Why I value Popular Scholarship

Why I value Popular Scholarship

First of all, I’m not even sure this is the right term to use to talk about this issue. When I say “Popular Scholarship” I’m talking about publications that are widely disseminated and leverage academic scholarship to talk to the public. Some people call these writers “Public Scholars,” so I thought my term made sense. Then I searched it and discovered it had been used in a 2009 article by Robert McCrum in The Guardian, when he reviewed Shakespeare & Co by Stanley Wells. His use of the term reads like a criticism when he explains that while he expects that the public will enjoy the book, it isn’t as good as the author’s other “prizewinning” writing. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/jul/23/biography.shakespeare He later denied that he meant that popular scholarship was inferior to academic scholarship in a conversation with a critic of his piece. http://balletalert.invisionzone.com/index.php?/topic/30199-popular-scholarship-or-popular-scholarship/

The reality is that many academics do consider this to be the case. There are good reasons: many of these publications do leverage academic scholarship so are not first-hand sources, often research is distilled in public scholarship or even misinterpreted, and none goes through the robust peer review process like a piece in an academic journal.

Having said all that, I really like to use them.

Philanthropists represent many sectors, but as a rule fundraisers do not spend a whole lot of time cultivating academics (who are the main audience for academic scholarship). I’m sure there are plenty of wealthy academics out there who give at high levels so please don’t take offense, but this is a generalization accepted by many practitioners in my field. Most higher education fundraisers have a long history assuaging fears about fundraising to faculty. I’m sure there is no quantitative analysis on this, and if there was I acknowledge that this evidence-less practice could be proven to be unfounded. However, when researching philanthropy in Libraries, I found a piece published in an academic library journal that basically said fundraisers were on the same plane as salespeople. And, I once had a faculty member in a meeting tell me that, “Fundraising sucks the soul out of the library.” So it is an issue, but honestly I just laugh about it because 1. there really are some creepy fundraisers out there so lots of people worry about our intentions and tactics and 2. some faculty worry that accepting private donations means donors will want to control their research. (I write about this more in my book Successful fundraising for the Academic Library: Philanthropy in Higher Education which you can learn more about on my “Publications” page.) My main point is that the community that reads academic scholarship is typically not also the community that represents a significant percentage of philanthropists. Public scholarship is what more often informs the communities that philanthropy attracts and serves.

As a fundraiser you learn that the starting point of cultivation is often what the donor thinks they know, and trends and public opinions about philanthropy are developed through exposure to this kind of literature. When I was trained in PR and Marketing I was taught that what the market believes is everything, and the job of the communications professional is to either start from that point and change the market’s mind or accept their mind is made up and navigate that truth to get your message across. So it may not be the norm or even barely stomached by my academic colleagues to begin academic inquiry with popular scholarship, but for my work it has to be acknowledged as the existing truth out there. From there, I flesh out the discussion with academic literature to either disprove it or support it. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, my writing goal is to bridge academic scholarship to the public, so I need to begin where they are. I appreciate that this isn’t everyone’s goal.