Public Culture Pitching “Intellectual Practice”


Dear Mark,

In our work in progress, we write:

“[E]engaging in collaboration across institutions is a privilege reserved for upper administration…. It seems clear to us that the solution is not to make our work more popular per se, as commentators across the humanities often claim. Rather, what humanities scholars lack is a means of relating their specialized work to forms of expertise outside the humanities. Although historians and social scientists certainly worry about whether they are talking to themselves, they may be better positioned to make their work relatable because they never equated discipline with the effort to specify a media object. English scholars are just catching up to their social scientific brethren when they exploit the notion of Digital Humanities to conceive of various publics and to consider ways of addressing them. To whit, opening access is important less for how it remakes our standard forms of publication than for how it might make us rethink the relationship between our scholarship and expert writing more generally. This is so whether one considers what happens to expertise and authorship after using ‘crowd review’ of the sort employed by journals like Postmedieval or when aggregating textual and visual projects like those compiled by Media Commons and its sister site #alt Academy, which focuses on alternate careers for humanities scholars.”

Today I ran across this “Editor’s Letter” by Eric Klinenberg, who is taking over the editorial reins at Public Culture, a self-described “interdisciplinary journal of transnational cultural studies” that I happen to like a lot. Among the matters that he promises to take on as editor is precisely the problem of relating expert research to its various publics that we (and obviously not only we) think of as a sizable concern. Here’s his version of the situation:

“Today an abundance of smart and serious research on all of these topics is being done by scholars of culture in a variety of disciplines. Too often, however, this research is published in arcane language that communicates to a narrow set of specialists but not to a broader public, or even to intellectuals in other fields who are exploring similar themes. In recent years, mounting frustration with such highly specialized forms of academic production in the social sciences and humanities has led to calls for more rigorous, publicly engaged scholarship in anthropology, communications, cultural studies, history, literature, political science, and sociology. But we lack a venue that welcomes important contributions on cultural questions from all of these fields, a place where strong writing and clear argumentation are recognized as craft virtues, where the public dissemination of specialized research is an overriding goal. Public Culture aims to fill that void.”

Now, I ask you to bookmark that “mounting frustration” with jargon and highly specialized forms of academic production. Hold that thought as you read the approach he recommends for the journal, namely, interviews with influential scholars:

“Full-length articles based on original research will remain the core of Public Culture, and short, timely essays will continue to run at the front of each issue, in a section that we call the Forum. But, with this issue, we are also introducing new features: Public Culture Interviews will be in-depth discussions with contemporary thinkers who have influenced and inspired us. Typically, we are familiar only with scholarly labor’s final results, published books and articles or occasional lectures. We are all interested in what goes into this final product, which is often the result of many years spent grappling with empirical materials, posing new questions, interpreting existing scholarship, and conversing with colleagues.

Our conversations will call attention to the backstage of intellectual practice. How do scholars search for and identify compelling problems? How do they find their way into and out of complex and difficult material? How do they conceive of their audiences and of their relation to existing disciplines? How do they engage different publics? How do they remain self-critical, open to updating their knowledge, even changing perspectives and ideas? Public Culture Interviews will be open-ended explorations of how intellectual creativity works. We want them to provide insight into each particular subject’s way of working and, in so doing, give us all a chance to reflect on our craft.”

A couple of things leap out at me here.

First, despite “mounting frustration,” there appears to be no problem with specialized research work per se. That can remain untouched. Public Culture will still publish it and scholars will still do it. You don’t have to be Michel Callon to think that maybe there’s more to say on that topic. And probably we should begin with a spirited debate about whether we want to call what we do “our craft.”

Second, professor as auteur? Really? The first interviews are with Mary Poovey and Ian Hacking (the full version of the Hacking interview is behind the pay wall). I think it’s fair to say that we both rely on their work. And I’m not at all adverse to learning about their practice. But in the spirit of our arguments about how important thinking about collaborative practice in the humanities, I am skeptical about whether interviewing famous scholars model gets us very far. When Public Culture starts interviewing research clusters, then I’ll think they are onto something.

Now, an “Editor’s Letter” is pretty much defined as a puff piece, so maybe we shouldn’t take it too seriously. And yet, I found this all a little lamely self-congratulatory.


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