Academic Workplace 2013

My Initial Public Offering

Illustration by Harry Campbell

July 22, 2013

Sixth Annual Survey

Great Colleges To Work For 2013

My Initial Public Offering

Why more academics should write for a general audience

By David M. Perry

My Initial Public Offering

Illustration by Harry Campbell for The Chronicle

"I pretty much doubt that 'David M. Perry' is the author's real name, and I doubt even more that he's even married, because he looks like a fag."

In May, my daughter received a "best dressed" award during a ceremony at the end of her preschool year. Upset by the emphasis on girls' appearance, I wrote an essay for CNN about gender, parenting, and the pervasive influence of patriarchal culture. Over the next few days, hundreds of thousands of people read it, tens of thousands shared it over various social media, and readers posted more than 1,400 comments.

Many responses were polite and thoughtful, others missed the point of the essay, and some launched ad hominem attacks on me. On a conspiracy-theory Web site, I was accused of being part of the Communist, homosexual, Shariah, and/or Jewish plot to destroy America. Hostile commentators on CNN obsessed over the semiotic value of an earring I've worn in my left ear for 20 years. I was called a bad parent, a liar, an idiot, and, perhaps worst of all, an academic.

It's a strange thing to be reviled on the Internet, where the norms of civil society vanish beneath the haze of pseudo-anonymity. Although the positive comments and interesting spinoff conversations about gender, representation, and privilege far outweighed the number of hostile remarks, just as with a batch of teaching evaluations, I found myself returning again and again to the negatives.

Chronicle Vitae

In terms of reach and emotional response, the entire experience seemed surreal. I am a just-tenured medieval historian and an emerging scholar, and my employer is a small Roman Catholic university on the edge of Chicago. Those are not the credentials that tend to bring one's work before a mass audience. And yet, over the past six months, I have published a string of essays, mostly for CNN and The Atlantic, all of which apply my academic training in history, religion, gender, and disability to contemporary issues.

But as the constant drone of anti-intellectualism and the self-flagellation of fearful academics continue to permeate our national discourse, it's worth pausing to consider how public engagement might fit into our professional lives.

I started writing for the mass media for highly personal reasons. In January 2007, my newborn son was diagnosed with Down syndrome. The hiring process that resulted in my current job bracketed his birth, and by the time I went for my on-campus interviews, my son's diagnosis was already reshaping my life as both a father and a scholar. I started reading and teaching about disability and finally chose to write about my son for a public audience. Last fall a close friend who often writes for CNN introduced me to his editor and helped me publish an essay on its Web site on language and Down syndrome.

Over the winter, I finished a book manuscript, turned in my tenure files, and started reading for my next scholarly project. Then Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation. Because I was seeing a lot of confusion in the initial reporting, I e-mailed my CNN editor with some thoughts about medieval canon law. Three minutes later she asked me for an essay. An editor for The Atlantic noticed that piece, wrote to ask me some questions, and suddenly I became one of the magazine's commentators on religion. Finally, as I watched the gender norms play out through my daughter's end-of-year preschool performance, I decided to write about the challenges of raising girls in the face of a patriarchal culture, and CNN accepted that essay, too.

As my story illustrates, getting published has required some luck, good timing, and learning how to write more quickly. The speed required is particularly challenging.

Like many academics, I like to linger over my writing, but that's not how the journalistic world works. I have had to submit essays on breaking news that were "good enough" rather than perfect. I placed an essay on Pope Francis on the home page of The Atlantic not because it was the most brilliant piece of writing on the new pontiff, but because I had it finished within a few hours of his election, as the editor requested. Journalistic commentary often means dealing with partial information to help analyze a continuing situation.

I have had to surrender control over my writing as well. Usually it's the editors who determine headlines, paragraph structure, graphics, layout, nontext links, tenses, and many other grammatical choices. They know what drives readers to an article, and it's best to let them take over one's prose.

So why do this? Why expose oneself to Internet trolls and conspiracy theorists? It doesn't "pay." It doesn't explicitly count for tenure or promotion. In fact, it puts one at risk of being labeled a popularizer or even being criticized by one's own colleagues as a less-than-serious scholar. But having opened the door to public engagement, I can't walk away now.

Within the world of higher education, we are all working at a time when the value of academic knowledge is under attack. Every few weeks, another round of essays about the decline and fall of the humanities circulates through the media. Congress increasingly demands practical outcomes from government-supported scientific research, an attitude that, while appearing reasonable, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of basic science. The demand for explicitly vocational training threatens disciplines that offer knowledge over skills, creating a false dichotomy that sets academic programs at odds with one another. Some governors have launched attacks on academic freedom, the tenure system, and the very existence of state-financed institutions of higher education.

Meanwhile, the general public perceives faculty members as isolated from reality, holding cushy jobs, and uninterested in open communication. The public has little access to the broad diversity of knowledge, experience, and background inside higher education, because those academics who do achieve broader platforms generally come from only the most elite universities. Although many of those public intellectuals are brilliant writers and speakers, they represent only a tiny percentage of the expertise available in the academic world. That expertise lies not just in our subject fields but also in the habits of mind we bring to bear on countless other kinds of issues.

I plan to keep writing about the links between the historical past and the present moment. I will also look for other topics to which I might apply my skills as a critical thinker and my experiences as a teacher, scholar, and student. I encourage other faculty members to think about how they might find a public voice. Yes, one must risk the nasty comments from trolls and the doubts of colleagues about the importance of public engagement. But how else can we demonstrate the deep and necessary relationship among specialized knowledge, critical thinking, and the world in which we live?

David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University, in River Forest, Ill. His writing can be found at the blog How Did We Get Into This Mess? Follow him on Twitter under his hashtag, @Lollardfish.