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   A Memorial University of Newfoundland Publication

September 18 , 2003

Faculty in Medialand

Editor’s 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 rolodex.”

Dr. Ross Klein
Dr. Ross Klein

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 Work.




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Next issue: October 2, 2003

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