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New faculty profile: Michael Xenos focuses on effects of new media on political engagement and public deliberation

Michael Xenos joined the Department of Life Sciences Communication as a professor in August 2019. He has been a UW–Madison faculty member since 2005, when he joined the Department of Communication Arts in the College of Letters and Sciences. Xenos transferred 50% of his appointment to CALS in August, and his appointment is now 50% in CALS and 50% in L&S.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the small town of Oak Harbor, on Whidbey Island, in Washington State.

What is your educational/professional background?
I completed my B.A. & M.A. in political science at Western Washington University, and my Ph.D. in political science at the University of Washington.

What was your previous position?
Prior to joining CALS (at 50%), my appointment was 100% in UW’s Department of Communication Arts. I started in Communication Arts in 2005, and eventually served as Chair of that department from 2013-2018.

How did you get into your field of research?
I began collaborating with colleagues Dietram Scheufele and Dominique Brossard around 2010. At the time we were studying the societal implications of nanotechnology. Before that, I was focused on communication and political engagement more broadly, with a focus on the implications of new communication technologies for how people learn about issues and participate politically. Exploring these questions in the context of nanotechnology, or more recently gene-editing and artificial intelligence, (issues that are much earlier in their life-cycle, while also having considerable technical dimensions that present specific hurdles to citizens trying to form informed opinions) has opened up a number of exciting new avenues for me in terms of thinking about communication and political engagement. Moreover, a lot of the same features of these issues make research on public engagement with science especially important, which I find extremely motivating.

What is the main goals of your current research program?
To develop insights that can help foster citizen engagement with issues involving controversial science topics that is healthy, in that it involves good-faith consideration of a range of perspectives and is based on solid understandings of the underlying scientific and technical issues involved.

What attracted you to UW-Madison?
UW-Madison has long been a dream institution for those interested in all aspects of political communication.

What was your first visit to campus like?
It was a little like someone visiting a fan convention – from my first ride to campus to my trip back to Seattle it was like I was interacting with someone I’d always dreamed of meeting someday at every step of the itinerary.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
As a first-generation student, discovering that empirical social science was something that anyone could do (with the right training of course) was revolutionary for me. I hope my students also learn that anyone can effectively deploy critical thinking and empirical analysis to generate valuable insights about the world regardless of their background.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
Yes. Emerging science and technology issues are of importance to everyone, and I believe that healthy processes of public engagement with science are vital to helping us realize the greatest benefits from new scientific and technological developments while avoiding their greatest risks.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
Despite widespread concern about filter bubbles and ideological enclaves online, most people’s online social networks are more diverse than they think, containing a considerable number of people who think differently and live completely different lives than those in their most immediate social circles.

What are your hobbies/other interests?
Hiking, exquisitely good coffee, and 90s music. You can take the guy out of the Pacific Northwest, but…well, you know the rest.