College academics often surround themselves with their research and their colleagues. Our disciplinary journals and conferences are rarely relatable to others, even outside our fields of interest. For many of us, our time is spent on analyses and peer-review processes, so we tend to overlook how and when we can connect our research beyond academia.
As you may remember, I recently wrote about areas of higher education surrounding critical race theory and the University of North Carolina tenure saga. Beyond legal theories and issues of academic freedom, colleges must send their faculty out of their ivory towers to venture past our campus gates. Public scholarship — or academics connecting their research with the media and general public — can have a significant impact.
Some academics may translate their public scholarship into volunteering or civic engagement by being a citizen scholar. This is when an academic regularly connects their research, writing and teaching with the public. A citizen scholar may relay their academic discipline outside of labs and campuses and into the public arena.
For my part, I have volunteered and interacted with various organizations and boards. Not only have I engaged in public scholarship, but also I learned more about my state and local government subfield within political science. For example, I served on New Haven’s City Plan Commission and related much of my research and classroom experiences with countless planning proposals. It’s one thing to teach urban development and quite another to directly engage in the field.
Of course I also write for online media like CTNewsJunkie and discuss state and local politics on area radio shows. But these aspects of public scholarship are rarely expected in so many academic fields. And sadly, higher education officials hardly encourage academics to connect with the public. According to one study, universities hardly consider public outreach as a metric for promotion. “There’s a huge disconnect,” explains lead author Juan Pablo Alperin.
Engaging with the media can be intimidating for many academics. “Fewer than one in five [science academics] agreed that ‘furthering public understanding of science’ was one of their motivations for talking with journalists,” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Rick Weiss.
If academics rarely connect with the media and public to explain phenomena like pandemics and historic wildfires, higher education is doomed. Academia must prioritize the importance of public scholarship now more than ever. In the same Chronicle article, Weiss also mentioned that tenure and promotion committees often overlook or undervalue public scholarship. This is problematic and disconcerting. Connecting our knowledge with the public when it is timely and relevant is exactly what our universities should prize.
Similar to many other entities, higher education has a series of priorities and standards for faculty and administrators. Publishing articles in academic journals, writing manuscripts for the academic press and participating in disciplinary conferences are considered professional standards. In fact, for tenure and promotion, faculty are expected to partake in these activities along with grant-writing and patent filing when necessary. Effective teaching and public scholarship are rarely necessary for academics particularly at high research producing or Research 1 institutions, per the Carnegie Foundation’s Classification of higher education institutions.