Effective Dissemination or Shameless Self-Promotion?

Sunday, April 19, 2009
On Friday and Saturday I participated in an AERA/Hechinger Institute workshop for early career education researchers, designed to help us "learn the ropes" about disseminating and translating our work effectively. Bluntly-- I signed up for this thing because of my multiple forays into a world of blogging/Facebooking/Twitter and other forms of media interactions that have made me acutely aware of my communication limitations (e.g. how poorly I write sometimes, and how often I can't quickly convey what I really mean--see prior sentence as case in point). What I didn't sign up to do was to learn how to build my own reputation. (Sadly, the surprise among some readers is palpable...)

But I worried about this throughout the workshop. Getting quoted in the paper frequently can have unintended consequences, including making others think you want it to be all about you. This is probably especially true if anyone realizes that professors often have to reach out to the media in order to gain their attention-- despite reporters' stated interest in such efforts, they come across as too-eager-beaver. So why do this kind of workshop at all? Isn't it way too risky, putting myself out there like this?? In trying to think it over, I ventured back to what Deborah Lowenberg Ball said Saturday morning to our group, and to the cadre of folks attending Wednesday's Spencer reception as well. In a nutshell, she argued the following:

1. We need to become disciplined and effective communicators of education research. Right now, those in academia who speak out tend to sound like advocates, or border on unconfident or unclear about what we do and don't know works in education. Both contribute to a less-than-positive rep for Ed Schools.

2. If we don't take this on, others will- in fact they already are. Evaluation firms are a good example. They know how to talk about education but are rarely specialized experts in education. This does not mean they can't raise the big questions or go after answers, but it does mean that more often than not they miss many of the phenomena and problems particular to this social institution; simply because they spend less time with it.

3. Outreach is part of the university mission as a "public agent of education." If we in the academia refuse to engage in the struggle to share our expertise, we essentially cut off the world from what we actually do know about how to better educate kids.

So in sum-- after a long hard week at AERA, some of us spent time learning the ropes at Hechinger, figuring out how to speak to and with the media, policymakers, and practitioners not so we can enjoy seeing our names in print more often, but so that we can really strive to do our jobs. Those jobs include disciplined and effective outreach, and we'd fail if we didn't work at it.

The next time you see my name in print, I really hope you understand (a bit better anyway) my motivations. I thank Deborah for giving me, and so many others, a way to think through them.