A letter I helped develop and write that is addressed to the organizers of 3MT, a famous and popular competition for graduate students

February 2021

 

Dear [redacted] 

 

On behalf of [redacted], we are contacting you with concerns regarding our experience with how the rules of the 3MT competition affect the equity of participation in the competition. 

 

At UVA, we have hosted the 3MT for nine years. The competition has returned many benefits, most especially the visibility to the value of communicating research. In an average year, we have 35 to 50 students enter the preliminary rounds. Approximately 75% of our participants come from STEM fields with an occasional entry from studies in humanities and social science. Arts students have never participated before. Now we have insight as to why. 

 

In our 2020 competition, a doctoral student in our music program helped shed light on some of the barriers to entry for arts students. Because of the 3MT rule that states “no additional electronic media (e.g. sound and video files) are permitted”, this student was unable to share his research on Latin American influences in American popular music. This student’s experience led us to reflect deeply on the 3MT and whether it is the right graduate research competition for our institution.

 

To provide a bit of context, we in the community of Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, are experiencing a reckoning with our local history, specifically our treatment of enslaved laborers and displacement of indigenous peoples. It may seem incoherent or unnecessary to link societal struggles with a graduate research event. For us however, it represents a microcosm of what we are trying to change: that some groups in society have power over others. For us, the rules of 3MT exacerbate that power struggle. 

 

We would like to bring three areas of concern to your attention. Each has to do with creating a more inclusive experience for 3MT participants. 

 

First, we are concerned that the existing 3MT rules reinforce Western ideas of what qualify as legitimate pieces of evidence. For example, one rule that states “no additional electronic media (e.g. sound and video files) are permitted”. As a result, an art historian can show a portrait or a photograph relating to a topic, but a music scholar is not permitted to play an excerpt to help explain their research. This prohibition does not just impact music students. Environmental scientists may document animal extinction by recording the sounds of the forest. Similarly, sociologists have recently used field recordings to highlight the audible impacts and consequences that gentrification has on communities of color.  An inadvertent consequence is that this rule maintains the supremacy of visual experiences while dismissing sound as a valid way of knowing, querying, and understanding the world. We believe that audio excerpts are just as valid as visual ones. 

 

Consequently, and our second concern, is that this and other rules (e.g. no props, no rap, no poetry, or songs) discourage graduate students from embracing various modes of presentation. African American communities, for instance, have historically relied on songs to transmit knowledge. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, slaves often sang negro spirituals in order to help escapees navigate the underground railroad. Similarly, Chuck D., rapper in the famous rap group Public Enemy from the late 1980s, highlighted how music functioned as a newsource for his community when he called hip hop “black America’s CNN.” Several subaltern communities dance, sing, recite poetry, paint, cook, and rap in order to transmit knowledge to one another and to outside communities as well. The current rules prohibit such rich and culturally-informed modes of presentation. 

 

Third, we would like to encourage technological inclusivity. The use of one static slide may have been appropriate in 2008, but media choices are vastly more varied today. There are so many new communication features that could enhance one’s ability to tell their research story. The University of Michigan Press, for example, has recently released publications that merge scholarship with original music compositions and poetic prose. They then place these publications online where readers and students can use a number of interactive features to engage with the material. Scholars in a diverse range of fields are also increasingly making captivating, yet substantive, YouTube videos in order to attract a broader audience. Furthermore, an increasingly large number of PhD students are submitting their research as podcasts in lieu of a written dissertation.  Given that this is a graduate research competition, we can expect more creativity than a static slide accommodates. 

 

Finally, the language of the rules themselves (specifically the first five) are framed in power-based language: “Permitted, no (...) are allowed, no (...) are permitted, no (...) are permitted, exceeding... are disqualified”. We believe that the rules could be expressed in more inviting terms. We advocate framing the rules in terms of what the participants can do instead of what they cannot. 

 

We recommend that UQ convene a thought group of participating institutions from around the world to reflect on whether the current rules 1) are equitable and 2) support graduate student research. Based on the outcomes of those discussions, revise the rules to reflect contemporary international needs and values in the context of the goals of graduate education. If the group decides that exclusionary rules are needed, they should be transparent about the justification for them.   

 

In closing, let us be clear that we value and applaud the 3MT.  It has been a remarkable international success and we are grateful for UQ’s leadership. We see the 3MT as an opportunity to celebrate diversity of intellectual curiosity and discovery. Thank you for considering our recommendations. 

 

Kind regards,

[redacted]