Brady Krien is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of Iowa where he teaches in the Department of Rhetoric. You can find him on Twitter at @BradyKrien.
Given recent trends in higher education – including decreasing state aid and ever more competition for grant money – creating scholarship that is open and accessible to a general audience has never been more important. This emphasis on public scholarship has even trickled down into graduate education with the rise of competitions such as the Three-Minute Thesis.
At first glance, this might seem somewhat counterproductive. Many of us have spent years reading and writing our way into an academic community, honing our scholarly discourse to match that of our discipline, and now we have to reverse course and begin to write for a non-expert audience or “dumb down” our work. The reality, though, is that these trends toward public scholarship are (usually) not about sacrificing the complexity of our scholarship, but about focusing and translating our work for an audience of people outside of our small fields and subfields. They are about reworking and remixing our work to take it beyond a traditional dissertation or journal article and make it engaging and valuable for more than a handful of people.
While the process of re-mediating your scholarship for a general audience can be a daunting task, it can also be a highly rewarding one. It can build an audience for your research, hone your writing, connect you with feedback on your work, develop your professional network, serve as the basis for syllabi or grant applications, and even serve as part of your dissertation or thesis project. Most importantly, though, remediating your scholarly work requires you to distill your research into its most essential elements, to summarize and prioritize your work in an intellectual exercise that can help to refocus and re-energize your research. The options for communicating your research beyond the dissertation or journal article are nearly endless and range from video games to comic books, but two of the easiest to work with are podcasts and infographics.
Podcasts are a great way to convey information with strong narrative or episodic elements such as histories, anecdotes, or the process of the research itself. They can be individual or part of series and they can be a great way of sharing and building interest in your research, particularly if you continue to create and share them with others.
If you’re interested in starting a podcast, Audacity is a great, free tool for creating quality audio recordings that works for both macOS and Windows. It makes it easy to record yourself and edit the recording. Though there’s no single right way to create a podcast, it’s helpful to spend some time at the start listening to other podcasts to get a sense of how different podcasters approach their topic. This list of podcasts for interdisciplinary academics is a great place to start. Along the same lines, it can be helpful to check out some of the great advice for starting a podcast. I’ve taught podcasts in my first-year composition class the past few semesters and the best tips that I’ve found are to:
Script It: While many great podcasts sound extemporaneous, it’s generally a good idea to script or at least outline what you want to say. This not only ensures that you will hit all of your main points, it also gives the podcast structure and allows you to make it a story.
The Tech: While you don’t need to go out and invest in an expensive microphone to get started with podcasting, it is a good idea to see if your university library or technology center checks out microphones (many do). The microphones built into your laptop or phone will likely be omnidirectional and will tend to pick up a lot of background noise and may not give you the best audio quality.
Mix It Up: One of the fastest ways to make your podcast more professional is to add a little music during the opening or the closing. This is very easy to do in Audacity and you can find some great royalty-free music on the Free Music Archive, though you likely will want to familiarize yourself with some of the legal issues associated with creating a podcast.
Infographics are any visuals that convey information and, though they can come in a wide variety of forms, they commonly appear in a vertical organization with a series of of interrelated graphics (for a great example, check out this analysis of the Beatles). The advantage of infographics is that they can convey a lot of complex information in a very small amount of space, which makes them very useful for academics looking to share their research with a general audience.
While many programs (including Microsoft PowerPoint) can be used to create infographics, the best one that I’ve found is Piktochart, an online platform that offers free accounts with a very user-friendly interface and a wide-variety of templates and images. There are a lot of great resources with useful tips for creating infographics (including this infographic), but two of the central points are:
Effective Data: The strength of infographics and tools like Piktochart is that they allow you to communicate a large amount of information in a small amount of space. Whether you’re using bar graphs or sophisticated graphics, you want to make sure that your data is clear and compelling. Piktochart does have a basic data visualization tool, but for more sophisticated graphics, you’re probably better off developing them in a program like Microsoft Excel or Tableau and importing them into Piktochart. If you’re looking for more information on how to develop effective visual displays of data, Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is a must read.
Compelling Narrative: Though infographics are great for communicating data, it’s still important that they tell some sort of basic story in the larger organization of the data. This could take the form of different iterations of an experiment, discovering a problem and positing a solution, or how an issue changes over time or across different populations. The important thing is to provide some sort of narrative framework to help contextualize and organize the information that you’re sharing.
Sharing your work is an essential part of the process of doing research and creating new knowledge. Yes, it’s always intimidating to put your ideas out there and subject them to potential criticism, but sharing a podcast with your advisors or cohort or posting an infographic on your LinkedIn page are much less intimidating than submitting something for peer review and can be valuable steps toward more traditional scholarship. Though they are unlikely to count in the same way as peer-reviewed publications, these types of publicly-oriented compositions can make lasting contributions toward both your own work and your discipline and can go a long way in promoting both your work and in preparing for job interviews. Most importantly though, they serve as a declaration of what your work is and why it has value and those are things that are all too easy to forget otherwise.
Have you created or come across effective examples of academics sharing their work with a general audience?