Whether they study rocket science, brain surgery or the meaning of life, scholars traditionally have spoken more to each other than to the general public. But in recent years, many academics have come to appreciate the value of communicating their work more widely – to policymakers, taxpayers, funders and others – especially how their research benefits our interconnected global society.
Toward that end, the Institute for Research on Women at Rutgers University-New Brunswick will host a new series of workshops for faculty and graduate students to help them use mass media to communicate their scholarship to the public. The series, which began last year, has included workshops on writing op-eds, using social media and protecting academic freedom in a digital age. Two additional sessions will be held this semester and are open to Rutgers faculty and graduate students.
Why is it important for academics to talk about their research with the public? There’s a big world out there that needs to hear from us. Regardless of our field, we study things that are important to everyone – the great philosophical questions, questions about how the physical universe works and the pressing social issues of the day. Many people have an interest in understanding climate change, or what is driving the growing visibility of sexual harassment, for example. It is important for us to be able to talk about our research with non-academics, particularly in the current climate of political polarization. But we’ve ceded much of this work to journalists. And even journalists have trouble penetrating our research, and I can understand why. It’s often impenetrable.
Why are some academics resistant to talking about their work to non-academics? Some of us are mainly interested in communicating with other experts. But I really think many scholars want to talk about our work to broader audiences. It is just that we don’t know how to do it.
What are some of the challenges in discussing research? When we’re in graduate school, we communicate with other specialists. When we’re writing our qualifying papers and dissertations, we’re writing for our Ph.D. advisers and, later, for our promotion committees. hat’s the audience we often have in our head. In my department, sociology, we have a required course, a writing seminar in which graduate students learn to produce articles for scholarly journals, for example. That’s because sociologists are rewarded for publishing in journals and for communicating with other specialists. In most disciplines there is little professional incentive for communicating with non-specialists. Some of us wish to change that.
What will your public engagement initiative consist of? Workshops train scholars to communicate with general audiences. We offer nuts-and-bolts skills building for producing op-eds, writing for general-interest magazines and books, as well as blogs and social media. We’ll examine how to share our work on television, on radio and how to communicate directly with policymakers.