Orion E. Lewis

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In each issue of this newsletter, we profile a faculty member who makes innovative use of the library or academic technology.  This issue features Dr. Orion Lewis, Visiting Assistant Professor in the Political Science department.

Orion received his Ph. D. at the University of Colorado and prior to coming to Middlebury he worked as a post-doc at Wesleyan University managing their program on terrorism and insurgency research.  Within this area, Orion focuses on political communication and information technology, network structures, social networks, cybersecurity, and state-society relations.  When asked how he became interested in these topics, he mentioned that his work on his dissertation examined how the news media in China had evolved over the last 15 years or so, and he began to investigate questions such as: why do journalists and others take risks in authoritarian settings?  Why do they challenge the establishment, and how, from a communications standpoint?  As a corollary to this, he also began looking at the explosion of information technology, and its impact on the ability of authoritarian regimes to control political discourse.

Orion currently teaches one of the most unique courses at Middlebury, Insurgency and Security Policy (PSCI 0392).  A hybrid course open to upper level Middlebury students as well as graduate students at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS), it was designed primarily as a graduate-level seminar within MIIS’ Non-Proliferation and Terrorism Studies program.  Orion relates, “My contract stipulated one course per year at Monterey, and it was somewhat by chance that both the political science department here and the non-proliferation studies program at MIIS were interested in the same type of course.  We developed the idea of using technology to accomplish this partly to minimize the disruption to my home life, but also because the idea of standing in a room teaching to a computer screen the whole time wasn’t that appealing.  I suggested integrating the 2 classes, spending time at each campus, and using streaming technology to reach students on the other.  The interpersonal element to the class was very important, so I needed to get to know the Monterey students as well as the Middlebury students.  It’s turned out to be a good opportunity to expand the boundaries regarding the curriculum available to Middlebury students.”

A class of this type clearly presents some new challenges, both on the technology side and the student side.  “There were some latency issues in the videoconferencing, for example, and side conversations among students in the classroom that wouldn’t be noticeable in a traditional format are more disruptive due to the sensitive nature of the audio.”  And, while there are many technological options to facilitate off-line discussions, they haven’t been widely utilized.  “Just because the technology exists doesn’t mean people will use it, at least without clear incentives.”  But there have been success stories too.  “The Monterey students, being grad students, are older, and some of them bring a huge diversity of real-world experience to the class that is simply not available at Middlebury.  It’s really enhanced our discussions, especially as students have gotten more comfortable interacting across the two campuses.  Orion called some of the work on the final policy memos for the class “across the board … perhaps the best performance I have seen from a class on this type of assignment” and added, “On the whole I’ve been pleased, and it’s really exceeded my expectations.  I’d do it again.”

For the future, Orion likes the idea of being involved with educational design (“I seem to be doing a fair amount as it is!” he says, laughing), and is exploring the idea of a joint Midd/MIIS practicum focused on China studies, with classroom work across both campuses, meeting as a research team in Monterey, and then traveling to China for fieldwork.  “There are definitely innovative possibilities with the 4+1 program at MIIS, and some potentially interesting synergies with the schools abroad.  This type of practicum would be one example of that.”  Technology has also expanded the options available to faculty researchers to disseminate their research: “I’ve become interested in open source models of innovation and how these apply to education.  I placed a couple of articles this year in open source sites such as ResearchGate and figshare, and I think more people downloaded these than read some of my more traditionally published articles!”

Examples of Orion’s open-sourced research can be found here and here.