Several years ago, I introduced a class at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism which was designed to encourage scholars in training to think more deeply about the public-facing dimensions of their work. I wanted to call the class, “How to Be a Public Intellectual,” but this is a university, so we couldn’t be that direct and practical. After some negotiation, the class became “Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice.” Click here for my latest draft of the syllabus.
Students were asked to try their hands about a range of genres (the op ed, the blog post, the digital essay, the interview) that went beyond the university press monograph and the peer-reviewed journal; they heard from faculty at USC and elsewhere who were in the trenches, using their research to make a difference in the world; they underwent media training, including time being interviewed inside a radio studio, so they could reflect upon and refine their skills at public communication; and they were encouraged to explore potential career paths which led them beyond the academy, including some time with researchers working in corporate spaces.
So much for the practice. As I am getting ready to teach the class a second time, I’ve beefed up a bit more on the theory side, using the class as a chance to work through with students a range of professional issues (including those surrounding the current economic and institutional status of universities, diversity and privilege, accessability and the conventions of academic writing, the nature of the public sphere in a networked era, the construction and performance of an academic persona, and scholarly autonomy and collaboration. These are core questions which will shape the environment in which these students will be working in the future and how they situate themselves and their research in relation to the changing world around them.
I was struck the first time I taught this class by the way focusing on becoming a public intellectual fostered an engagement with larger questions about professional ethics. I often go back to the original meaning of the term, Professor, as in to profess, to share what you know with the world. This is not simply a self-branding strategy; this cuts to the heart of our professional obligations. There are more opportunities now for academics to share what they know with the world than ever before, more chances for us to profess and promote our ideas beyond the control of traditional gatekeepers. But doing so requires personal choices and commitments because these alternative forms of scholarship do not necessarily bring you benefits when you come up for tenure and promotion. Blogging or digital scholarship is often not considered as satisfying the old publish and perish mandate.
I’d love to see universities reassess the value of being a public intellectual, but until they do, we need to know the risks and benefits associated with doing this kind of intervention. What we can do is shaped by our own institutional setting and professional status, but I do know that our world is a better place if our students have the skills and dispositions needed to become a public intellectual when the opportunity to make a difference in the world presents itself.
I also know that all of us — whether in academy, government, the press, or the private sector — have a vested interest in insuring that the best contemporary knowledge and thought gets out of the academic enclosure and into a wider, more citizenly discourse. I am hoping that sharing this syllabus may spark more discussions about what we can do to foster and support public intellectuals.
Click here for the draft syllabus.