Friday, March 18, 2011

Mostly, I just like saying the word 'dumbass'

"I really thought your talk was excellent," she told me. "I think people really connected with what you were saying." She paused. Then, "I have never heard a professor say 'dumbass' in a lecture before." Apparently, lighthearted swearing, employed judiciously, appeals to general audiences, and diminishes the perceived unapproachability of the Sage on the Stage. Or at the coffee bar's jerry-rigged lectern. Or at the public library's classroom podium.

I give a lot of public talks. I love to do them, at staff brownbags, in the library, in bookstores with espresso machines, in classrooms opened up in the evening to the general public, to auditoriums full of high school seniors and their parents. Because I keep getting asked to do more and more of these, and because everyone is always so enthusiastic in talking to me afterwards, I flatter myself that I'm pretty good at this sort of thing--I like to think I'm getting more exposure for my research findings, doing public service with my how-tos, drawing students into the major, creating goodwill for the department and university, and drawing good press for everyone.

Does it matter?

Heather wrote this week about a new kind of Full Professor, someone who gains promotion on the basis of teaching excellence. We are learning, I hope her post indicates, how to broaden our understanding of what a valuable, effective, and dare I say, excellent professor looks like. Fantastic! I am really cheered by this development, in part because, as studies show, women so very disproportionately aggregate in the teaching-heavy parts of the profession, and to have a research university promote on the basis of what has become feminised labour? Is pretty damn cool.

Can I push that door open a little wider? I'd like us to think more about what outreach means. I'd like to revisit that buzzphrase a few years back (um, 13 years) to "go public or perish": we were supposed to focus more on that, SSHRC prez Marc Renaud indicated, instead of the usual academic target to "publish or perish"?

I take going public pretty seriously. But I don't take it anywhere near as seriously as publishing: I calculated as a junior professor that my odds of perishing were still very much higher for failing to publish than for failing to go public. I never, not once, woke up in a cold midnight sweat counting out on my fingertips my number of Lunch and Learn talks delivered, desperate to know if it was enough to make the cut. So maybe, actually, I don't take it seriously. Maybe no one takes it seriously in the humanities, where we're not usually developing global smoking cessation strategies from empirical research, or, you know, curing cancer and such. 

Anyhow, I've been parking all my outreach activities in the service section of my annual reports: you know, the part that's worth the least, that puny "20" dwarfed by the "40/40" of teaching and research. But is outreach not, in many ways, teaching, research, and service all at once? Especially if it draws explicitly on your research expertise? 

[Note! Let me be clear! I'm not griping about my annual reports or my raises or anything particular to my own situation. Everything is pretty awesome, frankly, and I by no means wish you to think otherwise. But. I'm trying to think more abstractly.]

So I ask you: Does outreach--going public--really matter? Do you think outreach is 'real' academic work? Do you do it? Do you want to? And does being really good or really poor at it matter? How does going public promote excellence, or detract from it? 

5 comments:

  1. In a word: YES! I think we need to get out and talk to the public about what we do, teach, and think. I also think that a public audience may actually be more receptive to what we have to say than the students who "have" to be in our classes (now, this is coming from someone who almost exclusively teaches required, lower-division, gen-ed courses, so I don't know what it's like to teach upper-division/grad classes that students WANT to take).

    I'm not sure if you saw the recent article on the Chronicle or what Worst Prof Ever did a few weeks ago, but while I don't think more academics are doing public "outreach", I do think we're talking and writing about it more than in the past.

    Here are the links:

    http://chronicle.com/article/Tea-Shortbread3-Things/126683/

    http://worstprofessorever.com/2011/02/18/teaching-can-be-fun/

    Keep up the good (and public) work!

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  2. I gave my first really successful talk today, so yes yes yes :) What a kick it gave me to be named most popular speaker! PhD student from India and with editorial at a publishing house, by the by. Enjoy your blog, read it often.

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  3. Yes, and I don't know where you put it in your portfolio, but if you apply for a SSHRC grant, I'd advise putting it under "Other Research Contributions". Also, you might want to start calling some of that activity Knowledge Mobilization.

    I actually worked at SSHRC under M. Renaud and was part of the policy team that did all the analysis of that Transormation consultation material. We commissioned some work on precisely this question. And wrote some stuff but I don't know what happened to it.

    I did meet a really nice researcher from Massachussetts who researchers exactly this question: how outreach gets valued in T&P processes. (Kerry Ann O'Meara: http://www.education.umd.edu/EDHI/about/faculty_pages/komeara.html)

    I also ended up working with CHSRF on some pamphlets about this issue for applied health researchers, which they saw as an important capacity issues. The 2 that we wrote can be accessed here: http://www.chsrf.ca/PublicationsAndResources/PastSeries/Recognition.aspx

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  4. I've been looking for ways to give public talks. Thanks for the ideas. I'm going to start looking for opportunities in the venues that you mentioned.

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  5. Thanks for the great feedback, all of you!

    Those are great articles, Lee -- thanks for hte links.

    JoVe -- that is where I put them, actually! How interesting that you worked on this very program that I'm still thinking about, 13 years later. Again, GREAT links. Thank you so much for going to the trouble of digging those out for us.

    Pallavi and Benevolent prof, hooray! I do really like giving talks. There's just so much enthusiasm in a non-academic crowd, that is choosing to take time out of other things to come hear a talk. Inspiring.

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