Everything But The Burden: Publics, Public Scholarship, And Institutions

Institutions are inherently conservative. They are built to last. One way that institutions last is by diffusing threats to the status quo across org charts, rules, forms, email chains and meetings. Lots and lots of meetings. That is why it is ridiculous to expect college institutions to be radical. But, that is the claim thrown about in this latest iteration of the culture wars. According to many, colleges are hotbeds for radical anti-white “reverse racism” and feminist wars on men. Those kinds of arguments, many of which are disingenuous at best, led to the latest social media storm.

I have written about institutional marginality and neo-liberal appeals for scholars to “publicly engage”. If I could rewrite that article today I would ask how it is that there have been at least a dozen articles written about toxic black feminism on social media and black twitter but almost no articles on things like Twitchy. But, I digress.

What I really wanted to point out is how yet again we have an example of how woefully underprepared universities are to deal with the reality of public scholarship, public intellectuals, or public engagement.

In this age of affective economies of attention, weak ties can turn a mild grievance into something that feels like political action. In this moment we should call for institutions to state explicitly what they owe those who venture into public waters.

Because public scholarship means pissing people off. You think it does not or that it can be done without doing that. You are wrong. As audiences collapse, everything is a point of controversy. And as pre-existing powerful actors and institutions band together to force context collapse, everything can be dressed in the uniform of outrage: petitions, emails, phone calls, rhetorical gut-punches, think pieces, etc.

In academia, where twenty readers is a big deal, 200 angry emails can feel like a tsunami of public opinion (it isn’t). When three members of a committee can constitute a quorum, seeing 142 retweets of a negative opinion about your new assistant professor can feel like politics (it isn’t). Five whole think pieces at the online verticals of legacy media organizations can feel like the powers-that-be are censuring your institution (they aren’t;  as my grandma would say, they ain’t studdin‘ you except that right now you’re filling empty space on a website). Basically, the scale of current media is so beyond anything academia can grasp that those with agendas get a leg up on pulling the levers of universities’ inherent conservativism.

What does that mean for scholars and for institutions? For one thing it means:

When I consult, I tell my clients that they owe themselves a plan of action to deal with social media storms like the one being ginned up right now. Note, it doesn’t take much to make a controversy. This one is about something almost every social scientist agrees is commonly accepted knowledge and discourse.

If you are investing in public scholars and public scholarship (and I hope you are, with a few caveats) then you should ask yourself if:

1. Your institution has a first line of defense for email and phone call onslaughts.

2. Your institution has a protocol for threats against researchers/professors/teachers

3. Your faculty governance has any awareness at all of what social media means to public scholarship

4. Your faculty governance has a clear policy of representing faculty against media/social media attacks

5. Your professional organization provides resources for besieged members, i.e. legal resources, mental health counseling, etc.

6. Your union has a policy on academic freedom that accounts for how new media blurs the lines between professional and personal selves across various mediums

I will stop at six because that seems like a good place to stop.

The point is, institutions have been calling for public scholarship for the obvious reasons. Attention can be equated with a type of prestige. And prestige is a way to shore up institutions when political and cultural attitudes are attacking colleges and universities at every turn. And, faculty are vulnerable to calls for them to engage. We’re all sensitive to claims that we’re out of touch and behind on neoliberal careerism. And some of us actually care about engaging publics (shocking, I know). But the prestige chase on one hand and eager faculty on the other means we haven’t asked what institutions owe its constituent members for public engagement.

Maybe it is time we start asking.

7 thoughts on “Everything But The Burden: Publics, Public Scholarship, And Institutions

  1. I am sorry, but the BU case is not some earth-shattering issue about academic freedom, freedom of speech, race, public scholarship and all the other huge abstractions people are trying to pile onto it. This is the case of a young rookie who has not yet made the transition to being a professor speaking/tweetng publicly in racial terms about an entire category of students, some of whom she will need to teach in her classrooms! I really dumb thing to do. An individual mistake. Needs to be corrected by her not doing it again. The rest of us need to stop turning it into some cause celebre, which does the rookie professor no good at all.

    There is a simple principle here: professors must never publicly denigrate entire categories of actual or potential students in ways that preclude their doing an effective job of teaching such students. Period, regardless of the race of the professor. Judgement, please. In America, people have freedom to say dumb or inappropriate things. Does not mean they should do so. And professors need to know, or learn if they are rookies, to do better than just spout off stuff, above all about students.

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