Is it appropriate for academics to cross the boundary between conducting research and engaging in advocacy on the basis of their empirical findings? For the first time in my career, I have really begun grappling with this question. This summer marked the greatest amount of attention paid to any research project I have conducted. The Journal of Health Psychology published my project, titled “A Daily Diary Assessment of Female Weight Stigmatization.”
The study consisted of weeklong daily diary assessments of weight-stigma and discrimination experienced by overweight and obese women. Using well-established daily diary methods, our study showed that actual rates of weight stigmatization were likely much higher than had been previously documented in the literature. Further, this study showed that weight stigma was being perpetuated by individuals from virtually every area of life -- with our participants reporting, on average, over three incidents of stigma daily. Some events were quite visible, including the experience of a participant who reported being mooed at in a grocery store. Other events were more subtle, such as being offered unsolicited fashion advice for concealing weight.
Overall, our findings richly presented some of the lived experiences of overweight women and I felt the paper would make a nice scientific contribution to the literature. Not surprisingly, the academic response to this piece has been slow, but it is steady and is heading in promising directions. At this point, the traditional scholar would be content. The research had been published and other scientists were taking interest. Yet I still had a deeply nagging sense that there was more I should be doing with these data. After all, I began my career in psychology with the desire to help people, and that is exactly what I intended to do. So, with input from others, I took the big step of pitching the story to the news media. I was excited about my first real opportunity to reach out to the public on this issue.
What I was not at all prepared for was the public response to this study once it was publicized. Within days of releasing it, reporters from around the globe, perhaps sensing the controversial nature of the study or the topic of obesity, began to send their interview requests. Since then, numerous stories have been written, including pieces in New York Magazine,Salon,The London Daily Mail and Cosmopolitan, each with slightly different takes on the my main research messages that weight stigma is widely prevalent and that it is detrimental to the people who experience it.
With each additional published story, the public onslaught of comments via web postings, Twitter, and Facebook grew. I am not kidding when I say that tens of thousands of people have chimed in to add their two cents about the study and about the topic of obesity generally. Comments have ranged from encouraging personal anecdotes to vitriolic bashing of obese people and those who support them.
Interestingly, a subset of these responses have also come from fellow academics who have lobbed negative comments about my professional skills as a social scientist for so “blatantly” using my research for advocacy purposes. Apparently, for at least one scholar, my role as an advocate was in direct conflict with my role as a scientist and I was therefore doing a disservice to the field. (One such negative response was to an editorial I wrote for The Providence Journal. Though I suspect his commentary was motivated by more than a desire to protect the integrity of science, my own personal internal questions about my roles as a scientist and an advocate began circulating.)
Had I overstepped my bounds as a scientist? Should I have been content to stay within the relative safety of my research and scholarly publications, or, should I push ahead into the public sphere and continue using knowledge to advocate for the marginalized in society? On one hand, my study and the years of preparation leading up to it were sufficient for publication in a respectable peer-reviewed scientific journal, but on the other I was chastised by some for violating my role as a scientist by attempting to use these data to publicly highlight the mistreatment of overweight and obese individuals.
Like many academics devoted to teaching and research, I tend to bring my research into the classroom for use as an educational tool. My students were already aware of my research, so I was interested in what their response would be to this rapidly unfolding saga. On an impromptu basis, I posed the issue to them.
What emerged from this discussion was both surprising and energizing. They openly shared their personal views about obesity (positive or otherwise). Students swapped stories about blatant instances of disrespect that had been encountered and they debated why this type of research (and advocacy) was important to academic psychology and society at large. It was an invigorating classroom experience and one in which I suspect my students and I took much more away than we would have with the originally scheduled topic. In much the same way as was occurring in online forums, my students were engaging with and debating the issues of obesity and weight stigma.
In the ensuing days, I have increasingly questioned the seemingly artificial boundaries placed between the roles of academic researcher and advocate. I am left wondering how many would-be champions of great ideas in the academic realm remain silent in the public domain because of the perceived conflicts between the roles of researcher and advocate. For me, stepping out into the public sphere has contributed to an enhanced sense of purpose in what I do as a researcher.
The publicity, commentary, and discussions -- about my research and about obesity more generally -- have accomplished what I hoped they would by opening up dialogue on this important issue. Whether an academic chooses to focus solely on their research or to extend their role to include research-based advocacy is a personal choice. However, as academics, we have been bestowed with the privilege and the obligation to pursue and use scientific knowledge for the betterment of the world. I truly believe that meeting these obligations does not end with the publication of findings in an academic journal.
Jason D. Seacat is associate professor of psychology at Western New England University.
This morning, after a poor night’s sleep punctuated by weird pregnancy nightmares and hourly wakings due to the discomforts of being newly behemoth, I lumbered over to my “office” (aka the other side of my apartment), and, loins girded, prepared to see what the internet beheld. As a freelancer with many different gigs, it’s not uncommon to have to “put out fires” first thing in the a.m., as they say, but this morning, all three rings in the circus of my life conflagrated at once. A potential dissertation-coaching client was unhappy with my original free consult, and I wanted to give my boss a rundown of what went wrong. Then, an urgent email from Germany — some editing work I was supposed to turn in yesterday wasn’t in! Ach, nein! Quick, turn on the German brain, apologize and send in the work, schnell.
