Pushing your best work beyond academia

November 15, 2021

Associate Professor Dara Hill recently made a short documentary based on her research to reach audiences other than her fellow academics. It’s also helped renew her enthusiasm for the work.

A collage graphic featuring a photo of UM-Dearborn professor Dara Hill surrounded by imagery representing education, like groups of children, ABC blocks, and laptops.
A collage graphic featuring a photo of UM-Dearborn professor Dara Hill surrounded by imagery representing education, like groups of children, ABC blocks, and laptops.
Graphic by Violet Dashi

The path to tenure can be a grind for junior faculty, and UM-Dearborn’s Dara Hill is open about the fact that her own journey to Associate Professor-hood left her feeling worn out. “Initially, when you’re on that tenure track, it’s really exciting to publish your work,” Hill says. “But it’s grueling and pressure filled too. Year after year, you’re staying up after your family is asleep, and before they get up, to do the large volume of writing that you have to do to sustain yourself in this industry. And when you get there, you can’t help but feel a little bit like you’re just — done.”

The feelings went beyond sheer burnout. There was also the question of whether the work was having the desired impact. Hill’s research often focuses on educational equity and one of her favorite projects is an ongoing longitudinal study of how Detroit’s newcomer families are navigating an educational system redefined by school choice. For sure, the research had the potential to have real impacts on real families and real schools in the city she grew up in and was still committed to improving. But she had doubts about whether the work was leading to as much change as it could if “other researchers and other scholars are the only ones reading your articles.”

So Hill decided to take a chance. In an effort to shake up her standard publication formula of journal articles and book chapters, and get her work on school choice in front of a broader audience, she decided to present it in the form of a short documentary. “I just felt like a film, where you could see and hear the voices of the families who were living these issues, would have a totally different impact,” Hill says. So she found an internal grant that would support the project, chose a university-approved film crew, and got to work. Collaborating with filmmakers meant she didn’t have to try to do everything herself. But as a producer, she got to shape the film both in message and style, by doing things like writing the interview questions and providing feedback on key B-roll visuals to make sure they were on point. She even got a good friend from the local techno music scene (an artform with a rich Detroit history) to write an original score. 

The result is “My Child’s K-5 School Journey in Detroit,” a short doc that features the experiences of four families and distills years of work into just six minutes and 47 seconds. Hill says she’s impressed by how well the film captures the flavor of her research — and does something her traditional work couldn’t. When the film premiered back in October as part of the Better Cities Film Festival in Detroit, the lively post-screening panel discussion and Q&A were a good indication that the format was indeed connecting with a broader audience. “I will tell you this: When I published articles about this topic, no one was like, ‘I want to read it! How can I read it?’ With the film, I had so many people who couldn’t make it to the festival writing me, saying, ‘I want to see it! How can I see it?'" (On that front, Hill is working to organize two additional showings at the U-M Detroit Center and get the film into some additional festivals.)

The whole adventure has also helped renew her enthusiasm for the work. In high school, Hill was actually a visual artist and thought seriously about pursuing art as a career. So to “let the creative person that’s been hiding inside me out for a while” has helped interrupt a work cycle that was leading to burn out. And beyond the immediate impact of the film, she hopes her experience might help inspire colleagues who feel similarly about pushing their work beyond academia. “I was wanting to do something like this for a long time, but I really didn’t know anyone doing it, or that there were university resources available to support something like this,” Hill says. “So I’m very appreciative that we have internal grants that allow folks to use their creativity and do research-based work that’s a little nontraditional.”

In fact, Hill says she’s pursuing another internal grant to do a follow-up film. That one will focus on the families’ experiences as they make the leap into middle school. It’s a coming-of-age subject that promises to provide interesting material for both academic articles and short docs alike. 

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Story by Lou Blouin

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