Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

We must make intellectual work accessible

Ian O’Byrne, Wakefulness and digitally engaged publics, Digital Pedagogy Lab, 12 April 2017

The Scholarly and the Digital
This article is part of a series addressing the issue of scholarly and academic recognition of digital work. The goal is to investigate how digital work is regarded and produced in today’s academy. The discussion is ongoing — see all articles in this series or the original call for papers that prompted them and consider adding your voice to the conversation.

Before his death in 2003, Edward Said urged his colleagues to assume the role of public intellectuals in the service of democracy. Said, a professor of literature, posited that academics should be mindful of the need to listen to the suffering of citizens and identify pedagogical opportunities to educate others to be independent, literate, and socially responsive citizens. He described a focus on education with an understanding of politics and critical engagement as a “pedagogy of wakefulness.” A public pedagogy of wakefulness critiques existing systems of education that are removed or distanced from the concerns of the public. Academics are responsible for unpacking complex ideas in the public space while using research and education as a means to enact change.

As we understand the role of academics as public intellectuals, it is important to recognize that the term “public” can mean different things for different purposes and practices. As digital technologies become even more ubiquitous around the globe, there are multiple versions of public, or publics, as individuals identify, connect, communicate, and engage with others. These “networked publics” enable a specific type of community that signifies participation and engagement amongst a collective in digital spaces. danah boyd indicates that in these spaces, networked publics are not just individuals grouped together, but “transformed by networked media, its properties, and its potential.” The interactions, needs, and concerns of these collectives are shaped and modified by the spaces and tools they use to congregate.

Academics need to consolidate the roles of educator or researcher and connected, active citizen. Leadership and guidance is needed from individuals who have expertise in negotiating these landscapes. These people include teachers, instructors, and professors from educational institutions across the country. Citizens are being confronted with real challenges in the social and political environment that need to be addressed by academics taking an active role as public intellectuals. One of the primary responsibilities of academics is to help create an informed, knowledgeable citizenry. Academics can assist citizens by making their specific area of expertise more accessible and understandable to a wider audience. Academics also provide opportunities to engage in and promote the effective use of critical and media literacies. As Martin Weller recently noted, “It has never been more risky to operate in the open and yet it has never been more vital to operate in the open.”

Academics face several challenges as they are publicly intellectual in digital spaces. This article is primarily directed as a call to action for academics and “those of us that educate.” Whether you serve as an academic and work primarily in higher education or educate individuals in and out of our school systems, current events should serve as an impetus to critique and problematize our practices related to literacy and education. There is a need for a renewed sense of wakefulness as academics are conscious, aware, and vigilant as we engage in networked publics.

What are the current challenges?

In recent years those of us who label ourselves as academics have engaged in debate about whether or not we should serve as public intellectuals. As we engage in these debates there is a global trend rising that is devaluing education, literacy, and many freedoms that we value. We may be witnessing a “global implosion” in trust as citizens around the globe push back against established institutions. Complicating this trend is a recent Pew Research report that suggests that most Americans like access to online information while a recent report from the OECD questions the computer and technical skills of users from around the globe. This rising tide against elitism impacts academics as they are viewed as sometimes “othering” the general public.  In the public context, particularly through social media, we see pushback against academics and scorning of their training and expertise. Ultimately, academics are critiqued for not being public enough in their work, actions, and service to the community.

Within these contexts, these challenges are even more pressing as the Internet becomes an increasingly common source of information. A perfect storm has erupted around the ways in which networked publics consume and critique information online. Recent research continued to raise questions about the ability of students to evaluate online information. Findings from the Stanford History Education Group found that 82% of 7,804 students surveyed from middle school through college were unable to effectively judge the credibility of news and information read online. At the same time, in the recent presidential election in the United States, citizens needed to review a deluge of information that suggested that foreign governments had hacked the election process while other trusted sources questioned the accuracy of the reporting. Still other reports suggested that a majority of the news that influenced the election was profoundly fake. These events transpired while algorithms and echo chambers may have ensured that individuals did not read the same information as their next door neighbor.

