A Public Intellectual in the Heartland (With a Heavy Academic Work Load)

THE 13th, Kevin Gannon, 2016. ©Netflix

Over at Public Books, Princeton historian Kevin Kruse interviews Grand View University (Des Moines, Iowa) historian Kevin Gannon, author of the recent Radical Hope: A Teaching ManifestoSome of you may remember that Gannon, aka “The Tattooed Prof,” talked about his teaching manifesto in Episode 26 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Here is a taste of their fascinating conversation:

Kevin Kruse (KK): We live in a world in which the label “public intellectual” gets attached, almost automatically, to anyone at an Ivy League university who’s even remotely engaged in the public sphere. The national media seems fixated on even the most minor events at a place like Harvard, where the firing of a residential college dean can generate endless articles.

Meanwhile, more substantial issues at other schools don’t seem to matter. Recent controversies, like the evisceration of funding for the University of Alaska system or major cuts to the University of Wisconsin system—both major academic institutions, ones that do the heavy lifting in terms of educating the public—were barely a blip on the media’s radar.

So, one of the things I find really fascinating about you and your work is that you have managed to make your contributions clear despite the deck being stacked against you. What is it like being a public intellectual from a place like Grand View, which unfairly gets overlooked with all the endless stories about Harvard? What is it like being at Grand View, doing this work?

Kevin Gannon (KG): Different. The media focuses on the easiest places to see. For example, if you are reporting in the genre of the free speech crisis, it’s only, “What are those crazy kids doing at Oberlin?”

And yet, when something really is a problem—the kind of problem that actually fits into that very narrow-focused area for higher ed when it comes to op-eds—chances are we’ve been seeing the same sort of discussions out here in the hinterlands for the past decade or so.

KK: Right, yes.

KG: If we want to really talk about higher ed in this setting, we have to talk about the land grants, we have to talk about the state systems, we have to talk about schools like mine. Even though Grand View is private, we still serve groups of students who have not traditionally been well-served by higher education. So, when you use the phrase “heavy lifting,” that’s what I think we’re doing here.

We’re schools with significant teaching requirements, with multiple classes in multiple semesters (what we call a 3-3 to a 4-4 to a 5-5 teaching load). Where faculty have extensive service expectations, because our faculty sizes are so small.

So, when people ask, “What does a professor do?” the answer is very different at places like ours. It’s interesting to be on platforms or involved in panels where the moderator might say, “So-and-so is at Princeton and so-and-so is at Harvard and so-and-so is at Grand View University.” You can feel it in the room, it’s as if the record is scratched, and everyone asks, “Wait, what?”

We do a lot here at Grand View. We do a lot of the hard work. And this is certainly not to cast aspersions on anybody at Princeton, for example, but we engage with higher education in different ways.

That whole story needs to be told and talked about. If you are trying to engage with these real questions—what should admissions look like, what should financial aid look like, or even what should public scholarship look like—and you are answering for Swarthmore and Harvard as opposed to Grand View and Pacific Lutheran, that’s a problem. We need to have that conversation in a more complex way.

KK: I understand that people in my position have an incredible advantage that most folks don’t have, especially in terms of the demands on our time. The teaching load at a place like Princeton is much lighter than it is at any top-level state university or a private place like Grand View, where I’m sure you’re doing a lot more day-to-day work.

So, I think it’s easier for someone in my position to add a public-facing role to their existing duties. Yes, we teach and advise students and all the rest. But I’m pretty sanguine about how my responsibilities compare to what someone with a 4-4 load is doing in a department of a half dozen people, where all those tasks that we divide up among 50 people fall on the shoulders of just a handful of them.

That’s what really impresses me: just knowing how much you do out there in the world and how much you still have to do at home.

KG: Right. So, having said all that, I should point out that my teaching load is less, because of my administrative position. I basically have a full-time administrative gig (in terms of the responsibilities). But I still teach a course a semester, still do all the other stuff that I’m trying to do in terms of scholarship and public-facing work. Also, part of my job is to support other colleagues who are trying to do the same thing, whether it is in our community or on a larger platform. What I love to see is people like you, Glenda Gilmore, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Heather Cox Richardson: people in these comparatively advantageous positions, who use the room that that creates to do the type of work you are doing. Those of us out here, at the Grand Views of the world, are cheering that on.

Read the entire interview here.