(#Alt-)Academia Higher Ed

The Urgency of Public Engagement

Higher education is again under attack, raising the stakes of public engagement for scholars higher than ever. The disdain for truth, research, and critique is palpable: Within days of the inauguration, we have seen the White House impose stop-work orders and media blackouts on federal scientific agencies like the EPA and USDA. We have seen proposals threatening to eliminate the NEH and the NEA. And we have seen the administration nominate an unqualified Secretary of Education, all while spinning official narratives that willfully oppose evidence (think “alternative facts” or the “Bowling Green Massacre”).

In this environment, scholarly work that looks only inward is doomed not only to irrelevance, but elimination. We as scholars must ensure our work can reach broad audiences in a powerful way. Institutions may not recognize that work, but especially in the current political climate, when our research and writing has the potential to influence policy, public opinion, and more, there is much more at stake than simply tenure.

Plus, public interest in the humanities is growing. Orwell’s 1984 has seen an enormous rise in sales since the election; there is a thirst to understand Islamic history and culture (see this interview in Business Insider with Graduate Center President Chase Robinson, a historian of Islam); and many are turning to the writings of Hannah Arendt and others to understand the rise of fascism in the early 20th century. Humanities-related work is also being incorporated into non-specialist publications; for instance, The Vault, by historian Rebecca Onion, is a regular feature of Slate, and BuzzFeed recruits humanities scholars like Anne Helen Petersen as analytical writers. But if such work is not respected by universities, then it remains an extracurricular pursuit or a plan B for emerging scholars.

With this in mind, I believe critical reflection about what constitutes academic success is crucial to deepening public engagement in the humanities today. Such reflection must include not only changing modes of scholarly communication, but also career paths, with the goal of improving the health and inclusivity of the humanities for the public good.

One often-overlooked element in discussing new modes of scholarly discourse is the relationship between innovation, equity, and public engagement—all of which contribute to an understanding of higher education as a public good. Though innovation is frequently considered something for elite, well-funded institutions, through my work with the Futures Initiative and the international scholarly network HASTAC I have witnessed countless ways that innovative solutions can be developed organically to solve real needs and connect communities.

If equity and innovation are linked, then it follows that recognizing more varied scholarly work enables a broader range of scholars to break new ground. This was apparent in a 2014 event at CUNY called “What Is A Dissertation,” in which graduate students shared projects that didn’t resemble the protomonograph of most dissertations. Their work included the use of Tumblr and other social media to share and discuss historical photographs of black women; ethnographic work on contemporary youth created using video and the multimodal platform Scalar; the ecology of proprietary data, explored and shared using mapping visualization tools; and a dissertation on comics in comic form.

Living in an increasingly interconnected world—under an administration hostile to knowledge—means we need the humanities more than ever. Recognizing the expansive social value of humanistic knowledge and methods means understanding the myriad ways scholars can make a significant impact beyond academe. Even as the specific types of work are constantly evolving, we have an opportunity to adjust graduate program structures to better equip students to take on a wide range of roles where they can apply their training.

Our country needs more, not fewer, scholars trained to understand and contextualize the cultural, historical, and linguistic valences of contemporary geopolitics. We need more scholars who can read, critique, and synthesize complex arguments. We need more scholars who know the national and global histories of systemic racism and institutionalized bias and who are equipped to speak out against ongoing inequalities. We need them in the classroom—but not only there. The impact of humanities training could be far greater if we trained students not only to teach, but also enabled them to pursue careers that carried them beyond the university.

Rigorous, deeply creative work makes research and scholarship more accessible to broader audiences than ever before. When the academy embraces a wider range of outcomes as signs of scholarly success and merit, I believe the result will be a deeper connection with local communities and more powerful exchange of knowledge among them. In moments of great uncertainty, scholars can do their best and most important work by applying their expertise in ways that engage broader publics.

This piece is adapted in part from a book project on career paths, academic labor, public engagement, and diversity. It was originally published on Media Commons on February 22, 2017, in response to the following Field Guide question: “How might digital and media scholars and educators engage with the commons, both physically and online? What roles should we assume in such spaces or within such communities?”