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Almost a manifesto!
Lots to say. In fact, I feel sad that I didn't come across this post when it was written. At least, joining the Open Scholar group should be a way to get in touch with likeminded people.
The fact that you conceive of Open Access as a way to get beyond the "publish or perish" system is reassuring. I've spent some time discussing OA with some scholars (including some prominent OA advocates) and they invariably are quick to defend the PoP system and the current "peer-review" process. These were usually tenured or tenure-track colleagues but it's actually difficult to find academics who hold more radical views about OA as a way out of the old structures.
Of course, there are intellectuals outside of academia. They may be the one with whom we should discuss these things.
I'm thinking, in part, about French-style «intellectuels». http://enkerli.wordpress.com/2006/10/16/french-«intellectuels»-draft/
(Sorry for the shameless plug, as this is one of my posts on my main blog. But I think it may provide some context for my comment.) In France, there is room in the public arena for intellectuals of different stripes, whether or not they are professional academics. It's not necessarily a better context and there's a lot of posturing among French intellectuals. But it has the merit of being a different model from that of North American academia. Although, the US model has been spreading over to other parts of the World and there are some ways to be a public intellectual in the US.
On the US influence elsewhere, I can't avoid worrying about the loss of diversity, as other models for intellectual roles are disappearing. In fact, many of the actual role models for academics in the US come from systems which are incompatible with the current form of US academia. For instance, Bourdieu and Foucault have influenced many people in North America, but it'd be quite difficult for a North American to have a Foucault-style career or to do as Bourdieu did.
Going back to OA and publication... Blogging gets very close to the main manifest function of publishing: to "broadcast knowledge." The "call to academia" implies a desire to share ideas. I'm really not sure that I ever met an academic who didn't have this passion and thirst for knowledge which relies so much on communication. But many academics I've met have been labouring under a set of assumptions about the role of academia. These assumptions are often felt as unwanted and inappropriate pressure. In fact, some colleagues describe the academic system in which they work as simply oppressive. But we still take part in it. Wonder what Gramsci would have to say about us. ;-)
In the abstract, blogging is exactly what academics dream about. But when you start discussion blogging (or even OA) with some colleagues, they adopt another perspective. I'd argue that this perspective isn't their own but neither is it necessarily a bunch of talking points from the publishing industry. It's more of an internalized discourse on what is commonly said about the finalities of academic work. In other words, I get the impression that most of our colleagues still want to share ideas and spread knowledge, but we often catch them when they're thinking about jobs rather than about values, beliefs, or ideals.
I tend to insist on blogging for several reasons. One is that it's probably closest to what scholars are trained to do, even in a PoP system. But another is that blogging has already become the focus of a lot of discussion about changing academia.
There's a bunch of useful blogposts about these issues, including some from Hugh McGuire writing in the Huffington Post or some insightful-as-always content from Language Log. On some podcasts like Chris Lydon's Open Source, Robert Harrison's Entitled Opinions, and Laurie Taylor's Thinking Allowed, there has also been some fascinating discussion on roles for intellectuals, either explicitly distinguished from academia or described in such a way as to show how limiting academia has become. Because of risks associated with posting too many links in the same comment, I will refrain from posting those. But they would all merit discussions.

More personally, I must say that the current state of academia has helped me decide to undergo something of a partial reorientation. I still have a foot in academia given that I teach as part-time faculty. But I also do a lot of things that I would indeed associate with public intellectualism. Regardless of whether or not my work is considered valuable and beyond the fact that I'm getting positive feedback, acting as something of a public intellectual has been simply liberating. I hesitate to say things like these because labeling myself as a public intellectual may sound self-serving or even petty. But such considerations matter less in social media than in academic contexts. As a blogger, I'm able to propose some descriptions of myself just as others are allowed to describe me as they wish. An undesirable aspect of social media is that personalities end up taking a lot of space. But the same thing can be said about a number of academic contexts, the main difference being that personalities are supposed not to matter in academia.
I may sound cynical. Cynicism is either endemic through academic institutions or it may even be a function of the system. Academics who don't seem cynical enough aren't taken as seriously as others.
Public intellectuals, however, may not have to rely on how seriously they are taken.

Wm Morris

Hmmm. The link didn't go through correctly. Here it is: http://morriswm.motleyvision.org/2009/professors-pr-public/

Wm Morris

I have a little more to say about April 30 comment above in my blog post Professors, PR and the public

Wm Morris

You don't publish it on your blog. You publish some initial thinking and findings on your blog and hopefully spark some conversation. Then you write the piece and publish it via an Open Journal Systems journal that you have created with others in the field -- a platform that accommodates references and pages and the offering of articles in different formats (including PDF downloads). And then you put up a blog post with a summary and a link to the journal article. And you tweet about it. And you create a summarized version of it and post it to Slideshare.


Jon Ogden

Gideon, I'm really drawn to this idea of being a public intellectual. It really does seem to be the more charitable role, so long as the scholarship remains rigorous.

This is my current concern: how does a public scholar publish something as rigorous as a journal article on his or her blog?

