Escaping the ivory tower: academics and the city

By Niamh Cullen

Last Wednesday I attended the inaugural event of a new group of Dublin based humanities scholars, Dublintellectual. The idea behind Dublintellectual – bringing the research of Irish based scholars and researchers to a wider public – is a laudable and necessary one at a time when both policy makers and the public continually voice their doubts about the value of what we do. While there is some debate about how much we should engage with policy makers who have a reductive idea of what we do, and should be doing, I’m convinced of the need to showcase our research to a wider public and attempt to explain what exactly it is that we do and how it is of benefit to society.

The Dublintellectual initiative is definitely a step in the right direction, but I do think that we need to think a little more about how to bring our work, our skills and our perspectives as academics to a broader platform. Is it enough to tell the public what we do and expect that they will listen? And who is this ‘public’ anyway? Who are we trying to reach? Are we in reality just preaching to the converted, giving lectures to fellow academics? It’s not enough just to make our research sound ‘interesting’ either, though it’s a start. We have to show why it’s necessary, and what our unique perspectives and skills as academics in particular, bring to the study of subjects like popular culture, history and literature.

We need to discuss how to create a better dialogue between humanities scholars and this mysterious, elusive ‘public’. Maybe we should start with the word ‘intellectual’ itself. Why use it when so many people seem to see it as exclusionary and elitist; a ‘dirty word’ even. I love the word intellectual, with all the earnest discussion and naïve pretensions to change the word that it seems to promise. But then, as someone who has spent more than three years writing about such earnest, young left-wing writers, editors and artists in early fascist Italy, I probably would. Add another word it’s often paired with, and you get ‘public intellectual’, which for me simply means someone who uses their knowledge or expertise for the benefit of society; contributing to public debate, perhaps writing a newspaper column or helping to formulate government policy. The opposite of an ivory tower academic, these people are putting their expertise to a broader use , thinking beyond their own narrow research specialisms and bridging the gap between academics and society. Perhaps we need to be a bit more confident about reclaiming the word, rethinking its positive connotations instead of shying away from it as lofty and pretentious. In continental Europe, where there is a much stronger tradition of writers, academics, editors and artists participating in public debates and sometimes even directly in party politics, there is much less hesitation about using the word.

Beyond that though, how practically should humanities scholars try to engage with society? Some brief, initial thoughts. I think the key word here is interdisciplinary; that elusive concept that academics talk about but find it much more difficult to put into practice. Organising talks around particular themes, like ‘The cultural city’ ‘Religion and society’ or ‘Civil society’ – just to throw out a few examples – with perspectives drawn from sociologists, historians, geographers, art historians, literary scholars, cultural theorists and geographers, each making observations and raising questions from different angles, could be one way to start. Organising an event around a theme might encourage academics to think about the broader implications of their research and to see links across the disciplines. It might also result in a more meaningful conversation, focused not on the specifics of one academic research project, but on bigger questions.

Another possible way to begin could be to link the events to places within the city. The initial idea of holding meetings in the city itself instead of in a university or other ‘official’ space, is a great start, but would it be possible to go further and link the events to places within the city? These don’t have to be places that we think of as significant or culturally laden like the GPO or Trinity College; it could simply be a café, commercial quarter or disused market space. Speakers from different disciplines could address what the place meant to them, from the historian who looks the emergence of civil society through political and literary discussion in cafes to the geographer or sociologist who examines how we make use of such spots in contemporary society. This might be a way of showing how humanities research is not something that just happens in libraries and universities, but is something that impacts on our city, our society and even the way that we live our daily lives. It could be something that would make us rethink how we live our lives within the city; enriching our perspectives with insights drawn from literature, history, sociology, geography and so on.

These are just some initial ideas and observations, but it might be a good idea to begin a debate on how best we should be engaging with the public as humanities researchers. Most of us agree that this is necessary, and not just because policy makers demand it, but because much of our research is of interest and relevance to society and it makes sense to let people know about it. The ‘show don’t tell’ maxim is more difficult to follow that it seems at first glance though; how else do you think we might go about this?

