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Coming Out from the Cloister

How to get started as an engaged public intellectual.

June 4, 2015

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is a PhD student in English Literature at Northeastern University. You can find him on Twitter at @jon_fitzgerald or at his website www.jonathandfitzgerald.com.


A couple of years ago, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof stirred up a bit of controversy with a piece he published in the paper’s “Sunday Review” section titled “Professors, We Need You!” The gist of Kristof’s argument is that academia has become so insular as to have little to no impact on the day-to-day life of most Americans. As he so gently put it in the article’s lede, most university professors “just don’t matter in today’s great debates.” He concludes by pleading with academics to not “cloister yourselves like medieval monks.”

As many of us are (hopefully) soon-to-be university professors, this is an issue we should be invested in. Whether we agree fully with Kristof’s assessment or not, it’s undeniable that, to the general public, a lot of what academics read and write seems at best unintelligible, and at worst irrelevant. I’d be willing to bet that many of you have experienced that moment wherein you’re describing your research to a non-academic friend or family member and watching their eyes glaze over. They smile politely, maybe say that it sounds interesting, but you can tell they either don’t get it, don’t care, or both. Some people—my mom, for example—are even bold enough to (lovingly) say what they’re thinking: who cares?

But in most cases our work does matter in today’s great debates; we’re just not doing a very good job of translating it for the broader culture. I think that those of us in graduate school now are poised to change that. At the risk of getting all “we live in an amazing time of opportunity because of the internet, blah, blah,” this is a moment in history—not unprecedented—when shifts in media allow for the upheaval of the status quo, including the tired trope of the distant and aloof academic.

Of course this is already happening in many sectors, the least of which is not journalism, a field with which I have some familiarity. Journalists use social media to connect directly with their audience in a variety of ways, from self promotion to soliciting sources. I think this is a model that academics can—and in some cases, already are—following. With that in mind, I want to offer a few suggestions for going about this. Maybe some of these are things you’ve considered before or perhaps already do, but hopefully there’s something here you hadn’t considered.

Blog: I know, I know, the blog is dead, long live the blog. Depending on who you read, the era of blogging is coming to an end or blogs are just starting to get good. Regardless, blogging provides an opportunity—particularly for emerging academics—to try out ideas, engage in conversation with other scholars, and (it hurts to even type this) build a brand. As many in the Digital Humanities can attest to, academic blogging isn’t an online diary, but a kind of pre-publication space wherein ideas are tested and often strengthened. As an example, I recently posted an in-progress paper to my blog about a digital archiving project I’m working on, and within hours of publishing it, an attentive reader pointed out a flaw in my data. While it can be unsettling to publish work that isn’t quite “finished,” there are benefits. In my case, I’m set to present the work I blogged about at a conference later this summer and had I not shared an in-progress version with the public, I might not have caught this embarrassing error.

Tweet: Whenever Jimmy Fallon introduces his hashtag segment on The Tonight Show, he asks his audience “Are you guys on Twitter?” This has become a kind of running inside joke because of course they are. And I’d guess you are too. But just as academic blogs are unlike many of the more personal blogs that are out there, an academic’s Twitter feed can be a site for constructive conversation in one’s field. This means not only should you be an active tweeter, but you should cultivate a list of followers whose output will contribute to your scholarship. Remember that reader I mentioned in the previous paragraph who spotted an error in my data? He informed me of my mistake on Twitter.

Pitch: Blogging and tweeting links to posts on your own website is a good start, but I’ve always thought that part of the value of having a blog is that it doubles as an online portfolio of your writing, which you can use to help you get writing gigs in more widely read publications. I remember the exact moment this occurred to me when I was an aspiring journalist. I was listening to NPR when a guest—who was invited to comment on a piece he had published in a national magazine—was introduced as a blogger. Suddenly it seemed clear: blogging can be a stepping stone to wider publication. As academics this can mean the opportunity to translate our academic research to a wider and more general audience. While this kind of popular writing may not “count” toward tenure, I’m told that these kinds of publications are attractive to hiring committees. But the first step is sending a pitch to an appropriate editor. This may seem scary, but if you’ve ever proposed a paper or panel for a conference, you already know how this works. Give it a try; the worst that can happen is the editor passes on your pitch. But remember that editors are looking for quality material to publish and your blog portfolio combined with your status as a graduate student are actually valuable credentials.

Promote: This is the one I like the least, but in my experience it’s also one of the most important. Self-promotion is uncomfortable and awkward, but if you don’t promote yourself, no one else is going to do it for you. When you publish a blog post or article, don’t assume people are just going to find it if you don’t tell them about it. There’s a delicate balance, of course. No one likes to follow someone on Twitter who is only ever posting links to their own work (early on, I learned this the hard way). But if you’ve created an interesting and engaging Twitter persona—retweeting and posting links to articles you know your followers will be interested in and promoting the work of others—chances are your followers will be happy to read what you write as well. One other lesson I’ve learned from years of self promotion: don’t ask for retweets. Rather, write things that your followers will want to share.

This list is just a start at attempting to avoid cloistering ourselves, as Kristoff put it; there’s definitely more we can do to share our scholarship with wider audiences. Sure, it can be uncomfortable or scary, but I’m willing to bet the work you’re doing is important and it should be known by more than just other academics in your field. Get out there!

What is missing from my list? How do you share your scholarship?

[Image by Flickr user Santiago Martín-Cleto and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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