Academics shouldn’t be seduced by the rubber chicken banquet circuit

Scholars are exposed to and trained how to do comprehensive literature reviews, collect data in a systematic manner, analyze this information using appropriate methods, make interpretations from this evaluation, and then subject their findings to peer review.

This process is typically resource intense and often frustrating. But this is how academics conduct rigorous scientific research.

Sometimes, for one reason or another, individuals and organizations outside of the academy (e.g., community, political, religious, or social organizations including professional/practitioner groups) reach out and ask us to give a talk or a speech in front of the group they represent or are part of.

Our initial reaction to these sorts of requests may be mixed, ranging anywhere from elation to fear.

On the other hand, given the infrequent perks that most professors get, these external invitations may seem like a relatively attractive opportunity.

After all, as part of our jobs, we present papers or give talks at learned society meetings, and some of us give lectures to a colleague’s class in our department, college, university or for a professor at another educational institution. But the invitation to a nonacademic group is a different beast.

In the early part of an academic’s career the opportunity to present in front of an audience outside the academy, may feel like a real boost to our egos. It may even allow us to check the nebulous box on our year end productivity reports that ask us if we did any community service.

After having our most recent paper rejected by a well-respected peer reviewed journal on what we believe to be tenuous or spurious grounds, it feels good to be recognized beyond the academy for the work we do. We even might ask ourselves, how often do we get this kind of public acknowledgement?

We may even get a free trip to a relatively attractive venue where we give our speech. The organizer may even allow us to bring our partner and kids along. (Imagine you giving your speech in front of a crowded room, with an attentive audience, while your family members are frolicking at the hotel’s pool).

We could even receive a small honorarium and we may even be able to spin the talk into an op-ed in a nonacademic publication, an information item that the folks working at our University’s Public Relations department might be interested in.

Occasionally these kinds of talks will allow you to make connections that you can translate into future research or consulting opportunities. They may even give you special access, often denied to outsiders, to watch the organization in action, or data for analysis.

These talks may also force you to think about the problems you typically analyze in a different manner and thus motivate you to read more deeply and widely than you normally do.

But over time, giving talks to nonacademic organizations, can also have downsides.

What are they?

There is no denying that no matter how hard you try to minimize the resource commitment; these kinds of talks will take you away from your scholarly activities. If you are a tenure track assistant professor then these kinds of talks will cut into your research time that you can be doing scholarship and publishing in peer review journals. How much time these talks takes vary on a number of easily discernible factors (e.g., location, specific subject they want you to talk on, etc.).

Most importantly, however, sometimes these kinds of speaking gigs unnecessarily lead you to take positions that you may not initially agree with or that are not based on empirical evidence.

In this situation you have been captured by the audience. And when you find yourself in this position, there are a handful of ways you can respond. One is to dig in your heals, and step up your efforts to find research or craft rebuttals to criticisms to support your unpopular position, or you can stop.

This is why scholars must choose wisely among these kinds of opportunities and to carefully and honestly gauge to whom and why you are engaging in this kind of activity. If it is ego driven, then it is probably time to stop. If you truly believe in the mission of the organization then it might be time to start thinking of yourself as more of an activist, than a scholar. These are hard choices to make. But make them you should.

Photo credit:
Brent MooreFollow
Rubber Chicken