MPSA seeks bloggers to cover the most popular panels and events at the upcoming conference in Chicago. Bloggers will be expected to research, craft and edit articles that appeal to members of our community including political science scholars, social scientists, media, and the informed public. In return, bloggers will gain an audience for new ideas, experience in digital media, and an opportunity to expand your online visibility among peers in the discipline. Conference bloggers will also be awarded a small stipend upon staff acceptance of the required number of posts.
In addition to the category requirements below, for 2019 each conference blogger is required to submit at least one post of a general nature related to a conference event/session or Chicago attraction in advance of the conference. Remaining posts must be submitted during or immediately after the conference.
We seek bloggers committed to writing about a variety of categories including research-oriented roundtables, professional development, public engagement and advocacy, teaching and learning, and work-life balance. Additionally, we seek bloggers to write from the following perspectives: graduate students, first-time attendees, experienced conference attendee, Chicago-natives, and international attendees.
By Betsy Sinclair of Washington University in St. Louis
“Are you frustrated that you see a need in your community that isn’t met by government or industry? Do you believe that need could be remedied through purposeful action? Will you ask your family, friends and neighbors to help initiate change? If that description fits you, join us.”
Magnify is an action network that I founded with friends to connect like-minded people to help solve civic, political, and environmental projects. We match people to projects that need help: projects where making a phone call or volunteering can help make a neighborhood better. Magnify leverages the frontier of political behavior research to make civic engagement fun, easy, and social. Magnify is a place for positive engagement and civil discourse.
Here is how Magnify works:
You choose something you care about and propose a project. We host advocacy campaigns, volunteer opportunities, and community events. Have you noticed a pothole that needs filling, a park that needs a new bench, or a local business that needs a changing station in their bathroom? Are you looking for drivers to help get voters to the polls? Is your local food pantry looking for help around Thanksgiving?
You share the project with your friends. As your friends join your project, you’ll see their names. As they take action to help, they’ll earn civic engagement points and their icons will change color.
We match your project to people who share your interests and concerns. All Magnify users have a personalized experience, where we match projects to you based upon your interests and geography.
We have been working with projects from the political science community – both directly and indirectly — by providing a forum for faculty and students to learn strategies for civic engagement and activism. We build communities, so after several hundred political science faculty signed Stanford professors Adam Bonica and Michael McFaul’s letter in the Washington Post advocating for universities to treat election day as a holiday, we provided those faculty a forum where they could take action and talk about their experiences rallying their universities to action (link: https://www.magnifyyourvoice.com/dayofffordemocracy). Project members, for example, used the group chat to discuss the language they employed when writing to university administrators. If we work together, we are better at finding solutions that work.
As political science faculty, perhaps our greatest role is that of teaching, so that we have been able to use Magnify as a tool to demonstrate the efficacy of civic engagement – we’ve been successful in making both Clayton and WUSTL more bike accessible, we’ve supported fundraising for a local school district’s food pantry, and we’re currently working to support bus riders (who need benches, shelters, and regularly-emptied trash cans) in Ferguson, MO. If you’d like to use Magnify in your classroom, we’ve prepared a set of teaching materials to illustrate how to use Magnify as a tool for experiential learning and civic engagement. We hope to channel your students’ anger into action and to help train the next generation of civic leaders.
Neighborhood, community, and a responsible civic life – this is what the Magnify community cares about. Together our voices are heard. We care a lot about your neighborhood. We know you have a good idea. It’s time to make it happen. Join us today! www.magnifyyourvoice.com
About the Author: Betsy Sinclair is a Professor of Political Science at Washington University in St Louis, 2019 MPSA Conference Program Co-Chair, and the co-founder of Magnify. You can find Sinclair and Magnify on Twitter.
In this public engagement roundtable from the 2018 MPSA conference, Michelle Kukoleca Hammes of Saint Cloud State University, Derrick Carter of Valparaiso University Law School, and Jared Wesley of the University of Alberta examine “pracademics” or the intersection of practical politics with academic study and the field of political science.
