On being a public intellectual.
Posted Sep 19, 2019
Long before I had the language to call myself a public intellectual, I was passionate about it and pursuing it all along. In my specific case, I got into sociology in the first place because I thought it was all public sociology. Boy, was I mistaken. But, regardless I have held tight to these gut instincts and the promises that such public work would hold.
As a child and into high school, I was incredibly curious about social issues and social problems and why things were the way they were. I was motivated and active in high school around issues related to race relations and racial injustice in education.
In college, I gathered conceptual frameworks and language to make meaning of what worried me most. It was then that I got immersed in trying to make sense of homelessness and violence. What started out as an interest in how and why structural conditions lead some people to a life on the streets quickly morphed into how experiences of violence leave us homeless, even metaphorically, in our bodies, in our relationships, and in our very existence.
Questions about violence and trauma, healing and recovery, and home and the body, have propelled me along for most of my life – as a student, a teacher, a counselor, and activist and most recently as a writer for the larger public. And it is this sensibility of communicating to the larger public that I share with you here.
Through this, I hope to convey how I have found great joy, meaning, and purpose in writing for non-academic audiences (as well as academic ones), and I hope this inspires you to at least consider how you might take the tools and language and data you have gathered to make your work accessible and available.
The work of public intellectuals transcends the academy. It engages with media, politics and policy, dealing with issues and concerns of and for the public good, making academic disciplines recognizable, real and relevant to the public. This also lends legitimacy and awareness, so the public knows what certain disciplines even are, which in the case of sociology, for example, is important since it’s not the same as social work. And in a day and age where the liberal arts are being virtually slaughtered and where higher education is as well, we must find ways to make our conceptual frameworks and modes of analysis available, accessible, readable, applicable, and usable out in the world. This work then is about doing an effective translation.
I remember that when my father was still alive, he wanted a copy of my dissertation as soon as I defended it. And I recall our phone conversation in which he, an extremely learned man, said he was surprised that he could understand it, that it was fully readable, and he wondered if I got any flack for it as a “real dissertation.” That conversation remains so memorable to me because it called into question everything that mattered to me about the social construction of knowledge, about why we are writing and for whom, and about the politics of language and meaning. My father was more excited and more invested in my earning a doctorate than I was, and his questions were related to his concerns for my success.
I do remember teetering a bit from that call – not because my dad’s comments and questions felt critical as was too often the case in our relationship – quite the contrary really since I knew that what he was saying about my writing was a huge compliment. I was teetering because of what I knew about institutional expectations. Before I even started graduate school, my dad had asked if I was truly up to the task to publish rather than perish, and he wondered if I would even want to live under that sort of pressure. And, again, in the context of that phone call, I found myself worried about what was ahead of me; how, where, and when I would land a tenure-track job; and how I would be able to write what I believed in writing.
I was already friends with people nearing retirement who had had it, who were impatient with the rigid confines of academic publications and stifled intellectual expression, who longed for doing something, anything, more creative. They wanted to finally start writing novels and poetry or paint and make pottery. The whole thing made me worried and it also made me sad. I knew I was not going to put my whole life on hold for academia, especially after putting more than enough of it on hold when I went to graduate school. If the rewards of academia were going to be few but sizable in their importance to me – namely creativity and autonomy – I was going to be damn sure I would get to write in a way that maximized those things.
I am aware that my style of writing crisscrosses and transcends genre, that the way I write is rather consistent across platforms whether I am writing academic journal articles, book chapters for anthologies, creative nonfiction, essays, blogs, poetry, and even personal letters. I’ve never really compartmentalized style and parlance which is likely how and why I have been able to write for the larger public. The key has been to take key themes and ideas, dense theories and structures of thought and then translate and infuse these insights into writing that might be read beyond the academy, in major media outlets, etc. It has also meant making the time and commitment to regularly and frequently speak with and respond to journalists interested in conducting interviews on various subjects. These activities demand a multidimensional process of engaging with information that involves collecting, assimilating, straining, extracting, distilling, re-blending, and then translating. When done well, the end result is simple and elegant, taking complex academic abstractions and transforming them into crystalline prose. That’s where the magic is, I think. Yet, it’s also where the rub is since it can look seamless and effortless and people can wonder if it should count as part of the real work.
I remember years ago when I was working as a counselor in an abuser intervention program and realized that, in essence, we were doing feminist theory with these men, using feminist principles and asking feminist questions. We never used the word feminist with the clients, and we didn’t need to. In that clinical setting, I was sharpening tools of translation and doing a very public, community sociology.
At the same time that I was working with abusers, I was also in the early years of my teaching career striving to create a community-connected and activist-inspired classroom. I was crafting a teaching style that is at once up close and personal and also infused with, and supported by, a macro sense of social context and justice. I wanted to work with students to unpack issues related to oppression, power, and privilege, to merge theory and practice, and to blend deep sociological and personal inquiry and social change. For well over twenty years I have done this by inviting speakers to class such as currently and formerly homeless people to consider what is truly involved in imagining community building; a documentary filmmaker to discuss art and social change; a midwife and poet to discuss the childbirth industry and resistance to it; gerontologists to discuss demography and healthy aging; transgender activists; HIV survivors; men who work in the movement to end violence against women; survivors of domestic homicide, etc. Thus, significantly, the very qualities, topics, conversations, and questions that have made my classroom space for embodying public sociology also propel my writing.
In the years preceding when I went up for tenure and promotion, I was told that I should provide letters from senior scholars in my discipline who could demonstrate how my research and writing fit into the deeply established and rich tradition of public sociology. I was told that I would need to be prepared to defend this. But, this is my discipline, I thought. This was why you hired me, I thought.
As we reflect on what makes for career success in the academic triad of research, teaching, and service, we would be well-served to recognize and truly count the labor of being a public intellectual not as something nice and extra but as the river that runs through it all. This would not just be good for the careers of those of us doing this work but it would be good for illustrating the worthiness of the enterprise of higher education more systemically. But first, our universities need to count and reward this intense ambassadorship when it is happening as it benefits the institution in immense ways, bringing national and international attention to it since every time one’s affiliation is mentioned in media outlets, this means that these large numbers of readers and viewers are regularly exposed to that school.
Being a public intellectual means possessing fluency and versatility as a scholar. It means being a bridge builder. I think we can all agree we need more of that.