Journal articles usually take upwards of 50-100 hours to write and contain between 20-40 references in the works cited pages. Blogs seem to have the rigor of an op-ed piece. When I sit down to write a blog post I usually spend 1-2 hours and find 1-2 hyperlinks. This seems about average with the blogs I read, and when I picture including 20-40 references in a blog post, or making that post 20-30 pages long, I picture even fewer readers than I do have.

How would we go about creating an intellectual discussion that maintains the rigor of current academic work?

David Garfinkel

Gideon, a friend of mine forwarded an excerpt of this post to me. Very helpful! I recently completed two-and-one-half years of graduate study, including a Master's and one year into a social sciences PhD program, with some real concerns about the very issues you raise.

It was the impenetrability of the epistemology that persuaded me to leave the program, along with some short-term-crisis personal circumstances. The crisis has passed, but the issues about epistemology, and the larger social-sharing-of-knowledge issues you raised, remain.

What you wrote shed a lot of light on my inner turmoil and helped me sort things out. And it helped me justify my decision, finally, with a clear conscience. Thank you.


I don't have much to add to the conversation, but I wanted to say that this was so nicely expressed. You've captured a lot of my own feelings about academia.

Wm Morris

Academics generally distrust, disdain or ignore the folks in the pr office (who are being forced to undergo a similar self-examination). Or worse, they chase media hits with a premium placed on the prestigious MSM outlets.

And yet, when it came time to make a choice, I chose the PR route, and I have never regretted it. Translating the good/interesting/relevant of the work into a narrative that can be understood/valued/consumed by the various constituencies of the university is a lot of fun. It doesn't always go the way you want it (especially when it comes to media relations), but that's beginning to change as more institutions see the value in telling their own stories.

If PR can continue its turn towards authenticity and engagement and story-telling, and if academia can embrace its role in creating and disseminating knowledge, then I think we could get something really good going. Part of that means, of course, that academics are going to need to speak for themselves and PR people are going to need to be less gatekeepers as curators, connectors and consultants.

Gideon Burton

Tyler, I recommend that you attend to establishing your online identity (including the voice of your developing research interests) as you progress through your program. Invest in the emerging knowledge culture this way and don't count on traditional methods beyond their nominal credentialing function. Find your peers as you found this blog, and don't let your scholarship be something that takes you out of the game of exchanging meaningful communication. Good luck!


Wow. This perfectly captures the way I've been feeling lately. I'm just finishing my first year of doctoral studies in English at Idaho State and I've become pretty jaded at how essentially small-minded academia can be. From the get-go, I don't want to be, as you say, a private intellectual. I want my work to matter beyond the small circle of my peers (if it even really matters to them). I want to speak to a larger audience, to have my voice heard beyond the bubble surrounding the ivory tower.

What advice do you have for someone like me who's really just on the verge of life in academia and who wants to be more of a "public intellectual"?


I think that there is an emerging group of scholars that is interested in creating change in the academy. That same emerging group would, I believe, rally around a social justice motivation. But we are in the minority.

The academy is a longstanding and conservative institution. In some ways, it's similar to the Christian church -- it is charged with "guarding" knowledge (or revelation) and transmitting it. This creates two countervailing forces, one that is conservative and resists change in order to protect the process of knowledge creation, the other which is spontaneous and is open to growth and change and the life of the spirit (be it religious or academic, not that they are necessarily that different).

To continue my analogy, the Christian church has, for the large part, lost most of its relevance for contemporary society by its fear of moving away from traditional forms of expressing its "truths". I think the academy runs the same risk today, the risk of increasing irrelevance in a time of rapidly changing paradigms of relationships and communication.

People like you and me (and many others) are the forerunners of change in the academy. I think it will cost us dearly at times. But we will also strike chords with others.

The next few years will be interesting ones. I don't think these changes can be held back for too long, regardless of the conservative nature of the academy.

Gideon Burton

Good comments, Silvia. I like that phrase, "dismantling some of the systems of privilege that we participate in as academics," and I like the perspective that in giving up some kinds of power we create other types. Do you think that framing the revision of academia as a kind of social justice work will help give traction to the kinds of changes needed? That catches my attention, but I genuinely wonder.


Brilliant, once again!

I recently read somewhere that academia is going to shift its focus from epistemology to ontology. That idea came to mind as I read your post -- being a public intellectual exposes not only what you know, but who you are. It engages the whole person, if it's done well.

Of course, we are also going through important epistemological shifts, we pioneers in social media in the academy. We are co-constructing knowledge in more social and transparent ways. in my view, this is social justice work, because we are dismantling some of the systems of privilege that we participate in as academics. By giving up some kinds of power, we are creating other kinds. Or so I would like to think.

Kathy Cowley

It will be interesting to see what the world of academia looks like in a few years. There definitely are journals moving in the direction of open public access, for example, Kairos: the Journal of Technorhetoric, and Jouvert: A Journal of Postcolonial Studies. However, they don't seem to be as search engine optimized as many blogs.

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