Is Public Scholarship About Telling Stuff To More People?

By Cassius Adair, PhD Candidate, Department of English

Adair pic
Cassius Adair

I love to talk at people, which is one of the reasons I speak on more panels than maybe I should. Last month I ran– literally jogged across the Diag like a tardy freshman– from academic job market training in Angell Hall to a public scholarship panel on Rackham. In a way this is a heavy-handed metaphor for my academic life: my research lives in one building, my community engagement work elsewhere. Out of breath and sweaty, I arrived at the public scholarship event wondering how many times I’d done something like this, running myself ragged trying to do all the things I love. I wished for about the millionth time that Hermione could loan me her time-turner.

At the panel itself, of course, the moderator asked my panelists and I how we see our public and non-academic work fitting in with our scholarly work. At first I struggled with assimilating my whole life into a succinct answer to my colleague’s question: there was an engaged learning class that I taught during my third year, the times I’ve given talks on my research to groups of social workers, the internship at the local public radio station that has introduced me to a whole new world of reading, writing, and communicating complex ideas. Off the cuff, I told the audience that all of these things are all pretty much the same: it’s all just learning stuff and telling people about it. And it’s true: sure, I obsess over my research, but I’m just as energized by imagining how to get that new knowledge to the people who would most be curious about it, or benefit from it, or be challenged by it. It’s a reason I’ve loved working in an English department and teaching first-year composition courses. It’s also a political commitment of mine to try to spread knowledge around, especially to people outside of academic spaces.

That said, I do want to offer one corrective to what I told that panel audience last week: as much as I enjoy public speaking, the academy that I want to see in the world also needs public listening. This is also something I’ve learned working in public radio for the last year: in trying to make community issues feel real for a public radio audience, my most important tool usually isn’t my voice, but my ears. Since starting my internship, I’ve tried to heal the academic / non-academic bifurcation in my brain by linking two sets of concerns: “What are the questions that are urgent to people right now?” and “What could academics do to help answer those questions?” My own research into identification documents and the stories people tell about them tries to do a little slice of this: the project has been monumentally informed by hanging out with transgender friends who are worried about being discriminated against when they show their license at the local pub, or listening to the children of undocumented residents of Washtenaw County tell members of city council that they’re worried every time their parents have to show ID to pick them up from school. What if, in the Humanities PhD of the future, we could help students co-construct projects with folks who are asking critical questions in their own lives? It’s hard, but not impossible. Feminist scholarship like Richa Nagar’s Playing with Fire has already challenged academics to create collaborative and responsive research methods that blend the close textual analysis and theoretical acumen with new norms of scholarly listening. But I’m still reaching for how to do this type of work myself. It’s intimidating to reach outside my own methodological areas of expertise, for sure. Plus, I’m still wondering how to construct a research ethics that balances respectful community engagement with the creative protocols of humanist scholarly production.

This year, I’m going to try to talk less, and smile listen more. I’ll probably still monologue too much about my favorite dissertation facts, especially if I’ve had a drink or two. That said, I’ll try to prioritize opening my ears as much as my mouth. (A blog post doesn’t count as talking, right?

More from our Blog