Interview with Elizabeth Buchanan

© Elizabeth Buchanan and Figure/Ground
Dr. Buchanan was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. February 28th, 2011.

Dr. Buchanan is Endowed Chair and Director of the Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, where she specializes in Information Ethics, Research Ethics, Internet Research Ethics and Information Policy. She earned her PhD in Ethics and Information Transfer from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1999, and has since held a number of research and teaching positions related to her area of expertise. Among other things, she was a research fellow at the Oxford e-Research Center (University of Oxford) and Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Information Policy Research in the School of Information Studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Elizabeth is the Editor of the 2004 Readings in Virtual Research Ethics, one of the first anthologies on Internet research ethics, and co-author, with Kathrine Henderson, of the 2009 Case Studies in Library and Information Science Ethics. She is professionally active in Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research, the International Society for Ethics and Information Technology (Co-Director), and the Association of Internet Researchers. Elizabeth also serves as an Associate Editor for the Journal of Research on Human Research Ethics (JERHRE), is a co-founder and co-editor of the International Journal of Internet Research Ethics, on the Editorial Boards of the International Review of Information Ethics and Philosophy and Technology, and reviews for many other scholarly journals and granting agencies. She was recognized for her teaching with a 2003 University of Wisconsin System Office for Professional and Instructional Development Teaching Fellowship.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

I would say that yes, the choice to join the professoriate should always be a conscious choice. It is too important to be a happenstance. I grew up in a very small beach town, a resort area, where education was not necessarily highly valued – the majority of our community were small business owners or public employees, as were my parents. The nearest college, a community college, was close to an hour away, so we had very little exposure to higher education.  However, our community valued the primary public schools and teachers were treated with respect.  In my small New Jersey shore town, the population was quite small throughout the winters, but I had the privilege of living within one block of my kindergarten, first and second grade teachers. This proximity showed me that education went beyond the classroom, into the every day, after school, weekend life. They were not university professors, but they instilled in me values that remain to this day imperative to my life and my profession. Education as a process, as a set of values, is something that is cultivated by many influences. As I aged, and realized how important education was to me, my parents encouraged me at every step. Only my father was college educated. We were squarely working class, and yet, my choice to pursue graduate studies was never questioned, but always supported. I knew early on that I would be a professor. I wasn’t always sure of what, but, I knew in my soul that this was my path.

Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

I had a very diverse undergraduate experience; I have degrees in English, with a concentration in Film Studies, and Philosophy. I lived a dual life for 4.5 years as an undergrad, despite the fact that both are “humanities” degrees. I had the wonderful privilege of working with Dr. Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, who oversaw my honours thesis on feminist film theory and in particular, the work of Maya Deren. This stood in direct contrast with the work I did in the Philosophy department on philosophy of language, science, and mind, with some of the best cognitive philosophers in the world. I was so immersed in theory and I didn’t know exactly which direction to go as I entered my last year of college. Well, fortunately, the two worlds collides somehow when I reached graduate school at UW-Milwaukee and I was able to combine philosophy, and in particular, ethics, and feminist theory. Oddly enough, my doctoral work was quite isolating, as I had a multi-disciplinary committee and was the one talking across the disciplines, trying to make the interdisciplinary “work.”  I needed to bring together a range of disciplines, and I wasn’t quite sure how I would accomplish this. But, Dr. Marlene Pugach, an ethnographer, was one of the best influences I had. She showed me the true meaning of understanding others’ experiences, and how to write about them. She introduced me to Annette Markham’s work, who to this day, is a dear friend and colleague, and who continually pushes me to think beyond my boundaries. Too, as I was working on my doctoral studies, I met Robert Hauptman, who in the field of information ethics is a seminal figure, one who had the interdisciplinary “thing” under his belt for many years. He was so well read and so diverse that my studies brought me back to him over and over. He taught me not only the history and field of information ethics, but the importance of collegiality and humanity in academia. His presence has been beyond influential in my life, not just my professional work.

