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On Communicating Scholarship

By Susan M. Sterett
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Authors want guides when revising.  Jeannine, Margot and I almost always recommend that authors think again about how they make readers care.  What does your work tell us about sociolegal processes? If readers are not interested in your particular topic or research site, why would they care about what you’ve written? Authors can always answer that, but they need to.  Your data, for whatever kind of data you use, need a story. 
You can tell that story in a different fashion  in a blog post, which might reach students and draw a wider audience for your work.  Everyone I’ve heard in the two meetings I went to over the last couple of days (discussed  below) has urged that communicating research to a broader audience is crucial today.  
At least within the United States, the question of how to make your work mean something to others has taken on greater bite.  Funding cuts to agencies such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and agencies including the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency are all justified by dismissal of evidence, not to mention complete lack of governance interest in human well-being. A most notable example of late is the Attorney General’s commitment to mass incarceration, despite its devastation of communities of color and its huge expense.   If we don’t understand how sociolegal processes work, we will fall back on cultural common sense.  In regulatory failure, cultural common sense in the United States tells us that failures are the fault of individual bad actors.  Scholarship on regulation doesn’t.
So you can see why I’m so grateful to have attended the Wiley Executive Seminar 2017 on June 9, and a meeting on June 12 where professional associations discussed how best to communicate scholarship.  The first meeting took place at the Newseum, a whole building devoted to celebrating traditional journalism, with the US First Amendment inscribed on the outside. Law and social movements could not have been more visible. The meeting included representatives ranging from anthropology to geophysics. References to the March for Science popped up throughout the day, making a shared frame of reference for many in the room. 
The hopeful interpretation embedded in workshops is if we work on communicating what we know, we will find an audience and increase support for scholarship.  The particular take in the US is on science; we conceptualize science quite broadly, and the message is relevant to all of us. The title of the workshop was less hopeful: that we are working in a post-truth world.  
Rush Holt, former member of Congress and current CEO of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Neda Afarmanesh of Sense about Science USA, Laura Helmuth, the science reporter for the Washington Post, and Robert Krulwich, the host of National Public Radio’s RadioLab all argued that the world has changed and scholarly communication needs to change too. 
Each argued that science needs a story.  Laura Helmuth argued that to communicate what we are doing we need blog posts and Reddit discussions.  Dr. Helmuth argued that developing a personal connection helps to tell the story of science well.  Why did you come to the research you did?  What draws you?  If you tell the story, we are not stuck with the impulse to require immediate financial benefits to the economy to justify scholarship, which drives much of the criticism of investments in research.  Mr. Krulwich argued that a good story requires wondering, noticing, painting, and evoking feelings. We want to communicate that noticing to others.  Mr. Krulwich told beautiful stories of playing with whales, and of the naturalist  Loren Eiseley’s play with a fox. In a sociolegal world we tell stories of lives in law, sometimes bearing witness with those most often excluded in our public awareness. 
Dr. Holt argued that the model of communication we sometimes operate on is one where we know stuff and other people don’t, implying that people cannot think for themselves. He noted that every third grader is curious and asks questions, and we want to foster that, even if education often doesn’t. We need to communicate clearly and invite people into the conversation.   
Neda Afsarmanesh of Sense about Science argued we also need to do a better job of explaining uncertainty, since too often it can lead to a belief that uncertainty is the same as not knowing anything.  She used the example of autism and complex causation, which is pretty quickly relevant to disability studies, education, and how people interpret their problems, including within the law.  
Others spoke about the centrality of international conversation to our enterprise, and why that means opting out of travel, visas and international collaborations threatens what we do.   We see that in Law and Society Review; our ideas travel, so authors use concepts developed in one context at another time, and in another field.  
For more on communication, values of collaboration in scholarship, and other reflections on scholarship, see Wiley’s blog. Professional associations have developed blogs LSA members may wish to contribute to, including the Consortium of Social Science Association’s whysocialscience.com and AAAS’s Be a Force for Science, which includes webinars and FacebookLive sessions.  The website has suggestions for how to communicate in everything from op-eds to within faith communities.
On Monday June 12, I went to a meeting of professional associations at NSF, which previewed a National Academies report on the value of social sciences.  In the current dire public climate dismissing information, the temptation is to say that information is immediately useful in solving some problem a public has defined.  The report focuses on contributing to national well-being, and the examples are from health, and cybersecurity.  While that is valuable, we participate in the chorus singing the value of interpreting our world in a way that may not be immediately instrumentally useful.   As I write, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the decision against the Trump Administration's revised travel ban, for targeting a religion. The United States’  shameful Japanese-American internment haunts the decision.  
So, tell a story from your data and tell us why you care; we can hope to improve our shared understanding.


 

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