While many elected officials would rather sloganeer and posture than collaborate, the country languishes in the residual effects of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression: inequalities persist in pay, social advantage, and education; the gap between the few who have and the many who have not grows ever wider; the possible apocalyptic effects of global climate change increasingly appear inevitable. The public pleads for compromise, solutions, and leadership only to witness political theater. However, the leadership vacuum that exists in this era of corrosive cynicism and partisanship creates an opening for the hard work of civic engagement. Academics must seize the moment to assert higher education’s primary role in the democratic work of the country and collaborate with the public to address society’s core challenges. We must lead by assuming roles as public intellectuals. We must fill the leadership vacuum created by political intransigence and obstruction.
So write Nicholas Behm, Sherry Rankins-Robertson, and Duane Roen in a recent article in Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). I read their provocative and timely piece last Wednesday on the Tube to work, crushed in an overstuffed Northern Line carriage, feeling (as all too often during my commute) like It Just Isn’t Worth It. Needless to say, Behm et al appeared in my inbox at just the right moment.
“Public Intellectuals” are everywhere these days: they trail around like “creative economy” indicators (as in the case of the ever-present “creative city” guru Richard Florida), debate politicians at marquee events (I’m looking at you, Niall Ferguson), or ARE politicians at marquee events (Michael Ignatieff! Condoleeza Rice!), and of course appear ubiquitously on radio current-affairs programs and TV chat shows. But what is a public intellectual, honestly? And should we, on reflection, aspire so to be?
I am both completely invested in public intellectualism as a model of twenty-first-century academic engagement – it is, after all, part of why I started writing this blog almost a year ago – and yet also profoundly skeptical of it. Many “public intellectuals” strike me as opportunists, brand-building ideological entrepreneurs of the most cynical order; rightly or wrongly, I get the impression that the Floridas and Fergusons of our world are simply chasing a kind of elitist public fame, rather than aiming to make their research part of a true community discussion – by bringing the wealth of what they study and have learned to a constituency that can then put it (with or without them) to further use. So while I’m very much on board with the call to public intellectual action, I find myself nevertheless urged to ask this question: when professors seek to make their knowledge “public”, who exactly benefits, and how?
According to Behm, Rankins-Robertson, and Roen, the talking heads we see on TV or read in high-profile features in the newspaper may only partly qualify as public intellectuals, for a substantial part of public intellectual practice involves thinking carefully and critically about whom one seeks to reach, what one hopes to share with that community, and what one hopes to learn in turn from that community, acting as both a collaborator and a fellow citizen rather than an “expert” sharer. For Behm et al, true public intellectualism is nothing less than an extension of democracy: “a way of being in and acting on the world” in a fashion that bridges the perennial gap between college and community by moving both college and community toward one another in an act of mutual (and sometimes uneasy) encounter:
Publicly active scholarship is inherently messy, involving intensive, reciprocal partnerships with communities whose members hold diverse values and beliefs. It requires that research be situated within a local community’s social and power dynamics. It frames society’s core challenges as interrelated with rather than distinct from social and cultural factors like race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. As Lorilee Sandmann, a professor of education at the University of Georgia, has argued, publicly active scholarship is embedded within and negotiates these social and cultural realities, requiring academics to reconceptualize their traditional roles. (Behm et al 2014)
As a keen observer of “applied” theatre practice in my professional life as a performance scholar, I find myself tremendously drawn to the authors’ thick description of what public intellectualism as mutual public engagement might actually look like on the ground. This “messy” practice sounds a lot, in truth, like the kind of work some of my (amazing) colleagues in applied theatre at Queen Mary (and elsewhere – check out new examples here and here) are already doing. Yet, many of them are relatively “unsung” as public intellectuals, partly because, even as we hear more and more about the importance of making our academic work “public”, I fear that what the clamour really wants is more talking heads, in service of the voracious “impact show”.
I’ve written before in this space about the tyranny of “impact”, especially as it pervades the UK government’s “REF” exercise for university researchers. In the “accountability” language of contemporary Britain’s neoliberal government, “impact” means being able to show that your academic work is “relevant” to people outside of the university where you work (aka, not your students, weirdly and perversely). But: the relative value ascribed to different kinds of impact often seems arbitrary or even illogical, and rarely seems to be contiguous with a true interest in community goods (which are, as Behm and colleagues note, inherently messy, nuanced, and sometimes very hard to measure). My university wants me to count the number of times I’ve been impactful and provide evidence: so, if I’ve been on TV, or if I’ve written an op-ed, or if I’ve published 45 blog posts, that “impact” is measurable – even if nobody is really reading or watching or paying attention. Yes, of course, somebody is paying attention, and I don’t want to suggest that my exchange with that person is without value; my point, though, is that any such value matters less, for the ends of the accountability exercise, than the fact that my gesture of “engagement” in itself is measurable. The tick-box matters, not the person encountered or engaged. On the other side of the coin, if I’ve been labouring alongside community groups in the trenches for several years (as a number of my colleagues working on applied performance projects routinely do), but I haven’t generated easily measurable “outcomes” (IE: a book, article, or DVD that “proves” we’ve been working together for some kind of mutual benefit), then I might as well never have been “public” in my engagement at all. No measurement equals zero “impact” for accountability purposes.
