From speaking to community groups to liaising with the media and briefing policymakers, political scientists share their work with non-academic audiences in diverse ways. In this new interview series from APSA’s Public Engagement Program, APSA members discuss how and why they engage in the public arena and offer their tips for successful engagement. For more information, including resources on engagement and a sign-up sheet for APSA’s Experts Database, visit the APSA Public Engagement Program home page.
Marcela García-Castañon, Ph.D.
San Francisco State University
Marcela García-Castañon is an assistant professor in the department of political science at San Francisco State University. She specializes in American politics, Latino politics, immigrant/immigration policy and politics, political communication, and methodology. Dr. García-Castañon completed her PhD at the University of Washington, focusing her dissertation on new theories of immigrant political socialization. She has worked in radio and public relations and held positions as a teaching program coordinator and researcher. She is also a past fellow of the APSA Minority Fellowship Program and an APSA RBSI Alumni.
In what ways do you engage in the public arena? Share some background on the different public engagement activities you’ve carried out.
Dr. García-Castañon: My public engagement is selective. I am active on social media for most major political events, but only when I feel comfortable speaking on the topic. I also like to share posts and articles and engage with the public on social media. However, I prefer more one-on-one or in-person events, so I’ve engaged in several public speaker series or lectures, as well as various expert panels. Last fall, for the 2016 presidential election, I both moderated and participated in a semester-long speaker series designed to bring together experts across the disciplinary spectrum to speak on topics relevant to the election. This meant that I had to engage economists, environmental scientists, constitutional lawyers, and education experts, to name a few, and moderate a conversation for the audience.
“I find engagement useful for combating some of the isolation found in academia. It’s as much for the public as it is for me, and I think of it as a way of understanding how I should be teaching, discussing, and writing about politics today.”
As moderator, I was able to engage with both the audience and panelists, while also providing historical or political context when necessary. It also meant that I had to be on top of my game for multiple topics, many outside my own knowledge base. However, by acknowledging to myself and the audience my own deficits, it put me in the position to be both an expert and an audience member, and gave way for interesting dialogue. It led to some great conversations between audience members and panelists, and kept the topics fresh.
Why do you engage? What motivates your public engagement activities?
Dr. García-Castañon: I find engagement useful for combatting some of the isolation found in academia. It’s as much for the public as it is for me, and I think of it as a way of understanding how I should be teaching, discussing and writing about politics today. I believe the audience has valid and informative perspectives. My role in public engagements is to both learn from them, and also teach them the science of political science. It’s a dynamic dialogue between the audience and me. Moreover, it’s also an opportunity for teachable moments, allowing me to provide historical and political context, challenge audience members to think more critically or view other sides of an argument, as well as respond to intellectual challenges as a political scientist.
“Knowing where your comfort zone is allows you to know what activities you’d like to do, and maybe those you can do eventually.”
What tips would you offer to other scholars interested in becoming more actively involved in public engagement?
Dr. García-Castañon: The best advice I got was to start in your engagement comfort zone, and then expand towards where you want to go, however big or small that might be (blog posts, on-air interviews with Rachel Maddow, etc). Most people don’t start public engagement on CNN or Fox News, so start where you feel comfortable. If you want to weigh your words more carefully, start with written mediums, like op-eds, Twitter, blogs, etc. If you’re comfortable with live interactions and their spontaneity, public forums, panels, or lectures may be your specialty, with news segments or on-camera interviews adding additional platforms for you to engage. Knowing where your comfort zone allows you to know what activities you’d like to do, and maybe those you can do eventually. This also means learning to say no when you can’t speak on a topic, or declining interview requests with an outlet you are unfamiliar with or don’t have time to research. It also means knowing that some things aren’t for you, or that you don’t want to do, and being okay with that as part of your public engagement persona. Public engagement should leave you energized, not drained, so knowing your boundaries is a good way of maximizing its usefulness for you and the audience.