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?