Social scientists and humanities scholars are ideally suited to analyze and engage with pressing public debates, yet their voices are too rarely heard. Recently, columnist Nicholas Kristof, writing in The New York Times, criticized professors for upholding a “culture of exclusivity” that “disdains impact and audience.” Kristof blamed dense academic prose, obstructionist professional associations, scholars’ scant social media presence, “hidden away” academic journals, and a reward structure that privileges technique and abstraction over relevance, clear thinking, and broad dissemination. While many academics, including Rutgers faculty, disseminate their work widely by writing op-eds in leading newspapers, informing policy makers, blogging about their research, and offering their expertise to journalists — our influence could be more sweeping and profound.
Scholars across multiple disciplines are spearheading efforts to make their voices heard. Leading sociologists have spoken of the importance of fashioning a “public sociology” that could address varied publics and cooperate more closely with journalists; similar discussions have taken place in other disciplines. But the tools needed for communicating with multiple audiences and across varied formats, and practicing public scholarship, are difficult for scholars to access. The Public Engagement Project (PEP) aims to be a clearinghouse at Rutgers for scholarly engagement in public issues. It offers hands-on training for those who wish to communicate social knowledge to different publics, including activists, journalists, thought leaders, public policy professionals, and the general public.
Many Rutgers faculty in the social sciences and humanities are world-class scholars; sharing their ideas with a larger public will enhance the visibility, and showcase the quality of their work. In addition, encouraging scholars to communicate with both academic audiences and the lay public is an essential step toward sustaining a vision of “tomorrow’s university.” We believe that universities are and will no longer be isolated “ivory towers” but instead are key players in national and international conversations about social issues and public policies – a conversation enhanced by the flourishing of digital and social media.