academics and their “ivory tower” audiences

James Mulholland argues in The Guardian that “We must recognise the value of the esoteric knowledge, technical vocabulary and expert histories that academics produce.” And ends with the following pithy advice, “So academics, stay in your offices. Write books that few people will read. The results might be more significant than any of us first recognise.” Who can disagree? We should recognize the value of the esoteric, technical, and expert. And we do not know the future; we do not know what significance the work we do today might have later.

However I’m not writing here to support or disagree with Mulholland but rather to remark on the strange nature of this commonplace argument and his particular performance of it.

The idea Mulholland specifically opposes is the “call for academics to publicise their work often place importance on making complex research more accessible to general audiences.” And that “Humanists like myself are regularly forced to consider what the public wants.” It’s not that he is suggesting that academics should give no thought to the public, but rather that catering to the public shouldn’t be made to define or constrain the nature of our scholarship. Upon close analysis, the argument is not as polemic as the tag line about saying in your office would seem to suggest.

However, the example he supplies in support of his argument is perplexing. He notes that “Queer theory emerged in the 1980s with the goal of overturning the 1986 US supreme court decision in Bowers v Hardwick.” And then observes how nearly 20 years later that research was influential in the Supreme Court’s reversal of that decision.  That strikes me as an example of research that had a very specific public objective and one that it ultimately achieved (perhaps those scholars thought it wouldn’t take 17 years). I cannot speak to the history of queer theory. I’m sure queer theory scholars have had many motives for their work, including this one. Some of that work, I can only guess, was directed toward broader audiences. Regardless though, Mulholland suggests a very clear public-political motive for the scholarly work being done. It’ve very different from his own work “investigating 18th-century British authors who wrote poetry and plays in colonial cities and outposts stationed around India, Sumatra and Singapore.”

I should note that I have no problem with him doing the research he wants to do, and furthermore, I don’t consider it any of my business to have an opinion on it. North Carolina State University hired him to do this work, and he’s doing it. Period. If he doesn’t want to write for the “public” that’s fine with me. I’m assuming there’s some public, some audience, for his work. If there isn’t then it won’t be published, but I’m sure there is some community of like-minded academics, a couple thousand people maybe, who work in his area of specialization and will find his contributions to it valuable. There are some economic considerations surrounding academic publishing, but assuming those considerations can be met, then someone will publish his work and I’m sure they have in the past.

I just think queer theory is an odd comparison to make here.

Here’s my issue. This is the wrong argument for us to be having. There should be exigency, kairos, for the work we do. The specific exigency might only make sense to the academics involved in it. On some level, that exigency should be intelligible to the readers of The Guardian for example. That’s different from saying that we should produce our scholarship to be read by that audience.  I don’t think that’s a very high hurdle and I think it’s one we typically meet in explaining what we do to students, colleagues from other disciplines, and so on. In other words, it’s no big deal.

What is a bigger deal is recognizing that the discursive-rhetorical practices, the genres, in which we have worked are products of historical conditions. Mulholland certainly knows this; it’s the founding premise of the research he does. It’s why it is important to know that a particular poem or play was written in Bombay in the 1790s. The same historical context in which the literature we study participates shapes our own rhetorical efforts, changing what we do, whether we like it or not.

The whole idea of academics writing monographs for tenure and promotion is a product of the mid-twentieth century. We can take the advice to sit in our offices and write books few will read, but those offices are like those of 50 years ago. Books are not the same media they once were. We do not compose them as we once did. I’m not saying that we should stop writing books. I’m saying that we have stopped writing books, if by books one means the particular media objects produced a few decades ago.

We have a new, evolving media ecology. In it, we connect in new ways with our colleagues, our students, and with the general public of the Internet. This shifts the exigent circumstances of our work. We have an emerging set of rhetorical-compositional capacities as well. I am not arguing that we need to be writing to that general public in the research we do. I’m just saying that this is the wrong argument to be having, one that says we should be choosing between writing esoteric books for academic colleagues or more simplified prose for the public. It’s not only that this is a false binary (as if we couldn’t do both), but it misunderstands the media ecology in which we operate.