Academic research for the masses

September 19, 2012

A multimedia website that explores queer culture in India, art that interprets doctor-patient communication barriers and photography that seeks to answer the question, “What changes do northern Ugandans want to see in their community?”

These are some of the Royal Roads University student projects that make academic research accessible and interesting to the general public. They are among more than 20 featured on the Public Ethnography as Innovative Learning website,, which was established by School of Communication and Culture Prof. Phillip Vannini last year.

“The typical student assignment is read by one person – the professor. I’ve always seen it as a waste of energy and learning,” says Vannini, who is Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Public Ethnography. “The website was created to take the knowledge that students generate and make it available to the general public, who would find it interesting. It was also created as a way to showcase the high-quality work that our students are doing.”

Que(e)rying India, by MA in Intercultural and International Communication student  Warren Brown is one of the featured projects. Brown travelled to India as part of his program and created a multimedia website to showcase the vibrant queer culture and explore the gap between representation of gays and acceptance. His site includes photos, an audio recording of his experience participating in a gay coming out support group and video interviews with gay filmmaker and activist Sridhar Rangayan and Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil of Rajpipla, India’s first openly gay royal.

“Queer culture needs representation. People need to see the interactions and the context and hear the voices,” says Brown, a gay Jamaican-Canadian living in Toronto. “It allows people who may be questioning their own sexuality to see others like them. Had I seen more images of people that looked like me or could relate to my experience, it would have really helped me when coming out. It would have given me a lot more strength and positive reinforcement.”

Royal Roads’ learning model (online learning combined with on-campus residencies) and the communications programs are popular among early- and mid-career professionals in creative fields, such as new media, film and writing. Many are seeking graduate degrees to leverage their talents by blending their educational and professional experiences, Vannini says. The outcome is innovative, stylish and relevant public ethnographies that have appeal both inside the academy and also with the public.

For her MA in Professional Communication major project, Deborah Davis created an eclectic collection of art that interprets the linguistic debate between medical terminology and plain language. By depicting the confusion and frustration some patients feel when communicating with medical professionals, she hopes to get their attention and inspire change.

“Since thousands of published studies have had a limited effect on changing doctors’ behaviour, for my research I wanted to find an alternative way to interpret the information and present my understandings,” explains Davis, an artist and communications professional who has worked in the health sector since 2004.

One of Davis’s pieces is called Backbone. It’s a suspended object built with alternating strips of plain language and medical terms on paper, interspersed with bits of examination gown material and X-ray images. The piece explores how the words we choose form the foundation of our relationships. Davis also created a collection of photographs that document a performance art piece in which she cuts up paper examination gowns upon which she wrote a 45-letter medical term. In addition to having her work featured on the website, Davis hopes to show it in a health-care facility.

“There’s no discussion and you’re not challenging people if they’re not able to see your research,” Davis says. “You’ve got to get it out there to them. By having your research where people are or where they’re going to go, you’re going to the people rather than having them come to you. The whole idea of communications is to get your message to your target audience as easily as possible. It really excited me that you can do research that is not just a paper that sits somewhere and doesn’t make any difference.”