Over the last 10 rewarding years at Pew Research Center, I was entrusted with more than I probably deserved — foremost being the opinions held by Americans as they navigate an increasingly complex media environment. My job was to interpret the signals from the public — its antipathies, suspicions, delights and rituals. It also meant digging through balance sheets and transcripts to try and see around what lies around the corner for news publishers. Best of all, after collecting so much data, I got to give it away. Hundred-page reports, blog posts, weekly columns, social media — I could one day wear the hat of a scholar, and the next be doing journalism about journalism. Whether to share or collect, it was data that sent me from the White House to western Oregon, to intercontinental destinations by plane or video conference. It got me chased by a mangy dog on a dirt road in Twiggs County, Georgia, but I’ll put that in the win column, too.
It’s all been a wonderful privilege, especially to labor alongside a group of colleagues such as I’ve found. Still, I’ve noticed that in the aftermath of the November presidential election, Washington (or at least, the discourse emanating from Washington) has felt like a crowded bar, where the best way to be heard is to be louder. Not the most conducive environment for reflection. But when I took a moment to stop and listen, I sensed that my family and I were being beckoned somewhere else. So, in August, I’ll be joining the faculty at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I’ll be teaching digital media, journalism and communication courses. I’ll be advising student media and continuing my research agenda, and will work to bring journalism education into conversation with computer science, digital humanities and other complimentary fields within a broader liberal arts context. I look forward to joining a wonderful group of faculty and students marked by curiosity, generosity and warmth. (My wife, whose family is based in Grand Rapids, is leaving the U.S. Justice Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review to join the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center as a staff attorney.)
A word about Calvin College — known for graduates such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but also filmmaker and provocateur Paul Schrader: its heritage drawn from the Dutch immigrant community, Protestant (Reformed) in its identity, the college’s roots and mine overlap. To make a return to that world is a very Faulknerian “past is not even past” moment for me. For those of you who belong to more than one tribe, maybe this step in my journey will resonate. Throughout my career, I have worked for institutions that have spanned (or scrambled) the ideological spectrum. I’ve worked inside, outside and on the periphery of academia, journalism and organized religion. Many tribes, and it can be at times difficult to negotiate transit between them. Speaking only for myself here, I believe that in our polarized climate — where politics has become intensely personal — it is more important than ever to try.
Finally, this move for me is at least somewhat inspired by the notion that geography matters when it comes to knowledge work. I’ll continue my research on familiar themes like information ecosystems, source credibility, local news and civic engagement, and return to issues such as media representations of religious groups and identities. Will doing this work in a Midwestern purple state, one with a set of journalistic challenges and concerns that differ from those in Washington, impact the questions I ask in my research, and how I tackle them? I will let you know, though I expect I’ll be surprised, confounded, humbled and inspired along the way. And I’ll keep listening; I hear the trout streams up north are good for that.