Drawing from personal experiences, the panelists discuss the practice of political science in the legislative context and the separation of academics from legislation and policymaking, while examining ways the discipline could reach out to communities to integrate students and professors with real-world community needs.
Discussing strategies for bridging the gap between political science and politics, the panelists discuss the importance of linking academic subject matter with real-life issues for students and look at ways non-elected bureaucrats or practitioners can work collaboratively with academics and students to improve research, scholarship, and policy outcomes.
Post by Royal G. Cravens, Bowling Green University This post originally appeared on the Wiki Education blog.
Dr. Royal G. Cravens, III is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Bowling Green State University. He recently participated in our Wikipedia Fellows pilot, an opportunity for subject-matter experts to learn how to contribute to Wikipedia. Dr. Cravens is a member of the Midwest Political Science Association, one of the three associations that collaborated with us in this pilot. Here, he shares what he’ll take with him from the experience.
Remember that time when Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, discouraged college students from citing Wikipedia articles in their research or term papers? Admittedly, it was more than a decade ago, but the ramifications for Wikipedia in higher education continue. I was an undergraduate pursuing a degree in Political Science, a reading- and writing-intensive field. Since that time, many college professors have banned Wikipedia citations in their syllabi for the same reason Wales discouraged students from using them in the first place, concerns over reliability.
Based on this and a previous experience using Wikipedia to locate information for a research project, I was somewhat surprised and intrigued when I learned of an opportunity to work with Wiki Education in my capacity as a college professor. I was partially motivated by curiosity, but I also saw an opportunity to contribute my knowledge to our collective conscious in a new way. Now that the Wikipedia Fellows pilot is over (although I will admit my editing days are not), my reflection on this experience leads me to highlight two related points about Wikipedia. One is its capacity as a learning tool and the second is its potential to amplify marginalized voices in the academy.
To my first point, and I am late to the game in realizing this, Wikipedia is an educational tool. During this Fellowship, I learned about the myriad ways Wikipedia is being used in higher education classrooms across the country. Under the guidance of an instructor and with assistance from the Wiki Education team, students are making contributions to bodies of knowledge which shape popular understandings of both complex and mundane topics in ways traditional journal articles might not. They interact with each other and with strangers in an online community built upon shared interest in a topic.
In my experience, however, Wikipedia editors rarely stop at one topic. Instead, there appears to be a shared curiosity and appreciation for knowledge which leads editors to form massive lists of pages which they ‘watch’ or make contributions to on a regular basis. I, personally, found myself contributing information about events in history, individual biographies, and places I have lived. When information was incorrect or lacking, I felt a responsibility to edit, correct, or add what I knew – all with proper citation, of course!
The infectious and cross-disciplinary nature of editing was a reoccurring topic that I and the other Fellows discussed in our weekly conversations. To me, this is the great contribution of Wikipedia to higher education: the inspiration to remain a life-long learner in a social and political environment which seeks to undermine facts and erect barriers to higher education.
In proceeding to my second point, I feel the need to clarify something. I am not advocating the abandonment of traditional academic publications. I now realize, however, that those sources can be used to reach audiences far beyond academe. However, to quote Uncle Ben from Spider Man “with great power comes great responsibility.” The power of Wikipedia to reach a massive audience and influence popular understanding of numerous topics is still only harnessed by a relatively unrepresentative cross-section of society. (I use the preceding quote to illustrate another point. Wikipedia articles more often than not contain correct information, however, they are not as thorough as academic journals. Uncle Ben’s Wikipedia entry notes that this quote is often attributed to the character, but this is not the original source.)
This leads to my second point. During this fellowship, I learned that Wikipedia editors are not representative of the general public and that this has ramifications for the visibility of minority groups and information about them in open-access forums. One of my goals for this Fellowship was to increase the reliability of information related to LGBT politics, my own research focus being LGBT political behavior. In reflecting on this experience, it is now apparent to me that Wikipedia provides a platform to amplify minority scholarship.
