How Can We Make Scholarship More Relevant?

If academia wants to matter - and continue to be funded - in a world where our societal narratives are shaped on media and social media platforms, new literacies for scholarly communications are needed, STAT.

November 13, 2017

If academia wants to matter - and continue to be funded - in a world where our societal narratives are shaped on media and social media platforms, new literacies for scholarly communications are needed, STAT.

It’s a truism that many in the university have struggled to communicate their research to those in other fields and industries. This failure to communicate has gotten in the way of public understanding  and valuing - of academic work. But the gap between scholarly communication and public engagement has only widened in our increasingly networked world. The communication tools that many employ in their public or private lives play limited roles in academic publishing and promotions systems mired, to an extent, in high print literacy and closed processes. The scholarly narratives we tell are separated from public narratives.

We’re at the Triangle Scholarly Communication Institute (Triangle SCI) this week to explore public narratives and the possibilities of digital storytelling. Triangle SCI is an annual Mellon-funded event that brings together participants from around the world to North Carolina to push the boundaries of scholarly communication. Our team, made up of Dene GrigarJon SaklofskeHannah McGregor, and John Barber (plus Alyssa and Bonnie) come from different coasts and different fields, but are all interested in bridging gaps between the academy and the public.

We live in a time of information abundance. The channels by which people access and internalize new ideas are increasingly fast-moving. They’re also vulnerable to manipulation and misinformation at a scale we’re only beginning to understand, let alone deal with. If academic knowledge is going to contribute to and shape public narratives in this information ecosystem, academics will need to evolve some of our communication practices and norms. The academic publishing system’s commitment to peak print literacies will have drastically diminishing public impact in a media sphere of accelerating sensationalism and ephemerality. Yet in a society increasingly polarized by its media and social media consumption, evidence-based work could be of increasing democratic value, *if* scholars are willing and able to communicate it in ways that can enter popular circulation. A scholarly communication system that makes room for multiple points of access and for literacies of participation may begin to make academic research more transferable and usable.

If scholars and publics are to make meaning out of work with multiple points of access, however, then its creators/authors/audiences need to be literate in work that is partial, multiple, non-linear ... and potentially even ephemeral. Contemporary media is experiential: what seems like noise in a network environment can accumulate to create the core significant narratives that influence participants’ and spectators’ experiences we take away. Keith Hamon wrote about this recently in relation to the #MeToo hashtag, which he experienced as an immersive encounter with multiplicity, rather than any single tweet:. “The background noise is not incidental, not a nuisance or a distortion. It is the text.” In order to take an active role in the cultural narratives that emerge from watershed moments like #MeToo, academics will need literacies that allow us to engage their understanding in experiential, participatory, and timely ways, rather than publishing into a vacuum.

We need to acknowledge that the longform, journal-bound model for communicating knowledge is not especially accessible or useful beyond a small, specialized audience. The academic article serves a purpose, and should not be thrown out in response to pressure to modernize the academy. But if the academic article does not need to exit stage left, it does need to begin to share the scholarly stage with other forms of communication that are geared toward different audiences, who may have varying degrees of expertise, amounts of time to engage with research, and familiarity or interest in different information platforms. The academy needs to become literate in the communications of the society it is meant to serve.

At this year’s Triangle SCI, our working group (“Digital Storytelling and the Future(s) of Multimedia Scholarship”) is made up of academic staff, graduate students, and faculty members from the east and west coast of North America. We’ve focused on iterating scholarship in different forms and formats. Our ongoing research question is “How can multimedia scholarship reframe our work as storytelling for / with multiple audiences in the current information ecosystem?” In order to put this research question into action, we’re manifesting it in a broad collection of work with multiple points of access: a podcast, a game, a website, performance art, a #TriangleSCI Twitter chat, and this public article. By exploring and versioning the same research question across multiple modes, we are able to do two things: 1) share ideas more broadly, in creative, multidisciplinary ways that reach a wider number of people; 2) explore our research question from multiple angles and through multiple forms of expression. Our media, method, and message are the same: we want to share narratives and story environments that invite diverse publics to participate in scholarship in action.

Our experiment with designing collaborative work with multiple points of access is not complete, and we’ll be engaging with publics and tracking uptake and usage over the coming months. But even our early stage exploration has been revealing -- we’re thinking beyond standard outputs and considering possibilities for more varied scholarly work. Scholarly work that, through multiple formats, can have broader, more heterogeneous reach and impact, in and outside academia.

The final question, of course, is will we be able to represent this work as scholarship within our institutions and our fields? Will those who look at our CVs - rather than experiencing or participating in the outputs themselves - have the literacies to understand the work? Maybe. Maybe not. But part of rethinking scholarly communications involves opening up the question of who and what scholarship is for. If it has become a closed system aimed at status and job security rather than broad and collegial contribution to the narratives of our time, then we may find our institutions increasingly irrelevant as media creation and consumption evolves.

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