Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle
Like most professions, academe has its own self-help books. They cluster around the most stressful points in the graduate-school passage. There’s a shelf of guides on dissertation writing, for example, and another growing clutch of manuals on how to navigate the academic job market.
Now a different sort of self-help guide has emerged that doesn’t fit any of the usual categories. Going Public: A Guide for Social Scientists, written by the sociologists Arlene Stein and Jessie Daniels and published last year by the University of Chicago Press, has an entirely different goal: to help scholars vault themselves out of the ivory tower and into the public square.
When scholars take their work into the arena of public debate, they can influence the issues. They can also make a case for the value of what we do in colleges and universities. "There’s a big world out there that needs to hear from us," write Stein and Daniels.
Can a professor or a graduate student learn how to go public from a book? From this book, yes.
Going Public is a lucid, stepwise breakdown of what you need to do to get your work out there. Stein and Daniels target social scientists, but their advice applies to any academic who wants to approach a general audience. They show how to devise a pitch (your spiel for editors and other gatekeepers), a peg (something that connects your pitch to current events), and a hook (the bit that will really catch an editor’s attention). They explain how to identify opportunities in the public sphere — to recognize when you can leap into the news cycle.
The authors also include a good short primer on how to write in the "authoritative yet conversational voice" that general audiences appreciate. Going Public includes guidelines for mapping out short and long-form essays, contributions to digital media, and even general-audience books.
Perhaps the book’s greatest virtue is its active stance. Don’t wait for the game to come to you, the authors urge. Join in.
That’s important advice, even though some public scholars I know didn’t follow that self-driven template at first. The career of Philip Nel, a professor of English at Kansas State University and a well-known specialist in children’s literature, is a good example.
Nel is now a distinguished public scholar, by any measure, but he first gained wide attention "purely by accident," as he put it in an email. Of course it helped that his first book was on Harry Potter, but lots of scholars have written books about Harry Potter that sank without a ripple. Nel’s 2001 J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Novels: A Reader’s Guide (Bloomsbury) was an exception: It landed him in newspapers and on NPR.
After that happy accident, Nel became more intentional in his play for public notice. In effect, he became the kind of intellectual entrepreneur that Stein and Daniels instruct their readers to be.
After his Harry Potter success, Nel realized that he would get more attention if he could get his next book — Dr. Seuss: American Icon — out in time for the Seuss centennial in 2004. (Such anniversary connections are reliable news pegs.)
So Nel took the initiative. "I asked my editor when he needed the book in order to bring it out" by the Seuss anniversary, said Nel. Meeting the editor’s deadline (in this case, mid-2003) is a necessity when you are writing for a general readership. He met the deadline and watched as his press, Bloomsbury, hired a publicist for his book. "She got me on CBS Sunday Morning and NPR’s Talk of the Nation, among others," Nel recalled. It was "my first time being near the center of a media event."
Throughout that experience, Nel watched how media cycles work, and learned by experience — as most public scholars do.
His latest book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford, 2017) displays the savvy he’s gained over the years. It began "as an academic book with activist aspirations," Nel said, adding that he "didn’t think it would reach beyond academics, librarians, and teachers." But soon he began "to think of the book in more public terms," starting with his catchy title — an example of a hook. So he went after the public eye again.
Writing a book for a broader audience beyond just other academics meant going easy on "theoretical language" and crafting a reader-friendly style, he said. He sought that conversational, journalistic writing style that Stein and Daniels advocate in Going Public. "I want an educated reader not only to be able to understand what I write," Nel said, "but also to enjoy it."
In drafting the book, Nel also worked through some of his ideas on his blog. When he writes blog posts, he said, "I am far more conscious of writing for a broader audience. That awareness makes my prose a bit tighter and more punchy." So when he first presented his rough thoughts on his blog, he wrote with "a livelier tone" that translated to the finished book.
His efforts have paid off. Was the Cat in the Hat Black? has already garnered considerable mainstream media attention — some of it substantive (including articles in The Atlantic and on Slate). Nel quickly responds to media inquiries — and also initiates them. He’s doing what Stein and Daniels suggest, using techniques he learned and honed on his own.
Such attention has its pleasures: Nel’s book was even mentioned on Jeopardy. But it can also have an ugly side: Was the Cat in the Hat Black? has also been turned into clickbait, mostly in the right-wing tabloid press. The book found its way into a couple of such controversies, including one in which a Massachusetts school librarian used Nel’s book as the basis for her decision to refuse a donation of Dr. Seuss books from Melania Trump.
Nel’s response to trolls and others who may misrepresent his work is phlegmatic. "Angry comments," he said, "typically reveal far, far, more about the commenter." But he readily allowed that "I arrive in the public arena in the armor of privilege: as a tenured, cisgendered, straight, white male." Public engagement, he makes clear, is not necessarily for everybody, and not all the time.
Another reason for Nel’s thick skin: the principle of the thing. "It’s important to stand up for evidence-based reasoning," he said, "to demonstrate the value of your research."
I asked Nel if it would have helped to have encountered a book like Going Public earlier in his career. "Definitely," he replied. In fact, he said he was planning to read it now.
Plenty of other faculty members and graduate students should, too. Academics need to go public because one of the biggest issues of public debate today involves academe — the value of our colleges and universities and of scholarly work itself. When we join the fray in productive ways, we can affect what the general public thinks of us and our institutions, and of what we do.
We could certainly use the mutual support in this regard. Town and gown relations have turned adversarial in many places around the country. Professors get pilloried regularly, while graduate students have just narrowly avoided having their tuition waivers taxed. Colleges and universities get branded as havens for the out of touch.
As Nel noted, "A successful democracy depends on an educated public," and we’re educators. "We have something valuable to teach others." And when we do, we show them that value.
Not every scholar’s work translates easily into public terms, but everyone — both graduate students and professors — "should try, if they can," he said. "Public scholarship can be an expression of good citizenship."