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Academia, Education, Events in Dublin, In the news, Ireland and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Escaping the ivory tower: academics and the city

  1. As a member of the great unwashed, I applaud any effort to bridge the gap, but I think you’re still not going far enough. All of your suggestions are about “speakers” from “disciplines” dispensing knowledge, but “engaging with the public” has to be a two-way process — or at least one in which both “sides” can make inputs. Lady Aberdeen’s well-meaning efforts were not always appreciated (except in the matter of Golden Retrievers).

    You say “[…] ‘public intellectual’, which for me simply means someone who uses their knowledge or expertise for the benefit of society; contributing to public debate, perhaps writing a newspaper column or helping to formulate government policy. The opposite of an ivory tower academic, these people are putting their expertise to a broader use , thinking beyond their own narrow research specialisms and bridging the gap between academics and society.”

    But I go back to Humpty Dumpty. Who gets to choose which topics are debated, which policies formulated, which issues are important and which need expertise? Are the intellectuals always the stars, with the citizens as admiring audiences? Is it possible that politicians are more powerful than intellectuals because they listen harder?

    The solution is, I think, shared work: working with people on projects of common interest. It seems to me that any teaching (and here, the hidden subject of the teaching is the value of academic work, perhaps in both content and method) should start from where the intended audience is, not where the teacher thinks it might be. So working with folk to find out what interests them might be a good first step, and working out how to link that to your offering might be an interesting, er, intellectual exercise.

    As for Dublintellectual, when I went to the site I was greeted by a black screen. Clichéd or what?

    bjg

  2. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Escaping the ivory tower: academics and the city

  3. marlalbur says:

    Have been meaning to contribute to the running discussion on the point of A&H research but have been v. busy…..doing research!! Dublin Intellectual is an initiative that is long overdue -it certainly taps into the discussions & ideas I and my colleagues are currently having on illustrating the relevance of our own discipline (art history) in the context of what we are told is the only true goal of all Irish research now – ‘the knowledge economy’ (a term I would question as having tangible currency – but that’s another debate).
    I see where BJG is coming from (but not in regard to the Dublin Intellectual website issues – I accessed fine just now on http://www.dublintellectual.ie/# ) He has a point about labels, which I think can be counter-productive in encouraging non-academics to contribute to the debate (perhaps we should drop the academic titles that often only contribute the perception that we live in ‘ivory towers’?) He’s also right about team work, which is of course, the only way to go when aiming to integrate the aims, objectives and results of A&H research with the wider public.

    However, ‘….Who gets to choose which topics are debated, which policies formulated, which issues are important and which need expertise? Are the intellectuals always the stars, with the citizens as admiring audiences? Is it possible that politicians are more powerful than intellectuals because they listen harder?…’

    Mmmm – some of the terms in those comments make me nervous, uncomfortable even (belief in one’s own importance is intolerable and sadly present in many areas of public life!) But seriously, would we really want to see our publicly elected representatives (who may only be in the role for a short time?) given the responsibility of dicating the direction of medical research? Would we want the esteemed TD for Baile-na-anywhereinIreland to assess the relative merits of research into cures for cancer vs Alzheimer’s disease? I think not so why would it be acceptable in A&H then?

    Niamh asked: ‘…would it be possible to go further and link the events to places within the city? These don’t have to be places that we think of as significant or culturally laden like the GPO or Trinity College; it could simply be a café, commercial quarter or disused market space…’
    Now we’re talking! While it is lovely to be able to welcome visitors to one’s institution so they see us in our ‘natural habitat’ as it were, to make the debate truly relevant, the perceived invisible wall of ‘academia’, and its physical counterpart, can best be chipped away now perhaps by having these debates and discussion on the future of A&H research in places outside the campi, so that the conversation is ‘open to all’ in a metaphorical sense too. Public fora like this would contribute to BJG’s hope that A&H research would begin ‘…working with folk to find out what interests them…’

    If I ever have any doubts about the value of A&H in how its research or the people doing that research contributes to either the ‘knowledge economy’ or the ‘intellectual’ life of our somewhat latterly beleaguered country, I read and re-read the address given by poet Theo Dorgan at the Winter conferrings in UCC last December:

