A Reflection on Spencer Piston’s Talk

Authored By 
Paul Lendway
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow
April 4, 2022

Should You Write for a Public Audience?

    Have you ever considered writing for a public audience? What are the benefits, costs, and risks of doing so? Spencer Piston, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Boston University, gave an exceptionally insightful talk on writing for a public audience at Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies on April 1, 2022. During this talk, Piston provided an overview of key considerations scholars should weigh when deciding whether to write for a public audience.
    Piston began by emphasizing that scholars must decide the extent to which they want to engage with an audience beyond academia. This can include everything from writing an op-ed at a major newspaper to tweeting about a specific issue one is passionate about. To make this important professional decision, Spencer outlined three core considerations for scholars thinking about writing for a public audience: Determining your values as a scholar, assessing the values of those whom you are sending your work to, and introspecting on your professional position (the stage in your career, etc.). 
     First, he highlighted the importance of ascertaining your values as a scholar. What are you all about? Are you trying to bring a voice to the unheard? Are you trying to change the national conversation in a meaningful way? Or are you primarily interested in written dialogue with mostly academics via academic publications? To Spencer, this shapes the extent to which writing for a public audience is a good fit for you.
      The second consideration Spencer stressed is knowing the values of the publisher you are interacting with. For instance, are you a liberal writer trying to publish in a conservative outlet or vice versa? Put simply, does your targeted outlet match your message? 
     Third, Spencer underscored the importance of reflecting on your professional position before writing for a public audience. Are you early in your career and trying to get your name out there? Are you trying to apply for a job at an institution that values more public-facing work, such as a public policy institute?
    To Spencer, introspecting on these three core considerations is essential for determining whether you want to publish for a public audience, and—should you decide to do so—which publication is the right fit for you.
     Following the overview of these three core considerations, Spencer discussed some of the key benefits, costs, and risks associated with writing for a public audience. For example, one clear benefit is the increase in name recognition. Intuitively, this can be very advantageous on the job market, especially for early-career scholars. He also discussed how writing for a public audience can be personally fulfilling for scholars interested in shaping the public conversation around an issue or giving a voice to those without a platform.
    On a more sobering note, he cautioned that scholars should be aware of important costs and risks associated with writing for a public audience. For instance, as with writing an academic paper, there is no guarantee that your public-facing piece will be accepted for publication at your desired outlet. Furthermore, there is always the possibility that one’s message could be misinterpreted. 
    As an early-career scholar, I found Spencer’s talk to be quite insightful. Spencer provided a northern star for core considerations before writing for a public audience. Scholars should keep in mind Spencer’s wise advice when deciding the kind of platform they want to publish in!
Paul Lendway is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in political science at Yale University studying inequality, populism, and social movements.
[The post was slightly modified on April 5, 2022 for stylistic purposes. ]