In Simple Words About Your Complicated Research, or How to Present Yourself and Your Research to the Public(s)
Katrin Tiidenberg, ESA PhD Summer School teacher 2017-2018
Calls for public facing scholarship (partially overlapping with the categories of ‘networked participatory scholarship’  or ‘open scholarship’ ) are increasingly common. On the one hand, it makes sense – after all, who do we do research for if not the publics? Funding institutions – presumably relying on this very logic – have made popular engagement and broad dissemination a mandatory part of the research process. On the other hand, not everyone wants to, or is capable of inhabiting the limelight. Not all research projects are equally communicable to the public, and occasionally, public attention can put both scholars and research participants at risk (i.e. when studying politically polarising issues, or aggressive subcultures, whose repertoires of action routinely utilise (digital) harassment). The increasing prioritisation of public attention in research are seen as both a symptom and an effect of a neoliberal, late-capitalist system; precarious academic labour market; commodification of education, knowledge, research and reputation; and the broad spread of individualism and utilitarianism . As individual scholars, we are faced with a ‘choice’ of playing by the rules of the multiply problematic ideology of self-commodification, or risking falling to the wayside. The “publish or perish” culture seems to have sprouted a “promote or perish” branch.
The most vulnerable in this complicated context are, as always, those just starting out. It is irresponsible to tell young scholars to simply opt out of self-branding and attention seeking practices, when these are important career-making tactics. New researchers cannot be expected to individually resist the culture they have had no part in normalising. It is not up to those just coming up to change the system; it is the responsibility of established scholars to push back from their positions of power and privilege.
During the last two summers, I’ve had the pleasure of discussing these complicated matters with two cohorts of PhD students partaking in the European Sociological Association’s PhD Summer School. We have experimented with non-disruptive, satisfying, or at least palatable ways for bringing their academic work to public attention. In the following, I will briefly outline some of the more fruitful junctions in these discussions.
Public facing scholarship
Public facing scholarship can be defined as an assemblage of attention accepting and attention seeking practices that involve giving expert opinion and advice, and disseminating research (findings, but also the ‘behind the scenes’ process) to various publics via whatever means available and suitable for the occasion. This entails an effort to share research via old media, social media, public speaking engagements or “show and tell” projects in high-schools, as well as a commitment to a particular rhetoric – a clear style of communication that makes complex arguments accessible to wider audiences. There are many benefits to well-executed public facing scholarship, both for researchers and the publics. Interacting with non-experts builds scholars’ critical self-awareness, while practicing accessible communication fosters clarity of thought, and probably makes us better teachers. It is also beneficial for the society at large – it places experts at the center of relevant public debates, helps counter the spreading of anti-intellectualist sentiments , and responds to social issues faster than conventional academic dissemination routines allow. Public facing scholarship becomes problematic when attention and its side-spoils become a goal of their own, or when self-promotion becomes a mandatory, yet un(der)-resourced part of a scholar’s job. In the mentioned PhD Summer Schools, we’ve found it fruitful to discuss the role of public facing scholars via questions that help each researcher map their individual response to, and values around engaging in public facing scholarship. This in turn can guide their choices about when, where, on which topic, and how to accept attention, and when to pass on what initially, undoubtedly, feels like an opportunity.
Speaking position and accepting attention
It might be a good idea to contemplate the following questions, when narrowing down one’s individual criteria for accepting attention (i.e. when asked to comment on an issue via old media) or when speaking from our real-name, academic-credential-marked social media accounts.
- Who are you speaking as (someone with specific expertise on a specific topic; someone with specific expertise on a general topic)?
- Do the people you are speaking to understand which position you are speaking from (i.e. personal opinion of a generally well educated individual, versus an expert on a particular topic)?
- Is the mediator giving you the opportunity to speak unaware of your particular expertise, or the fact that there are people with more narrowly suitable expertise for what they are discussing?
In other words, whenever we are offered a platform (by a journalist or a well-known blogger) we should consider who we want to speak as and if we can claim scholarly expertise in all of those areas. There are plenty of unfortunate examples of scholar’s opinionating on areas that fall outside of their expertise, while the ‘PhD’ behind their name fortifies their voices. It is not the sole responsibility of journalists or publics to figure out that someone’s degree in zoology does not make them an expert in human sexual identities. It is the responsibility of the scholar to know when and how to speak. This is further complicated by the socio-technical affordances of networked publics. Networked publics are the spaces constructed through networked technologies (for example social media platforms) as well as the imagined collectives that emerge as a result of the intersection of people and technology . This means that someone’s Facebook wall is a networked public, but so is everything that appears within a trending hash tag on Twitter. Since our audiences within networked publics are invisible, and thus largely imagined, it is easy to forget that we are indeed engaging with a public, and not 14 of our closest colleagues, capable of interpreting our inside jokes, getting our satire, and enjoying our irony as intended.
Social responsibility and seeking attention
There exists an abundance of advice on how to self-brand, how to write and send press releases, how to generate attention and build reputation. Some of it is specific to academics, most of it is not, but translates reasonably well. Just as narrowing down a speaking position informs how and when to accept attention, mulling over the following questions might help with a strategy regarding seeking attention:
- When should I respond to ongoing discussions in (social) media?
- What information should I proactively push out, even when the publics seem not to be interested in it?
- What information about me, or my research should be easily findable / accessible, should someone go looking for it?
An argument could be made that those of us educated in public institutions owe it to the taxpayers to speak up when issues pertaining to our narrow field of expertise are misunderstood, misrepresented, or come up as part of public discussions. There are plenty of scholars, who believe that even if they have paid for their own education, they carry a certain social responsibility for sharing their expertise. Do immunologists need to speak up in the face of anti-vaxxing social media campaigns? Do those researching polarisation or hate-speech need to offer insight as news of anti-immigrant marches or violence breaks? Do historians need to remind us of the specific narratives via which fascism spread at the cusp of WWII? Do findings of a research project need to be communicated to those whose lives they may enhance, even if they do not know how to ask for this information? Should everything I have published be accessible Open Access, just in case someone wants to read it? Where lies the boundary between social responsibility, and putting one’s own career, personal life, or mental health at risk? There are no universal answers to these questions, but having thought this through can importantly guide how every scholar proactively engages with their publics.
From my conversations with the budding sociologists brought together by ESA, I can say that scholars come up with inspired, innovative answers to the questions above. These answers may shape a stronger, firmer value position within the contested realm of academia in the era of market logics. Or, they may just function as a sign post that helps navigate between all the practical advice on how to develop an ‘elevator pitch’ or a 150 word bio that best helps you reach your immediate goals.
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