Andrew J. Hoffman has lots of ambition in his new book, The Engaged Scholar: Expanding the Impact of Academic Research in Today's World (Stanford University Press). He wants to inspire some academics to seek out a new model for their careers and to fight the antiresearch attitudes that have become prevalent in society.
Hoffman, the Holcim Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, answered questions via email about his new book and his goals.
Q: What is an engaged scholar?
A: I am writing this book at a particularly precarious time that highlights the twofold motivations behind it. First, there is a crisis in the quality of public and political discourse around science. While the COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on our lives and our livelihoods, people and society need answers. Yet many are turning away from science, distrusting its conclusions and its motivations, and even questioning its assessment that the virus is real. This is happening because we are now immersed in an array of confusing and conflicting messages that question facts, blur the line between opinion and fact, and dismiss formerly respected sources of information as merely political interests pushing a partisan agenda. This, what the RAND Corporation called “truth decay” in a recent study, is the existential crisis of our time. If we do not improve the scientific literacy of our public and political discourse, how can we make sense of the challenging issues we face? You can’t set policy or make informed decisions about nanotechnology, stem-cell research, nuclear power, climate change, vaccines and autism, genetically modified organisms, endocrine disruption, gun violence, or COVID-19 if you do not agree on a common set of facts to ground the conversation.
But second, there is a crisis in the relevance of academic scholarship to public and political discourse. To my mind, the existential crisis in the public sphere lays the gauntlet at the door of the academy. If academic scholars do not provide the kind of scientifically grounded knowledge that society needs, who will? But this societal crisis is happening at a time when the academy is facing a crisis of its own. Academic research is becoming increasingly irrelevant as the work becomes too insular, the language too opaque, the journals too inaccessible, the cultural norms of disciplinary boundaries too balkanized, and the reward systems cement these problems in place. We need to break out of our siloed research communities and bring our work to a world that needs it. In the words of former University of Texas at Austin president Larry Faulkner, “The antidote to irrelevance is engagement of the university with the real needs and aspirations of the supporting society.”
With that as preamble, the engaged scholar is one who does not see academic research as an end unto itself -- an article or book to be developed just to add to the literature of the narrow academic communities to which we belong. Instead, the engaged scholar is one who sees academic research as a means to an end, bringing their scholarship and knowledge to the communities that need it and can put it to use. This task involves a different set of skills and the use of different platforms that can reach audiences beyond the walls of the academy. Unfortunately, the rules and rewards of tenure are based on academic scholarship predominately in A-journals, not public engagement. So engagement must be a very conscious, deliberate and careful choice.
Q: What's wrong with the traditional definition of academic success?
A: The primary metric of success in academe is research, and in particular research published in top-tier academic journals, the ones considered to have “impact.” Almost every university, school and department has a list of “A-journals,” those it considers to be the most prestigious in their fields. But the narrow focus on A-journals limits the scope of our work’s impact to one type of journal, which reaches one type of audience using one type of content and style. For some, such limitations have become so frustrating that they chose to no longer publish within the A-journals. Randy Schekman, a Nobel laureate in cell physiology, announced in 2013 that his lab would no longer send research papers to what he called the “luxury” journals of his field -- Nature, Cell and Science -- because of what he saw as their distortive encouragement of research that pursues narrow and mainstream lines of inquiry instead of more self-directed and innovative directions.
Many junior faculty are forced to slavishly follow these lists and avoid writing for off-list journals -- publishing that would “not count” toward their accomplishments and ultimately tenure. And the constant immersion in academic seminars and journals to the exclusion of engagement with the public, politicians and practitioners weakens our literacy in the languages and concerns of the larger world. Unfortunately, this reward system often becomes more about establishing an academic status hierarchy and tenured career success than about pursuing knowledge and having impact in the real world. And that has unintended and problematic consequences that tend to marginalize academic research and further its irrelevance to real-world debates including, but not only, a limited audience, less creative and diverse research, guaranteed irrelevance, and questionable impact.
I would add that there are informal norms and rules that also constrain our choices as academics to pursue work that reaches broader audiences. One cultural norm has been called the “Sagan effect,” named for American astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan, who in 1991 was nominated for membership in the National Academy of Sciences but was blackballed in the first round of voting. That decision, along with Harvard University's prior denial of tenure, has led Sagan's biographers to argue that this was the consequence of an academic bias that popular, visible scientists are less serious or rigorous than those who focus strictly on academic audiences. Such bias includes a belief that engaged scholars care more about their media presence than about discovery, that they waste time that would be better spent doing more academic research and that public engagement is a low-status occupation done by those who are not good enough for an academic career.
Q: How should the tenure system change to promote engaged work by professors?
A: My challenge in this book is to ask academics -- from Ph.D. students to junior faculty to senior faculty -- to think carefully about why they chose this career and what they want to accomplish. If it is to improve the world around them through their academic pursuits, then they should think about ways to define their role as academic scholar for themselves and become proficient in the skills necessary to make that definition real. So first, this is a personal quest. But there are ways that administrators can create an environment and offer structural support for scholars to do this. This involves much more than tenure; it involves changing the cultural rules, norms and beliefs about what we value, how we measure success and in what domains we seek to have impact.
