You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Microphone in focus in front of a blurred crowd of people

wellphoto/iStock/Getty Images

When my co-editor, Ian Bogost, and I launched our book and essay series “Object Lessons” 10 years ago, we just wanted to make some pretty short books and accessible, engaging essays about deceptively simple topics: basic things instead of big ideas. We wanted to give scholars some fresh ways to write about more mundane subject matters, stuff that often gets occluded or overlooked by academic conventions, and yet to do so with their scholarly expertise guiding the way, too.

Now, 90 books and hundreds of essays in, we are still surprised and delighted by the pitches and proposals we receive for our series and by the range of disciplines and locations from which our authors come. We paused the essay side of our series a few years ago because we got too busy, but we are considering relaunching it to accommodate short-form thing writing once again. We have dozens of book projects in the pipeline and are about to launch a contest for the 100th volume. (Watch our submissions portal.)

For many years, we edited and curated the series from our two different institutional homes—Ian was at Georgia Tech, and I was at Loyola University New Orleans. Beginning this fall, however, we will be under one roof—at Washington University in St. Louis. “Object Lessons” is just one small part of a much bigger signature initiative in the university’s arts and sciences division to institutionalize public scholarship on the campus: to make public-facing work not just an add-on or extra part of scholarly activity, but also an integral and recognized aspect of our jobs as researchers, writers, teachers and thinkers.

The Program in Public Scholarship at Washington University in St. Louis, launched by Adia Harvey Wingfield and Ian Bogost last year, will host workshops, writing retreats and visits from editors and agents and will facilitate multiple cross-channel modes of scholarly communication for faculty members and graduate students in the arts and sciences. The program aims to be a vibrant hub on campus for such activities and to help translate this work for academic value and recognition.

In 2017 and 2018, Ian and I ran a series of public writing workshops funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which mentored a dozen or so participants at a time in retooling their scholarly writing for high profile outlets. One of the key takeaways from those workshops was that scholars need support not only in one-time doses, but also continuously and progressively as they become comfortable writing for general audiences, and over the development of their careers.

Through “Object Lessons” we’ve been able to facilitate this in a somewhat spontaneous fashion, mentoring our authors with their specific projects for us as well as often helping them line up next books or adjacent essays for public-facing venues. Now, by setting up a physical and centrally located office on the Washington University campus where faculty and graduate students can access our resources, we hope to make this work both more consistently available for scholars and more legible for the university, as well as the broader community.

Often when we in higher education talk about public scholarship, we think only of a few narrow options, such as trade books or op-eds, TV spots or radio interviews. But the truth is that the new media ecosystem, combined with a rapidly evolving publishing industry and renegotiations of public spaces, has opened up myriad opportunities and ways to make scholarship more visible and useful for wide audiences outside of academe. Social media has proven to be a fecund (if sometimes volatile) space for public engagement with scholarly ideas; public library systems, transportation hubs, parks and monuments are also places rife with potential for public scholarly impact. One of our goals for the program is to help resident scholars identify these opportunities and showcase their work in ways hitherto unknown—and with broader impact. And by doing so, we hope to become a resource for other universities and centers that are themselves trying to foster and support more public scholarly work.

At a time when many higher education institutions are struggling to stabilize enrollments and recruit new students, the work of public scholarship has clear importance and value. Public-facing work may, in fact, attract prospective students by enabling them to learn more about what’s happening at universities and colleges.

But for such work to be encouraged, recognized and valued internally, it needs to be institutionally supported in turn. Department chairs can help by recognizing and supporting this work, and multidisciplinary faculty development committees can help in the effort, as well. And we can support one another across different institutions. My hope is that as our team learns from experiences here in St. Louis, we can then assist other campuses to set up similar programs in public scholarship, helping this work gain visibility and value across the academy—and of course, beyond.

Christopher Schaberg is director of public scholarship at Washington University in St. Louis and founding co-editor, with Ian Bogost, of Bloomsbury’s “Object Lessons” series.

Next Story

More from Career Advice