And, as some believe, everything happens for a reason. I was in Karlsruhe for an information ethics summit in 2004, sponsored by another dear friend, colleague and mentor, Dr. Rafael Capurro. I there met Dr. Toni Samek, a Canadian scholar whose work I had known of, but had never met. We tend to think of our mentors as “elders,” those who can teach us from their life-long experiences. This is not always true, as my relationship with Toni Samek has shown. I consider her one of my mentors, my contemporaries, as she too is a young, working mother, who refuses to let her research agenda be dictated by external forces. She looks at the totality of the academic and social experience, seeking justice in these realms. She has opened my eyes to serious, yet often undiscussed academic issues, and has shown me the importance of standing firm in the face of intolerance. She has shown me over and over how personal integrity means everything for our professions and scholarship.

And, finally, as I look back, I realize I didn’t meet my true mentor until I was only a year or two into my career, when I met Dr. Charles Ess, who was the Chair of the Interdisciplinary Studies Center at a small liberal arts college in Missouri. I laugh with him now, twelve years and many projects later, about our first email correspondence, when I was very intimated by his stature. He has been a friend, a colleague, an advisor, a critic, a therapist, and much more over the years. This is what a true mentor is. His experiences have provided me with ambition, humility, and strength.

Joshua Meyrowitz’ thesis in No Sense of Place is that when media change, situations and roles change. In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?

Despite the vast technological changes, I honestly don’t think that much has changed in terms of what we do as professors: we are engaged in teaching, research, and service to our students, professions and colleagues. I do think we work considerably more given the incessant connectivity and availability of individuals, and unfortunately, I feel we are less respected than in days past.  I had the good fortune of spending sabbatical at Oxford, which is a sort of scholarly bliss – one thinks of the flowing regalia and lunches at Oxford as the epitome of scholarly life; academic vibrancy is tangible across the campuses. But even there, I know people were feeling the pressures of funding, competition, and a growing social divide over the role of education. Years ago, I found David Noble’s work on digital diploma mills to be a great analysis of the changes in work and boundaries in higher education.  We could, conceivably, work every day of the week, eighteen hours a day and still have more to do – we are the modern day factory workers, as Noble suggested. That is why, as I say below, learning to say “no” is critical. I do not know if my university professors felt the same pressures twenty years ago; they never showed it, if so. I do know I respected them greatly, and hope students today realize while education is a right, it is also a privilege. I do fear the growing divisions in social and economic classes will devastate education.  The changes I see, unfortunately, are from these external social, political, and economic forces and variables that are impacting all of education in a negative way. Empirically, the communities or countries that invest highly in education are better off. Crime rates are lower, civic engagement is higher. Quality of life is better. But, when societies decide to continually raise tuition and cut faculty salaries, among other “cost-cutting” measures, we all lose. Finally, I don’t think I ever feared for my future as an undergraduate. Twenty years ago, getting a college degree was a guarantee of a successful future. I do not know if I feel the same for our students today, and that is a tremendous difference between my experiences as an undergraduate and those today.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by fractured attention and information overload?

Teaching is performance. One can either give a great performance or a mediocre performance, and the “audience” can leave in disbelief, in astonishment, or they can leave completely bored. Indeed it is true our students are distracted by gadgets and attention deficit. But, they are also distracted by the pressures of higher education and uncertain futures. Many of the students at my university, for example, are first generation, low income students. They are simply trying to survive in a new culture of academic life. So, to be a good teacher today means you must reach out in different ways and through different voices. I tell stories about my successes as a student but more importantly, my failures. Letting students know I am a real person, with weaknesses and problems, is very important.

Currently, in my position, I am not teaching. However, I taught for twelve years and over that time, really thought about teaching. Boyer’s work on the scholarship of teaching was very influential and early on, I saw teaching as important as research. The same applies to service. In universities, we are typically expected to engage in those three activities, and each one impacts students, really. I recall a discussion when a colleague asked why we rarely talk to each other about teaching. Teaching is a public act, just as research is. This is how I manage to command attention in today’s classroom. Consider it as important as one’s research and respect the students as peers. They will know then that teaching matters and they too will engage more seriously. Open the door for students, and show them the entirety of the academic experience. I dislike the segmentation of the academic experience and try and connect the dots for students.

