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By John (J.D.) Roberts | With thanks to NewBlackMan


Friday, September 2, 2011.


As an academic at a major university in the U.S., my university email inbox is frequently bombarded with opportunities for grants, scholarships, fellowships, and the occasional invitation to attend or submit to an academic conference. While many might view these emails as inbox clutter, my curiosity usually gets the best of me, so I end up reading them all (at least a little bit). This past fall, I received an email that quite by accident made me rethink the entire mission statement of what it is to be in academia.


An email announced a conference exploring the *Popular Topic* on campus. Intrigued, I then saw the sticker price to attend: $60 for graduate students. While interested, that was a bit much in my opinion to attend. This was not the heart of the story though. My eye then went to the price for the general public to attend: $100. In an era where public suspicion against the supposed Marxist and socialist agendas of academics reigns (do not forget our secret Muslim socialist terrorist President Obama too!), I found it disheartening to see such a large price tag for the public to attend. I believe there are many people in the community that might have attended a conference such as this if they A) knew about it and B) could comfortably afford it. Pricing the average citizen out who might want to listen and/or participate in the conference is exclusionary and counterproductive. The exclusion of the public from academic events is an important issue for numerous reasons, one of which is the current state of politics and public debate.


The current sociopolitical climate in America has created a highly contentious atmosphere, particularly in public debates involving the humanities. In academic fields where “facts” are often debated and disputed as part of the fields’ very structures, public utilization of knowledge from these fields has always been and remains a tricky endeavor. Witness the recent factual distortions and errors regarding Revolutionary-era American history by Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, as well as the callous and ridiculous discussions of Progressive-era America by Glenn Beck to see how “facts” are utilized for debate by public figures. Why does this matter to academics? These very public and outspoken public figures are often one of the main sources of history/politics/economics/sociology for an American public that does not have the time, patience, desire or energy to read. More people rely on TV news montages on the Civil War or the Ken Burns documentary than on texts by famous historians such as David Blight or Eric Foner.


While public figures such as Beck and Palin speak directly to an audience on TV and in public events, academics often cloister themselves behind university doors, speaking primarily to other academics in forums and conferences, and writing highly specialized and impenetrable texts that sell heavily to university libraries instead of the general public. What they know and discuss often does not get disseminated to the general public in a palatable manner with the proper context and evidence. However, this piece is not an indictment of academia, but rather a rallying cry. Simply stated, we can do better. 


Maintaining imagined walls between academia and the surrounding communities alienates the community from everyday academic streams of discourse and keeps the public unfamiliar with academia and academics. In addition, creating boundaries between academia and the surrounding community disallows the growth and development of Antonio Gramsci’s conceptualization of the organic intellectual that is in tune with the community and its problems. So many fields in the humanities like to quote and interpret the writings of Gramsci, but few seem to follow his advice.


Most importantly though, by maintaining imagined walls between academia and the surrounding community, academics unnecessarily construct and replicate the conditions for some of their own failures. By maintaining rigid divides between inside and outside academia to differentiate spaces, academics have missed the chance to hear, consider and absorb different and diverse outside perspectives, thoughts and opinions that could enrich their own research. Moreover, this differentiation of space has created public suspicion over what goes on inside those imagined walls, due to the public’s lack of access to these exclusive interior spaces. This suspicion has bred distrust of academics and bled into high stakes debates on issues such as climate change and the economic effects of health care reform in America.


Perhaps the most immediate condition the divide has created is missed opportunities for academics. In an America currently riddled with colossal debt, bad university investments and tightening state/school budgets, the academy (especially the humanities) needs to find new ways to make money and increase visibility and self-sustainability. With an academic landscape hardwired to favor science, engineering, and business due to their profit generating activities, the humanities need to follow suit in an increasingly hypercompetitive playing field. By eschewing public participation and consumption in events such as forums and conferences, humanities academics miss out on incredible opportunities to take advantage of university/public networking, business linkages and joint partnerships in business, marketing, promotion and revenue generation.


I will use my example of the ‘Popular Topic’ conference as a template. If the conference heads had marketed and promoted in the community and charged a lower conference fee instead of posting fliers primarily on campus and sending out university emails, they might have been able to generate more outside interest and more revenue at “the gate.” More heads of many different stripes walking through that conference door to listen and participate in the debate on the *Popular Topic* could have generated its own interest in the outside community through word of mouth. Through dissemination of knowledge, content, and active discussion from the public participant going back into the community, the conference could build word of mouth and interest in the surrounding community over time. By charging hefty amounts to attend the conference and promoting the conference in limited fashion, the academics involved reaffirmed their commitment to space differentiation, adherence to old methodology, exclusion, and disconnection from the surrounding public.


We as academics are better than this. We are in a privileged position in higher education, and we should share the wealth of knowledge, resources and experiences we have with our surrounding communities as much as possible to form bridges of understanding, communication, and business opportunities. Acting as gatekeepers or bouncers outside an exclusive club creates a public suspicious of our intentions, hostile to our aims and uncooperative in helping to achieve our shared goals. The problem is particularly acute in increasingly underfunded/defunded humanities departments throughout the United States. Grants and endowments across the United States have simply dried up. The humanities need the public’s support whether they realize it or not. The hard sciences and engineering have routinely shown the public their utility. Now, humanities departments nationwide need to publicly display their utility instead of hiding their light under a basket.  



John (J.D.) Roberts is a PhD student in the History Department at UMass-Amherst. He focuses on drug trafficking history in Latin America, but has researched and written on a wide array of issues globally, particularly globalization and illegality.


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