Scholars Going Public

I’ve mentioned before here that I’m putting on a conference next month, Beyond the Academy: Engaging Public Life. At lunch today with my good friend Rich Harwood, I started to see even more deeply the import of public scholarship. The term has become a bit of a buzz word in the disciplines, coming to mean disciplinary work that is aimed at developing a different kind of relationship with the public. So it’s more than just history or philosophy or “weed science” (as Scott Peters affectionately calls agricultural sciencs), but academic work that tries to engage the public more collaboratively, not top down. This is hard for many academics and well-meaning types to imagine. Certainly, the thinking goes, the great unwashed masses need the wisdom of thoughtful, trained people. But this thinking is, I believe, deeply wrong-headed — and undemocratic, to boot. The task for public scholars is to draw out, elicit, be midwives for public knowledge. They should know what Dewey knew: that the cobbler may know how to fix the shoe, but only the wearer knows where it pinches. This was the impetus for the conference, to describe a kind of scholarship with a more collaborative relationship with the public.

But my conversation with Rich pointed to an additional and perhaps more important meaning of public scholarship. It’s not about what the scholar can do with or for the public, but about making one’s own scholarly work meaningful. By meaningful it is not so much what the work means for others but that the work is meaningful for others. I would venture to say that all of us — academics, artists, politicians, entrepreneurs, bus drivers, cooks, and lineman — want our endeavors to resonate in a public world with others. If the world is deaf to our efforts, we (and perhaps the world) are so much the worse for it.

We’re worse off because the dichotomy between individual and society is a false one. We all become who we are through our interactions with others. There is no distinguishable self apart from the way we individuate ourselves in a social field. The claim, “I am somebody,” is not just an assertoric statement; it is a performative one, one that succeeds when others respond, “yes you are somebody.” To be fully individuated seems to involve being heeded, felt, acknowledged by others. I think we all want our work to matter. So being a public scholar means being an academic who wants to make a difference in the world, not just for the world’s sake, but for one’s own. Otherwise we write journal articles for the sake of CV’s and the perhaps eight people who read them. We play the finite game of getting ahead, not the infinite game (as James Carse might put it) of making a difference. Publicity is the flip side of alienation.

The Hillary Lesson

In today’s New York Times, Peggy Orenstein writes an important piece about what “The Hillary Lesson” is for our daughters:

One recent morning, as my 4-year-old daughter and I strolled to our favorite diner, she pointed to a bumper sticker plastered on a mailbox. A yellow, viraginous caricature of Hillary Clinton leered out from a black background. Big block letters proclaimed, “The wicked witch of the East is alive and living in New York.”
“Look, Mama,” she said. “That’s Hillary. What does it say?”
Let me state right off that I don’t consider Senator Clinton a victim. Her arm is so limber from the mud she has lobbed during her political career that, now that the whole president thing is doubtful, she may have a future as the first woman to pitch for the Yankees. So it is not the attacks themselves that give me pause, but the form they consistently have taken, the default position of incessant, even gleeful (and, I admit it, sometimes clever) misogyny. Staring down the sightline of my daughter’s index finger, I wondered what to tell her — not only at this moment, but in years to come — about Hillary and about herself… (continue)

I’m with Orenstein on not revering Clinton, but I am also with her on worrying about how the vitriol against Hillary has often been totally sexist and extremely offensive. One offensive jab that came through my own liberal neighborhood’s email list compared HRC to a certain Kentucky Fried Chicken assemblage. To my neighborhood’s credit, after this post many other people responded expressing how offended they were by his “joke.” To this he replied:

Doesn’t anyone have a sense of humor or believe in FREE speech…I see that anyone’s future comments can be silenced depending upon one person’s point of view… is this America ???? Or do we have to conform to editors….what does that remind you of….I have not liked comments made by certain people but I have NOT complained or tried to silence them…..Happy New Year and get a life !!

Free speech, speech free to attack women? Is that America? Not my America.

The best thing about this campaign, to my mind, is that it has allowed all of us to support people for their positions regardless of their skin color or gender. This isn’t really possible when it’s a campaign between a bunch of white guys and one white woman, or a bunch of white guys and one black man. But in a race between a black guy and a white gal, both of whom are progressive people with good values, then the scene changes considerably. I can lean to Barack more and Hillary less, but not because of some deep sexist stuff but because it’s finally possible to glean, however hazily, a post-sexist and post-racist future. But clearly there are still plenty of people caught up in old mind games over sex and race that still make this campaign a truly fraught one. And it’s only going to come to the fore more once the general campaign begins.

Beyond the Academy Program Online

We’ve got a fabulous group of scholars engaged in public life coming to the DC area next month for the Beyond the Academy conference.  Check out the program with papers ranging from the university as agitator to walking in the footsteps of Dubois in the black belt and a keynote by Dan Kemmis, author of Community and the Politics of Place.  If you want to attend, be sure to register soon while space is still available.


According to Paul Begala, the core of the Democratic Party are hardworking white Americans. And according to the Clinton-camp logic, hardworking white American women should line up behind Hillary. It seems to take a Republican, namely Peggy Noonan in today’s Wall Street Journal, to point out the logic of what’s happening to the Democratic Party if people like me—hardworking white American women—don’t speak up.

I am a hardworking American. I am white. I am a woman. And I’d like Hillary Clinton to bow out now.

But maybe Paul Begala would like to say that having an education negates my American credentials. But to that I’d remind Paul that we first met when he was student-body president at the University of Texas at Austin. Yes, even the Clinton folk have their share of degrees.

Reports from Myanmar

Click here to listen in on what Burmese bloggers are reporting about the devastation left by Cyclone Nargis, as well as reports on relief efforts.

By Hook or Crook?

She’s not going to win the nomination by hook, and let’s hope she stops aiming to win it by crook.  The numbers just don’t add up for Hillary Clinton.  It’s time for her to bow out.  Here’s the Huffington Post’s analysis.

The Tally Tonight

In terms of delegates won in the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, as of about 11 p.m. eastern time, it looks like Clinton has picked up  35 delegates and Obama has picked up 42.  According to CNN, Obama leads Clinton in delegate count by 150 delegates.

Beyond the Academy Registration

Meeting just outside the nation’s capital in the midst of a presidential campaign year, public scholars from across the country will discuss the ways in which their work is more than “academic,” how it helps strengthen democratic institutions and public life and can bring about civic change.

To register for the Beyond the Academy Conference taking place in Arlington, VA, June 10-11, 2008, please go here.

Registration is free and open to the public. Participants in the conference should register as well. If you have worked on a book that is germane to the conference, on the registration page please include the book title, author or editors, and publisher information with your registration. If you have the ISBN handy, please include that too.

More information on the conference is available at

Please spread the word to your networks.