Expertise and habits of mind: a medievalist’s IPO

In this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education there’s a really wonderful piece by David M. Perry, a medieval historian at Dominican University, on the pleasures and perils of writing for an extra-academic audience (you can find Perry on Twitter under the handle @Lollardfish, and here is a link to his blog). He tells us how he came to start writing for more public venues (he wanted to write about his son, diagnosed as an infant with Down’s Syndrome), and relates some of the experiences he’s had with trolls and conspiracy theorists responding on-line to some of his more popular pieces. This kind of writing, he warns us, is not for the faint of heart.

Of course, people have been talking about the translation of academic expertise into mainstream venues for a long time. Years ago Gerald Graff published a strongly-argued essay in PMLA, “Scholars and Sound Bites,” taking on the myth of obscurantism in academic prose, also the subject of a kerfluffle around the same time between Terry Eagleton and Judith Butler in the pages of the LRB.

But “dumbing down” is not really what Perry is talking about.¬†What most struck me about his essay is what he sees as the urgent need for more public and public-minded modes of writing from scholars at non-elite universities. As I read him, he’s proposing a kind of democratization of the whole notion of the public intellectual, with all the political implications this would entail:

Within the world of higher education, we are all working at a time when the value of academic knowledge is under attack. Every few weeks, another round of essays about the decline and fall of the humanities circulates through the media. Congress increasingly demands practical outcomes from government-supported scientific research, an attitude that, while appearing reasonable, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of basic science. The demand for explicitly vocational training threatens disciplines that offer knowledge over skills, creating a false dichotomy that sets academic programs at odds with one another. Some governors have launched attacks on academic freedom, the tenure system, and the very existence of state-financed institutions of higher education.

Meanwhile, the general public perceives faculty members as isolated from reality, holding cushy jobs, and uninterested in open communication. The public has little access to the broad diversity of knowledge, experience, and background inside higher education, because those academics who do achieve broader platforms generally come from only the most elite universities. Although many of those public intellectuals are brilliant writers and speakers, they represent only a tiny percentage of the expertise available in the academic world. That expertise lies not just in our subject fields but also in the habits of mind we bring to bear on countless other kinds of issues.

I love the broader notion of “expertise” Perry proposes here: expertise is not just discipline-based, limited to the immediate subjects of our research, but the product of more general “habits of mind” cultivated within and by the institutions of higher education in which we teach and work. A refreshing way of conceiving the purpose of extra-academic writing, and a compelling argument for lots more of it!

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