Reviewed by Dahliani Reynolds (email@example.com)
Chair: Rachel Bloom, University of Kansas, Lawrence
Susan Meyers, Seattle University, WA, "The Researcher as Public Intellectual: Transnational Ethnography and Political Danger in the Public Sphere"
Frank Farmer, University of Kansas, Lawrence, "The (Counter) Public Intellectual: A Preliminary Sketch"
Star Medzerian, Nova Southeastern University, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, "Scholarship as Intellectual Partnership: Open Access Publishing and the Future’s Public Intellectual"
Paul Butler, University of Houston, TX, "Going Public: Effecting Change through Public Discourse, Innovative Curricula, and Community/Technological Outreach"
In the pages of its disciplinary journals, composition scholars often lament that the field has historically failed to productively engage public discourse about student writing. Teachers and scholars often call the field’s attention to public diatribes about the state of writing and writing instruction, usually to dismiss the narrow conceptions of writing and writing instruction that tend to regulate such attacks. In the flurry of disciplinary responses scattered across journals, conference presentations, and LISTSERV conversation threads, there is a regularly repeated call for composition to develop public intellectuals who will take the good news of our field out into the world, creating a more welcoming environment for those of us teaching in the trenches.
Panel B.O5 provided a robust response to this call for public intellectualism. Happily avoiding the trap of lamentation, the panelists offered a cohesive overview of how we might define public intellectualism for composition, some methodological considerations for how to take up the work involved, and a challenge to our conceptions of public borders. One panelist, Star Medzerian, was unfortunately unable to attend the conference; her talk on open access publishing (as listed in the program) might have served to connect the definitional and methodological concerns addressed by the rest of the panelists.
Susan Meyers opened the panel with a talk on "The Researcher as Public Intellectual: Transnational Ethnography and Political Danger in the Public Sphere." While her talk did not entirely live up to its title (I’m not sure "political danger in the public sphere" was given sufficient coverage), it did provide a useful window into public intellectualism in the field, as it were. Reflecting on her transnational ethnographic study in rural Mexico, Meyers considered her own experience as a public researcher as a crucible for developing criteria for responsibly engaging the public in our intellectual pursuits. Meyers put forward four crucial considerations for taking up this kind of work: ethics, context, representation, and reflection. Meyers skipped rather quickly over context, assuming (rightly, I think) that a Cs audience is likely to be reasonably versed in the importance of considering context as an important framework for all research. Instead, she focused on what she arrived at as an ethical obligation to give back to the community she was researching. Her concern for representation was dual: not only do we need to consider how we represent our research subjects; we also need to consider how they will represent us. Public intellectualism opens researchers up for public scrutiny and it is wise to be aware of how we are assessed. Finally, Meyers advocated reflection as a critical methodological tool for thinking through the various ways in which public intellectualism might engage its public(s).
The second speaker, Frank Farmer, might better have served as the first speaker, given that his talk on "The (Counter) Public Intellectual: A Preliminary Sketch" provided a conceptual framework that, if placed at the beginning of the session, might have given more coherence to the panel. Farmer argued that it is now a commonplace that publics and counterpublics organize life as we know it. So why, he asks, don’t we have public intellectuals and counterpublic intellectuals? Drawing on recent discourse descrying the downward trajectory of public intellectualism in academia, Farmer suggests that the perception of risk may stifle interest in working inside the public sphere. Aside from potential consequences for an academic career (i.e., denial of tenure), the risks of working in public are fairly minimal. Public work is challenging, given America’s historical stance of anti-intellectualism, but it is not "dangerous" work. In fact, Farmer argues, public intellectualism sometimes offers the reward of name recognition and public renown. In contrast to the public intellectual, there is some risk for the counterpublic intellectual, who recognizes the limits of rational critical debate in speaking for disenfranchised groups in opposition to the public. What is ultimately at stake for the counterpublic intellectual, according to Farmer, is the broadening of public life. The counterpublic intellectual must cultivate an activist ethos to work on behalf of a larger, more inclusive sense of what the public is, functioning in alternative spaces such as prisons, reform groups, literacy programs, etc.
Paul Butler concluded the panel by reflecting on the kinds of publics we need to reach in our intellectual work, suggesting that we need to consider audiences within as well as outside the university. Butler talked about his department at the University of Houston, which he metaphorized as an archipelago. The department collectively recognizes the need to bring resources into various parts of the writing program, but doesn’t necessarily agree on what those resources are or on how to get them. A public intellectual, Butler suggested, might help bridge those divisions by reaching out to multiple constituencies. Such outreach allows for leadership within the department because it helps define constituents’ needs, which the department and writing program can then try to serve. We have to translate the work we do for our institutional audiences, including English colleagues, who don’t always understand what we do.
I appreciated the panel’s work to reimagine what it means to be a public intellectual: it is not always about punditry; sometimes it is simply about doing our work in and with publics ethically and with reciprocity. Likewise, the public is not always at a far remove; sometimes it is the colleague next door.