Public Intellectuals? LOL.

It’s not every day that you are carded and then tagged with a neon green bracelet so that you can listen to an eminent scientist explain evolutionary genetics. I took advantage of the fact that Oberon Theater (the second stage of Harvard’s American Repertory Theater) has a bar and ordered myself an Oberon (gin, St. Germain, cranberry juice, grapefruit juice) before taking my seat to watch “You’re the Expert,” a podcast and WBUR radio show recorded in front of a live audience.

When I first heard the promo for “You’re the Expert” a few weeks ago, I was skeptical. The show purports to “bring academia out of the Ivory Tower” by asking “three hilarious comedians to try and guess what a leading researcher studies all day long.” This combination struck me as potentially disastrous; most academics do not have a sense of humor about their own work. And in the context of recent debate about “public intellectuals” and their role in American culture, the show’s approach raised some questions. What gives academics a meaningful voice beyond their classrooms? And is this a voice that the “public” (whomever they might be) would want to hear?

I sipped my cocktail (it was only OK—I should have asked the bartender to eighty-six the cranberry juice) and waited for the show to begin. Small groups of people began to arrive—many of them in their 20s and 30s, most of them hipster Cambridge nerds—and take their seats around cafe tables. The lights dimmed and for the next hour or so, seasoned comedians verbally sparred with Pardis Sabeti, an associate professor at Harvard who develops algorithms to detect genetic signatures of natural selection.

The show toggled between comedian-dominated bits—they asked absurd questions trying to suss out Sabeti’s field of study, guessed at the definitions of terms like “allele,” insulted one another’s genomes—and bits when Sabeti chatted amiably with the host, Chris Duffy, about her studies of the Lassa virus and her methodologies. After that, she answered rapid-fire questions about her childhood and other interests. There was very little snark; Sabeti endured only a modicum of gentle mocking about her passion for Rollerblading. Overall, the show made good on its promise to be both entertaining and intellectually compelling.

But I still wondered: Is a show like this the best way—or even a useful way—to introduce scholars and their research to a broader audience?

The agitation provoked by Nicholas Kristof’s column in The New York Times last February was just part of a longtime roiling discussion about professors and their importance (or lack thereof) in public life. Mostly, we have been arguing about whether or not public intellectuals exist—and if they do, what to call them (“public intellectuals,” “engaged academics,” “academic celebrities”). As Paul Erickson has argued in an essay for the blog Avidly, it is clear that many academics want to convey their ideas to both their students and to a larger “public.” They just aren’t sure how to go about it. And, as Erickson notes, “it’s time to think about other ways for that communication to happen than by putting words on a page.”

Radio—and in the case of “You’re the Expert,” radio as live performance—is certainly one way to present and discuss scholarship. Scholars working in a wide range of fields appear in many contexts on NPR and other networks, usually providing commentary.

The comedic angle, however, is something fairly new. Duffy conceived of the show after venturing out of his classroom (he taught fifth grade) into the world of professional standup comedy. After some time on the circuit, Duffy decided that comedy needed more intellectual heft, and intellectuals needed to engage on a more human level with folks outside academe. “You’re the Expert” began as a podcast in the spring of 2013 and became part of WBUR’s iLab project a year later. In a telephone conversation, Duffy told me that, in general, nonacademics are actually quite interested in scholarly work but reluctant to ask “stupid questions” of people they perceive to be smarter than they are. Comedians, on the other hand, “are very happy to look stupid if they can make people laugh.” The comedians, then, act as go-betweens. Through their absurd questions and their jokes, they allow scholars to talk about their findings, and allow audiences to understand them.

This approach—learning through laughing—has some science behind it. A 2005 study of humor and pedagogy confirmed that, “when used effectively, classroom comedy can improve student performance by reducing anxiety, boosting participation, and increasing students’ motivation to focus on the material.”

In conveying knowledge through comedy, ”You’re the Expert” has some things in common with “Drunk History,” a Funny or Die web series that is now on Comedy Central. In this show, narrators—who are totally sloshed—recount important historical events while well-known actors in period clothing re-enact them. The show’s creator, Derek Waters, believes (like Duffy) that, “if you can make someone laugh, you can secretly make them learn something.” Of course, these slurring storytellers are not experts, and what audience members might learn by laughing at “Drunk History” has an accuracy rate, Waters guesses, of around 92 percent.

So clearly, radio and other media—YouTube videos, TV broadcasts—can help bring scholars and audiences together. And comedy shows, unlike MOOCs or TED talks, can make that relationship a little less formal, a little more personal. And the personal part matters; that’s why “You’re the Expert” also includes the questions about the expert’s childhood and the details about his or her extracurricular activities. These intimate details create a sense of connection, of bonding over shared experiences of binge-watching Game of Thrones or really loving salad.

But what “You’re the Expert” also reveals is that not everyone is suited to such ventures. In the debate about public intellectuals, several people have pointed this out; it’s all well and good for academics to want to reach large audiences and to try to learn how to do it. But only a select few can actually become more than just an academic with a healthy number of Twitter followers. Several characteristics are ideal, perhaps even required:

•    Expertise (obviously) and status (related). The guests on “You’re the Expert” are all well-established researchers and scholars. It takes a long time (and often, a plum job at a well-regarded university or college, and some big-name grants) to complete and publish long-term studies and to establish a reputation. The more status you have in the academy, the more status you have with the public.

•    Personality. Duffy says that he recruits guests for his show based on personal references and Google-stalking. These strategies suggest that most of his guests (and, likewise, those recruited for TED talks and other public forums) already have reputations for being engaging people. It also suggests that they are already out there in the public—or else they would not be so easily Google-stalked.

•    An accessible and easily communicated area of study. Of the 25 episodes of “You’re the Expert” available now on iTunes (several more are in production), all but two showcase scientists or social scientists. Duffy believes that for this kind of radio show at least, audiences respond better to hard data, scientific findings that tell us something interesting about the way that people, animals, micro-organisms, and universes operate. “Idea-based arguments,” he notes, “are hard to access.” This is bad news for scholars in the humanities, although one could argue that they have been dominating brick-and-mortar sites (museums, national and historical parks) and other formats (i.e., books) for years.

Who exactly is downloading “You’re the Expert”? Duffy was not able to give me numbers, but if we take the audience at the live show—those hipster Cambridge nerds—as a sample, it seems that, at least for now, the show is preaching to the choir.

None of that takes away from the fact that the show is genuinely funny, of course. And I’m in favor of anything that encourages academics to take ourselves a little less seriously. And anything that involves cocktails.

Megan Kate Nelson is a writer, historian, and cultural critic in Lincoln, Mass. She is the author of Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (University of Georgia Press, 2012) and Trembling Earth: A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp (Georgia, 2005).

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