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?

First, stay true to yourself. This sounds trite, of course, but it is very, very important. Do not cave to trends and pressures that are not important to advancing knowledge. Do not allow others to dictate what you research, how you research, and how you spread your word. The academy has become extremely commercialized and competitive, and this brings out the worst in people. Never give up on one’s values, even in the face of challenges. Second, never be afraid to be too good. I mean this in a number of ways: Be willing to stand up for your colleagues who may not have a voice yet, those who may be untenured or contractual workers. Unfortunately, this is becoming the reality of many individuals, in all sorts of institutions and those of us who can, must stand up and ensure those individuals receive just and fair treatment. Do not be afraid to be successful in one’s research, teaching and service, even if that success means some of your colleagues will dislike you and, in many instances, undermine you. I have learned from many, many successful scholars that the price of their success is costly. They are “stars” outside of their own departments, their own universities, while they are continually challenged on their home turfs. Stand firm, I recommend, and be true to yourself, your students, and your scholarship. Finally, do not be afraid to be too good to your self and to your loved ones. This may mean you decline an offer to keynote a conference; to write an invited paper; to chair an important committee. Do not be afraid to say no and in doing so, keep a healthy and positive balance for yourself and those around you. Third, my colleague Robert Hauptman has said this and I find it to be significant advice for those in the professoriate and, really, for all of us: Nothing is more important than the way we treat each other. I encourage every aspiring professor to heed this thought – think long and hard about what it means and why it is so important. If you take it seriously, it will change the way you interact with students, your office staff, your teaching assistants, and so on. It is a fundamental tenet.

And, less seriously, but also important, I always encourage aspiring professors to live within a few hours of an international airport. Having traveled extensively, I know the value of this, and can not stress how helpful it is.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim could be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information?

I would say universities are indeed in crisis, though perhaps not because of the age of information. As one who truly lives an interdisciplinary existence, I can testify to the challenges – and yet opportunities – it poses. One fits everywhere and nowhere, and at times, true existential angst sets in. And, as conditions worsen for universities, interdisciplinary work is often discredited or discarded completely, regrettably. I know centers for interdisciplinary studies have been closing, and the re-siloing is occurring. Much of the time, this is due to turf or economic battles, not scholarly rationale. Interdisciplinary work allows new and innovative ideas to emerge, but there must be the cultural conditions within and outside of the university for this to flourish. The constraints of the institution – still – prevent scholars from engaging fully in interdisciplinary studies. The tenure and promotion structure often punishes those who don’t fit neatly in a “discipline,” with “a” profession and “a” professional society. Universities often negate the possibility of joint hires across departments. And yet, when we look at agencies in the US such as the NSF or the NIH, so much of the supported research is interdisciplinary. Technology is but one factor in the changing nature of academia. Knowledge structures are so complex, researchers must push boundaries to remain relevant and to thrive in cutting edge environments. Disciplinary knowledge borrows from other disciplines, as we progress in the sciences, the social and behavioural sciences, and the arts and humanities. I’ve recently written some tenure review letters for young interdisciplinary scholars and stressed how challenging it is to be “good” at this. The age of information enables interdisciplinarity in ways even McLuhan would have found surprising.

I like to think of interdisciplinarity in this way. Think of a highly important scholar in one’s field. Then, do the six degrees of separation to contextualize his or her research in the interdisciplinary nexus. What disciplines does she/he connect with, converge into, borrow from, contribute to? It is similar to a citation web, and it is great fun to see where people are researching and collaborating. More often than not, though, those six degrees lead well into diverse disciplines and innovative scholarship.

