When we start writing, we must think about who we want to read it.
This current generation of internet-savvy grad students is on the brink of a new age of information dissemination, and we should embrace it. When we think about our future endeavors, whether academic or not, we should consider the outside audiences that might benefit from our research. There are already a number of academics and so-called public intellectuals who engage with the general public, like historian Jill Lepore, economist Paul Krugman, and linguist/philosopher Noam Chomsky. Unfortunately, too much academic writing tends to be internal discourse between academics, which marginalizes the general public. We must address the gaping divide between academics and the public by overcoming the barriers between general and academic discourse. Both stand to benefit from each other.
Fellow Gradhacker DeWitt Scott wrote about being elite without becoming elitist, and his advice was to have a non-elite attitude toward other people. In an extension of this, I'll examine the harmful tendencies of academia that keep academics separated from the general public, which create obstructions between academia and the public in the world of academic publishing. As this next wave of tech-savvy grad students enters the job market, we should be constantly evaluating our relationship with the public, and we should be emphasizing an attitudinal shift from elitist and restricted publishing to open access and easily accessible journals and media.
Tools such as Facebook and Twitter let academics interact with a non-academic public, and some disciplines, like public history, intentionally conduct research with non-academics in mind. Others of us may have a future in non-academic writing, like journalism, public policy, or other editorial jobs. And even for those of us who plan to commit to academia, it is still important to develop an awareness for how our research is used, read, and accessed. Therefore, I argue that we should resist elite stereotypes by embracing a pro-public, pro-openness, pro-access stance for the products of our research: we should write with the general public in mind, and we should publish in accessible forums.
The most enduring elite stereotype is the academic who resides in the proverbial ivory tower and who occasionally shouts down arcane or pedantic diatribes to the unhearing masses. Additionally, in many cases, non-academic people can’t even access academic research, even if they wanted to. And even if they could, academic literature is often so needlessly complex that non-academics are excluded from it. This is not to say that highly intricate philosophical arguments or dense scientific analyses are worthless and should be “dumbed down,” but rather that academic writing in general is often obscurantist with no discernible justification. And yet academics are often called upon to address society’s largest problems, like gun violence, Supreme Court disputes, and global climate change. To meet this challenge, we not only have to be outstanding scholars, but we also have to be able to communicate effectively with non-academic people in power: politicians, voters, interest groups, and other stakeholders.
For example, the excellent On the Media podcast recently released an episode about flaws in how the news media reports scientific discoveries. Clearly, the media either doesn’t care about accurately reporting medical research or doesn’t know how to. With the tools available to us—from social media to op-eds to interviews with newscasters—we have the power to reverse this disturbing trend by sharing our expertise with the general public. Considering what’s at stake, it is our duty as scholars to not only do important research, but also present it to the global public. And it will be difficult—if not impossible—if our research is impenetrable. More importantly, finding an audience outside of academia may actually be the key to ensuring our research is relevant to policymakers, community leaders, and curious individuals, as Andrea Zellner has argued. As Andrea said, we have to “translate” our work for laypeople, and I believe we have to do it rather than letting the press do it for us because the press is incapable or unwilling.
The problem of inaccessibility and unreadability is understandable given the current situation in academic publishing and the high-minded ideals of academia. But simultaneously, we have undoubtedly entered a new age of information distribution. Fellow Gradhacker Jonathan D. Fitzgerald argued that online platforms give us the ability to curate our own research for the public, and it’s imperative for us to do so in order to reach a broader audience. More importantly, several organizations provide free access to peer-reviewed articles, including the Directory of Open Access Journals, Elsevier, HighWire, and Wikiversity, which we can use when considering which journals to submit to. The availability and affordability of personal websites, in addition to social media and open access publications, give us the opportunity to share our research and network with other professionals. It’s not as if opportunities to share freely the fruits of our labor don’t exist.
The disconnect between the public and academia comes from the institutionalization of an anti-openness attitude, which has barricaded our hard work behind paywalls and obscurantism. As we matriculate, it is within our power to break down the elitist divisions between institutions and groups. We have the tools to overcome these obstacles. I earnestly believe that all scholars believe their research will improve the world in some way, so we must act to ensure that the world can physically and intellectually access our research.
How does your research interact with the general public? What are some other ways that scholars can ensure their research is used? Let us know in the comments.
[Image from Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license]
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