Communicating between the Academic and Non-Academic Worlds
Yesterday, I finished a first draft of my dissertation. This is not to brag or invite people to congratulate me (although, to be honest, I did briefly consider posting something about my finishing on Facebook, primarily to receive congratulations). What I want to discuss here is the deep ambivalence I felt/feel upon finishing. If six (!) years ago, you had told me that my dissertation’s first stage would end with a whimper, not a bang, I would’ve been surprised if not shocked. No matter what, I would certainly not have expected to feel, frankly, so ambivalent.
Now that I’m done, what do I have? A 600-page tome that needs to be cut down by at least one-third, if not one-half; a sneaking suspicion that few people will ever read this thing; and nagging questions about whether it was worth the time and investment, given the abysmal academic job market. This is not to say that I don’t love what I do, or that I regret spending my 20s studying a relatively arcane subject. It’s just to say that, surprisingly, I do not feel the sense of accomplishment I expected to upon starting this endeavor.
Perhaps this is just the nature of completing a project that you’ve worked on for so long that it becomes a part of you. (Though one would expect feelings of sadness, rather than ambivalence, if this were the case.) I mean, I’m impressed with what I’ve done, certainly, and think that I did produce some relatively worthwhile new knowledge. But I think the major cause of my ambivalence is the deep difficulty that I have/will have communicating my dissertation’s argument to non-academics. And this leads me to a question that has been talked and blogged about a lot in the past decade: the relationship between academia and the non-academic world.
Most of these discussions have centered on the utility or disutility of a humanistic education in postmodern, postindustrial America (needless to say, I think it is crucial that every interested American, and even those not interested, be exposed to the liberal arts). My specific concern centers on how young academics interested in communicating with non-academics can maneuver within a system that prizes and reinforces the acquiring of arcane knowledge, professional insularity, and the development of an often-impenetrable argot.
Clearly, this blog is one such attempt to do so. Moreover, fora such as Bloggingheads.tv have in the past half-decade worked to make academic knowledge available to laypeople. However, from talking to numerous faculty members and academics from a variety of institutions, it has become clear to me that a central problem remains: none of these extra-curricular activities matter when a job search committee determines which graduate student to invite for an interview, and they do not matter for tenure. These facts make it subtly clear that, as a whole, the modern American academy expresses a keen indifference toward the relationship between academic knowledge and the public interest/public good (although there are some exceptions).
This is a sad state of affairs. One doesn’t have to read the myriad histories about the development of the modern university to know that, in its initial conception, one of the major purposes of humanistic research was to serve the public interest. In my opinion, the only way that academics can continue to serve this traditional—and worthy—role is if departments and universities make specific efforts to encourage academic-non-academic communication. Most importantly, they could do so by hiring and promoting individuals who have demonstrated a continued interest in communicating beyond the Ivory Tower.
A salient example of an institution’s support for such a program can be found at the United Kingdom’s Oxford University. There, in 1995, the Hungarian software engineer Simonyl Károli endowed a chair for Richard Dawkins titled the Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science. Say what you will about Dawkins and the New Atheists (as an atheist, I support their goals, but I understand the criticisms that see Dawkins’, Hitchens’, et al’s condescension as doing more harm than good to the policy goals of atheists), but Dawkins has inarguably done much to call attention to the American right’s successful long-standing crusade against scientific knowledge.
Perhaps if American universities followed Oxford’s example, I would feel less ambivalent about completing a project whose argument, I fear, will remain confined to a (very, very) small circle of academic insiders. By rewarding academic-non-academic communication, American humanists can begin to restore their authority in a world that derides their knowledge. Maybe doing so will help make the broader case that cutting the funding of state universities, or replacing tenured professorships with administrative positions, contributes to significant social harm.
In our scholarship, we historians are always sensitive to the power imbalances that define relationships between people and institutions. This makes it doubly ironic that we have not seriously addressed the power imbalance that currently exists between academics and non-academics. Perhaps the widespread existence of tenured professorships granted previous generations of humanistic academics the latitude to ignore the decline in the relationship between scholarship and the public interest (1968 notwithstanding). This allowed other disciplines, namely economics, to assert its authority in the public and governmental realms.
My generation of humanistic graduate students can no longer afford this ambivalence. To rectify the disconnect between academia and other spheres of life, we must work to increase communication between the non-academic world and ourselves. If we do not, the university as we know it may very well crumble. Such reforms must start in the university, specifically at the level of departments and their hiring and tenure practices. Now is the time for tenured academics to ally with graduate students to reassert the importance of humanistic knowledge in American public life. If we do not, the consequences will be dire.