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Academics Want to Go Public. How Can We Help Them?

It's long past time for every discipline to carve out an explicit path to count and valorize all forms of work informed by scholarly expertise, even or especially when they're aimed at an extramural audience.
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What is the role of the scholar and the expert in the fraught year of 2019? Temperatures are rising along with the sea levels. Scientists are discovering the keys to reshaping human DNA. The rallying cry of 1930s American Nazis, "America first," has been resurrected by the commander-in-chief of the most powerful military the world has ever known. The tweet, the video clip, and the lie can spread from our phones, unfiltered and unchecked, to become a global phenomenon within moments of creation.

These stories, and these new and emerging means of communication, reflect the need for academic institutions to orient themselves, at least in part, around expanding access to expertise to the largest audience possible. Some disciplines have already been engaged in this project for a long time: Land-grant universities, for example, have been teaching agriculture through extension schools since 1914. Many scientists are steeped in public communication and, moreover (judging by my email box), have press offices working to sell their findings as news. Various humanistic disciplines, whether public history, education, public sociology, or museum studies, have always had an extramural focus.

But for ordinary humanists like me, especially those of us who don't study anything self-evidently relevant to the modern moment, the obstacles to reaching outside the academy can feel as monumental as the problems we'd like to help address. Most humanistic disciplines and departments lack an infrastructure for reaching the press—or generating our own media. At the same time, academics are often snobs, sometimes warning their colleagues that engaging in public spaces to correct and amend the record degenerates to mere pedantry, unworthy of exalted minds.

Most of all, though, who has the time to do public work when it doesn't count for anything?

I became a public writer entirely by accident. Six years ago, Pope Benedict retired. It caught most news organizations by surprise, which meant they had no expert ready to comment. Editors and breaking news analysts did what any of us would do: They looked up a list of popes who have retired and started talking about Gregory XII, who renounced his seat in 1415. I remember sitting at my breakfast table as my kids ate their cereal, reading all the "Gregory XII" hot takes. I was mad. As my fellow experts in the 13th century knew, the correct precedent was Pope St. Celestine V. Like Benedict, he was an elderly man who decided to try and return to his meditations rather than continue as pontiff. Pope Benedict, as Celestine expert George Ferzoco told me, had twice visited Celestine's tomb. I ranted on Facebook. Friends urged me to write an op-ed. I was skeptical that any mainstream editor would care about such pedantry.

I was wrong. Given an apparent hunger for analysis after a surprising (and somewhat esoteric) event like this, it took just three minutes for an editor at CNN to write me back and accept my pitch. As it happened, I didn't just want to shift our gaze from 1415 to 1295, but also to make an argument for a broad audience about the ways that history informs our present. The historical precedents we use to explain the present matter when we try to respond to the needs of the day, I felt. I wanted to argue, and I still want to argue, that by studying history we can become better citizens of the world.

In the last six years, I have published over 350 essays in dozens of outlets. I quit my job as a full professor so that I could raise my children in a state better suited to their needs and closer to family. I had the incredible good fortune of being able to prioritize familial happiness in this new phase of my career, while maintaining the joys of being in a history department and talking to students as an academic adviser. I have the privilege of traveling to many college campuses to talk about public humanities in the age of President Donald Trump, the links between a liberal arts and sciences education and a purposeful life, and the need to re-imagine public scholarship. Public intellectuals are not just writers; they're anyone whose work is informed by one's scholarly expertise and aimed, at least in part, at an extramural audience. An activist who marches in the streets while studying movements and organizations is as much a public intellectual as an author in The New Yorker or The Paris Review.

On every campus, I meet scholars eager to share what they know outside the walls of their institutions. They find themselves stalled by three factors: lack of knowledge on how media works as an industry, fear of being scorned by their colleagues, and the realization that, in the chase for tenure or promotion, such public work rarely counts toward academic credibility or formal metrics.

The first problem is easy enough to address through workshops like mine or through the OpEd Project, or online classes from people such as Ijeoma Oluo, Mikki Kendall, and Anne Trubek, or just having a friend who knows the keys to unlock the gates. Email me. I'll be that friend. I'm happy to help.

The other two obstacles are harder to crack.

There's no cure for snobbery. It still surprises me that some academics spend their lives studying genre and language, but critique public writing as it were a form of hopelessly specialized scholarship. I love specialized scholarship. I wrote a monograph for a university press and plenty of specialized articles. But we all know that writing conforms to the rhetorical constraints of genre. Experienced or particularly brilliant writers know how to subvert those constraints, but I just try to do a little work in each essay, hoping that they will add up to something good.

I slipped in a few sentences on orientalism into a review of Netflix's Marco Polo. I used a piece about papal conclaves to promote the concept that medieval people actually loved democracy and voting. Over the last few years, I've kept arguing that the use of "medieval" as a casual pejorative (whether for ISIS, Trump's wall, or the process of getting a driver's license in Russia) is intended to impose chronological alterity between ourselves as moderns and the issue we loathe. That alterity absolves modernity, whereas in fact the unique pressures and inequities of the current moment are usually to blame for a given abomination. Essays are iterative. They exist in a community of voices that's growing increasingly diverse. When it comes to public scholarship, we collaborate (even when we disagree), doing the slow work of advancing public understanding in order to push back against the lies from charlatans and would-be tyrants.

The snobbery, though, reflects a deeper problem: In most disciplines, none of this work counts. Few academics on or hoping to be on the tenure track can afford to devote much of their time to work that is not instrumental in advancing their career. Those who can apportion their time toward public work tend to be either outside academe (which presents its own complex set of issues) or secure in their current academic position. That latter group skews white, male, and employed at elite universities.

I will fight to the end of time to defend the importance of specialized scholarship (not all work needs to be timely in a literal-minded sense), but it's long past time for every discipline to carve out an explicit path to count and valorize all forms of work informed by scholarly expertise aimed, at least in part, at an extramural audience.

There are several promising models for how we could assign formal value to work that isn't peer-reviewed scholarship. The American Sociological Association has published a detailed set of metrics for evaluating public communication about sociology. Fields like public history, fine arts, and theater have long counted performance, juried shows, and and educational outreach as requirements for some of their students and professors. The question of how to count different kinds of scholarly work is not a new one. The Modern Languages Association and the American Historical Association both wrestled for years with the question of how to evaluate digital humanities for hiring, tenure, and promotion. Those results might provide a partial framework for similar conversations around publicly directed scholarship.

For my part, having written both peer-reviewed articles and op-eds, I'm under no illusions that the work required by a single op-ed is even chose to that required by formal scholarship. But might 20 essays or other forms of sustained public work over multiple months and years one day be counted the same as a single chapter or article? A system of editorial review plus clear data on audience engagement would offer quantifiable metrics at least as useful as the absurdity of scholarly citation indexes. We're smart people. We can, discipline by discipline, develop the means to count this work and protect and support the people who want to do it from inside the academy.

The most important form of public scholarship is teaching. Each of our students comes into our classrooms and will, someday, take whatever they learn when they proceed outside the walls of our colleges and universities. Classrooms, like op-ed pages, are constrained spaces where the demands of rhetoric and genre sometimes limit what we can do. But when we reach a new mind, persuade someone to think a little more deeply, and help an individual student or reader look at hard questions through a new lens, we've already changed the world.


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