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To Become a Public Scholar, I Had to Face a Reality

Finding my voice as a public scholar didn’t happen overnight
By Nora Gordon — January 15, 2019 3 min read
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Like many of my professional peers, my primary motivation in becoming an economist was to work for the social good. But for many years as an academic, I felt my work was totally disconnected from that goal.

Several things changed at once for me in 2010. I moved from an assistant professor position in an economics department to a tenured associate professor position in Georgetown University’s school of public policy. I was sure that with job security, an academic home that values policy work, and my newfound geographic proximity to federal policymaking, things would change. These factors were indeed instrumental in helping me along the path to becoming a public scholar, but they didn’t flip any magic switch.

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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?

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Just as important was a piece of advice I got that year from Richard Murnane, an invaluable mentor and a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education: Work on questions that leaders care about and that could plausibly help students. It seems obvious for aspiring public scholars in education, but this counsel changed my perspective on what being a public scholar really meant.

I’ve worked hard to follow this guidance, writing, tweeting, and speaking to broader audiences, engaging informally with policymakers and journalists, and taking on formal expert roles. But as I worked to switch gears from a totally academic existence, I realized that the biggest obstacles I faced were internal.

For one, I had to reconsider my research agenda. Despite my desire to inform relevant topics like redistribution and equity, much of my research answered narrow questions that didn’t speak directly to leaders’ concerns. This mismatch was unsurprising: I only had a vague sense of what issues were on leaders’ minds, and I had limited myself to research questions where I could apply the causal research methods demanded by academic economics publishing—and my own then-narrow view of what counted as “legitimate” methods.

I had to make a conscious decision that being policy relevant was part of my job as an academic in a policy school."

I decided that I can weigh in even when I have not published on the particular topic under discussion, even if no one has answered exactly the question posed with a well-designed study. I used to think what I had to say wasn’t worth saying or that everyone was already thinking it. It turned out, however, that when I wasn’t willing to hazard what would actually be a highly informed and reasoned guess, someone else always was. Seeing those other people’s guesses made me appreciate just how educated my own were. After being trained to be so precise in my language and claims, this was a slow and challenging change to make.

I’m still far from the mythical one-handed economist that President Harry S. Truman called for when he purportedly quipped, “All my economists say, ‘On the one hand, on the other hand.’” I continue to choose my words carefully and use what is likely a distracting amount of qualifiers. However, I now go into discussions with one key point that I think could help inform the actual decision at hand—and that point is not just “research is inconclusive.”

I also had to rethink my definition of work and professional success. Getting to know what leaders care about means getting to know people, which requires a lot of showing up in person. Under my old definition of “research"—work that directly led to academic publications—I thought taking advantage of networking opportunities or writing a blog post during work hours was as indulgent as a midday yoga class. I had to make a conscious decision that being policy relevant was part of my job as an academic in a policy school.

Of course, not everyone in the profession feels the same about what constitutes doing your job, and many institutions still value academic research above all. This is why people often recommend waiting for tenure to invest significantly in public engagement. Even when you are freer to do so, it is hard to let go of the incentives and values of the academy. Putting public scholarship into the mental bucket of “service” is one way to start giving yourself permission to invest the substantial time public engagement requires.

I endorse Richard Murnane’s advice: Work on issues that matter. And I offer a corollary: Think hard about your own values and define “work” accordingly.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2019 edition of Education Week as How to Become A Public Scholar

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