Friday, May 15, 2015

What Institutions Owe Public Scholars

Almost a year ago, I wrote about Steven Salaita being un-hired by the University of Illinois. I argued:
I come to this topic not as a partisan in the specifics of Salaita’s situation but as an advocate for faculty engagement with the public. Over the last year, I have written periodic columns for The Chronicle about the ways that academics can and should write for general audiences. Recently, I even suggested that "sustained public engagement" of any sort should count for hiring, tenure, and promotion.
When I write about this topic, I often get told that the real problem is that academics are snobs. We like living in an ivory tower, goes the argument, and we look with disdain on getting our hands dirty in the public sphere. There’s plenty of snobbery to go around, it’s true, but the Salaita affair shows a different, and I think more powerful, force that keeps many academics from commenting on important contemporary issues: fear.
I am a believe in and advocate four public engagement. But I try to overlook or understate the risks that public engagement brings, and regularly ask for universities to do more to support us. Unfortunately, it's going the other direction.
We need more public writing, not less. We need to open pathways for more academics to speak out in public, not punish Salaita for doing so in ways that have provoked such strong feelings. But we can’t ask scholars to embrace the risks of engagement in a system in which partisan bloggers and local papers can push timid administrators to fire, or in this case unhire, academics who leap into public debates.
Now Tressie McMillan Cottom, one of the smartest people around, has written a must read essay - Everything But the Burden in the context of Saida Gundy. She writes:
I have written about institutional marginality and neo-liberal appeals for scholars to “publicly engage”. If I could rewrite that article today I would ask how it is that there have been at least a dozen articles written about toxic black feminism on social media and black twitter but almost no articles on things like Twitchy. But, I digress.
What I really wanted to point out is how yet again we have an example of how woefully underprepared universities are to deal with the reality of public scholarship, public intellectuals, or public engagement.
She says: public scholarship means pissing people off.

She says: In academia, where twenty readers is a big deal, 200 angry emails can feel like a tsunami of public opinion (it isn’t). When three members of a committee can constitute a quorum, seeing 142 retweets of a negative opinion about your new assistant professor can feel like politics (it isn’t). Five whole think pieces at the online verticals of legacy media organizations can feel like the powers-that-be are censuring your institution (they aren’t).

Then she comes up with a series of steps you should take before publicly engaging. Demand your institution protects you if they want you to engage publicly. Read this one carefully.