Marquette’s political science researchers offer public audiences context and scholarship amid some of today’s most discussed societal and political matters.
By John Blum
Talk about a Hollywood breakthrough.
As a junior academic, Dr. Paul Nolette, now associate professor and chair of Marquette’s Political Science Department, was doing the grueling leg work of getting his name out to media professionals to let them know he had relevant expertise to offer on developing news. As his name was slowly working its way around newsrooms, his research happened to be cited in a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times article exposing the connections between some state attorneys general and the energy industry in rolling back EPA regulations. Although it may not exactly be the plotline from A Star Is Born, he certainly had been discovered.
Nolette’s forays into the mediascape represent one aspect of “public scholarship,” in which academics bring their research and accumulated wisdom to bear on current events and then pass their expertise and perspectives along to various public outlets beyond academia.
According to Nolette, a pride of the department is the faculty’s embrace of public scholarship — faculty such as himself, Drs. Julia Azari, Risa Brooks and Philip Rocco, who are “top-notch scholars who publish regularly through traditional scholarly venues, but who also want to have as their audience more general publics.”
Scholarship expertise spans several areas, audiences
Dr. Philip Rocco, associate professor of political science, researches American federalism and public policy, which leads him into policy thickets such as Obamacare and the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, as well as the politics of the U.S. census and recent presidencies. He also closely follows Milwaukee city and county politics.
Rocco’s work spans multiple public audiences. With his interest in Milwaukee politics, he writes frequently for local publications that appeal to general readers. Rocco’s policy research addresses more specialized publics, such as policymakers and journalists. He is currently researching how state and local governments are allocating ARPA funding to prevent crime and violence. Through the project website, he and his co-investigator, Dr. Amanda Kass of DePaul University, gather and analyze ARPA data and post their findings for a primarily journalistic audience. “Journalists generally wouldn’t have the social science tools needed to interpret what these numbers mean,” Rocco says. “The website is intended to provide some context and texture.”
For political scientists, public scholarship can feel like a natural fit since politics and policy percolate throughout our everyday lives. “If you drive on the road, you’re going to care about bike lanes, whether you love them or hate them,” Nolette says. “If you care about bike lanes, then you’ll care about the policies that bring them into being.” Caring about these policies will eventually take you into questions about federalism — the division of political power between a national government and the states, along with other local governing bodies. “Maybe federalism seems like a dry topic. But the skill of a good public scholar is to take that research you’ve done on federalism and get it across to a broader public, to let them know, ‘This stuff matters.’”
Because of his extensive research into the inner workings of state attorneys general, Nolette has become the go-to scholar for media inquiries about their activities. Since the 1990s, attorneys general have been using lawsuits to essentially determine national policy, such as in health care (big tobacco settlements, pharmaceutical companies and the opioid crisis) and environmental protection (the recent West Virginia v. EPA Supreme Court ruling). To further his outreach to the public, Nolette has created a State Litigation and AG Activity Database (attorneysgeneral.org) as a resource for lawyers, journalists, scholars and other interested parties.
Providing context, correctives when needed
Providing deeper contexts to political news is fundamental to public scholarship in political science. Dr. Julia Azari, professor of political science, who specializes in the American presidency and political partisanship, notes that in traditional journalism, politics tend to be more focused on individuals: a candidate’s gaffe at a debate, a recent comment to the media. Political science, on the other hand, thinks more about how institutions operate. “Political science can provide a deeper understanding of what’s going on, ultimately helping people draw their own conclusions based on their own beliefs and values.”
Azari noted an uptick in public scholarship leading up to the 2016 elections. “The elections raised the temperature of polarization, and I was getting feedback that people wanted to read pieces that were more measured, more contextual,” Azari continues. “Some political scientists were spotting inaccurate stories about what happened during an election and felt they had to push back a bit, to provide some correctives to political journalism.”
For Nolette, when public scholars think about big picture questions, these include both “is” questions and “ought” questions. “The ‘is’ questions help us explain how we got to the point where we are today. But public scholarship also inspires people to talk about the oughts. What ought we do about childhood poverty? What ought the next session of Congress do?” Although political scientists are not advocates or media pundits, “Those ‘ought’ questions in the backs of our minds connect us with our Catholic, Jesuit mission. Action. Getting stuff done. Improving the community.” In other words, following the Ignatian dictum “to go and set the world on fire.”
