The Work of Public Work

Going beyond the boundaries of the Ivory Tower is a good thing. But public engagement is still work.

Dawn Tefft, UIC United Faculty Local 6456

Long gone, says Nicholas Kristof, are the days of academics making a difference in the public sphere. Today’s scholars are either pigeonholed into jargon-heavy and paywall-protected academic journals, or their politics are too radically left to hold a viable position in mainstream discourse.

In a rebuttal, Corey Robin points to the many academics and intellectuals who do indeed have a presence in the public sphere, and who are using online criticism as their modus operandi. Contemporary academics (and younger scholars especially) are now publishing in an array of online magazines and blogs and are being taken seriously.

Robin depicts the authors of new media as brave interlocutors, taking career risks by spending their precious time writing for widely-accessible venues. And, he notes, making one’s voice heard is more feasible now than in generations past, since interfaces like Tumblr and Twitter offer unique “baby steps” to making it into more well-known outlets.

I share Robin’s admiration of the growing cadre of young scholars and writers, who are indeed taking big risks. These writers may be offering cutting-edge ideas that have yet to see the light (or dark) of the peer-review process, and they are putting themselves within arm’s reach of the biting criticism of internet trolls. At more conservative institutions, providing any hint of left-leaning political analysis, even on the web, can jeopardize one’s career.

At the same time, I want to hold Robin accountable to his desire for a “materialist analysis of the relationship between politics, economics, and culture.” He nods in this direction, describing in sober terms how in the current economic climate, not all young scholars, especially adjuncts, have the time or the means to participate in this new sphere of debate.

However, I think he wrongly characterizes the conditions under which many of these young academics are writing. The risk of being a public intellectual, he posits, comes from the fact that these scholars are taking time away from their academic writing. He asks, “Are future employers going to take a pass on them simply because they’ve written as brilliantly and edgily as they have?”

In many cases, writing for popular online outlets will do less to undermine the writer’s credentials than to prove that they are committed to the intellectual project and productive enough to communicate their research findings to a wider audience. This in itself is not inherently bad. Certainly, the findings produced by academics should be shared with and held accountable by people beyond the formal classroom.

The problem is that Robin goes on to romanticize the lives of young scholar-writers, saying that their work arises from intrinsic desires, whose realization is made possible by new technology: “they’re more used to writing for public audiences — and are thus better equipped to communicate ideas in intelligible, stylish prose — than we were.”

In my own experience as a PhD student, and from talking with other early-career academics, I have found that writing for popular audiences is not solely an internal passion, but has actually become an external demand of young scholars, another metric by which their job application or tenure-file is evaluated. Advice columns across the web tell budding intellectuals that to get ahead, they must make a name for themselves early on by networking, “pimping their online profile,” and making themselves relevant even beyond the bounds of higher education.

The workload of academics has increased exponentially in recent years, as has been well-documented. A generation ago, most PhD students would have never dreamed of publishing an academic article before taking their qualifying exams; it is now not only not uncommon, but often expected that graduate students will publish before they’ve formally proven themselves as “experts” in their fields. The mantra of “publishing early and often” has intensified, especially in a tight job market. As tenured horizons grow grimmer, new scholars must do anything they can to stand out above a crowd of over-achievers. Publish early, publish often — and now, publish online.

The swelling workloads of academics are indicative of the micropolitics of neoliberalism. Michel Foucault used the term homo economicus to describe the ways in which large swaths of the population — and here we can include academics — have internalized the demands of the market, in essence becoming “an entrepreneur of [themselves].”

In this sense, every personal development is also an investment in one’s self, something to be capitalized on. Young scholars are compelled to transform themselves into academic entrepreneurs, creating a brand that they promote through their blogs, tweets, and online profiles.

Consider the website, which allows academics to create personal pages, connect with and follow other scholars, and post their articles online, potentially making their research available to the general public. This is a dream for anyone who wants to create horizontal access to information. But the site also exemplifies the quantification of the productive self, with each profile displaying the number of views, article downloads, and followers for each academic. Sites like this simultaneously serve as mechanisms to democratize knowledge and treat scholarship as a commodity to be marketed.

It’s no wonder that I’ve also seen a growing number of colleagues (myself included) add a “Public Scholarship” section to their CVs. For many people, the promise of sharing their findings is why they went into academia: they thought they could spend their days thinking through some of society’s most pressing problems and, perhaps naively, to try to change the world. But if they have any hope of getting a job, they must put a dollar sign on those desires, molding their activism to fit the job market and letting the job market shape their activism.

Academia therefore embodies and reproduces the characteristics of capitalism that it often critiques. The labor of public intellectualism is more than a political project, or even a charitable effort of self-expression — it’s another manifestation of exploitation. Young academics work themselves to the ground because they are taught to treat their scholarship as a direct extension of their personal identities. This makes examining academia as a site of labor that much more difficult, since it also means critiquing the same projects that scholars dedicate so much of their lives to.

As Sarah Kendzior puts it, “The most unnerving thing I see in the job market nowadays — academic or otherwise — is people working in terrible conditions in the hope of a future that never comes.” As a result, young academics trying to keep up with new media are writing, reading blogs and engaging in Twitter wars during lunch breaks, between teaching commitments, and well into the night. Mimi Thi Nguyen, drawing on Johnathan Crary’s frightening treatise on time-use under late capitalism, deftly notes, “Such consumption then acclimates all our activities — eating, reading, and other stolen moments for leisure — as imminent and immaterial labor.” To meet the demands of academic capitalism, there’s now even less of a chance of ever clocking out.

The burdens on young scholars in many ways mirror what is happening to most other precarious workers who are trying to climb an increasingly steep career ladder. Across sectors, jobs are being slashed, pay cut, and employer demands are rising. To get a job and stay ahead requires people to be even more productive than ever, and unemployment is framed as an individual failure, despite the lack of job growth.

It is in this context that Robin’s depiction of young academic writers seems troubling. Yes, let us praise the young writers whose voices are being seen and heard across the blogosphere, and luxuriate in the possibilities of transcending the borders of the Ivory Tower. But let us not forget that writing, even on the Internet, and even for the “public good,” is still work. And whenever we’re encouraged to do more work, we should be a bit wary.