Public Intellectuals

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 Critics of open access often argue, as I noted earlier, that the public couldn’t possibly be interested in scholarly work, not least because they couldn’t possibly understand it, and that there is therefore no particular reason to ensure their access to it. Though I would insist that those critics are wrong in the conclusion, they may not be wrong in the premise; our work often does not communicate well to general readers. And that’s fine, to an extent: communication within a discourse community plays a crucial role in that community’s development, and thus there must always be room for expert-to-expert communication of a highly specialized nature. But that inwardly-focused sharing of work has been privileged to the exclusion of more outwardly-directed communication. Scholars are not rewarded—and in fact are at times actively derided—for publishing in popular venues. And because the values instantiated by our rewards systems have a profound effect on the ways we train our students, both directly and indirectly, we are building the wall between academic and public discourse higher and higher with every passing cohort. One key means of tearing down that wall would be for scholars to do more writing designed for public audiences.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 A number of scholars have recently pushed in this direction by developing public-facing publications that bring the ideas of humanities scholars to greater public attention; one might see the important work and significant impact of the Los Angeles Review of Books and Public Books. There are also a host of individual and group blogs that demonstrate the ways that many scholars are already working in multiple registers, engaging with multiple audiences. These venues open scholarly concerns and conversations to a broader readership and demonstrate the public value of scholarly approaches to understanding contemporary culture.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 But these venues present some complications for the ways that we understand our work as scholars. If we are to open our ideas to larger public audiences, we need to give some serious thought to the ways we write, the mode and voice of our writing. There is, after all, something we should face up to in Bruce Cole’s anti-intellectual dismissal of much scholarship in the humanities, which he claims is “alienating students and the public” with its “opacity, triviality, and irrelevance.” I would personally dispute all three of those adjectives, but must acknowledge that the where the first exists, it creates the possibility of the second and third: because mainstream readers often do not understand our prose, they are able to assume (sometimes dismissively, and sometimes defensively) that the ideas it contains are overblown and unimportant. And it’s important to note that this concern about academic writing isn’t restricted to conservative critics. Editors at many mainstream publications have noted the difficulty in getting scholarly authors to address broader audiences in the ways their venues require. We have been trained to focus on complexity and nuance, to account for complications, to defuse disagreements in advance. The result is often lines of argumentation, and lines of prose, that are far from straight-forward. Getting past the accusations of triviality and irrelevance requires us to open up our rhetoric, to demonstrate to a generally educated reader how and why what we do matters.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 This is not to say that all academic writing should be published in mainstream venues, or should necessarily be done in a public register. But I do want to argue that we would benefit from doing more work in ways that are not just technically but also rhetorically accessible to the public. And when I say “we,” I do mean as many of us as possible. Tom Nichols, in The Death of Expertise, has recently argued for the need for greater communication between experts and the public, but has suggested that such public communication might best be channeled through particular voices:

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 To be honest, I suspect that most experts and scholars would probably prefer that laypeople avoid [reading their work], because they would not understand most of what they were reading and their attempt to follow the professional debate would likely produce more public confusion than enlightenment.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 This is where public intellectuals, the people who can bridge the gap between experts and laypeople, might shoulder more responsibility. (Nichols 205)

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 I agree without question that public intellectuals should take on more responsibility for translating scholarly work for public audiences—but I want to argue in the strongest possible terms that we are all, to varying extents, public intellectuals. Or we all are called to be. Our work in the classroom demonstrates that translating difficult intellectual concepts and their expression for non-expert readers, bringing those readers into our discussions and helping them make sense of the work going on in our fields, is already central to our profession. This act of translation is an ongoing project that we might take on for the broader public as well, helping to get them invested and involved in the work taking place on college and university campuses and thereby building support for that work. But for that project to be successful, scholars need to be prepared to bridge the communication gaps themselves, by honing our ability to alternate speaking with one another and speaking with different audiences. We need, in other words, to learn a professional form of code switching.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Code switching as a term has its origin in linguistics and is used to explore how and why speakers move between multiple languages within individual speech instances. The concept was borrowed by scholars and teachers of rhetoric and composition as a means of thinking about students’ need to move between vernacular and academic languages in addressing particular audiences at particular moments. Rebecca Moore Howard has noted that

