A chat with

Melissa Siegel

29 June 2021

We sat down to interview Melissa Siegel back in November and this is one is a gem, one of those you had in the volt and was simply waiting for the right time to showcase it.

Melissa Siegel

Melissa Siegel

Melissa is the definition of busy: she’s a migration scholar, researcher and professor, involved also on faculty and administrative level in the many academic endeavours she undertakes. Interestingly enough, we didn’t meet to talk about any of that yet about her latest project, her Youtube channel. This project was first showcased in our IMISCOE channels in the second bulletin, but it was only right that we virtually sat down with her to dive into her new platform dealing with migration related topics. We talked about the videos, the audience, the experience (and much more) and the chat went all over the place so buckle up. It really felt like a real life coffee! But enough with the preamble, let’s get into it! Hope you enjoy it!

We’ve been very curious about your channel for a while. Let’s start from the very beginning: how did the idea for this channel come up?

Melissa: The main reason I decided to this is because academics and especially migration academics are complaining that the wealth of knowledge we have is often not understood by policy makers, practitioners and especially the general public. So I thought “we are complaining about these things all the time, we should do something about it!” and I thought one of the best ways to do that was through social media to really try to make a platform where we can talk about migration issues with simple everyday language.

I felt there was a missing angle there, and I’ve noticed how some colleagues have now started doing podcast while other institutes are also making their own channels which I think is great as they can reach a wider audience. Yet I still feel like even in these avenues we are still talking to each other. That’s not a problem necessarily, I’m not criticizing it by any means, but I also think there needs to be some other outlets. Therefore I think there needs to be information out there that’s easy to find, to access and to understand by a 12 year old! And that is what I want to put out there!

I was so eager to talk about your work that I totally skipped an introduction, so instead of me saying it for you, let’s have the audience hear it from the source. Can you tell our readers briefly who you are and what do you do?

Melissa: Sure! I’m Melissa Siegel, I’m a Professor of Migration Studies at Maastricht University and United Nations University-Merit which is also based in Maastricht and I head the Migration and Development studies research group. I’m originally from the United States but I’ve been living in the Netherlands for many years.

Great, thank you! Sometimes in migration studies we are in this sort of echo chamber where we talk to each other and conferences are the best examples of such. Who’s your intended audience then: policy makers, youth, a bit of both?

Melissa: My original intended audience was the general public: your grandmas, your kids. But now, although I still want that, things have changed a bit. I’ve had high school and university teachers telling me they have been using my videos in their classes. I’ve had colleagues ask me to cover certain specific topics. And so I find myself incorporating these requests. You can see this transition where we are also trying to make videos to help those who are teaching out there. Given my network, the first people who are consuming my channel are migration scholars, migration practitioners, students of migration, etc.. I want to make sure I have a mix of content that can speak to and help my colleagues out but that can still reach the general public.

Now more than ever it has become easier for a student to watch a YouTube video of 4/5 minutes instead of reading a 30, 40 pages paper. Have you received feedback from students talking about a certain video you’ve published for instance? How has that interaction been? Has there has been a transition here as well where you go from a professor in class to being on a platform like YouTube?

Melissa: Yeah, it has been good and bad, the majority good. Some are really positive, asking for more information or for a clarification. I also may sure to always put more resources and links to all of the sources I used in the description on YouTube. Others have been asking for supervision, job opportunities or my advice on how break into a migration career. But my job is not a social media influencer! At least not yet.

Talking about migration is as complex as it is important. We also have an inherent bias in everything that we do and talk about. How have you managed to avoid the politicization of the topic?

Melissa: I try really within the videos to just bring the facts. Things are a bit different when I have guests on the channel, which of course have opinions or fact based opinions. Every once in a while you get trolls in the comments and you have to deal with it. But that comes with being on social media.

Digital content has been increasing over the years. How have you settled in the YouTube platform, a place that can go from informative to entertaining. Have you found your niche?

