Most academics are content to teach their classes and publish their research – usually for a small number of scholars in their subfield. Yet, there have always been academics who want to reach a much larger audience, to have influence beyond their classrooms, scholarly journals and the faculty club. For them, the call to become a public intellectual is strong. But as long as there has been this desire to “cross over,” there has also been a tension between those who do and those who do not.
Scholars who manage to break beyond the narrow scholarly niche are often derided as mere popularizers, lacking the disciplinary rigor of their more professional colleagues. To some, they are lightweights who jump onto the latest in intellectual fashion and leave no lasting mark on intellectual life or academia. And this is largely because, crossing over, or, as my agent calls it, ‘going trade,’ too often means consciously leaving disciplinary concerns behind, as writing and speaking beyond a narrow academic community requires new skills and a much more interdisciplinary approach.
It is problem-focused, not discipline-focused. The irony is that scholars who decide to break into the mainstream risk being taken less seriously by their departmental colleagues, even if they are taken more seriously by the general public.
Until recently, those who cross over have been intellectual lone wolves, easily singled out for praise or ridicule. But a new group of scholars, who share a method, which combines social theory with a reporter’s sensitivity for a story rooted in a narrative, coupled with a scholarly agenda, concentrated around American studies, seem poised to break out of that box in a way that could change the role of the intellectual beyond academe. They are the purveyors of scholarly reportage.
Popularizers or Something More?
The trend toward larger public engagement has lent itself serially to various disciplines over time. But, it seems dominated by historians, sociologists and most recently by American studies faculty. The Progressive Era historian, Charles Beard, had a huge impact with his Economic Interpretation of the American Revolution.
Other historians soon followed -- Allan Nevins, Matthew Josephson and Caroline F. Ware, to name just a few. Historians continued to cross over throughout the 20th century: think Douglas Brinkley, Stephan Ambrose, Richard Hofstadter and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. But the mid-20th century seemed to truly belong to sociologists such as Daniel Bell, C. Wright Mills, and William Whyte, who looked at the development of the white-collar world. All these scholars wrote trade books and spoke to the nation as a whole. They happened to also be college professors. And, there seemed to be no contradiction in this.
What these scholars all shared was certainly not a method, but rather two important traits. One, they could write -- I mean really write! And let’s face it, the ability to string sentences together into a coherent and powerful text seems to be a declining art. Most disciplines have become so myopic in their training that new Ph.D.'s come out with an inability to reach more than the 500 subspecialists in their field.
The second trait these scholars shared is a critical eye to issues facing their culture. They were plugged into the world. These writers became popular because they recognized big issues that grabbed hold of the larger public’s imagination. They were well read, and not just in their discipline. They seemed to read everything: magazines, newspapers, journals, fiction and nonfiction well beyond their disciplines. They inhabited the zeitgeist of their times and trained their analytical minds on the big issues of their day without fear of professional subcultures.
Yet, I am not sure we can call what these scholars did a movement in the traditional sense. Many shared a political sensitivity; some were part of the postwar New York intellectual scene. But their impact on the culture of academe did not transform it per se. It could not be replicated, although many tried. And, in fact, their disciplines eventually retreated into themselves. And these scholars increasingly became outliers in their own fields.
We are now witnessing a trend that is offering academics a mode of engagement that might just have a lasting impact on the place of the intellectual beyond academia. In short, it might be a movement precisely because it offers a replicable method.
First popularized by the American studies pioneer Andrew Ross, scholars are combining scholarship, memoir and journalism in an effort to explain some of the biggest cultural shifts of the late 20th century. “Scholarly reportage” is what Ross calls it, “a blend of ethnography and investigative journalism.” Originated by Ross in his last three books, it has been picked up by others.
The sociologists Sharon Zukin and Dalton Conley and the historian Bryant Simon each have refined the methods of this approach, and they are not alone. Others are combining memoir and political commentary with serious scholarship making their writing more personal, more intimate, and thus more readable. They have applied this method to understanding urban gentrification, trends in home-work balance and the reshaping of public space, to name a few. Most have given up on scholarly objectivity, a nod to the post-post-modern moment we inhabit.
This, combined with the move many professors are making toward civic engagement, might provide a model that can be both carefully studied and replicated by the next generation, creating a true transformation in academic culture and paving a road towards a more publicly engaged intellectual class.
What these scholars have done is significantly different from what Malcolm Gladwell or Richard Florida do – writers to whom they are often compared. Gladwell and Florida write popular books, no doubt, that are built on a narrow theme, aimed at a larger business readership. Ross and company are writing scholarly books that by their style and nature are also accessible to nonacademic readers. They address scholarly matters with appropriate scholarly methods (they do real original research), for a cultured, creative class of readers.
That these works are emerging from cultural studies, American studies, and urban studies is important. Andrew Ross recognizes the freedom provided by these interdisciplinary spaces, with porous borders. Writing in the Minnesota Review, he argues that these programs are a “haven where the gatekeepers of disciplinary turf had no authority.” Because they are interdisciplinary, no one method owns them. These liminal spaces, fraught with their own tensions, provide the room for risky scholarship.
Ross and company are not without their detractors, however. Many have called Ross too trendy and only interested in his own celebrity. Some have sneered at photos of him in GQ or his reference in a novel. But Ross and these others should be read seriously because they are pushing for a new model of engaged academics that is sorely needed. And right now there are not too many models available.