Being a Public Intellectual

Speaking publically

Today I was interviewed by a PhD scholar  researching ‘public’ geographers and public intellectuals more generally. I’m not sure if I was being researched as an actual public geographer, or as a group of people with views about public geography, but it did get me thinking about what we do and who we are aiming to talk to. This recent article argues that ‘academics can make a difference if they stop just talking to themselves’, with no-longer-astonishing fact that:

Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within scientific communities – 82 percent of articles published in humanities [journals] are not even cited once.

This was brought home to me recently when I had to put my google scholar citation statistics on a grant application. My best papers had 0 citations, while my masters thesis had  6. Hooray. Although, in my defence, my best papers had only recently been published and my Masters degree was more than ten years ago. So if that can get cited 6 times, imagine the possibilities for my fabulous current work. Or whatever. It’s all kind of depressing when you look at these figures.

It’s depressing and astonishing, but it’s not new. We know research is not just about getting cited in other peoples research. We know that getting our work out there is about more than peer-reviewed publications. In fact, going through the PhD process where you write and write and write for several years means that you do start thinking about other ways to get your ‘results’ or thoughts out there beyond just academic publications.One way is just talking all the time, right? Everyone around you gets sick of hearing about your PhD, and about 3 or 4 people are fascinated.Well, those 3 or 4 people might make the difference.

Between 2007 and 2011, I was involved in a local Australian Breastfeeding Association coffee group (as a breastfeeding mum) while writing my PhD, and people there were fascinated by the differences in breastfeeding practice I reported, based on my fieldwork in Northwest China.  Fastforward to 2016: I recently completed a speaking tour in Australia for the Australian Breastfeeding Association health professionals seminar series sharing my thoughts around breastfeeding as cultural practice, and reasons for delayed initiation of breastfeeding among Chinese mothers. It was exhausting, but fun (we got to stay in the Playford Hotel, for one – a very new experience for a country gal). And I felt like it had the potential to make a difference in the lives of a few midwives, lactation consultants, breastfeeding counsellors, and most importantly, Chinese new mothers. How did that opportunity open up to me? Through talking to people about what I was doing in a casual and easy-to-understand way, through taking up small opportunities (such as speaking to a mum’s group!) that grew (speaking to a regional conference, then the national ones).

I was also involved in an online forum or two, while doing my PhD and having kids. One of these was the OZnappyfree group of 500 or more (mostly) mothers who discussed the ins and outs (quite literally) of doing nappy-free infant toileting or ‘EC’ (Elimination Communication). These guys also encouraged me to report on the kinds of nappyfree toileting going on in China as I was doing fieldwork, and this actually became part of my research – as did the online group. I published a few academic articles on nappyfree toileting and the Chinese practice of baniao, and sent the one on the Chinese practice to a World Bank consultant developing ‘total sanitation’ info sheets about children’s sanitation in Asia. And someone contacted me for a Skype interview around how baniao practice could be better incorporated – or at least acknowledged – in development and sanitation policy.

Recently, I have been trying to think about how my training in community economies might have something to offer Christchurch in terms of thinking about quake recovery and the re-emerging city. In the spirit of throwing around ideas, I have attended a few local conferences, and presented my thinking. I got a few bites. Applied for some funding. Failed. And then met a few more people through contacts, the Asia:NZ Leadership Network and somewhat randomly. Eventually, I met the wonderful Irene Bole of Life in Vacant Spaces and we had some great chats. My PhD supervisor Katherine Gibson was asked for recommendations for speakers for a Montreal symposium on alternative economics in the city. She suggested I speak about Christchurch using her work on alternative economies as a framework. But their funding fell through and they could only afford to fly her there and not me and the other Australians and New Zealanders.

So we made a video for her to launch at the symposium. And now, I am a total convert to videos as a form of public intellectualism. After all the fails and networking and conferencing and writing, the video was fun and effective. In the video, I got to present my thinking, connect it with Christchurch,  link up with other people in the community (including having Irene Boles appear on there! Thanks Irene!), and have something to show people when I apply for funding, introduce future project work in the area, and to send people before I meet them kanohi-ki-te-kanohi.

