Many a thick academic tome turns out to be a journal article wearing a fat suit. So all due credit to Anna M. Young, whose Prophets, Gurus, and Pundits: Rhetorical Styles and Public Engagement was published by Southern Illinois University Press this year. Her premise is sound; her line of argument looks promising; and she gets right to work without the rigmarole associated with what someone once described as the scholarly, “Yes, I read that one too” tic.
Indeed, several quite good papers could be written exploring the implicit or underdeveloped aspects of her approach to the role and the rhetoric of the public intellectual. Young is an associate professor of communication at Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma, Washington. Much of the book is extremely contemporary in emphasis (to a fault, really, just to get my complaint about it out front here). But the issue it explores goes back at least to ancient Rome -- quite a while before C. Wright Mills got around to coining the expression “public intellectual” in 1958, in any case.
The matter in question emerges in Cicero’s dialogue De Oratore, where Young finds discussed a basic problem in public life, then and now. Cicero, or his stand-in character anyway, states that for someone who wants to contribute to the public discussion of important matters, “knowledge of a vast number of things is necessary, without which volubility of words is empty and ridiculous.”
On the other hand -- as Cicero has a different character point out -- mere possession of learning, however deep and wide, is no guarantee of being able to communicate that learning to others. (The point will not be lost on those of you surreptitiously reading this column on your mobile phones at a conference.)
Nobody “can be eloquent on a subject that he does not understand,” says Cicero. Yet even “if he understands a subject ever so well, but is ignorant of how to form and polish his speech, he cannot express himself eloquently about what he does understand.”
And so what is required is the supplementary form of knowledge called rhetoric. The field had its detractors well before Cicero came along. But rhetoric as defined by Aristotle referred not to elegant and flowery bullshit but rather to the art of making cogent and persuasive arguments.
Rhetoric taught how to convey information, ideas, and attitudes by selecting the right words, in the right order, to deliver in a manner appropriate to a particular audience -- thereby convincing it of an argument, generally as a step toward moving it to take a given action or come to a certain judgment or decision. The ancient treatises contain not a little of what would later count as psychology and sociology, and modern rhetorical theory extends its interdisciplinary mandate beyond the study of speech, into all other forms of media. But in its applied form, rhetoric continues to be a skill of skills – the art of using and coordinating a number of registers of communication at the same time: determining the vocabulary, gestures, tone and volume of voice, and so on best-suited to message and audience.
When the expression “public intellectual” was revived by Russell Jacoby in the late 1980s, it served in large part to express unhappiness with the rhetorical obtuseness of academics, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. The frustration was not usually expressed quite that way. It instead took the form of a complaint that intellectuals were selling their birthright as engaged social and cultural critics in exchange for the mess of pottage known as tenure. It left them stuck in niches of hyperspecialized expertise. There they cultivated insular concerns and leaden prose styles, as well as inexplicable delusions of political relevance.
The public intellectual was a negation of all of this. He or she was a free-range generalist who wrote accessibly, and could sometimes be heard on National Public Radio. In select cases the public intellectual was known to Charlie Rose by first name.
I use the past tense here but would prefer to give the term a subscript: The public intellectual model ca. 1990 was understood to operate largely or even entirely outside academe, but that changed over the following decade, as the most prominent examples of the public intellectual tended to be full-time professors, such as Cornel West and Martha Nussbaum, or at least to teach occasionally, like Judge Richard Posner, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Chicago.
And while the category continues to be defined to some degree by contrast with certain tried-and-true caricatures of academic sensibility, the 2014 model of the public intellectual can hardly be said to have resisted the blandishments of academe. The danger of succumbing to the desire for tenure is hardly the issue it once might have seemed.
Professor Young’s guiding insight is that public intellectuals might well reward study through rhetorical analysis -- with particular emphasis on aspects that would tend to be missed otherwise. They come together under the heading “style.” She does not mean the diction and syntax of their sentences, whether written or spoken, but rather style of demeanor, comportment, and personality (or what’s publicly visible of it).
Style in Young’s account includes what might be called discursive tact. Among other things it includes the gift of knowing how and when to stop talking, and even to listen to another person’s questions attentively enough to clarify, and even to answer them. The author also discusses the “physiological style” of various public intellectuals – an unfortunate coinage (my first guess was that it had something to do with metabolism) that refers mostly to how they dress.
A public intellectual, then, has mastered the elements of style that the “traditional intellectual” (meaning, for the most part, the professorial sort) typically does not. The public perceives the academic “to be a failure of rhetorical style in reaching the public. He is dressed inappropriately. She carries herself strangely. He describes ideas in ways we cannot understand. She holds the floor too long and seems to find herself very self-important.” (That last sentence is problematic in that a besetting vice of the self-important that they do not find themselves self-important; if they did, they’d probably dial it down a bit.)
Now, generations of satirical novels about university life have made clear that the very things Young regards as lapses of style are, in fact, perfectly sensible and effective rhetorical moves on their own terms. (The professor who wears the same argyle sweater year-round has at least persuaded you that he would rather think about the possible influence of the Scottish Enlightenment on The Federalist Papers than the admittedly large holes.)
