For a decade, I’ve annually ranked the nation’s most influential education scholars in the RHSU Edu-Scholar Rankings. After the selection committee determines the 200 university-based researchers to include, scholarly influence on education policy and practice is gauged using readily accessible measures. The metrics account for scholarly accomplishment, book sales, visibility in the mainstream media, education-press presence, social-media presence, and more. By design, the rankings track activity often far removed from scholarly journals, academic conferences, and campus.
But one thing the rankings can’t measure is how these researchers equip themselves to operate in environs outside the academy, when they seek to play a more public role. Now, the RHSU rankings may show the results of a scholar’s influence, but they don’t tell us how scholars prepare themselves for the public square. It’s an intriguing question, and one that this package of essays is intended to help illuminate.
While accomplished scholars have spent many years acquiring the specialized knowledge they rely upon in academic contexts, less clear is how they acquaint themselves with the broader questions posed by efforts to exert public influence.
This matters, a lot. After all, the annals of education are rife with promising pilot studies and nifty academic theories that go south when they encounter the big, mean world. Turns out that there’s a vast distance between having good ideas or promising outcomes and translating those into successful practices or policies. So, how do publicly minded scholars seek to make sense of the political and practical landscape?
In the accompanying essays, three of this year’s RHSU 200 offer some insights into how they go about doing just that. Here, I’ll provide a few thoughts of my own.
As part of the annual release of the 2020 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings, Education Week reached out to a handful of influential scholars from this year’s rankings to find out how they stay informed.
Read the full package, along with original analysis of this year’s new Edu-Scholar data by the EdWeek Research Center.
For me, the big story is how much connectivity and ubiquity have changed the scholar’s world. Two decades ago, as a junior professor, I’d scrupulously read the print edition of The Washington Post. I’d regularly read a double handful of national and education magazines. There were no online newsletters. If I wanted to read an academic paper or an analysis, I usually had to get my hands on a hard copy. Aside from books and academic journals, that was my information intake. In those days, a lot of time got spent tracking down this article or finding out what that person had to say.
It can be hard to appreciate just how different things are at the dawn of the 2020s. Today, I peruse The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal online. I still read the print edition of National Review and a few familiar education publications (like Education Week and The Chronicle of Higher Education), but mostly I’m navigating a surging river of online content popped up by daily aggregators riding the torrent, or digital information that has otherwise found its way to me.
The sheer volume makes it hard to be as discriminating as I’d like. There are only so many analyses or commentaries I’m going to read, and distinguishing which ones are worthwhile can be tough. As a result, I frequently default to the authors or scholars, pundits, and outlets I trust. Of course, while this helps to cull out the flotsam, it also skims off interesting or offbeat takes—or ones from less congenial viewpoints.
Traversing that online river means that I spend a lot of time reading on my laptop or my phone. That’s an issue, because I’m a lousy, lazy reader when I read that way. I’m vastly more careful, critical, and engaged when leaning back in a chair and absorbed in a page than when I’m hunched and scrolling. Plus, I’m racing through one piece to get to the next—leaving little time to mull an argument or simply sit with an idea.
I cope by striving to carve out large chunks of time to sit with extended, absorbing hard copy. I want something that allows me to learn, think, and reflect—and that gets me out of rapid processing mode. I try to set aside a few hours every day for this kind of reading, and I can be pretty ecumenical about what I pick up: Education, sure, but also history, business management, biography, sports, pop culture. You get the idea. My intent is to resist the mind-numbing and predictable back-and-forth in hopes of cultivating the ability to occasionally write something interesting or independent.
Now, I admit that I’m hopelessly out of date. I mean, I am on Twitter (which feels mostly like a one-stop shop for nastiness and press releases—but also occasionally surfaces interesting material). Other than that, I’m pretty much a walking, talking anachronism. I don’t listen to podcasts or watch TED talks. I’m not on Facebook or Instagram. I don’t watch FOX News, CNN, or MSNBC. So, in that sense, I’m pretty much on a 20th-century information diet of written news, analysis, and commentary.
Like many on the right, I get frustrated by what is (and isn’t) covered by the education press and the mainstream media, and that so much reporting and analysis can feel almost laughably one-sided. And that goes double for the academy and the academic education journals. As a result, I devote a substantial chunk of attention to serious conservative outlets like National Review, National Affairs, The Dispatch, and The Bulwark, and to the work produced by scholars at places like the Manhattan Institute and AEI.
What’s this all sum up to? I guess I’d say that, at least for me, ubiquity has inverted the information challenge.
The challenge used to be: How do I find things out? Now, it’s how to avoid getting overwhelmed; ensure I’m reflecting and not simply processing; steer clear of the sludge without missing the hidden pearls; and make the effort to seek out and wrestle with competing views. This is a tall order and one that I, at least, am still a long way from figuring out, even two decades on.
A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2020 edition of Education Week as Navigating a Surging Information River