Research grounded in values
Public scholarship, rarely recognized a few decades ago, seems to be evolving along with the explosion of social media. Dr. Risa Brooks, Allis Chalmers Professor of Political Science, who specializes in international security, political violence and civil-military relations, took up public scholarship on a bit of a whim early in her career. “There was a time in my career when I would look at some of the Monkey Cage postings (a popular political science forum now affiliated with The Washington Post). Out of curiosity I would ask myself, ‘Could I do that? Could I write that way?’” The answer was “yes,” and she has written for the blog several times since.
Although Brooks still writes occasionally for more general audiences, most of her public scholarship is geared toward practitioners — “many of the D.C. people” — so her writing tends to be more prescriptive than descriptive, leaning more toward Nolette’s “ought” questions and away from correctives to political journalism. She notes that it’s quite a thrill to “realize that your writing is being read by people who have some capacity to make decisions or have influence.” At the same time, the practitioner sites she’ll write for — Foreign Affairs, War on the Rocks, Inkstick Media — are all open to the public, so she’s noticing a wider range of people reading and citing her work.
Doing public scholarship makes Brooks think differently about academic research. It’s easy for professionals — whether academic or not — to fall deeply into their niches. “Having to talk to people outside your profession really grounds you. It helps you understand the work you’re doing — and especially the values that are in that work. Professions don’t always ask you to reflect on values.”
Rocco also started his public scholarship by writing for Monkey Cage. Over time he came to recognize “the value of communicating political science knowledge in a way that policymakers and the public could easily understand.” But he also found that public scholarship was not just about posting his findings to social media. “It’s about applying both general and specific area knowledge to changing or evolving political realities as they emerge, helping to contextualize that action.”
Azari fell into public scholarship “by accident” when she started blogging on the political science site Mischiefs of Faction, primarily to promote her first book. Moving into political blogging at that time proved to be quite exciting, even if the discipline may have considered it “a weird hobby.” “A post on Mischiefs of Faction would get something like 500 views, which, of course, is not a lot by internet standards, but it beat having a journal article you wrote get cited just four times.” As her public scholarship grows over time, it isn’t uncommon for her postings now to have tens of thousands of views.
Like her colleagues, Azari has also discovered that public scholarship can mean more than just promoting a book or putting forth one’s findings. She has developed a scholarly reputation for “developing new ideas in real time, applying as much rigor as I can in a short period of time, then linking that up with the published literature that both I’ve done and what other people have done.”
Azari’s public scholarship is quite prolific, with her work appearing in not only Mischiefs of Faction, FiveThirtyEight and The New York Times, but also Monkey Cage, Politics in Question, Politico, Georgetown’s Government Affairs Institute, and Prospect magazine, among others. Azari’s novel and dynamic approach to public scholarship has led the American Political Science Association’s Information Technology and Politics Section to honor her with its inaugural award for best public-facing scholarship.
Reflections on public scholarship outcomes
Has public scholarship moved beyond a “weird hobby” into academic respectability?
“There is a realization that public scholarship, if done well, can have a real impact, and those impacts are something we should care about, especially as a Catholic, Jesuit institution,” Nolette says.
For Brooks, public scholarship might still be seen by some as secondary to academic work, so it may not yet get someone recognition or prestige — “not alone anyway.” But these scholars agree that because of Marquette’s mission and commitment to servant leadership, it might be more acknowledged here than at other universities.
In addition to the way public scholarship feeds into the Catholic, Jesuit mission, all see it dovetailing with Marquette’s teacher-scholar model. Rocco notes that the model is fundamental to his research. “Questions my students ask have prompted me to develop new research agendas.” Having students engaged in his public scholarship gives them a sense of the value of learning those research methodologies that help answer those broader, real-world questions that lie beyond campus.
Brooks sees both public scholarship and teaching as noble exercises in translation. In both cases, the scholar must translate specialized academic knowledge for non-specialists. Translating for students makes one a better writer of public scholarship; the better writing one does, in turn, makes for a better teacher. Doing public scholarship requires scholars to reflect upon the values undergirding their work, and, consequently, the values being imparted to both the public and students. This exercise in reflection — a key element in Ignatian pedagogy — is good for teaching. And good for simply being a human being.
The work of these accomplished teacher-scholars and other department faculty members pushes Marquette’s mission — to act “for the common benefit of the human community” — into new directions. And through the Political Science Department’s commitment to producing high-quality public scholarship, we can see Marquette’s vision statement playing out before our eyes: to “reach beyond traditional academic boundaries and embrace new and collaborative methods of teaching, learning, research and service.”
Hollywood couldn’t have written a better script.