James Mulholland sympathizes with the academic push toward a more public engagement. He recognizes that academics are “told to imagine [the public’s] desires and to conjure ways to fulfil them,” and that it “is an important strategy that every academic should pursue.” Indeed, we are meant to remain aware of current social discourses, and allow our interests and research to engage with those conversations. More importantly, we are urged to discover something new. So, Mulholland continues, “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.” In other words, by trying too hard to be timely we may miss a bigger opportunity in the future–which he highlights with an example of how gender studies scholarship was used in judicial proceedings years after it was produced.
The core of the issue here, as Mulholland puts it, is that “We don’t always know what form public scholarship should take,” and we cannot know what the public is ready to hear or digest. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges an academic faces when trying to take their work into the public domain is not an ego-centric fear to “dumb-down” their work, rather a real-time disparity that develops between public and academic audiences. The inability to know the form the public scholarship should take could, in fact, limit the scholar’s academic scholarship trajectory. That is not to say that the public audience isn’t capable of understanding the academically labored work, but that there is a time and a place for such work to make its way into the public. Like Mulholland, I too would fear that the best time and place to have some debates is not always in the here and now. Again, though, we come back to the long standing problem of finding a balance between the public intellectual and academic laborer within the same central body–can we and should we be both?