Higher Education

Needing public support, academics try to make their work more clear

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts—It may not be entirely surprising, in the rarefied confines of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to hear a member of the faculty let terms like “randomized controls” and “self efficacy” slip into a conversation.

But the point of this particular conversation may be a surprise.

Here in a windowless office in the basement of a red brick classroom building near Harvard Square, the faculty member, Mandy Savitz-Romer, has teamed up with a colleague to translate these words into comprehensible English.

“So what does work?” the colleague, Mary Tamer, prods Savitz-Romer about her research into encouraging more high school graduates to go to college. “If we wanted four or five things, what would they be?”

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The result of this collaboration will be an easily digestible, BuzzFeed-style list of bullet points that makes her work clear to a wider audience than just academic colleagues who speak the same complex language Savitz-Romer does.

Alan Alda meets with students at Cornell University. The actor and director, who once hosted a television science program, has become an advocate for helping academics communicate more clearly with the public. Photo: Lindsay France/Cornell University Photography

Alan Alda meets with students at Cornell University. The actor and director, who once hosted a television science program, has become an advocate for helping academics communicate more clearly with the public. Photo: Lindsay France/Cornell University Photography

A former communication consultant, Tamer was brought on board to run a project at the graduate school called Usable Knowledge, one of many such efforts to help scholars and prospective scholars make their work accessible to everybody else—including, not coincidentally, the legislators and taxpayers who pay for it—and to teach students the clear communication skills employers are demanding.

“Those who are involved in funding academic research are really keen to see that it’s going to lead to something practical,” said James Ryan, the education school’s dean, who was trained not as an academic but as a lawyer. “If faculty are interested in their work having influence, paying attention to the language that they use is really important.”

As an example, he cites research about the benefits of pre-kindergarten education that someone thought to explain in the simplest possible way: by calculating that providing it would save more money than it would cost.

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“That was genius,” Ryan said. “It’s a brilliant way of making the research not only accessible, but compelling.” And compared to a dense treatise advocating for pre-kindergarten using terms such as cognitive development and holistic instruction, “which one is going to make a better case?”

The Global Communication Center at Carnegie Mellon University, whose director’s academic specialty is rhetoric, helps not only faculty but also graduate and undergraduate students in all fields make sure their research makes the best case. In a competition at Villanova University, engineering students are required to explain their work to a retiree or a 12-year-old, who, in turn, explains it to a judge. The University of Delaware pairs up engineering and journalism students, the journalists to learn about engineering, and the engineers about communicating.

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Stony Brook University has established an entire center for communicating science, named for the actor and director Alan Alda, who inspired it out of frustration with the scientists he met as host for 13 years of the public-television series Scientific American Frontiers.

“I must have interviewed about 700 scientists,” said Alda. “I just listened and tried to understand what they were saying. But they were in lecture mode most of the time.”

The actor remains involved in the center—there he’s called Professor Alda—and uses improv and other techniques to teach graduate students how to better convey their findings.

“The improvising games and exercises we do force you to pay attention to the person you’re communicating with,” he said. “That contact, that intensified observation, and being forced to play by a set of rules forces you to concentrate on the other person and forget about yourself.”

Alan Alda meets with students at Cornell University. The actor and director, who once hosted a television science program, has become an advocate for helping academics communicate more clearly with the public. Photo: Lindsay France/Cornell University Photography

Alan Alda meets with students at Cornell University. The actor and director, who once hosted a television science program, has become an advocate for helping academics communicate more clearly with the public. Photo: Lindsay France/Cornell University Photography

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Among other things, Stony Brook runs a contest in which scientists have to explain a complex concept to 11-year-olds. Last year’s topic: What is time?

Duke University last year launched a program it calls the Forum for Scholars and Publics, which promotes plain speaking in not only science but all academic disciplines by bringing faculty members together to discuss their work with everybody else.

“Given how much the public supports these institutions, there’s a sense of a need for advocacy on the part of the university toward the public,” said its director, Laurent Dubois, a professor of romance studies and history. “Universities as institutions need to think about this and find ways to speak to that broader public.”

Beside, Dubois said, in a time of breakneck advances in technology and concerns about such things as climate change and global epidemics, “the public is kind of hungry to hear from people who really know about this stuff.”

A study by the National Science Foundation found that fewer than half of American adults surveyed understood that the earth orbits the sun once a year, that antibiotics do not kill viruses, and that humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs.

“There’s a growing realization that a lot of the biggest issues in science require us to talk to each other,” said Elizabeth Bass, director of the center at Stony Brook, where two Ph.D. programs now require students to take a course called Communicating Science. “But communication doesn’t actually occur until somebody understands it.”

Meanwhile, she said, “There’s a growing realization that virtually all university research in this country is publicly supported. And academics owe it to the public to explain what it is they’re doing, and why it’s important to do.”

Harvard’s Savitz-Romer thinks so, too. Making her research widely understandable could hasten its progression from theory into practice.

“I love doing this, and getting the message out,” she said, back in the basement of the education school. “And as we all do more of this we’ll get better at it.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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