The College of Arts and Sciences has developed a new program aimed at training Stony Brook University faculty and students to communicate as public intellectuals.
The program was composed of four workshops during the Fall 2015 semester and was led by Naomi Wolf, a visiting lecturer and accomplished journalist. Each workshop had a different focus and helped both professors and graduate students translate their scholarly work into terms suitable for a wider audience that may not be familiar with their topic.
The workshops have helped scholars produce work that has successfully communicated their ideas to the public. Some scholars feared the process would not sufficiently capture their ideas and findings, according to an op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Should Academics Talk to Katie Couric?” that was written by Wolf and Sacha Kopp, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
In the article, Wolf and Kopp said, that the works of these scholars are relevant to a larger audience, but the challenge has been figuring out how to communicate the scholars’ knowledge without simplifying or compromising it. They found that being successful in communicating scholarly work to the public is what makes for a public intellectual.
One of the most successful scholars to take part in the workshop was Turhan Canli, Ph.D., an associate professor of integrative neuroscience. His TEDx talk about the relationship between depression and inflammation was picked up by NPR after it was posted to social media.
“I think that scientists should do their best to communicate their work to the public,” Canli said in an email. “I think Stony Brook has a growing reputation for being at the forefront of communicating science.”
Success was also seen from graduate students. Helana Darwin, a workshop participant studying sociology, wrote a blog post for The Huffington Post titled “To Shave or Not to Shave: If Only Women Had a Free Choice.” Her blog post explored the relationship between female body hair and perception of appearance.
Kopp is well acquainted with the barrier between intellectuals and the public. His background is largely in science and he has written over 200 scholarly articles. He has seen the effects of integrating intellectual discourse and public knowledge.
“We get very excited about why this stuff is so important and why we think it’s important, but the public doesn’t know about it, and that’s a real loss,” Kopp said.
Stony Brook is one of the first institutions to develop such a program. The program’s success is not only reflected in the accomplishments of professors and graduate students, but it has also expanded to concentrate on undergraduate students.
Kopp has recently begun to consider offering a certificate program that focuses on training undergraduate students to become public intellectuals. A program of this kind would challenge students to think about how their skills apply in the real world, regardless of their academic discipline.
Since the program generated such success in its first cycle, another workshop was completed earlier this semester with another one on the way.
“We learned that some groups are ready to run at a different level, and other groups we need to tailor it a little bit more closely to where they’re at,” Kopp said in reference to what future workshops will look like.