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.