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.

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.

New Date for Beyond the Academy Conference

New Date Beyond the Academy Conference: June 10-11, 2008

Call For Abstracts

The Beyond the Academy Conference is now scheduled for June 10-11, 2008.  It will take place on the Arlington Campus of George Mason University, beginning the evening of the 10th and continuing all day on th 11th.

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 be considered for the program, send a 450-550 word abstract by April 28 to with the subject line “public scholars.” Possible topics include, but are not limited to, the following:

* Reclaiming the civic mission of the university
* The incentive structure of university scholarship
* The self-understanding of scholars and their relationship to the public
* How to be the public’s allies in democratic work
* What kind of research does a democratic public need?
* Organic vs. traditional scholarship: How does Milton matter?
* Assessing the engaged campus movement
* Independent scholars, the academy, and the public
* the multiple ways communities, individuals and non-academic institutions contribute to public knowledge (e.g., film festivals, literary festivals, literacy initiatives)
* Advocacy versus Engagement
* Book sessions

For more information go to

Please spread the word to all your networks!