Making a Difference Through Public Engagement

Engaging larger publics and influencing policy through one's scholarship can be personally rewarding, but such work too often goes unrecognized in university systems of evaluation, write Joya Misra and Jennifer Lundquist.

November 10, 2016
 
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Many faculty members were drawn to research because of its potential to contribute to society. They feel strongly that what they do matters to the larger world, whether their work is primarily theoretical or aimed at direct application. Believing it important to engage larger publics and influence policy, such scholars make efforts to do so through writing op-eds or blogs, engaging news reporters, using social media, working with social movements and presenting their research to citizens. Being able to make a difference in these ways can be an important implicit reward of faculty life.

Yet this work may not receive any explicit reward, and too often it gets crowded out by the factors that universities do acknowledge. Making a contribution to public understanding and discourse often goes unrecognized in university systems of evaluation. While citations may count as “making a difference” within the academy, engagement with the broader world often goes unmarked. Indeed, in some settings, people see engagement with the broader world as muddying the contributions that academics can make, by calling objectivity into question.

Public engagement has many potential benefits. It can advance public understanding of scholarly knowledge and help influence policy agendas and policy making. Public engagement also makes clear the importance of supporting faculty research and justifies public expenditures on higher education and by federal granting agencies. Indeed, the National Science Foundation requires every proposal to address its broader impacts. That can, of course, also be harmful, as when it has negative impacts on (often marginalized) communities being studied. Yet for social scientists, research subjects may be part of the public that we engage with, with an eye to recognizing our own biases and developing deeper understanding.

On a more personal level, public engagement helps scholars feel that their work matters, giving them the motivation to keep building their understanding of the phenomena they study. For example, Amy Schalet, in reflecting on her publicly engaged work on teen sexuality, argues, “What was most rewarding was that I found a way to reach parents with information that could improve their relationships with their teenage children.” Philip Cohen, whose Family Inequality blog is widely read, also notes that his public engagement helps enhance his teaching, research and service, as well as attracts students and provides entrée into policy discussions. Patrick Iber also notes how his engagement with social media allows him to interact directly with other academics and journalists, building knowledge and getting to know researchers in these fields. Indeed, 87 percent of scientists connected with the American Association for the Advancement of Science agree that “scientists should take an active role in public policy debates about issues related to science and technology.”

Most academics are not trained in public engagement, but there do appear to be some movements toward training faculty members, such as the Public Engagement Project at our university, and graduate students, such as the University of Michigan’s Rackham Program in Public Scholarship. M. V. Lee Badgett’s book The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the World and Mark Carrigan’s book Social Media for Academics help faculty members develop skills in a variety of forms of public engagement. A wide array of institutions also provides tools for public engagement, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology.

The number of print and web-based media outlets that publish pieces and essays by academics has grown as well. Journalists at The Conversation help faculty members translate their research for broader audiences. While traditional venues like The New York Review of Books or Foreign Policy remain important, other publications such as The Huffington Post, Jacobin and Quartz allow faculty members to use their expertise to inform public debate. As Evan Kindley argues in discussing the growth of those venues, “But in a profession that currently frustrates the ambitions of even its most committed and talented members at almost every stage, the resurgence of public writing is a rare occasion for optimism about the future of organized intellectual life.”

Colleges and universities benefit from increased name recognition and prestige when faculty research becomes important in public debates. Influential findings do matter to our institutions. However, it is also important for faculty members to receive training in how to engage effectively with the public, as it can also mean wading into muddy waters and instigating complaints from alumni and trustees.

In addition, public engagement cannot simply be an add-on to existing faculty responsibilities but should be integrated in ways that recognize the required trade-offs. For example, writing op-eds and carrying out interviews with the news media about published research may eat into time writing journal articles. Rather than treating that as a zero-sum game, universities need to recognize and value both types of activities.

That means acknowledging the kinds of public engagement faculty are already doing, rewarding such work in merit, tenure and promotion decisions, and understanding that time spent publicizing the work means less time spent on other scholarly output. The American Sociological Association issued a white paper in August emphasizing some approaches to recognizing publicly engaged research in personnel decisions. They suggest institutions recognize the type of content (original research, synthesis, application of research to practical issues, opinion), the rigor and quality of the communication (peer reviewed, vetted by an editor or nonreviewed), and the public impact (number of readers, evidence that the work is useful to practitioners or documentation of impact on policy changes).

Not all faculty members will or should embrace public intellectual work. Yet for those who entered their fields wanting to make a difference, helping build their facility with public engagement strengthens their enjoyment of their career. Public intellectual engagement is one possible element of academics’ work and must be balanced with other work. Yet recognizing and valuing the role of public intellectualism in a scholarly career can support faculty members’ choice to engage in it.

We would like to hear from readers of this column how they feel about publicly engaged work, and whether they would like to see this work rewarded by universities.

Bio

Joya Misra is professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Jennifer Lundquist is associate dean of research and faculty development and a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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