This challenge for change goes beyond tenure criteria and must include all aspects of the field: doctoral training, faculty hiring, journal review, promotion and tenure criteria, school rankings, accreditation, and more. Yet as these changes begin, spread and take hold, adoption will diffuse and accelerate, and a new culture will take shape. The pressures for such a shift have been building for years and the COVID-19 pandemic, with its attendant transformative demands, is accelerating the process by which universities see merit in becoming more engaged with the society of which they are a part.
Q: How does social media play a role?
A: Social media is the great disrupter of our time. It is changing the channels through which science is communicated in our society -- who can create it, who can access it and ultimately what it is. It is democratizing knowledge and changing the nature of our scientific discourse, allowing a much wider array of voices to enter such discussions with varying degrees of validity. On the negative side, it is facilitating the degradation in the quality of public and political discourse that I mentioned earlier. People are turning to online environments for their scientific information, and a wide array of interests have used that medium to communicate their interpretation of science at a speed greater than the channels that scientists typically employ. Society now has instant access to more news, stories, information, opinion, data and analysis from more sources and in more varied formats than ever before, and many people cannot sort rigorous analysis from pseudo-science. Much of this information is highly politicized with an ideological goal that presents firm conclusions that diverge from those arrived at through the scientific method.
But social media is also a tool that can and does create positive outcomes. For example, minority and marginalized voices can now more easily enter the public discourse. And the hope of the web’s creators still exists -- the potential for a virtual commons through which a greater number of people can obtain valuable information and education. Some studies show that social media appears to be reducing education gaps by helping online users gain comparatively more knowledge about science. And this is where academia can begin to think of social media as a constructive tool to bring their scholarship to the public in a way that creates a social good by improving the quality of our public discourse.
For our teaching, social media allows an expansion of the notion of the classroom, allowing us to bring education to a much larger array of students. But it also challenges the content we teach, since students now carry access to the world's information on their phones, reducing the need to simply teach facts. Now teaching must emphasize how to become discerning consumers of online content, being able to distinguish rigorous and objective research from content that may have a political agenda and bias, or that represents shoddy or unreliable methodology, data and review. For our research, social media allows an expanded set of tools and domains for data gathering, literature review and information dissemination.
Q: How can you tell if a scholar is successful at being engaged?
A: Precise metrics for successful public engagement remain a challenge at this moment in time. In a survey of United Kingdom faculty on public engagement, 53 percent gave no response to the question about what criteria they used to measure successful activity. Another 22 percent of the responses were variants of “none” or “no criteria.” Of those that answered, an interesting finding was that some do not want precise criteria, reporting that engagement is something they do voluntarily and during personal time. A lack of criteria allows them to retain control over their activity, and they fear that could be undermined if explicit formal evaluation were demanded.
But the search is underway to create some kind of definition. Some colleges allow each department to define it for themselves since the criteria can be discipline specific; for example, a school of economics may define its relevant field of practice differently than a school of engineering, and a professional school like business may have different ideas about engagement than a school of basic science, like chemistry. Other colleges are considering new measures of impact and new categories of information to measure the quality of impact beyond academic communities. Based on studies that have found that Altmetric scores can predict later citation counts, some colleges are considering a combination of both Altmetric scores (or PlumX Metrics scores) and standard journal impact measures.
The American Sociological Association produced a report assessing how tenure and promotion committees might consider researchers’ involvement in public communication and social media, noting that “public engagement can be beneficial by providing new forums for sharing knowledge, increasing the visibility and relevance of research with the public, offering additional justification for public funding, and helping to democratize the contributions of researchers to public debate.” The Mayo Clinic’s Academic Appointments and Promotions Committee announced in 2016 that it will include social media and digital activities in its criteria for academic advancement. The Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan has amended its annual review criteria by adding a fourth category of “practice” to the standard three criteria of research, teaching and service, with the goal of capturing impact on problems that have real value to the practice of business. These are examples of the many experiments taking place that are seeking to understand when an academic is successful at public engagement.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: Not every academic must take on the role of engaged scholar, but this book is a call to make that path more acceptable and legitimate for those who do, to enlarge the tent to be inclusive of multiple ways that one enacts the role of academic scholar in today’s world. Some may prefer impact in the world of scholarship, but others may wish to have more impact in the world of practice, bringing their insights and knowledge to directly solving the great challenges of our time.
I see a new generation of scholars that is emerging with a strong desire to make a difference in the real world. This book is for them in particular. Whether they are new Ph.D. students just entering their degree programs, young professors just starting their careers or midcareer professors who have begun to question the purpose behind their work, my hope is to inspire a career path rooted in rigorous research but expanded with the goal of relevant impact on practice within society. Even seasoned senior professors may find some value in these pages. It is never too late to consider the measure of your life’s work based on meaning and purpose instead of status, however defined.
The call for the engaged scholar is an urgent call to re-examine the core purpose of research in higher education. It is a call to re-examine what we do, how we do it and for what audiences.