Greetings from Chicago!
Christmas music is now on the radio and stores are all decorated for the holiday season, but it’s 55 degrees fahrenheit outside. From my office window up on the 18th floor, I can see students sitting on the Quad in between classes enjoying their lunch and getting ready for final exams as well as a few students practicing their skateboard skills. This is the last week of class on the UIC campus. Next week begins exam week and a massive grading crunch for faculty as they scramble to get student work evaluated before leaving campus to celebrate the holidays with their families. I have a particularly busy December this year as my brother in law is getting married this weekend. After a whirlwind trip to Missouri to celebrate his nuptials, I’ll be back on campus to collect student writing and begin calculating final grades for my courses. Then I’m only in Chicago for a few weeks before heading off to Vermont to visit my family.
For this month’s blog post, I’d like to take a moment to consider the concept of the “public intellectual.” Public Intellectual is one of those terms that generates highly polarized responses. Some people see the term as reflecting a healthy engagement between faculty and the general public. Others see it as patronizing, an attempt by elitists generally sheltered from society, to meddle in the affairs of people they don’t understand. These polarized responses to the public intellectual indicate two things to me. First, academics are bad at communicating with people outside their areas of specialization, justifying the charge of being patronizing. Second, academics don’t have a clear sense of the social value of their work.
Let’s start with the issue of communication. Last semester I had the privilege of teaching ENGL 240, a course in literary criticism and critical theory designed to prepare English Majors for upper level surveys and seminars. One of the frequent topics of conversation between me and the students in that class involved the density of the language in the texts we were reading. Many of these texts used jargon from disciplines outside of English such as philosophy, economics, and sociology. They were also often poorly translated from their original languages (typically French and German). When students would complain about the difficulty of something we were reading for that class, I would point out to them that sometimes a text is complicated to read because the concepts examined are complicated. However, sometimes complexity of language is an attempt to make something simple sound complex. In my teaching, I instinctively gravitate towards making complexity understandable for novices just learning how to read and write about literature. Yet when I write, I feel compelled to mimic the structure and tone of the experts in the field that I assume will be reading and critiquing my work. Often this means adopted the tortured syntax and vocabulary of “theory.”
Adapting your writing to meet the needs of a specific audience is not a bad thing. I teach students in my rhetoric courses to always keep audience expectations in mind as well as pay attention to the rules of genre. But it’s not always easy to shed the jargon, lengthy sentences, and analytical backflips so common in academic journals and books when speaking to non-academics or even to faculty outside of your own field. I remember a History professor telling me once that the worst books he had ever read where written by English faculty who seemed to think that complex syntax and jargon could substitute for critical insight. Although I tend to agree with that critique and write in all my work as directly as I can, the issue of “code-switching” seems more relevant to me. Often applied to multi-lingual speakers, code-switching describes the ways in which we adjust our language to meet the expectations of our audience. It also recognizes the relationship between language use and membership in a wide variety of social groups. Lecturing is not just a technique. It is a tone of voice. To have a conversation with the general public, some genuine code-switching is in order. Speak to people in a tone that doesn’t deny your status as an expert but that also doesn’t deny the expertise of those to whom you are speaking. Everyone is an expert in something. Share that expertise.
Moving on now to the issue of the social value of academic work, the problem varies from discipline to discipline. In my own field of English studies, the problem has arisen that no one is clear anymore on what counts as literature, why we should read it, and how we should talk about it after it is read. It is kind of a paradox that our abundance of creative writing is paired today with the lack of an audience. Particularly an audience that knows what to do with creative expression. My approach to the problem has been to contextualize creative expression in the classroom and in my publications. I try to help students see the factors that went into the production of a piece of literature, including the cost of printing and purchasing a book, and also to consider the responses of prior audiences when they read a work of literature. We then discuss why we believe that a book remains a subject of discussion as a way of answering the “literary question.” I also engage in the thorny issue of evaluation (i.e. Is the book really any good?). In my publications, I also contextualize the works I examine but I tend to assume the “literariness” of the material I analyze. Since I’m writing for experts, I assume that they will see the works I examine as worthy of examination. Particularly since other scholars have already written on the authors I am analyzing.
None of this addresses the problem, however, of how to convince the general public to see the value of your scholarship. For me the essence of the problem is how to create the kind of spaces outside the classroom that mimic some of the elements of what I do in the classroom. Public lectures like those held by Emerson and Twain in the 19th century are rare today. As are book clubs. Thus far, my only answer to this dilemma has been to blog. My blog posts serve as a quasi-lecture series for the general public. I’ve also offered book reviews on occasion in my blog for academic works related to my field hoping that some non-experts might be tempted to read those works. Obviously, however, this is not enough. What is needed is a recommitment to the concept of lifelong learning. Faculty need to become more engaged in what remains of their campus extension programs and courses for adult learners who are auditing courses rather than pursuing a degree. Improve what is there and expand it. We also need to become more comfortable on television, radio, and other forms of media not commonly used by experts to speak to other experts. Who among us is brave enough to be the Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson of the humanities?
I think I’ve said enough for this month’s post. But a long post is in order since I won’t be writing to you this December. I’m taking the month off to celebrate Christmas and New Years. I hope whatever holidays you celebrate are enjoyable, spent with family and friends. I look forward to continuing my communication with you, my readers, in January.
Until next time…