Monday, December 27, 2010

Being an Anti-Academic Scholar

When people read my blog entries out of context, they sometimes assume I am anti-scholarship or anti-research, when the reality is far more complex. I am pro-scholarship and research, but I am "anti-academic" in terms of the attitudes and biases that have developed within some, and only some, disciplines. More specifically, I am concerned that the humanities are not only losing touch with their traditional role within liberal arts educations, but they are also losing touch with the vast majority of citizens.

It is a problem when the humanities view themselves as somehow apart from, even better than, the general citizenry. If anything, academics in the humanities should be reaching out to people, working to educate the public in a manner that is approachable and meaningful.

I like logic and reason. I, like most people, can comprehend the value of medical research, computer science, and even theoretical physics. The quantitative "hard sciences" are an easy "sell" to me, as they are to the vast majority of people who support U.S. public universities through tax dollars and/or tuition payments.

But, I don't understand the "scholarship" or "research" published for small audiences in the humanities. The "arts and letters" spend too much time talking amongst themselves, often in ways that insult many of their fellow Americans. The elite professors seem detached from their fellow citizens, even when the professors address important issues.

There was a time, not even that long ago, when academics in the humanities were cultural leaders, but increasingly they are leaders only to a sliver of the American population. The gaping chasm between the academic culture and general culture seems to be widening in the humanities, a division that cannot be good for us.

When I write that I am not an "academic," it is a statement that I do not want be isolated. I want to be engaged with my fellow Americans, with their concerns and their values. I might not share all popular opinions or beliefs, but I want to engage them and learn from them.

Writing academic papers and publishing journal articles does not, in general, change society nearly as much as one good work of political or social satire. One great play or feature film can do more to change minds than almost any academic work. This is because academic works are no longer written to be read by everyone. They have become puzzles, a form of academese cryptography meant to be decoded only within specific disciplines.

To me, a good scholar should be a citizen-scholar, someone working in the here and now for his or her fellow Americans and, ideally, all the people on this planet. The term for this used to be "public intellectual." I'm fine with being a public figure, as long as I am not a caricature of what it means to be intellectual.

I place incredible value on teaching. I believe in teaching. I also believe we need to reconsider what we call "research" and/or "scholarship" in the humanities. Let us ask ourselves what the purpose of research is and how it can be explained outside our specific disciplines.

Too much of the "research" on the teaching of rhetoric, communication, and creative writing fails to ask the most basic question of all: are our students becoming more effective communicators? Instead, the research prattles on about "positive self-image" and "collaborative events" without asking if the end result is better, more critically engaged citizens. We write about our teaching methods, engaging in a substantial self-reflection, but at some point we have to ask about the results of our teaching.

Are the U.S. university students of today as well-rounded as their peers around the world? Are they learning about shared cultural norms, which is essential in the field of rhetoric? Are they learning about other cultures and norms so they can both respect those and evaluate them critically? Can our students communicate in words, sounds, and images effectively when they need to convey information and persuade audiences?

I am not anti-academic so much as I am anti-isolation. Academics are more isolated, not less, than they have been in a century. At one time, universities existed to produce nothing but leaders. The first dozen or so U.S. universities were founded to train clergymen and civic leaders. We should still be producing civic leaders, and not only from within our law and business schools.

Leaders should be coming from across the disciplines, with a shared liberal arts foundation. And that foundation of liberal arts education is what I want to help restore, maintain, and extend. Right now, it is being chipped away by budget cuts and students choosing other majors because we have not demonstrated the importance of the arts and letters.

Students will continue to exit the arts and letters as long as we fail to demonstrate that our disciplines are not isolated cliques, but are important pillars within a democratic society. If we will not rise to this challenge, it is not because the task is impossible but because we have grown too accustomed to a tiny sphere of like-minded colleagues. We have become complacent and comfortable, though we complain constantly about the state of affairs within the humanities.

I refuse to be yet another scholar writing to and for my peers. I want to communicate with my fellow citizens -- as many of them as I can reach with various forms of communication.

We are supposed to be experts in persuasion and communication. It is time to prove those skills can be taught and mastered by proving we possess the skills we claim to teach.

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