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Academics at many colleges and universities today face an uncertain future. Rising tuition and falling enrollments, the lack of tenure-track positions, the dwindling student interest in the humanities in favor of business and STEM degrees, and growing questions about the value of a college education are just a few of the issues creating cause for concern.
Yet despite the loudly repeated challenges, we academics continue to ignore the numerous creative and meaningful ways that we can contribute to public discourse and the shaping of responsible actions on vital issues that affect the nation and the world. As a historian who has taught, published and held professional appointments across the disciplines, I find that many scholarly fields deny their promise. They don’t engage with and develop solutions to major societal challenges or work to meet contemporary public needs. In other words, we fail to demonstrate the much-needed value of what we do to our students, our readers and our society and polity.
In my own education over the years, I was taught the value of publicly directed scholarship—of the importance of academics applying their expertise to public understanding of key issues, of educating audiences beyond higher education by addressing specific questions and problems of concern to them. For decades, I have written op-eds and other forms of essays for nonacademic audiences in each city where I’ve taught college students, as well as for national and international newspapers and magazines. I’ve advised historical and civic institutions. I’ve taught seminars on public history to both traditional and nontraditional, employed graduate students.
While teaching urban history, I wrote brochures on historic landmarks for the city of Dallas. As president of North Texas Phi Beta Kappa, I initiated an annual public lecture series, “The Culture of Cities,” with the Dallas Public Library. I also served as principal adviser for the Chicago Historical Society’s “Teen Chicago” project, focused on a group of 15 teenagers, which blended oral history, public programming and writing and publications.
Similarly, drawing on the history of literacy, my principal field, I’ve consulted and spoken with policy experts at all levels—including from the United Nations, the European Union, Canada, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Brazil and Australia, as well as various states and localities in America. While I was directing the Ohio State University interdisciplinary initiative Literacy Studies, a colleague in the College of Law invited me to advise the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. Earlier, I advised a Dallas policy consulting firm and urban planning departments in several cities, and I now interact with departments and legislative aides of the city of Columbus. I contribute a historical and contextual understanding, a comparative perspective, critical questioning and new formulations.
And the fact is that such public work never competed, distracted or detracted from my other scholarly pursuits. Rather, these activities are inseparably interrelated with teaching and scholarship and were mutually stimulating and enriching. For instance, students in my history and English graduate seminar on the history of children and youth worked with curators at a San Antonio museum to develop a public exhibition. In a similar vein, engagements with Dallas’s NPR radio and PBS stations led to developing programming on those stations about children, past and present, based in part on my research, teaching and writing about the history of children, youth, women and families for my book Conflicting Paths: Growing Up in America.
Targeting Key Issues
Even though I have now retired, I continue to apply scholarly knowledge to pressing current issues and have particularly focused on two issues: first, what I call the nondebate over critical race theory, and second, the campaigns to ban books. As an authority on the history of literacy and children and youth, I feel an intellectual imperative, a professional obligation, to address those particular issues.
As part of those efforts, I regularly receive inquiries from interested individuals, members of universities, nonprofit advocacy groups and public education and governmental representatives. They include the ACLU in several states, which is combating book bans, control of librarians and teachers, and restrictions on the intellectual development of the young. I provide background, suggest approaches, prepare written court testimony and write op-eds for newspapers where cases are active.
I also work with organizations like PEN America; the Freedom to Read Foundation; the American Library Association; Red, Wine and Blue BannedBookBusters; and state and local coalitions. People reach out to me for intellectually informed advice, support and advocacy. Many need assistance in linking the present with the historical, the local with the larger and different persons and organizations with each other.
One mutual learning experience is my collaboration with my colleague Ashley Hope Pérez, author of three young adult novels and assistant professor of comparative studies and world literatures at Ohio State University. Her national prize–winning Texas-based historical novel, Out of Darkness (2015), was banned in several states after sitting on library shelves for six years. We publish co-authored opinion essays in states where her book is banned. At least one local action was reversed after the school superintendent was confronted with the text of written procedures. The interactive learning between a comparative social historian and comparative literature scholar and young adult writer has been enlightening for both of us.
Advice for Colleagues
For other academics who are interested in engaging in public scholarship—whether you are just entering the professoriate or are a senior scholar—I recommend the following as a beginning.
- Recognize that public scholarship is interactive. It is dynamic and expansive, from conception and practice to execution. It involves back-and-forth conversations with editors and audiences. Too often academics conceive of their educational role as unidirectional, like an anachronistic model of teaching. We must acknowledge and take the approach that we will learn as much from others as we will educate them.
- Start small. Modest expectations are crucial. I’ve discovered that drafting a letter to the editor can be a first step. Often, scholars seeking an impact too quickly dismiss letters. But letters can attract attention. For me, they lead to local and national opinion essays, scholarly articles, and now one completed book and another in progress. This is especially the case true for my historical interpretations for what is new and what is not in today’s campaigns to ban books and factual, inclusive education.
- Stay current. Track what appears in news media of all kinds and reach out directly to reporters if you perceive openings in reading and hearing their stories. Offer to write op-eds on key topics of the day. Also respond immediately if reporters and other news media representatives call you.
- Wait for the right time and outlet. One of the first op-eds I circulated did not find a home. I published an updated version four months later. Never send a draft to your recycle bin. Keep your eyes on news cycles and what is published in outlets you target. Be flexible and creative.
- Have a strategy. Op-eds, for instance, never stand alone. They are one element among others in a larger strategy. Consider multiple layers of publications and audiences: advocacy groups, policy makers, the general public. That requires research and follow-up. Public scholarship and public education never have a single focus. Each of us must weigh the concerns of our most important audiences, our own expertise, and the opportunities presented as we craft approaches.
In some cases, I was contacted by others. But as I daily saw the lack of knowledge of, for example, a historical, contextual, comparative or analytical dimension of various issues in both the news media and among politicians, I reached out to reporters, elected officials and often their staffs, and organizations to offer some additional expertise. While relatively few responded immediately, reporters from major national and international publications to whom I had written contacted me some months later when they were either working on a new report or had cause to question their earlier assumptions.
- Focus your efforts. Through trial and error and comparing notes with fellow scholars, I’ve found new routes to multiple publics. I’ve identified specific targets for applying my expertise where I’ve thought I could have the most positive influence, like my work on critical race theory and the banning of books.
Throughout, never forget that all scholarly fields and disciplines are relevant. The humanities in particular dismiss or downplay our value to our great loss. As in teaching and scholarship, public work is a learning experience. And its value can be greater than a successful class or a positive book review.
Finally, a word of advice for institutions: I argue for training academics to have a new understanding of public work’s close relationship to “traditional” research, teaching and service. This orientation should begin in graduate education. All departments should offer a senior seminar on the public and applied dimensions of the programs’ major fields. That can serve not only as a meaningful capstone but also a bridge to possible career and graduate opportunities.
I also recommend a first-year seminar at the graduate level that begins with the history of the humanities and other disciplines and instills essential, but now mainly missing, historical memory. That should be inseparable from introductions and explorations of not only old but also new public and applied dimensions of the field—both problems and possibilities. This type of seminar can offer ways simultaneously to confront the so-called crisis in context and explore both individual and collective possibilities. It can serve as a counterpoint to the hand-wringing and despair that fill the hallways of colleges and universities today, as well as the pages of many education periodicals.
Ultimately, the public work of faculty members and students must be accorded full credit. Academe needs to pursue new ways of thinking about the role scholars can play in society—in sum, a redefinition of who we are and the value of what we can do.