In the academic age of @WomenAlsoKnow (website here), @POCAlsoKnowStuff (website here), and @LGBTscholars, it is more important than ever to recognize the contributions of those scholars (and their research agendas) whom the academy has long marginalized. I must say, however, this is not the same as #promoteyoself – a popular movement to encourage marginalized scholars to promote their own work. Although I encourage scholars to promote their own work, for the purposes of Wikipedia editing, scholars should use their knowledge and resources to cite underrepresented authors and edit/create pages related to underrepresented topics. Only then can the full power of Wikipedia be brought to bear in enhancing the voice and scholarship of underrepresented people.
It is my final assessment that Wikipedia has been underutilized by people like me – early-career scholars with perspective on minority populations and underrepresented research agendas. We could do better in making open-access information, with which the general public is more likely to interact, more representative and complete. As I previously stated, I will continue as a Wikipedia editor and hope to incorporate Wikipedia editing as a component of my future classes. I encourage those who share my curiosity and desire to magnify the voices of marginalized scholars and topics to join me.
To see the Wikipedia articles this Fellows cohort improved, click here. To learn more about how you can get involved as a Wikipedia Fellow, click here.
By Harold “Harry” Young of Austin Peay State University
At this year’s MPSA conference, I was on a mission to uncover what participants were so serious about as they hovered over laptops and chatted in small groups. My personal interactions revealed groups generally mystified and frightened by the current political environment with some tinged with anger. Most of all, however, I was interested in what was going on in the sessions that filled the hard copy of the 524-page conference guide (yes, I know some people downloaded the app). I wanted some answers to the question “what have you done for me (the public) lately?” What one finds depends on where one looks but overall I concluded that the state of political science is strong (in academia). Therefore, if you missed the conference, here are few snapshots.
The first snapshot is about books and journals exhibited by publishers accompanied by acquisition editors. We want to publish and the publishers were there with books and journals everywhere with displays of academic classics, highly specialized topics, books on “hot” contemporary issues and the up-to-date journals. Though impressive, the question of who reads these outside of academia haunts me (and us). We must ask ourselves the question, what is the point if there is no diffusion? In the current anti-intellectualist environment, we pay a price for academic snobbery. I am encouraged, however, by Christopher Schaberg’s suggestion that publishing is multifaceted and something to live with rather than live for in Publish or Perish? Yes. Embrace It! This approach may encourage us to take steps to increase or enhance public diffusion as we move toward our next projects.
The second snapshot reflects our interest in understanding the “now” with the hope of informing the future. Again, the issue of public relevance and diffusion arise. I humbly suggest that some of the research presented will, and probably should, remain in academia. However, it is all about priming and framing (Scheufele & Tewksbury 2006). Exemplary of this was research presented by Rebekah Dowd and Adnan Rasool comparing the recent presidential elections in the U.S. (Trump v. Clinton) and France (Macron v. Le Pen) and social media messaging surrounding the campaigns. The research had all the right elements – politics, salient issues, social media, comparative, and well-done. Having extracted the data from the public domain, let us hope they can make their findings accessible to the public.
Finally, there was plenty for “us” to ponder and digest. The “now” issues I listened in on included the current U.S. President, Russia, immigration, race, new media, cultural identity, authoritarianism, balance of power (domestic and international), and the environment. While encouraging everyone to review the repository at MPSA Conference 2018, I highlight two presentations. The first is Phillipp Alexander Schroeder, University of London, who presented on one of my favorite topics – judicial review and the interaction with legislative preferences. The second is Nicholas Howard and David Alan Hughes, both of Auburn University at Montgomery, who presented on the interactions of the courts and environmental policymaking. Again, my hope is that they can make their findings accessible outside of academia.
