This year’s MPSA has been an interesting experience as opposed to other years. That is due to a near perfect storm of political events in the last few months. Add to this already interesting mix the fact that, due to inclement weather and flight cancellations, we end up with a more intimate conference with content that barely fits into four days.
The centerpiece to the conference, as always, are the expert roundtables and late-breaking sessions that for once are discussing critical issues like the executive order on travel and immigration, rise of populism, need for civic engagement, and the role of media in today’s world. But that is not all, this year one of the most awesome things is how much of a difference #WomenAlsoKnowStuff has made. The panels look and feel different. The voices and issues being discussed are of academic and public interest. It is refreshing to see an environment where one is encouraged to speak up and present their ideas without fear of being shut down or critiqued without logic.
I was fortunate enough to attend several panels during the first two days including two round tables; civic engagement of academia and media’s role pre-and post-election 2016. The civic engagement panel was phenomenal because for once academics are speaking up and having conversations about how to engage with the larger audience and not just an epistemic community. Matthew Lebo of Stony Brook University and Jennifer Victor of George Mason put in to words what I have been feeling for a while; we (academics) need to start engaging with a public at a very basic level. What this means is, we need to engage at school level, university level, and mass media. For a while now, there has been a heated debate in academia about the use of social media by academics to push their work and ideas. I have always been a proponent of this approach because how would we let the rest of the world know what amazing work we are doing given that majority of this planet does not have journal subscriptions but probably has twitter or snapchat.
This ties in to the next point I want to make that I observed in the panel on media’s view of the Election 2016 campaign with guests like Molly Ball from the Atlantic, Nia Henderson from CNN and Steve Peoples from the AP. During the discussion, the panelists were asked why the media allowed abundant free press coverage to now-President Trump. The answer by all three media persons was that he was interesting. When asked to elaborate, the unanimous reply was that he was always available and he was saying weird stuff that gets attention. This naturally opens the discussion on why academics need to be more involved in public engagement. For media in general, profits and numbers of viewers are far superior to facts and critical analysis. In absence of true experts, we are left with glorified media personalities who everyone assumes can talk policy. For instance, consider the level of know-how about the middle east or even health care that Alex Jones does compared to literally any middle east expert at the MPSA conference right now. The difference is that Alex Jones has spent his life engaging with the public about his views, as outlandish as they are. So it only makes sense that in an environment where media is more interested in getting a fun story rather than a factual one, as academics we must step up and take the responsibility of protecting facts and logic.
The other set of panels that I was fortunate enough to attend included the Author Meets Critics session for the awesome new book by Christina Wolbrecht and Kevin Corder that talks about the women’s suffrage movement and incidents after 19th amendment came in to force. The excellent book not only details cases at the state level, it provides a set of answers to the question, “What happened to women voters after the 19th amendment?” Did the turnout shift the political power balance? How did voting patterns change over time? All these questions and others are answered in this book as it sets up a wider discussion for future work in the field.
So far, the MPSA conference has been fantastic and I hope the kind of discussions we are having this year will translate into work that reaches a wider audience. The blogs, social media presence, and op-eds help expose our research to a wider audience. We need that in these post-truth times.
About the Author: Adnan Rasool is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science, Georgia State University. He is also a Student Innovation Fellow at Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning (CETL) at GSU and Taiwan Fellow 2017 at National Sun Yat Sen University, Kaohsiung (Taiwan). His research focuses on role of bureaucracies in democratization and populist clientalistic appeal in new democracies. You can also find Rasool on Twitter and his website.