Monday, May 16, 2016

If only Faculty were Public Intellectuals

I remarked to the few students who were pretending to listen to me that engaging with the public requires a thick skin.  (It is not because of a thin skin that I do not engage with most faculty; I choose not to even wish the unprofessional professionals!)  It is relatively easy for faculty to say whatever bombastic stuff they want to expound on--when they are in class with a captive audience, or when they are at one of their committee meetings.  (As a friend joked, a committee is where they take minutes for the hours wasted!)  

It is strange, rather ironic, that tenured faculty confine themselves to such safe territories and do not dare to venture out.  Why don't they proclaim their bombastic ideas with the public?  If they truly believe, for instance, that the humanities and the social sciences have never been more important, then why don't they make the case to the world outside their safe spaces?

Rachel Toor--a tenured member of the faculty at a university here in the Pacific Northwest--writes:
We live in interesting times. Scholars in the humanities can’t afford to stop making the case that what we do matters — that art helps us to live. We need to be able to convey that to our students, especially those in STEM fields who may not have gained as much exposure to music, literature, art, or theater.
But, why to "our students"?  They are not the ones who need that message.  After all, what students think and do result from various social policies and structures that the public has established. Further, the courses that students take resulted from the curriculum that faculty designed.  Which means it is the faculty who need to be convinced about the humanities?
The timidity we find in much academic work is a product of a system that — while professing to cherish academic freedom — doesn’t foster academic bravery.
She got that part right!

Another faculty, who is on the tenure-track, writes about "dipping our toes into the role of the public intellectual."
So tell me, reader. How are you dealing with this seemingly inevitable slide toward becoming a public intellectual? What are the benefits and what are the risks of engaging with people about our work online? Share your stories below in the comments or Tweet @MeganCondis. Let’s talk about it.
Oh, please!  I have been doing this for years.  I suppose I should have written essays about my experiences at the places where these faculty have published theirs and boosted my CV!

I have been doing what I have been doing for two decades now, from even before the birthing of "www."  Harsh and negative criticism is something that I view as evidence that I am doing something alright.  As I joked with students, how many can claim to have received hate mail! ;)

I will end this post with excerpts from two recent responses from strangers, which will show that I have enough of a thick skin to engage with the public ;)

I read your article in the R-G about Elihu Yale and I have to say you’ve really gone off your nut this time. Have you had your blood sugar checked lately?
Mild, right?  Keep in mind that was merely the opener!

How about a couple of sentences from another one?

The students' jaws dropped when I read that to them.  I told them about my all-time favorite hate mail that I received; check it out yourself ;)

I, for one, am not holding my breath waiting for the tenured faculty to be brave outside the ivory tower.  As they say in the old country, வீட்டிலே புலி வெளியிலே எலி  (a tiger at home, but a mouse outside.)


Ramesh said...

Oh yes - random hate mail and derogatory criticism is part and parcel of anybody taking his views public. You can reduce this by saying your view diplomatically rather than starkly, but that only lessens and not eliminates the hate mail.

But then, there is also the joy of the cut and thrust of debate with those who are polite and pleasant even when they are disagreeing vehemently. The author of this blog, for instance :)

Sriram Khé said...

Oooooooh, high praise! ;)

At least in the old days the haters had to take the time to write a letter and then spend their money on postage. I remember getting envelopes from a Christian fundamentalist after my op-eds were published. It happened three or four times. I wish I had retained them. It was crazy talk in those letters.
Now, the internet has made crazies operate freely and without even revealing their identities. An explosive growth in hate speech :(

Anne in Salem said...

The anonymity of the internet allows for such cowardice. The fundamentalist who sent letters may have been equally opposed to your views but certainly put more thought and effort into his letters.

Dialogue and debate are so much more productive.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes ... will be wonderful to have constructive dialogue and debate ... but, ...

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