Academic Exchange: Talk about your research focus and how it led you into public scholarship.
Andra Gillespie: I was hired at Emory with the expectation that I was going to publish a book on black voter turnout. It turns out that the research site where I worked, Newark, New Jersey, raised more interesting questions about generational succession in African-American leadership. So I ended up shifting my research agenda entirely in my second year here. That’s a really risky proposition, and my department very realistically and wisely had concerns about my decision.
My transition from studying black voter mobilization to black leadership has everything to do with the fact that I did my first voter mobilization experiment in Newark in 2002 when Cory Booker challenged Sharpe James for mayor. Had I not been in Newark in 2002, I wouldn’t be doing this work today. And had I not started doing work on Cory Booker in Newark I wouldn’t have branched out to look at other young black politicians. And had I not started working in those areas I seriously doubt journalists would have been interested in the work that I do. Everything came together at the right time, and I’m pretty thankful for it.
AE: In your view, why should the university engage in the public realm?
AG: There are two components. The first is that a university needs to be a good neighbor. It shouldn’t just be . . . separated from the community of which it is a part. Universities should engage the community and offer their resources to help. If there are problems, they should contribute to the solutions, not ignore them or contribute to the problem.
The second part is that our research should be relevant and applicable to people in the outside world. Oftentimes, our work as scholars is geared toward a very narrow audience that is highly specialized and has a deep understanding and knowledge of the things we’re studying. But we lose a lot of credibility in the outside world when people don’t see the practical applications of what we do. My role is not just to teach my students and not just to exhort some type of scholarly discussion; it’s also to get non-academics to read my work, gain some insight from it, and be able to apply it in their own lives.
AE: How can academics responsibly contribute to public scholarship?
AG: The first thing is educating journalists and therefore educating readers, viewers, or listeners about the salient issues of the day. We look around and see media personalities, not journalists, who know just enough to be dangerous, and they’re teaching others. Often, when academics are not involved in those conversations, people rely on short-term generalizations to explain the world. The media usually doesn’t provide enough context and generally relies on anecdotes, not empiricism, to make claims. The job of the scholar is to provide balance and context, because journalists don’t have time to do that type of meaty, weighty, in-depth research. We can provide the public with explanations that heighten the discourse.
AE: What are the risks to junior scholars who put themselves in the public eye?
AG: There is an example of somebody at another school who’s done this incorrectly. The person, who happens to be black, ingratiated himself with television and radio producers and found a platform from which to talk about things related to race that are not related to his training. He was on television all the time talking about things that were outside his area of expertise. He had a verbal altercation on air with a prominent newscaster, and when he didn’t get tenure he blamed the newscaster. The reality was he may not have had enough journal articles. He had written four or five books, but they were tangential to his research expertise and were self-published. He seemed more interested in being a television personality than in being a scholar, and I think that’s what his department saw.
AE: How do you approach media literacy in your classes?
AG: I taught a class in Fall 2008 called Race in the 2008 Election, for example. The whole purpose of the class was to make sure that my freshmen were literate consumers of what was going on, so that they weren’t so enamored with Obama and therefore would support him no matter what. I wanted them to think critically about race. I wanted them to understand what deracialization was and how that’s a much more useful theoretical construct than postracialism, so they could understand why Obama was the one who ended up being nominated for president and not somebody like, say, Jesse Jackson. Often, the reason why we like the Barack Obamas or Harold Fords of the world has nothing to do with anything they say, it’s because they make us feel good and project a certain image.