Wednesday, November 14, 2012
November 14, 2012: Public Scholarship, Part Three
[This week marks AmericanStudies’ two-year anniversary (I began the blog, not coincidentally, right after the 2010 elections). So I’m going to celebrate that occasion by highlighting five posts in which I’ve considered some of the reasons, possibilities, and issues related to public scholarship, blogging, and related work. I’d love to hear your thoughts on those questions, or any other 21st century forms and conversations, for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
On some of the most threatening and most inspiring sides to 21st century public scholarship.
Just after I wrote yesterday’s Severson and Gingrich post, a couple more developments had me continuing to think in more self-reflective ways about what I’m doing, here and in general. First, I read a New York Times article that documents how what was done to Professor William Cronon (on which see this brief post) was just the tip of the iceberg; Republican groups in Michigan had now begun making sweeping public records requests involving the emails of numerous labor studies professors at three (so far) public universities in the state. I’ve long felt that the various kinds of anti-intellectual and anti-academic hostilities present in our national narratives are by far the worst—and perhaps even the only bad—aspect of this profession, and I can honestly say that in my fifteen or so years of genuine awareness of the profession (although I was certainly aware to at least a degree through my Dad for years before that as well) this is certainly the worst that things have gotten. I would, I hope, feel that way even if I were not myself employed by a public university; but the fact that I am only amplifies my sense of the profoundly un-American qualities of these invasions of privacy and attacks.
It’s true that many academics, at least in the humanities, are politically liberal; there are plenty of possible reasons for that preponderance, and while I have my own theories they’re not the point here. It’s also absolutely and profoundly true, in my significant experiences across multiple institutions and disciplines and classrooms, that the vast majority of academics, whatever their personal views on politics (or anything else), do not bring those views into the classroom; moreover, of the small minority who do make such views clear at times, I am even more certain that virtually (if not literally) none of them require of their students that they adhere to such views in order to receive high grades or the like. And above and beyond such specifics, it seems to me that what college classes most fully offer is the opportunity for students to learn how to think and analyze and argue and read and write and be a part of their world in stronger and more successful ways, skills that prepare them for not only any political conversation (from any perspective) but every other arena of life and identity. To attack college professors for (the only possible charge behind these kinds of document requests) indoctrinating their students or the like is thus, to my mind, not only false on the specifics but even more false, directly backwards even, on the broader work that we do and ask of our students.
I came home that day, disheartened by having read that article, to find the advance copies of my second book waiting for me. The book is, like this blog, certainly not a-political; its concluding chapter analyzes Barack Obama’s first book and his identity more broadly as profoundly representative of all early 21st century Americans’ identities and relationships to our shared national heritage. But my sincere and most ideal hope for the book, as for this blog, is that it contributes to our communal understandings and conversations and knowledge and narratives in ways that transcend any particular partisan or contemporary debates, that in fact remind us of how much we share and how much stronger and better we are as a nation when our focus is there. Holding in my hands the book, the result of at least five years of thinking and writing, and of innumerable conversations in classrooms, in colloquiums and conferences, in faculty reading groups, with family and friends, and, yes, online, is one of the very best times that this profession has to offer. But even better, I have to admit, is allowing myself to contemplate those ideal contributions it and I could make to our national conversations and narratives.
I don’t imagine that the worst of times vibe is going to go away any time soon. But when I’m posting here, as when I hold the book, as when I step into my classes, I can remember some of the best of times, within my profession and within our nation. And I have to believe that they’re stronger and more lasting than even the very worst of where we can go as a nation. More tomorrow,
PS. What do you think, of the worst sides of public scholarship, the best ones, or anything in between?