In debates about the role of academics and intellectual publishing, a set of buzzwords gets tossed around frequently: insularity, ivory-tower, town/gown. In all of these terms there is the assumption of an inherent divide between the academic and the public, an idea that semi/public intellectual work is seeking to remedy. I would like to posit that to make further progress against this limiting binary, academics must be willing to engage with the public. Note that public engagement need not be synonymous with dumbing work down, nor does public engagement automatically exclude the possibility of publishing within the academic community. However, only once academics are willing to get their intellectual hands dirty will intellectual work start to have more of an impact in the world at large (whether large impact is the desired end goal is a discussion for another day).
Creating this public engagement without sacrificing intelligence is one of the challenges of this movement, but it is a challenge that won’t be met unless ambitions intellectuals are willing to step up, renegotiate the terms of ‘public intellect’ and take success and mistakes in stride. In, “In the Context of Infinite Contexts,” Hua Hsu suggests that, “We must leave behind the old language and precepts and build new relations with the public” (466). What does this look like? We can’t fully know yet, partially because the shifting digital plane alters the way we communicate every day and partially because any bold movement has elements of the unknown, risking the safe status quo for the hope of something better.
The inevitable pushback will come in many forms. In an article urging academics to continue publishing obscure academic work, James Mulholland suggests that his research on British colonial authors that have seen little readership since the 1790s holds value because it, “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” (np). All valid points. What Mulholland fails to articulate is why this work must be cloistered within academia instead of being ported to a semipublic stance. Furthermore, his list of valid points includes few ideas for how his obscure research might spring to life down the road. Instead, his hope hinges on his currently obscure work someday becoming relevant, potentially long after he has passed.
Based on these perspectives, I see little reason why academics should shy away from public engagement. If Mulholland aims for public engagement and fails, so be it. It does not preclude his work from becoming important in a future theoretical scenario. There already exists substantial stereotyping of academics as reclusive, cryptic, and fully happy to stay that way. Unless academics are willing to engage the stereotype and get their intellectual hands dirty, that stereotype will continue to dominate and the chance for impactful academic work will remain marginal.
Hsu, Hua. “In the Context of Infinite Contexts.” PMLA 130.2: 2015. 461-466. Web.
Mulholland, James. “Academics: Forget About Public Engagement, Stay in Your Ivory Towers.” The Guardian. 2015. Web.