Reaching out: Professor Hugh White

Every month I’ll be interviewing a humanities, arts or social science academic who engages extensively with their wider community, asking them about the kind of outreach they do and why they feel it’s important.

Our guest today is Professor Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. 

What is your area of research?

I study Australian defence and foreign policy, and the international trends and events that bear upon it.  My main work these days is on the strategic rivalry  between America and China and what it means for Asia and Australia, and on the kinds of armed forces Australia will need over coming decades.

What kind of outreach do you currently do? (E.g. media articles, radio and television interviews, public lectures, personal website/social media/blog, books for a general audience.)

I write quite a lot for newspapers and magazines.  For many years, until last year, I wrote a fortnightly column for the Fairfax papers, and I now write occasionally for the Australian Financial Review.  I also write once or twice a year for The Monthly [current affairs magazine].  Overseas I write a monthly column for the Singapore Straits Times and a bimonthly column for the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, and write fairly often for the Global Times in China. In America I have written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic Monthly, among others.  I also write occasional pieces for many other publications. On average I guess I write an op-ed or magazine article about  once every 10 days.

I write regularly for two blogs – the Lowy Interpreter and the ASPI Strategist, and contribute occasionally to others, including the US National Interest and War on the Rocks. On average I write about one blog post a fortnight.

I do a bit of radio and TV, and often speak to print journalists. How often depends a lot on what’s going on. Sometimes I’ll do several interviews a day, sometimes very little for weeks.

I do public lectures or speeches to non-academic audiences fairly regularly – maybe 15 times a year.

I’m embarrassed to admit that don’t have a website, nor do I use social media.

I’ve written a couple of books for general audiences [The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power (2012); Power Shift: Australia’s Future Between Washington and Beijing (2010); Beyond the Defence of Australia (2006)].

What’s your favourite type of outreach and why?

I guess newspaper op-eds/columns are my favourite – I like writing and enjoy trying to set out an argument for one’s position clearly in a short space.

Why do you undertake these outreach activities (why do you think they’re important)?

I’ve always seen public and policy audiences as central to my work as an academic, in part because I worked in policy jobs for many years before becoming an academic.

Who is your main audience and why did you choose to focus on them?

My aim is to influence policy debates and outcomes, which means I aim more or less equally for policymakers, the broader community of opinion-leaders and wider public audiences. There is less difference between these than may meet the eye – often the best way to reach policymakers such as ministers is via the opinion pages of the major papers.  I do quote a lot of international media because I’m interested in trying to influence views not just here but in countries whose policies matter to Australia.

How did you get started with your outreach? What was the first thing you did?

I was already active in public and policy debates when I worked at a think tank before I became an academic.  Long before that, I started writing for newspapers and doing interviews when I was [briefly] a PhD student in the early 1980s, and then went on to work as a print journalist myself for a time.

What are some of the important things you’ve learned about what works well and what doesn’t?

Well, two precepts I try to follow. First, one’s aim should not to be make your audience reach the same conclusion as you have on whatever you are writing or speaking about, but to help them understand the issue and reach their own conclusions better, so outreach is a lot like teaching. Second, one should avoid commenting on other people’s views – even if they are commenting on yours!  Always try to stick to debating the substantive issues.

What benefits do you think your outreach has had for your work (both research and teaching)?

Well, for me it’s almost the other way round. I see wider policy and public audiences as my primary audiences, so I ask how does my scholarly work help and support that – which of course it does.  Good outreach is based  on good scholarship, pure and simple.  One always aims to bring the rigour and precision of scholarship to consideration of policy questions,  because  what makes good scholarship also makes good policy.

What personal benefits do you think it has had in terms of developing your skills?

I think that writing and speaking for public and policy audiences helps you write and speak better for academic audiences too.

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