Review of ‘Practising Public Scholarship: Experiences and Possibilities Beyond the Academy’ Edited by Katharyne Mitchell, Wiley-Blackwell. 2008

Post-PhD, my career as a sociologist has not been a conventional one. I’ve done much of what sociologists do on a daily basis: I’ve taught in universities, conducted research projects, published scholarly articles and books, applied (sometimes successful for grants), attended conferences, reviewed journal articles and examined PhDs. However, for various reasons, I have never held a full-time academic position, instead constructing a ‘portfolio’ career that is at its best exciting and flexible and at worst insecure and low-paid. Further, I also do a lot of work outside the academy, including writing for magazines and blogs and conducting research in the Jewish community.

When I try and articulate what it is that ties the disparate threads of my career together, the word ‘public intellectual’ often springs to mind. I resist it though: in the UK at least the term tends to be bestowed rather than claimed for oneself; we live in a society where to describe oneself as an intellectual risks hubris. In this country at least it is only those at the absolute pinnacle of academia – Richard Dawkins, John Grey and  the like – that tend to be called public intellectuals.

Despite the problematic connotations, a public intellectual is still something I aspire to me. This is only in part because the term helps me make sense of my often baffling career path. It is also because I don’t want to be defined entirely by the fact that I do academic work. One of the most unfortunate developments in sociology has been that the identity of sociologist is almost exclusively taken on by academic practitioners of sociology. This is in contrast to psychology, for example, in which self-defined and publicly recognised psychologists work in universities, hospitals and in many other situations.

The academic confinement of sociology is a symptom of a wider – and much noted – problem of the isolation of academic knowledge within the universities. The spread of impenetrable jargon, managerialism and bureaucratisation have all played their part in producing this situation. The RAE has effectively penalised academics for attempts to communicate with non- specialists (the effect of the upcoming REF’s ‘impact’ agenda remain to be seen).  Despite this, academics can and do become public figures but, depressingly, for reasons I have  never quite been able to fathom, sociologists do not have the public profile that historians, psychologists and – above all – natural scientists do. Laurie Taylor is very much an exception.

So I was pleased to discover Katharyne Mitchell’s lively and inspiring collection of essays by public scholars. Few of the contributors describe themselves as public intellectuals, although some do embrace the term public scholar, yet they all embrace a vision of scholarship that is intrinsically tied into public activity and communication. Contributors range from well-known figures such as Howard Zinn and Terry Eagleton to less well-known scholars (and it would have been nice here if there had been brief bios for each of them – a surprising omission). Reflecting the interests of the editor, many of the contributors are geographers, but sociologists appear too, most importantly Michael Burawoy who used his presidency of the American Sociological Association a few years ago to argue forcefully for a ‘public sociology’.

‘Practising Public Scholarship’ provides a useful resource for those thinking how to push forward the public dimensions of their work. Some contributors recount experiences of teaching beyond the academy (Paulo Freire’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ is quoted several times); some talk about ‘action research’ that involves research subjects in their work; others discuss their political activism and how it can complicate and enrich academic life. While most contributions are autobiographical, some also offer advice for aspiring public scholars – I particularly liked Dennis Raphael’s uncompromising ‘rule’ for being a public scholar ‘Be true to your beliefs. Have no fear’.

It was another rule from Dennis Raphael’s list that raised the most difficult question concerning this book: ‘Get tenure’. Many of the contributors to the volume mention tenure as providing a vital degree of security in conducting public scholarship and for some their public scholarship did not develop until after they got tenure.  But what about those who haven’t got or will never get tenure? It is here that the collection reveals its North American bias: in the UK and in many other countries we do not have tenure. It’s a salutary and depressing fact that practically no one in the collection even mentions the need or possibility of changing the academy itself. I can see why you might not want to bite the hand that feeds you within a university system that allows for tenure, but there is no ignoring the fact that in the UK the very possibility of public scholarship is impeded by the university system itself.

Nor does the book challenge the conventions of academic publication. This collection of shortish, punchy essays by gifted and often controversial communicators is eminently readable and deserves to be read widely. But academic publishing can reduce even the most accessible book to obscurity: while there is a paperback edition the price is steep, the cover is dull as ditchwater, there’s no list of contributor’s bios and the book was barely publicised (I found out about it by chance, nearly 2 years after publication).  The ever-present requirement for academics to publish in academic publications, together with the lack of imagination of many academic publishers, is a potent force for restricting academic knowledge to the ivory tower.

The unspoken message running through ‘Practising Public Scholarship’ seems to be to find an academic base, complete the requirements of academia and then reach out to the public. This is undoubtedly a practical and achievable message however I found myself frustrated by the lack of attention to the need to change academia itself. Maybe this is too hard and maybe we just have to live with the university system as it is. Still there is plenty that can be done by academics to foster public scholarship and this book gives many examples and some good advice as to how to do it. In my attempts to be a public sociologist I will certainly be drawing on the various examples of the book’s contributors.

Keith Kahn-Harris is, amongst other things, an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society, Birkbeck College. His website is www.kahn-harris.org


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  1. “Get tenure” is no longer a realistic strategy in the US, either, because tenure-track jobs are being phased out, and teaching is now mostly done by adjuncts hired on a per-semester basis, for less money than fast-food workers, with no job security, much like instructors on zero-hours contracts in the UK. The urgent question, which this book apparently doesn’t address, is how to survive as a critical sociologist when stable academic employment is vanishing.

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