The role of the intellectual in the public sphere has changed with the advent of the digital age. While there is still a place for the noted “Public Intellectual,” like Lawrence Lessig and Melissa Harris-Perry, the idea of the grand public intellectual is becoming less tenable.
Digital technologies, particularly social media, have allowed academics to tap into the public in new and exciting ways. However, this new form of engagement is not always noticeable or valuable, a lamentation recently expressed by Nicholas Kristof in his column: “Professors, We Need You!”
Kristof’s comments on the lack of public engagement by professors sparked a bit of an outcry among academics, ensuring a stampede of responses. Surely, there are engaged academics, but where are they? In part, Kristof was correct in his assertion that academics seem cloistered, yet he fails to adequately discuss what a professor in public would look like.
A Twitter hashtag was started to address Kristof’s claims: #engagedacademics. A cursory exploration of this hashtag will show that many believe they are engaging in public discourse in the way Kristof expects. Still, the exact nature of the engaged academic eludes definition. In what should academics be engaged? With the public? With their peers? With children? With the elderly? And so on. The short video to the left offers similar questions about the public intellectual and the engaged academic. They are not always one in the same.
What does an engaged academic look like? What qualifies one to be called an engaged academic? A public intellectual? Does a blog and Twitter feed mean one is an engaged academic? Is there not more educators can do than simply blog, tweet, or have an online portfolio? Are a few Op/Eds enough?
In the ever expanding 21st century, it’s more crucial than ever to identify what it takes to be an academic and work with a public that—in many ways—may mistrust the identifier of “public intellectual.” Moreover, for those obessed with tenure, the issue of whether or not being engaged "counts" may drive the choices of those whose voices need to be heard.