Being a Public Scholar: Professor Wade Davis’ Address to Doctoral Students

What does it mean to be a public scholar, and how can your PhD help you become one? In his inspiring talk delivered at the inauguration of the Public Scholars Initiative, UBC Professor of Anthropology Wade Davis challenges graduate students to act as "entrepreneurs of knowledge", and never give up telling stories that the world needs to hear.

Described by the National Geographic Society as "a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity", Dr. Wade Davis is a multitalented intellectual that requires little introduction.

Ethnographer and ethnobotanist by training, Dr. Davis is the writer of 200+ articles and 17 books; he is a photographer published in 30+ books and 100+ magazines, and a filmmaker with breathtaking documentaries credited to his name.

As a living and breathing example of public scholarship, we were lucky to have Dr. Davis join us as a guest speaker at the Kick-Off of the Public Scholars Initiative.

Referring to public scholarship as “a subject that is so close to my heart”, Dr. Davis urged PhD students to develop multiple avenues and skillsets to reach out to the public, and tell research-based stories accessible to all.


Highlights from Dr. Davis’ address

•    “Be a storyteller …  You can’t just be a photographer, you can’t just be a writer, you can’t just be a documentary filmmaker … The key that will never go away, no matter how the media changes, is storytelling … Storytellers change the world”.
•    “I was blessed by having a professor who didn’t see the acquisition of skills such as public speaking, filmmaking, consulting, popular writing, photography, … as distractions from the core academic mission; he always saw them as complements to it. Every skillset I used over the course of the last 40 years [was a] … skillset I learned in graduate school –again not as distractions, but as complements to that core mission … I believe that all graduate students should be given license and encouragement to have these skillsets. They’re not beyond the reach of anybody”
•    “Of those who go through a university system and get a PhD, 80% will not stay within the academy. And yet the pedagogies that we have … at universities across the country are still rooted in the 1960s or 70s when the expectation [was] that a PhD would go on to join the cadre of professors. So the question becomes: what are we doing for the 80%? And is this any kind of argument not to go through a PhD program? On the contrary, what we should be thinking about is how do we make that 80% entrepreneurs of knowledge, and how do we find ways we can help them develop skillsets that will allow them to monetize that considerable knowledge –not only to enhance career prospects, but more essentially for the society at large– and how can we make these disciplines more relevant”.
•    “The ultimate idea of scholarship surely is communication”.
•    “The great message of the saints is that nature loves courage. Jim Whitaker, the first American to summit the Everest once told me that if you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up too much space. Students need to know that they can jump off that cliff, and the marvellous thing about the world is that they won’t come crushing down; the world will lift them up. And anything can be possible if you work hard, follow your heart, and have something to say the world needs to hear”.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015