While this year’s MPSA conference provided a platform for some of the best to share and receive feedback, there was a deep awareness of the political environment and the importance of context. While they stood by their research, several presenters noted that they must acknowledge that the current environment is so different than the next step is to re-examine their finding in light of the changes and the new political realities. That a real and ongoing challenge for our discipline which caused me to refocus my question of “why we are forced to contribute in a meaningful way” to encompass not just our understanding of the world but also society more generally.
About the Author: Harold Young is a blogger at the 2018 Midwest Political Science Association conference. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. His research focuses on Public Law and examines an American and international perspective on judicial institutional changes and decision-making. Previously, he worked as a health communications manager, a social worker and practiced law. Read more from Harold on the MPSA blog and Avnon World Series. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the professional development track at the Midwest Political Science Association Conference in Chicago, IL, there were a couple of sessions on using social media in academia and sharing research in more easy-to-digest ways with the general public. In higher education, there is often a deep divide on this topic on public engagement, with one camp saying this waters down the scholarship and diminishes the work of the scholar, and the other camp saying academics have an obligation to share their work with the public, especially in the age of increasing anti-intellectualism and university skepticism.
Last year, Edward Mathew Burmila made almost as much blogging as he did from his salary as a professor at Bradley University in Illinois. His blog, Gin and Tacos, gets around 100,000 unique readers each month and he says his blogging gives him the opportunity to speak freely about his opinions, something he can’t do as a teaching professor, especially a non-tenured professor.
Burmila started blogging in undergrad in 1999, and he believes blogging is a great practice that has made him a better writer. “I get a lot out of it personally,” he said, “to know that somebody likes what I write.” Often, in academia, what is published gets downloaded and read by only a few graduate students or colleagues in the field. For Burmila, blogging allows him to be a public expert whose work can be read and appreciated by a larger audience.
Kelly E. Dittmar from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University spends 49% of her time translating research for the public. As scholars who create knowledge, “part of our challenge is shaping the public dialogue around it,” she said. Its the role of the scholar to not only create this knowledge but to make sure the narrative is right. If scholars are not part of the public conversation around the research, the narrative can be hijacked and taken out of context. A lot of scholarship never sees “the light of the ‘public’ day,” said Dittmar, adding that while academics might get accused of not paying attention to the real world, practitioners often don’t pay attention to the research. It’s best when these two groups work together. The research has to be communicated effectively to the practitioners. To put your scholarship in the public light doesn’t mean “dumbing” it down.
The key to sharing scholarship publicly is to keep the integrity of your work but to not make the reader feel stupid.
To do this, cut the jargon. You can use the term “intersectionality” but “maybe don’t use it ten times,” said Dittmar.
Julia Azari from Marquette University believes that while teaching, research, and service are three pillars of a great professor, there are really two others that are rarely talked about: grant-writing and public profile. She said that blogging or writing in the public domain are ways to enhance these pillars. For those at R1 universities, where too much time in the public domain might count against you in tenure consideration, and where blogging isn’t necessarily considered a prestigious pursuit, Azari recommends limiting blogging time so as not to be detrimental to your career, but also offered this quick tip:
Take a lecture you think went well and write it up in 800–900 words. If it went well as a lecture, it will probably be a good blog post.
Another time-saving tactic is to take one or two succinct points from a lengthier article and turn those into a more public-friendly blog post. That way, you’re not doing a ton of extra work and you’re drawing attention to your previous research.
Today, some academic journals also have blogs, so this is a great way to write more casually in a public space but also be affiliated with a reputable journal.
Depending on your university, your tenure status, and your writing style, there is a place for you on the public-engagement spectrum. You might start by developing a relationship with your local newspaper, then start your own blog on a site like http://www.medium.com, and then become a regular contributor on Vox. The rewards may not come from your host university, but the real reward is having more people around the world read and appreciate your work.
