Advice

Should Academics Talk to Katie Couric?

Stony Brook debuts a program to train faculty members and graduate students to become public intellectuals

Elvert Barnes / Creative Commons

February 17, 2016

The question of whether academics should try to reach a popular audience has been, for decades, a nonquestion: Scholars typically assumed there was no way to popularize their work for the general public without abandoning their mission as intellectuals. But that set of assumptions is breaking rapidly apart.

The Chronicle waded into a newly live debate about this issue in October, by publishing Jeff Camhi’s essay "Professor, Your Writing Could Use Some Help." He bemoaned the fact that academics are not taught to write in such a way that their research can inform a broad audience. Camhi made a persuasive argument that academe is impoverished by the absence of that kind of training.

But if he had visited Stony Brook University, a State University of New York campus, he would have found just such an experiment underway. In our College of Arts and Sciences, we have developed a program that we see as part of a growing movement to train academics of all stripes to speak to a broad public constituency without in any way "dumbing down" their arguments.

Both of us have bridged the popular and academic worlds in different ways. One of us (Wolf) spent a quarter-century-long career in journalism and popular nonfiction before earning a doctorate at the University of Oxford and becoming a visiting lecturer at Stony Brook. The other (Kopp) is a longtime science researcher and academic administrator who has interacted with public schools, policy makers, and legislators.

In our experience, both the mainstream and the academic realms have distortions when not in communication with each other.

The language of popular debate can move a conversation forward, generate support for a new idea, or frame a discussion, but it can also be impaired by poor documentation, lack of rigorous research, and failures of logic. Those problems are made more acute by the voracious appetite of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. Nowadays, many op-eds in mainstream news outlets are submitted via think tanks that train curated pundits to write for a general audience in order to advance their own political or commercial purposes. In contrast to those less-than-independent views, academics represent a rich, thoughtful, and untapped trove of still relatively independent voices.

Academic writing has the benefit of scholarly rigor, full documentation, and original thinking. But the transmission of our ideas is routinely hampered — understandably, given academe’s publication, evaluation, and tenure conditions — by a great deal of peer-oriented jargon. As a result, the most exciting ideas, hard-won insights, and relevant hypotheses end up clothed in language that only specialists can understand. Academe’s publication structure then exacerbates the segregation by corralling this rich, important set of ideas within a tiny niche readership — in costly book-distribution contexts or expensive academic journals behind digital paywalls.

The result of these dual language barriers is everywhere around us. Witness the misinformation and fear surrounding issues such as climate change, vaccines and autism, the commercialization of health care, and immigration. General readers become less and less habituated to the critical thinking that comes naturally to academics. Likewise, academics struggle to explain the beauty and excitement of their work to taxpayers who then end up questioning the point of funding the humanities.

It wasn’t always thus. In fact, there have been more historical periods in which intellectuals spoke to both broad nonacademic audiences and their peers than there have been periods in which they spoke only to fellow academics. Socrates spoke in the marketplace; Shakespeare played to groundlings; 18th-century scientific experiments involving gases or electricity were showcased to curious civilians in private homes. The 19th century was the great period of the public intellectual: Literacy, universal schooling, and incomes expanded with the middle classes in Britain and America; ordinary people were reading all of the names that we think of now as canonical; Oscar Wilde edited The Woman’s World, a popular women’s magazine, and wrote journalism himself; Christina Rossetti’s poetry was sold in cheap editions available in train stations, the equivalent of our airport magazine stalls; and Charles Darwin wrote his bestseller On the Origin of Species for a general public. Writers such as Thoreau, Ruskin, Pater, and Whitman wrote for anyone who was reading. Victorian intellectuals were expected to be able to explain their ideas to a broad general audience.

As higher education faces ever more complex economic realities, it's vitally important for people to see higher education as a public good worthy of investment.
 Today we find ourselves in a long period in which academics have struggled to communicate effectively with the public. Research budgets are vulnerable when professors are unable to defend the value of their work in the face of popular misunderstanding or political pressure — and we’re seeing the fallout from that in many fields. But it’s not enough to simply ask or expect academics to speak in language that laypeople can understand; some training in how to do that is, in fact, necessary.

It was with that in mind that we began a new program at Stony Brook to train faculty members and graduate students (and even undergraduates) in the skills of becoming "public intellectuals" — that is, the skills of writing and speaking about their work, on mass global platforms.

Four months in, the program has already generated impressive and intellectually exciting results — in the form of op-eds, speeches, and media interviews. From an understandably skeptical beginning, professors and students at Stony Brook from many diverse disciplines have rapidly mastered the basics of tools and techniques used by journalists, pundits, and popular commentators.

The initial fears we heard were reasonable. Some scholars were concerned that their work could not be communicated in sufficient subtlety if they spoke to a lay audience. Others feared they would have to oversimplify their arguments (a related but not identical fear). Some were personally uncomfortable at first with being in the spotlight, or else they did not wish to deal with the potentially ugly reactions of unscreened online readers.

Those problems have not materialized. Instead, the faculty members and graduate students who have used their new skill sets to explain their work to nonspecialists have been pleasantly surprised at how thoroughly they can make their work comprehensive to a popular audience, given a bit of "translation" training. They’ve described how satisfying it is to be published on an influential public platform rather than having their best insights known only to a small group of peers or colleagues. And many have found it energizing to have a direct impact on influential discussions outside the confines of the classroom.

How did we begin our training process? The academic way — with a series of basic workshops.

