The Paradox of Public Scholarship

We need more of it—but on whose terms?
Participants in a “Write to Change the World” workshop at Emory University, 2019 (Courtesy of Emory University)

Public scholarship is having a moment. From Twitter threads to op-eds, scholars are encouraged to channel their research into forms that shape social and political discourse in tangible ways. Public scholarship strives to make good on the highest ideals and the most compelling promises of the scholarly vocation itself: to place our work at the service of justice, to make research accessible to those far from the seats of power, to promote informed and democratic engagement in the public sphere. Far from antiquated clichés about ivory towers and low stakes, most scholars genuinely want to do work that matters—not only to peers, but to the world.

For theologians, public scholarship holds a particular allure. It resonates with the missionary imperative at the heart of the Gospel to preach the subversive hope of Christ’s resurrection to the ends of the earth. Implicitly, public scholarship is motivated by a recognition that, per Thomas Aquinas’s principle, everything known is known according to the mode of the receiver. In a moment in which the consequences of nationalist and white-supremacist Christian ideologies are proving catastrophic for American democracy, public theology represents a form of corrective work that is urgent and salutary and, in a real sense, holy. As an academic theologian who regularly writes for audiences beyond the academy, I view such work as a deep and vivifying part of my vocation.

Yet despite the value of such work, it is also the case that the embrace of public scholarship seems to have proceeded with a surprising lack of critical reflection about who creates this scholarship and under what conditions. Several years ago, I participated in a “Write to Change the World” workshop for faculty at my university led by the Op-Ed Project. The purpose of the two-day intensive was to train faculty from unique and underrepresented backgrounds to use our voices effectively in shaping public conversations and, in a deeper sense, to embrace a sense of our own expertise. Participation was application-based, and applicants had to commit to being present for the entire two-day intensive. When I arrived at the first morning of the workshop, I was surprised to walk into a room full of women. Only one of the fifteen participants was a man. The women in the group were richly diverse—among us were international scholars, queer women, and women of color from disciplines that spanned the university. Many of us were early-career faculty.

Public scholarship is a form of care work whose object of nurture is society, and as with virtually all care work, public scholarship goes unrewarded.

I think about the composition of that room often because it seemed to capture something important about the paradox within the promise of public scholarship. In seeking to construct more inclusive public discourse, we place the burden of leading such efforts on the shoulders of scholars who already occupy marginalized positions within the academy. Scholars from minority groups are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of this paradox. Public scholarship is a form of care work whose object of nurture is society, and as with virtually all care work, public scholarship goes unrewarded. At worst, it can be a professional liability: university leaders often laud the idea of public scholarship for its ostensible impact and innovation while simultaneously disincentivizing and even penalizing faculty for engaging in what those responsible for granting tenure and promotion perceive as an un-rigorous form of scholarship. Within the discipline of theology, the distinction between the rigorous and the popular often materializes in a certain kind of pejorative contrast between the systematic and the pastoral—the former associated with intellectual purity and the latter—because it not only seeks but requires broad ecclesial comprehensibility—with gauzy practical application.

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Even if we maintain the value of public scholarship—and to be clear, I believe we should—we must also view the commodification of scholarly voices with suspicion. In the contemporary online media landscape, public scholarship is content. While scholars pen op-eds and offer news commentary out of a desire to promote public understanding, media outlets are balancing a more complex and contradictory set of concerns, many of which are determined by advertisers and measured, ultimately, in clicks.

It is indeed the case that the voices of white men are overrepresented in influential spaces of authority and public opinion. It is also the case that expecting women, especially women of color, to remediate that imbalance through uncompensated labor that may ultimately work against them is a problem. There is a quasi-outdated adage about the academic job market that for male candidates, a wedding ring is a symbol of stability, whereas for women, it is a liability. I have started to wonder whether public-facing scholarship functions in a similar way: for white men, evidence of reputation and expertise; for women and people of color, an unserious diversion from the real work of scholarly production. If universities want to cultivate scholars who do work that matters—in the words of the late Katie Cannon, who do the work that their souls must have—then these institutions must begin to recognize public scholarship for the intellectual and social labor that it is.

Published in the September 2022 issue: 

Susan Bigelow Reynolds is assistant professor of Catholic Studies at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. 

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