figure prominently in my account of U.S. telecommunications history when it is completed. I also try in various ways to deepen and extend my intellectual engagement with contemporary China, which, as I see it, is today once more hosting formative cultural, intellectual, and political-economic impulses for the entire world.