public humanities

Cease conceiving of education as mere preparation for later life, and make it the full meaning of the present life.

– John Dewey, “Self Realization as the Moral Ideal”

This quote from Dewey is a good reminder that education can do more than just get us ready for the job market. After all, few literature students enter the field because of the booming employment rates.

Does this quote affect the ways you think about humanities education? About how and what you teach in the classroom?

Getting Your Intellectual Hands Dirty

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.

Works Cited

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.

Graduate Students: Semiprofessional Intellectuals

Evan Kindley’s article “Growing Up in Public: Academia, Journalism, and the New Public Intellectual” wrestles with the debate between relevance and accessibility that is contingent on the separation between “‘the public’ and ‘the academy’” and how a shift in the discourse, for Kindley, “provides an opportunity to help more people understand our activities as scholars and why they’re important” (468). I, myself, have recently found myself in a sort of internal struggle with this very problem. When I asked one of my mentors, “Does what we do matter?” with a genuine feeling of concern in my mind, and on my face. In turn, she shrugged and smiled. The short answer is this, it matters to us. But if we cannot share it with others, we run the risk of being obsolete. There is no real need to compete or argue over who might be better equipped to be a public intellectual, or even to redefine it. As Kindley notes, “[i]n the best case scenario, both sides are challenged to produce better work by adjusting to norms not native in their professions, thus raising the level of discourse of cultural criticism as a whole” (469). But is this just an intellectual utopian fantasy that we might never be able to actualize?

Of course, the space the public intellectual occupies is different than where the academic rests. The conventions of the academy challenge the academics ability to enter the public sphere reputably, and without stepping on anybody’s proverbial toes. More pressing for the academic in training, where, as Kindley notes, “public writing [is] not discouraged, but delayed: it [is] seen as a valuable activity, but one that ought to be pursued once one’s disciplinary bona fides were in order” (471). This is indeed a problem that us graduate students seem to face. When is the right time to bridge this gap? Are graduate students allowed to exist in both these spheres? More importantly, do they have the time and the means to do so? If the humanities academics want a more public presence, then shouldn’t that be incorporated alongside the traditional professionalization of academics in their graduate programs? We are the producers of the knowledge, the future of the disciplines, why would we hold our voices back?

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