University of Vermont

New Book Explores How to Bring Education Research to the Public

If Michael Giangreco were a lesser scholar he might feel insecure about being known as “the cartoon guy.” But he doesn’t. In fact, he’s enhanced his reputation as a leading academic in the areas of special education and disability by creating cartoons that illustrate his research in a way that reaches a much broader audience.

“Cartooning has not replaced my interest in pursuing conventional research and academic publication as valued outlets for sharing data and ideas,” says Giangreco, professor in the Department of Education and at the Center on Disability & Community Inclusion. “Quite the contrary; cartoons have functioned synergistically to spur new insights, research questions, and scholarship by helping to elucidate the continuing challenges faced by students with disabilities, their families and service providers.”

Giangreco writes about the use of his humorous and often satirical cartoons in a new book edited by Cynthia Gerstl-Pepin, interim dean, and Cynthia Reyes, associate professor in the College of Education and Social Services (CESS). Featuring scholars who have found creative ways to make their research more accessible, Reimagining the Public Intellectual in Education: Making Scholarship Matter challenges researchers to step outside the ivory tower and add their voice to the national education debate dominated by so-called experts with minimal backgrounds in education.

“Media coverage of educational issues is rife with self-appointed experts on education,” write Gerstl-Pepin and Reyes. “These public speakers dominate public dialogues on public education and promote solutions to continuing national debates on such polarizing issues as national testing, charter schools and school choice or higher education costs…. But where are the researchers in these academic dialogues at all levels? This book seeks to address this issue by sharing the stories of scholars who are seeking to engage in public dialogue and reclaim space for reasoned dialogue on education.”

Reimagining the role of the 'public intellectual'

One of the driving forces behind the book is a perceived lack of connection between academic research and the public’s understanding of the challenges facing education in relation to poverty, racism, sexism and homophobia. Gerstl-Pepin and Reyes call for a redefinition of the word "public" in public intellectual as one that encourages researchers to utilize all forms of communication to effect improved educational policy. 

“If your research isn’t affecting the people you are trying to help, what's the point?” they ask.

With that goal in mind, the book is broken into three sections: making academic language accessible; engaging the public through media and the Web; and personal dilemmas of academics in trying to write for their professor and the general public. “The focus of the chapters is on lessons learned by public scholars engaging in multiple public arenas from the local to the national to the international – from classrooms, school board meetings, blogs, newspaper editorials, media outlets, international programs, cyberspace, Web 2.0 and beyond,” explain Gerstl-Pepin and Reyes, who also address the time contraints and lack of incentive for tenure track professors wanting to reach a broader audience.

Giangreco, who discussed his use of cartoons during his 2013 University Scholar Lecture, opens the book by explaining how despite being published in numerous journals, books and other publications, he has found that his cartoons are what have struck a chord with professionals, families who have children with disabilities and policy makers. Redrawn by local artist Kevin Ruelle based on Giangreco's orginal sketches, his cartoons are based on research findings, events he witnessed in the field, stories told to him by individuals with disabilities and ineffective public policies. They have been reprinted in more than 40 books, as well as dozens of journals, trade publications, newspapers and magazines, and used in presentations during legislative hearings.

One of Giangreco’s most popular cartoons (seen above) depicts a student in a wheelchair asking a school official if he would shovel the snow off an access ramp so he could enter the school. The official responds by saying: “All these other kids are waiting to use the stairs. When I get through shoveling them off then I will clear a path for you.”

“But if you shovel the ramp we can all get in,” the student replies.

Another addresses the absurdities of students with disabilities being separated from other students by showing two students sharing a jail cell. One student asks the other, “What are you in for?” To which the other replies, “Cerebral Palsy. But they said with good behavior I could get out in 3 to 5.”

Consider another:

Giangreco cartoon

Engaging the public through media 

Gerstl-Pepin and Reyes tried to include a broad range of methods professors use to disseminate their research. Bill Ayers, a former professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, writes about how activism has given voice to his research and generated national debate. Robert Nash, professor of education at UVM, writes about his use of scholarly personal narrative -- a method of research he created in the 1990s as a way to connect the academy to the rest of the world -- and how storytelling makes academic language more relatable to others. 

The book also addresses the benefits and challenges of using 21st century media to disseminate research and enter public discourse while remaining an unbiased researcher. One author writes about how the creation of a blog has given them a new platform to share research and comment on current educational issues. Another gives advice about the necessary attributes required to enter the contentious arena of public policy. Other chapters focused on the power of integrating voices of youth, sometimes in poems, to give meaning to data; the effectiveness of writing op-eds; and how appearing on television and radio programs offsets traditional media pundits.

Other authors focused less on media outreach and more on the importance of community outreach. Alan Tinkler and Barri Tinkler, professors in CESS, contributed a chapter on the importance of local community-based engagement and how this type of work is imperative to turning research into meaningful practice.

“Our story offers an example of two public intellectuals who engage in community-based research and teaching for the public good,” writes Alan and Barri. “To put this in a slightly different way, as public intellectuals, we remain committed to (re)claiming the dialogue in education in a way that supports consequential conversations around practice and policy, particularly those conversations informed by the needs of the local community.”