    ‘…THERE IS AN Ireland we have been ceaselessly imagining and re-imagining for centuries. You can find elements of that Ireland in the thoughts and dreams of Redmond and Pearse, Wolfe Tone and Douglas Hyde. You can find it in the generous vision of James Connolly and the pragmatic vision of that greatest of civil servants, TK Whitaker. You can find it in the challenging presidencies of Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, in the words and deeds of those who fought so trenchantly and fearlessly for the rights of women, the rights of so-called minorities, the rights of the dispossessed…’
    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2010/1211/1224285302112.html

    Irish Arts & Humanities research *has* previously made significant contributions to the ‘imagining and re-imagining’ of Ireland and will surely continue to do so ….but only if it is not beaten into a corner by debate, discussion and comment that devalues those contributions. Wouldn’t this lead to an unbalanced society? Current and future A&H research will contribute to our *entire* economy provided we nurture it, support it and encourage wider public involvement in the debate.

  4. Marlalbur says:

    Oops! Correct link for Theo Dorgan’s speech http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2010/1209/1224285097285.html
    The previous one showed comments by graduates – worth reading too.

  5. Marisa Ronan says:

    I am excited to see that Dublintellectual is getting people talking. What I feel is lacking however is any actual direct engagement with the project in regards taking some of the many interesting ideas and putting them into practice. The organisation has to rely on collaboration as I can not do this alone. Also keep in mind that the project is in its earliest stages and there are many, many events in the pipeline that will encompass a plethora of issues, with speakers inside and outside of academia and in locations spread across the city. I would be delighted if you could volunteer your time and take on responsibility to organise an event under the Dublintellectual project to ensure any gaps are filled and that all audiences are catered for. This project will only be as good as people make it. Feel free to contact me at dublintellectual@gmail.com.
    Keep up to date with all the developments on dublintellectual@groups.facebook.com
    and on Twitter @dublintell

    • Ciara Meehan says:

      Marisa, congratulations on instigating Dublinintellectual; such forums are particularly important at this time. I attended the first meeting and must admit that I was somewhat left with the impression that it was taking the form of a seminar series; the description on the website also seems to suggest this. However, it’s encouraging to see from your above comment that the intention is to break-away from what can be a confining, academic structure. I particularly welcome the idea of including non-academics and varying the locations as this will surely add to the appeal and prospects for engagement – perhaps it might be worth mentioning this on the website for the benefit of the curious?

      • Marisa Ronan says:

        Thank you Ciara for including Dublintellectual in your discussion.
        The website has undergone constant change as we get a better sense of what the Dublintellectual project is. As such it has been updated a number of times to include new information as the project evolves. As I mentioned before what I really need now is volunteers to organise different events so please contact us if you have any suggestions. Whilst the general response has been hugely supportive there is a need for more people to get actively involved.

  6. Stephen Littleton says:

    Oh wow. Theo Dorgan.

  7. Conor R says:

    I think the idea of bringing this type of thing to public spaces is brilliant. Something like the fesitval of world cultures (which looks like making a comeback in 2012) which is inclusive to all ages and backgrounds. Making links with community groups, schools and local media could be another angle. Universities have alot of work on their plates to become more open and interact with their communities.

  8. Thanks for all your comments and sorry I haven’t had a chance to respond until now. It’s been a very interesting discussion though and there are some great suggestions here. Brian Goggin’s comments about academics and non academics working together on shared projects is an interesting one; it is something that I am sure is already happening but probably needs to happen more, and more visibly. We do need to be careful though that while taking other opinions into account, academics still retain control over the terms of any such public engagement. Not everything should be sacrificed to profit and popular notions of what academia is or should be. Part of a university education and academic research in general, is to learn about what you don’t know, or to learn to think differently about something you thought you knew about. If universities and academic researchers just taught and researched what they thought people wanted to hear, then would we ever learn anything new or challenging?

    Figuring out how to involve people in humanities research rather than just lecture to them about what we do is definitely something we need to work at though. Hopefully more on this soon!

    Niamh

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s