Five Takeaways from Five Years of Public Engagement

When I was beginning my final year of graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I started a blog with the goal of thinking through some of the interesting issues in higher education policy by writing about them. I joined Twitter a few months later (in February 2013), and I’ve done my best to consistently use both of these venues to reach out to a broader audience and to learn from people far more knowledgeable than myself. Through 255 blog posts and nearly 24,000 (!!!) tweets, I have been able to be a more effective researcher and teacher based on the resulting conversations.

This week marks the fifth anniversary of my blog, Kelchen on Education. To celebrate, I relaunched my blog on my new website (robertkelchen.com)—which now has a more mobile-friendly layout and contains links to my CV, research papers, and media coverage all in one place. In this post, I share five takeaways based on what I have learned in the last five years about how to be a publicly-engaged scholar.

(1) Blog posts and tweets can spark new research ideas. Yes, there are many opportunities to waste time on the Internet watching cat videos or doing a million other unproductive things. But the ability to quickly reach out to a broader audience can result in useful collaborations. A good example of this is a 2014 discussion that was sparked by a new data release on colleges’ living allowances for off-campus students. A number of people shared their skepticism regarding some colleges’ low living allowances (see coverage of one of my tweets here), and I ended up teaming up with Sara Goldrick-Rab of Temple University and Braden Hosch of Stony Brook University to write an article on the topic that was recently published in The Journal of Higher Education.

(2) Be patient. Starting a blog or a Twitter account doesn’t instantly result in a broad audience. A number of my early blog posts got fewer than 20 page views, while it took me about a year to reach 300 followers on Twitter. Public engagement requires patience and a significant time investment, which may not make sense for everyone—particularly for people whose tenure (or reappointment) clock is already ticking loudly.

(3) Be consistent. In order to build engagement with the broader community, consistency in posting is essential. I tried to write at least one blog post per week and tweet 2-3 times per day (not just retweeting others) when I started using those platforms, just so people would be able to readily find me and my work. Once established, the frequency can change somewhat.

(4) Find your voice. Although it’s painful to look back and read through some of my verbose blog posts from nearly five years ago, these posts did help me find my voice in writing for the public. The Chronicle of Higher Education once referred to me as “a reliable source of deep-weeds wonkery,” which is pretty much what I aim to do. I’m not the kind of person who likes getting into political discussions that are unrelated to educational policy on social media, although I will occasionally share some gardening pictures or tweet about my beloved St. Louis Cardinals (so folks know that I’m a real person instead of some robot that is programmed to tweet most weekdays between 5 and 6 AM ET). Within a few months of getting started, find your comfort zone and go with it.

(5) Be responsive. Journalists and legislative staffers frequently use social media to reach out to academics…and although they needed your answer by yesterday, they may be willing to give you a few hours to respond. Set your Twitter messages and mentions to go to your e-mail or phone on a fairly regular basis, and do your best to respond to e-mails within a couple of hours. If people on deadlines know that you are normally able to help them out in a pinch, your work will start getting a lot more traction.

What other things should academics with an interest in public engagement do in order to have a better chance of success? Send along your thoughts in the comments section!

[Cross-posted at Kelchen on Education]

Robert Kelchen

Robert Kelchen is an assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Education Leadership, Management, and Policy at Seton Hall University.