I think I still have a long way to go before being a public intellectual, but here’s my offering of steps for PhD students wanting to develop in that direction.

  1. Keep talking to non-academics. Whether it is through your sports team, your activist groups, your social media followers, your parenting group, your church or other regular religious group, your online forum, your kids’ school, your hobby class. Firstly because it makes you practice your ‘aunty statement’ over and over again (you know, the two line response when your aunty asks ‘what are you doing again, dear?’) meaning you don’t forget how to talk to real life ordinary people, and secondly because you never know where those opportunities might lead.
  2. Take up opportunities to speak about your research. Whether it is at your local PROBUS group (yes, I have done that!), small groups, conferences, or even to school kids – it all builds skills and contacts, and people get to know what you are doing and why it is important.
  3. Direct your research towards areas of interest for community groups (and other non-academics). Breastfeeding was not really on my radar as a practice to study – I was just doing it, and also interested in the global (NZ) formula industry in China,. But people in the ABA were interested in knowing more about breastfeeding practices with Chinese women and I could provide that knowledge. I am now putting together a short proposal to follow this up with New Zealand Chinese mothers. Because I know this is stuff that people want to know. This kind of seems obvious to non-academics, but many academics do not keep a strain of public interest research going and risk becoming irrelevant.
  4. Send your stuff to people. They aren’t going to find it, really. When I get something published I send it to people I think might be interested. Such as the consultant for the World Bank, but also other academics, and my participants, policy-makers and any organisations that might have an interest. Many people can’t get behind pay-walled academic journals, so it’s important to actually send them the pdf. I also upload them to places like and our community economies website.

I don’t think any of these things have increased my abysmal citation statistics. But I do think it starts to matter less, because the stuff is getting out there, and getting used.

11 thoughts on “Being a Public Intellectual

Add yours

  1. Thanks Kelly. I’ve been on a similar journey as I was 60 when I completed my PhD. It was too late to start a career but in terms of trying to influence change, linking my research to practical outcomes – I thought I had noting (but my time) to lose. Though I came close a couple of times I wasn’t able to find someone to pay me to advocate for improved early years services for women and their families so I’ve set my own agenda for making change. This has included some of the things you’ve listed above. Certainly helps to keep talking about your work. The more you do so the more you can move away from the academic hum-bug looking towards real life outcomes. Around the time I graduated I found out that 70% of people with phds do not get work in the area of their research – what a waste to the community. This is something that should change.


  2. Hi Joan — great to hear from you! In some ways not having a career as an academic could mean you are more likely to be public intellectual. In the university we do tend to get caught up in getting grants/publishing/teaching and talking to ourselves. But not easy either, especially if no pay 😦


  3. Good stuff, Kelly. I feel it’s a stretch to consider I’d have 3 to 4 people interested in my current PhD research (I don’t count my three supervisors as they’re paid to be interested!). But the most interest I’ve had this year was speaking to a group of St John paramedics at my sister’s wedding, sharing the experiences of rural medics in Myanmar. (And I’m hoping to eventually lure a couple of them over there to engage in the training.) They got it and seemed genuinely interested and excited in what is happening there. Gratifying stuff. Funnily, my father is the president of his Probus yet has never invited me to speak. Ha.


  4. Kids are such a great connector. I’m looking at NGO approaches to building health system capacity in one of Burma’s ethnic states. Less engaging 😉 .


  5. Ha, I would surely invite you to speak if I was president of of a probus or like organisation!


  6. My second ever post, more serious, attended a meeting to asses the value of reseach to the wine industry (academics and industry). It made me think about the ways research and or successful ideas turn into ” best practice” it’s seems to me that many of the succesful me ideas originate with the innovative companies/people they run a small trial and implement the idea if successful. The research to back it up often comes later (then the practice/ idea become mainstream). Targeted reseach programmes often provide more data to give the practitioners confidence in making decisions ( which is important) but don’t often provide that step change. Even when someone has a great idea and does all the research screw caps for wine for example was researched in Australia but it took inovative NZ companies to take the idea and make it main stream.

    Liked by 1 person

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