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Public Engagement
February 16, 2014 - 8:44pm

Nothing like a New York Times Op-Ed piece on a Saturday to get all of Academic Twitter all worked up. This time, Nicholas Kristof accuses academics of being “engaged” enough beyond the Ivory Tower and demands that we “engage” more, for the good of the country and the world.

Now, you might agree with some of his underlying principles, and he does make the good point of saying that until academia starts making forms of public engagement a part of tenure and promotion requirements (and I would add hiring), then we will remain marginalized and irrelevant (I’m paraphrasing). Also, it’s the same old song about how academics are terrible writers who are more concerned about theory than they are about practice. But the part that got most of the people I follow on Academic Twitter upset was his so-called sample group.

Once again, according to the New York Times, “academia” is made up of Ivy League schools and a very tiny handful of larger, public R1 institutions. And “public engagement” is also very narrowly defined: the pages of the New York Times, New Yorker, The Economist, etc. In other words, where are all the elite “academic” voices writing for elite media outlets?

I can’t do much better than what Corey Robin says in his rebuttal of Kristoff (seriously, go and read it).  Not only does he call Kristoff to task for not expanding his scope of publications (and how hard it is to even get published at all in these venues), but he also reminds Kristoff of the precarious professional and economic position so many young (and not-so-young) academics find themselves in as adjuncts:

I had to smile at Kristof’s nod to publish or perish. Most working academics would give anything to be confronted with that dilemma. The vast majority can’t even think of publishing; they’re too busy teaching four, five, courses a semester. As adjuncts, as community college professors, at CUNY and virtually everywhere else.

I would go even further by saying that there are many, many academics who are engaging with the public locally at community colleges and smaller, regional state institutions. Researchers and educators who are working in and with the community where their students’ live. This is a kind of public engagement that goes largely unnoticed but are nonetheless important in the lives that it directly impacts.

I would also point out that the face of the professoriate is changing, contingent or otherwise. As this great piece points out, women have a lot more trouble getting heard than menPeople of color, people with visible disabilities, and other marginalized groups all have more trouble getting their voices heard and taken seriously (and their contributions recognized), and pay a higher price for speaking out. As I wrote on Twitter, many of the people who are interested in being more engaged are the same people that outlets like the New York Times talk about, rather than directly to.

I work hard to engage a larger public. I write for as many different kinds of media outlets as I can (as long as they pay). But the thing I am currently most proud of is being a part of bringing awareness about adjunct issues to a larger audience. As adjunct issues have been featured increasingly in mainstream media outlets, so too have friends of mine on social media who have little or nothing to do with academia are noticing, and noticing because of me. They tweet me about upcoming strikes that they had no idea about. They share stories that appear in the media with me and have shown that they have paid attention. They are having heated debates and discussions about the issue, and the people involved have never given the issues a first (let along second) thought until now. And it’s not just me doing this work. It’s the one million adjuncts who are fighting for visibility and for a change to an unjust system.

Corey Robin concludes his piece with the following:

But Kristof’s a fellow who likes to save the world. So maybe this is something he can do. Instead of writing about the end of public intellectuals, why not devote a column a month to unsung writers who need to be sung? Why not head over to the “Sunday Reading” at The New Inquiry, which features all the greatest writing on the internets for that week? Why not write about the Anthony Galuzzo’s and Yasmin Nair’s who deserve to be read: not as a matter of justice but for the sake of the culture? Who knows? He might even learn something.

Even better idea: want to save the world? Kristof could also bring even more visibility to adjunct faculty issues, so that in the future, he (or someone like him) will still have academics to chastise about not engaging enough with the public. 

 

 

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