Death threats and a blog post proclaiming, “F__ you Tom Russell” were definitely not the public response to his academic work that University of Denver law professor Tom Russell had anticipated back in graduate school at Stanford.
But perhaps the response was not so surprising given that his online published paper addressed segregation and a dormitory at the University of Texas that was named for a professor who had been an active member of the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1800s. A subsequent controversy over renaming the dormitory was covered in more than five hundred local, national, and international media outlets.
Speaking of his experience at the recent Slavery and the University conference at Emory, Russell offered sage advice: “Be ready for it—if you are doing public scholarship, this is what to expect.”
Although Russell’s situation is an extreme and hits multiple hot-button social issues, he is absolutely right. But I would argue that in this media age, all scholarship is public. That is, it is readily accessible, all too easily parsed and parceled for general consumption—and for the laser focus of special interest groups—in ways that scholars never imagined when they turned in their manuscripts for publication as little as five years ago.
The decision to enter the public sphere used to be deliberate. In my work with Emory faculty and graduate students across all disciplines over the past twenty years, we would discuss whether she or he wanted to reach the public through the media, and if the topic of research would be “of media interest.” If so, we would prepare a news release, promote the story to selected media representatives, and collect the resulting clips.
Today there is no choice to make. Boundaries between academia and broader society have blurred considerably. Within academia, the pace of dissemination of scholarly work has quickened with the proliferation of electronic and open-access publication, coupled with the tremendous growth of social media and Internet channels of dissemination and the transformation of the still influential and far-reaching mainstream media. Although issues of race, sex, and religion always will be flashpoints within the public realm, in today’s media world, any topic, any piece of scholarly work, can become a focal point for intense scrutiny and possible misinterpretation. Too often we are put in a defensive position, called upon to respond to challenges about the validity of scholarship rather than frame the public discussion.
It’s the job of today’s scholars to take the time to master communications skills and media tools in order to fulfill their civic responsibility to help translate and make accessible research that means something to people. In doing so, we need to resist the frequent pressure from the media and the general public to make a leap from fundamental research to application or revelation.
"Meaning something,” after all, can take many forms: inviting people to share in the thrill of discovery, unearthing the brittle piece of paper in an archive that provides a clue in an historical mystery, uncovering a family ledger that reveals how a famous author developed his characters, identifying a molecule that just might have help in treatment of an intractable disease. People hunger for knowledge, for experiencing that sense of wonder and excitement of exploration that only the academic world can provide.
Sitting in the audience at The Carter Center watching a demonstration of the Voyages: Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, I was reminded of the blurring of the once sharp division between the academy and larger society. The room was packed with a diverse crowd in every sense of the word, students and professors, but also members of the general public, young and old, multiple ethnicities. When Emory historian David Eltis said that the next phase of the Voyages project would enable visitors to the website to click on original documents in digital form, a murmur actually rippled through the room.
Heads nodded as he talked about the new world of digital scholarship—people would be invited to add corrections and information to the organic database and to help determine the origins of African slave names. Eltis pointed out that Nigeria alone has 320 languages—there is no way that one scholar would know all. This digital scholarship represents a new way to harvest and share knowledge. Beyond imparting knowledge, we were being invited to share in the creation of knowledge—by a university professor nonetheless.
The transformation of the media world has the potential to transform the academic world as well. There is a tremendous opportunity and need for scholars and researchers to communicate their work clearly and compellingly to the public, not only for reasons related to academic responsibility, but as a matter of survival in a political and business environment that presents increasing accountability and funding challenges (the fact that the slave trade database was funded by the budget-threatened National Endowment for the Humanities was not lost on The Carter Center audience).
It’s not just the job of scholars to master communications skills; universities must provide the resources and expertise in helping to make this happen. More than support, faculty must receive tangible recognition for their contributions to public scholarship within the realm of promotion and tenure. In my two decades of working with faculty to help them communicate their teaching and research, I have been asked only once to provide a letter to a tenure committee stating a professor’s contribution to community service by communicating to the public through the media.
Speaking and writing about scholarship for diverse audiences is a skill that takes time and commitment to develop. Understanding how to work with mainstream, social, and digital media takes research, time, and practice. These activities must be part of a graduate curriculum and considered a continuing education necessity for scholars already established in the academic world.
In turn, the academic world must recognize and reward scholars who have developed and established public voices that are essential in fulfilling academe’s commitment to civic engagement, discourse, and responsibility.