The Value of Digital Outreach

This post has grown out of a Twitter thread in which I addressed a criticism that myself and my husband have received a few times via our YouTube channel. In a nutshell, we are dismissed as scholars and academics because neither of us hold academic positions, or have any kind of peer-reviewed publication record. The years we have spent studying, working, and gaining an expertise in our field are immediately discounted because we are not “real” academics – that is, scholars who are lucky enough to be employed in academia. Needless to say, this kind of absolute dismissal is frustrating but more concerning is the fact that this kind of dismissal of non-traditional scholarship is not found only in the comment sections of YouTube videos, but appears to be deeply-ingrained in the academic world as well. People who have to leave academia for any one of a number of reasons are written off  as not good enough to make the cut, while those that are fortunate and talented enough to gain a full-time, tenure-track position are encouraged to focus on traditional scholarship, often at the expense of any work they do outside that realm. For example, at the last conference I attended I spoke with a faculty member who felt compelled to recommend that a new staff member cease her educational podcast because it would not be looked upon favorably when she came up for tenure.

At the same time, there is a sense of genuine bewilderment and resentment among some academics when faced with the proliferation of inaccurate or misleading television shows, movies, books, and newspaper or magazine articles that are created and publicized by various media outlets. Why are people still taken in by the claims of pseudoarchaeologists and pseudoscientists when there are good, scholarly explanations for every one of the “mysteries” that “baffle” the academic community? Is it that the general public is somehow amazingly gullible…or, perhaps, is it that by discouraging non-traditional scholarship, academia itself is continuing to block access to the evidence-based knowledge we have by acting as gatekeepers?

If academics are actively discouraged from writing blogs, creating podcasts and YouTube videos, or being active on social media outlets such as Twitter, then where are people going to turn to for information? There is relatively little choice but to rely on the well-publicized and promoted works of people and organizations such as Graham Hancock and the History Channel.

It is a personal sadness that I will not be able to seek employment in academia. In the original Twitter thread I justified that by explaining that it was due to personal circumstances and not because I wasn’t “good enough” to gain employment, but that is actually irrelevant to the larger point. I could be a certified genius and still be unable to gain tenure; the job market is really that bad. Academics are being forced to diversify their skillset and manage their employment expectations, but without any kind of recognition from institutions that that kind of diversification is actually a very valuable thing. Since embarking on this digital outreach journey a little over a year ago, I have come to see this kind of work as every bit important as publishing a new translation of an ancient text, or formulating theories on particular historical phenomena. My work on YouTube and Twitter may not be rigorous, or academic, but that is absolutely fine. In fact, I would argue that it shouldn’t be, as this would alienate my non-specialist audience. The purpose of my work is not to move scholarship forward, but to make existing scholarship as accessible as possible to people who have not had the training I have been lucky enough to receive. People who are interested, but not interested enough (or, let’s be honest, privileged/wealthy enough) to pursue graduate education – without which, navigating the world of journals, academic publications, and conferences, is all but impossible. One of the great joys I’ve found in this work is receiving emails and comments from people who have been influenced by our content to consider a degree in Assyriology, or from others who thank us for giving them information they always wanted, but didn’t know how to access. Academics should not have some kind of privileged access to information.

This kind of digital outreach is what keeps the Humanities relevant to the wider world – if people don’t know this history exists, then why should they care if the research is funded? More engagement, not less, with non-specialists is vital to the continuation of our fields, both for financial support and for a continued stream of new scholars. This kind of work should be actively encouraged, either in isolation or in combination with traditional academia.

This is not a report on research, or a project of some kind…and is not backed by any kind of quantitative data. It’s simply an opinion piece from a soon-to-be ex-grad student, who has found more satisfaction and purpose in public outreach than in academic research. I’m not arguing that traditional scholarship is obsolete, or unimportant, merely that it can (and should) be successfully augmented with more publicly-oriented projects. I’ve been excited to see more and more open-access research and public outreach programs over the past few years, and hopefully that trend continues into the future.

3 comments

  1. Bully for you sir! Since leaving grad school it has really been frustrating to me how hard it is to reach authentic academia. I majored in music, but since graduating (and being very exhausted of music) I’ve been trying to diversify my knowledge and grown enamored with other subjects. Of course now that I’m outside of the academic system I can’t often find good content through which to learn. I’m very grateful to those specialists and resources that do outreach and act as ambassador to the lay learner.

    • It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do if you’re not institutionally affiliated, and I definitely sympathize! Thank you for your comment 🙂
      (also, I’m female).

  2. Apologies. I suppose I was just hearing a Teddy Roosevelt-like quote in my head as I wrote that, and wasn’t paying much attention to my target. I too am female, and understand the eye roll when bumping into such assumptions in my comments.

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