Pulled between engagement with the public and the insularity of the academy, many scholars must now decide whether or not to write for more than just a small group of specialists. While Nicholas Kristof asserts in “Professors, We Need You!” that academia is an exclusive club that is now shrinking, thinkers like James Mulholland argue that “popularising research isn’t the only way to make a social impact” (1). In reality, the universal, uncomplicated ideals surrounding public intellectualism may be nothing more than illusions.
The ideals I am referring to are the notion that academics can anticipate what the public wants or needs, as well as the idea that specialized knowledge can really be made universal. As Mulholland notes, “We [academics] 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” (2). For Mulholland, being marketable and trendy is an unreal expectation for scholars, an expectation that may drive researchers to drop important work in favor something that many people still won’t read or be interested in. To an extent, tailoring your work to better fit public demand involves at least some guesswork.
Another ideal is the notion that specialized knowledge can actually be made universal. Natalia Cecire asserts that “the liberal hope invested in academic blogging is that academic discourses are robust, not fragile . . . and that jumping platforms will do them no damage” (455). Cecire writes that it may be a stretch to say that academic discourses don’t rely on any specific context, on a highly specialized mode of thought or a particular platform.
I am not suggesting that academese is without its flaws. In particular, I find Evan Kindley’s notion of “interprofessional competition” between academics and journalists to be highly productive; to an extent, a majority of writing is designed to “teach” your ideas to other people. Therefore, writing should always be engaging and clear. On the other hand, “engaging” and “clear” are highly relative terms–not all ideas and terms are universally knowable.
That’s why, as Mulholland suggests, it is okay to write books that few people will read (2). The reality is that the distinction between accessible, journalistic writing and academic writing is largely arbitrary. You will never write something that everyone will understand. That doesn’t mean you can’t try, but it also means that you shouldn’t leave your specialized knowledge and language completely by the wayside.
Should academics write for the public? Yes. Does that mean their work is necessarily more accessible? No. Put simply, public engagement is an ideal to strive for–we shouldn’t be disappointed or surprised if, or when, we fail.
Cecire, Natalia. “Everybody’s Authority.” PMLA: Publications Of The Modern Language Association Of America 130.2 (2015): 454-60. MLA International Bibliography. Web.
Kristof, Nicholas. “Professors, We Need You!” The New York Times. 15 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 March 2016.
Mulholland, James. “Academics: forget about public engagement, stay in your ivory towers.” The Guardian. 10 Dec. 2015. Web.