I’m joining the Cornell University Department of Communication!

Why I’m excited to start as an assistant professor and what it means for the research nonprofit I started

J. Nathan Matias
Feb 12 · 8 min read

During my academic job search, I have been reflecting on the tremendous opportunity and responsibility for faculty to contribute to society, scholarship, and students (read more here).

Last week, I accepted a position as assistant professor with the Department of Communication at Cornell University, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).

I couldn’t be more excited, and I’m eager to learn together with this amazing community and contribute to it as faculty.

Some of my future colleagues at the Cornell University Department of Communication (source: Cornell University)

At Cornell, I will have colleagues whose scholarship contributes to communication, human computer interaction, social psychology, and science/technology studies, among others. The department has deep experience working across disciplines and a culture of scholarship in the public interest.

I’m also excited to join a cluster of closely collaborating departments that collectively produce world-changing research on technology and society. Communication faculty share field affiliations with information science, computer science, psychology, and science/technology studies, among others. Having spent years at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, I hope to connect with Cornell’s law school (home to the society of empirical legal studies) and the great community of researchers at Cornell Tech.

Next Steps for CivilServant

This is also good news for CivilServant, the research nonprofit that I started as a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab. CivilServant advances a world where digital power is guided by evidence and accountable to the public. We achieve this vision by collaborating with the public on scientific research that tests ideas for change and evaluates the impact of tech products in our lives. CivilServant now has community collaborators across Wikipedia, reddit, and Twitter, and we have exciting plans to grow in 2019 and beyond.

CivilServant advances a world where digital power is guided by evidence and accountable to the public

My decision to join Cornell will grow CivilServant’s impact and sustainability. If you’re currently working with us on a project, we’re now in an even better position to complete it well. If you have been thinking about working together, 2019 is a great year to start. While we are still defining the details of CivilServant’s arrangement with Global Voices and Cornell, all of the options involve expanding our work into 2020.

Cornell has a long record of innovation on inclusive, public-interest projects that advance scientific discovery. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a 114-year-old citizen science project with 400k contributors, has been supported by CALS in many key ways over the last century. In parallel, Cornell also incubated home economics, a 20th-century feminist citizen science movement partly pioneered by Cornell’s College of Human Ecology. I have long admired Hugh DeHaven’s pioneering work at Cornell on crash tests, which transformed automotive safety. In our time, Engaged Cornell provides mentorship, funding, and institutional support to faculty who partner with communities on global issues.

Cornell also has a critical mass of researchers who pursue justice and knowledge together, in collaboration with the people most affected. For example, the Worker Institute at Cornell recently worked with Sol Aramendi and NICE to develop Journalera, a mobile app that day laborers use to keep payment records and track wage theft (see this video by Project Luz).

Cornell provides mentorship, funding, and institutional support to faculty who partner with communities on global issues

Transitioning to Cornell

My start date at Cornell is July 1, and I plan to move to Ithaca sometime late in the summer. I’m excited to join the strong community of scholars in Ithaca. I’m also thinking about a rhythm of regular periods of a week or more in New York City, where I could work and convene events at Cornell Tech in Manhattan, especially in-between semesters.

When deciding, I must admit I had questions about the long winters. According to NOAA data, Central New York gets 154 days with direct sunlight on average per year, while Boston gets 200 and Central Park in New York City has 234 days of sunlight. Fortunately, we enjoy mid-Atlantic winters! If you were wondering in December why I tested full-spectrum lighting and wrote software to calculate how far to travel to improve my probability of sunlight, well, now you know <grin>.

Ithaca is beautiful, and I’m hoping for a bicycle commute that strengthens my hill-climbing. After fixing up a small sailboat last year, Dr. H and I are also excited to sail on Cayuga Lake. We expect a bit more wind than Princeton, where we enjoyed floating on lake Carnegie.

View of the Cascadilla Gorge from College Avenue, Ithaca, NY, taken before my interview

Acknowledgments

I’m immensely grateful to all the people who supported me over the last 18 years in and out of higher education:

I have already written about my remarkable parents, who continue to inspire and encourage me. Dr. H continues to be my chief supporter and encourager in uncountable ways. I’m profoundly grateful to her for organizing a series of retreats where we could discuss what we need for a flourishing, long-term arc of public interest research and teaching–including one at Grace Farms in New Canaan, CT. Dr. H is amazing at connecting big questions with pragmatic details, and I’m grateful for those key conversations.

Grace Farms in New Canaan, CT

I’m also grateful to many people over the last 18 months who have mentored me, encouraged me, and contributed to my flourishing here at Princeton:

  • Betsy Paluck, whose advice and example have taught me much about the work of producing science
  • Matt Salganik, who helped me calibrate my expectations for the contributions that CivilServant could make to the social sciences over time, suggested practical models to merge research, teaching, and service, and who helped me find the confidence to teach my field experiments class
  • Kaitlin Thaney, a hero of open science and organizational strategy, who showed faith in my work and who helped me develop a scalable approach to public interest research that is compatible with an academic career
  • Ivan Sigal, executive director of Global Voices, who is an amazing listener, encourager, advisor, and organizer, and who has been a key friend and collaborator throughout my time at MIT and beyond. GlobalVoices has been the perfect partner to incubate CivilServant, and Ivan has been a wise, patient, and practical partner in the work of developing CivilServant into a viable organization that delivers on our still-nascent values and mission
  • Claire Wardle, who helped me define baseline needs for CivilServant’s success in connection with a university, based on her extensive experience doing public-interest research within universities
  • Janet Vertesi, who helped me think more clearly about how to be a multi-disciplinary scholar in conversation with disciplinary researchers
  • The amazing staff at the Center for Information Technology Policy, who have made me feel at home and enabled much of my work this last year
  • Tithi Chattopadhyay, Associate Director at CITP, who has been a great conversation partner at CITP, and who has edited many of my liveblogs
  • The Paluck Lab community, who have been wonderful conversation partners and office mates, and who have helped me think more clearly about my contributions to science
  • The great CITP Fellow community ❤
  • Students whom I have been privileged to work with and learn from, including: Jonathan Zong (now a PhD student at MIT CSAIL), Zenobia Chan (PhD student in political science, Princeton), and Austin Hounsel (PhD student in computer science, Princeton).

I’m also grateful to people whose advice, conversation, and writing helped me think more clearly about what it means to have a faculty career, how to combine it with my public interest work, how to describe my research agenda to departments, and how to navigate a job search in multiple fields:

Over the past year, the CivilServant team has worked with me to imagine and develop this project, and have collaborated on the details of the faculty offer. I’m immensely excited for every opportunity to work with Julia Kamin, Eric Pennington, and Max Klein, and I’m excited to take this next step together. I’m also grateful to every community and research participant who has trusted us enough to work together.

I wouldn’t have reached this point if it weren’t for the funders who have believed in me and in the work that CivilServant is doing. I’m excited to start a new chapter for this work together:

  • Major Funders: The AI Ethics Initiative, The Templeton World Charity Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The Mozilla Foundation, and private donors
  • Other financial supporters: The Knight Foundation, The MacArthur Foundation, and The Tow Center for Digital Journalism
The view from the Cornell University Law School, taken the day before my interview

J. Nathan Matias

Written by

Public-interest research for a safer, understanding Internet. Asst Prof Cornell. CivilServant.io. Prev:@BKCharvard @CivicMIT @PrincetonCITP. Guatemalan-American

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