Written by Jennifer Friberg, Cross Endowed Chair in SoTL, and Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at Illinois State University
Last week, the online version of The Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece by Vimal Patel titled “What Neil deGrasse Tyson Thinks Higher Ed Gets Wrong.” The article featured an interview with Tyson, a scientist and frequent media contributor/commentator, and discussed his perception that higher education is lacking a reward system (intrinsic or extrinsic) for communicating the work of researchers to the public. In his remarks, Tyson argued that teaching and public service are undervalued in most colleges and universities, relative to research. He posits that this fact contributes to public misunderstandings about science and research, as few researchers are actively and regularly engaged in sharing the findings of their scholarship outside their disciplines or institutions.
While the entirety of this interview focused on Tyson’s feelings toward science-based research, there were evident ties to the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), as well, particularly in terms of Tyson’s thoughts on advocacy for research. As Tyson spoke of the need to regularly communicate research findings to the public, I was reminded of the idea that taking our SoTL work to the communities around our colleges and universities has been discussed by many as a vital, but often missing, component of SoTL advocacy. Tyson’s ideas tied directly to this notion. In sum, I noted three big takeaways from this article that inform opportunities for community-based SoTL advocacy:
Bring unexpected partners into discussions of SoTL. In his comments, Tyson shares that he interviewed singer Katy Perry on his radio show, much to the dismay of many who viewed Perry as a bad match for the typical science focus of Tyson’s shows. His response?
Why would [I] waste my time? She has more than 100 million Twitter followers. And if I can have a conversation with her about how science has touched her craft, then that brings science to her following. As far as I’m concerned, that adds value.
Why not look at SoTL in a similar fashion? Who can we bring to our craft to expand the reach and value of what we do? What groups of stakeholders can help spread the purpose and benefit of SoTL to others? Digging down, how do each of us identify targets for such advocacy in our own contexts and how might we connect with others for support and help?
Get better at communicating our SoTL research to the public.
Tyson argues that communicating research to the public is something that isn’t valued in higher education, particularly in the United States. He states:
Oxford has a tenured-professor line for the public understanding of science. I know of no such counterpart in the United States. Cambridge has a tenured-professor line for the public understanding of risk. Where is that here? These are [positions] where your ability to communicate is added to your academic chops.
I would argue that by virtue of our interest in SoTL, we are natural communicators. We are fluent in our disciplinary research but we are fluent in SoTL, as well. We translate to advocate, though this mostly occurs in our own institutional or disciplinary contexts. But, how many of us leave those contexts to enter the public sector? If we agree that groups outside our institutions might benefit from expanded SoTL advocacy, how do we get that message out? Might advancement centers, alumni networks, or research offices help? Should we do this work together in a cross-institutional manner? How might we engage established groups (i.e., ISSoTL) in a supportive or leading role for this work?
Keep it simple.
Tyson shared that part of his own development as a science commentator was understanding how his messages about science were most effectively shared. He reported that he believes his popularity in the media and with his followers lies in his ability to distill complex topics into digestible tidbits:
…the press can ask an academic question, and you can give an answer that you might give in a lecture hall. That’s not really the answer they want…I said, why don’t I just give them sound bites? So I went home and practiced in front of [my family]. They’d just randomly bark out questions about the universe, and I would deliver a two- or three-sentence reply. The anatomy of a soundbite has to be tasty, and you have to say, Wow, I’m glad I heard that. It has to…be so interesting that you want to tell someone else.
It’s likely true that once we endeavor to engage with stakeholders outside academia, we need to adapt how we communicate. As a speech-language pathology professor, I have often taught my students about a concept called “code switching,” wherein a speaker adapts how they deliver a message based on their audience. An example I frequently use to show how differently messages can be crafted via code switching is, “how would you ask the following people to open a window;”
When with a friend, you might ask “Dude, would you open the window?”
When with your younger brother, you might more directly say “open that window now!”
In the same room with your boss, you’d likely ask, “do you mind if I open that window?”
If we are seeking to share our SoTL with folks who aren’t academics, we need to learn to code switch a bit and use those communication skills I mentioned above in a slightly different way. We need to craft brief, summative, and engaging messages to appeal to folks unfamiliar with our work in an effort tot draw them in and hold their interest. We don’t need to give a forty minute paper. Rather, we need to make the case for how our SoTL work is important to them and how it might be in the future.
Patel, V. (2018). What Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks higher ed gets wrong. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 65(3). Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/What-Neil-deGrasse-Tyson/244522.