Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The real barriers to being a public intellectual

Today is my writing day. I should be working on writing that counts. Such as the two scholarly articles I'm composing for academic journals - the kind of writing that Mr. Kristof calls "gobbledygook . . . sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance."

Here's a sample of one of the pieces I'm currently working on. Is this "gobbledygook"? You be the judge.

"Exerting authority over their own identities, re-claiming space to express resistance, and challenging the stereotyped assumptions of thousands of readers, Indigenous feminist bloggers are on the rise and are gaining attention with arguments that lance the core of American popular culture and misinformed imaginations. In October 2013, Adrienne Keene (Cherokee), author of the blog Native Appropriations, was nominated for the 2013 Women’s Media Center Social Media Award, reflecting the impact and import of her blog work, much of which demands awareness of problematic appropriations of Native images and artifacts. Linking the past with the present to create a new and more positive future for Indigenous peoples, Native women such as Dr. Debbie Reese (NambĂ© Pueblo) and her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, expertly use the communicative tools and technologies of the 21st century to share stories from the Indigenous perspective and insist upon change."

You tell me. You are a reader and a member of the general public, possibly a member of the academy, possibly not. Is that gobbledygook to you? Is it over your head? Are you confused?

I suspect not.

However, and this leads me to my argument: There are REAL barriers to being a public intellectual, but one of them is NOT that academics aren't writing in the public domain. My article, once complete and published, will NOT be available to YOU, unless you have access to a university system library database, which is a paid platform accessible only to those in a university community. I actually agree with much of what Mr. Kristof says. Not the gobbledygook part, obviously, but certainly the idea that academics only write behind pay walls. Many academics (and I know A LOT of them) write in understandable and accessible forms in those obscure journals. And many of these academics are ALSO writing for the public.

Back to the idea that this blog post which tackles a very important academic issue will not count toward my bid for tenure and promotion. One of the largest barriers to academics publishing more for the general public is the fact that our public writing does not count and will not be considered as valuable and as worthy as our "gobbledygook" in "obscure journals." Kristof employs an interview comment to briefly touch upon this problem:

"'Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.'” ("Professors, We Need You!")    

 I couldn't agree more. And I have a simple solution, although simplicity is not the academy's strong suit: Institutions and faculty unions should create a category called "Public Writing" and accept everything from blog posts and movie or book reviews in popular outlets to essays and opinion pieces in local, regional, and national publications, both in print and online. Instead of rejecting public intellectual work, this simple move would make public writing a REQUIREMENT of all faculty. And let's make the percentage low - 10 percent. So, 10 percent of your academic writing should be in a public forum. Most of the academics I know have already exceeded that by a large margin, and those who haven't done so may be hesitant to try because the existing system doesn't value public writing. If the goal is to reach more people, then this would effectively start to solve that problem. Moving on.

The second barrier to reaching a broader audience is the pervasive and very real anti-intellectualism in this nation that points and shouts, "Indoctrinator! Liberal! Left-wing nutjob! You're out of touch and don't know what the real people need to know! You think you're so smart? I don't care what you have to say! So there!"

Yes, I did just devolve that statement into a two-year-old's tantrum and for good reason. Because from my perspective, that's exactly what it sounds like when I write about an important issue such as Indigenous sovereignty or the academic system, and the response is a deafening silence. No response. No comments. No discussion. No engagement from anyone except my colleagues in the academy. And I'm small potatoes - I can just imagine the vacuum of silence for more well-known academics such as Tenured Radical, who composed her own excellent rebuttal to Kristof's missive. It is that silence that I now speak to.

Many of us in the academy WANT to reach a broader audience. We WANT to share what we know and understand about our specialties with YOU, the general public. But when the culture of our nation tells you to hate us because we have more education than you, because we work for the state and your tax dollars help to pay for our modest salaries, because you believe that we make too much money, and because you suspect that we do NOT have your best interests at heart with our pontificating, then our work is for naught, it is in vain, and we have NO AUDIENCE. 

I tell my students again and again to always keep the audience in mind before they write. Who are you writing to? What is it that you would like them to understand or believe? How can you persuade them to see things your way?

My answer to these questions for my own public writing is this: I am writing to whomever has an interest in the issues that I believe are important. I would like my audience to understand the problems that exist within those issues and think about how they are contributing to the problem, as well as what they might do differently to become part of the solution. And to persuade, I try to use humor, facts, connections that make sense, but often take a more hammer-like approach because I can't stand softballing an issue and softening the tone because I am a stubborn, passionate writer and I'm fed up with being told by my society that I'm not worthy of being listened to. So that is probably my mistake. I come on very strong and I'm aware of that, but writing diplomatically is not my strong suit. 

To solve this dilemma then, perhaps I need to soften my approach, but the question remains, will my audience be more receptive or will silence continue to resonate across the interwebs because of the fundamental disconnect between the reality I want to share and the perception that my audience holds dear? My audience perceives that I'm just an indoctrinating, liberal, feminist nutjob ranting away about some issue that doesn't have any effect on their daily lives, so why listen? If I soften my tone and become more diplomatic, will that audience changes its fundamental position? I suspect not.

I'm not sure how to solve the anti-intellectualism that runs rampant in our nation. I'm not sure how to convince people who are absolutely sold on the idea that we academics are the source of the problems in this country and not a source of solution. Perhaps by requiring more academics to engage with the public through writing, this iron wall of resistance can slowly be chipped away over time. If you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them.



Sarah Tantillo said...

Great suggestion, Amanda!

off kilter said...

Nicely said, Amanda! Have you sent this to Kristof? Your idea of including so-called public writing in the qualifications for tenure makes so much sense, I wonder why it's not being done already!