Public Scholars and Intellectuals

Yesterday we wrapped up the first Beyond the Academy conference.  It was a terrific meeting of over 40 public scholars from across the country talking about how academics can make their work matter beyond the often narrow confines of academia.  Of course it is worthwhile to advance one’s own field, but this work need not happen without also engaging the larger public. In the meeting we grappled with how to do this work without falling into old hierarchical thinking, how to do research in communities without being imperialistic, and how to make a difference in public policy without losing one’s own soul. I’ll be writing up a report this next week, trying to pull together all the themes.  I can say now, though, that we only scratched the surface of what “public scholarship” as a practice might be.  Our keynote speaker, Dan Kemmis, got us thinking about that.  Is public scholarship a practice in the Aristotelian sense of having internal to it its own ideals and standards? What would those be?

To mull on this, see a piece in a New York Times blog on public intellectuals.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. I’m sorry to have missed this conference, having just happened across a reference to it on the Web. It sounds fascinating.

    Was there discussion of the difference between the (now rather tired) notion of public intellectuals and the (still underexplored) idea of public scholarship? The NYT seems still to be flogging the former, but you seem to be working out quite a different model.

  2. Yes, we’re working out something new, though I’m not terribly crazy about the phrase, “public scholarship,” since it sounds kind of dry and pedantic. For want of a better term, we’re trying to describe research across the disciplines that sees its mission as partly to enrich public life, not by “edifying” it as much as helping the public “find” itself as a public in a Deweyan sense.

  3. How about “public thought” (which is the term I’m going with these days)? I’m eager to read the “report you are/were working up” following the conference. Please let me know when it’s available. Thanks for a great blog, Noelle.

  4. Funny you don’t mention the converse prospect of the public contributing to scholarship when academics go online. It seems like your vision is either like broadcasting or teaching freshmen. Most of the dialog an academic ends up engaging in online might indeed be a bore or a chore, and yet like a 49er panning for gold one could still think hopefully about what the process might yield–if not from the vulgar masses, then from people scholarly in fields other than one’s own. Not that I’ve noticed blogging ever living up to such once prevailing hopes, but I’m just sayin.

  5. Thanks, MT. Good point, but note that we’re carrying on this conversation online. Maybe I still need to state what seems to be obvious — public scholarship happens not just in the classroom or in the news media but also via new media. So, yes, I agree.

  6. I think MT’s comment supports the notion that “public scholarship” isn’t the best name for this sort of work. “Scholarship” is a old-fashioned word, rooted in old-fashioned assumptions about academic labor (“research”). Those assumptions pull us back towards stereotypical views of the relation between “academics” and “the public”–MT’s image of one-way communication (broadcasting or teaching freshmen)–rather than more complex images of overlap and exchange. To the extent that virtual spaces (blogs and such) erode the established boundaries of The Academy, traditional ideas about knowledge, expertise and authority are increasingly inadequate, obstacles to thought rather than vehicles of understanding.

    To my mind, the heart of this work is in construction, the creation of spaces that can bring individuals together in the form of a public (i.e. “the” public doesn’t pre-exist its gathering). “Scholarship” doesn’t capture that. “Public learning” may get us a little closer.

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