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 the linguistic principle behind the pedagogy of code-switching is that all language varieties are equally effective in their communities; that the standard variety prevails in the academic community as well as in the communities of American commerce; that students who wish to succeed in these communities must learn the standard; and that teachers should therefore encourage students of non-standard varieties to switch to the standard in the classroom. (266)

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Inescapably, however, code switching in this pedagogical context has a painful racial history. The injunction to code-switch, as Vershawn Ashanti Young has argued, requires students to “recognize the superiority of standard English and the people associated with it” (55), a requirement that enforces the need for black students and other students of color to maintain a DuBoisian double consciousness in order to belong. Howard argues that the effect of this injunction is “eradicationism” (274), effectively eliminating the languages of the marginalized in mainstream discourse. Young likewise argues that code switching in writing pedagogy is “a strategy to negotiate, side-step and ultimately accommodate bias against the working-class, women, and the ongoing racism against the language habits of blacks and other non-white peoples” by inculcating the dominance of standard English (51).

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 My use of the notion of code switching in the present context is thus challenging; code switching as a hegemonic pedagogical tool requires displacing a lived vernacular with a dominant variant. The command to code switch in an unequal environment is inevitably a tool of power. But so, I want to argue, is scholars’ assumption that academic English as we perform it is the “standard variety”; in fact, it is as much a lived vernacular as any, but a vernacular based in privilege. Given that privilege, our refusal to code switch, insisting that only our language will serve to explain our ideas, is not an act of resistance. We can and should speak that expert language with one another, but if it is the only language we speak, we exclude the possibility of allying ourselves with other communities.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 2 None of what I am suggesting here is easy; we cannot simply adopt a common language that will make us understood (and our work beloved) by all. Nor should we abandon the precise academic languages that undergird the rigor of our work. But it is nonetheless worth asking how judicious code switching, as a means of acknowledging the effects of our educational and professional privilege and inviting others into our discussions, might become a more regular part of our scholarly work. Might more scholars, for instance, develop pieces of writing for public audiences that present the key components of their more internally focused arguments? Those readers who are interested might then be encouraged to follow up by reading the original scholarship on which the public work draws. This mode of public-facing writing—as many editors of mainstream intellectual publications would note—is very different from internally-focused academic writing, and by and large it is not something scholars in the humanities are trained to do. A number of recent efforts, including day-long seminars conducted by the OpEd Project, as well as a series of NEH-sponsored workshops coordinated by the editors of the Object Lessons book series, focus on helping “scholars and nonfiction authors write for broader audiences while maintaining intellectual rigor and developing their academic profiles” (Apply to an Object Lessons Workshop). Workshops such as these can help scholarly authors focus and express the ideas contained in their more conventional scholarly publications in ways that help broader audiences engage with them. Many, many more such workshops are needed—and, in fact, this kind of writing instruction (including other practical genres of writing such as the grant proposal) might ideally become part of graduate training across the university.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 There has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, a great deal of recent discussion of the value of the public intellectual and the role that scholars might play in public debate. Mark Grief, for instance, has expressed dismay about the degree to which scholars seem to shy from public discourse:

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 A large pool of disgruntled free-thinking people who are not actually starving, gathered in many local physical centers, whose vocation leads them to amass an enormous quantity of knowledge and skill in disputation, and who possess 24-hour access to research libraries, might be the most publicly argumentative the world has known.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Might be, except that too many of us resist that public turn, arguing with and for one another rather than rather than using our arguments to effect a public good. This may in part stem from our uncertainty about who that public is, what that good might be, or what role we might play in creating both. Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft has argued that a focus (such as mine, above) on retraining academics to write as public intellectuals risks missing these prior and far more important questions. Wurgaft’s skepticism about the potential presented by contemporary public intellectuals has far less to do with the ways they write or the modes of connection they try to cultivate than a host of exterior factors with which they simply cannot grapple:

