Although I had always thought about applying to graduate school, the 2016 election helped move me from thinking to doing. It was clear that something had changed in American politics—or, at least, I and many others missed a change that had already occurred. Researching and learning about these changes was of personal interest, but I also felt what I discovered would be important for others to learn about as well. I imagine many people get into academia this way: they seek answers to questions that are interesting on a personal level, but that are also important to society.
Unfortunately, the public will not learn about your research without some extra effort. Academic work is produced for other specialists, published in journals that are difficult to access, and written in language that is difficult to parse. You can make this material digestible to your students, but again, they are a small and unrepresentative sample of the general public.
Fortunately, the internet allows you to engage with the public in a way that just wasn’t possible 20 or 30 years ago. To that end, the Junior Americanist Workshop Series (JAWS) hosted an event with Julia Azari, Hakeem Jefferson, and Matt Yglasias about getting started with public scholarship. Below, I paraphrase a few of the panelist’s comments and supplement with my own interpretation and reflections. Do note that anything outside of the block quotes is not directly attributable to the panelists. So come at me, not them.
Defining Public Scholarship
Matt: There are two modes of public scholarship—repackaging or promoting publications (or forthcoming work) versus leveraging existing domain-specific knowledge to reflect on current events.
Julia: You need to be able to contextualize fast-moving news in your (and other’s) research rather than just repackage your own findings.
The panelists agreed that there are two modes of public scholarship. One mode is to “simply” take your existing research and repackage it for a general audience. For example, political scientists can publish 800 word summaries of new or forthcoming research that relates to current events on the Monkey Cage at the Washington Post.1 Although it is definitely not easy to condense an article into a short blog post written for a general audience, this mode of public scholarship is made easier by the fact that you’ve already done the research and the thinking.
The other mode of public scholarship, probably what you thought of when you read the headline of this post, is using your knowledge to comment on and contextualize current events. Things like writing blog posts, Tweeting, publishing something at the New York Times or FiveThirtyEight, or speaking on TV or the radio.
Julia emphasized that this latter mode of public scholarship requires a particular skill set that is not typically practiced within academia. You have to be able to use your knowledge of the literature—well beyond your own work—to quickly provide insights about something in the moment. You don’t have a year to read and research—the moment will have passed 364 days ago at that point. It’s like a lit review on steroids.
In an academic article, the focus is on your own contribution. The literature is there to ground and support your own theory. Yet, when engaging with a public audience, the literature review on its own can add a lot of value. Most people haven’t read any of the academic literature in your field. They don’t know what is already known nor how the existing work speaks to current developments. If you can add some context to current events by tying an ongoing development to what others have written or, alternatively, if you can quickly pull together some basic data analysis,2 that is a significant contribution.
Matt: Know the publication outlet and their style.
When you send an academic article out for publication, you have probably thought about fit. What is the reputation of the journal? What kind of audience do they serve? Does it make sense to send them your work? The same questions apply to public outlets. Do your due diligence and read (or at least review) the kind of work published at a particular outlet. Not only will doing so give you a better chance of placing work there, it will also ensure you find the right audience.
Julia: Lead with insights, not methods or credentials.
The goal of public scholarship is to engage the public—and the public is interested in results, significance (not in the statistical sense), and implications. The public is not so interested in fancy methods, the robustness checks you ran, or whether you’re an assistant or associate professor.
Exercise Good Judgment
Hakeem: Be conservative in the claims you make.
Your public scholarship won’t be peer reviewed by other academics, but that does not give you license to wildly speculate or overstate your findings. In fact, engaging with the public should increase your caution. Non-specialists probably do not have the skills to go read your regression tables and verify or contextualize your claims. It is your responsibly as a trusted expert not to misinform or mislead.
Hakeem: Writing too often, you can get yourself in trouble.
Hakeem made this comment toward the end of a longer answer about a different topic, and he never elaborated. Yet, I found it to be one of the most interesting statements of the panel discussion.
Here is my interpretation: for all the benefits of public scholarship, there are costs. There are opportunity costs, like the time you’ll invest writing a piece or giving an interview. Generally, academics are not professionally rewarded for this kind of work (even though it is important), and it takes away from your ability to work on a book, or an article, or a class prep that you will be rewarded for. There are also potential reputation costs to messing up—especially in front of a large public audience. And there are costs unfairly imposed on you by others. Even if everything goes well, the internet is the internet. People (jerks) might take your words out of context or attack you for reasons of ideology or identity. Hopefully these costs do not outweigh the benefits, but they are real factors to consider.
As academics, we spend a lot of time in the lab—whether that is an actual lab or a computer screen. We often engage with a small set of colleagues. We talk about p-values and standard errors and robustness checks. But public scholarship is an opportunity to put all of that aside and focus on substance—the answers to the big questions that inspired you in the first place. The answers you wanted to find for yourself, and for others.