Sunday, January 22, 2017

If you understand this, it means that I am not an academic?

Over the winter break, when talking with the family in the old country, to hear them remark that it has been thirty years since I left for the US was, well, quite something.  Thirty years!

I continued to think about that--after all, reflecting on my life experiences is what I seem to do most of the time! ;)  Que sais-je?

One of the actions that resulted was an email to a graduate school professor of mine.  In that lengthy email, I thanked him for one thing in particular:
I want to thank you again for one particular aspect of my intellectual and professional life: There is a good chance you do not remember a conversation that I had with you during my grad school days, when I said I wanted to directly contribute to the public, instead of the traditional research.  You encouraged me in that, but also cautioned me that academia does not value public engagement.  You went one step more and said that society needs active engagement from academics.
Over the years, I have witnessed higher education call for public engagement. Over and over again.  Like even in a recent tweet from the incoming president of the American Association of Geographers:
But, higher education does not walk the talk.  Storytellers who engage with the public are not considered real academics.  Unless one publishes in journals that nobody reads, one is not really an academic.

The situation is worse in science.  Carl Sagan, despite all his formal and rigorous publications and research was not considered to be a top-rated scientist by his peers because he dared to be a phenomenal storyteller.  I don't ever understand why this is the case.

But, of course, with regularity, we find calls for more public engagement.  Like this one, in which the author wants scientists to be more than mere storytellers--he wants them to be more involved in the political process:
The dearth of lawmakers who bring a scientific perspective to national issues of energy, climate change, national security, and technology deeply concern me as a scientist and as an American. As scientists we are trained to embrace uncertainty, use the tools of data, hard evidence, and analysis to solve problems. For scientists, there are no facile answers; rather, there are complex questions that require disciplined, dispassionate and systematic thought —our aim to arrive at solutions that serve truth above expediency. I realize the importance of bringing the scientific perspective to bear on today’s urgent and complex environmental and technological issues because of my background and training.
The world of higher education would not care about these.  And then they continue to wonder why the public does not understand the importance of education and ideas!


Ramesh said...

Completely agree. The snobbery of the academic world which considers you to a Brahmin only if you publish obscure topics in unknown research journals is self defeating. As you say , story telling is also critical. Neal Degrasse Tyson, for example, has made science and astrophysics interesting to a lot of people. This is as much of an academic endeavor as pushing the frontiers of science through research. Equally true for other disciplines.

The public engagement that you do is very important. I therefore bestow the title of Distinguished Academic on you.

Sriram Khé said...

Hehehe ... thanks for the award ;)

Yes, Tyson has been fantastic. He seems so natural at that and fully at ease ...

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