Speak plainly unto nation

Sally Feldman says academics should talk to the media about their work

February 19, 2009

Last year, in an interview in Times Higher Education, broadcaster and academic Mona Siddiqui expressed surprise that so few academics were prepared to talk to the media about their work.

"I think they feel that there's too much at stake in the academic world," she said. "But why so many people are precious about their discipline is beyond me."

I share her puzzlement, having transferred to higher education from Radio 4's Woman's Hour, where I had been editor and where we were continually surprised at how many academics refused to appear at all, or else would stipulate stringent conditions.

Back then, I didn't realise quite how tribal academic life could be. Why on earth would a fiery phenomenologist object so stridently to being placed across the studio table from a perfectly pleasant positivist? I was particularly nonplussed by a radical feminist who refused to engage with any man at all, specifying that she could only debate meaningfully with someone who agreed 100 per cent with her latest theory on the tyranny of vaginal penetration.

And why, we muttered to each other, did academics have to be quite so specialist? I recall one historian who sat in the studio and delivered some powerful insights into the condition of women at the time of the first Reform Bill.

"What about the second Reform Bill?" presenter Jenni Murray ventured. "Sorry, that's out of my period," the historian snapped back, as if she'd been suddenly asked her views on the Trojan War. Then there was the expert in English meadow crops, who, when asked about the situation in Wales, explained without any self-consciousness that it wasn't her field.

What every radio editor prays for is a nice, friendly, eloquent, knowledgeable academic who can convey complex ideas in a few snappy sentences. Someone like researcher and writer Elizabeth Wilson, who is as at home with high heels as she is with high theory. Or Angela McRobbie, professor of communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, who always knows how to insert pith into postmodernism.

Not everyone can be like them, but I'm surprised that so few want to be. Not long ago, my school at Westminster offered a day's media training to academics across the university. There was no rush for places. So I conducted a modest survey to find out what was holding everybody back.

Easily the most frequently cited reason for their reticence was the fear that their work would be trivialised or distorted, that carefully woven theories might be beaten into flat simplicities.

They had a point. Broadcasters don't like too many qualifications. They want you to answer the question, not consider its complexities. They want you to commit to a point of view and, if possible, oppose the one held by others on the programme. But in the world of ideas, it's somehow suspect to believe just one thing. Like the Red Queen, who can believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast, academics are quite capable of holding several contradictory ideas in their heads at once.

And whereas journalism likes to begin with the headline, academics prefer to work up to their conclusions after meticulously checking the facts. This doesn't work for a seven-minute interview.

Another answer given by respondents was that they didn't relish having their performance deconstructed by scathing colleagues. One professor, rather proud of his searing on-air criticism of red tape in the Child Benefit system, was deflated when the only comment from his head of department was that it was a pity he hadn't referenced Weber's theory of bureaucracy.

When we finally put together a group of researchers for a training workshop, they were hugely relieved to hear that they could control the interview themselves. If they didn't like a question, they wouldn't need to answer. Their discomfort would be far less acute than that of the hapless presenter faced with dead air.

They were also reassured to be reminded that scholars are generally invited to talk about their research on air because it is interesting. The trick is to make it compelling to a general audience.

As Siddiqui put it: "What we can do to the best of our ability, in whichever context we're asked, is to give an opinion, bearing in mind that the public's knowledge is going to be very different from student knowledge."

That doesn't mean distilling a finely wrought argument into a simple statement. It's just a question of speaking more plainly and avoiding jargon. Not "longitudinal studies tend to aggregate towards a more downward trajectory in relation to the development of logistical skills in this control group", but "the children in our survey tended to take longer to work out puzzles".

Even better, follow your finding with a revelation. "This means that working mothers have brighter children."

But, the more stubborn will say, why should they subject themselves to media scrutiny in the first place? It's their job to research, not to provide entertainment for chat shows. Not so, according to Siddiqui. Contributing to public debate should be an essential part of an academic's job.

But for even the most recalcitrant, there is one huge compensation for facing the cameras. Something will happen that never occurs within the cloisters of academia. They will be praised - and that's a sensation so foreign to academics that sometimes it can go to their heads.

I once did my usual show of beaming and gushing, telling an especially shy professor how marvellous she had been.

She was so overcome with the unexpected appreciation that, when asked about payment, she pulled out her chequebook and said: "How much do you charge?"

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