Into the Spotlight: A Conversation about Being a Public Academic

Both academics and universities at large find themselves increasingly working and interacting with the public in various ways. 

Public engagement is often initiated by a university or an individual academic who recognize partnerships with the public as a part of their responsibility to society, and as a necessity for continued research and collaboration.

Then there are those times when something unprecedented, such as a global pandemic, happens and the public is desperate for expert knowledge. Never before have academics interacted with the public, or been under its scrutiny, to the degree to which they are now. This new norm brings new questions on the risks and rewards of public scholarship that many academics may feel ill equipped to answer.

The Office of Public Engagement’s webinar on public scholarship, graciously hosted by Dr. Isabelle Dostaler, (Dean, School of Business), included a panel comprised of a variety of scholars with varying backgrounds in public engagement, each representing different practical and theoretical approaches.

Panelists included:

  • Dr. Sobia Shaikh (Assistant Professor, School of Social Work)
  • Dr. John Bodner (Associate Professor and Program Chair, Social Cultural Studies, Grenfell)
  • Dr. Rosemary Ricciardelli (Professor, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences)
  • Dr. Rodney Russell (Professor of Virology and Immunology, Division of BioMedical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine)

You can watch the entire session here, but we’ve also distilled some of the key lessons and experiences our panel of experts shared below:

It Can Happen to Anyone

Public scholarship encompasses a wide spectrum of different activities. While some topics and fields might lend themselves more naturally to public engagement or draw more attention from the press, academics in any field might suddenly find themselves interacting with the pubic.

For Dr. Rodney Russell, this happened when his long career in the study of virology intersected with the arrival of a global pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, Dr. Russel’s work was mostly confined to his laboratory and office. While he and his colleagues sought to inform the public about their work, opportunities for public engagement were limited. All this changed with COVID-19 as suddenly the whole world was invested and wanted to know more about viruses and vaccines.

“I never thought I’d see so many colleagues on TV as there have been with COVID-19. It has been mind blowing. I never thought I’d be one of them.” – Dr. Rodney Russell

In a similar fashion, the pandemic’s effect on aviation, Dr. Dostaler’s area of expertise, drew increased amounts of media interest to her and her work. For her, the question is not if these opportunities will present themselves but if we are ready to seize them when they do.

While the degree to which Dr. Russell’s expertise has received public interest may be exceptionally high, Dr. Rosemary Ricciardelli, a sociologist and a criminologist, believes that “every topic becomes pertinent and things happen that bring a topic to the forefront. That’s when you have to vault into this public sphere.” However, once you do, you might find that whatever message you wanted to relate may become simplified or mischaracterized by the media or misinterpreted by your audience.

“One of the things we have to accept is that we don’t have control over the message. We don’t have control over how we’re interpreted. We can have best intentions but if people decide that they want to take us a particular way, they’re going to take us a particular way and find a way to justify that. We will also be edited. I prefer to be able to be live, where there isn’t the ability to edit.” - Dr. Rosemary Ricciardelli

It is important to remember that even though your topic of expertise likely covers a very focused area withing your discipline, the media and the public might not be aware of that. This can lead to situations where you will be asked to answer questions that you might not feel qualified to answer. Even if you feel pressured to answer, remember that you can also always politely decline or simply state that you do not know. While you may feel that this will hurt your image as an authority, you can also use these moments as opportunities to pivot the conversation back to the topic you are an expert on and want to get across to the audience.

Public Engagement as an Academic Responsibility

Throughout the seminar, the panelists suggested that public engagement work is not just an extension of academic work but an integral part of the role of universities in society. Dr. Ricciardelli’s most public facing work to date has been on of the effects that occupational stress injuries have on correctional and parole officers, and this work has led to the subject receiving more recognition. Her work is aimed at impacting policy and practises and she sees public engagement and the dissemination of research both as an extension of it and as a part of the researcher’s role as a public servant.

For Dr. John Bodner, his work as a public scholar has roots to the discipline of Folkloristics and its tradition of ethnographic fieldwork methods that often lead the scholar to live and become a part of the community they study. “I see public scholarship as an extension of citizenship, and I’ve been involved in many activist activities. But I’m also interested in supporting the capacity of the communities I live in with the training that I have.”

The impact of public scholarship encompasses both the scholar and their collaborators and changes them. Dr. Sobia Shaikh’s scholarly and activist work on anti-racism, social justice, and gender has been informed by the knowledge of activists and artists from diverse backgrounds. “Any time you’re involved with a community or the public it changes you. It has changed the way I view my teaching and learning practises, the questions I ask in my scholarship.”

The Necessity for Institutional Supports

In order for academics to fully carry out their role as public scholars, it is imperative that they receive the support of the institutions they inhabit. This can be in the form of recognizing public engagement in terms of promotion and tenure, or via providing training on how to inform and interact with the public and the media.

When carried out to its full potential, public scholarship benefits the academic, the university, and the public. According to Dr. Russell, “it encourages attendance and investment. I believe public engagement is one of the biggest drivers behind the public wanting to collaborate and help the university.”

The entire session, including closed captioning, can be viewed here. Follow the Office of Public Engagement on Facebook and Twitter to hear about upcoming events.

Akseli Virratvuori is a Graduate Support Student with Memorial’s Office of Public Engagement and a PhD Candidate at Memorial’s Department of Folklore.