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Preparing for Public Scholarship: Questions to Consider
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Preparing for Public Scholarship: Questions to Consider

Public scholarship is valuable to the wider community, but only if academics and institutions are serious in their commitment to it.

There are a number of questions higher education leaders need to consider when looking at providing a wide variety of stakeholders with access to university knowledge and resources.

Whose lives could be made better by access to your expertise? How might your research inform public policy or enhance community development? How can you create direct connections to individuals and groups who would benefit most from your work?

Social media tools have transformed the way the world receives, talks about and creates information.  With them come new opportunities to connect to audiences that were previously inaccessible to academic thinkers and writers. Blogs, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Facebook and other social outlets put researchers, scholars and even students into direct contact with a broader range of audiences. Among them are:

  • Interdisciplinary scholarly communities built around common interests and goals
  • Practitioner and industry audiences
  • International organizations
  • Journals, publications and mass media outlets
  • Public policymakers and advocacy organizations
  • Authors and newsmakers

Engaging new audiences also introduces new questions about the nature, potential and challenges of public scholarship. For individual researchers come questions about the capacity to translate, share and interact in new environments. For the institution comes questions about freedom — academic and otherwise — and the capacity needed to support faculty who choose to expand their reach.

As numerous institutional stakeholders delve into this conversation, there are a number of perspectives and questions they must reflect on.

Academics: Why Commit to Public Scholarship?

The first step is to determine whether committing to a more public form of scholarship is worthwhile. Here are a few questions to help the individual faculty member make an informed decision:

  • With whom do I really want to engage, and for what purpose?
  • What do I have to share with those audiences? How might that enhance or change their lives, their work or their communities? What could they do differently with the knowledge I am able to share?
  • Where do those target audiences interact? What are their routine sources of information?
  • Does my work appeal to mass media and their wider audiences? Does my research address real-world problems, questions and issues? What can I contribute to the conversation and the knowledge base?
  • Am I prepared to engage in authentic ways with these new audiences?
  • Am I prepared to not only learn how to use new tools for sharing information but invest the necessary time to interact with readers/listeners/viewers once I’m there?
  • Am I prepared to create new content, based on my research, to meet the learning and information needs of these new audiences? Am I willing to make what I have to share accessible and useful?

Institutions: Is Public Scholarship Worthwhile?

Academic institutions also have questions to consider as researchers and units commit to public scholarship. Among them:

  • Are there boundaries to what is acceptable — and non-acceptable — faculty engagement? Do those boundaries balance institutional needs with individual academic freedom? How do we involve the campus community in defining those boundaries, and can we communicate those parameters clearly once they are defined?
  • As an institution, are we active in new media environments? Do we do more than issue our standard news releases on those platforms?
  • Can we amplify the process for faculty scholars and even create opportunities to share their work with new audiences?
  • Do we have the internal expertise to support faculty and staff who want to leverage new tools to expand their reach? Does that support include not only the technology training, but strategic thinking and planning for greatest impact?

Conclusion

Individual scholars need clarity about what they have to share with wider public audiences, and honesty about whether they have the interest and the commitment to create versions of their work that are useful to lay audiences — and to engage with those audiences in new settings.

Institutions must recognize that how adults access information and interact has been forever changed and that they must adapt to remain relevant. They also must understand that faculty need more than their blessing; they need access to support and other resources to be effective researchers.

For a quick-start overview of the issues and opportunities, please visit my Pinterest board.

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3 Responses to Preparing for Public Scholarship: Questions to Consider

  1. alicia f Reply

    2014/02/06 at 11:36 am

    Administrators and researchers have to be committed to the same goal in order for public scholarship to work. What I mean is, administrators have to make protection of academic freedom paramount. Public scholarship has the potential to touch on ideas that are controversial, and administrators have to be comfortable with the idea that institutions might be linked to research that is ‘out there’ (albeit research that is conducted in a thoughtful, peer-reviewed way).

  2. Mary Reply

    2014/02/06 at 4:02 pm

    Many institutions rely mainly on public funds and, increasingly, corporate donations. That puts them in a difficult position in terms of supporting public scholarship that may not necessarily align with the interests of a corporate, or even government, “sponsor.” Now, as researchers, we understand that receiving resources from the institution doesn’t necessarily mean it supports our ideas. But it’s difficult for some “sponsors” to see the “arms length” way that researchers operate, or understand what academic freedom means.

  3. Debra Beck, EdD Reply

    2014/02/07 at 10:15 am

    It’s a tricky topic that most institutions are, at best, just now grasping. The challenges that Alicia and Mary raise are perfect examples of the multi-layered nature of what we’re discussing here.

    One of the reasons I chose to write this as a series of questions is that I believe that’s what is needed now. Specific questions guiding that conversation may vary from what I’m offering here, but the point would be that institutions and scholars need to engage in discussion about what is possible, where the conflicts might lie, where the biggest impact can be made, etc. It’s wide-open territory right now.

    My own research on public scholarship is evolving. I’m capturing some of the more intriguing articles and resources that I find on a Pinterest board devoted to the topic:

    http://www.pinterest.com/npmaven/the-public-scholar/

    The resources posted there offer a great starting point for anyone interested in getting their feet wet on the topic.

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