It is clear that ordinary American citizens are facing an unprecedented challenge. They are now being called upon to weigh and evaluate the accuracy, reliability, and authenticity of public pronouncements and news reports as rival entities propagate “alternative facts” online. Unequipped to engage in web literacies at the level now needed, many Americans’ personal responsibility to act as informed citizens is eroded, making it possible to act against one’s own best interests, to a jaw dropping extent. There are also questions about how academics should address these challenges in critically evaluating information. It should be noted that these challenges in critical information literacy are extended outside of the borders of the U.S. as individuals interact in networked publics. There is also a history to the need for media and information literacy education and integration that predates our current politics.

How did we get here?

Academics acting as public intellectuals with networked publics may run counter to many of the established echo chambers that we’ve created. The term “echo chamber” has gained a lot of press in the recent U.S. election, but I believe we see a filter bubble that many of us have created in our fields. In many ways, our systems for tenure and advancement are predicated on our ability to remain insular, overly pragmatic, and isolated in our fields or institutions. We write for journals that will share our names and work with others in our field. There is no room in the tenure process for writing of editorials or opinion pieces, developing policy briefs, or speaking to legislators. There are some instances in which universities fawn over the super public professor that garners lots of press and public accolade. Yet, even with some of these outliers, the majority of institutions and the field in general does not spend time considering ways in which to support the super public scholar, or bring these mindsets to others. As institutions don’t necessarily support scholars who take these risks in public communication, this work may be actually be deleterious to their career.

Very little of the higher educational system is built to support the citizenry that does not have the credentials or currency to access our work and ideas. Many of the journals and publications that we frequent use paywalls that exclude people outside of our networks. We often speak to ourselves using a terminology and jargon that is unfamiliar and unwelcoming to a citizen who has not spent time in a graduate or doctoral program. As we strive for institutional standards of academic excellence, we detach the rigor of scientific inquiry from accessibility to a larger audience outside of our disciplines. Many of us also make little to no attempt to reach out and explain exactly what we do and why our work is important. By focusing on this one audience, the work of academics may be devalued because it is viewed as not focusing on “real life” concerns and has lost the purpose to serve the common good. Ultimately, we may be losing our ability to influence events happening in the real world as we remain in our gated communities.

Another factor that compounds the situation stems from the ways we educate and mentor new scholars, researchers, and academics. There is little to no guidance on how to write and present outside of publishing in the established forums. There is little to no guidance on how to blog, build a website, or host a domain. In fact, there is often explicit guidance against this form of outreach from faculty, advisers, and tenure committees. Working publicly as an intellectual is viewed as possibly being deleterious to one’s career, tenure possibilities, and status among colleagues. Politics and policy discussions are usually saved for academics studying in those fields or working with those publics. There are often very few connections made to how these elements help inform democracy, freedom, and our educational systems. Perhaps there is a need to cultivate, celebrate, and study hybrid or networked models for mentoring academics. By developing our own group of connected scholars, there is an opportunity to shape pedagogy, research, and service to shape the societies in which we live.

To address these challenges, we need to expand the boundaries of scholarship. As digital technologies become more ubiquitous, we need to realize there is not much of a difference between the online and the “real spaces” around us in which we exist. In a post-Snowden world we understand that our data and digital footprint is public. We must contend with the potential that we are under constant surveillance from business, government, and other entities. Our online and offline interactions are woven together into a transmedia narrative that forms different parts of our identity. It follows us as we browse online and in our academic journals. As we explore and adapt to these new spaces and tools, the learning may be often messy. There is also the concern of how this positioning affects our perceived or presented identities. Despite these concerns and challenges, digitally literate academics are needed to infuse networked publics with reasoned and validated evidence and data.

Where do we go from here?

I believe a multi-pronged approach is needed to address the current circumstances. Individually and collectively, academics need to identify opportunities to prepare and engage in the community as digitally literate public intellectuals. To address this we need a broader vision as well as guidance and support as a community to address how research, teaching, and service may be continually shifting as a result of these new texts and times. We need to frame the rigor, responsibility, and rectitude of academia while identifying opportunities for scholars to speak in a manner that is approachable and accessible. Perhaps wakefulness indicates a middle ground between sleeping and being awake. In a critical sense, we can consider the ways in which we as academics can more meaningfully interact with members of a larger, social, networked public.

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