Melissa: Well, it’s still early as the channel was born in February 2020. Probably I’d have thousands more subscribers if I were to publish hair tutorial which can be slightly frustrating as I feel like I’m giving very important content to the world! It’s all about finding your way. I watch other youtubers, successful ones, not necessarily academics, to see what they do which is always helpful. I don’t want to simply take an academic frame and apply it: slides etc. I’m trying to add animation for instance. The learning curve is huge! And I have learned to get help from other which has been invaluable.

The academic world is often seen as a traditional environment, big professors, skyscraper institutions. Have you encountered some friction with your attempt of modernizing the migration message?

Melissa: Some professors can roll their eyes, sort of brushing it off. But actually the majority are enthusiastic and see it as a great opportunity, although they might not find themselves comfortable doing it. Many academics are not great at speaking to the general public, this is a recurring flaw of academia which regard to our communication skills with the outside world. In that sense I see some competitive advantage in what I do and the bridge that we are creating with my team.

You said two key words: communication and bridge!

Melissa: Yes, many people ask me at the beginning, when I started this YouTube adventure: why not do a podcast? Well, there’s nothing wrong with that but I do think in general that podcast are more geared towards the “elite”, but I feel that YouTube has a much broader reach and people can even just listen to it not always watch it! If you want to break into something more modern, you do a podcast. But if I wanted to reach a 13year old and a grandma, a podcast wouldn’t be the way to do it.

I’ve noticed that most of your videos do not go beyond the 10-minute mark and I assumed it was because attentions spans are decreasing and maybe it’s because you want to be as immediate as possible. Is this a deliberate decision or just so happens to be the case?

Melissa: I am purposely trying to make short videos. It’s due to attentions spans but also because I want to make very targeted videos. I don’t want people to have to sit through 60-minute lectures, but instead to tackle one topic thoroughly. I want it to be as accessible as possible. If you want to know about migration and covid, remittances, definitions, I want you to find that instead of lurking through a lecture to spot that one notion. I also make sure to put time stamps on all of my videos so that people can go directly to the content that interests them most if they want.

With Covid I was reading how for instance Netflix has witnessed an increase in usage. How has this pandemic affected your presence on YouTube and your work as a migration scholar?

Melissa: First, I launched the channel right before Covid got serious in Europe. Luckily I had recorded quite some material with the help of the communication team at UNU-MERIT before the lockdown so that I could upload content while people were supposed to stay inside. Then it got trickier as I ran out of pre-recorded material and had to record from home, which makes it trickier generally speaking and specifically if you want to have guests. Again, it has been a huge learning curve for me. Yes, there are video calling platforms that make the communication possible, but when it comes to recording and uploading it on YouTube the quality is not great. Therefore I had a lot of trouble to figure this situation out. But this speed bump boosted the creation of explanatory videos using animation. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of innovation. Of course working from home makes that bit much more complicated. I’m a migration specialist but I now feel like an expert on lighting, mics, shooting videos!!! Perhaps expert is too much but I definitely know a lot more than I did a year ago.

Regarding my work and the pandemic, a couple things have majorly changed. Before I was travelling constantly! I had a lot of educational programs abroad which had to be inevitably shifted online, and this shift becomes more problematic when dealing with developing countries given the lack of infrastructure. Issues that range from not having good wifi and harware devices to broader ones like power cuts. But we’ve been getting through it and surely improving as we move forward! Going online has challenges and opportunities. Now much of our material is being uploaded online which makes it more accessible for everyone, and you can attend a conference in the morning “in Italy” and in the afternoon “in the Netherlands”.

You said “we” many times which made me wonder who’s the team behind the project. When I first came across your channel, being that it’s self-titled I thought you did it all! So who’s the team and what’s the creative process? You mentioned you do many different videos, explanatory, interviews, extracts from conferences. How do you decide?

