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While academic institutions may have their own mission statements, most would agree that the overall goal of higher education is to educate students, prepare them for the future and equip them with the tools needed to create meaningful change. And although less likely to result in consensus, it is also our responsibility to share our knowledge with the public. Gatekeeping information from the same communities you claim to serve is hypocritical and reveals your true intentions. Unfortunately, too many academics are more concerned with the impact factor of a journal than the impact factor of their work.

During the summer of 2020, I had just finished my Ph.D. but was unable to find a faculty position. However, the educator in me still wanted to share my work with the community, so I created a Twitter account. My first tweet was in July of 2020 and called attention to the importance of addressing institutionalized racism and its impact on the mental health of students of color. The tweet went viral and was shared, liked and viewed across multiple platforms over half a million times.

That showed me two things: 1) thousands of people outside of the academy were interested in the topic; and 2) social media could be used for more than memes and makeup tutorials. Three years and 65K followers later, I use social media as an educational tool to increase access to academic scholarship and to advocate for marginalized communities.

The Impact of Public Scholarship

As academic researchers, we are concerned with data and ways to ensure reliability and validity. We prioritize the ability to measure outcomes—which is important—but how are we measuring the impact of our work? By citations? Conference presentations? Proposal acceptances? Scholarly pats on the back? Those things may demonstrate academic prowess, but they do not speak to impact. Similarly, some people may assume that I can assess the impact of my work on social media based on my follow count or the millions of users who engage with my account every month, but that doesn’t tell the full story.

In light of that, I decided to reach out to my followers and I asked them, “Why do you follow me?” I will admit, part of me was nervous about the response because, even though my work is intentional and motivated by love for the community, we can never be truly sure of how what we present is being received. Surprisingly, within 24 hours, I received over 500 comments. Two themes that stood out to me were education and accessibility.

Education. The goal of my work, including on social media, is to educate, advocate and liberate, so I was thrilled to see that education and learning were referred to 200+ times. As educators, we need to know that doing so isn’t confined to the four walls of our classrooms. Understanding that allows us to expand our reach and impact. Some followers, including other educators, shared that they follow me to learn and unlearn. Some exampled included:

  • “I’m a white academic and see your experiences and the information you share as an extremely valuable part of my education.”
  • “I want to diversify my own education so I can better support my students”
  • “I’m trying to be a better person and unlearn harmful things I have been taught growing up white in patriarchal society.”

Accessibility. When I think about accessibility and social media, I think about it in two ways. First, it is providing access to knowledge typically inaccessible to the public. For example, one follower said they follow me because I “don’t gatekeep information.” Others mentioned being able to engage with content that would otherwise be unavailable to them.

  • “You share a lot of information and education I would not normally be aware of or privy to as a white male in my day-to-day living.”
  • “Because you say things that, as an Irish woman living in a small city, I would probably not get to hear about in my daily world.”

Second, accessibility is about presenting information with language that is accessible. We may have needed doctoral degrees to do our research, but the public shouldn’t need one to engage with it. These comments demonstrate that people’s appreciation of accessible content was a key reason why they follow me.

  • “to hear your high-level thinking and wisdom stated in a way everyone should and can understand”
  • “Social media [is] NOT a great place for nuance, but you teach BIG concepts in sound bites … and that is an art.”

Becoming a Public Scholar

Last year, I published my first book, Street Scholar, which unapologetically calls on academics to thoughtfully and intentionally engage in public scholarship. It also provides a roadmap for them to begin their own process of becoming a public scholar. While I often use social media as an example, it may not be the best approach for you and your work. Our missions might be the same, but our mediums don’t have to be. There are public scholars doing incredible work with journalism, television, hip hop, podcasts and documentaries, such as Janice Gassam Asare (senior contributor at Forbes), Marc Lamont Hill (host of TheGrio with Marc Lamont Hill), and Emmai Alaquiva (Emmy Award-winning producer).

Before providing you with specific examples of how you can engage in public scholarship, I would like you to reflect on your why. If you want to do this for likes and retweets, you may be public, but you are not a scholar. For example, I engage in this work because I have an unwavering commitment to education and advocacy, with a focus on racial justice. What about you? What are you hoping to accomplish with your work? Be specific. We can’t change what we don’t name.

Now on to the how. Here are some examples of how I have used social media for public scholarship.

Academic research. I believe in making my research accessible, so I post about it often. For example, my work focuses on microaggressions and Racial Battle Fatigue (RBF), so I posted about RBF with an emphasis on its symptoms and consequences. How can you share your own research in a tweet or video?

Access to scholars. There are brilliant scholars whom nonacademics don’t get to engage with. So, to increase access to them, I hosted a weekly show on Instagram Live where I interviewed various academics, including Gloria Ladson-Billings, professor emerita at University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Chris Emdin, Maxine Greene Chair for Distinguished Contributions to Education at Teachers College. You may not want to do something like that every week, but you might post clips from an academic talk or a video of an interview regularly, or at least from time to time.

Classroom discussions. I don’t think you should have to be a college student or an academic to engage in meaningful discussions, so I often share questions from my classes with the public. The conversations in the comments section have been fascinating and insightful because intellect isn’t confined to those attending a particular course. Ask yourself, “How can I invite the public into my classroom or bring pieces of my classroom to them?”

Pedagogy. I often describe my pedagogical practices and approach to education on social media. That has proved to be beneficial for people within as well as outside of academia. For example, I posted part of my syllabus on Instagram which inspired other educators to use portions in their own class. It was also helpful to people outside of higher education who decided to purchase the books mentioned in the syllabus so they could do their own learning. I was especially encouraged by one of my supporters who surprised me with extra copies of each book for my students. How can you share your practices with the public?

All that said, I did not get to this place in my public scholarship overnight, so be patient with the process and show yourself grace. Effective public scholarship takes time and effort. Know, however, that you will ultimately find it more than worth your while. As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Imagine the impact we could have if we educated as many people as possible.

Angel M. Jones is a visiting assistant professor of African American studies and technology at Virginia Tech. She is also an educational consultant whose work focuses on race, gender and mental health and the author of Street Scholar: Using Public Scholarship to Educate, Advocate, and Liberate.

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