My fear is that despite the need for more interdisciplinary work, our economies around the world are dire and people can train for one discrete job and fail to see the holistic context. It would be interesting to see if universities are decreasing their general education requirements, which are often the only exposure students have to interdisciplinary work in favour of skills-based courses.

Among your areas of specialization are Information Ethics, Research Ethics and Internet Research Ethics. What is in your view the most important thread connecting these research areas, and how does our understanding of ethics vary from realm to realm?

My scholarly path collided in a strange but very fortuitous manner.  I was writing my dissertation about communication and discourse in a new online bioethics program – remember, this was back in 1997-8, when online coursework was not the norm, and online research was only then emerging with its own methodological specificity. I was interested in the ways in which students engaged with each other about significant bioethics issues and how the students and the instructor engaged differently with the content because of the online course mediation. I had reviewed materials for the course about extant principles of research ethics –beneficence, justice, and respect for persons, and when I went to my research ethics board to gain approval to conduct online interviews, observe online interactions, and engage in online focus groups, the board was not familiar with these methods. I ended up explaining the risks and benefits and the nuances of online research ethics, and then joining the ethics board, as I was studying these tenets in theory. It was a very nice collision of circumstances. I continued to write about general issues in information ethics, but these last few years have been internet research ethics all the time, as many researchers and boards are continually challenged by the technologies and ever changing venues, tools, and types of research possible. For me, ethics is the common denominator in all of the work I do. Research ethics is heavily influenced by consequentialism; we make decisions in our research based on a risk-benefit analysis. Yet, in research ethics, we are concerned with the autonomy of each individual and seek to protect each person as an end, not a means to an end. Thus, we see traditional ethical frameworks all the time. People often ask if Internet research ethics are fundamentally different from non-Internet research ethics. The principles remain the same – we use the same values of respect for persons, beneficence, and justice as we evaluate the ethical issues, but there are qualities of e-data or e-research which are unique.

You are currently Director of the Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. What are some of the activities taking place at the center?

I joined UW Stout in February 2011, as the first Endowed Chair in Ethics and the Director of the Center for Applied Ethics. The Center, the result of an anonymous endowment, is a campus and community resource, intended to infuse ethics across the curriculum, campus life, and the community.  Our donors saw a critical need for ethics education, and wanted each student, regardless of discipline, to have exposure to ethics. It is a great opportunity to make an impact on so many students and across so many disciplines. This first year has pushed me to expand my horizons, and really continue along my path of learning and scholarship.  In this first year, we’ve received a number of grants, ranging from small reading groups to large federally funded projects.

Our main project for two years is a National Science Foundation project on ethics in computer and information science curriculum. A collaborative project with three other institutions, we are researching student and faculty perspectives on and use of ethics. Our objectives include an assessment of current teaching strategies and how ethical theories are introduced and used. We then will look at professional standards and codes of ethics to look for alignment or misalignment between curriculum and what professional associations, such as ACM and IEEE, present in their codes of conduct or ethics.

Another major aspect of the Center’s agenda is our work on academic integrity. While instances of misconduct are on the rise, we are following the work of the Center for Academic Integrity and trying to instil values about academic scholarship with our students. We are working to foster a culture of integrity and rigor, not just focus on the negatives and the consequences of misconduct. I’ve done numerous sessions with students, as well as faculty on strategies to avoid misconduct and promote integrity. What we’ve seen is that students often engage in misconduct due to such issues as time constraints or anxiety, so we try and engage with students on a number of levels to help them understand the importance of values in their studies; we talk about time management to intellectual property to mental and physical health and wellness as part of our culture of integrity. It is all interrelated, and we want civically responsible students leaving UW Stout.

