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On the challenges of public engagement for marginalized academic voices

I had promised myself that I wouldn’t waste any more of my brain space or time on Nicholas Kristof’s ill-written piece decrying the inability of political science professors to “stay relevant” and “engage”. Even before he wrote his piece, I had already written about why it’s challenging for a public policy professor like me to engage as a “public intellectual” (do note the quotation marks, as I think that label is somewhat self-aggrandizing). Plenty of my fellow academics (including several not in the political science discipline per se) have debunked his piece. Tom Pepinsky’s piece was particularly engaging for me. Tobias Denskus makes a great series of points from the development field viewpoint. I particularly liked Marc Bellemare and Corey Robin‘s pieces who aren’t surprised to find that Kristof wants to save something/one else yet again. After all, as Marc said, “the NYT merely selling what its readers wants to buy”. Personally, I rarely read the NYT, to be quite honest. I read my Twitter stream and use it both as an information channel AND an engagement channel. If the people I follow post (or retweet) interesting links, I’ll go and read them too. I stay on top of things through my social media platforms, and I engage both with fellow academics AND with the general public through them.

As I said on Twitter, I knew perfectly that Kristof was doing link-baiting and click-baiting. He wanted to piss off academics who take it upon themselves to (on top of the work they already do) engage with the general public, policy-makers and communities at large. Those of us who thrive on public engagement were annoyed enough that we tweeted, retweeted, wrote pieces in response, and had dialogues on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms.

Now, what struck me in the whole kerfuffle, and the reason that prompted me to write this post was the repeated process where the pieces most retweeted and engaged upon (even by Kristof himself) were those of white males. You could always say that it was only those academics who took it upon themselves to write a piece in response, and I’m grateful that they did. But there were several women who wrote very smart take-downs of Kristof’s column, and I saw less conversation and publicizing of those while I followed the conversation on Twitter. Five of the ones I liked best were authored by women (Erica Chenoweth, Pat Thomson, Paige Brown and Janet Stemdemwell, and a very funny one by Clarissa)

Corey does bring an important point that I think was missed in the entire discussion. There is a need for the public to listen to the voices of academics on the margins: adjuncts, up-and-coming graduate students, female scholars, people of color, and, as Zara noted to me on Twitter, disabled and queer academics. The problem is that we don’t listen to those voices enough, most likely because they don’t feel safe enough to engage publicly. So, why would a queer disabled academic want to engage if her voice would be drowned and dismissed on the basis of disability or sexual identity? It wouldn’t make sense and it would only perpetuate the problem.

Ed Carr provides a set of constructive ideas on how Kristof could contribute to the discourse by examining topics that are relevant to us as professors, and to academics in general. I would want to add one topic to the list, and (eventually, but not today as I’m pressed for time) to provide my own set of suggestions. Kristof should examine the challenges that traditionally marginalized academic voices face in engaging with the public and policy makers. And he should amplify those voices. Not because they need to be saved, but because they deserve to be heard.

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Posted in academia, bridging academia and practice, bridging media and academia.

2 Responses

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  1. Diana Brazzell says

    Like Nicholas Kristof, we wish academic knowledge reached more audiences outside of narrow academic disciplines. This challenge led us to create Footnote (, an online media company that collaborates with academics to translate their research and expertise for a mainstream audience.

 In working with scholars from top schools, we’ve found that academics are eager to share their knowledge with the public and excited to discuss the implications of their research for policy, business, and society. What they need are platforms and partners to help them translate their expertise into a form that combines academic rigor with language and ideas the public can understand and engage with. 

The incentives in academia encourage scholars to focus on communicating with a narrow audience of peers, but the drive to move beyond that and take up the mission of a public intellectual, even in a small way, is strong. It’s just not something we should expect academics to do alone.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Academia and public engagement in English and Spanish: Not an easy task – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on February 18, 2014

    […] 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. […]

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