Scholar as Public Intellectual

Many researchers are disinclined or unprepared to communicate their ideas beyond the academy, but they should make the effort, writes William Tyson.

January 21, 2011

Thousands of scholarly papers and books are written each year. Many have value to audiences beyond the academy and the institutions supporting these efforts. Yet most new works don’t find a broader audience, so their ability to influence change is not fully realized. ‘‘Ideas no longer score points,’’ says one university professor. ‘‘Their impact must be amplified to be noticed in an increasingly complicated world.’’

Dust settles quickly on many scholarly compositions, the knowledge they offer buried within their pages. Many scholars and researchers do not have a plan for communicating their ideas and findings. They assume or hope their published works will rise to the top of conversation among their peers and the public. They rest in the belief that their reports, scholarly papers, or books, often filled with jargon, will find their way to key audiences, be read with anticipation, and enter the realm of professional and public discourse. They are often disappointed. ‘

‘Knowing what you know doesn’t get you anywhere. Telling people what you know does,’’ advises an education policy director whose strong media outreach has generated important national discussions about higher education quality and access.

Scholars and researchers increasingly are being asked by funders to develop communication plans for programs receiving support. These organizations and institutions recognize that the value of a scholar’s work lies not only in the new findings but also in communicating their implications to key audiences and the public. Without good communication, many important works do not achieve the desired effects of advancing knowledge and creating new dialogue.

Some scholars believe it is inappropriate for them to take an active role in advancing their work outside academic circles, particularly to and through the mainstream media. ‘‘I don’t care about marketing and PR,’’ they say with pride. They see such actions as spin, a presentation of their work in a biased or distorted fashion. This view puts negative connotations on terms that in their true sense are quite different. Simply put, true marketing and PR mean thoughtful, honest communications that reach key audiences. It is giving greater voice to your messages, creating awareness and deeper understanding of issues, building trust, and promoting meaningful action.

Others feel modest and are hesitant to be seen as self-promoters. To them, I say -- as a friend occasionally reminds me -- “get over yourself.” If your work has a broader public importance or you can help interpret local, national or world events, or offer expert opinion on matters of professional and public importance or interest, share your thoughts. Instill knowledge. It does not need to be about you, but rather the importance of your insight and information.

This is not a new concept. You are ‘‘the world’s eye’’ and ‘‘the world’s heart,’’ said Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1837 address, ‘‘The American Scholar,’’ which he delivered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

An added incentive for many scholars is that by having their work noted, whether in professional journals or in the mainstream media, they are helping to advance the name, recognition and reputation of their institutions. The public’s positive perception of a college, university or policy institute often is based on the good work and insight of its researchers, faculty and scholars whom they observe in the media.

A survey I conducted of 95 faculty, scholars, and researchers from 21 colleges, universities and organizations across the country, in which I asked them to rate their overall experiences in dealing with the media, produced overwhelmingly positive findings.

Asked why they choose to interact with the media, they gave the following three leading reasons:

  • To improve public understanding of their areas of expertise.
  • To enhance the reputation of their institutions.
  • To enjoy talking with people who have an interest in their work.

Asked for their for advice to other academics and scholars in their interactions with journalists, here is some of the wisdom offered:

  • Communicate complicated and nuanced ideas through example. You don’t need to dumb things down; you simply need to communicate ideas clearly.
  • The biggest difficulty for academics dealing with the media is to avoid all the hedges that would be necessary when talking with peers. Most of us have a tendency to hedge every statement, because we are used to thinking about the boundary conditions of a particular phenomenon. Those boundary conditions often aren’t at all relevant to a media story.
  • Only agree to speak as an “authority” on topics about which you actually have an authoritative grasp of facts/issues. Otherwise take a pass.
  • Be aware that there is, practically speaking, no such things as “off the record”; anything you say is liable to come back to haunt you.
  • Ditch the jargon. Connect when possible with “human interest” stories. Don’t spin. Reporters really value talking with someone who isn’t always trying to sell them a PR angle. Be willing to invest time in a relationship. Conversations are more productive than news releases.
  • Don’t underestimate the savvy of either the press or the public.

Share your good work. Academics, scholars, and researchers have a passion for learning and discovery. So does the public. You can advance dialogue, understanding, and meaningful change by sharing what you know with those outside your discipline, classroom, lab, or institution. This can contribute to individuals, communities, businesses, and governments making better choices that are based on facts. It also can add to your institution’s or organization’s name recognition and reputation.


William Tyson is president of Morrison & Tyson Communications and author of Pitch Perfect: Communicating with Traditional and Social Media for Scholars, Researchers, and Academic Leaders (Stylus Publishing), from which this essay is adapted.


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