Meanwhile, in my most public job, as an education columnist for Slate, I’m dealing with the fallout of my latest piece, which calls into question why the University of California System — which tells its students, faculty and staff it is one giant budget crater — feels the need to give its three “poorest” chancellors $60,000 raises. And, while I prepare to cook up my next column (maybe American academics teaching abroad? I have a friend in Kazakhstan; maybe she’ll let me interview her!), I’m making my editor’s extensive changes on my forthcoming one — with, of course, a turnaround of a few hours at most, as per the conventions of short-form Internet journalism.
All this happened today before I had a chance to eat or pee.
In the midst of what was already a wackadoodle morning, about 70 of my best “friends” linked me to a new op-ed here at Inside Higher Ed, by Cornell writing lecturer Charles Green. The 3,000-word magnum opus betrays a fairly impressive (obsessive?) attention to both my personal blog and certain contributions to my Slate work, and calls into question the research bona fides of my non-academic journalism. Green excoriates the cursory sample sizes and openly informal methodology of two of my recent columns — op-eds both, meaning that it is clear to most readers that what I am writing is indeed, in the words of the great rhetorician Jeffrey Lebowski, just, like, my opinion, man.
He even goes so far as to perform what appears to be a rhetorical exegesis of “Revise and Resubmit,” a roast of the humanities peer-review process done in my usual style, which is a mixture of dark humor, open hyperbole, and cutting truth — and which quotes, yes, a small sample of hilarious tweets about peer-review experiences from my readers, which I culled for their sharpness from a much larger “data set” of about 100.
But yes, the piece exaggerated. Every op-ed I write does. Every sentence I say at home does! My voice has, for better or worse, basically been what it is since my first turn as a columnist at the age of 17 (I appeared bi-weekly in Eugene, Oregon’s paper of record from 1993 to 1994 — kind of a big deal, I know). But it was sharpened in graduate school in a particular vein, as I fell in love with the crotchety Austrians who would come to define my research: Robert Musil, whose over-the-top satire of a bunch of rich drifters also belies harsh truths about the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy; the playwright Johann Nepomunk Nestroy, whose untranslatable humor involves saying something that is a massive exaggeration and an unfortunate truth at the same time; Karl Kraus, the patron saint of pithy bile and my personal hero.
Is Green correct that my 1,500-word op-eds (the appropriate length for such a medium, ahem) are not researched with the same rigor as my academic book, which took seven years to write, and for which I am receiving the standard advance of zero dollars? He is. If the 80 or so columns I’ve written for Slate in the past year were submitted to academic journals, they would all be rejected out of hand for their style, tone, and, yes, lack of scientifically perfect data sets.
But, speaking of “limited sample size,” (which itself masks Green’s real critique, which is that my experience in academe is different from his, and thus incorrect), I’d like to point out that Green has done to me precisely what he claims I do to the unfairly-maligned idyll that is the life of the mind (which, unlike me, he has never left, which would explain his unfamiliarity with the conventions of my medium).
In addition to his huff about “Revise and Resubmit,” he also takes issue with “Syllabus Tyrannus,” in which I trace the corporatization of the American university via the encroachment of administrative boilerplate onto once-brief college syllabuses. His main problem seems to be that the editor who wrote my subhead was also a fan of numerical exaggeration. Guilty, I suppose.
And the third and final piece he mentions is “Bring on the Sledgehammer,” in which I simply executed what we jokingly call a #Slatepitch — I took a contrarian stance to a current issue (President Obama’s college-rankings plan), and tried to argue it to the best of my ability. In the wake of that article, I was the first to admit the imperfection of my arguments, and it resulted in numerous productive conversations with readers.
Anyway, what Green conveniently neglects to mention, even with 3,000 words, is the vast majority of my work for Slate, most of which is far more akin to traditional reporting, and much of which has nothing to do with higher education at all (I’m thinking here, of course, of my vaunted German grocery store canon).
Among recent pieces are the following — none of which remotely fit Green’s characterizations:
“The Birth of the #FergusonSyllabus,” which describes the ways in which educators in my hometown of St. Louis and beyond are teaching about systemic racism and police violence;
“Don’t Extinguish the Fulbright,” which was part of a national media push that actually helped save the Fulbright program from a disastrous set of cuts;
“Nasty and Brutish,” which helped break the CU-Boulder philosophy sexual harassment scandal nationally (and brought about my first-ever hate mail from a Neo-Nazi – suck it, “Abraxas88,” whoever you are!);
I am used to people disagreeing with me, often vehemently and directly to my face. I am used to getting kicked around (also, now, from the inside — thanks, kiddo!). I understand that many academics long to write for a larger public audience, and resent the fact that I get to do so, because my experience is not indicative of theirs.
Look, I am as aghast at the modest success of my fourth-act career as anyone else. But here is why I get to do what I do: Readers can sense hedging, equivocation and cowardice from 10 miles away, and they don’t like it. At the same time, those who wish to succeed in academe must compromise what they say in public (the recent Salaita affair is but the most extreme example of the kind of systemic restraint that academia demands). As a result, a lot of “public” writing by academics is self-censored, over-equivocated, bogged down in data analysis, and thus unreadably boring to a non-academic audience. But since I am no longer beholden to some imaginary search or tenure committee, I get to hold nothing back — and that is why I get to be at Slate. If you want anyone to read your op-eds on a mainstream platform, you must take a firm, blunt stance — one that might have to oversimplify a few things for brevity, and one that will bring its share of both support and vitriol.
I guess Charles Green finally hit upon a stance — and oversimplification, though not brevity — that can bring in readers, too. Too bad it came in the form of an ad-hominem attack on a person who never did anything to hurt him, and whose body of work is more complex — and, simultaneously, more banal — than he gives it credit for.
Rebecca Schuman is the education columnist for Slate.