note: Some faculty members end up in the news …
a lot. Over the past number of years, Memorial University
has seen its share of faculty experts in the news here in
Canada and around the world on topics as wide ranging as
nutrition, psychology, serial murder, whales, and Dracula,
among other things. The latest faculty member to garner
such intense international attention is Dr. Ross Klein,
a professor of Social Work who has researched and written
extensively on the cruise ship industry. Though his topic
often draws skeptical chuckles, his work is a serious assessment
of that industry, including the problems cruise companies
encounter with regulatory agencies and with labour and environmental
groups. He is now seen as an expert on the cruise ship industry,
and whenever a cruise ship makes the news, media agencies
like CBC-TV, CNN and Newsweek, and a whole range of newspapers
worldwide, call on him for comment and/or background. To
get a sense of what it’s like when a faculty member
gets this kind of media exposure, the manager of Memorial
University’s News Service (the unit responsible for
promoting faculty and their work to media), recently asked
Dr. Klein for his thoughts on what it’s like when
a faculty member makes it into the media’s “golden
Two things struck me in the early years of
my academic career. The first was that I hadn’t been
taught how to teach – for most PhD’s teaching
is on-the-job-training. The second was that I was ill-prepared
to disseminate my scholarly work beyond the academy. Sure,
I knew how to write articles and had been well acquainted
with the process of publishing in peer reviewed journals.
But I hadn’t been taught how to make my research intelligible
to “real” people.
Most of my academic colleagues are probably shaking their
heads and asking, “why would we be concerned about
making our scholarship accessible outside the academy?”
Journals are available to anyone who wants to read them.
True, but I can’t forget being told as a PhD student
that less than eight per cent of the subscribers to a journal
read any particular article. An article in a journal with
3,000 subscribers will be read by 240 other academics –
if I am lucky. Is that what I can expect after many hours
of excruciating and painstaking work?
I was also confronted early in my career with
the “so what” question. Not just for the dissertation,
but for research grants. “Why would someone want to
read this; how is it relevant?” It was drummed in
that if my work didn’t have relevance in the real
world, the pursuit had little purpose. This experience shaped
me – or scarred me. In either case, I can’t
help but ask, “who would want to read this and why.”
A corollary is whether the work is useful and accessible
to non academics. I am fortunate, as a social scientist,
to engage in scholarship that affords that opportunity.
Much of my recent work – study of the cruise industry
– has teetered between the academic world with the
real world. Colleagues have responded with comments like
“I wish I had thought of that” or “can
I come along in your suitcase?” The topic sounds more
glamorous than it is. Hours upon hours doing research in
archives, with dust-filled lungs, is only fun to an extent.
I’d prefer to have been on a cruise ship. The work
produced is a strange mix of the “academic”
with “pop”. The books are trade publications
– a dirty word in academic parlance – and some
of the articles are in mainstream, mass circulation publications;
including those monthly throwaway newspapers found in any
major city. But with circulations in the hundreds of thousands,
they are read by “real” people. The scholarship
is useful and appreciated – I receive letters of appreciation
from people I’ve never met.
And then there is the media. I have a flashy topic and mass
market visibility. What’s next? Interview requests.
If publishing in non-academic venues isn’t bad enough,
now my mug is going to be on TV, my voice on radio, and
my name in the newspaper. An administrator commented, “that
doesn’t count…newspapers are only out to make
money.” At least s/he was being honest. Most colleagues
grumble or find other ways to demonstrate their disapproval.
My initial, infrequent media appearances received comment
from some colleagues. But as the visibility increased, the
positive comments decreased. An appearance on the Vicki
Gabereau Show got more questions of “what’s
she really like?” than comments about what that means
for my stature as a scholar. Being quoted in the Globe
and Mail and the New York Times wasn’t
even acknowledged. Somehow, it is better to be lauded by
a handful of likeminded academics in the ivory tower than
it is to say something that impacts people’s lives,
effects social policy, or is (as some say sociology often
is) a voyeuristic look into others lives. To be fair, I
have had some support – I am fortunate to have one
colleague who has consistently and sincerely been interested
and who has shared my excitement with each new development.
Also, the support staff in my school have always shown an
interest and support.
So, you ask why I (or any academic for that matter) would
want to publish a trade book or appear in the media. Granted,
reporters occasionally miss the nuance and precision of
academic language and thought; TV uses sound bytes, often
out of context; and radio, if not live, can be edited. But
the simple fact is that each is a means for disseminating
scholarship, to inform those who want to be informed and,
with some good fortune, to have influence in the social
and political arena. If we accept the notion that knowledge
is power, then the knowledge we produce and make accessible
through the mass media is empowering. It has an impact.
Isn’t that the dream of a scientist?
By now you may be criticizing me for being narcissistic.
But there are other reasons for making scholarship accessible
to and through the popular media. Our institution gains
visibility. Potential graduate students know we exist. Policy-makers
are provided intelligence they likely would not otherwise
have. And alumni, legislators and parliamentarians can see
that money given to the institution yields concrete benefits.
I am not arguing against pure research, or that all academic
researchers should be media savvy and media visible. The
institution is multifaceted and satisfies many different
purposes and audiences. My point is that scholarship that
is popular and in the mainstream is equally as important
as pure research that, though not sexy and flashy, also
impacts society and people’s lives. Universities,
like societies, are pluralistic. We need to celebrate each
other’s accomplishments and share in each other’s
glory. When the university name is broadcast to millions
of listeners or readers, it benefits us all.
Ross A. Klein is a professor in the School of Social