Among the newcomers to the iSchool staff this academic year are two postdoctoral scholars, Melinda Sebastian and Mei Zhang. The iSchool sat down with them to learn more about their past work and research.
Melinda Sebastian’s research into net neutrality and how the government influences public discourse took a fateful turn in June 2014. That was when Last Week Tonight With John Oliver ran its first segment on government regulation of internet service providers. Together with a friend and fellow professor Allison Novak, Sebastian co-authored a paper on the discourse around net neutrality
“We did a paper on that segment, and that sort of got us started,” Sebastian said. “After a new FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, came in, we started noticing that the government and large Internet service providers wouldn’t have a true dialogue.”
Sebastian and Novak eventually published their work as a book, Network Neutrality and Digital Dialogic Communication: How Public, Private and Government Forces Shape Internet Policy. The book explores how the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, interacts with internet service providers, and how those interactions shape the way people use the internet. Sebastian also said that one of the book’s key takeaways is how important dialogue is about a decision of this scale.
“A dialogue is key to healthy public discourse,” Sebastian said. “Net neutrality is so bipartisan, and yet it’s not what we have, and that is concerning.”
As one of the iSchool’s newest post-doctoral scholars, Sebastian teaches Information Policy, IST 618, and Social Media and the Organization, IST 486. Originally from Oxford, Pennsylvania, she received her Ph.D. from Drexel University. Sebastian taught at Kutztown University for two years before joining Syracuse University, noting that the work of Professor Jennifer Stromer-Galley was a huge draw for her to come here.
“I’ve followed her work for a while, along with all the research at the iSchool. There are a lot of cool things coming out of here,” Sebastian said. “Then I saw the posting, and that was that.”
Beyond her work with net neutrality, Sebastian works to explore how social media is used from an intersectional feminist perspective. Her dissertation focused on gender surveillance and the problematic use of terms like “revenge porn” in legislation. Sebastian said that such language is limiting in laws because it only covers one specific crime.
“If that exact thing doesn’t happen, then there’s no case,” Sebastian said. “It keeps out a whole swath of people who are impacted.”
Sebastian’s research on discourse surrounding net neutrality and gender surveillance has led her to believe that federal statutes can help attorneys prosecute crimes because on the state level, the definition of crimes can vary.
Sebastian now plans to research the impact of new technologies and to make language a key focus of that research.
“Language is this transformative, lovely, strange, beautiful thing,” Sebastian said. “But people should take care about what they say, because their language can shape their reality.”
Sebastian also is excited to find out what her colleagues are working on, and she hopes to make a “nice research and teaching impact” at the iSchool.
Mei Zhang’s journey to Syracuse was a long one. Originally from the town of Yibin, China, on the banks of the Yangtze River, she began her career studying information science at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou before moving to the United States. She came here to earn her doctorate degree at the University of Madison-Wisconsin.
Zhang researches the relationship between academic and public libraries and ebook publishers. Her work explores how publishers price and distribute ebooks to libraries, and how those libraries afford the costs for these materials. According to Zhang, public libraries are often at the mercy of large ebook publishers such as Amazon and OverDrive, which can set prices however they want due to a lack of competition.
“Amazon and OverDrive are brokers, which means that they are the source that most libraries will go to for ebooks,” Zhang said. “Because they’re so big, they can also set prices lower than most competitors, meaning that libraries don’t have a lot of room to negotiate other aspects,” she explained.
Zhang’s primary focus, however, is on academic libraries. Depending on the type of study that the library focuses on, its access to ebooks can be limited, Zhang said. Additionally, since it is profitable for publishers to stock the newest editions, they will automatically update all the library’s ebooks as long as that library is subscribed. However, Zhang said this can actually be a problem for libraries that rely on information only present in older versions of the books.
“Researchers will often try to trace the historical development of a topic through older materials,” Zhang said. “This makes it difficult when those materials are being updated and history might disappear. In addition, even simple changes like page numbers or chapter titles can make it difficult for research because one book might say some information is on one chapter but it gets moved in a later edition.”
Zhang said another issue for academic libraries is that certain publishers tend to lock their materials behind a key, forcing libraries to spend large amounts of money to buy these keys, which is funding they cannot then devote to other materials.
At Syracuse, Zhang teaches classes on natural language processing and database management. She plans to continue researching the relationships between publishers and libraries.
She said that the international diversity at the iSchool is one of the factors that drew her to Syracuse. When international students are struggling to participate in class, Zhang said she helps them out one-on-one so that they can still make the grade.Though she’s still getting used to life in America, she has come a long way since she first started studying here. She remembers the strategies she used to help her transition into student life in the U.S.
“I knew the material, but I wasn’t familiar with the way the classroom worked,” Zhang said. “I remember telling myself that every class, I had to raise my hand at least twice and contribute. That doesn’t work for everyone, but I try and be open to all my students, especially those who are also getting used to a new environment.”
Another draw for Zhang at Syracuse is the iSchool’s interdisciplinary approach, especially access to undergraduate students. Zhang says that working with undergraduates is “refreshing” due to their being in different stages of their academic career, an experience she didn’t have at Wisconsin.
Header photo: Mei Zhang (left) and Melinda Sebastian (right). Photo by Katie Rook.