In the present environment of anti-intellectualism and anti-expertise, it is incumbent on scholars to broaden our audience beyond our habitually narrow circles and to prioritize public engagement. The only way to counter the conspiracy-theories and “alternative facts” of the day is to communicate the impact of our research as far as we can beyond the academy. The only way to counter corporatization of the university, cuts to the humanities, and disestablishment from the state and federal government is to proactively demonstrate that our work is relevant and valuable to wider society.

Whenever I bring this up with colleagues, I hear certain objections raised again and again. Below are some of these, along a range of responses:

Why me? I don’t have the energy or bandwidth.

All hands are needed on deck to mount a full-throated defense of our work and to make its value visible. This is not the time to retreat into disciplinary ivory towers. Public communication about our field should especially be considered one of the principal obligations of faculty members at public universities. Tenured faculty in particular are able to put in the time and not be penalized for it, and therefore should be on the front lines of these efforts. 

I’m not cut out for this. I don’t have the right skills. 

Public engagement is a mindset more than a skill set. There are countless different ways to engage. Public outreach is blogging and social media, but also writing op eds, magazine articles, and accessible books for wide audiences. It’s also teaching or lecturing at the public library or giving talks geared toward the public. It’s appearing on podcasts and on radio, or consulting with museums or civic organizations. Or serving on a campus committee to develop public programming, alternative spring break, or community engaged scholarship/internships for students. How each person enacts these potentials will of course differ, but you can’t possibly be bad at all of those things. 

I don’t know how to get started. 

I think we can get started by asking ourselves some fundamental questions: What’s the one thing people outside of my field really need to know about my work? Why is my research important in the modern world, in the current political situation? How can my research improve lives and communities? And, in our answers to all of these questions, how I explain this in the most accessible language?

We Need to Engage