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Academia and public engagement in English and Spanish: Not an easy task

The recent discussions on academics’ engagement (or lack thereof) reminded me about a particularity of my own circumstances now that I reside in Mexico, and after living in Canada for over 15 years. Both in academia and in my personal life, I am (for the most part) immersed in a Spanish-speaking world. My parents speak in Spanish to me, I have to teach in Spanish, and Spanish is the working language in Mexico, generally. That said, my native language is no longer Spanish. I think, write, read and speak in English. My academic life is primarily in English. My social media feeds are all maintained in English. I blog in English, I don’t blog in Spanish.

This puts me in a really awkward position. I do want to reach out to the Mexican public, and Mexican policy makers. To do so, I need to publish in Spanish. And while I do publish academic journal articles and book chapters in Spanish (quite a lot), I don’t write op-eds in Spanish often enough, I rarely tweet in Spanish, and I definitely do NOT blog in Spanish. Yet, the counter-punch is that I want to be competitive, relevant internationally and I want my academic peers in the global arena to respect my work and my scholarship. To do that, I need to present at international conferences in English, publish in English, and write on social media platforms in English. It’s the lingua franca of global academia.

So I’m stuck between rock and a hard place, where I’m criticized by Mexican scholars for not blogging and tweeting and publishing more op-eds in Spanish, where I’m sometimes questioned for wanting to teach courses in English instead of Spanish and where I am also frowned upon by some people because I talk with my Mexico-based English-speaking students and colleagues in, well, English. But at the same time, we recognize that to be a world-class academic institution, we need to imitate what is happening in Portugal, The Netherlands and even France, where universities are teaching entire graduate and undergraduate programmes in English.

This frustration is something that keeps coming up, particularly as I wrote 4 (yes, you read that right, FOUR) pieces in Spanish (1 book chapter, 1 conference papers and 2 journal article manuscripts for peer-review) in Spanish during the months of January and February 2014. In contrast, I’ve only written one journal article manuscript in English over the same period. I need to publish more in English, both because the journals that are considered most prestigious, both within Mexican academia and the international one are in English, and because I want my scholarship to be read more broadly. The worst thing is that I have a work ethic where I don’t translate my research papers in Spanish into English, but I create an entirely new piece, even if I am using the same datasets or interview data.

So, what to do? At a time when we as professors are being asked to do much more all the time (read the Kristof piece in case you doubt me), do I really have the time to write original research pieces in English and Spanish, AND undertake public engagement in English AND Spanish, AND contribute to my discipline and community? I am not sure, to be honest. But I think I am going to continue doing what I do. I am going to engage with the public in both languages only as far as I can, not much more. I am going to continue blogging, tweeting and writing scholarly pieces in English.

For better or worse, that’s what I think I need to do to reach a global audience.

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Posted in academia.

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  1. Eva Lantsoght says

    Food for thought… and something I can relate to.
    My native language is Flemish Dutch, and I carried out my research in the Netherlands under the supervision of people speaking Holland Dutch. However, I blog, tweet, teach and speak with my husband in English. I did publish reports in Dutch, especially anything that needed to go to my funding body, as well as an article for an industry publication – but the majority of my writing is English. As an added factor of complexity: I am now based in Ecuador, and I would like to get more in touch with the local industry and for that I need Spanish (so far, I do not master Spanish very well yet)

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