It's possible that more people now have contact with universities, either directly or indirectly, than at any time in the past thousand years. This is a relatively recent development; since the 1950s, enrollment has ballooned at both undergraduate and graduate levels. Universities also receive increasing amounts of attention in the media, often in discussions of their role in the economy. In spite of this, what people actually know about the university as a public institution – and the kind of work its members engage in – can be very limited, since much of that work goes on "behind closed doors."
More recently, universities have begun to promote new forms of engagement between the campus and the public. Universities are, of course, connected to the societies that sustain them; but these connections are relationships that require cultivation, not by the university public relations office but by academics themselves.
This is one of the many reasons why graduate students, who will make up the next generation of scholars, should be encouraged to learn how to communicate with wider audiences – those beyond the conference room and the narrow reach of most academic journals. This can include other spaces where public debates happen: schools, libraries, and community centres, non-specialist publications and mainstream media; and it could involve hybrid forms of scholarship that both feed into and are enriched by such communication.
An example of such forms is Active History , based at York University, which aims to "[connect] the work of historians with the wider public and the importance of the past to current events." The site contains blog posts, book reviews, academic papers, and podcasts, created by a diverse group of scholars including graduate students, freelance researchers and writers, postdoctoral fellows, and librarians, as well as faculty. The goal is not merely to disseminate information, but to set up an informed dialogue with various audiences who can also contribute to what is being discussed.
Why is this not encouraged already in most graduate programs? With so many bases to cover in PhD programs already, it's hard to imagine including training and experience in communication as well. Another issue is that many faculty supervisors don't know how to help with this kind of practice because they themselves have no experience with it. Academic professionalization tends to encourage specific forms of engagement. Since time is scarce, students are usually encouraged to pursue first those activities that are most likely to advance their academic careers – peer-reviewed journal articles, book reviews (also for journals), and conference presentations. This may be changing already, since new forms of assessment and "alt-metrics" are being developed so that a wider range of activities can contribute to a tenure portfolio.
Sharing one's work publicly, through social media for example, is still considered controversial, and the tone and pace of some discussions is off-putting for those afraid of exposing too much of themselves too quickly. There is an ongoing debate among academics about whether conference audiences should be free to "live-tweet" academic events, posting real-time updates with comments on, or quotes from, the speaker. Many are used to having a level of assumed control over how their work is disseminated, and tweeting upsets that dynamic. The 140-character limit on a tweet is said to reduce complex ideas to soundbites that circulate out of their proper context. Others argue that a conference is a "public space" and that ideas and knowledge should be shared with those who lack access.
These new forms of rapid and short-form publishing are bringing out the same lines of argument used in the past when academics wrote for newspapers or made television documentaries. But perhaps more people need (and want) to understand more about how the university works, and what it contributes not just to the economy but to the social and cultural environment in which we live. That doesn't mean "over-simplifying," but rather translating – something educators already understand. The effort to use new communication methods and strategies will be worth it, because the conversations we start can enrich not just people's perspectives on what university researchers do, but also public debates about crucial social and political issues – including the future of the university itself.
Melonie Fullick is a Ph.D. candidate in the Faculty of Education at York University.
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