David Perry Calls for Expanding Definition of “Public Intellectual”

This photo shows speaker David Perry at a podium making a point with a gesture.
David M. Perry, from the University of Minnesota, urged his listeners at ComSciCon-VATech 2019 to become public scholars. Photo credit: Alexandra Freeze

“In helping at least one student to look at something in a different way, you have already changed the world,” David M. Perry told his Virginia Tech audience at his March 8 talk, “The Public Scholar in the Age of Twitter.”

Perry, who was visiting from the history department at the University of Minnesota, extends this concept of teaching to audiences beyond university students.

A medievalist by training, with two books on medieval history published early in his academic career, Perry later began writing opinion or “op-ed” pieces for CNN, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Al Jazeera, among other news media sources. These op-ed pieces cover a variety of topics, from history to politics to disability studies. Perry’s extra-academic work boils down to what academia is supposed to be all about in the first place: teaching.

Hosted by University Libraries and the Center for Humanities, Perry served as the luncheon plenary speaker for ComSciCon-VATech. Also in the audience were faculty and graduate students who attended an afternoon writing workshop facilitated by Perry.

Perry began his talk by discussing how the roles of the scholar and the expert in this day and age are precarious. Public academics are in danger, he said, and must be careful about what they say and consider the ways in which lies–or “fake news”–can spread from our phones to other media outlets unfiltered and unchecked. This problem makes the need for academic institutions and individuals to expand access to their expertise that much more important, he said.

Perry noted that public scholars and intellectuals are not new. They have been around at least since the advent of land grant universities such as Virginia Tech, where experts offer educational services and trades to the communities around them.

What are some of the obstacles to reaching outside the academy? Perry humorously suggested that many academics, in the humanities especially, may be “snobs” who don’t want to share their findings with the public and who have the idea that it is not “academic-like” to do so. Further, many academics can’t afford to devote their time or energy to getting their research out to the press when it doesn’t help them directly, for such public intellectualism doesn’t count when it comes to the chase for tenure, he said. If academics do engage in public intellectualism, they take the risk of having others look upon them with disdain for “dumbing down” their expertise. Perry was quick to contend that contextualizing research in modern, everyday language does not “dumb down” the work.

All of this contributes to the larger problem of the “ivory tower” status quo remaining predominantly white and male, Perry pointed out, for these are more often than not the individuals who already have tenure and thus can afford to experiment with public intellectualism.

Researchers and academics in the sciences do not face this dilemma of public intellectualism versus “real” intellectualism in the same way as do those in the humanities, for there is a formal mechanism for scientists to get their findings out into the media, Perry explained. Public relations firms send out embargoed copies of science studies to news media outlets, who are told on what day they can publish the findings, he said. There often is no such mechanism for humanists, and that may contribute to the public bias for scientific claims over humanist claims in our culture, Perry said. Unless a humanist happens to discover a new text or work of art, humanists often are left to curate their own mediums in order to get their information out to the public.

Perry argued that to encourage public intellectualism we must rethink what qualifies one for tenure, and that this requires a better understanding of how the media works as an industry. Public intellectualism and op-ed writing are a means of moving knowledge into the public sphere, broadening and further advancing the conversation about research. Sustained public engagement adds an element of formal value to one’s work that is not peer-reviewed, Perry said. Making research more accessible also makes it potentially more impactful and effective toward change. If the number of readers reached is important, op-ed pieces are certainly more successful than most peer-reviewed journal articles, he noted. But how do we quantify the impact? Coming up with metrics is necessary, he stated, suggesting as an example that perhaps 20 op-ed pieces could be seen as “equivalent to” one peer-reviewed article.

Perry also called for expanding our definition of what it means to be a public intellectual–i.e., anyone who does work informed by scholarly expertise for an extramural audience. This goes beyond op-ed writing, he suggested, and should include the digital humanities, community theatre and art, education in prisons, and activism. All of this counts as public intellectualism, he said, and should be supported and protected by the academy.

Perry included tips for getting into the op-ed writing form of public intellectualism in his talk.

First, it helps to get on Twitter or any other form of social media and to identify who the editors are; follow them and see what sort of information they share. Writers and editors are active on Twitter, he said, which helps one to see the internal conversations among freelancers and staffers. Pay attention to what they talk about, he suggested: who are the guest writers, who are the paid writers, and what are they writing? Quite simply, read where you want to publish.

Second, don’t set your sights too high, he advised. Using a local example, Perry stated that The Roanoke Times might have more of an impact than the CNN opinion page, depending on the content you hope to publish. Keep in mind your audience, as the presses are geared toward specific disciplines and interests. Also, a piece that appears in a local or regional newspaper may end up being read by people beyond the region or picked up and published by another newspaper, spreading its reach.

Third, claim your authority when you contact an editor. Describe your degrees, your interests, your expertise, and your experience, Perry suggested.  Explain what it is that you are writing about, lay out your argument, and provide evidence that you are worthy to provide insight into the issue. This evidence can take the form of “I am a PhD candidate at Virginia Tech studying the effects of . . .” or “I have six years of experience working with. . .” Our present day culture is suspicious of intellectuals, he noted, which makes it important that you not only convey that you are smart, that you can write, and that you have a track record, but also that you have something to say that should matter to people outside of academia.

Lastly, when you receive backlash–and if your work is good, you will most likely receive backlash, Perry said–have your institution and your administration handle that for you, rather than trying to address a sudden deluge of 500 outraged emails yourself.

By Hayley Oliver, Center for Communicating Science student intern

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