Alex Ellison is a blogger at the 2018 Midwest Political Science Association conference. She is an independent education consultant, writer, speaker, and the Founding Director of MENTEE, a nonprofit that provides career exposure to immigrant, refugee, and low-income high school students through job shadows and mentorship. She lives in Chicago, IL. Read more from Alex Ellison on Medium.
“Expectations should not always be taken as reality; because you never know when you will be disappointed.” ― Samuel P. Huntington
I must admit I am sometimes coy in responding to the question, “So, what do you do?” When I say I am a professor of political science and law, the response is two-fold. First, people assume I am an expert in party politics. Second, they assume I have very easy, concrete solutions to what they perceive as the problems in politics–and even the world. Invariably, I start with the standard refrain: “Well, party politics is not my area of expertise but…” I bet this is familiar to many of you. These questions about our role as political scientists outside the classrooms, conferences and our research, are not new.
But what do these things mean in, and for, “the real world”? First, they should encourage us to reflect critically on the tertiary institutions we inhabit, considering the current domestic and international instability. Smith (2018) suggests that academia is experiencing internal decay and is under attack from without which threatens its future. Second, what do we offer the public sphere based on the knowledge we generate and the citizens we graduate? The public may well ask: “What have you done for me lately?” What we are not doing is running for elected office. The last president with an advanced degree in political science was Woodrow Wilson (1856 – 1924) who graduated from John Hopkins University with a PhD in political science. Currently, there are NO senators and only FOUR representatives at the national level with PhDs in political science. Since we cannot all run for public office, be a Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice or have a TV show like Fareed Zakaria, how can we be conduits of our research to contribute to public discourse and the greater good of society?
In his discussion of the success of Singapore, mathematics professor, John Allen Paulos, remarks, “There is certainly no requirement for a Saporean science background, but scientifically literate government leaders who push for evidence-based policies and demonstrate a scientific outlook are needed more than glib panderers with attitude.” So, as we prepare for MPSA 2018, I suggest we ask ourselves, what role should we play in society outside the arguably ivory towers of academia? I am looking forward considering several things: (1) the state of research in present political environment; (2) the tension between political science research and politics (Aron 2011); (3) the mood of my colleagues in the current political environment; (4) interdisciplinary research and (5) the future of our calling.
The 2018 MPSA conference comes at a crucial time in the history of our nation and the world. The political divides are deep and wide with some people are looking for answers that can bridge the gaps and salve the wounds. As political scientists, what can we offer and how do we engage with our spheres of influence?
At a bare minimum, we need to have an opening line when asked, “What have you done for me lately?”
About the Author: Harold Young is an Assistant Professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. His research focuses on Public Law and examines an American and international perspective on judicial institutional changes and decision-making. Previously, he worked as a health communications manager, a social worker and practiced law. email@example.com
The country’s founders believed deeply in the right of citizens to act on their political beliefs. They enshrined that right in the First Amendment.
Protests – from the original Tea Party in 1773 to the 1960s civil rights marches to abortion clinic activists in recent years – offer dramatic examples of citizens making their voices heard. But protests are not the only way citizens communicate with elected officials. Americans also have a rich history of attending town halls, writing letters to elected officials and signing petitions.
Despite the variety of ways citizens can express what they want their elected officials to do, most citizens believe that politicians, and especially Congress, are failing in their roles as the public’s representatives.
But other research suggests that members of Congress respond to more than just the power of money. That research found that members of Congress respond more to voters in their districts than to nonvoters when making policy. Knowing that, it seemed reasonable to ask whether elected officials in Congress respond to political activism in the same way.
Founders’ faith affirmed
Our survey looked at four issues that were on the congressional agenda in 2012, a year for which good data is available. The issues were the repeal of the ACA, approval of the Keystone Pipeline XL, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which would allow gays to serve openly in the armed services, and approval of the Korean Free Trade Agreement, which would remove tariffs on trade between the U.S. and South Korea. We asked survey respondents what their preferred policy was and then compared that to votes their members of Congress cast.
