Istockphoto.com/Alpesh Ambalal Patel
As scholars, we are often enjoined to engage with the public. “Professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks -- we need you,” writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Anthropologist Paul Stoller insists that “the time has come for scholars, guardians of truth and wisdom, to step up to the plate and play a much more central role in the public and political sphere.” Leonard Cassuto argues that we “must” go public in order to assert our own value and positively impact public opinion about higher education. And many universities and professional associations are bringing workshops on writing beyond the academy to campuses and national conferences.
At this point in my career, I can’t imagine not doing this sort of profoundly satisfying and meaningful work. However, I think individuals and institutions have jumped on the public scholarship bandwagon without adequate reflection and preparation.
So my advice to would-be public scholars is “Don’t just do it!” Rather, know what you may be getting yourself into, figure out and articulate your own reasons for doing such work, and do what you can to minimize the real risks and maximize the opportunities of entering the public sphere.
Let me begin with some desperately needed real talk about public scholarship.
It’s hard, especially if you do it seriously and well. A blog or op-ed is often a disposable commodity. What might take you hours or even days to pitch, draft, revise and edit -- and then edit again at the behest of a harried, underpaid editor -- will be skimmed in three minutes (if you’re lucky) by readers.
It might not count for anything when it comes to tenure, promotion or merit raises. As a recent study shows, faculty success is overwhelmingly tied to “research activities that can be counted and assessed within established academic conventions.” Given that some public scholarship may be read by many more people and have a much greater impact than some of our more traditional scholarly articles and books, the lack of incentives for work that is accessible and widely read can be particularly dispiriting.
You lose a good deal of control over the material that bears your name and how it’s marketed. This includes headlines, images, links and even spelling. Those of us who are type triple-A may experience that as a big deal, even when the issue is relatively trivial. And a clickbait headline or unapproved edits that mislead readers about your argument can quickly become a really big deal in the viral world of social media.
You run the risk of inciting people, perhaps even colleagues, who don’t believe in academic freedom.
You might be insulted, harassed, trolled, even threatened.
Given the real risks and even disincentives associated with this work, why would any scholar not consumed by narcissism undertake it? Here are some of my general and field-specific answers to such a wise and reasonable question.
- It’s an opportunity to teach and learn beyond our classrooms and scholarly communities. I am, in part, paid to study and think, and I want to share the expertise that I have developed over the years. I also want to learn from, and be in dialogue with, smart people who spend their lives outside the academy. Just as we learn from our students, so should we learn from the public and our editors.
- It’s an opportunity to become a better writer. Turgid prose won’t cut it in blogs and op-eds.
- Your work can reach readers in hours or days rather than the months or even years traditional scholarship often takes to make its way into the world. And you might actually make a positive difference in someone’s life or in an institution and hear about it.
- Given diminishing attention spans and an increasingly historically challenged nation, it’s an opportunity to do what novelist Rachel Kadish has called “keep[ing] the program of cultural transmission on course.” It’s also a chance to model what impassioned but civil discourse looks like.
For me, as a literature and film critic, it’s an opportunity to advocate for writers and filmmakers at a time when such knowledge, beauty and truth makers are increasingly culturally disenfranchised.
For me, as a Jewish feminist critic, it’s an opportunity to advocate for an intersectionality that includes rather than excludes Jews -- a vital project for Jewish progressives at this vexed cultural moment.
So how can you amplify the opportunities and manage the risks of writing beyond the academy? I’d advise the following:
Carefully assess whom you want to reach and choose your venue and genre accordingly. Sometimes I want and need to talk with my peeps; sometimes I want and need to talk with a wider set of folks. Op-eds, reviews, personal essays and even listicles are all ways to engage with the public. The conversations you want to have through your writing should determine where and what you pitch.
Trust your gut. Don’t resist being edited, but also don’t roll over and accept edits that bludgeon your argument or the truth as you understand it. If an editor is trying to get you to write his or her essay, or is setting your work up to be clickbait, pull it.
Do this work as carefully and judiciously as you do your scholarly work. Don’t submit sloppy pitches or drafts. Learn from your mistakes, and continue to develop as a public scholar. The best public scholarship is mindful public scholarship in conception and execution.
Find the balance between your traditional scholarly work and your public scholarship. That balance should make sense for your career and citizenship goals. Sometimes a blog post might help you to jump-start a journal article or a book chapter; sometimes distilling your scholarship into a blog post can support more productive, knowledgeable voices and positions in polarized public debates. Sometimes you need to tune out the public in order to finish the scholarly article that will earn you job security; sometimes you need to write an op-ed that is informed by but has little direct connection to your current scholarly project. Be mindful about how you spend your precious writing time.
Last but not least, assess your own emotional resilience. This is especially important if you’re writing something that is likely to make waves with readers in general and within your own communities in particular. Some pieces have to be written; others really don’t. Even and especially if your public writing gets you into trouble, you should be able to honestly say that, with the 20-20 vision of hindsight, you would still hit the send key.