One of the most positive aspects of the digital communications revolution is that more and more scholars are now able to take their findings directly to the public. Voluntary programs that teach faculty how to popularize their work are proliferating.
At Concordia University, we’re taking things a step further with our new public scholars program. Every year, 10 doctoral candidates learn a broad range of communication skills to help them impart their research in new and compelling ways to audiences outside academe. Equipping our next generation of experts to become the kinds of influencers most universities prize but seldom prepare is a necessary update to doctoral programs, which have changed little in the past century – a deep irony in today’s knowledge societies.
Like many universities, at Concordia we have long been promoting our research publicly. We connect faculty to peers whose media outreach has brought them new funding. We help position them as experts with the media, and offer them spokesperson training. And we help them liaise directly with media outlets such as The Conversation Canada, of which Concordia is a founding member. We also engender a culture of pride across our university through our annual media outreach awards.
Our end-to-end, train/support/recognize approach has borne fruit – more faculty are seeking media coverage for their research, and that coverage has doubled from 2010 to 2016. That’s all important work. But we’re so serious about supporting our next generation of researchers, we’re paying each of our public scholars $10,000 to follow the year-long program.
The program starts with 20 hours of training in the basics: the media landscape, what academics want to convey versus what journalists need, message crafting, interviewing skills for different media, preparing informative versus persuasive pieces, and social media best practices. Beyond all that, they learn about government relations, philanthropy, even professional etiquette.
The program covers the how, but also takes into account the who. With credibility increasingly entwined with identity, having public scholars – and all scholars – reflect broader society has never been more important. Concordia’s first cohort of public scholars is as diverse in their disciplines as their demographics.
One of them, Erin O’Loughlin, investigates those who play video games that involve physical
activity. How might their motivations be harnessed to get sedentary citizens back on their feet? Lisa Ndejuru is developing scalable strategies for psychological healing to help victims of trauma, organized violence and dislocation. Rocco Portaro, a mechanical engineer, is working on needle-free liquid jet injection, an alternative to delivering medication by hypodermic needle. Nadia Naffi is examining how social media shapes attitudes toward refugees. All our scholars are motivated by the idea that, with a little amplification beyond conventional academic outlets, they have a chance to effect positive change in people’s lives.
Another key feature of our public scholars program is our partnership with the Montreal Gazette, whose staff were happy to join forces with Concordia. Like journalists everywhere, they feel strongly about the value of true expertise in informing the public, and they know academia is a great place to find it. The paper’s editors are involved at every step: they help select the scholars; they lead training modules and a newsroom visit; and they serve an ongoing role as editors and advisers.
By the end of their year, with the support of various mentors, our scholars will have blogged
regularly, tweeted effectively and published at least one op-ed in a newspaper or higher-education publication. But even if they never write another op-ed, the program provides invaluable tools to our society’s most highly educated. Networking, fundraising and public outreach are all keys to being a strong researcher, but are also handy skills outside academe. Concordia and the Gazette make this investment knowing that the talent pool far exceeds the academic positions available. Recognizing this reality, many of the scholars cite the program’s help growing their networks in both academia and industry as its most valuable tool.
Beyond the traditional and social media skills it teaches, in the end the program circles back to its name – each scholar caps off the year with a public presentation. The live interaction is an invigorating way to connect them both to the audience they ultimately serve and to a key tenet of all academic pursuit: that only with a well-informed citizenry can democracy flourish.
Alan Shepard is president of Concordia University.