How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Public Scholarship: Get There Quickly

When researchers do public scholarship (the application of research to a contemporary problem for non-specialist audiences), they have one advantage over all the hot takers and nearly everyone else out there:

They know what they’re talking about.

And they have one disadvantage:

By the time the hot takers (like locusts) have finished with a topic, it’s close to burnt over in terms of public attention. In a world where claiming a new idea early has high value, the time-scale of peer review and research culture is at severe disadvantage.

So, while public scholarship should perform at least one of two functions for its audience:

  1. Explain what the hell is going on regarding something we care about/are interested in, and/or 
  2. Alert us to what’s on the horizon that we should know about.

you also need to build your public scholarship around how your research expertise creates white space on the subject you’re addressing — and then fill that white space with your insights, indelibly and above all, quickly. (White space: the novel angles on any particular issue that no one has yet talked about for your audience.)

It’s that white space that only the researcher expert can reach that’s your competitive advantage over the world of hot takes. And you need to know how to cultivate your instinct for it and quickly deploy it.

The ideal time to publish: Not in the rush of hot takes, but in their wake.

For instance: most people in the media have already dismissed Marianne Williamson and her candidacy for US president. She’s a wacky woo-woo self-help guru, right?

Then again, almost all the pundits dismissed Donald Trump.

So, before we all turn away from Williamson, what might she mean for the future of US politics? 

A revolution in the way we think about private and public, says historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela of The New School in a new piece in The Atlantic.

Petrzela places Williamson’s run in the light of history — specifically, the US history of self-help evangelist figures like Norman Vincent Peale, who were also politically active. Petrzela then speculates that Williamson is a leading indicator of the erasure of the conventional divide between the self-improvement movement (as private, personal and perhaps narcissistic) and the political (as public and subsuming the individual in the collective. And it might already be happening — money quote:

“When Williamson goes on television, a staffer recently shared, she apparently gets snickers from producers and journalists, while the working-class makeup artists with her about brought to tears by her presence.”

Petrzela the historian sees a trend in someone the punditry reflexively dismisses. That’s the white space that only the researcher can reach. And her piece is getting some good traction as thoughtful, step-back public scholarship.

She does it again with a piece in Logic about the new home exercise startup Mirror (which uses a mirror as its interface) and whether it might signal a shift from collective, in-person, ecstatically communal exercise experience (Soul Cycle, Orangetheory) to something in tune with selfies and a backlash to body exhibitionism.

These aren’t perfectly buttoned-up pieces. They’re a bit premature — Williamson isn’t going to make the third Democratic debate, and we don’t know whether Mirror and Peloton (the at-home online bicycle exercise class system) will be durable or fads.

But that’s OK, isn’t it? Explaining and alerting and finding white space carry with them the risk of eventually being wrong. That’s not sloppy and anti-scholarly; that’s leading.

Public scholarship shouldn’t just be scholarship written in accessible language; it should be a full player in the public sphere. Which means not just being backed by research. It means getting to the party on time, with something new and interesting to say.