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A Defense of Publicity

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 38, Issue 2, June 2012
pp. 8-12 | 10.1353/esc.2012.0020

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1. A minimum responsibility of academics as citizens of a national and a global society, I suggest, is to respond to the off campus when asked about matters for which we have proven expertise—in my own case to respond to a request to speak to a Canadian literature reading group, to serve on an awards jury, to answer invitations to speak to Canadianists abroad, to investigate a pedagogy question for a government ministry, to comment on a book or an author’s death or the construction of a news story if telephoned by a newspaper or radio station. Those outside the academy don’t necessarily view us as especially objective, but they often believe that we have information they may not have or questions they have not thought to ask. And what about those occasions when one is not asked but one suspects that one’s knowledge might change events outside the academy were it disseminated there? Don’t we still have a responsibility to educate—not necessarily to change minds but to enlarge them?

The expertise which most qualifies me and many others to speak out on public issues is interpreting images, situations, promises, and various speech acts. It also qualifies some of those off campus, such as cbc’s Terry O’Reilly, host of the program “Under the Influence.” U.S. poet Charles Bern stein has repeatedly argued that it is only through a society’s intellectuals being willing to contribute to “the education of the public at large” that a society can be “innovative, vibrant, and socially responsible” (“Poet” 28) and its politics avoid stagnation. It was a similar thought that motivated me in the 1990s to write books on Kim Campbell and Adrienne Clarkson and on the Mahaffy-French murder cases. I doubt that these books by themselves did a huge lot of good. Education is necessarily a collaboration. Yet some accurate understandings of once complex academic concepts—constructedness, situatedness, discourse, deconstruction, representation— have, surprisingly to me, penetrated parts of popular culture. Possibly that’s an effect of our on-campus teaching once our students go back out into the wider society. And once they are out there, possibly they read some of the few books or articles we send out after them.

2. Does such academic outreach constitute “activism”?—a word panel organizer Clint Burnham foregrounded in offering parameters for this discussion. Activism doesn’t always involve scholarship any more than scholarship must involve activism. It can be a method of disseminating scholarship but can also be, unfortunately, a way of diluting it. The two are usually directed toward different audiences, at different intensities and with different social aims. At its intellectually least substantial, activism can be mere lobbying. Being an activist, that is, says nothing about the quality of one’s research or one’s worthiness as a citizen—only that one wants to address a large audience and hopes to cause societal change. Charles Darwin didn’t intend to be an activist, although he was perceived as such; his work led indirectly to explicit activisms such as those of Fanon and Martin Luther King. It also led to the State of Tennessee’s explicitly activist Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolutionary theory. Rachel Carson on writing Silent Spring intended to be an activist but remained much more a scholar than has David Suzuki.

Activism can be as scholarly or unscholarly as scholarship itself. Back in 1969–71 the activist scholarship of Robin Mathews and his Carleton colleague James Steele resulted in legal requirements that Canadian universities advertise academic job vacancies and make them open to Canadian candidates. It was a well-argued citizenly intervention for which most of us should be grateful. In 1995 Mathews published The Treason of the Intellectuals in which he accused Northrop Frye, Linda Hutcheon, George Bowering, Janice Kulyk Keefer, Robert Kroetsch, and others, including myself, of being “treasonous” Canadians whose ideas in some cases had descended from Derrida and Heidegger and therefore from those of Nazi Germany (11, 67–69, 77, 102). Again, Mathews was doing what he believed was his citizenly duty. Activism usually involves, as in both Mathews cases, appeals to emotions as...

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