Why Every Professor Should Think Beyond the Journals

09/23/2014 12:39 EDT | Updated 11/23/2014 05:59 EST
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Last Friday, a popular student pub in Ottawa saw its harmonious early afternoon atmosphere interrupted by a motley mix of faculty and graduate students, awash in soccer gear and grass stains. The faculty, aided by a bold conspiracy of PhD candidates, had -- once again -- defeated the students at the annual soccer game. As attention turned to celebratory rounds of drinks, I found myself next to an expert in a particularly tricky, and periodically controversial, policy area.

"It's very difficult to win the social media war," he said about the policy suggestions he has built from his research, "You can't play by the rules of the journals."

He means academic journals. Peer-reviewed publications. The holy grails for up 'n coming academics and the crosses born by established ones. They have relatively clear rules: if you are answering a new question, or an old question in a new way, then please submit. Your answer and, crucially, how you found it, will face scrutiny from your peers. If the results are deemed important to the field in question, and suggested changes have been made, your work will be published. A few eyes may read it and, if they find fault with any of your findings, can go through the same process to address them.

Not so on social media. Here the rules -- to the degree that there are any -- for making arguments are so foreign to academics that many of them stay away. My pub friend struggles on in this anarchistic world of blogs, tweets, Facebook shares and op-eds, but it isn't easy. He lays out the evidence-based case behind his policy prescriptions, the net costs and benefits and, to his credit, the strongest arguments against his own. He even avoids academic jargon. Yet this strategy does not work online. The groups opposing his suggestions, in this case rather powerful ones, have no interest in a fair fight. They win by setting up caricatures of arguments opposing their own and beating all credibility out of them.

The construction of opposing perspectives in extreme or vulnerable ways is nothing novel. Most of us do it. It's how we protect how we see the world. Learning how not to do this is the one thing a good Arts education does better than almost anything else. And it is the one thing the best academics do better than almost anyone else. They build up their research, always mindful of what the smartest person with an alternative perspective would have to say about it. And that's why we need them to engage the world outside of their classes and their journals.

A few weeks ago I attended a political science conference in Banff, Alberta, where two research projects in particular struck me. The first, by Dr. Royce Koop from the University of Manitoba and Dr. Heather Bastedo of Queen's University, closely observed Members of Parliament in their constituencies and in Ottawa over an extended period of time. They demonstrated that MPs are by no means wearing their partisan hats 24/7, that much of their work entail nitty-gritty public service (i.e. helping constituents on immigration issues, clarifying tax questions, etc.), and that their day-to-day representation of Canadians is not defined by simply following the party whip's orders on Parliament Hill.

The second project, by Dr. J.P. Lewis from the University of New Brunswick, used 71 semi-structured interviews with ministers and staff that worked under four different Prime Ministers to challenge the almost sacred belief among media and many Canadians that only the Prime Minister's Office holds power in Ottawa.

Here were two projects that methodically approached key assumptions in Canadian politics and, with rigorous research methodologies, arrived at answers that, if not flat out contradict, at least severely challenge, how political representation is perceived in this country. Yet most Canadians may never hear of them. Not all academics have the energy or the desire to make their cases on platforms that circulate widely and organically among the rest of the populace. The tragedy here is that the apparent disillusionment many Canadians feel about their politics will continue despite rather impressive evidence that the picture is more rosy -- or at least more nuanced -- than often thought.

Not every professor can be an Indiana Jones in the sense of practicing in the field they research. And many of them shouldn't be. Public administration by definition sees theory and practice meet halfway, but many other fields benefit from having individuals allocate most of their time to research (quite clearly the hard sciences, but also, for example, empirical work in social psychology or theory development in political philosophy). But all professors should be cognizant of the relevance their research holds for society beyond the journals, and the responsibility they have for sharing this research. If their work does not take the metaphorical form of Harrison Ford in a cowboy hat, sweeping through and engaging with the real world, then what's the point?