By Alex Ellison
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.