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Why We Write: Public Scholarship in Times of Crisis

This is a guest post by Janna Deitz, Kluge Center Program Specialist in Outreach and Partnerships.

Scholars in residence at the John W. Kluge Center represent the very best in academic researchers and are further distinguished by their commitment to engage with the public and policymaking community. These scholars bring the Center’s motto of “connecting thought and action” to life as they seek better understanding of issues that speak to the challenges of democracy and governance in the 21st Century.

In times of global challenge and uncertainty, publicly engaged scholarship takes on greater meaning, and many of the research questions our scholars address receive wide attention. Below, Kluge scholars past and present reflect on the need for writing and promoting their scholarship widely, especially in times of crisis. This installment of “Why We Write” focuses on scholars in the areas of international affairs and US-China Relations.

Noting its power to clarify thinking on complicated questions, Kluge scholars Hal Brands and Ken Pomeranz reflect on writing for purposes of learning and unlearning:

 

I write as a way of learning as much as a way of conveying information. I have always found that the act of writing—arranging facts in a logical way, developing an interpretation, roughing out the language—is the way that I figure out what I really think about a subject. That’s the case whether I am writing a 1000-word opinion piece or a 300 page book; it was true when I was an undergraduate in college and it is still true today. There is no better way of clarifying my own views on current foreign policy issues than forcing myself to put my thoughts in print. Writing is thinking.

Hal Brands, 2020 Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations and Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

 

In scholarly writing, you never simply say “Here’s another fact that I found”; you always start from the things that you assume your colleagues know and/or believe about some topic and tell them that the facts you’ve found matter because they confirm, extend, or undermine those beliefs. I’ve always tried to do the same thing in writing for the broader public: to start with ideas that I think are widely held and explain why I think those ideas need revising, and maybe even anticipate some of their reactions to that challenge, rather than to treat my readers as a blank slate on which I should simply deposit a layer of knowledge and then declare my job done. I think that is more important than ever right now, because emergencies can narrow our focus and make us miss important context; but I also think that task is becoming increasingly difficult as certain political forces, magnified by social media, suggest that it’s not even worth trying to establish truth.

Most people want to know more about the kinds of subjects I write about, and most are receptive to the idea that to understand where we are, you need to know how we got here. What is getting harder is knowing what particular sets of readers already know, and persuading them that learning more usually involves unlearning some things as well.

Ken Pomeranz, 2020 Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the North and University Professor of Modern Chinese History at the University of Chicago

 

Kluge scholars Minxin Pei, Aynne Kokas, and Carla Freeman describe the importance of sharing their expertise so the public can better understand the dynamics and importance of US-China relations. They cite the specific contributions public scholarship makes in providing accessible analysis that can shape public discourse and inform policymaking.

Our relations with China affect our peace and prosperity and define our position in the world. At this moment, the US and China are headed toward an open-ended conflict that has the potential to spiral into a full-fledged new cold war or even a hot one. In sheer importance, this relationship should receive all the attention we can give. The subject of US-China relations is both complex and susceptible to politicization. Most people do not pay much attention to this relationship and what is going on in China beyond headlines and news reports. Only specialists like us maintain a constant and close watch on key developments in this bilateral relationship and events inside China. We have an incomparable advantage of providing the context, knowledge, nuance, and perspective that are needed to help the public and policy-makers understand the most critical issues in this relationship they face on a daily basis.

Minxin Pei, 2019 Library Chair in US-China Relations and Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College

 

Public writing by researchers is essential right now. US-China relations are rapidly fraying. Researchers in both countries have longstanding relationships that allow us to see one another as people rather than geopolitical objects. Foregrounding our humanity centers the people in both countries who are harmed by specific policies or corporate decisions. It helps us to ratchet down tensions in popular discourse and make more balanced decisions.

It is just as important for scholars to write publicly about the tech sector. Public writing can help explain key concepts in an objective manner. Citizens need well-researched opinions filtered through the perspective of politicians trying to convince them to vote a certain way or corporations seeking to have them consume a certain way. Scholars can complement the work of journalists by pulling back and providing long-term perspective on chronic issues that journalists have incentive to pay attention to only when they have reached an acute level.

Aynne Kokas, 2019 Kluge Digital Studies Fellow,National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, and Associate Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia

 

For me, writing for the public square today is more challenging than it was before. One reason is my disorientation in a world changing at the speed of Tweets. Another is that contemporary China, my area of expertise, has reemerged as an issue in American politics in ways redolent of the early Cold War period. Amid the American public’s fractious mood, the trend toward consensus in US public opinion on China as the source of many of our national economic problems and potential threat to the American way of life stands out.

In the United States, with perceptions that China poses an urgent danger on the rise, the kind of policy commentary I so often favored in the past that anatomized Chinese policy making in the interest of helping decision makers better diagnose international issues involving China seems inadequate, even supine. If dissecting Chinese policies is not enough, however, a rush to opine, however earnestly, has risks, not least promoting a bad idea that might take hold.

Like any good student of international relations, I find guidance in Thucydides (with a nudge from Richard Neustadt and Ernest May and their Thinking in Time) who observed that policy choices “came around again on time’s enduring track.” Now to diagnose and recommend is to strain muscles that I’ve come to understand should always have been a whole lot stronger, digging for insights through the often hard strata for what is surely the bedrock of wisdom– those lessons acquired from hindsight or history.

Carla Freeman, 2020 Library Chair in US-China Relations and Associate Research Professor of China Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

 

Many of us read a good deal of information, commentary, and analysis about current events and public policy. We look to experts that can help us form opinions and contribute to collective understanding. Using Library collections and resources, Kluge scholars continue to engage their expertise in accessible ways across disciplines and perspectives. Reflecting on their writing, Kluge scholars remind us of public scholarship’s essential civic purpose in times of crisis.

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