Academia

Scholarship in the public sphere

Alan Liu gave a pair of typically incisive talks at NYU last week. Among other things, Liu noted that scholars of the digital humanities have generally eschewed the type of politically motivated criticism that has been typical of earlier generations of academics. To combat this problem, he’s started 4Humanities, a site for DH scholars to advocate for the public value of the humanities. The digital humanities, Liu argued, have a special role to play in communicating this message, since DH may in fact be the future form of all humanities scholarship. As such, it can take on the “grand challenge” of advocating for the humanities.

Liu’s vision of an academic community that is  attuned to its public perception and impact is a provocative and timely one—it’s hard to disagree that we should take advantage of “democratic” publishing platforms like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook to communicate more frequently and collaboratively with non-academics. There were two things that worried me, however, in how Liu framed the debate. The first largely has to do with wording: I worry that when we refer to non-academics in general as “the public,” we end up reinforcing an us-versus-them perspective. Liu referred several times to journalists and legislators as members of the public—but both of these groups also think of themselves as separate from a public that they represent in different ways. If that’s who we’re trying to reach, doesn’t it create more confusion to think of them as part of the amorphous “public opinion”? This is a tricky issue—I’m not sure what else we should call those we’re hoping to influence—but I think the phrase “the public” often causes more problems than it solves.

The second issue is one of time management, delegation, and institutional hierarchies. Liu was encouraging his audience to translate their work onto social media platforms in order to make it more accessible—to tweet interesting archival research and blog about the dissertation process. Obviously, this is what (among other things) I’m trying to do with this site, but I worry that the onus for this kind of additional work ends up falling disproportionately on grad students and junior faculty. We are the ones trying to make ourselves stand out in cutthroat job markets and tenure processes, but we are also the ones who can least afford to take controversial stands on political issues within the university like grad student unions, adjunct labor, and open access. We’re also being asked to simply add to the huge pile of tasks we’re already facing. I saw the same thing happen in the newsrooms where I worked, as reporters who were already doing two people’s work were then told to add blogging and vlogging to their repertoire. Inevitably, something suffers—as the lethargic pace of updates on this blog perhaps indicates.

Liu raised some of the most pressing issues in humanities scholarship today—these conversations will continue to reverberate as the structure of the university continues to change. Both of his talks are available online here.

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