“I really thought your talk was excellent,” she told me. “I think people really connected with what you were saying.” She paused. Then, “I have never heard a professor say ‘dumbass’ in a lecture before.” Apparently, lighthearted swearing, employed judiciously, appeals to general audiences, and diminishes the perceived unapproachability of the Sage on the Stage. Or at the coffee bar’s jerry-rigged lectern. Or at the public library’s classroom podium.
I give a lot of public talks. I love to do them, at staff brownbags, in the library, in bookstores with espresso machines, in classrooms opened up in the evening to the general public, to auditoriums full of high school seniors and their parents. Because I keep getting asked to do more and more of these, and because everyone is always so enthusiastic in talking to me afterwards, I flatter myself that I’m pretty good at this sort of thing–I like to think I’m getting more exposure for my research findings, doing public service with my how-tos, drawing students into the major, creating goodwill for the department and university, and drawing good press for everyone.
Does it matter?
Heather wrote this week about a new kind of Full Professor, someone who gains promotion on the basis of teaching excellence. We are learning, I hope her post indicates, how to broaden our understanding of what a valuable, effective, and dare I say, excellent professor looks like. Fantastic! I am really cheered by this development, in part because, as studies show, women so very disproportionately aggregate in the teaching-heavy parts of the profession, and to have a research university promote on the basis of what has become feminised labour? Is pretty damn cool.
Can I push that door open a little wider? I’d like us to think more about what outreach means. I’d like to revisit that buzzphrase a few years back (um, 13 years) to “go public or perish“: we were supposed to focus more on that, SSHRC prez Marc Renaud indicated, instead of the usual academic target to “publish or perish”?
I take going public pretty seriously. But I don’t take it anywhere near as seriously as publishing: I calculated as a junior professor that my odds of perishing were still very much higher for failing to publish than for failing to go public. I never, not once, woke up in a cold midnight sweat counting out on my fingertips my number of Lunch and Learn talks delivered, desperate to know if it was enough to make the cut. So maybe, actually, I don’t take it seriously. Maybe no one takes it seriously in the humanities, where we’re not usually developing global smoking cessation strategies from empirical research, or, you know, curing cancer and such.
Anyhow, I’ve been parking all my outreach activities in the service section of my annual reports: you know, the part that’s worth the least, that puny “20” dwarfed by the “40/40” of teaching and research. But is outreach not, in many ways, teaching, research, and service all at once? Especially if it draws explicitly on your research expertise?
[Note! Let me be clear! I’m not griping about my annual reports or my raises or anything particular to my own situation. Everything is pretty awesome, frankly, and I by no means wish you to think otherwise. But. I’m trying to think more abstractly.]
So I ask you: Does outreach–going public–really matter? Do you think outreach is ‘real’ academic work? Do you do it? Do you want to? And does being really good or really poor at it matter? How does going public promote excellence, or detract from it?