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“What's the bravest thing you ever did? He spat in the road a bloody phlegm. Getting up this morning, he said.”
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road
You may wonder why I’d begin a blog post about communications in higher education with a quote from the apocalyptical novels of Cormac McCarthy. I’ll give you a couple reasons. First, I’m an English major. And second, it’s starting to feel like the end times are upon us. On November 9, many of us awoke to the feeling that we are now all living in a Cormac McCarthy novel.
Some have dubbed this post-fact America. A place where polls failed to predict outcomes and facts and data failed to sway huge swaths of voters. We’ve seen a deluge of fake news. A representative of the incoming administration recently claimed that, “there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.” The distressing thing about this statement, beyond the awkward use of commas, is that we in higher education hang our hats on facts. Universities are all about peer-reviewed science, academic rigor and a piece of paper that is a bulletproof assertion that a student has mastered the basics of her discipline.
As communicators, we face the daunting task of convincing society to invest in our fact-based institutions amid soaring costs and dwindling resources. We’re asking citizens to trust us with their children’s best years. We’re asking public servants to believe our data and make sound policy based upon it.
But we’re somehow falling short.
Take the global scientific consensus on human caused climate change. It’s a minor miracle to get scientists to agree on anything. If you’ve ever tried to order takeout with a room full of researchers, you know what I mean.
But despite such consensus we have somehow wound up with a climate skeptic chosen to head the Environmental Protection Agency while university scientists are scrambling to rescue government climate data from the new regime. In this fact-free era, the public is quicker to believe a reality TV star’s uninformed tweet than all the data we can muster.
So that’s were we come in. We English majors, the wandering tribe of professional chameleons who have to be clever and flexible in order to earn a living to make up for the fact that we just wanted to read poetry in college. Many of us have landed in higher ed comm shops. And once again, like heroes in a Cormac McCarthy novel, we are the last, best hope for humanity.
Our job is to make facts sexy again. And the best way to do that is by telling great stories.
When we work in such a data-rich environment, it’s easy to allow facts to drive the narrative. Vague academic-speak words like “innovation” and “engagement” infest our ad copy and brand message platforms. You know, the kind of words that lowered your score in intro comp class. And all that climate data our researchers painstakingly amass? It gets reduced to one word: sustainability. “Our campus is ranked #1 in sustainability!” we shout from or solar-paneled green rooftops.
But why not tell a story instead?
2016 will not only be known as the year many voters rewarded a fact-averse campaign, but also a year of great climate devastation that saw historic decline in coral reef cover due to bleaching. At Oregon State, we have a distinct cluster of coral scientists, and we certainly want to share stories of their expertise and research about such issues. But in 2017 we’ll want to push beyond the data and research.
For example, in telling the story there’s no reason to exclude the moment a faculty member tells that a bleached reef “smells like death,” and then show the despair and resolve in her eye when she ponders whether her son will ever get to see the healthy reefs she’s been fortunate to explore. There’s no reason not to show the next morning, when after Skyping her toddler from halfway around the world she wakes up before dawn to lug heavy dive tanks to the end of the dock ready to collect one more chart full of data with hope that this can help save a small corner of this reef for him to someday witness.
Our scientists are real people. And their data shows the impacts that real communities face when facts are ignored and destructive practices flourish. Our job is to use our skills to defend fact, to celebrate knowledge and to challenge our audiences to not only think about the greatest issues our world faces, but to feel them as well.
So in an era when facts are under assault, and in a profession where brand messaging matrices have watered down the honesty and grace of language, let’s return to the use of vivid images and the telling of emotional stories that are still grounded in the knowledge that drives our endeavor.
Okay, back to Cormac McCarthy and the image that opened this post: it’s a bleak moment from a dark novel, a conversation between a father and son trying to survive in a world where merely waking up in the morning is an act of courage. But even in McCarthy’s dark novels, there are signs of hope. I’m reminded of a dream that closes No Country for Old Men, the image of a rider carrying a small fire in a horn to protect it from the elements. “And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark,” McCarthy writes. Even in the bleakest moments there’s always someone willing to carry the light.
It’s an apt metaphor for our post-fact age: knowledge is the fire in McCarthy’s image. The horn that the rider carries, the one that protects the fire from the elements, that’s the university.
And we communicators?
We’re the rider. Or maybe we’re the horse. Pick whichever one makes for a better story.
And then let’s ride into the darkness and tell a few tales to light the way as best we can.
David Baker leads a team of media producers at Oregon State University. Their latest project is Saving Atlantis, a documentary about scientists and communities fighting to save the world’s declining coral reefs.