Professors as Public Intellectuals: A Reader

With Professors, We Need You!, Nicholas Kristof makes a case for professors as public intellectuals:

Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook. Likewise, it was TED Talks by nonscholars that made lectures fun to watch (but I owe a shout-out to the Teaching Company’s lectures, which have enlivened our family’s car rides).

I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!

While Kristof’s plea stumbles in many places (for example, left-leaning academics appear to be discounted out of hand, suggesting that society can somehow be changed only by academics who hold ideologies similar to that public), Daniel Willingham’s follow up presents a strong case as well, notably targeting the role of professors as public intellectuals in the education debate:

Kristof did not distinguish between faculty in Arts & Sciences and those in professional schools such as law, medicine, education, and engineering. These latter have practical application embedded in their mission and I think are therefore more vulnerable to his charges….

But again, I think Kristof’s blade is much sharper when applied to university schools that claim a mission which includes practical application. Schools of Ed., I’m looking at you.

Also important is a comment from Stwriley at Willingham’s The Answer Sheet post, which reads in part:

The reason is that there are far fewer professors who don’t have to worry that what they say in public will cost them their jobs and that have the time to spend on non-teaching and non-research duties. At this time, 3 out of 4 university faculty are adjuncts or other contingent faculty. It is only those in tenured or tenure-track positions, with the far better pay, guarantees of due process and academic freedom, and personal time for outside activity who can take up the role of public intellectual….

This is the real reason for the decline in professors as public intellectuals: the destruction of their profession for the bottom line of others.

The closing point in this comment must not be ignored: The dismantling of academic tenure at university and K-12 levels includes a silencing of academics—something Kristof and Willingham appear to be lamenting.

Neither Kristof nor Willingham acknowledge that high-profile cases have shown that even tenured professors risk everything by being public voices. And when professors shift into the world of blogging, the stakes often are high.

If professors as public intellectuals are needed, then, some time must be spent addressing the many ways in which institutional and public policies are working against that possibility.

Ultimately, calls for professors as public intellectuals confront a number of problems, including:

  • Traditional university mechanisms for promotion and tenure either disregard or marginalize public work.
  • A social norm of professors and teachers as “not political” remains powerful.
  • In the U.S., political leaders and the public are committed to beliefs over evidence, expertise, or experience.
  • Academics are often not well equipped to interact with a lay public, including being unfamiliar with the value and dynamics in the New Media as well as social media (Twitter, blogging platforms, Facebook).

Since I have made a conscious shift in how much energy I commit to traditional scholarly work versus public work, I have addressed these issues in a number of ways. Here, then, is a reader on the issues above as they relate to professors as public intellectuals:

See Also

Academic Self-Marginalization Not the Problem, James Kwak

Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?, Joshua Rothman

Why Is Academic Writing So Beautiful? Notes on Black Feminist Scholarship, Emily Lordi

The responsibility of adjunct intellectuals, Corey Robin

Scabs: Academics and Others Who Write for Free, Yasmin Nair

The war on black intellectuals: What (mostly) white men keep getting wrong about public scholarship, Brittney Cooper

Columbia University Fired Two Eminent Public Intellectuals. Here’s Why It Matters. Michelle Goldberg

Roundup of Responses to Kristof’s Call for Professors in the Public Sphere, Jessie Daniels

Educating the Public on the Public’s Terms: An Open Letter to Academics, Peter Smagorinsky

In Defense of Public Writing, David Leonard

academic influence on Twitter: the findings

What’s Wrong With Public Intellectuals?, Mark Greif

How Scientists Engage the Public, Lee Rainie, Cary Funk, and Monica Anderson

The Dangerous Silence of Academic Researchers, Y. Claire Wang

‘But Does It Count?’, David M. Perry

Twitter and Tenure, David M. Perry

Prof, no one is reading you, Asit K. Biswas and Julian Kirchherr

The Perils of Being a Public Intellectual, Henry Giroux

From Tweet to Blog Post to Peer-Reviewed Article: How to be a Scholar Now, Jessie Daniels

Here’s why academics should write for the public, Jonathan Wal and David Miller

6 comments

  1. Russ Walsh

    I am an adjunct professor and active blogger. Last year I wrote a letter to the editor to my local paper regarding an opinion piece authored by Eli Broad extolling the findings of the National Council for Teacher Quality report. I pointed out Mr. Broad’s obvious conflict of interest and the shoddy research done by NCTQ. The next day my Dean recieved an email from the PR department of the university asking her to get her adjuncts in line and fretting that my letter brought attention to an issue the university preferred to ignore. This is a good illustration of how the public voice of the intellectual could be squelched in the age of the adjunct.

    • Stewart

      Exactly so. Your case is a perfect example of what I was talking about. If you look around the net at professor/bloggers, you’ll find that most who don’t use a pseudonym and hide their identity are tenured and don’t have to fear retaliation (or, at least, serious retaliation) for what they post. When it comes to those less well protected, they usually choose anonymity. That certainly helps protect them, but it also allows their public role to be undermined by doubt and the limiting nature of keeping that anonymity. It’s a Catch-22 for adjuncts like yourself who would find the time for a public role regardless of the demands of your position (and an admirable thing that is, too) but must either expose themselves or undermine the very role they wish to take up.

      BTW, thanks for including part of my comment from The Answer Sheet in your post, Paul, I’m very flattered that you thought it worth passing along. I’m a teacher in a large urban district who spent 10 years as a college adjunct before going back for my MEd, so I’ve been in the middle of this question for a long time. I still don’t have tenure in my district and use a pseudonym online to protect myself for this very reason. I could easily be “laid off” from my job if the powers-that-be in my district became annoyed with any public role I took up (and they likely would be) and even my union would not be able to stop them. I may well be a more public figure and post more openly once I’ve achieved tenure, but that’s still a couple of years off.

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