On two of these issues, we found that elected leaders’ choices on roll call votes aligned better with voters in their districts compared to nonvoters. Those issues were the ACA and Keystone Pipeline.
For the ACA, activists and donors, especially activists and donors of the same party as their representative, also enjoyed greater similarity with their representatives than non-activists and non-donors.
For the Keystone Pipeline, donors were also better represented than non-donors.
So – especially for the ACA – activists were better represented by their elected officials than non-activists.
Activism pays on high-profile issues
These striking findings led us to another question: Was the power of activism strong enough to counter the influence of money?
Among voters who are not politically active in additional ways, we found that those who have the highest income are better represented than those with the least income. But activism changes this: When the poor become politically active in addition to voting, they are represented about the same as the wealthy.
This effect held true only for the ACA, not for the other issues we studied.
We believe that the effectiveness of activism directed toward House members is likely restricted to high-profile issues that are well-covered by the media, where partisan positions are strong and well-established and the issue itself is highly contentious to the public. In these circumstances, activist citizens can potentially have a stronger influence than the wealthy over the policies Congress produces.
Our findings lead us to two more observations.
First, activism may be more effective in competitive congressional districts, where elections are often won by small margins.
Voter turnout in these competitive districts is a common topic of discussion and it is often used as a political strategy to win the election. Political engagement beyond Election Day is less discussed, yet perhaps just as important.
Second, in the House of Representatives, where many claim “all politics is local,” we expected to find that members are more responsive to citizen activism on a wider set of issues than the ACA. Perhaps this is true in state legislatures and city councils, where elected officials have smaller and often more homogeneous districts to represent, and where issues may not be so partisan.
In any case, the founders’ faith in the power of citizen activism has been borne out, at least partially. Elected officials do respond to citizens who do more than vote — and they also respond to those activists in a way that might well counter the advantages of the wealthy in American politics.
This month’s MPSA Twitter Chat featured a conversation with the Consortium of Social Science Association (COSSA)’s Assistant Director for Public Affairs/Government Relations Associate Julia Milton on public engagement and advocacy including prepping for Congressional meetings and best practices for communicating with policymakers.
Many thanks to COSSA for co-hosting this month’s Twitter Chat!
How often do you, outside the requirements of an assignment, ponder things like the workings of a distant star, the innards of your phone camera, or the number and layout of petals on a flower? Maybe a little bit, maybe never. Too often, people regard science as sitting outside the general culture: A specialized, difficult topic carried out by somewhat strange people with arcane talents. It’s somehow not for them.
But really science is part of the wonderful tapestry of human culture, intertwined with things like art, music, theater, film and even religion. These elements of our culture help us understand and celebrate our place in the universe, navigate it and be in dialogue with it and each other. Everyone should be able to engage freely in whichever parts of the general culture they choose, from going to a show or humming a tune to talking about a new movie over dinner.
Science, though, gets portrayed as opposite to art, intuition and mystery, as though knowing in detail how that flower works somehow undermines its beauty. As a practicing physicist, I disagree. Science can enhance our appreciation of the world around us. It should be part of our general culture, accessible to all. Those “special talents” required in order to engage with and even contribute to science are present in all of us.
So how do we bring about a change? I think using the tools of the general culture to integrate science with everything else in our lives can be a big part of the solution.
Science in popular entertainment
For example, in addition to being a professor, I work as a science advisor for various forms of entertainment, from blockbuster movies like the recent “Thor: Ragnarok,” or last spring’s 10-hour TV dramatization of the life and work of Albert Einstein (“Genius,” on National Geographic), to the bestselling novel “Dark Matter,” by Blake Crouch. People spend a lot of time consuming entertainment simply because they love stories like these, so it makes sense to put some science in there.
Science can actually help make storytelling more entertaining, engaging and fun – as I explain to entertainment professionals every chance I get. From their perspective, they get potentially bigger audiences. But good stories, enhanced by science, also spark valuable conversations about the subject that continue beyond the movie theater.
