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john hawks weblog

paleoanthropology, genetics and evolution

Photo Credit: Margaret Mead talking with journalists at a Town Meeting of Science event in 1968. Photo: Stephen Siegel, courtesy of Smithsonian Institution

What anthropology loses when we pigeonhole public engagement as “service”

Today at the meetings of the American Anthropological Association, Caroline VanSickle and Natalia Reagan organized a panel entitled, “Biological Anthropology and the Public”. The session featured the work of six innovative early- and mid-career anthropologists, each of whom has found new ways of interacting with a broader public beyond university students and fellow researchers.

I wasn’t at the conference in Washington DC, but I was able to follow along with the session because of its novel approach, including filmed segments with each of the presenters and a lively Twitter stream at the hashtag #bioanthpub. The organizers are making the filmed segments at the National Museum of Natural History available on the BOAS Network on YouTube, where anyone can watch them.

The burden of service work

One topic that came up in the Twitter stream really irked me, and I want to talk about it. Jess Beck, a great science communicator herself, captured the question and answer about public engagement as “service work”:

“Audience member of #bioanthpub asks why panel is all female? Is it because it’s service work? @KateClancy talks about need for tenure & promotion guidelines that incorporate outreach. @SusanGSheridan points out that burden of service work falls disproportionately on women.”
Jess Beck (@BoneBroke9) on Twitter

I cannot disagree with Kate or Susan on their comments. Influential senior people decide grant funding, research opportunities, jobs, awards, and promotions, and too many of these people ignore innovative and effective work in public engagement. Too many devalue innovations contributed by women and all other anthropologists who talk effectively with non-academics about anthropology.

Let’s end the misconception that building meaningful public engagement with anthropological research is “service work”. It is no accident that this wrong idea is so widespread. Spreading this misconception serves the purposes of lazy ivory tower academics who want to treat public engagement as window dressing in “broader impacts” statements rather than develop evidence-based strategies for building public trust in their work.

Margaret Mead with journalists
Margaret Mead talking with journalists at a "Town Meeting of Science" in 1968, with Linus Pauling in the background. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

Here’s the reality: Public engagement was always part of anthropology’s past, and without effective public engagement, anthropology will have no future.

Bioanthpub panel
The #bioanthpub panel. From left: Agustín Fuentes, discussant, Caroline VanSickle, Briana Pobiner (with guest), Kate Clancy, Natalia Reagan, Becca Peixotto, Susan Guise Sheridan, and Julie Lesnik. Photo: Jess Beck (via Twitter)

Experiments in engagement

Take a look at the six anthropologists in this one session at the AAA meetings. Every one of them is an innovator running a live experiment in building real public engagement in their work.

  • Susan Guise Sheridan has built the largest social media forum connecting research in biological anthropology with the public, with 20,000 followers and counting.

  • Natalia Reagan has brought a scientific anthropology perspective to television audiences of hundreds of thousands of people.

  • In addition to her work advancing public understanding of science at the National Museum of Natural History, Briana Pobiner has undertaken an enormous experiment in K-12 evolution education in the state of Alabama.

  • Julie Lesnik has found new ways to connect communities and people with human evolution by putting their hands (and tongues!) on the dietary evidence.

  • Becca Peixotto has connected with schoolkids and more than 100,000 people worldwide from the unbelievably inaccessible chambers of the Rising Star cave, finding new ways to document this work with video, and new ways to tell the story of archaeological fieldwork.

  • Kate Clancy has changed the academic landscape of biological anthropology with her engaged research on sexual harassment and abuse in fieldwork settings, and she is breaking new ground in public dialog with her podcasts.

None of them have done it all alone, but each of them is a leader. Every one of these projects started as an experiment. Some of them have progressed far enough to fundamentally change the way that we work, either with the public or with each other. Many of the experiments are still running—the results are not in yet!

Not a single one of these ongoing experiments should be pigeonholed as “service work”. Sure, they may perform a valuable service for other anthropologists by increasing the profile of the field with the public. Every one of these anthropologists should be commended for that valuable role. But calling them “service work” devalues the real academic contribution that underlies each of these experiments in effective engagement.

From experiment to evidence-based engagement

Even though public engagement has been so important to the history of anthropology, it is only today that we are seeing the first steps toward evidence-based public engagement.

So many times, I have seen anthropologists interested in developing new teaching practices for K-12 students, do a couple of workshops, discover that their ideas simply don’t connect with the needs of K-12 teachers and classrooms, and then walk back to their laboratories. So many times, I’ve seen science festivals presenting the same tired activities for kids. So many times, I’ve seen the same tired public lectures from leading researchers.

Every one of those has been a “broader impacts” activity for somebody’s research grant. I suspect their net effect is negative. Anthropologists get people’s attention and then bore them.

We must start building a knowledge base about which public engagement activities are effective. That means going beyond simply telling stories about what we did last summer for public engagement. We must look beyond informal assessment and anecdotes, toward real evidence. We must build communities of practice to enable more researchers to be a part of effective public and community engagement. We must recognize excellence in assessment, documentation, and replication, not just anecdotal stories.

Only by respecting the academic effort in public and community engagement can we elevate anthropology to the next level.

The good news is that we have come a long way in the last fifteen years toward recognizing innovative public engagement as part of tenure and promotion in American universities. For example at my institution, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tenure guidelines specifically discuss outreach and community engagement activities. The guidelines emphasize that a candidate’s record must present evidence of excellence in outreach and public engagement, as demonstrated by leadership in developing innovations and transferring technology and science from research programs into the community. We look for documentation of the intellectual contribution of this outreach into the community, beyond the campus.

What can we do to build upon these first steps?

I plan to keep pushing back against senior anthropologists who pigeonhole valuable public engagement experiments as “service work”. I also recognize that I can do more by publishing the assessment of some of my own work in outreach and engagement, and by encouraging others to publish theirs. I will keep writing letters to support the innovative work of early career anthropologists who are advancing public engagement in our field. And I will continue to lobby grant agencies and foundations for real support for evidence-based “broader impacts”.

This post first appeared on my Facebook page, where a lively conversation of more than 50 comments from many professional anthropologists accompanies it.