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Junior Scholars Have Much to Lose—and Gain—From Public Engagement

By Robert Kelchen — January 16, 2018 3 min read
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The new generation of academics is coming of age in a more exciting—and more challenging—time than ever before. The importance of social media in education policy discussions has given junior faculty members (such as myself) the opportunity to become nationally known in a way that would have been nearly impossible even a decade ago. But in an era when facts that don’t fit one’s preferred political narrative are dismissed as “fake news” and when some colleges claim to value public engagement while not rewarding it in tenure decisions, young academics interested in becoming public scholars should proceed with caution. Here are my four cautions, three aimed at scholars and one aimed at their colleges:

1) Academics should be aware that everything they say online or in an interview (unless it is explicitly stated as being off-the-record) could end up reaching a broader audience than initially expected. It can be tempting to use social media to vent about the current political environment or use humor to opine about topics unrelated to education, but this carries two risks. The first is about the ability to engage policymakers on both sides of the aisle—if legislative staffers check out an academic’s Twitter account and see a number of posts opposing their party, they may not listen to his or her research. The second is gaining the attention of internet trolls who try to make people’s lives miserable for sharing their political opinions; this is a particular concern for female and minority scholars, who are disproportionately subjected to online vitriol. I won’t say to avoid getting into politically charged debates, but scholars should be aware of potential concerns.

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2) Academics must keep the importance of high-quality research front and center. The importance of rigorous research designs (both quantitative and qualitative) is a hallmark of our doctoral training. It is essential to emphasize the nature of this rigor on social media and when speaking with journalists or policymakers. There are plenty of partisans out there promoting so-called “research” that would not get a passing grade in a research methods course. Driving home the importance of high-quality research (and explaining to the public why certain studies cannot be relied upon for making policies) is crucial, even if the findings of these studies do not match one’s prior beliefs.

3) Junior academics should be mindful of the ticking tenure clock. Assistant professors have a limited amount of time to produce the research necessary for tenure, so public engagement must be viewed as a trade-off. Is spending half an hour a day on Twitter likely to pay off by producing potential research collaborations or opportunities to influence policy? I happen to think so, but spending time on social media needs to be a part of an overall strategy to earn tenure. It is worth spending time being strategic about social-media engagement in order to get the best return on one’s investment of time.

4) Colleges that support public engagement must step up and actually provide the necessary support to their faculty. Universities that expect their scholars to be engaged in the public sphere should provide written guidance about how this engagement factors into the tenure and promotion processes; otherwise, senior faculty on tenure committees may be less likely to give academics credit for their work. Universities must also be willing to stand behind faculty members with actual statements of support (not just a notice that scholars’ social-media activity is their own) when the internet trolls come out of hiding. If they fail to do so, then a generation of young academics may be cowered into silence.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2018 edition of Education Week as Some Cautions for Junior Scholars (and Their Institutions)


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