In his plenary address to the 2014 annual Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA) called “Writing Program Faculty and Administrators as Public Intellectuals: Opportunities and Challenges.” Duane Roen encourages writing studies practitioners to consider taking on a more active role as public intellectuals. We have a responsibility, he said, to “share with the public the work that we do as teachers, researchers, and administrators.” According to Roen, academics have dual responsibilities to their institutions and to the general public to talk about their research, the work of their institution, and the larger work of their field. “For every ten articles or chapters that each of us writes,” he proposed, “what if we wrote one article or editorial for the general public to let them know about the usefulness of our scholarship?” The insights of academics, moreover, can illuminate broader conversations in the public sphere about writing and the teaching of writing. The role of the compositionist-as-public-intellectual, then, is to show the general public how the work of English studies serves students “not only in the academic arena of life but also in the professional, civic, and personal arenas.”
Roen’s inspirational speech represents a larger trend in the field of rhetoric and composition toward “public writing, public-oriented course content, place-based writing, Web-based publishing, service learning, community literacy, ethnographies of communication, and community publishing,” which Paula Mathieu has labeled the “Public Turn” (8). Many other scholars are starting to seriously consider the epistemological implications of public scholarship, proposing assignments with exigencies looking outward at rhetorical situations students are likely to encounter in the “real world.” Ellen Cushman, for instance, argues that this kind of pedagogy “revises knowledge work” (189). Considered in light of calls throughout our disciplinary history to combat misguided public perceptions about the work of composition (See Doug Hesse, Lester Faigley, Peter Mortensen, or Linda Adler-Kassner), the public turn necessarily leads us to consider how we as academics might contribute to the public turn. Roen’s speech, then, is a good start to this conversation.
Responding to Roen’s call for more engaged scholarship, Freddie deBoer, writing for The Dish, wonders how graduate students or untenured faculty can engage in public conversations while also safeguarding their speech from institutional attacks (especially considering the recent firing of assistant professor Steven Salaita for incendiary remarks he made on Twitter). deBoer writes that until unfair labor practices are remedied in the university, engagement to the extent that Roen calls for will be attainable only for a very few members of the professoriate: “Under labor conditions in the university system as brutal as we’ve faced, and with the cost of controversy as high as ever,” he asks, “how can academics and professors feel free to work through controversial and unpopular ideas, which is a necessary part of our work?”
I agree with deBoer here, and his question is a tough one. But I think we can approach some semblance of a solution by taking Cushman’s comment above to heart, and really considering what it might mean to “revise knowledge work” in the public turn. What if, in other words, we revised the very notion of what it means to “go public” in the first place? I’ve been grappling with this question in my dissertation lately, and I am convinced that these Enlightenment models of public intellectualism that permeate discourse on the subject do not reflect the way knowledge is created in our 21st century environments. I think we need to get away from the idea that public engagement is talking about our research to nonacademic audiences through public presentations or popular publications. While those activities certainly are public activities, I think a question Frank Farmer asked in a review essay 12 years ago is particularly apt: “Do there exist alternative conceptions of the public that are not included in our present discussions, and if so, how do such alternate conceptions change our present understandings of intellectual work?” (203). In other words, what are other ways knowledge can go or be public?
In my dissertation I argue that modern innovations in public sphere theory that propose the existence of multiple and layered publics help us see public engagement as a method of bridging/confronting/connecting different kinds of groups through a range of stances or orientations. This means that writing an op-ed essay is but one of many ways to engage public audiences. What about collaborating across disciplines to open a literacy center on campus? Or perhaps authoring publicly engaged scholarship? Or facilitating community-university partnerships in your teaching and research? What if, instead of more Cornel Wests we request more Ellen Cushmans? Instead of another Noam Chomsky why not another Jeff Grabill? What if we included other kinds of public intellectualism into our concept of public work—taking a cue from literature in service learning and engagement scholarship? What if we considered collaborative, community-based work as public intellectualism? (Farmer actually proposed “community intellectual”).To me, this kind of public engagement is the most useful for compositionists, especially since under this definition there are many of us who already do public work. Reconsidering the very notion of going public in this way, I think as a field we complicate old adages that composition isn’t relevant, and do more to push against public perceptions of English professors as mere grammarians.