One of the issues that has come up in both Office Hours (a group coaching session for members of the Academic Writing Studio that I’m holding weekly at the moment) and in the Establishing a Writing Practice class is the relationship between motivation to write and finding the writing you need to do meaningful. I’ve written about this a bit before, Risking doing the work you find meaningful. I’ve also written about the relationship between meaningfulness and self-confidence, Where does confidence come from? Part 1: meaningfulness. There are several ways the issue of meaningfulness arises in the current situation which I’ll write about in separate posts.
For those of you who have years of experience and accumulated knowledge, the current situation may be revealing just how relevant that knowledge is. The complexity of the crisis means that there are a lot of things that might currently be relevant.
For example, someone I follow on Twitter has been doing research on children’s play and access to space to play in urban areas. She is very concerned about the ways in which social distancing measures and lockdown policies affect play with potential affects on children’s development, mental health, and so on.
Perhaps your research and publication strategy to date has been primarily focused on the advancement of scholarly knowledge through publication in peer reviewed journals and other scholarly outlets. (A strategy I am fully in favour of, if you were wondering.) You may have thought about wider impact, begun to develop the networks and skills to have an impact on policy, practice, or public understanding, or have a relatively well developed knowledge mobilisation strategy. The pandemic has reinforced your view that there are people out there (policy makers, practitioners, activists, members of the public) who would benefit from knowing something about the stuff you know a lot about.
This may be a good time to shift your writing and publishing priorities to focus on sharing your knowledge with specific non-academic audiences. This may be particularly important if your specific area of expertise isn’t getting much attention. This is not a matter of throwing a few things out there. While you are an intelligent and capable person, if you do not already have a well developed knowledge mobilisation practice, there will be a steep learning curve. As I’ve advised in other posts, it is a good idea to make a plan, thinking through your decisions and making choices.
Make a plan
Identify the audiences you want to communicate with. Yes, there are probably all kinds of people who would benefit from knowing what you know. You want to narrow this list down to one or two specific audiences. List as many as you can to start with and then identify the ones you are most interested in influencing or who would benefit the most. If you already have connections or experience that would help reach particular audiences take that into account.
What do you hope will happen if you do this work? Are there intermediaries who would be in a better position to influence that outcome? If so, put them on your list and figure out why they might be interested in hearing about your work.
Decide which specific audience you will start with. Think hard about why they would care about your knowledge and how they would benefit. Make notes. Do you have specific recommendations for action? Or does your research suggest things they need to consider as they make decisions? What can you confidently suggest? What are the limitations of your knowledge and expertise? What are the risks of acting without the knowledge you have?
What do you know about how this specific audience likes to learn things? Does that change if they are short of time? Why would they listen to what you have to say? (I’m being serious here. Do they care about the prestige of your institution? whether your evidence has been evaluated by your scholarly peers? or something else?)
Learning skills or getting help
Do you have the skills to communicate in the ways you’ve determined will be most effective? Be honest with yourself. There is a difference between writing a scholarly journal article, writing an op ed for a newspaper, and writing a briefing note for a senior civil servant. You are certainly capable of learning how to do all of those things but that doesn’t mean you already have those skills. Have you done it successfully before?
If you don’t have the necessary skills or your skills are relatively new, you might want to enlist help. This help could be in the form of teaching you new skills, doing the tasks you are less skilled in, or partnering with you to do this work. You are looking for people whose skills complement your own. They don’t need to know a lot about your research area because that is what you bring to the project. They do need specific communication skills and experience with the particular audience you are trying to reach.
Do you have students or colleagues who have successfully done the kind of writing (or other communication) you need to do before (outside of a classroom context)? Does your university research office or communications office (not the academic department, the administrative office that does media and government relations for the institution) have people with the necessary skills who could help you? If you didn’t think about intermediaries when listing audiences, you might do so now. Are there organisations or people who might already have the ability to influence the people you want to communicate with who you might be able to partner with or communicate with instead?
Do you have a colleague who has a better developed knowledge mobilisation strategy for their research that focuses on a similar non-academic audience? Would they be willing to partner with you or give you feedback on your strategy or draft materials? Could you hire one of their research assistants to help you?
Does your institution have a department of communications, journalism, public relations or similar? Would a colleague who teaches in that programme be able to help you develop a communications strategy for your research or recommend resources that would help you communicate more effectively? Is there a communications consultant you could hire to teach you how to do this more effectively? Are there good resources available online?
Focused effort is more likely to be effective
Your initial ideas may be good ones. They should definitely be on your list. However, they are likely to be things you are aware of as a reader. And you have less in common with the audience you want to reach than you have with the scholarly audiences you typically communicate with. Taking the time to brainstorm options, seek advice from more experienced colleagues, and think carefully about how the people you want to reach work will help you identify options that will have a higher chance of success.
I am in favour of low expectations. You cannot control whether anyone listens to you or acts on what they hear. You certainly can’t control what they do with specific knowledge even if they have it. You can control the chances that they will come across it and take it seriously. Concern yourself less with how your colleagues will evaluate your efforts and more with how likely the people who would benefit from knowing what you know are to learn something and incorporate it into their decision making or other actions.
This also means ignoring the cynical colleagues who think you are chasing “impact points” in a crisis. If sharing your knowledge with those who would benefit from it is meaningful to you, it’s worth rearranging your priorities to do this work well.