On Scholars Writing for the Public

I was recently talking with an Ivy League humanities professor who does a lot of writing and speaking in public (non-academic) venues.  I asked the professor what his/her department chair thought about all of this public activity.  “My chair doesn’t like it,” the professor said. “My department chair thinks I should be writing scholarly articles and ‘producing knowledge.’  I get no credit for the public work that I do.”  (This professor, of course, has written important scholarly works in addition to writing and speaking for the public).

This is a shame, but it continues to be reality in the academy.

With this in mind, I agree with just about everything that David Leonard of Washington State University says in this article on public writing.  Here are some excerpts:

Hello, my name is David, and I am a scholar who writes for the public. Sometimes I even blog. I offer that mea culpa because, all too often, I am judged for not segregating my work behind the velvet rope of scholarship. I am not alone, as plenty of scholars are refusing to stay in the lane of the ivory tower, taking their talents to the pages of newspapers, websites, and television.
But that still raises eyebrows. I once heard an administrator refer to public writing as a pathology of sorts, akin to video-game addiction. To him, public writing was all about immediate gratification and ego rather than a scholarly advancement of knowledge. It was a sign of weakness, evidence of inadequacy as a scholar, proof that today’s public intellectuals were not real professors.
In that view, still held by many, a “peer reviewed” journal article read by 12 people is of great value while a piece written for a website, and read by more than 100,000, is a distraction from legitimate work. I have been told on several occasions that the work of writing for online publication (whether via a blog or for respected outlets like Huffington Post) is “easy” and a “waste of time.” Unlike scholarship, which is about knowledge production and intellectual debate, public writing is said to be about personal gain and pleasure resulting from public fanfare…

…But instead of being unnecessary or antithetical to academic work, I would argue that public writing is — at its core — what we do as teachers, intellectuals, and scholars. It’s another form of teaching, a public pedagogy that engages “students” outside the classroom, and inside, too….

…Public writing is also work that bridges theories, methods, and knowledge that is often locked behind pay walls, or stuck inside books that cost as much as a new pair of Air Jordans. Essays written for a general audience often help to place scholarly research, and break down boundaries between the two. Unable to write dozens of pages on a topic, scholars writing for a mainstream publication unmask what is important in their research and how it matters.
Public writing is also a means to engage other scholars, especially those outside the academy. Professors do not have a monopoly on knowledge production; look no further than Ta-Nehisi Coates, an American writer for The Atlantic whose work on culture and politics is as “scholarly” and intellectually rich as that of any academic. Others, like Gary Younge, Jamilah Lemieux, Mychal Denzel Smith, and Dave Zirin are the forefront of important scholarly debates even if they are not taking place inside the Ivory Tower.

2 thoughts on “On Scholars Writing for the Public

  1. This argument of Scholarly vs Public sounds similar to the argument in your book “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” where the Old Side Presbyterians and New Side Presbyterians argued over whether preachers should be itinerant or college educated. The Old Side (Scholarly) argument was concerned with control and power. The New Side (Public) was concerned with saving souls or in this case getting worthwhile information to the public.
    The Internet may not be Scholarship but it sure can be a terrific guide to finding it.


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