Academics Can (and Should) Learn from the Fields They Study

In April, I attended the annual conference held by the Innocence Network, a conglomeration of nearly 70 organizations around the world that work to free innocent prisoners from their wrongful punishment, educate the public and practitioners, and reform policies to improve the criminal legal system. This year, more than 900 people — including several hundred exonerees and their families — gathered in Atlanta to celebrate victories and discuss new directions in the fight for justice.

The exoneree stage at the Innocence Network Conference. The new exonerees at this year’s meeting collectively spent 1,070 years incarcerated for crimes they did not commit.

I attend the conference as a researcher and scholar, not as a practitioner or direct advocate. The 2019 meeting was my fourth Network conference and even in the short period I’ve been attending — my first was in 2013 — it’s grown tremendously.

Yet, somehow, it has managed to maintain an impressive feeling of intimacy. The ability to connect with others — exonerees, their supporters, lawyers, advocates, and more — is unparalleled at any academic or scientific conference I’ve attended. In fact, I firmly believe that academic meetings can learn a thing or two from meetings like this. Drop the pretentious air and ego-maniacal falsehood of academic fame and importance. Embrace the truth that we are non-objective observers and participants in the worlds we inhabit and in which we work, and connect with people who feel deeply and passionately about what they do. Perhaps we can, and should, stop pretending to be neutral and passive observers following pure scientific principles, accept that we all have our own biases and agendas, and use our passions, energy, and expertise to change the world around us for the better.

None of this is to say that this conference or those who attend are flawless. It’s not, and we’re not. But those of us within academia might just benefit from observing meetings like this, of people who do work for the public good, who advocate for social, political, and criminal justice. Perhaps it would improve our scholarship rather than reduce its quality, or increase the impact that we have as experts in our respective fields. (Real impact, that is, not the impact factors we tend to brag about.)

Every time I’ve attended the Network Conference, I’ve left inspired and energized. Usually, this translates to a period of furious scholarly writing during the home-stretch of the semester. Not so, this time. Certainly, I’m inspired by those who attended; I’d dare anyone to meet some of these folks and not be. But this year, it won’t translate to a productive stretch of academic scholarship for me. Instead, I find myself inspired to think not about new scientific research questions or study designs, or how to maximize my tenure prospects, but about issues that are much bigger and more important.

I had the opportunity to meet several exonerees who spent more than thirty years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. They were incarcerated longer than I’ve been alive. I find it impossible to meet those individuals, hear their stories, imagine what they experienced, and not think existentially, about life, and about freedom, and about how we far too often take those things for granted. And they inspire me to think about how I’ve spent my own life to this point and how I spend the rest of it. I’m inspired to think about what I can and should do with the time that remains; how I can be different, be better; how I can maximize my experience for myself and, hopefully, for others.

Originally published at on April 16, 2019.

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