Redefining Academic Work and Academic Knowledge

Yesterday Sarah Bond and Kevin Gannon wrote a reply to a widely circulated piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Manya Whitaker. Whitaker’s piece suggested that early career scholars should avoid writing for public audiences because these types of publications tend not to chart a clear path to tenure. This is undoubtedly true, particularly at mid- and higher- tier research institutions that continue to see conventional peer review as the gold standard for evaluating faculty development. I can say this with a bit of confidence because my university (and the universities where many of my friends and colleagues work) fits into this category. 

Bond and Gannon argue, as you might expect if you’re familiar with their work, that programs should not only support public outreach, but it should be encouraged early in a scholar’s career and baked into evaluation rubrics perhaps using the well-known Boyer Model for assessing scholarly work. The Boyer Model recognizes a wider range of scholarly outputs as valuable and defines them around four categories: discovery, integration, application, and teaching and argues that this expanded definition of scholarly work provides a more dynamic and diverse foundation for rewarding faculty work. The Boyer Model celebrates its 30th birthday next year and despite its popularity as an idea and a talking point, it is still a rather marginal model for evaluating scholarly work.  

The reasons for this, as Bond and Gannon recognize, is that the professionalization projects particularly in the humanities has been closely tied to peer reviewed, scholarly, publishing. Some of this dates to the late 19th century and the rise of the PhD as a professional research degree grounded first in preparation of a dissertation and then in the rise of the peer reviewed journal and monograph. Professional standards followed the rise of the university in the U.S. and abroad and the growing ability for professional researchers to monetize their work as faculty. As academia diversified, particularly after the WW2, efforts to evaluate scholarly accomplishments remained in lockstep with the changing professionalization project. Double blind peer review, in particular, became a key approach to undermining long-standing racial, gender, and institutional biases and to create, at least in theory, a more level playing field grounded in the merits of work.

In contrast, public scholarship, particularly in the humanities, became associated with older forms of scholarship rooted in elite or even aristocratic values (consider, for example, George Bancroft’s History of the United States). In fact, the tension between professional values and public outreach led to the famous turn of the century split in the American Historical Association, where scholars engaged more deeply in the public project found themselves marginalized for the professional discipline.

Times have changed, of course, but the structure of academia has persisted and public oriented scholarship has often been seen as bonus work or less significant than scholarship oriented toward a more professional audience. Today, this trajectory has encountered challenges from within academia, from the general public who have embraced certain strains of anti-intellectualism, and from the increasingly populist political leaders who have sought cut funding to higher education on the grounds that its out of touch with the general public. As Bonds and Gannon note, for many smaller, regional, teaching-oriented, and tuition-dependent small liberal arts colleges, promoting public outreach may necessary to stave off a looming demographic and economic crisis. There is a real urgency today in efforts to convince a public regularly stoked by anti-intellectualism and a kind of virulent populism that higher education especially in the humanities has value.

At the same time, establishing authority in the public sphere s a difficult task. It involves, on the one hand, establishing claims to expertise and these claims remain grounded in the traditional academic discourse. Traditional, peer-reviewed academic work is intensive, time consuming, and process driven, and it often leaves little time for more public oriented scholarship that nevertheless will leverage a scholar’s status as a professional expert.    

More than this, evaluating the quality, importance, and impact of public oriented scholarship remains a challenge that may cut to the core of the larger academic project. The structures of peer review, academic publication, and the larger scholarly process formed the key element to a professionalization process that is widely seen as ongoing.

Public scholarship, in the other hand, remains more murky not only in how it should be evaluated, but also in relation to the structure through which recognizable outreach can and should occur. In theory, any scholar can prepare an article for peer review publication provided it meets the recognized professional standards of a particular journal or publisher. Getting a work of public scholarship to an audience is often a far more complicated and variable process. On the one hand, you could submit it to one of the hundreds of little magazines that publish non-fiction and essays. These range from Harper’s to smaller publications like North Dakota Quarterly (which is accepting submissions for non-fiction for two more weeks!) or my personal favorite N+1. Many of these publications read professionally, but few have the same “double blind” procedures as academic publications. They also reflect a wide range of audiences that may not entirely be clear for an academic who is not already an avid reader of these little magazines. 

Alternately, you might get lucky and have the connections necessary to publish from time to time in places like the Chronicle of Higher EducationThe Atlantic, or any other more mainstream publications that feature academic work. The pathways to these opportunities, however, tend to be more about invitations, connections, and contacts (if not pure chance) and less professionally transparent. Writing for the wider public often introduces the vagaries of the commercial market – page views, bounce rates, marketing plans, and the like – to academic work and shape how scholar can connect to an audience. In many cases, commercial pressures, for example, exert a greater influence on a work intended for public consumption than an academic project. This isn’t to suggest that these works are somehow compromised by this, but calls for outreach and public scholarship aren’t just about making what we already do more visible and accessible, but are also about doing more accessible scholarship. 

Issues of audience and activism also play a role in how we understand the place of public scholarship in academic career advancement. There’s a tendency to see the public as somehow fundamentally different from an academic audience. There might be less of a difference between a targeted “public audience” and a targeted professional one in terms of numbers and even impact. We tend to think of specialized work primarily of interest to other scholars, but there are any number of activist communities who appreciate more accessible scholarly work that supports their missions. This work overlaps between academic and public audiences because scholar activists tend to move easily between groups as well. Such ambiguities between the role of scholar and the public are not fatal to any effort to evaluate the work of public oriented scholars, but demonstrate that these categories are relatively loosely defined. 

Finally, there is the sticky issue of identity and the public. Authority and expertise are undoubtedly performative. Looking, speaking, and acting the part of the expert goes a long way to establishing public trust. At the same time, many academics would eschew outward expressions of expertise and the conventionalizing elements that the public associates with academic knowledge. We tend to equivocate and avoid both dogma and doctrine in our approach to defining what we know. On a personal level, I can say that I’m a far LESS confident scholar now than I was 15 years ago when I started at my job. It’s not just that academia has beaten me down, but also that I recognize that academia is a process and only chumps make statements unbound by disclaimers. The tension between academic knowledge and public expectations, of course, can be productive and serve to shift public perceptions of professional scholars, but, at the same time, there continues to be no lack of tweed-clad, middle-aged, white-guy professors pontificating on the hourly documentaries that appear on television (for example). Balancing between public expectations and the academic realities of scholarly appearance and behavior without compromising the integrity of the academic undertaking is something that public oriented scholars understand, but it’s not easy or simple to execute in practice. 

These comments are not meant in any way to undermine or even challenge Bond and Gannon’s piece. It’s important and good because it implies these more complicated moves that may well reshape academic culture in the coming decades. This isn’t about recognizing public scholarship, but about creating an intellectual space for public scholarship to develop as part of the larger professionalizing trajectory of contemporary higher education.  

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