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 in the face of the widespread rejection of informed or expert opinion, can thinkers who address the public, not only remind us of the existence of trained and experienced judgment, but give us a feeling for its connection to our mundane lives? It should go without saying that this is less a question about the actions of specific writers and thinkers, than one about the condition of culture.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The condition of culture is and has always been hopelessly characterized by divisions and exclusions. There is no way for anyone to address the idealized singularity of the Habermasian public sphere, only a subset of Fraser’s “plurality of competing counterpublics” (61). It’s worth taking this concern about our culture to heart, though Wurgaft points to the possibility that in retreating from the notion of a singular public, however mythical it has always been, American intellectuals have contributed to the public’s fragmentation. As Alan Jacobs has noted in considering the retreat of Christian intellectuals from public discourse, “Subaltern counterpublics are essential for those who have never had seats at the table of power, but they can also be immensely appealing to those who feel that their public presence and authority have waned” (“The Watchmen”). The retreat of scholars into private intellectual life has produced a tighter sense of community and the comfort of being understood, but at the cost of withdrawing scholarly issues and perspectives from public view, and with the result of further fracturing in the public itself. And, in fact, there is a real question about whether the public can ever pre-exist the intellectual; as Corey Robin has argued,

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 The public intellectual is not simply interested in a wide audience of readers, in shopping her ideas on the op-ed page to sell more books. She’s not looking for markets or hungry for a brand. She’s not an explainer or a popularizer. She is instead the literary equivalent of the epic political actor, who sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 The transformation that Robin’s public intellectual seeks is, not least, the creation of the public itself, activating that public for further action on its own behalf.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 If we are to heed Jacobs’s call for a return to public discourse, Greif’s sense of the possibilities for that discourse, Wurgaft’s skepticism about our ability to connect with the public, and Robin’s recognition that our role requires us to help create that public in the first place, we’ll have to contend with the public’s multiplicity. We can only ever speak, at any given moment, with subsets of the public, and this, Jacobs notes, inevitably becomes a problem of writing:

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 I have felt for my entire career the difficulties of deciding where to speak and how. About a decade into my professional life it suddenly dawned on me that, unlike the people I went to graduate school with and the professors I saw as my mentors and models, I was never going to have a single audience. It would be necessary for me at times to speak to the church; at other times to believers from other religious traditions; at other times to my fellow academics; and at yet other times to the American public at large. This meant that I would not be able to formulate a single writerly voice, a single mode of articulation, a single rhetoric that I could deploy in any and all situations. (“The Watchmen”)

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 1 The publics we seek connection with may be different from those with whom Jacobs speaks, and they’re likely different from those publics sought by our colleagues. The key is to ask ourselves with whom we want to be in dialogue, and most importantly why, so that we can begin to understand ourselves as participants not just in those conversations but in those publics.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 2 Finally, we must support members of our own academic communities who work in public modes, by recognizing that the work involved is not just public, but also intellectual. Our modes of evaluation and assessment are generally built around a tripartite division among research, teaching, and service, and too often things that don’t meet a relatively narrow set of criteria for what gets considered research are demoted to that last category. As a result, when scholars make the transition to more public prose, the work involved is frequently unrewarded, if not actively derided, back on campus. Writing for the public is often assumed to be less developed, since it probably has not been through academic processes of peer review, but in fact it’s likely to have been far more stringently edited than most scholarly publications, as editors for mainstream publications often work much more closely with writers and their prose than academic editors. This editing process can hone an idea in important ways, clarifying it for both writer and reader. But clarity is too often mistaken for simplicity. Presenting an argument or issue in a straight-forward fashion runs the risk of inviting not just debate but dismissal. And worse yet, the academic universe too often assumes that a scholar who writes for a public market must “dumb down” key ideas in order to do so.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 As Mark Greif has pointed out, this assumption affects not only the ways that public intellectual work is evaluated by the academy but also the work that academics want to present to the public. In his experience editing n+1, he received submissions from many brilliant writers who

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 merrily left difficulty at home, leapt into colloquial language with both feet, added unnatural (and frankly unfunny) jokes, talked about TV, took on a tone chummy and unctuous. They dumbed down, in short—even with the most innocent intentions. The public, even the “general reader,” seemed to mean someone less adept, ingenious, and critical than themselves.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 3 This seems to run counter to the argument I began this section with, that academic writers need to learn some mode of code-switching in order to enter into dialogue with broader publics, but in fact it cuts to the heart of the problem: we too often do not know how to speak with those publics, because we do not understand them. And, as chapter 2 suggests, we do not understand them because we do not listen to them. We need to make room for them in our arguments, and in our prose, but we also need to understand those arguments and that prose as one part of a larger, multi-voiced conversation. And this is the key: having found a way to connect with a broader audience, having helped to transform that audience into a public, how do we then activate that public to work on its own behalf?

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