Researchers making a difference

By Sophia Lee

Writing a research paper need not involve labor-intensive and time-consuming readings of texts.

Tara McPherson | Daily Trojan file photo

Instead, imagine videos, images, colors, graphs and speech lighting up each page. Words might be non-linear and color-coded, linking to relevant information and visuals. And perhaps, it might even pique enough curiosity in the reader to start a discussion.

That’s the kind of multi-level collaboration Tara McPherson, an associate professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, has built through her research on the impact of digital media in culture and society.

“It’s not just because it’s glitzy and because Apple does it,” McPherson said. “I think already we are seeing changes in textbook publishing to include data sets, videos or images.”

The digital age mandates writing take on digital forms, McPherson said, and she believes such multimedia writing will open up exciting possibilities for scholarly work in all fields, especially the humanities.

“A lot of people question what happens in research at the universities and the validity of such research, particularly the humanities,” McPherson said. “By disseminating our work to a wider audience, we can make a stronger case for the importance and relevance of humanities today.”

Some of her research on the potential impact of digital media actually takes place in her Culture, Technology and Communications class. The students, mostly undergraduates, collaborate with elementary school teachers at Los Feliz Charter School to find innovative ways to bring digital tools like flip cams and mobile phones into the coursework.

McPherson also helps scholars submit and publish experimental projects showcasing the technological possibilities for future humanities research in her electronic journal, Vectors.

These experimental projects  helped produce a user-friendly version of the multimedia platform called Scalar, which gives users an easy template to turn their long-form scholarship into a digital “scrapbook.”

With Scalar, scholarly articles can include easy navigation tools and related video and audio clips, in addition, of course, to text.

Users have the option to change the layouts of each “page” according to what works best for them. For example, a person who learns better visually might want a media-centered layout, while a person looking for a more comprehensive view can choose a graphical layout that shows how certain “pages” overlap and intersect.

Scalar doesn’t aim to replace books, McPherson said. It just offers more options for scholars whose work deals with visual and digital material.

For example, McPherson works with the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, which provides an extensive archive of video interviews with survivors from the Holocaust. With Scalar, scholars from the Shoah Institute can publish their articles next to videos from the archives, where seeing the human faces can add an emotional weight compared to plain reading, McPherson said.

“In a world fraught by genocides and riots, I think it’s very important to understand the history of such movements,” McPherson said. “Contributing to preserve such history is an ethical thing for scholars to do.”

But McPherson adds that she hasn’t gone 100 percent digital yet.

“Learning to have the time to be quiet and thoughtful is also very important,” McPherson said.

To take a break from the technology world, McPherson said she and her nine-year-old son love to sit side-by-side reading “good old-fashioned books” — though hers, naturally, are on a Kindle.


By Juliana Appenrodt

Ron Astor works to make schools safer.

Astor, who holds joint appointments in the USC School of Social Work and the USC Rossier School of Education, has spent nine years at USC researching violence in schools around the world.

Ron Astor | Photo courtesy of USC Rossier School of Education

Earlier this year, the Society for Social Work and Research gave Astor the 2011 Excellence in Research Award for his study on violence in Israeli schools.

Astor has also developed a widely used school mapping and local monitoring procedure that targets settings and places, rather than individuals, in solving safety issues in schools.

The Daily Trojan sat down with Astor to discuss his recent research and how he’s working to reduce violence in schools worldwide.


Daily Trojan: What is the focus of your research?

Ron Astor: Currently, I’m working with military-connected schools. These are schools that serve kids that come from families that are currently serving in the military. We’re working with the principals and teachers in schools to make those environments welcoming because kids go through a lot of stress from their parents’ deployments and with the multiple transitions from school to school in locations all around the world. The second area of research I’ve been doing for a long time is around issues of school safety and how different countries and cultures deal with issues of school safety.


DT: Does your research focus on schools in a certain area?

Astor: Regionally, a lot of my work has been done in the Middle East.  Many of our interventions and research ideas are in all 3,000 schools in Israel, and France is looking at using them right now. And now California is looking at some of them. We look at all forms of school violence and school safety and different ways of approaching it, ranging from name-calling to shootings and everything in between.


DT: What was your initial motivation or interest in doing research about school violence?

Astor: I’ve been doing it since I got my masters degree at USC back between 1983 and ’85. I graduated in ’85.  The more I looked into it, I realized there wasn’t a lot of stuff done just about schools and what schools could do — in the old days it was more about families and what was wrong with the kids. That’s what has made our research so interesting to people. We’re not focusing on individuals per se, but we’re really focused on settings, the places. What are the social spaces that make people get along and feel safe and actually promote peace and togetherness? When you ask the question that way it becomes much more interesting, especially when you’re looking at school violence.


DT: Can you tell me a little bit about the mapping and local monitoring procedure that you developed and how it can be used to find solutions to school safety problems?

Astor: It’s identifying locations and times that are not owned by anyone. Focusing on the space and time is far more productive than focusing on people. We like working with a team of students, teachers, parents, saying, “How can we make the hallway safer?” So actually mapping violent hotspots and then interviewing people and sharing that with the whole community has been a very effective tool in finding out where these hotspot places are.



DT: What do you hope to ultimately accomplish with your research on school violence?

Astor: Less pain and suffering and more happiness amongst children and teachers and people who make the whole social and learning experience in school a better one.  If you have a reduction of 10 percent less fights and weapon use, that’s a lot less pain and suffering that victims have to feel and communities have to deal with.


By Bridget McAnany

Social media seems to have made people less engaged with their immediate surroundings, but Katya Ognyanova and Nancy Chen, both Ph.D. candidates at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, want to use social media to bring a community together.

Ognyanova and Chen are researching ways to use new media to promote civic engagement in Alhambra, a city where residents seem to have lost their sense of belonging.

Katya Ognyanova | Daily Trojan

Because Alhambra is ethnically diverse, its residents do not have common news sources or a way to get information in a consistent and useful way, which, according to Ognyanova, makes it difficult for them to collectively imagine their community.

Enter Alhambra Source.

Ognyanova, Chen and other communication researchers, including both students and professors at Annenberg’s Metamorphosis group, conducted focus groups, surveys, media monitoring and interviews to see how the various residents in Alhambra get their news and information, and how they feel toward their community. This research started about three years ago, and culminated eight months ago, with the launch of a new website,, which provides a common news outlet for Alhambra residents.

“It’s not just about research, it’s about that research being translated into practice; how research has a real impact on the community,” Chen said.

The website provides news in three different languages (English, Spanish and Chinese) to reach out to the ethnically diverse community. It gives the residents a common resource to share information and feel connected to their surrounding community.

The main goal of the project, which won first place in the social sciences category at the GPSS Poster Symposium in early April, is to promote dialogue and interaction across ethnic lines in the city of Alhambra, according to its

Ognyanova and Chen hope the website will function as a place where all residents, no matter their race, can come to receive and comment on the local news happening in the community. And an increase in the multi-ethnic communication will, they hope, increase levels of neighborhood belonging and community engagement.

“This is a learning experience — we see what works and what doesn’t, and this knowledge can be applied in other communities,” Ognyanova said.

For now, the researchers plan to have about 20-30 Alhambra residents be in charge of contributing to the website. Eventually, though, they want the website to be self-sustaining, where residents completely run the website with distanced support of the research team.