In the first, we looked at "the pitch." How do you present your research or argument in a way that anyone can understand? That skill is basic to generating interest from TV and radio producers, mass-market publishers, news editors, book agents, and people who support research (through money or advocacy). We looked at choosing concrete over abstract illustrations, examples over generalizations, and storytelling techniques over distanced overviews. We helped to identify jargon and rephrase it, and to get academics used to using active verbs and abandoning the passive voice. We learned how to scan the news for a "news hook" from which to hang our research. We reviewed how not to, as they say in journalism, "bury the lede." We discussed how academics are trained to end an analysis by summarizing the overarching idea while general writers are trained to open with it.

The second workshop went over basic electronic communication skills: how to be comfortable during a TV or radio interview, how to reply without defensiveness to criticism or attack, and how to convey that your research is relevant to the lives of any listeners.

The third workshop focused on writing: how to structure a classic op-ed, how to create an opening paragraph that grabs the reader, how to select data that illustrates your argument well, and how to build to a logical conclusion. We also went over the conventions of submitting an article to an editor. Minor things can make a big difference to a freelancer’s confidence — such as knowing where to put one’s contact information and whether to include a headshot. And we walked through the cycle of submission, acceptance, editing, publication — and what comes after.

The final workshop took actual examples of articles written for the mainstream media by Stony Brook faculty and graduate students, and showed the "before" and "after." We sought to give people a clear sense of the evolution of an opinion essay, and reviewed the basics of pitching one’s project to a fund raiser or giving a talk about your work to a general-interest audience. Coming workshops will focus on engaging with social media and writing a nonfiction book proposal for a mass-market publisher.

Among the results:

  • Ruth B. Bottigheimer, a research professor of comparative literature, wrote a piece on how anti-Semitism was fostered for centuries by the choices that authors of children’s Bibles made about which gospel to draw upon in telling the story of Jesus’ sentencing to crucifixion. Her essay is highly relevant to current flare-ups of anti-Semitism in Europe.
  • Turhan Canli, an associate professor of neuroscience, posted a video of a TEDx talk he gave on his research that links depression to inflammation (including viral or bacterial inflammation). The video had already generated 100,000 views, and after we reported it on social media, NPR picked up the story. A report on his work became one of NPR’s top 10 stories of that week.
  • Amy Cook, an associate professor of English and theater studies, published an article in Fair Observer, the global challenger to The Economist, about how casting directors really do have insights about who is going to be "cast" in the role of our next U.S. president. A further result from her essay: Atul Singh, editor of Fair Observer, arranged a formal partnership with our program to have first option on our curated "content."
  • John J. Shea, a professor of anthropology who had helped date human toolmaking back by millennia, wrote an op-ed on the value of survival-skill training to ordinary societies facing emergencies like Hurricane Sandy.
  • Helana Darwin, a graduate student in sociology, wrote a piece in The Huffington Post on the ideal of female hairlessness and its relationship to appearance discrimination.
  • Nancy Hiemstra, an assistant professor of migration studies in the department of cultural analysis and theory, wrote "This Is Fear: ICE Raids on Parents and Children," about the recent immigration raids, also for The Huffington Post.
  • Nancy Franklin, a professor of psychology, gave an interview to Al Jazeera America about the frequency of errors in eyewitness identification in criminal cases.

And the pace keeps escalating. In all of those cases, and many others, faculty members at Stony Brook did not have to change their work in any way. They just had to communicate differently to reveal its impact on the larger society.

We think every constituency wins from replicating these sorts of programs. Editors are eager for important and well-researched essays. Readers learn about new ideas and discoveries that were formerly buried under jargon. And a pedagogical purpose has been served as well: It’s energizing for faculty to see firsthand how much what they have to say (and write) is valued by non-Ph.D.s.

To be sure, undertaking this effort requires an intentional commitment. At Stony Brook we were in a good position to move on this because our workshops built on the success the university already had with its Humanities Institute and with its Alan Alda Center for the Communicating Science. For seven years, the actor has worked with Stony Brook to build the center as a model program in how to explain science to nonscientists. Without that existing commitment to public outreach, it would have been much harder to establish our workshops for nonscientists (and scientists, too).

Faculty members rightly feel they have their hands full with teaching, mentoring, and scholarship or creative work. The reward structures of most institutions focus on scholarship, publications, teaching evaluations, and committee or departmental service — not necessarily on public outreach.

For these programs to prosper, administrators may have to grapple with the question of whether public writing and presentations should be part of an academic’s overall mission. How should academe measure the impact of an op-ed posted to a news outlet, or an appearance in a documentary? We feel strongly that academics benefit most when this kind of training is offered as an opportunity, not added to their workload as an obligation.

Conversations on these questions are essential. They speak to what we value as institutions and how we want our campuses to be known both in the academic community and in the public eye. We have only begun to have this conversation ourselves at Stony Brook. But whatever important questions remain, we’ve piloted a model training program that could serve many universities well.

As higher education faces ever more complex economic realities, it’s vitally important for people to see higher education as a public good worthy of investment. The public truly needs us to be partners in the civic future.

And academics need the public. As Amy Cook commented after she saw her Fair Observer column get picked up on social media and reach half a million new "students": "It is satisfying to see your work come to life for new audiences outside of the classroom. In fact — it is kind of thrilling."

Naomi Wolf is a visiting lecturer this year at Stony Brook University, and the author of eight nonfiction bestsellers, including The Beauty Myth. She is also a research fellow in Victorian studies at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford. Sacha Kopp is dean of the College Arts and Sciences at Stony Brook University.

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