Public scholarship and the challenge of academics’ public engagement in a new global order

23 December 2016, 0948 EST

I’ll confess that post-November 8th, 2016, I spent a large amount of time in despair and unable to write anything coherent on the topics I am most interested in contributing here at the Duck of Minerva. It was hard for me to imagine what the global order would look like with someone like He Who Shall Not Be Named at the helm of one of the most powerful nations in the world, and not despair. But throughout the next few weeks after the US election, I have seen numerous colleagues in the IR and (more broadly) political science fields engage with society at large, trying to educate the masses on the implications of a post-truth new global order.  This gives me hope.

The entire process that this US election took has, in my view, changed the rules of engagement for academics and shifted the traditional academic norm of remaining “at arms length, as an observer“. Daniel Nexon and Brendan Nyhan, for example, have been regularly writing, tweeting and educating people about the implications of what PEOTUS has been doing (from conflicts of interest to Russian interference to the alarming rise in hate crimes post-election). Oh and thanks for doing this, guys.

The situation IS, of course, worrisome for everyone, but I think it is even more important  and relevant for us as academics (and in my own case, as a non-US-based professor). Will visiting scholars of various ethnic backgrounds be harassed at the border or denied visas under this new presidency? Will doing fieldwork in the US become dangerous under the presidential helm of a deranged sociopathic man like the current PEOTUS? And what will be the consequences of public engagement by scholars, given the current attack on the higher education system and on scientific research at large (let’s not forget the Coburn-led defunding of political science by the NSF)? These are all questions that need articulation. I don’t actually have an answer for them, but I’ll admit I’m thoroughly enjoying my fellow academics’ tweets and bloggage and increased activism.

Right after the US 2016 election, I tweeted about the importance of changing our models of engagement with the public.

While my thoughts were still jumbled at the time (and probably still are), I was trying to make the point that we need to better understand the interplay of domestic and global politics with individual decision-making and whether the “regular voter” (however you may want to define it) knows the implications of their voting choices not only in the domestic policy realm, but also in the global arena. I don’t think many “regular people” understand the international implications of a Trump presidency for world peace. As Phil Arena aptly put it, there is probably a not-insignificant risk of a major war now, and I doubt many people get this.

I think many scholars have realized the need for broader engagement and activism. I particularly liked Jennifer N. Victor‘s call to action (her post was specifically on the role of political scientists in public discourse, but I think it applies to every academic discipline!) Obviously, public engagement should be honest, as Julia Azari suggests here (along with a few guidelines on public engagement). I’d also recommend browsing through the World Politics in a Time of Populist Nationalism posts, which I’m thoroughly enjoying (thanks Will Winecoff for launching the initiative!)

Many scholars from other disciplines have also called for engagement, though they forewarn us that there is a risk when engaging publicly (read  sociologists’ Tressie McMillan Cottom‘s and Eric Grollman‘s posts here and here) as a marginalized population (this is particularly important for contingent faculty and scholars from minority populations). Still, I echo what strategic management scholar Andy Hoffman mentions in his article on public engagement: we need (as scholars) to “reexamine how we practice our craft, to what purpose and to which audiences“)


An important challenge for all of us who work in the IR and global governance fields.