- Response Public Scholarship and Neoliberalism
As someone who holds a doctorate in Modern Greek Studies I have enjoyed this opportunity to read the authors’ ideas about public scholarship as it relates both to the field and to the academy’s assumptions in general. I find it to be a difficult subject, especially in hard times—hard for many in the arts, humanities, and (nonscientistic) social sciences, but also for the academy at large, inasmuch as the academy is considered something other than a servant of economic development (as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, say, or as a necessary ingredient of the public good). Although I work in an institution that approaches the question of scholarly activity differently than those of the authors—and I am shielded from many of the particular challenges they describe (I’m sure it works both ways)—I nevertheless experience the same underlying forces closing in, that same sky seeming to fall, and a sense that the same pitfalls are hiding just around the corner.
I was struck by several themes. One is that the academy’s material conditions are changing in the context of neoliberal capitalism. Emmerich mentions “exorbitant tuitions (even at so-called state universities), skyrocketing student debt, ballooning administrations, and growing ranks of contingent faculty” and the “gutting of public higher education in the United States.” Ruprecht mentions “fiscal crisis” combined with an “increasingly ravenous desire for quick earnings among university administrators,” abusive “gutting of entire departments and programs,” and “the frenzied quest for limited financial resources” among faculty. He also points out an unfortunate connection between money and modern academic divisions of labor. To these I might add changing demographics (e.g., the sheer enrollments at, say, a University of Phoenix, a Kaplan, or a Liberty; adult higher education as increasingly unexceptional); the proliferation of credentialing; disturbances in areas like copyright and publishing; and a growing recognition that, in North America, the party is almost over for the middle class. Even the sharpest, most erudite, hardworking scholars in Higher Education Studies (or in academic labor [End Page 61] unions such as the American Association of University Professors or United University Professions) must find it incredibly challenging to take it all in and figure out what is going on, let alone to make empirically warranted recommendations about how we academics ought to proceed if we care about saving the academy as a safe space for carrying out the kinds of professional inquiry we have reason to value.
Is there a lesson here? That our best hope is to keep articulating academic freedom as our core value, to continue engaging in academic discussions about what academic freedom means, and to keep striving to make our professional moves as consistent with this value (informed, to be sure, by available empirical evidence and critiques) as we can? With some caveats (see below), I did read the authors’ arguments to legitimize public scholarship as striving to make such a move.
Another theme is the question of the relevance of certain kinds of scholarship to nonacademic folk. Emmerich, for example, discusses the translation of literary texts. Anagnostou considers difficulties in making a difference outside of academia when scholarly critical inquiry tends to lead down very different roads and to very different conclusions than lay inquiry. Such difficulties don’t bother me too much—hasn’t it always been the case? Ruprecht ups the ante, however, by mentioning an increase in the “public suspicion of … [the] moral seriousness and political relevance” of humanities scholars, which is more palpable among state legislators than students. This does concern me as a humanities professional, but mostly because it points at yet another possible example of the divide between the interests elected politicians actually serve and the interests of the electorates they ostensibly serve.
While I take the authors’ points about particular kinds of intellectual work aimed at nonacademic audiences as a way to think about scholarship as public, I still wonder: Isn’t all scholarship, ideally, already public even if the public chooses to ignore or dismiss many of its products? Having embraced academic freedom as a core value, I conceive of scholarship as a...