The National Academy of Sciences set up the Science & Entertainment Exchange to help connect people from the entertainment industry to scientists. The idea is that such experts can provide Hollywood with engaging details and help with more accurate portrayals of scientists that can enhance the narratives they tell. Many of the popular Marvel movies – including “Thor” (2011), “Ant-Man” (2015) and the upcoming “Avengers: Infinity War” – have had their content strengthened in this way.
Encouragingly, a recent Pew Research Center survey in the U.S. showed that entertainment with science or related content is watched by people across “all demographic, educational and political groups,” and that overall they report positive impressions of the science ideas and scenarios contained in them.
Science in nonfiction books
This kind of work is not to every scientist’s taste. Some may instead prefer engagement projects that allow them more control of the scientific content than can be had when working on such large projects in the entertainment industry. Often, they instead work on nonfiction science books for the general reader. Here, I think we also need a change.
The typical expert-voiced monologues that scientists write are a wonderful component of the engagement effort, but the form is limited. Such books are largely read by people already predisposed to pick up a science book, or who are open to the authoritative academic’s voice telling them how to think. There are plenty of people who can engage with science but who find those kinds of books a sometimes unwelcome reminder of the classroom.
Following from my belief that science is for everyone, I suggest that publishers need to work with scientists to expand the kinds of books on offer, assured that there is an audience for them. This is currently difficult because publishing companies are risk averse: Something truly original in form likely will have trouble getting past the book proposal stage.
Progress is possible, however. Many years ago I realized it is hard to find books on the nonfiction science shelf that let readers see themselves as part of the conversation about science. So I envisioned an entire book of conversations about science taking place between ordinary people. While “eavesdropping” on those conversations, readers learn some science ideas, and are implicitly invited to have conversations of their own. It’s a resurrection of the dialogue form, known to the ancient Greeks, and to Galileo, as a device for exchanging ideas, but with contemporary settings: cafes, restaurants, trains and so on.
I decided it would be engaging for the reader to actually see who’s having those conversations, and where, instead of describing them in words. This led me to realize that I was contemplating a powerful form of visual storytelling: Graphic novels for adults have matured and exploded in popularity in recent years. Spiegelman’s “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” Satrapi’s “Persepolis” and Bechdel’s “Fun Home” are just three well-known examples.
But the storytelling tools of the graphic book have been little used in the quest to convey nonfiction science ideas to a general adult audience. The vast majority of contemporary graphic books with a science focus are presented instead as “explainer/adventure comics” for younger audiences. This is an important genre, but graphic books about science should not be limited to that.
And while there are several excellent graphic books for adults that include science, they typically focus instead on the lives of famous scientists, with discussion of the science itself as a secondary goal. Some excellent recent examples that balance the two aspects well include Ottaviani and Myrick’s “Feynman,” Padua’s “The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage,” and Doxiadis and Papadimitriou’s “Logicomix.” The scarcity of science-focused non-biographical graphic books for adults is especially true in my field of physics. So I decided that here was an opportunity to broaden the kinds of nonfiction science book available to engage the public.
So over six years I taught myself the requisite artistic and other production techniques, and studied the language and craft of graphic narratives. I wrote and drew “The Dialogues: Conversations About the Nature of the Universe” as proof of concept: A new kind of nonfiction science book that can inspire more people to engage in their own conversations about science, and celebrate a spirit of plurality in everyday science participation.
What’s at stake
Science increasingly pervades many aspects of our lives. If people succumb to the typical view that science is difficult and should be left to experts and nerds, the most important decisions about all of our lives will be made by just a few people: from the quality of the water we drink, our medical treatments, energy sources, through to action on climate change. That is not a democratic situation. Moreover, it makes it easier for a powerful few to sideline or misrepresent important ideas and lessons about our world that come through scientific research.
To push back against that scenario, it’s important for scientists to try to engage the public with science. In a changing world, it’s important to keep looking for new ways to do that.