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Academic Karens and the Question of What Gets Valued in Academia: Lessons for #CrimComm

Some of you may have already read the piece we just published by Dr. Sean K. Wilson on Black scholars' experiences in academia. His work provides a broader context in which I want to nestle this little blog on a related, but much smaller set of issues.


It might help to know a bit of the backstory. The genesis of #CrimComm's publishing of Sean's blog is a private exchange that Sean and I had on Twitter about academic service and some of the issues POC scholars face when it comes to having equal opportunities to sit on those service committees deemed more 'prestigious', and/or problems with having their service work treated as of equal value by tenure and promotion committees.


This exchange got me to critically reflect about the extent to which science communication is valued by academic institutions. One aspect is how much we continue to privilege peer-reviewed publications as THE metric of success as a science communicator. I have a confession to make here: as someone who appraises tenure files as an external reviewer, I myself have been discomfited over the thought of applying institutional standards in evaluating a CV in which the author lists 80 podcasts, 10 working papers or policy briefs, 100 media citations, and 5 peer-reviewed publications. In many universities, this would not be a tenurable file. Yet, as far as generating science communication goes, that's a pretty prodigious, if not enviable, output. How should we be evaluating science communication products? If someone creates and hosts a research podcast with hundreds of regular listeners among the general public, isn't that something that should count more heavily towards promotion than a single authored publication in a low-ranked journal? Maybe, just maybe, we need to start rethinking how we might better weight contributions.


Although I am leading off with that issue, it's not the central concern raised in my correspondence with Sean. In essence, our exchange got me to consider not only whether science communication is appropriately valued within academia, but the ways in which any potential value might be judged differently based on factors that are shaped by, or directly attributable to one's race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity and/or other characteristics. For example, if I was a POC scholar working with community groups and publishing pieces on my relevant research in local newsletters, would that contribution be treated similarly to someone else's op-ed in the Los Angeles Times? I suspect not. Would there be some uncomfortable overtones and assumptions associated with that treatment? I suspect so. Would it be appropriate then for science communicators to advocate for scholars' contributions in this area to be regarded as being of equal value? I think this argument could be made; however, others might disagree and prefer weighted evaluations which maintain some form of privileging, just perhaps different in terms of what is privileged.


There is, of course, also the issue that animates Sean's blog: the matter of silence. If we are to promote science communication as an intrinsically valuable activity for researchers, how can we do so in ways that create as broad a landscape of diverse voices as possible? I admit: it's a bit of a struggle here at #CrimComm. As you know, Aili and I spend a decent chunk of each day trying to identify and promote the work of criminologists engaged in science communication activities. But we sometimes accidentally scroll past important work, we have to say 'no thanks' to blogs that are outside our scope, and sometimes we ignore requests to promote work that is not research-based or might set off World War III. And, as a result, people are going to feel silenced. That is a reality. How best to handle these issues remains an ongoing balancing act. Do we have answers? Not really.


But a much larger reality is that many people across all different walks of life feel silenced as a matter of course and that needs to change. As Sean discusses, there are multiple ways in which this can occur. I see it most frequently reflected in institutional norms around tenure, promotion and awards. Early Career Researchers, in particular, are provided all sorts of 'advice' to the effect that passion projects - which may include under-valued forms of community engagement - ought to be sidelined in favour of chasing after the 'big' grants, the 'best' publishing venues and conference photo-ops with the 'right' people. For scholars doing critical work on issues around, for example, violence against trans communities, doling out one's hard-earned cash to chase down academic celebrities at ASC may be less desirable than creating communication tools to help engender greater public awareness of violence against trans folk. And yet, the pressure to conform can be immense, as these norms are reinforced through not only tenure and promotion decisions, but other faculty's (often unsolicited) feedback on how one might 'rank'. Or, worse yet, in the form of apocalyptic academic stories told to graduate students.


As a community of scholars, I don't think many will quibble over the assertion that we need to find ways to open up channels for more researchers to share their knowledge within and across public and private spheres. But we also have to recognize that doing so necessarily requires asking and answering some difficult questions. That questioning process needs to be an ongoing collective activity, and one that is as mindful of who has spoken as who has not (and why not). And that's how I see these two blogs - Sean's and mine - as providing what I hope will be catalysts for some tough, but much-needed discussions.


Laura Huey,

Univesity of Western Ontario

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