The university and the public sphere

The Public Scholars of the Future

Preparing undergraduates with skills and experiences for public service

The Academic Exchange
Vol. 13 No. 2
Spring 2011

Return to Contents

The University and the Public Sphere
What is public scholarship?

The Legacy of the Center for the Study of Public Scholarship at Emory

Further Resources

Scholar, Teacher, Public Policy Player
The balancing act of the modern legal scholar

Turning to Public Scholarship
Race and music

Teaching and Learning in the Public Realm
Lessons on effectiveness

Further Resources

Shared Knowledge
Developing a public voice through the media

Media Strategies for Faculty

"Often, when academics are not involved in [media] conversations, people rely on short-term generalizations to explain the world."

"I have my effectiveness in speaking to diverse audiences, whether it’s to three hundred executives or two thousand teachers, going out and telling them something about the global economy and its implications."

Reflections on a Tragedy
The media and the public stigma around mental illness

Trusted But Not Respected
Nurses in contemporary media

Further Reading

The Public Scholars of the Future
Preparing undergraduates with skills and experiences for public service

Lives Steeped in Stories
Teaching students to become critical consumers of media

More Resources on Critical Media Literacy

"The Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other"
Cultivating public theologians in the Youth Theological Initiative


I am a public scholar. My work focuses on commercial fishermen’s decisions about participating in fishery management efforts. If I want fisheries policy makers to pay attention to my findings, I must be very thoughtful about both my analysis and how I communicate. They are busy and distracted people, so concise and compelling works best for them. And these analyses must be accessible to them in sources they read. So while the publication in top journals earned me tenure, it was lesser known journals and hard-fought discussions that earned me credibility
as a public scholar.

I grasped those lessons in a painful learning curve. My education did not prepare me for this kind of public work. Similarly, my friends now working in government, non-profits, and business had difficult transitions from their training in research and writing to the methods they now must use to investigate, analyze, and communicate information.

Now as a teacher, I craft my curriculum to pass on these lessons to my undergraduate students. They are the next generation of public scholars. Inside or outside of academia, they will be professionals who touch public service in some aspect of their lives. How then do we train undergraduates to be effective in their life’s work? Our students already have the fundaments: sharp minds and academic discipline. What they need are skills and experiences immediately transferable to their lives. These include

  • Exposure to practical issues: Our students crave knowledge about the challenges they will face when they enter the workforce. In every field, understanding key problems and potential solutions empowers students by helping them figure out how to take action. This exposure also can help them identify their vocations.
  • Opportunities to analyze issues: Our students are well trained in analyzing theory. But the challenging leap from theory to practice requires opportunities to examine problems and offer potential solutions. By guiding students through this process we provide a chance for them to gain experience and confidence before they face these tasks in their first job or as citizens engaged in civic discourse.
  • Practice in applied research: Our students are extraordinarily well-equipped researchers. But usually they are trained in classical scholarly research. Once they leave school, few will need to refer to the key academic journals or latest monographs relevant to their major. Instead, they need to know how to find and critically assess recent analyses and data about the issues they will work on.
  • Synthesizing diverse information and opinions: This is this skill of sorting through competing claims of knowledge and authority. We already teach this skill as it applies to theory, but many recent graduates find it difficult to apply it to specific issues. Guided opportunities to practice this skill are invaluable.
  • Professional writing: There are important differences between traditional academic and professional writing. The manager who will wade through a classic ten- to twenty-page research paper is as rare as a wizard outside of a Harry Potter movie. We keep this assignment as a mainstay of how we teach writing, even though it handicaps our students as they enter the workforce only to find that the writing style they spent years perfecting is obsolete.
  • Oral communication: As they become professionals, our students must communicate authoritatively in a variety of settings. Whether speaking with peers or supervisors, making presentations, or using video, persuasive oral communication is a vital tool that requires practice.

Some but not all of these skills are addressed in a traditional academic curriculum. Below are some tools for teaching these skills. These tools offer experiences, or approximations of experiences, students may face in the future. They thus offer guided opportunities for students to build their problem-solving skills. These teaching tools are not new, but when we apply them with an eye toward training the future public scholar, they can be very powerful. The table summarizes which skills each teaching tool addresses.

Case Studies: A mainstay of graduate professional education. They present a dilemma then stop at a key decision point, leaving the students to analyze the problem and figure out a solution. A reading is assigned before class, and then in-class discussion focuses not only on the case and potential solutions but also theory and analysis. Brief writing assignments add to the value of this tool. I use case studies as varied as South Carolina “shrimp baiting” and breakdowns in negotiations over management of the Zambezi River.

Simulations: Give students roles in the middle of a problem and expect them to apply their “book knowledge” as they act their roles. These exercises can last one class or serve as longer capstones. One of my courses finishes with a two-week simulation in which students are ministers in developing nations. They “bring to life” challenges in a way a simple reading cannot.

In-Class Discussion: A frequently used tool. Using it for public scholarship involves focusing the discourse on specific issues (rather than feelings or points of view). Both professor and students must also avoid pontificating, and instead make focused arguments.

Videos: Often seen as a lazy substitute for class prep. But if properly used, they are valuable. Producers spend months packing as much information as possible into a brief experience. Videos also offer visceral insights. For example, an episode of Deadliest Catch helps the students “get” Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” in a way that reading and discussing cannot. When coupled with discussion and integrative test questions, videos are a powerful tool.

Memos and Applied Research Assignments: Alternatives to the classic undergraduate writing assignment. The key is concise, professional writing. Students receive challenging assignments with tight page limits. For my memo assignments, students have three pages to analyze a problem and argue for a solution. Writing these memos is more difficult than a ten-pager because they have to fit in as much information and analysis as possible while maintaining a direct, clear writing style. For longer assignments, I use briefings and backgrounders. For example, students write a “briefing book” for a newly appointed diplomat on a nation’s environment. This assignment engages them in intensive, applied research and information synthesis, and it hones professional writing.

Internships: Ideally a “job with training wheels.” Students get short-term work experience with a supportive employer and a university instructor helping the student learn from the experience. This experience helps students bridge their academic and working lives and focuses them on professional goals. These experiences also offer opportunities for building the entire spectrum of public scholarship skills.

Most of our students are not destined for the stereotypical “life of the mind,” cloistered within the ivy covered (or in our case red-roofed) ivory tower. Indeed, fewer of us working within universities follow this model. Instead, we and our students live lives personally and professionally engaged in public scholarship. Teaching students how to engage in this work is invaluable to them, and it leads to an exciting and stimulating teaching experience for us as well. By using a variety of tools, we can maintain our disciplinary goals and simultaneously prepare our students to be the next generation of public scholars.