Public Scholarship Is About More Than Edu-Celebrity

Public engagement comes with risks. Here's what you need to know

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Critics complain that education research is jargon-heavy and inaccessible, slow to produce, and inconclusive. To be clear, education researchers do not produce research expecting that it will be ignored or languish behind journal pay walls. They want their scholarship to matter for policy and practice. And for it to matter, the research must reach the public.

The best advice I have received on public scholarship was from Vivian Tseng, a senior vice president at the William T. Grant Foundation. And it was this: There are multiple publics. These include other researchers, students, parents, community members, teachers, principals, district leaders, policymakers, foundations, think tanks, journalists, bloggers, social-media influencers, and advocacy groups.

About This Section

Education Week Commentary teamed up with Frederick M. Hess to ask four accomplished scholars a simple question: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten on how to be a public scholar?

Read the full package, along with original analysis of this year’s new Edu-Scholar data by the Education Week Research Center.

Experienced researchers understand the importance of power, relationship building, and the desire from policymakers and advocates for multiple forms of reliable evidence. Many researchers are adept at translating nuanced theory and empirical study in ways that speak to the interests of a variety of audiences. We write books and journal articles, use social media, appear on podcasts and videos, and publish in open-access journals. Those of us who work this way do so to communicate our findings and debate their relevance, significance, and applicability. But this path is not for all scholars.

Others are reticent about expanding the outlets in which they share their scholarship, or they have limited capacity to do so. Female professors and professors of color—and female faculty of color, in particular—are unfairly expected to provide heavy service to their departments, universities, and professional associations even as they teach, conduct research, and mentor students. It can be challenging to add "publicly engaged scholarship" to this work. While norms are shifting to be more inclusive of public scholarship, tenure and promotion systems still consider academic publishing to be the gold standard. In addition, universities have been inconsistent in upholding academic freedom when scholarship is controversial and raises public ire.

"Public engagement can also place researchers at a profound risk."

Public engagement can also place researchers at a profound risk. Researchers interested in redressing education inequality necessarily do work that is provocative, that challenges systems of power or long-held theories or beliefs, or contradicts existing empirical scholarship. Such work can make scholars targets for abuse. Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian-American, LGBTQ, and female scholars have been targeted with racist and sexist harassment, and/or threats to their jobs as a result of their public engagement.

Researchers also worry that their findings will be distorted or misused and often need time to develop a public voice and to establish credibility in their fields. Scholars not yet ready for the visibility need not shy away from engaging locally or informally.

Outward, public-facing engagement is important, and researchers should take the time and avail themselves of resources to develop their public voices. Yet if researchers primarily look in formal public policy spaces or on social media platforms for ways to engage, they miss important local and informal possibilities for publicly engaged scholarship that matters just as much.

If one is not careful and deliberate, the pursuit of edu-celebrity status can lead some researchers to neglect the time and care it takes for critical relationship building, the production of rigorous and relevant scholarship, and the development of multiple ways of communicating findings that are essential for informing policy, research, and practice.

Vol. 38, Issue 18, Page 33

Published in Print: January 16, 2019, as Public Scholarship Is About More Than Edu-Celebrity
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