Each day is different for me, really. I work with faculty and students from every department, and assist them in understanding and using ethics in their classrooms and into their professions. One day, I will work with faculty from construction on sustainability and ethics in design, and the next may bring faculty from counselling and rehabilitation, who are challenged by the ethics of online therapy and e-counselling. Stout has an Ethics and Social Responsibility general education requirement so I spend a lot of time working with faculty on developing courses or assessments for their courses. We follow the tenets of the Hastings Center, and our objectives for ethics education at the Center include: stimulating the ethical imagination, developing student’s skills at recognizing ethical issues, developing the student’s skills at applying moral concepts and principles to ethical thinking, encouraging individual, professional, and civic responsibility, developing a critically examined framework for ethical decision thinking, and developing the student’s ability to understand, respect, and reason about ethical disagreements. These tenets are woven through our courses and contextualized within the unique professions.

What are you currently working on?

One of the benefits of my current position is the ability to work between and across disciplines, and I have amazing flexibility in my research agenda. I have just finished co-authoring an entry for the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (with Michael Zimmer), which was a long and complex project. I am now turning to a co-authored book on anonymity (with Robert Bodle). In it, we will explore the philosophical, legal, social, and cultural influences and aspects of anonymity as they relate to today’s online environments. The opportunity to be anonymous, to speak anonymously, is significant, and we argue, a fundamental right.

I continue to work frequently with research ethics boards on navigating ethics and regulations in Internet research. Most recently, I’ve been working with clinical researchers, CTSAs, and medical review boards. For example, there are a host of complex issues in Internet-based counselling, using social media for recruitment of subjects to clinical trials, and the use of third party sites for data collection, analysis, and dissemination. While I am not a clinical researcher, this world has really interested me, as the impact of Internet research has cultivated enormous ethical challenges. I’ve done some great webinars and talks this year about clinical research and online environments, and there is never a shortage of issues to discuss. I did a webinar just recently for the Department of Energy and University of Southern California’s IRB Community Members group, as well as one for the Rockefeller University’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science. I continue to be involved with PRIM&R, and will be doing webinars on such concepts as informed consent and Internet research.

I will be co-authoring, with Toni Samek, a commissioned article for the 25th anniversary of the Journal of Information Ethics, a premier journal in the field. The special issue will include some of the seminal figures in the field of information ethics, and it is a privilege to be included in this project. We’ll be writing about the current face of academia in the face of growing challenges such as the business model approach to education, the growing division between faculty and administration, research capitalism, and exploitation of scholarship. We are in a very difficult time in academia, one that frightens me, frankly. In Wisconsin, for example, where I reside and work, the attack on public educators and teachers has been vicious. We’ve not seen anything like it, and we are already experiencing brain drain across the state. It is critical to contextualize this moment in the broader discourse of academia in general, and to examine the multiple themes that are impacting academic integrity today.

With bioethicist Emily Anderson, I am co-authoring a paper on online health communities and community-based participatory research. Specifically, we are looking at the ethical challenges in this methodology and online domains.

Finally, I’m working on three ongoing research grants. I am Principal Investigator on two major projects. The first is a National Science Foundation project called the Internet Research Ethics Commons. It is a follow up to our original empirical research with Charles Ess on US-based research ethics review boards and Internet research protocols. The goal is to examine the impact of emergent forms of research on research regulation. We are looking at such issues as consent, privacy, research with minors, and many other relevant issues in research on and through the Internet.  The second, as I mentioned above, is the NSF-funded project examining ethics pedagogy and content in graduate level information and computer science courses. Then, I’m involved in a research team that is using a newly devised moral development assessment tool to gauge student growth in ethical reasoning. The tool, developed by Howard Curzer from Texas Tech University, moves away from the traditional assessment tool, the Defining Issues Test, and moves more squarely into ethical reasoning, allowing us to identify students’ particular ethical framework and enabling us to see if that framework changes over the course of a semester. Both of these projects require a lot of data collection and analysis, so these will keep me busy for a while.

And, my ongoing work is really with my family, my husband and two children, all of whom keep me grounded and remind me daily of what is most important.  Without them, my professional life would be much less meaningful and I’d have much less to give to my scholarship.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Elizabeth Buchanan
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralón, L. (2011). “Interview with Elizabeth Buchanan,” Figure/Ground. February, 28th.
<  >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

Print Friendly, PDF & Email