Tracing Paper Skin? Toughen Up

The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, February 4, 2016 | Go to article overview

Tracing Paper Skin? Toughen Up


Scholars seeking to make a difference are let in on the secrets of engagement, says Richard Joyner

The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the World By M. V. Lee Badgett New York University Press 256pp, £64.00 and £16.99 ISBN 9781479815029 and 861392 Published 15 January 2016

You have just finished an important piece of research, and it has been accepted by your chosen journal. You know that it has implications beyond the academic sphere and you want it to make a difference. How can you get it out there? How can you make sure that those in a position to bring about the changes that your work justifies actually know about it? As an academic you probably have no training in public engagement and may find the prospect a little frightening - or a lot. Do not fear: help is at hand with Lee Badgett's comprehensive, step-by-step primer for use by any researcher who seeks to influence policy.

Badgett is a social scientist whose work and public engagement have been influential in furthering the interests of the LGBT community in the US, but her advice will be useful to all social and natural scientists and well beyond. In addressing three main themes of seeing the bigger picture, networking effectively and communicating outside the academy, Badgett draws widely on the experiences of other engaged academics, providing a clear philosophical basis for her arguments and offering a wealth of worthwhile and practical suggestions. Getting the big picture means seeing the different facets of the debate in context, understanding the arguments put forward by the full range of participants, and digging down to see the underlying assumptions, framings and contexts that structure the debate. In this, as in all sections of the book, you will find detailed guidance on how to achieve each of these objectives.

Academics are (or should be) effective networkers in their own sphere, so extending a network into wider worlds should not be too difficult. Badgett emphasises that one of the keys to influencing policy is to persuade others to add us to their networks. She recommends plotting out our evolving network and its interconnections on paper, with the desired policy outcome at the centre. Building a good network apparently has similarities with successful gardening, although not all of us may find this encouraging.

Three major chapters address communication with the world beyond the academy. Badgett bears in mind the observation of Frank Luntz, a conservative political activist, that "It's not what you say, it's what people hear." And what do people often hear when academics speak? Jargon. Badgett offers tips on how to speak what Andrew Marr has called "fluent human" and discusses both traditional and social media. …

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