Derek G. Ross, PhD, Auburn University Dept. of English
An expert in one field is a lay person in another. This is easy to forget when we are surrounded by professionals in our own fields and when the bulk of our conversations about what we do are with people who share a similar educational background.
As professional communicators, we often study the communication tactics of specialists in other fields—articles and essays in books like Harris’s Landmark Essays on Rhetoric of Science: Case Studies (1997), and Nelson, Megill, and McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences: Language and Argument in Scholarship and Public Affairs (1987) bear witness to this. So too does the bulk of work done under the aegis of the rhetoric of science. Work by Fahnestock, Gross, and Latour and Woolgar on the creation, presentation, and movement of scientific facts are examples of this. More recent examples, such as Northcut’s study of scientific illustrators (2011) and Wickman’s research on visualization and textual production (2013) help us understand the epistemological backbone of the sciences. These (and many, many more) are important studies, and they constitute a rich and vital portion of our research. In studying the sciences, however, I think it is possible that we occasionally lose track of the implications our work might have for the very people and processes we study, and may forget—or not appreciate—that our expertise in communication means that we take for granted communication tactics and processes that non-experts may not know.
I was reminded of the limits of expertise when I recently ran a communicating science workshop at the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (JMIH) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The three-hour workshop, “Communicating Science: Adapting Your Work for Policy Boards, Publics, and Peers,” (see the appendix to this essay for the description published in the JMIH program) was well received by its audience, and by attending conference sessions and working with my own attendees, I learned more about the communication needs and expectations of professional scientists.
In the following essay I discuss a few of the key points I took from these scientific meetings, then consider opportunities for collaboration. While interdisciplinary collaboration is rife with complexity (see Julie Thompson Klein’s Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, and Practice , for example), such collaborations have the potential to richen and expand our—and our co-collaborator’s—research.
Interest in Communication Strategies
The attendees to the JMIH with whom I spoke showed great interest in what we do and study, and many expressed a desire to learn how to communicate more effectively outside of their own highly specialized areas of expertise. Roughly half of the 35 people who signed up were graduate students—the rest were members of the professoriate (all levels), undergraduates, and government and private-sector scientists. The group included museum directors, award-winning authors, and film documentarians.
In the presentations and discussion sessions I attended, many of the scientists expressed frustration at the lack of public interest and engagement with their work. Several of these interchanges suggested difficulty in targeting different audiences and effectively shaping information. As professional communicators, we’re often well aware of the numerous studies, essays, and even entire journals dedicated to this subject, but because of areas of expertise that don’t often meet (at least at the level of professional, academic writing and engagement), this information doesn’t always cross over. To some extent this is likely the result of discipline and audience specificity.
To illustrate: I spent the bulk of one of the conference days attending a symposium titled “Impact of Energy Development on Amphibians and Reptiles in North America.” Many of the papers included a component on problems with conservation policies and communication difficulties. Several scientists noted a need to move their work from the laboratory to the public, and several more lamented their inability to convince policy-makers of the import of their work. One notable interchange focused on the need to write comments to lawmakers about upcoming policy decisions, and several respondents expressed frustration at the difficulties involved with writing and contributing to public policy. In a private conversation I had later with one of the facilitators, I learned that many aren’t aware of the U.S. government’s public commenting portal, regulations.gov, a website resulting from 2002’s eRulemaking E-GOV initiative designed to allow the public easy access for offering input on the rules and regulations that impact their lives. I also learned that many of these experts (with notable exceptions) have little or no knowledge of audience analysis techniques, design basics, and other communication principles.
The Communicating Science Workshop
My workshop was a crash course on audience analysis, communication strategies, and document design. In an hour-long presentation followed by two robust hours of discussion we moved through perceptions of expertise, problems with terminology, differing conceptions of “proof,” methods of analyzing audiences, key studies in the public understanding of science, how to establish contexts of use, the rhetorical triangle, design principles, the use of color and type, and more. We addressed ongoing communication problems ranging from difficulties with working with species the public often fears, such as sharks and snakes, to teaching science, shaping public policy, and dealing with interpersonal laboratory communication issues.
The bulk of our discussion involved questions of perception. Several of my attendees noted that they specialize in species which the public fears, generally dislikes, or knows nothing about. As a group we were able to offer some help, and that help generally took the form of working through issues of audience analysis, determining audience needs and expectations, and determining the ultimate intent of the communication scenario.
Building Bridges and Sharing Expertise
Since the conference, I’ve heard from several of my attendees. While they learned (I was told), new techniques, tools, and ways to conceptualize both audiences and their own work, I learned more about what it means to be a working scientist and what sort of communication issues they encounter on a regular basis. All of this brings me to my real point in writing this essay: While there may be two cultures, as C. P. Snow argued in 1959, these cultures shouldn’t remain isolated. As others before have noted (see Van Dijck, 2003, for example), a multicultural approach to science communication is immensely valuable for all participants. There is a real interest in, and need for, what we do, and working with experts in other areas has the potential to allow us new insights and to broaden our own perspectives. What I advocate here is similar to participatory action research, where research is designed to benefit the participants (e.g., Glesne, 1998; Spinuzzi, 2005), but really it goes beyond that. In this case, I’m advocating for us to take opportunities to use our knowledge to help other fields share theirs, regardless of their direct involvement in our research.
