Faculty Forum: Telling Stories to Defend Our Scholarship

By Arlene Stein

Anti-Intellectualism runs deep in American culture. More than half a century ago, historian Richard Hofstadter noted that “the citizen cannot cease . . . to be at the mercy of experts, but he can achieve a kind of revenge by ridiculing the wild-eyed professor or the mad scientist.” Alabama governor George Wallace once famously derided “pointy-head college professors who can’t even park a bicycle straight.” But the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts are taking this animus to a new level.

In the spring, the White House announced it would gut the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities and drastically cut federal student aid and nondefense scientific research. The response was swift. More than a million people marched in Washington, DC, and cities around the world in April to defend the role of science in policy and society. Social science and arts organizations furiously lobbied against the proposed budget, which has yet to be finalized.

The quick mobilization against Trump’s budget is encouraging. But in the longer term, scholars need to be doing a better job of communicating what we do to those outside the so-called ivory tower. “We have assumed that our work will speak for itself and that our administrative leaders—presidents, chancellors, deans etc.—will take care of ‘public relations,’” labor studies professor Susan J. Schurman recently wrote to members of Rutgers University’s faculty union. “We were wrong and I believe it is time that we develop our own strategy.”

Telling stories about our work to those outside of university settings must be part of this strategy. Sadly, academic experts rarely know how to go about doing so. The academic reward structure favors those who write dense tomes and journal articles geared to other specialists. Even though professors of sociology like me, for example, write about subjects such as the growing inequality gap in this country, or the decline in religiosity, or changes in understandings of gender—topics that would be of interest to a broad swath of Americans—few of us know how to translate our work in ways that resonate more broadly.

We need to get up to speed, fast. Scholars, consider writing a short piece that tells the story of how you became interested in your research and how it feels to be in the midst of discovery. Tell others what it means to you to support and help train a graduate student in your field. Convey why your research makes the world a better place. Borrow the techniques of narrative nonfiction to write a book about your research geared for a general audience.

As Syed Ali and Philip N. Cohen, editors of the American Sociological Association’s journal Contexts, argue, it’s time to amplify the research that shows that “immigrants make communities safer; that abortion rates may not change with legal shifts, but maternal death rates do; that charter schools and voucher programs increase inequality; that police brutality decreases community trust and makes everyone less safe.”

Some PhD holders may object to the very idea of translating their work more broadly. But writing well for nonspecialist audiences doesn’t have to mean dumbing down your work; it means learning to tell a good story. E. F. Schumacher, a British economist, once said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage— to move in the opposite direction.” Too often, our academic writing compels us to make things more complex when what we need is the courage to move in the opposite direction. We do this most effectively through storytelling.

By telling stories, we construct meaning out of the seemingly random events of our lives. Human time is lived through our stories and personal narratives that connect events that unfold through time. We all look for “core human drama, whether that is suffering or some form of triumph,” writes anthropologist Arthur Frank in describing the stories people tell about illness. Action is dramatic, he reminds us, “when something is at stake.”

The arts, the humanities, and, indeed, the planet itself are now at stake. Professors, it’s time for us to speak up. Be courageous enough to convey, in engaging prose, what we will all lose if your work disappears. Be bold enough to demand that it does not.

Arlene Stein is professor of sociology at Rutgers University. She is the author, with Jessie Daniels, of Going Public: A Guide for Social Scientists (2017). Academe accepts submissions to this column. Write to [email protected] for guidelines. The opinions expressed in Faculty Forum are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.


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