Exhorting academics to talk candidly and plainly about their research with broader publics is not exactly new. What IS new, though, in this recent op-ed piece published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is linking it explicitly to the research-generation goal of a university, which most policymakers and publics seem to be in the dark about, or conflate with imparting particular “skills” for the job market, or “applied” research that answers a localized question in a particular setting (e.g., how can we get legislators in Wyoming to buy into man-made climate change?).
But the goal of research, and academics in general, is deeper than that, the article points out.
Don’t get me wrong. Generating and imparting skills for the job market, and life in general, is valuable. But there is a danger if we hold this to be the only reason university research should be conducted, or funded (which pretty much comes to the same thing!). Similarly, by holding as the holy grail “applied” research, as most policymakers and corporations are wont to do these days, makes a colossal mistake because it furthers a very narrow meaning of “application,” rather than exploring the general workings of human organization. I’m a great believer in the value of the local — a lot of my research uses qualitative methods, which rely on local interpretations in particular cultural contexts — but I also believe that ignoring the broader patterns of human behavior and communication that makes social life what it is, across a number of interconnected contexts, results in a deplorably cross-sectional view.
In effect, while teaching skills and engaging in “applied” research are important, insisting that this is all that academics should do is akin to missing the forest for the trees.
One of the suggestions the author makes to remedy the situation — and that I agree with — is for researchers to talk about their scholarship in broader forums than just the journals and scholarly books we publish in. I am hankering for the “public intellectual” era of eons past, just for the sake of being pompous in social media in addition to scholarly journals. Rather, this is about ensuring that the publics who fund our work know what it is we do. And, let’s face it, the main factor driving faculty jobs and tenure decisions in U.S. universities, even those are not Research I institutions, is research productivity. We are judged by our colleagues and administrators by the monographs we compile and the knowledge we generate, although external publics seem to regard teaching as our sole responsibility.
Perhaps it is our own fault for not making the case loudly and eloquently enough for what we do, and why it has value. Value, not only in terms of job market skills and the “applied” questions that corporations and foundations pay us to ask, but also in terms of the basic knowledge that “makes” human reality. This means going beyond narrow understandings of “applied” research, to understanding that all research has important consequences and, thus, application(s), although they may not be easily monetized. Before asking “how can we get Wyoming legislators to buy into man-made climate change?” we must first inquire what climate change “means” in the first place, in different situations — yes, in terms of the hard facts and physical changes (the domain of the so-called natural sciences), but also in terms of social interpretations of “climate,” “change,” and even “man-made” (that is the realm of the humanities and social sciences). Although some of these may not be easily quantifiable, they set the basis for understanding what moves us as a human species. It is the BIG questions that matter then, not just teaching skills or the smaller questions that funding agencies and policymakers would like addressed.
I tend to see ALL research as inherently practical and applied. For me, research is practical because it is based in social practice — what people do on the ground, as well as the “best practices” they tell themselves they should do — both in terms of the questions we ask, and the eventual consequences of our findings. How different communities make sense of the word “sustainable” through everyday interactions and practices is crucial to how I frame my research project, as well as its implications for how those communities may actually end up being sustainable. Similarly, all research is applied, because it impacts the application of tools, material resources, and rhetorical arguments in the everyday organization of different communities. Application is about putting something to use, about the deeper purpose behind something, and this purpose might well be socially valuable, although not monetizable.
My website, and the commentaries I offer here from time to time, hopefully reflects this stance on research. My goal is not to offer “tips” and “strategies” that are liable to cause more harm than good, when they are taken wildly out of context and “applied” someplace. Nor is it to teach sustainability practitioners the “secrets” of great communication. Instead, it is to highlight everyday applications and instances of sustainable organizing, and the precepts of dialogic, meaningful engagement in this regard. It is to talk about my research and to focus on its import for practitioners in a variety of situations. And it is to draw on social media, such as Twitter, and practitioner forums, such as CSRWire, to highlight the inherent connections between the world of practice and academe.