How do academics ensure relevance?

When I participated at a round table discussion hosted by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences recently to discuss how those disciplines might remain relevant, my main argument was this: If we wish to remain relevant to society we must engage with that society.

Let me explain. The nature of academia in North America is that, if one wishes to be considered for a tenure position at most post-secondary institutions, then one must publish for an audience of their peers. I certainly recognize the importance of this. However, unfortunately, this is where many academics stop. Ensuring that one's research and writing also engages general audiences is key to maintaining relevance.

One only needs to reflect upon recent election results in North America to appreciate that many of the voting public no longer sees value in academia. Indeed, academia is viewed as elitist and out of touch with the "real world." In reality, if we remain sequestered in what many still refer to as the "ivory towers" then we are rightly viewed as elitist.

If we as academics are not able to engage the general public in our research and writing, then the general public has every right as taxpayers to question our value. If we cannot demonstrate the practicality of our work, then we risk remaining irrelevant and not worthy of public support.

So, will I return to a conference hosted and attended by academics who work in the humanities and social sciences? Yes, I most certainly will! However, I will also continue to present my research to an audience of 20 at a local historical society meeting (and do my best to make it interesting for that very audience) as many times as I am invited to do so!