Public Engagement – Untapped Resources

Last week the Chronicle of Higher Education published my essay on public engagement. There’s some irony here, in that I just received positive reader reports on my book and entered a grant-writing period (now that I can apply for grants for the next project). So just as I’ve spoken as strongly and clearly as I can about the need for public engagement, I’ll be slowing down on the formal public front for awhile.

Bruce Holsinger, one of my favorite academic bloggers, commented on my essay and picked out the key features. He wrote:

What most struck me about his essay is what he sees as the urgent need
for more public and public-minded modes of writing from scholars at
non-elite universities. As I read him, he’s proposing a kind of
democratization of the whole notion of the public intellectual, with all
the political implications this would entail.

I want to think about some of those implications.

I don’t believe that academia is a meritocracy. I also don’t believe it’s totally random, but that the variables shaping status in academia are many and often hidden. We all know brilliant people who ended up, by choice or chance, out of the academy. We all know people whose work we seriously question who have ended up at elite schools. But the public, I think, largely sees academia as a rational hierarchical system, in which the smartest people end up at Harvard and the like, and the rest of us get stratified on down. I guess community colleges might be the lowest. This is, of course, nonsense. But think about the implications of this perception.

For one, universities react by trying to structure themselves to rise by whatever metrics might push them up the literal and imaginary ranks. It’s long been my contention, and those of pretty much everyone I know, that such metrics don’t measure the things that are really valuable. These metrics are shadows on the cave wall, we all know that, but they aren’t shadows of quality, they are shadows of imaginary prestige. They push R1 faculty out of the classroom, because only big research matters, eroding the beautiful ideal of the teacher-scholar. They create hierarchy rather than community (across and within institutions). They force faculty at teaching schools into defensive postures, rather than pride. They can limit the desire for public engagement, since it doesn’t “count.” I think they also enable administrative bloat. But these are really topics for another essay.

The key issue in terms of public engagement is that I believe, truly believe, that academics across the spectrum of schools have so much to contribute to our national discourse on basically every topic. The elites get out into the media, into congressional testimony, into political administrations, into the public consciousness. Many such public intellectuals provide brilliant and necessary comment and context on a whole host of issues. But what about the rest of us?

One example – when the “crisis of the Humanities” talk hit  its recent peak, two of the voices that responded first were Anthony Grafton and Michael Bérubé. These men are giants. They are leaders in their fields. I especially look up to Bérubé because he, like me, is the father of a boy with Down syndrome. But I was wondering – where are the voices about the Humanities in the suburban community colleges? Where are the voices from the barely-surviving branch campuses? Where are the voices from the lower tier private schools? It’s not that these giants from Princeton and Penn State have nothing to say – on the contrary, we need them to speak publicly and often. I just know that there are cogent and important statements on the necessity and challenges for the Humanities coming from the entire academic world – and I know this because I hear these conversations. 

Those without name recognition at regional or local schools are a great untapped resource. There’s an inefficiency in the way that our prestige economy and broader perceptions of status both limit public engagement. How do we fix this?

Social media has clearly had an impact, especially at the ability of academics to connect with each other across the lines of discipline, subject, and hierarchy. Blogs matter. Twitter matters.

I do think there’s a role for administration to play, in which explicit sustained public engagement comes to count in some way. I don’t have a good model for this. It’s not self-interested, because at my school I’m hitting my other metrics as I go. But still, I think it’s both possible and necessary.

These are just opening, forming, thoughts. Help me clarify them please!

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