When the twenty-third Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences came to Vancouver in June 2019, Melanie Doucet sat behind a CBC Radio microphone and gave the standing-room-only crowd her Twitter handle — it’s @MelanieMDoucet — and then rejected the label of “influencer.”
Doucet’s a Trudeau Scholar — a recognition given to only a handful of Canadian PhD students each year — and a doctoral candidate in social work at McGill.* She was also a finalist in this year’s federally sponsored storytelling challenge, put on by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. She’s striving to influence child welfare policy and to improve the experiences of young people leaving the foster care system.
But she doesn’t seek media attention to build a following, enhance her profile, or flaunt her expertise. She’s not an influencer.
Influencers — those prolific social media entrepreneurs who turn their Instagram selfies into advertisements for teas and trucks — are attractive figures for both derision and adoration. They don’t care how aware you are of the artifice of their seemingly candid portraits — their tousled hair, their morning coffee, their trendy Pilea houseplant. Kylie Jenner, of course, is the archetypical influencer. Forbes describes her as “the youngest self-made billionaire ever,” but she’s also a white woman who capitalizes on patriarchal expectations of femininity (sexuality, vanity, shamelessness, breathlessness), while appropriating signifiers of blackness, seemingly unaware of her privilege.
Influencers don’t care what you say about them as long as you’re talking about them. Attention feeds their hits, their eyeballs, their followers, and so amplifies their message. This, says the influencer, is a good way to be.
Higher education has its own set of influencers — those saying, “This is a good way to think.” They make TV programs and podcasts, publish op‑eds and tweets. They speak but aren’t big on listening. They are Richard Dawkins, arguing for the defunding of schools that teach creationism and echoing the European far right in his criticisms of Islam. They are Neil deGrasse Tyson, advocating for a nuanced public understanding of human-caused climate change and calling for the development of analytical approaches that are well-established in fields outside of his sphere of knowledge.
Higher-ed influencers — the erstwhile “public intellectuals” — seek amplification. They believe they bring expertise and knowledge that the public does not have, and their goal is to spread their message. They are academics who imagine “public influence” to be unidirectional: that the public can be influenced by academics like them but cannot influence them in return. Researchers are in one place, and then in some other, entirely separate area is found this mass called “the public” that the enlightened researcher seeks to penetrate, to “clarify issues and point societies forward in productive ways,” as Mira Sucharov puts it in her new book.
Op-eds, social media profiles, and other forms of public engagement like blogs and podcasts: these are the strategies that Sucharov says can help “build up a following,” attract attention to an academic’s work, and even “lead you to broaden and deepen your ideas, resulting in potentially new op‑ed or research topics” — but not necessarily more listening, not sharing the spotlight. Such research, it seems, would not be co-developed with any members of one’s social media following. And if some commenter changes an academic’s mind — well, the scholar can “write a new piece describing that shift.” In this way, what matters to higher-ed influencers is the promotion of their voice in the public.
Melanie Doucet isn’t that kind of academic.
Rather than seeing herself as a higher-ed influencer, Doucet claims the label of “conduit.” When she gets the media’s attention — which, as a passionate advocate for young people, she often does — she turns the spotlight onto the youth who are the focus of her research. Having coached these young people in media engagement, Doucet and her collaborators provide a counter to the negative stories that dominate the twenty-four-hour news cycle. They tell stories of resilience, of grit and determination, of ambition and of ambitions realized — as in, for instance, Doucet’s own story, about an award-winning PhD candidate who was raised in foster care in New Brunswick.* This is the expertise that comes from having lived through an experience.
Doucet’s approach to academic research has, at its core, listening. Hers is a form of public engagement that is bidirectional: it rests on the assumption that both the academic and the public have knowledge and expertise to share. In Doucet’s model, the public has the ability to influence the researcher. Not so in the model proposed in Public Influence.
A regular contributor on Middle Eastern affairs to the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Ottawa Citizen, and HuffPost, Mira Sucharov is a political science professor at Carleton (its Faculty of Public Affairs awarded her its 2019 prize for excellence in public commentary). Her book is a how‑to and here’s‑why for higher-ed influencers who seek to take their knowledge and make it go and do in the world off campus. Public Influence covers how to write an op‑ed: how the genre is different from academic writing; how to establish a voice; how to pitch an editor; how to understand and speak social justice jargon online; and how to respond to pushback.
Certainly there’s value in writing op-eds and engaging with the public largely through the written word. In an era when it’s easy to find poor-quality information online, it’s important that, if you understand the scientific method or history or the nuance of the written word, you write for a public audience. But it’s also important that you understand that audience before you attempt to persuade it. To convince skeptical parents that they ought to vaccinate their child, it’s worth studying the claims being made by the anti-vaccination crowd, understanding how the anti-science cant manipulates, attracts, and cultivates fear. To get politicians to adopt a new policy, it’s worth listening to the conversations their constituents are having about a topic, tailoring messaging to address community-identified needs. Yet Public Influence affords precious little space to considering how to listen to non-academics before pontificating from the opinion pages.
In a time of increasing populism, of skepticism of “elites,” of the troubling dismissal of facts, the scientific method, and historical truth, an academic following Sucharov’s model might argue that — now more than ever — we need scholars to speak up. Gone is the era when it was enough to simply chat among peers. Sucharov is right to point to the ethical imperative to share knowledge widely.
And yet — and yet. If academics want their work to have a shaping effect, they need to know what conversations they’re entering into. If they want their knowledge to resonate, they can’t pretend they’re speaking into an empty chamber. They need to acknowledge that there are forms of expertise not yet recognized by the academy. They need to consider the possibility that members of the public may know something that they don’t yet know. They need Doucet’s model: that of the researcher as conduit.
To truly influence the public, researchers need to be open to being influenced by the public — to position the subjects of their research as experts who can contribute to shaping research questions, methods, and directions. To spend time hearing the perspectives of knowledgeable people who may not hold advanced degrees or prestigious honorifics. To see “public engagement” as an activity that enhances scholarship. That all requires sharing time and space and spotlights with co-contributors, rather than talking at them from the opinion page or the Twitter handle.
Who can expect to be listened to without first listening?
* The print edition of the September issue incorrectly identified Melanie Doucet as a “Trudeau Fellow,” an annual recognition for five established faculty members. Roughly fifteen PhD candidates are recognized as Trudeau Scholars each year, with Doucet among them. The print edition also stated that she was raised in foster care in Nova Scotia; it was actually in New Brunswick. The LRC regrets the errors.