Perils of Public Engagement: Are We All #engagedacademics Now?
Earlier this month, I wrote about potential risks of sharing preliminary findings from the field, especially when they are related to a major social media company like Facebook. As anthropologist Daniel Miller discovered, doing anthropology in public carries the danger that journalists, bloggers, and others will pluck an ethnographic morsel from its context, and circulate it unmoored from those origins. Some news commentators, for example, reacted with panic to his contention that Facebook is “dead and buried” for some teen users in the UK. But if we don’t reach out to share our work, we equally risk provoking those who castigate academics for being too insular and our research too inaccessible. The debate about scholarly engagement in public resurfaced with renewed vigor last week (Just Publics @ 365 has a nice roundup) in response to New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof’s piece “Professors, We Need You!” (Feb. 15, 2014).
I won’t spend much time rehashing the debate (as it were)—most of you are probably familiar by now with Kristof’s tired assertion that academics (“professors”) only write for specialized niche audiences and don’t pursue topics directly relevant to public life. But Kristof’s piece set off a wave of responses from academics who resolutely see themselves as engaged with non-academic audiences, and coalesced on Twitter around the hashtag #engagedacademics. In contrast to Kristof’s poorly informed views, a profusion of academic blogs, Twitter feeds, and news columns aim to relate scholarly work and insights to current topics of public interest—including this blog! So why didn’t Kristof realize this, and what should we do about—that is, we as academics, but also we as the public (or publics)?
Kristof was primarily targeting the quantitative social sciences, especially political science—as Kerim at Savage Minds points out, anthropology rarely appears in these debates over the relevance of the social sciences:
The thing is, anthropology is full of public intellectuals. You see anthropologists across all different forms of media, from leading newspapers to blogs, to local talk radio. You see anthropologists working on behalf of communities all around the world as well as working as bridges between communities. And you see anthropologists working daily with the large portion of the public that is in school, training the next generation of public intellectuals.
So, if that’s true, why does the discipline always seem to be in a crisis about the state of our public intellectuals? Why do we feel so marginal to public discourse? Why do we barely even get mentioned in debates like the one that erupted in response to a certain op-ed columnist?
Kerim offers three excellent suggestions for why we often feel marginal to these discussions despite a lively, ongoing tradition of public engagement in anthropology. First, anthropological methods ground us in the specificities of what we research, so we are more likely to be engaged in conversations about our particular topics and avoid generalizing. Two, we are often oriented towards publics very different from those many in the news media imagine. Three, anthropological (and other critical) perspectives call into question the entire capitalist enterprise that shapes dominant public discourse, making it difficult even to get the conversation on the same page. So what do we as anthropologists and STS scholars think about how to write for diverse audiences and how to make our research findings accessible? For example, how could public writing better fit into academic career trajectories, such as for tenure files? And what would more partnerships look like between qualitative social scientists and journalistic or policy endeavors?
Finally, as a footnote to this discussion, the New York Times published an editorial a day after the Kristof piece on the harm caused by adjunctification in higher education. I find it ironic, though not shocking, that the Times presents these contradictory viewpoints without much self-awareness, taking professors to task for insufficient public engagement with one hand, while acknowledging changes in the university that are making academic life increasingly precarious for the majority of professors with the other. Clearly these tensions need to be resolved before we can have a meaningful conversation about how social scientists should be engaged in public discourse.