By Peter Smagorinsky
Dr. Richard Besser on Good Morning America
I recently visited with a friend from my old high school. In spite of his having gone into a very different line of work, he has taken a career pathway that I think could be very instructive for teachers in schools and universities. Although I always knew him as Rich Besser, he’s known more widely as Richard E. Besser, M.D., Chief Health and Medical Editor for ABC News.
Rich was a highly successful doctor, academic, and public health administrator who now spends his time taking his message about public health to the people on ABC’s Good Morning America and World News with Diane Sawyer. He’s even known to appear on The View and other venues that he never imagined himself appearing on when he was taking throat cultures and figuring out the causes of ear aches.
Why does a distinguished medical professional spend a good bit of his time on camera? Because, he said, TV is where many people, and perhaps most, get their news. It’s his job to educate the populace about their health, and he takes his message anywhere that might inform the public about how to live a more salutary life.
Doing so requires something of him that is beyond the capacity of many physicians: the ability to explain complex medical issues in plain, accessible language. Often, doctors get so bogged down in medical terminology that a sore throat gets explained to patients as an instance of Arcanobacterium haemolyticum. That language might work with other doctors in the practice, but patients need an explanation in terms they can comprehend, not something so steeped in professional jargon that it is incomprehensible to the person who needs the information the most.
My conversation with Rich, I think, has implications for literacy educators. We teachers, especially in universities, spend much of our time speaking with each other in our specialized vocabularies. Instead of saying that people can learn a lot by talking through a topic, we might say that our discursive practices are facilitated through dialogic interactions (Bakhtin, 1981) that alleviate power differentials (Foucault, 1976; cf. Derrida, 1978) such that exploratory talk (Barnes, 1991) generates new knowledge through the conundrum of epistemic paradoxes.
The public, however, is less interested in the history of ideas and more interested in their practical implications, and thus simply need something more plainspoken, such as the idea that opportunities for discussion potentially generate new insights, while monologues tend to treat knowledge as fixed and beyond inquiry or interrogation.
Speaking so obscurely limits the number of people who are willing to read what we write. Since academia is often satisfied with making the greatest impression on other academics, writing in technical language is well received by people within the field. And if colleagues have agreed with an author’s points, then that effect has been sufficient, even if the same ideas rarely resonated outside the echo chamber within which they have been written.
The problem is that when we only publish and read one another’s articles written in language that only we understand, and assign them to our students to be discussed under our guidance, we remain within this chamber, secure from the public and its plainspoken forum. From the outside, that chamber appears impenetrable and self-sustaining while having little impact on the actual world of how educational policies come into being and get institutionalized in schools. The metaphor of the ivory tower, after all, is not used to characterize academics with respect and admiration, but to depict their isolation from reality.
Of course, we also have no money to put behind our ideas, which means that politicians are free to ignore us. But when we speak such that others can’t understand our ideas, it’s hardly a surprise that we are dismissed from the debate as irrelevant eggheads more concerned with our publications than with kids, teachers, parents, taxpayers, and schools.
We are also taught to view the public forum as someone else’s domain. Our world is the world of academic journals and impact factors, of grants and contracts, of getting referenced, of making it onto other professors’ syllabi. But, as Rich Besser said, the average person (or politician) does not read medical journals, or research in literacy education. People get their information from the media.
And that’s where, as a profession, we have been derelict in our duties. As Rich said in a followup note to our conversation, “The key point is that if the goal is to educate the public you have to speak the public’s language and meet them where they are. It’s the respectful approach.”
I write this essay to encourage my fellow academics to consider the implications of working only within the echo chamber of our journals, conferences, and classes. I’m not discouraging anyone from writing scholarly articles; I do it myself all the time, and it’s given me the platform from which to write for the public. But in the last few years I’ve begun expanding my writing to the local media in hopes of communicating clearly and directly with the public, the voters, the politicians who get their information from newspapers, and others who are more likely to watch The View than read Research in the Teaching of English.
I also make this plea as a full professor who has become somewhat bulletproof over time. I recognize that assistant professors and others with less security are wise to focus on writing that produces security rather than writing that invites lower status. K-12 teachers are particularly vulnerable, especially in schools in which dissent is interpreted as poor citizenship. Teachers especially might be restricted to writing “good news” pieces, a genre that advances their school’s reputation. I’ve written many such pieces myself, occasionally with teachers, school administrators, and community educators as coauthors.
I happen to be belligerent enough to withstand the withering criticism that comes from writing for a public with access to anonymous commenting, a form of blowback that many potential authors find intimidating and discouraging. Not everyone is quite prepared for the ferocity with which people express themselves behind the security of a pseudonym, and I don’t wish to underestimate this factor in people’s reticence in going public.
But if we don’t make these points, it’s unlikely that they will be made in the arena in which decisions get made. That leaves the project of shaping public opinion to people who do not understand our field the way we do, and by “we” I mean all educators and knowledgeable stakeholders, from parents to school board members. I hope you consider the possibility that you can have a voice in the public debate so that however policy becomes formed, it at least has access to your perspective.
Peter Smagorinsky is Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at The University of Georgia. His public essays are archived at http://smago.coe.uga.edu/vita/vitaweb.htm#OpEd