Every week I meet with students about their academic interests, their future, and their vision. This past week, I met with a young man, about 25 years old, who is pursuing a master’s degree in education. He told me that he wants to be famous – wants to get on TV, radio, and be in the news. He’d like to be a public intellectual. The first question I asked him is, “What are you gonna say?” He didn’t have much to say in terms of a response. But I did.
Often people will ask me, “How do you get quoted in the media?” or “How did you get to do a blog?” Then they’ll say, “I wanna do that.” For all those wondering, the way that academics get quoted in the media, asked to write op-eds, or invited to appear on radio and television is to do research that matters. I believe in using my voice but only when I can back it up with evidence and only on matters about which I know a great deal. When you do good research and research that matters, you are ready to comment on national issues and not before. Speaking out with little knowledge on issues runs the risk of making you looking ridiculous.
Oftentimes, I think young people are in a hurry to be known or “be famous” – especially in our current culture. I would urge young scholars to take their time and craft a rich research agenda – earn the respect of your peers for doing rigorous research that can have a significant impact on policy and practice. Then, and only then, use your voice to make compelling arguments about important issues.
But, remember that you can only be an expert on so many issues. Refrain from stepping out of your circle of expertise. And don’t get caught up in the hype. Of course it feels good to garner national attention for your work, but it’s not about you; it’s about the research and making a difference.
There will be those in the academy who tell you that talking to the media is a waste of time or that it’s not possible to distill “high-level academic thinking” into “sound bites.” Don’t believe them! Learning how to speak to a broad audience is a terrific skill. By learning this skill, you will be able to have a much larger impact than merely publishing in academic journals, which reach very small audiences.
That said, when your work does get media attention, remember to continue to do new research and publish it in peer-reviewed publications. The only reason anyone in the media is interested in you in the first place is because of the research you’re doing!