While I was trying to gather my thoughts on Behm, Rankins-Robertson and Roen’s article, I read two other things that seem relevant to my growing anxiety over how we define public intellectualism right now, and what we seem to want it to do. The first was a startlingly cynical article by Leah Eichler (in the 14 March 2014 edition of the Globe and Mail) on why university degrees are approaching irrelevancy; the second was a series of reflections by Jen Harvie on the artist as entrepreneur in the “creative economy” (in her 2013 book Fair Play). Eichler’s article rehearses the predictable argument that students ought not to waste time at university if they want to be “trained” for a “job”; though short and in many ways unhelpfully redundant, the piece nevertheless reminds me that academics still have a lot of urgent work to do in order to explain to the people around us what university does in fact “train” its constituents to do – namely, to be thoughtful and engaged citizen-collaborators in a politically troubled and often seductively oversimplified world. Meanwhile, Harvie examines what is gained and what is lost when government policy tries to re-cast artists as independent businesses; in the process, she helps to re-cast the discussion about where and how we should publicise our intellectual and “creative” labour squarely in terms of the money market. Becoming a “public intellectual”, like becoming an artist, in this place and time means deciding if that work is to be for the benefit of a powerful financial elite (including the powerful elites that run our universities and arts councils and decide how these institutions are to be funded), for the benefit of a larger and more diverse community (or communities), or for the benefit of me, as individual academician-entrepreneur, alone.
Now, I can hardly pretend to be some kind of saintly exception to the trends I worry over above; I like getting attention for my research and I enjoy being asked to do “public engagement” stuff (like writing program notes for theatre companies, or speaking at elite venues like Shakespeare’s Globe). I want all of my colleagues to be more forcefully connected to the worlds around us, and I want that connectivity to result in more thoughtful, happier, stronger communities in turn. But I’m also beginning to realise that far more important than advocating for me and my colleagues simply to become more “public” in our labour is the altogether harder (and messier) work of advocating for us to make firm and deliberate choices about what exactly we want “being a public intellectual” to mean for ourselves, as individual scholars and as groups of scholars with shared ideals.
So how might we do this groundwork?
First and foremost, I think we need to talk openly to one another as department, faculty, and disciplinary colleagues in order to rethink existing practices of public engagement, take stock of best practices around us, and redefine our shared terms, especially as they affect us in things like workload and accountability documents. I could be dreaming, but I sense that we may be at a crucial crossroads in both the UK and North America when, post-REF 2014 and post-“crash”, we might have some small leeway to affect university-level policy over how terms like “public engagement” are understood by the powerful decision-makers who hold us to measure. Whether or not this is true, we always have the power to rally one another in local-area meetings within our schools and among our community stakeholders in order to have a real conversation about what different forms of engagement we already model, what kinds of models fit our specific disciplinary needs best, and what kinds of models we would like to see supported and formally encouraged by our peers and by our superiors.
I’d also really love to see universities take “crossover” and “teaching” books more seriously as “research”. I recall the story of a respected colleague and friend who had written a book classified as “for students” and was told it simply didn’t “count” for the REF. Why on earth not? Because it did not uphold the mystified standards of the “expert” researcher talking to his or her “expert” peers. But is this not exactly what contemporary language around impact and accountability presses us to avoid? Such Catches-22 need to be opened to wider debate; in the process I would like to see more of us advocate for the kinds of books that advance knowledge, take political stances, and yet are written in cogent language free enough of jargon and clear enough of syntax to communicate effectively to a large readership, including students and (gasp!) students’ family members and friends. Similarly, I’d like to see more academic publishers identify the potential for those kinds of books, encourage them, and then take a risk publishing them at a much friendlier price point and in much larger numbers while seeking the kinds of press and exposure for them that can attract a diverse audience. Finally, I’d like us all to encourage one another to write with greater clarity, and to seek out venues for publication that will expose us to new constituencies. This might mean publishing in popular or mainstream venues more; it might just as well mean publishing in journals not in our area of specialisation for a change. Exposing ourselves to different academic communities might be just as “public” an act of engagement as the other thing; after all, we are one another’s publics and communities too, and we are all potential collaborators in the making of new and unexpected knowledge.
I want to end this post with a call to community of my own. When I began this blog almost one year ago, I hoped it would eventually grow into a forum space, with multiple regular contributors. It’s not quite there yet, but the one-year anniversary seems a good time to begin the campaign for change in earnest. You’ll have noticed a couple of guest posts recently; I’ve commissioned a few more, which you’ll see in the coming weeks. I’d also, however, like to invite guest contributions from all of you reading: if you have something to say about the issues that broadly and eclectically constitute “activist” teaching and learning, and you think you might like to say them out loud, please get in touch. Use the comment form on my “about” page, or reply to this post, or email me at my Queen Mary address (email@example.com). I’d love to hear from you.
PS: if you have examples of exceptional public academics who you consider to be models of the practice, please hit “comment” and let us know about them. You’ll find one of my favourite examples here: