The Five-Tool Policy Scholar



By 01/07/2013

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On Wednesday in this space, I’ll be publishing the 2013 Rick Hess Straight Up Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings. Today, I want to take a few moments to explain the purpose of those ratings (tomorrow we’ll review the scoring rubric.)

The exercise starts from two simple premises: 1] ideas matter and 2] people tend to devote more time and energy to those activities that are acknowledged and lauded. The academy today does a passable job of recognizing good disciplinary scholarship, but a pretty mediocre job recognizing scholars who work to move ideas from the pages of barely-read journals into the national conversation around policy. This state of affairs may work fine when it comes to the study of material science or Renaissance poetry, but it doesn’t if we’d like to encourage responsible researchers to wade into the public discourse about schools and schooling.

In baseball, there’s an ideal of the “five-tool” ballplayer. This is a player who can run, field, throw, hit, and hit with power. A ballplayer can be an all-star while excelling at just a few of these, but there’s a special appreciation for the rare player who possesses a full suite of skills.

Scholars who do policy-relevant research contribute most fully when they put a broad array of relevant skills to use. Yet university promotion, pay, and prestige tend to reward a very narrow slice of activity and accomplishment. I’ve long thought that if we did more to recognize, appreciate, and encourage five-tool scholars, we might get more scholars willing to spend more time doing more than publishing opaque articles in niche journals, sitting on committees, and serving in professional associations.

From where I sit, the engaged policy scholar is a “five-tooler” in his or her own right. As I see it, the extraordinary policy scholar excels in five areas: disciplinary scholarship, policy analysis and popular writing, convening and shepherding collaborations, providing incisive media commentary, and speaking in the public square. It’s the scholars who are skilled in most or all of these areas who can cross boundaries, foster crucial collaborations, and bring research into the world of policy in smart and useful ways. The academy, though, treats many of these skills as an afterthought–or a distraction! And while foundations fund evaluations, convenings, policy analysis, and dissemination, few make any particular effort to develop multi-skilled scholars or really support this whole panoply of activity.

Today, academe offers big professional rewards for scholars who stay in their comfort zone and pursue narrow, hyper-sophisticated research, but few for those who operate as “five-tool” scholars. One result is that the public square is filled by impassioned advocates–while we hear far less than I’d like from those who are versed in the research and equipped to recognize complexities and explain hard truths. Now, one can hardly blame those academics who seek to avoid unpleasant public debates by remaining swaddled in the pleasant irrelevance of the ivory tower. After all, wading into public debate can anger friends and call forth vituperative personal attacks. One small way to encourage scholars to step into the fray and revisit academic norms is, I think, by doing more to recognize and value those who engage in public discourse.

The reaction to previous rounds of the annual Edu-Scholar rankings has left me ever more convinced that the status quo is not immutable. I’ve heard from scholars who’ve used these data to raise discussions with their department chairs about institutional support and flagged them when applying for jobs and promotions. More than a dozen prominent institutions have issued releases touting their faculty’s performance in the rankings, spotlighting activity that rarely gets such notice.

This week’s Edu-Scholar rankings seek to gauge two things: the influence of a scholar’s academic scholarship and the scholar’s impact on public debate as reflected in old and new media. Broadly speaking, half the scores measure scholarly influence in terms of bodies of work, citation counts, and book readership, and about half reflect a scholar’s presence in new and old media. The point is to generate a “wisdom of crowds” sense of a scholar’s footprint on the public debate–whether that’s due to their current scholarship, commentary, larger body of work, or media presence.

Readers will note that the rankings do not address things like teaching, mentoring, and community service. Such is the nature of things. These scores are not imagined as a summative measure of a scholar’s contribution to teaching and knowledge. Rather, they are a counterpart to traditional publication-heavy measures of research productivity. Those results tell us something, but don’t offer much insight into how scholars in a field of public concern are influencing thinking and the national discourse. These results are designed to help on that score.

-Rick Hess

This blog entry also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.




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