Today, in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof presents a column headlined “Professors, We Need You!” He wonders what has happened to those of us in academia, ending with these words:
I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!
One of the things this blog, Academe magazine and the entire AAUP is fighting for is just this, to bring professors out of ivory towers and into the public sphere where they belong. In the spirit of John Dewey (as I title my editorial in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Academe), we refuse to hide away, talking only to each other.
The lead article in that issue of Academe, by three Rhetoric/Composition specialists, Nicholas Behm, Sherry Rankins-Robertson and Duane Roen, “The Case for Academics as Public Intellectuals,” speaks directly to Kristof’s concern. They write:
Although the work of public intellectuals may not be easy, it is crucial. By engaging with the public, academics can strengthen democracy and bolster the position of higher education within a democratic society. Through such engagement, we tell stories of our disciplines and our institutions as we want them to be told rather than as people outside the academy would tell them. As public intellectuals, we have the opportunity to help shape the future of higher education and to make an impact in the communities in which we live.
Though the divide between the contemporary college professor and the rest of America may seem deep and wide, there are many of us academics who are finding ways of crossing it. We even see this as a necessary part of our commitment to academic freedom, one of the pillars of our profession. Yet Kristof complains:
A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.
While that may still be true, there is also a vigorous movement in the other direction. Russell Hotzler, the president of New York City College of Technology, the CUNY campus where I teach, has responded to faculty (and his own) concerns in just this area, making it clear that he is looking to promote scholars who can have an impact beyond campus walls. He is not alone. Scholarship and service beyond traditional venues are becoming important to faculty across the nation as considerations for promotion and tenure. Though there are exceptions (Kristof points out that “the executive council of the prestigious International Studies Association proposed that its publication editors be barred from having personal blogs“), even blogging is now seen more positively as a part of professional activities–I submitted a collection of my personal blog posts, for example, as part of my package for promotion to Associate Professor two-and-a-half years ago. Update: At the same time, as Ana M. Fores Tamayo reminds me in her comment below, the movement toward reliance on contingent faculty, few of whom have any sort of academic-freedom protection, counters any real movement toward a more engaged faculty. When people are paid poverty wages and cannot trust that their employment will last beyond the current semester, they cannot be expected to engage in the sorts of activities Kristof would like to see. We are at a crossroad right now; if we don’t resolve adjunct/contingent issues in a manner making them able to fully participate in academic life, we will never be able, no matter how much we try, to return to any sort of important place in the public debate.
Yes, there still is need for greater faculty involvement in our national and local discussions, but that does not mean involvement is not already there. Look around: just about anywhere you see a debate, there will be members of various faculties involved.
For many of us, that’s just what we do.