A word of caution: Numerous studies of perceptions of expertise and communication practices, such as Wynne’s examination of communication instances between Cumbrian sheep farmers and scientists following the Chernobyl incident (1992), and Peterson’s examination of communication conflicts between Canadian Aboriginal Americans and governmental representatives and scientists in relation to diseased bison herds in Wood Buffalo National Park (1997), show a real danger of being viewed as interlopers, rather than as colleagues and resources, when we step into someone else’s bailiwick. To counter this, we should approach expertise-sharing opportunities with the expectation that we’ll learn as much as we teach.
I encourage us to seek out opportunities for bridge-building and sharing expertise and offer the following suggestions for fostering collaborative engagements:
- Speak with colleagues in other departments and find out what conferences they attend, then write to the host committees and ask if they’d be interested in a communication workshop
- Open classes which cover science communication to students outside of your own department, and contact other department chairs to let them know about the opportunities
- Attend university functions such as brown-bag lunches, and don’t be afraid to talk about what we do
- Consider adding an outreach/collaboration component to any research project which involves the study of science/science communication—even offering to share findings in a non-technical way could prove useful
- Consider simply attending a conference for specialists outside of your field (even just for a day) to see if they bring up any particular communication problems
In short, take (or create) opportunities to become public professionals. Candice A. Welhausen’s contribution to the recent research question issue of Communication Design Quarterly illustrates this point nicely: An invited presentation for Department of Animal and Food Sciences graduate students and faculty at her university resulted in a sharing of expertise regarding visual communication with one of the faculty members. This exchange resulted in research questions for our field, and valuable communication strategies for the other faculty member (see Welhausen, 2013 for an excellent story involving visual communication and a chicken).
I found my recent experience to be rich, robust, and immensely rewarding both personally and professionally, and have already spoken with my new friends and colleagues about opportunities for continuing our discussions, such as having them Skype into my classes to offer alternative points of view, or even potentially working together on research projects that involve an audience-communication component. Many of us already take these opportunities when we can, and, of course, not all research can (or should be) collaborative. By sharing this essay, however, I hope to perhaps get us thinking again about the value of interdisciplinary collaboration and sharing, and perhaps start a new conversation here about opportunities.
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Appendix: Workshop Description (from http://www.dce.k-state.edu/conf/jointmeeting/presenters)
Communicating Science: Adapting Your Work for Policy Boards, Publics, and Peers
Saturday, 13 July 2013; 6:00-9:00 p.m.
Nambe/Navajo, Albuquerque Convention Center
NOTE: Participants must pre-register for this workshop. Workshop is limited to the first 35 registrants.
Derek G. Ross, PhD, Auburn University Technical and Professional Communication Program
Understanding a stakeholder audience’s needs and expectations is a critical component of effective science-related communication. Policy boards, multiple stakeholder publics, and peer groups all read information differently based on their understanding of specialized material, their education, their cultural identification(s), and their level of investment with a topic. By learning what types of information to present (statistical, graphical, textual), how to frame that information, and what information to include—or not—in a discussion or report, a specialist may increase their chances for positive reception of their work.
This 3-hour workshop is designed to help both professionals and graduate students learn how to analyze potential audiences for their work, then shape their writing and presentation styles for maximum impact. Attendees are encouraged to bring copies of their ongoing projects.
The workshop will proceed in two parts:
Part 1 (1.5 hours)
Communicating Science: overview lecture discussing audience, purpose, and the importance of accommodating information to different audience types. This overview will include a discussion on reading and writing strategies, shaping graphic representations of data, and emphasizing actionable content.
Audience analysis and the rhetorical situation: discussion on intent when writing scientific papers. This section will ask attendees to think through their writing strategies and consider audience, purpose, and context in their own work, then cover a standardized audience analysis sheet designed to help scientists determine their target audience’s needs and expectations. Handouts on audience analysis provided.
Break (pizza and sodas provided)
Part 2 (1.5 hours)
Working with information
Attendees will be split into groups and asked to identify key elements of their work and how those elements might be structured for different audience types. Attendees will be asked to work with their own data in relation to information discussed in part 1.
 In doing so, we covered numerous author’s work, including: Albers (2003); Allum, Sturgis, Tabourazi, & Brunton-Smith (2008); Bocci (1991); Coppola (2009); Fahnestock (1998); Longo (1993); Peterson (1997); Ross (2013); Schriver (1997); Slack, Miller, & Doak (1993); Sturgis & Allum (2004); and Wynne (1992).