On the afternoon of February 15th, after finishing up a conversation with a close friend - and tenure-track professor - on the current state of public scholarship inside and outside of academia, I checked Twitter and found Nicholas Kristof’s call for more public engagement by academics, deriding us for not taking up Twitter and other forms of social media to promote our work.
Academics - including several at Inside Higher Ed - were quick to respond. For days, my Twitter feed - filled with academics of all stripes - has been full of righteous responses complete with the hashtag: #EngagedAcademics. In the immediate aftermath, Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) summed up my feelings best with her tweet: “We. Been. Here. We. Still. Here. Stop using your white man only google search filter.” As McMillan Cottom (and many others) point out: the race and gender dynamics of public scholarship are hugely significant. And, despite the current vitriol aimed at Kristof, he is certainly not alone in using an elite lens when assessing what “counts” as academic engagement in the public sphere. In fact, those who’ve read AAUP’s recent Case for Academics as Public Intellectuals will note its eerie similarity to Kristof’s piece; it also includes only two women in its list of “notable role models” (see my tweets on this issue). The problem here is the failure to take women’s and other marginalized groups’ concerns about - and barriers to - public engagement seriously.
Women who enter arenas of public debate - especially the internet - are decidedly “not welcome”, as Amanda Hess documented in her recent Pacific Standard piece (and as I know all-too-well from a decade of online feminist work). In fact, I cannot think of a prominent woman in the public sphere who has not been the target of sexism, usually in the form of being threatened with sexual assault, which in the case of women of color undoubtedly takes a racist tone. Amongst countless others, recent incidents of female public scholars who have had these experiences include Mary Beard (@wmarybeard), who was threatened with rape and having her home bombed via Twitter, and Brittney Cooper (@ProfessorCrunk), who was physically threatened while speaking on a panel at the Brecht Forum in New York. If you’d like to do your own test of this, read the comments of any article published by a woman in a mainstream news media outlet - or read almost any mainstream account of women in the public sphere. Indeed, as Mary Beard recently stated in a talk at the British Museum (recounted in The Guardian ), the very real, and very negative, push-back against women who enter the public sphere is nothing new in Western culture: it extends all the way back to Homer. Although not surprising, it is nevertheless disappointing that Kristof and others continue to ignore the risks that women have faced when entering the public sphere for the past two millennia.
The barriers to engaging in the public sphere include not only potential costs to our personal lives, but also to our academic careers. As Kristof admittedly points out, and readers of this blog well know, what “counts” for hiring, tenure, and promotion at U.S. institutions of higher education are peer reviewed journal articles, books, and prestigious grants from the Ford Foundation and the like. What tends not to “count” in current academic assessment is engagement in public discourse through popular media outlets, unless that outlet is the New York Times. (Though it’s important to note that both the Imagining America Tenure Team Initiative on Public Scholarship and the National Women’s Studies Association have been working on this issue.) Kristof’s point on American culture’s history of anti-intellectualism is well taken here (and is the reason I was careful to qualify U.S. institutions above; in the UK, where I received my PhD, public engagement has long been a part of academic culture). However, his broad - and elitist - assessment of what is valued in academic disciplines misses the mark.
Disciplines such as my own - women’s and gender studies - and others like ethnic studies and LGBT studies, have, since their founding, been engaged in public discourses on issues affecting our communities. Further, the type of work that comes out of these disciplines - especially scholarship that critically examines policy and its effects on different members of society - promotes exactly the kind of engagement that Kristof calls for, although very few of us in these marginalized disciplines have a platform large enough to catch the eye of highly-elite institutions like the Times (see Corey Robin on the latter point). Finally, and critically, as Lee Skallerup Bessette, Tressie McMillan Cottom and books like Presumed Incompetent have pointed out, perspectives like Kristof’s ignore the fact that people of color and other marginalized groups are often hesitant to publicly engage for fear that their already tenuous foothold in academia will be jeopardized, and/or, in the case of a very large marginalized group - contingent faculty - because they literally do not have the time.
Those of us who do take on this work, then, do so at significant personal risk, against a dominant anti-intellectual culture, and in addition to all of the other “requirements” that we need to succeed in the neoliberal university. As a result, very, very few of us who are committed to public engagement - who write for blogs, who explain our research on social issues in “140 characters or less” - will ever have a platform as loud as the one Kristof enjoys.
Nevertheless, as Syreeta McFadden asserts: public intellectuals are everywhere - though we may be excluded from the hallowed halls of the Times, our voice is strong in publications like The New Inquiry and Salon, and on blogs like Feministing and here, at University of Venus.
We are here, doing the work. What we need now is an academic and broader public culture that recognizes this work as valuable, and an online/media culture that takes sexist and racist behavior seriously.
Gwendolyn Beetham (@gwendolynb) is an assistant editor at University of Venus. She also curates the series The Academic Feminist at Feministing.com and is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Brooklyn College.