But she longs for a more inclusive and democratic mode of engagement of scholarship with the public – and of the public with ideas and information it needs. To that end, Young identifies a number of public-intellectual character types that seem to her exemplary and effective. “At different times,” she writes, “and in different cultural milieus, different rhetorical styles emerge as particularly relevant, powerful, and persuasive.” And by Young’s count, six of them prevail in America at present: Prophet, Guru, Sustainer, Pundit, Narrator, and Scientist.
“The Prophet is called by a higher power at a time of crisis to judge sinners in the community and outline a path of redemption. The Guru is the teacher who gains a following of disciples and leads them to enlightenment. The Sustainer innovates products and processes that sustain natural, social, and political environments. The Pundit is a subject expert who discusses the issues of the day in a more superficial way via the mass media. The Narrator weaves experiences with context, creating relationships between event and communities and offering a form of evidence that flies below the radar in order to provide access to information.” Finally, the Scientist “rhetorically constructs his or her project as one that answers questions that have plagued humankind since the beginnings….”
The list is presumably not meant to be exhaustive, but Young finds examples of people working successfully in each mode. Next week we'll take a look at what the schema implies -- and at the grounds for thinking of each style as successful.
Ten years ago, Texas A&M cut its journalism program. The job market imploded in the meantime, but the university hopes its interdisciplinary, liberal arts education approach will make reviving the degree a smart move.
Innovation is the catchword of the day. You’ve heard the speeches and read the op-eds. Higher education needs to innovate: teach differently and use more high impact practices, improve completion rates, integrate new technologies, assess student learning, engage in interdisciplinary teaching and research, help students transition successfully to college – among other improvements.
I have been involved with many such reform efforts in the past two decades, but the same problem emerges persistently as we try to innovate – there are no core faculty to do the work over time, no plans for faculty engagement, no blueprints for professional development. There are no provisions, in short, to meet these goals. Great novel curriculums are developed, important new pedagogies tested and codified, and new forms of assessment instituted, but no one there to implement these key innovations.
One large national project after another fails to meet its goals because it does not provide a way to work with the faculty who keep our institutions functioning.
As we know, the composition of the faculty has changed. Numbers of non-tenure-track faculty, particularly part-time, have ballooned in proportion to the declining population on the tenure track. I have never found an innovation-focused project that includes plans to integrate non-tenure-track instructors or consider how the shrinking tenure track faculty members are too stretched with additional research and service work to be meaningfully involved in innovating.
As just one example, the MDRC evaluation of Achieving the Dream noted how the lack of integration of adjunct faculty negatively affected its success. Our employment practices are broken. Yet higher education is a service profession relying on human capital for success.
I have reached out to most national foundations, agencies and higher education associations to help them understand that without addressing the faculty role, the funded initiatives will be largely failures – if we are speaking about deep and meaningful scaled changes, not fringe marginal side efforts. Most foundations don’t want to fund superficial changes, but that is what the current landscape is set up to do.
We want innovation, but we aren’t willing to examine the capacity issues that thwart important and needed innovation. In fact, higher education’s capacity to innovate in important areas for student success is becoming increasingly hampered by the longstanding and escalating shift to a contingent workforce that is obliged to work with no support.
Others reformers hope to move away from a labor-intensive model – using technology to replace faculty. Technology, the thinking goes, can be programmed to teach as we want, can assess learning, and perhaps provide student support and guidance now missing at some institutions.
This is erroneous thinking. Technology alone does not engage students or use pedagogies that can instill critical thinking. Current high-tech pedagogies largely reinforce memorization or cater to highly privileged learners.
Technology as we know it now also cannot provide the human touch, which sparks learning. Learning is after all a social process. Technology alone cannot offer complex assessments. The support it provides is rote; it cannot offer career advice, help with time management, or assist students in thinking about life purpose and one’s role as a citizen.
Technology to replace faculty is magical thinking, an empty promise. And building technologies that can offer anything close to resembling human capacities is extremely expensive, not cheap. While technology is essential as higher education moves forward, for example, as can be achieved in hybrid classrooms, it is not a substitute for human beings.
If we are to engage in meaningful reform so that higher education can innovate, we need a strategy to develop new faculty employment models. Rather than ignoring the faculty or imagining that we can do without professors, we need a plan that can help redesign the faculty role to meet student needs institutional mission.
Some institutions are trying – tinkering with turning part-time roles into full-time non-tenure-track positions, providing access to important resources like professional development, creating a promotional track, and elevating teaching within the rewards and incentive system. But these experiments are fragile as there is no national vision for the faculty or support within the system for these new roles.
Without a funded, large-scale initiative to help connect disciplinary societies, faculty and academic leaders, students, unions, accreditors, business and industry, and policy makers, it is unlikely that any initiative will represent the interests of the key groups in the system. Such an effort would include some of the following steps:
Create a set of Future Faculty Career Pathways through research and vetting with knowledgeable and diverse stakeholders
Develop a major report on Future Faculty Career Pathways
Work with leading scholars on economic models to support new career pathways
Disseminate and achieve buy-in for Future Faculty Career pathway models using a strategic array of existing stakeholder groups, including trustees, presidents, academic administrators, policy makers, higher education associations, accreditors, disciplinary societies, unions, and faculty associations.
We need the best ideas advanced for redesigning faculty roles, which can come through garnering ideas from all the key stakeholders and having these groups help move that vision into the overall system. We need courageous funders to invest not just in innovations – but in the capacity to innovate.
Adrianna Kezar is professor at the Rossier School of Education and co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. She also directs the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success.