By James Steur at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Public Engagement: Simplify Without Being Simple

As a first-generation student, one of my primary goals as an academic is pursuing public scholarship. I want to write in a clear and engaging way for general audiences so they understand political science research and why it makes a difference in their lives. Some people, like my parents, never had the opportunity to attend college and have a difficult time understanding why academic writing is essential. My parents, for instance, didn’t appreciate the concept of polarization the last time I visited home. After I explained what polarization meant and how it relates to Congress being more divided than ever, they began to care more about the implications of a polarized Congress. By making politics more approachable, I hope to engage the broader public with knowledge that produces more understanding, interest, and participation in politics.

My interest in public scholarship led me to attend the panel “Public Engagement: Blogging, Twitter & Podcasts 1 in Higher Ed” at this year’s MPSA conference. Six panelists with a variety of backgrounds talked about their experiences with public engagement. The nature of the conversation about public engagement varied greatly during the session and included discussions about podcasts, blogs, Twitter, and writing op-eds in newspapers. Although the panelists’ experiences and backgrounds were different, five common themes emerged:

  1. Decide How To Frame Your Public Engagement
    If you choose to participate in public engagement, be intentional in how you frame yourself as an engaged member of the public. One panelist, for example, tried framing his work as uncontested scientific research. By sticking to empirics, this panelist was able to curate a specific image as a researcher who was non-partisan on political issues. Another panelist took a different approach: he acknowledged his partisanship, some of his bias as a partisan, and wrote pointed op-eds about current events in newspapers. Each of the panelists took different approaches to frame their public engagement, but they all agreed you should be intentional in curating your brand. (Read one panelist’s perspective of the session.) Once you engage with the public in one manner, it can be challenging to change your reputation.
  2. Write Clearly & Concisely
    Writing a research article is different from writing blog posts. Research articles often include jargon, many references, and elaborate methods. All of these different parts of a research article culminate in 20 pages of text that can be challenging for even the most seasoned researcher to read. All of the panelists agreed that verbose and jargon-heavy blogs, podcasts, and newspapers articles are not ideal. Shorter, more accessible, and straightforward communication will lead to better engagement with the public. In short, simplify what’s going on without making your content simple.
  3. Know Your Audience
    Knowing your audience is important. If you record podcasts, for example, who are the people you want to listen to your podcast? If your audience for the podcast is a person in the general public, you’ll want the content of your podcast to be highly accessible. If your audience for the podcast is students in one of your courses, you may include more jargon than for a more general audience. Recognize that the content and discussion topics depend on your intended audience. Regardless of the form your public engagement takes, you should always be asking yourself this question: “Who is my audience?” Then produce content with that audience in mind.
  4. Public Engagement Can Build an Invaluable Community
    If you work with multiple scholars on a specific blog or podcast, you form a community around an important issue. This community and your connections are an invaluable part of your network and support system—don’t take them for granted. Make sure to express your gratitude to members of your community for their hard work on important issues and projects.
  5. Public Scholarship is Becoming More Valued in the Discipline
    Political science, like other academic disciplines, has long emphasized the importance of scholarly publications. Publications represent an intellectual contribution and help make a stronger case for your tenure. That said, public engagement is beginning to hold more value in the field. The American Political Science Association has a webpage dedicated to public engagement, a new Institute for Civically Engaged Research, and websites like the Monkey Cage and the Mischiefs of Factions continue to gain national recognition for the discipline. Publishing research articles is still important, but public engagement is becoming more valued in the field.  

After attending the panel, I was struck by all the panelists’ different ideas and ways to participate in public engagement. However, one question stood out to me that any scholar should ask themselves before participating in public engagement: “What are your reasons for engaging in public scholarship?” Ultimately, any scholar should answer this question for themselves to recognize their own reasons for public engagement.

About the Author: James Steur is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include political psychology, political behavior, and the role of emotions in citizen decision-making. He is a first-generation student, passionate coffee drinker, and excited to be blogging at this year’s MPSA conference. You can find James on Twitter at @JamesSteur.