How to Survive the Disruption of Higher Ed? Focus on Rigor, Relevance and Reach

by Garrett Broad, author of More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Association of Geographers conference

We’re an easy target, us academics.

Most people don’t really know what we spend our time doing (hint: those lectures you see us deliver take time to prepare, squeezed in between advising students, committee work, research and writing), the idea of tenure seems both luxurious and archaic (it’s actually a pretty grueling process, and hardly automatic), while the skyrocketing cost of tuition suggests that faculty get rich at the expense of vulnerable young people (in truth, even the lucky ones aren’t rich, while our “adjunct underclass” often lives around the poverty line).

9780520287457With all of this in mind, it’s no surprise to see that “Thriving in a Time of Disruption in Higher Education” is one of the themes for this month’s conference of the American Association of Geographers (AAG). I’m actually not a geographer – my PhD is in Communication – but I will be attending the AAG conference, in part to hear what other scholars have to say about this question of “thriving” in such a precarious moment.

Without a doubt, there are aspects of this disruption that are completely beyond our control. But as I’ve come to learn in my early career as a scholar, there are things we can do as communities of professors, researchers, and university administrators to make academics less of an easy target in the future.

Three words come to mind: Rigor, Relevance, and Reach.

I am borrowing here from the mission statement of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California, which introduced these terms as the “new three R’s” that should guide community-engaged research in the 21st century.

These new three R’s were central to the scholar-activist approach I took in writing my new book, More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change. I knew the work had to be rigorous – any serious contribution to the research community or society at large must be methodologically and theoretically sound. The project was inherently relevant – food injustice is an everyday reality for too many citizens of the globe, while the food movement needs to do a better job of confronting systemic inequality in its varied programs. The reach part, however, has proved a bit more challenging – academics are still incentivized to write esoteric books and papers that very few people read, so it takes extra work to connect with audiences outside of the ivory tower through both multimedia and interpersonal platforms (like writing this blog post and doing community events during my Spring Break).

I know I’m far from the only academic who sees relevance, rigor, and reach as important to their work. Before we are disrupted out of a profession, let’s make sure other people know that’s the case.

Garrett M. Broad is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University.