Melissa: I say we because although I’m the main responsible I’m not the only one doing things. In the beginning, the communication team at UNU-MERIT helped me with launching the channel and recording. Then I’ve had a couple of interns who have helped me with video-editing, but it’s not like I have a big team. That’d be amazing! Now I have an intern (Kevin O’Dell) who’s aiding me with animation, editing, and promotion and he is fantastic

For the choices when it comes to videos, it started with me just wanting to get to the basics: what’s migration, remittances, what’s going on in the world. Now it’s a little bit mixed. What my colleagues are asking of me because maybe their course is starting in a few weeks so I push that request up my to-do. There are many ideas in the pipeline, a covid-19 series, country series (discussing migration and policy within these contexts), migration snapshots and more. I’m also writing a book for which I’d like to have a video per chapter.

Migration is a very layered topic, complex to teach even to students who subscribe to a migration masters. How have you found your way talking about migration on YouTube and making it a digestible matter?

Melissa: This is a very good question. You know, in class when discussing a specific term you can have a whole nuanced debate but that’s not the point of this channel where I’m trying to make clear concise videos. If I start getting into very deep discussion about this or that topic, I will lose audience immediately. That has been a challenge, as sometimes I realize people may have criticism on a video for not being nuanced enough which I understand. The effort here is to start shedding light on said topic, making it a one-stop shop for those who are interested in what’s going on with migration. Not trying to please academics out there who might have a wider expertise and who are looking for that type of discussion, which is useful but that’s not necessarily the place for it. Of course I welcome an intellectual discussion in the comments section of the videos. There’s still tons I have to learn regarding video-making, but that has definitely been a challenge to balance.

When I was getting ready to start the channel, I was warned to be prepared for trolls and criticism. Getting popular is a blessing and a curse. You don’t always know who will come across your channel and what they might say or comment.

This really feels like a side effect that comes with entering this playing field. Although you are not looking for fans or “haters” but simply providing factual information, you will bump into people who like and support your material and others that feel the need to counter argument or put down your work. Do you read and interact with the comments?

Melissa: I do, I try to get through them systematically (with my team) and take notes on what can be the responses and requests. For instance I received a comment asking about remittances and was happy to tell them: “wait for the next video”! (where I would cover the material they had a question on) I also get comments that don’t really make sense and  fit the video. I also receive questions that are hard to answer in a comment, some of these questions require a whole series! But these very requests give me ideas for more content.

This adventure is very new also in our academic environment to me and my colleagues. How do you judge this in terms of output? It’s easy to assess an article, a chapter or a book. But now I have a YouTube channel, should I be given the same time allotment or credit that I get for a book? These are interesting discussion that haven’t been had before.

One aspect you can give me a lot of insight on is the “publication” process, let’s call it that way. Classically in academia you write a paper, it goes through the review process, you get feedback, you try again and so forth. With YouTube you have complete freedom on what to publish with no filter giving you the green light. Have you enjoyed putting on the balcony whatever you please?

Melissa: Oh I feel pretty free with my content! Because I want to provide useful information to people, I make sure to fact-check a lot, I make sure that additional resources and reference information is in the description so that people can further their interest. These videos are not just for scholars or students, I’ve also had journalist contact me about the content and info of some of my videos.

In class, one challenge an educator can meet is to tell a student: well you can read this article about that topic or watch that video. Have you felt this issue as well?

Melissa: I see them as very complementary. You can give the students all the readings but I feel anything you can do to help them get more knowledge and absorb it, that’s great! I don’t think it has to be an either or, students often have to make that decision for themselves. Therefore you don’t have to see them as competing but as complementary..

Indeed, and I feel these videos are great gate-openers for students. Getting acquainted with a term before diving deeper into its layer can be a wonderful kick starter for students!

Melissa: Exactly!

As we conclude our chat, do you have any cliff hangers for the audience!

Melissa: Wow! I want to develop and widen the channel I want to expand the country series, the covid series and more interviews. I also want to do more on my specific expertise: migration and development. And as per usual: I’m open for requests!

And that’s that people! I hope you’ve enjoyed this talk with Melissa Siegel and her YouTube channel. I now have nothing else to do but tell you to… check it out! There are links all over the article, but much more to find on the channel itself. Till next time!



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