A New Way to Talk About New Books About Academic Innovation

A conversation with Stanford’s Matthew Rascoff and Trinity’s Kristen Eshleman about an upcoming series of virtual book conversations.

January 20, 2022

This year is shaping up to be a big one for new books about the role of higher education in society. The question is, during a time when COVID makes in-person book talks and travel more difficult, how will scholars engage with the broader higher education community around their new publications?

Our good friends and long-term collaborators Matthew Rascoff and Kristen Eshleman are leading a new initiative that seeks to address this challenge head-on. Called Academic Innovation for the Public Good, the program is organizing “10 monthly book conversations via Zoom with leading scholars on how higher education can affect the public good.” Kristen and Matthew agreed to answer our questions about this new series.

Q: What are the motivations behind creating this series of virtual events to discuss new books on higher education?

A: As co-leaders of the HAIL network, we are motivated to strengthen connections among the academic community we cherish. During the pandemic a remarkable collaborative spirit emerged among institutions that shared approaches and resources for supporting their communities. We hope to preserve and enhance that spirit for the long term. And as innovation leaders, we are naturally drawn to testing ideas that have the potential to address meaningful, interesting challenges.

Here’s the challenge we are addressing: book talks are hard for academic authors to arrange even in normal times. Can the collaborative infrastructure of higher ed support an event syndication model that assists scholars’ ability to engage audiences when their ability to travel is constrained?

That constraint has the potential to limit the impact of new research. But by banding together via Zoom, we can combine our audiences across institutions to foster conversation around important topics and turn local conversations into national ones.

The higher ed innovation topic could not be more timely and important. The pandemic has simultaneously revealed the potential for education to pivot in response to the crisis while also exacerbating inequalities.

To plan for a more hopeful and equitable system of education, we need to better understand the history of how higher education has responded to changes in the needs of society. Innovation must be rooted in those needs. These authors, and the discussion of their work, can help illuminate the path forward.

Q: How do the events work? Can anyone attend? What are the costs? And is it necessary to have read the books to participate?

A: The series is open to the public and live on Zoom. There is no cost to attend, but registration is required. Recordings will be available later via YouTube, and registrants will be notified when these are published. We do encourage reading the books beforehand.

The authors will discuss the content in conversation with thoughtful interviewers who can help them expand on their books. The interviewers will ask questions and then moderate questions from the audience. The first event, on Jan. 26, features American studies professor Davarian Baldwin of Trinity, followed by Johns Hopkins University president Ronald Daniels in February and the State of Illinois chief equity officer Sekile Nzinga in March. (The full schedule is available here.)

We know how busy life can be right now. If you don’t have time to read the books, come anyway to learn more. You won’t find a better book review, and you’ll want to read these afterwards, we are certain. This is an impressive slate of authors.

Q: Why is the focus of these events on the relationship between academic innovation and the public good? Scholars are writing many important books that have nothing to do with higher education. Why limit the focus to books on the history and future of the university?

A: Academic innovation is our field, and the HAIL network has been the primary vehicle for finding partners to syndicate this series. The authors we’ve invited are studying topics that inform this field. In the national conversation about innovation in higher education, too much weight is given to entrepreneurs and “thought leaders” outside the sector. We need to counterbalance that perspective and amplify the research and scholarship that should inform the future of higher education.

The event syndication model via Zoom is itself an academic innovation. If successful, we hope this can be replicated by others who wish to build a larger audience for their topics and aggregate pockets of interest into events that have critical mass. We saw this happen during the pandemic with the Graduate Students in Economics of Education Zoom (GEEZ) seminars and the joint New York Institute for the Humanities–Stanford Humanities Center event public humanities series. We suspect there are many other examples of this.

Imagine how we could accelerate the pace of scientific advances if we could lower the barrier to collaboration and widen scholarly communication in seminars and talks. Open source transformed how software is produced. Open access transformed journals. Maybe open, shared events are the next frontier in the exchange of ideas.

Q: There seems to be a concerted effort being made to involve other colleges and universities in this series beyond Trinity and Stanford. What is the thinking behind the integration of a range of institutions into these Zoom events? What do schools need to do to participate and to bring their academic communities into these discussions?

A: Stanford and Trinity are co-organizing the series, and we have syndication co-sponsorships from Bentley, Brown, Duke, Michigan, Minerva, Penn and Princeton—with more coming in. There is no cost to participate. Our syndication partners have agreed to share information about the events via their newsletters, websites, events calendars and social media and in return are named as co-sponsors. And we all benefit from events with greater participation and energy.

We are open to other schools that would like to syndicate the events. Just publish them to your events calendar, post to social media using #ForThePublicGood, tag @kreshleman or @mzrascoff on Twitter, and we will credit your institution during the events.

We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

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