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Home » Discover Rackham » Public Scholarship in the Age of the Internets

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with fellow graduate students, both at Michigan and elsewhere, fellow classicists and non-classicists, and there’s been a topic of conversation that comes up a lot: in one form or another, many of us want to grow up to be some sort of public intellectual. We want to feel like our careers and our scholarly interests have some sort of meaning to a broader circle than our narrow fields of expertise. I have friends and colleagues who blog about their research and who actively tweet about their work. I have other friends who work in public radio to bridge the divide between academic specialists and a general audience. In my own department, we’ve started doing more outreach to nearby schools, bringing high school students to the Michigan campus and showing them what we do. I have other friends who write for online publications that are aimed at a broader, public audience (in Classics, the big venue for this is Eidolon, but I have other friends who write for publications such as Nursing Clio). Still other graduate students are passionate about pedagogy and have developed (and shared!) innovative approaches to college teaching.

I share my friends’ interest in being a public intellectual. I too want to make the implications of our work interesting and relevant to a broad audience. And beyond my own research interests, I want to take part in the debates that are going on in academia. I want to engage with the many problems facing higher education–from the plight of adjunct and other non-tenure track faculty to the pervasive problems with diversity facing women, people of color, the LGBT community, and so many other people who don’t feel welcome or supported in their academic fields.

I started blogging for Rackham specifically because I wanted a place where I could talk about these issues, but I’m ashamed to admit that I very quickly shied away from actually doing any of that work. And as I’ve talked to other colleagues who want to have a more public presence, but have yet to take any concrete steps in that direction, I feel like there are two main reasons we don’t do more public-facing work:

  1. That’s time we could spend on our dissertations. This is totally true, but if we’re all being honest with ourselves, there’s a lot of time we could be spending on our dissertations that we aren’t. We go to the gym, we watch movies, we read for fun — even if we’re ashamed to admit that we aren’t working 80 hours a week on our research. We work on our dissertations, but we also schedule time for things we enjoy (and there’s a lot of reason to think that a good work-life balance improves our research in the long run). Writing for a more public audience could be the sort of hobby that we schedule around our dissertation, if we wanted. That said, this is the big downside of public scholarship that I hear about when I talk to people who blog seriously about their work. They often suggest public scholarship as a great pursuit for after you have a secure (i.e., tenured) position. This leads nicely into the second reason we (as grad students) tend not to do the sort of public scholarship that we’d like to . . .
  2. We’re scared of our perception on the job market. This is the one that keeps me from engaging with anything but fairly anodyne topics on the internet. Jobs are few and far between, and we don’t necessarily want to be seen as someone who wants to rock the boat. In one-on-one conversations with other academics, I have lots of strong opinions, but I shy away from expressing any of them online, because I know that anything I share publicly will be something that potential future employers can see and read.
    1. A sub-point of this is that we worry we won’t be seen as “serious academics” if we start writing things for a general audience. I have to think this comes from an acute awareness of the sort of writing that does and doesn’t “count” in our fields. At R1 institutions, books and peer reviewed articles count for tenure, which means that any sort of mass-market book or online publications in places like, for example, Eidolon, don’t count in the tenure sense, which means (I think) that we equate this kind of writing with valueless work. What kind of value does it have if it doesn’t go in a tenure file? This tends to dissuade us from participating in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) as well as what we might call “fun” scholarship. I have a lot of thoughts about the gendered way we tend to think about and dismiss pedagogical interests, but that will have to wait for another blog post. And on the “fun” point, I can’t do any better than this great piece Donna Zuckerberg just published, “In Praise of Fun.”

Building off of the job market fears, I am also acutely aware of the ways in which stating any opinion on the internet can open you up to criticism. I wrote a blog piece several years ago that engaged with a popular article that was getting a lot of attention in the grad student world. My post wasn’t perfect, but I also felt strongly that there was another side to the topic that I wanted to share. Now when I Google my name, I get to see several people who strongly disagreed with my opinion. In our anonymous job wikis, people had even meaner things to say about me! I didn’t wade back into the waters of even-vaguely-potentially-controversial topics after that. I had intended to write a follow-up piece about some of the systemic problems that I saw in academia, and ways that we could potentially approach those problems, but I didn’t, because (and I hate to admit this) I was afraid. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to read more mean things about me, though that was part of it, but I also didn’t want more negative articles to be written about me, when I know that the first thing any job search committee is going to do with a potential job candidate is Google that person. Reasons I’m an idiot come up above my Academia.edu profile in a Google search. That’s not exactly the sort of carefully curated online presence that they recommend for job seekers.

As I’ve had more conversations with my peers about this topic though, I’ve become increasingly unsatisfied with the “wait until you’re tenured” approach to this. If those of us who have a vested interest in the future of academia can’t speak up until we have tenure, our fields will never look the way we want them to. Higher education, and the humanities in particular, is changing quickly and there are a lot of very real concerns that grad students have and — as the presumptive heirs to the academy — we need to be able to give voice to these issues. I have a lot more thoughts on this front, which I plan to write about in the follow-up post to this. And this time I’m actually going to write the post, because reading mean things about myself on the internet is a small price to pay for feeling like I can have a say in the future of my academic community.

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