I wanted to be an academic who was actively engaging with the public--the old-fashioned public intellectual, even if I could be at that high quality. I now look at the number 190 and, frankly, I am impressed with myself.
I did not think it would work out this well. Especially because I am always worried that people might find out that I do not know. I have always felt like I am an amateur who was dangerously close to the edge. It is, therefore, comforting to know that such a thought of being an amateur is a good thing:
Being an amateur is nothing to be ashamed of. Edward Said embraced the term. For him it was the mode of the intellectual. Amateurism, he said, is "the desire to be moved not by profit or reward, but by love for an unquenchable interest in the larger picture." It is a desire, he continued, that lies "in refusing to be tied down to a specialty, in caring for ideas and values despite the restrictions of a profession."I like that description: "you are naturally anti-instrumental," I do what I do not because I am chasing "extrinsic rewards or status." I care for the ideas that I explore, for the students I serve, and as long as I continue to have the job that I have, all is well. As simple as that.
As an amateur you are naturally anti-instrumental. You’re largely indifferent to extrinsic rewards or status. When doing research, you’re not interested in gaining an elevated position among your immediate academic peers. You’re just interested in keeping your job, making sure not to get fired.
As amateurs we need to be open. And we need to experiment with different outlets, and work on how we get our ideas across.Exactly. Which is also why I embraced Twitter--it is another outlet for me to figure out how to get new ideas, and to also get my ideas out.
In doing so:
Are we writing about topics worth caring about? Topics that move us? Topics that move other people? All too often we seem to write about topics that move no one and have no resonance to anyone, anywhere.In my early years of engaging with the public, it was always a struggle trying to figure out how to convince the reader that what I write is important. Where was the hook for the local reader if I wanted to write about India or Tanzania? Why is that relevant to them? The only thing I knew was this: I did not want to come across to a reader that I write because I am an expert and that they ought to read my stuff because I am an expert. That, to me, was an unequal partnership that would never work. Even now, when I visit India and I read the newspapers there, I find almost all the op-eds convey that tone of "listen to me, because I am an expert who works at a big time place."
I am willing to bet that this meaningful op-ed writing and engaging with the public has also made me a better teacher. After all, it is the same mentality that I take to the classroom: How do I convince the audience--even if they are captive--that the content is relevant to them and their lives?
When writing for academic journals, you’re lucky to be read by more than a handful of people. With teaching, however, it’s different. Not only can we reach many more, but, as Russell Jacoby wrote in The Last Intellectuals, we "have students who pass through and on to other things." And with students passing through the university each year, you might have an impact after all.It is a pleasure, and perhaps quite an ego trip, when students do make those connections.
As an unapologetic amateur you should like to experiment with form.
At the end of it all, I find more meaning in what I do. There is no unbearable burden of calculations towards professional advancements. The 190 remind me that I have contributed something of value to making this a better place for all of us.
Many aspiring intellectuals have put their professional careers at risk in favor of something more meaningful. They’ve cared less about their careers — and more about the world. Which, we think, is laudable.I think I have an idea for #191. Let us see. In the meanwhile, there are students to serve.