Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist and Essayist at Chronicle Vitae

Freelance Academics as Public Intellectuals

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Image: Seven Samurai (1954), by Akira Kurosawa

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a reporter at a popular magazine, asking to interview me about a current event: the publication of Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman, and the apparent downfall of Atticus Finch as an American hero. I agreed to the interview. When the reporter called, before she could begin the interview, I asked her a question: “How did you find me?” I figured she saw something I wrote on Twitter or on my blog.

She said she found me through my research.

Many years ago, back when I was still a professor, I published an article on To Kill a Mockingbird that took a controversial, critical stance on Atticus Finch. Based on that research, the reporter believed I would be a good expert to interview about the new controversy surrounding the character.

The next day, another reporter called. I gave another interview. Part of me found the entire situation hilarious, because my scholarship on the subject was published in such a minor venue and so long ago. But the reporters were not wrong — I was indeed a good source. I did know what I was talking about (after I’d reread my article). More important, I’d made my research publicly available by posting it on my website and on open-access repositories that are indexed in Google Scholar. I’d made my research easy to find and had broken down the paywalls.

But I did something else equally important. I agreed to the interviews in the first place — even though I was nervous and afraid of sounding stupid. I was also afraid of being thought an imposter. After all, I was never a real professor and I’m not a professor at all any more, right? Then I told my voice of self-doubt to STFU and answered the questions with all of the fake confidence I could muster. Then the fake confidence turned into real confidence. And then I was the expert. I was the public intellectual speaking about one of the masterpieces of American literature.

Who, me? Yes, me. It was very weird. But at the same time, it was the most natural thing in the world. After all, why not me? I did the work. Why not me? Why not you?

I’m telling this story because I want to encourage you to put yourself in a position to engage publicly with your research. Freelance academics are perfectly aligned with the work of public engagement — but too often we worry that we aren’t. We feel like imposter academics.

After all, if we were real academics, we’d have tenure, right?

That is so not true. But there are a few technological steps that you should take to make your path to public engagement easier.

Get Your Research Out There, Just as It Is.

If you have publications — articles, book chapters, books — they are likely not easily accessible on the Internet. Change that. Break down the paywalls. Make it easy for readers to find your scholarship. Work with open-source repositories that are indexed on Google Scholar. It’s actually super easy once you learn how.

The repository I use most is SSRN — the Social Science Research Network. It’s free, and a little old-fashioned looking. But it is well-indexed on Google Scholar, which means that my work is easy to find by folks who might be searching for research like mine. Here’s my author page as an example.

Once you create an account, you can start uploading PDFs of your articles, chapters, and even select chapters from your monographs. Warning: Some uptight publishers such as Taylor and Francis get really freaked out when you put a PDF of your own articles up on SSRN or other repositories and will send you angry emails demanding that you take them down. They’ll email SSRN, too, and force that site to take them down.

This is very annoying.

Here’s the deal: You have the right to make your work publicly available in two ways, even when your work is published by uptight companies:

  • You can upload the PDF of the actual journal article to your own website along with some canned language the publishers require you to use about it being an “author posting.”
  • You have a right to post on public repositories a PDF of your own creation. Such a PDF is called an “author’s version” of an article — say, a PDF of the final Word doc that you submitted for publication. Then you can put a link to the “real” PDF on your website if people want to cite that instead. Include the link to your website on the author’s version that you post on the repositories.

There are other repositories besides SSRN, like Academia.edu and Researchgate.net. Whichever one you choose, the important thing here is for people to be able to find your work. That’s the reason you are posting it.

Create an Internet Presence.

You need a website. You just do. Buy the URL that is your name. When I first started, I used Wordpress as both my host and my content management system (CMS). I just went to Wordpress.com, registered my website, and then bought the URL that is my name. (Buying a URL, or web address, is not terribly expensive — like $15 a year.)

Start simply in building your website. Put your credentials on one page — think of it as your online CV. But put your publications on a separate webpage so that they’re easy to find. Then link your publications to your SSRN page (or whatever repository you decide to use). If you have articles published with an uptight publisher who doesn’t allow you to put your work on a repository, you can put the article on your website — another reason to create one.

After you start feeling confident about your website, try writing a blog. Blogs are a great way to test out ideas and share them. Blog posts can be short. You can turn off comments so you don’t have to deal with trolls. (That’s what I do.) You can automatically share your blog posts on social media (that’s a function available on most blogging hosts). I highly recommend a blog. (After those Harper Lee interviews, I promptly wrote a blog post about them, adding more ideas that I couldn’t share in the interviews.)

Speaking of social media: Twitter has become a great way to network, share scholarship, and make connections in the popular media. If you’re intimidated by Twitter, find a friend who is a Twitter dork and sit next to her for an afternoon until you get the hang of it. Social media, such as Twitter, is worth using for the community you can build.

Remix Your Research.

Once you’ve put your research online and created an Internet presence, it’s time to take the next step: Remix your research into popular articles written by you.

Whether your degree is in a STEM field or the humanities, you can find popular media outlets just dying to pay you real money (though not necessarily a lot of it) to write about your area of expertise. You’ll need to spend some time figuring out which sites are interested in which genres. And you’ll have to learn how to pitch articles, and how to write the sort of pieces the venues want. You might not be able to make a living selling these pieces (after all, they pay bagels), but you can engage.

Start pitching articles in your area of expertise that are “pegged” (tied) to current events. Turn your discerning academic eye outward. Those coffee-shop conversations about what’s wrong with the world? Write them down. Sell them.

Before you know it, you will have begun engaging with both your area of academic expertise and with the world around you in new ways. It will be thrilling and a little bit scary, but you will continue to learn and grow, too. You will make mistakes. Ugh, so many mistakes. But you will build a new community, learn new styles of writing, and perhaps one day, speak publicly in a way that makes a difference.

You can do all of those things. You just have to get your work, and yourself, out there.

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