Academics: forget about public engagement, stay in your ivory towers
Researchers are urged to make their work accessible, but simplifying complex ideas doesn’t support great scholarship
‘Stay in your offices, write books that few people will read,’ says James Mulholland. Photograph: Alamy
Associate professor of English at North Carolina State University
Thursday 10 December 2015 07.00 GMT
Last modified on Thursday 10 December 201509.54 GMT
Academics are constantly encouraged to engage with the public more often, but this advice ignores the way that specialised knowledge already affects civic life. Specialisation has social importance, but often only after decades of work.
It is time for us to reassess what we mean by public scholarship. We must recognise the value of the esoteric knowledge, technical vocabulary and expert histories that academics produce.
Those who call for academics to publicise their work often place importance on making complex research more accessible to general audiences. Some scholars insist that groundbreaking humanities research is ignored because academics don’t publicise it properly. Others assume that academics don’t want to leave their ivory towers because they are more comfortable there or might be afraid to speak in public.
Academics: leave your ivory towers and pitch your work to the media
Kristal Brent Zook
This attitude towards public engagement presents it as an intrinsic virtue, while perpetuating the idea that professors are brainy introverts unable or afraid to talk to people outside their sphere of expertise. In fact, the opposite is true. The work of an academic is to talk about ideas – in lectures, class discussions, academic conferences and student meetings. For many, it’s one of the job’s greatest pleasures.
But we need to recognise that popularising research isn’t the only way to make a social impact. One example of this is the history of sexuality studies in relation to the gay rights campaign in the US.
Queer theory emerged in the 1980s with the goal of overturning the 1986 US supreme court decision in Bowers v Hardwick, which upheld the criminalisation of sodomy. Chief Justice Warren Burger claimed that the ruling had “millennia of moral teaching” supporting it.
When the supreme court reversed this decision in 2003, the majority cited decades of scholarship demonstrating the inaccuracy of Burger’s claim. The meticulous research of queer theorists and historians only became central to the judicial process years after the research was completed.
It would have been difficult to know in 1986 what effect publicity would have on academic debates about the “homo-hetero binary” or the gay subcultures of early-20th-century New York. But this disciplinary framework enabled a massive national transformation decades later.
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Whether our research eventually appears in judicial opinions or not, academics are forced to confront questions of relevance. North Carolina State University, where I work, was founded in 1887 as a “land-grant institution” dedicated to expanding higher education in “agriculture and the mechanic arts”. Its concern with relevant knowledge is made explicit in its motto: Think and Do.
I often contemplate how my research could aid a university like my own. Right now, I am investigating 18th-century British authors who wrote poetry and plays in colonial cities and outposts stationed around India, Sumatra and Singapore. Many of these authors haven’t been read since they appeared in print during the 1790s.
I see the value in recovering colonial writers who are not readily remembered. But I realise that the public could think the authors I study are unread for a reason. To them, knowing how white men published poems in 1790s Bombay seems irrelevant.
I could explain that my research builds on themes that are important to our modern society, such as the possibilities or failures of cross-cultural dialogue, the relationship between corporations and social communities and the sharp tongue of satire in political discourse.
But as a scholar, I can’t predict which, if any, of these themes will be influential in the coming decades. Engaging the public is important, but we should not assume that what will be integral to future society is the same as what can be made popular or immediately understandable now.
Humanities research is groundbreaking, life-changing… and ignored
Humanists like myself are regularly forced to consider what the public wants. We are told to imagine their desires and to conjure ways to fulfil them. This is an important strategy that every academic should pursue.
But we must be allowed to resist this impulse, too. We can’t anticipate what intellectual discoveries will become essential answers to the public’s future questions. We don’t always know what form public scholarship should take.
So academics, stay in your offices. Write books that few people will read. The results might be more significant than any of us first recognise.
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