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.